laughter, and the high, skirling sound of a fiddle.
Finally, he rode into a clearing and saw it: men and women clad in buckskin and feathers, homespun and store-bought suits, bits of color, flashes of beads, silver and gold. Dozens of tents and temporary shelters had been erected, many of them little more than canvas flaps protruding from the wagons that had brought the traders, dealers, and goods here from back East.
In front of him, and slightly to the right, Preacher suddenly saw a flash of light and a puff of smoke At almost the same instant he heard the shot and the sound of a ball whistling past his ear.
Looking over in surprise, he saw Henri Mouchette toss his rifle aside, clawing for the pistol he had stuck down in his trousers. This was Preacherâs third encounter with Mouchette this year, and it looked like this one was going to settle the score between themâone way, or the other.
Preacher leaped from his horse, not away from Mouchette, as Mouchette, might have suspected, but directly toward him. Mouchette was caught off guard by Preacherâs unexpected reaction. Rather than pulling his pistol cleanly, he dropped it as he jerked it from his trousers. Preacher shoved him hard, and Mouchette staggered back, a tree breaking his fall.
Mouchette pulled his knife and held it in front of him, palm up, the knife moving back and forth slowly, like the head of a coiled snake.
âThatâs all right,â Mouchette said. âIâd rather gut you than shoot you anyway. Shootinâ kills too fast.â
Preacher held a hand out in front of him, as if warding Mouchette off. He pointed at Mouchette.
âThat was you that tried to shoot me a couple of months back, wasnât it?â Preacher asked.
âYouâre damn right it was,â Mouchette answered. He nodded toward the pack horses Preacher had brought in. âBy rights, them should be my plews. You pulled my traps out of the water and set your own.â
âWe went through all of that,â Preacher said. âMy traps were there first. You pulled them out and replaced them with yours. I was only returning the favor.â
âWho give you title to that creek anyway?â Mouchette asked.
âNobody has title to any land up here,â Preacher replied. âItâs first come, first served, same as itâs always been. And I was first there.â
âYou wouldnât even have knowâd about it iffen you hadnât heard me talkinâ about it last year.â
âThatâs not true, and you know it. Iâve trapped that same creek for five winters now,â Preacher said. âYou can ask anyone here.â
âThatâs right, Mouchette. I know he was there three years ago âcause he took me in for the winter when I got stoved up,â one of the trappers said. He, like several others, had been drawn in to the commotion. From other parts of the camp, people were moving as well, coming quickly to see what was going on.
âYeah, well, it donât matter none now âcause he ainât goinâ to be trappinâ it no more. I aim to split him open from his gullet to his pecker.â
Mouchette lunged forward and made a swipe with his knife. The move was unexpectedly quick, and Preacher barely managed to dance back out of the way.
âMouchette, I donât want to fight you,â he said. âIf youâve got a dispute with me, we can take it up with the trappersâ court.â
Trapperâs court wasnât an official court; it was just a group of trappers who would hear arguments from both sides of a dispute, then suggest a settlement. Their suggestions had no power of law, only the power of public opinion, but for most mountain men, that was binding enough.
âYeah, Mouchette, take it up with trappersâ court,â one of the others said, picking up on Preacherâs suggestion.
âNah,â Mouchette replied, his evil grin spreading.