By the time sunset came crashing down, the morning encounter with the grizzly was a distant memory. Only one more sighting, a black with a pair of cubs. Thankfully, those were on the other side of a small lake, and while Mama clearly knew where we were, she didn’t seemed concerned.
Somewhere in midafternoon, Sissy’s mare pulled up lame in the left hind leg. I held Jack’s horse while he and Sis investigated. Turned out Ditz had somehow managed to jam a ragged rock chip in between shoe and hoof with enough stone left over to pressure the frog with every step. Even without words, we knew we were all thinking the same thing: Only Ditz. That gelding wasn’t only deserving of the name; he was about half jinxed.
Or maybe not. A jinx would have likely got him eaten by the grizzly that had only spooked him into bucking.
Again, our luck held. The shoe was not loose. Jack fished out a pair of hoof pliers, extracted the offending bit of shale, and the horse was fine.
A loose shoe would have been beyond serious. Sharp noises carry in these mountains. Snipping off the old horseshe nails would have been bad enough, but tacking in a new set could have announced our presence as effectively as a high school cheerleader with a megaphone shaking her pom-poms, yelling out,
“MORSE CODE! MORSE CODE! WATCH YOUR TAIL!
WE’RE HERE AND WE AIN’T TAKING YOU TO JAIL!”
Jack Hill’s instinct proved unerring for most of the day. Crossing ridges (always and only where thick timber kept us from being skylined), skirting lakes (one with a moose feeding in the shallows), crossing streams and once a down-rushing torrent that could have been fairly called a river, we’d cut the enemy’s trail twice more.
But now we’d lost it.
The snake eaters had at first traveled straight up the draw, following it to the end. Then they’d hiked straight up over the nearest saddle, down the other side, and skirted the same lake where we spotted the black bear with her cubs. Beyond that and two more ridges, they’d surprisingly risked crossing a broad, open meadow–although perhaps the risk hadn’t been that high, if they covered it at night.
Another half mile beyond the meadow, the trail vanished.
It was certainly a good place for it. To the northwest, a sizeable gulch stretched on up toward the mountain peaks for what looked like miles. I estimated we were at something like six thousand feet now, maybe closer to seven.
Some peaks in the Bob top out around nine. This looked to be one of them. I had no idea which mountain we were on, but Hill had guessed they’d be holed up in the really high country, past the summit and several miles beyond.
But there was no sign in the gulch, nor on its slopes, that any man–let alone five of them–had traveled that way. Ever.
We were now stopped near one of the few remaining administrative cabins, built for Forest Service usage around 1920–before the area was designated as a wilderness–and it did look like the enemy had paused there briefly. Overnight, maybe.
They weren’t there now, though, and not even Jack Hill was able to find their outgoing trail. The cabin was situated on the edge of a windswept shelf of bare rock that covered a lot of area. Two weeks of wind scour over stone had been more than enough.
If the bad guys had not used the gulch to climb the mountain–most likely had not even climbed it at all–they had a disturbing number of options. Where we stood was sort of a headland, falling away down-country in more than a dozen plunging gulches, fanning out in a spray that could aim a traveler toward Lincoln at one extreme and Augusta at the other. All but three of those gulches sported enough timber to provide cover.
On the other side, to the west by northwest, we were looking at any number of uphill slopes, some timbered, some too open for comfort.
Jack stood lost in thought for a long moment, then remounted, signaled us to follow, and headed up that way, to the left of the old cabin, into the trees on a game trail. Had it been anyone else up front, I’d have balked. Full dark would be here in minutes, especially under these trees. Forests are like that.
A woman screamed in terror, which meant there was at least one cougar out there.
What? Oh. No. Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to imply a mountain lion was literally eating a female human alive. It’s the cougars themselves who make that sound sometimes, a sound that’ll convince the tenderfoot there’s a woman in distress for sure.
But that’s my point. Getting dark, heading back deeper into the trees–which we’d never really left, but deeper–with a cougar prowling the night.
Cougars, by the way, really like horseflesh if they can get it.
The bleeding heart liberals will tell you no cougar ever attacks a human. Personally, I’d like to feed those libs to the big cats, see how that worked out. Threre are cougar attacks reported every year, even today; a single Google search will tell you as much. And those reports are woefully understated. Any one of us who’s lived close to the wild can verify that. A five year old girl jumped near Kalispell while playing in her back yard. A sick old tom cougar going after teenagers doing chores at the Job Corps down in the Bitterroot Valley.
