Western Short Story - The Quest, Chapter Two
The distant figure was at least a mile away as the crow flies, and closer to two miles by the route Chancy would be taking to avoid the steep slides and the larger drifts. He skirted the tree line for several hundred yards and then turned down a worn, but snow buried cow path, that wound its way through the tall pines and down the slope. Long before cows were introduced, it had been a deer trail, and perhaps even a old trail in the days of the ancient one who owned the stone ax.
To the south and west, there was a thickening in the gray cloud cover, and it seemed somewhat darker. At this altitude, snow could come upon him with the speed and ferocity of a summer thunderstorm, and Chancy knew it. His saddlebags were packed with gear to build a shelter, and he had food to last a week if need be. The second horse’s bags also contained the necessaries, and a pair of snowshoes was strapped on each horse.
As he broke out of the lower tree line, he paused to rest the horses and pick out a path. The figure was closer now, but not moving. He appeared to be in the same place where he was last seen from the cabin. After a moment, Chancy mounted and moved on.
The trees had prevented deep drifts, but the bare valley floor was piled high here and there. The route Chancy chose was not too deep, but there were a couple of drifts that could not be avoided, and the first one was dead ahead. He dismounted, strapped on a pair of snowshoes, and grabbed a shovel.
It took over two hours to cross the twenty feet of high drifts. The horses fought and floundered, over and over, to the point of near exhaustion, and then Chancy let them blow. While they rested, he attacked the drift with a shovel, bringing down the higher walls. Then he mounted and let the horse plunge its way again, gaining a few more feet before floundering. He rode first one horse, then another. Gradually, they beat down a path, and at last they broke through.
The second drift was far easier, and Chancy led the way on his snowshoes, allowing the horses to beat their own path. An hour later, he was standing over the still figure.
He looked to be around thirty five, and although his coat and clothes were worn and threadbare, they were clean, and well cared for. His clean shaven face was flushed and red, and despite the cold, he felt almost hot to Chancy’s bare hand. He was either unconscious or delirious. Chancy was considering building a fire when the first few flakes of snow drifted out of the darkening skies and changed his mind.
He was getting ready to tie the stranger over the saddle when he groaned and opened his eyes.
“Can you sit a saddle? It will only be for half an hour or so. My cabin is right up the slope.” The man stared at him and nodded slowly, so Chancy helped him into the saddle. It took longer than he had reckoned, but an hour later, they were in the warmth of the cabin.
“I had taken the team and the rock sled out to gather up some wood from a pile I had cut earlier in the summer, when that storm hit. I never saw the like of it. One minute the team was a hundred feet away, and then I couldn’t see a foot in front of me. Next thing I knew, I had lost the team, wagon and all. I holed up for a time, and then tried walking out again, but I still couldn’t see, so I holed up and waited it out. When it finally cleared, I didn’t recognize anything, and I was lost, sure enough.”
He stopped and closed his eyes. Chancy had succeeded in getting a few spoonfuls of soup in him, but he was drifting in and out of consciousness. Sitting out a blizzard without shelter takes a lot out of a man, and in his weakened condition, Chancy figured he had picked up a fever.
The man’s name was Jacob Cross, and he was the squatter Uncle Charlie had mentioned a few months ago. He had built a cabin high up on the slopes, and tried to plant a crop on about forty acres of mountain meadow. Uncle Charlie had stopped up there and told him that the land was perfect for ranching, but had a poor soil, and was unfit for farming. Jacob Cross ruefully admitted that his crop was poor, but winter was coming on, so all he could do now was wait it out and move on in the spring.
Suddenly, Jacob Cross sat bolt upright, his face white and drawn.
“Bonnie! I forgot about Bonnie. She’s all alone. What have I done?”
“Who’s Bonnie? Is she at your cabin?”
Jacob Cross nodded weakly, started to speak, and then fainted dead away.
Outside, the flakes continued to fall, and the gray sky seemed to be lowering. Earlier, there had been no wind, but now it was beginning to freshen, and out of the northwest. It had all the signs of a building blizzard, and Jacob Cross’s cabin was at least five miles away.
Shaking his head and sighing, Chancy Dolan moved his skillet with the two slices of ham back to the top of the hot wood stove. If a man was going out in weather like this, he should at least do it on a full stomach.