Western Short Story - The Quest, Chapter Three
The stabled horses rolled their eyes at him in disbelief as he pulled the first saddle off the rack.
“Sorry boys, but I don’t like this any better than you do.”
It was shortly after noon by the time he rode away from the warmth and safety of the cabin. When last checked, Jacob Cross was sleeping fitfully, mumbling a little in his delirium, but he seemed a bit cooler. There was nothing more Chancy could do for him. It was now up to bed rest and Providence.
Uncle Charlie had described the location of the Cross cabin, and there was a good trail that would pass within a quarter of mile of it. The only difficult section was that of Hannigan’s slope, but he’d deal with that when the time came.
Half an hour later, he picked up the trail, and was gratified to discover that it was mostly free of drifts. The wind was picking up, but it was blowing on his back. The snowfall was now steady, but the visibility was still a half a mile or so, and the temperature had risen to nearly twenty degrees. He was making good time, despite the occasional drift. Then he abruptly rode out of the timber, and halted, staring up at Hannigan’s slope.
Eons before, a giant, flat slab of granite had been thrust up by a mighty upheaval of the Earth’s crust. It rose nearly three thousand feet above him, sloping down at a steep angle toward him and the trail he was following. Its barren and nearly treeless face was strewn with countless angular boulders clinging to its smooth surface, and poised in an ageless threat to the unwary traveler. But now, the real threat was the huge drift at the ragged summit. It was several hundred feet thick, and curled far down upon itself. It was unsupported by anything other than its own huge mass, and the trail snaked directly below it for nearly a quarter of a mile.
Chancy studied his route for a few moments. There was one drift about a third of the way across that he would have to clear with a shovel. He could detour and ride down into the canyon, but it would add at least twelve miles, and he would also have to cross the treacherous ice of the stream in two places.
He nudged his horse. The big gray snorted and shook his head, hesitating for a moment. Then he stepped out, and Chancy held his breath. They took the trail at a slow walk, and the wind picked up, creating a low moan from the stand of pines. Chancy felt like moaning with them.
When they reached the drift, he dismounted gingerly and began to carefully shovel a narrow path. Glancing up at the massive drift far above, he shuddered and quickened his pace. Even the horses seemed to sense the danger, and stood perfectly still, abandoning their usual impatient stamping and snorting.
At last, he broke through, and returned to the horses. The shoveled path was too narrow for a mounted man, so he led the horses carefully through the drift on foot. Gingerly mounting on the far side, he eased them along the trail. Far above, he heard something crack loudly, and then silence. He realized he was holding his breath. His shoulders unconsciously hunched themselves against the coming avalanche. He rode on.
Finally, they reached the tree line on the far side, and in another few minutes, they were out of danger. The wind was increasing again and snow was falling faster. Visibility fell to less than fifty yards, so reluctantly, he began to look for a place to hole up. They made another half mile before he found what he was looking for.
A rock shelf jutted out some fifteen feet from the face of a bluff, and beneath it, he could see blades of dried grass under the thin covering of snow. It was excellent shelter for the horses, so he stripped the saddles and gear, running a line between a tree and a boulder, to tie them off. They contentedly began pawing off the snow and cropping grass.
Nearby was a small stand of saplings, spanning about seven feet. Chancy retrieved his hatchet and cleared them of their limbs. He then bent them over and began tying the tops together with piggin’ strings. Soon, he had a roughly rectangular framework, arched over into a crude roof structure. He began cutting low hanging pine boughs, weaving them in and out around his saplings, forming walls, and then a roof. He left a smoke hole in the center of the top and began gathering wood for a fire. He placed addition boughs on the floor for a bed, and placed his blankets on top. By the time he began to build his fire, visibility was down to feet, and the snow had all but sealed the gaps in his shelter.
He checked on the horses one more time, and then pulled a book from his saddle bags. He was reading by firelight in his cozy shelter, when he heard a distant, loud crack, followed by a low rumble. It quickly grew into a deafening and mighty roar, with the sounds of massive boulders crashing together, and tree trunks breaking. Then abruptly, all was silent again, except for the wind and blowing snow.
He shuddered violently, but not from the cold. He wouldn't have to worry about a Hannigan's Slope avalanche on his return. The giant drift that had been precariously hanging on the peak was now piled high in the valley, far below. However, it also meant that the trail he had just crossed may now be under tons of impassable snow.