And those were in more or less “civilized” areas. This was the Bob. We were in their office now, and the kitty cats held the keys.
But it was Jack up front, so we followed without hesitation.
Maybe 500 yards in, our fearless leader turned his horse off the trail, heading upslope through a stand of tall, straight-trunked lodgepole pine. The trees grew close together here, with barely enough room between them for the horses. Scraped my knees a couple of times. Disadvantage of being a big man, I guess.
Sure enough, it got darker.
And then…we came out into a little park, a tiny meadow no more than eighty feet across, filled with spring greenery beginning to push up through the dead winter grass. The sun had reached here, enough that most of the snow was gone except around the edges. A rivulet of snowmelt water gurgled happily down one side of a deeply shadowed rock overhang, pooling in mid-meadow before finding its way into the woods.
Jack held up a hand, bidding us wait while he circled the area, remaining just inside the treeline as he scouted, using–I was pretty sure–his nose and his horse’s ears more than anything.
For a first night out on the warpath, this was mighty comfortable. Home sweet home. The histories, especially the oral histories, say the war parties of the mighty Blackfeet Nation used to stay gone from home for up to two years at a time, often returning in good health, with many stolen horses and sometimes even scalps. A dozen or so young bucks, seldom more than twenty, would follow the leader’s vision. Teenagers one and all, out to prove themselves as warriors…and prove themselves they did.
I thought about that, kids as much as ten years younger than I was right now, traveling by night, sleeping by day, roaming all the way from the Canadian border to raid the Crow over toward the Dakotas, or west as far as the Nez Perce in what was now Idaho, and all points in between.
A hidden spot like this, safe from prying eyes, must have been pure Heaven to those young men, back in the day.
The rock hung out over our heads, high enough that we could sit up, wide enough that we slept three abreast in our bedrolls. It could almost have been called a Mother Nature’s leanto, with the wide opening in front allowing us to remain hidden while keeping an eye on the horses picketed in the meadow. We had our saddles for pillows or, if it came to that, shooting rests. A huge ponderosa pine snag blocked the foot-end opening; nothing could come at us from that angle.
Until the moon had come up, a couple days short of full, we’d used our night vision monocles to make sure the horses were okay. But the moon was high enough now that such things were unnecessary…except for the occasional scan of the surrounding timber.
If cougar, bear, or evil human approached, though, it was a good bet the horses would know about it first. We had to protect them, but they were our primary alarm systems, too.
I took first watch, my only duty being to simply stay awake, stay alert, not let us get slaughtered in our sleep. Things like that can be plumb embarrassing.
It was a cold camp, of course. There would be no fires as long as even one enemy combatant remained alive who might smell the smoke. Supper had consisted of a sort of pemmican put together by Carolyn West. Carolyn claimed she had an ancestor who’d been captured as a young girl by the Chippewa sometime in the 1700’s. Not her direct ancestor. A sister or cousin to the ancestor in question. Something like that.
Anyway, the captured girl never had returned to the whites. She’d been five years old or so when she was snatched, grew up with the Indians, and lived out her life that way…though whether as slave or concubine or wife was never quite clear. But by the time she’d hit puberty, her particular band of red men had begun allowing a white trader to visit pretty freely. He’d seen the girl, offered to trade for her, but was rejected. On the other hand, he did acquire a pouch full of pemmican he was told she’d made, tried it out on the return trip to the white settlement, and was immediately hooked.
Only much later did the trader figure out that this white Injun pemmican-maker was his own long-lost relative, but he wasn’t about to tick off his Chippewa trading partners. They could keep the girl, as long as they let her teach him the recipe.
The Indians thought that was funny as all get-out, a white man crazy enough to be interested in women’s work, but they got two steel hatchets and a trade knife out of the deal.
Carolyn admitted she had no idea if the story was real or not, but it made for a great campfire tale. She herself had taken the hand-me-down recipe and refined it some. Bear fat was in kind of short supply at Walmart, so she substituted Crisco. She wasn’t limited to whatever berries were in season in Chippewa country, but she stuck to local chokecherries for the fruit component anyway. Nothing beats chokecherries, no way, no how. The meat varied some, elk or venison ot sometimes moose.
No buffalo; she had a religious convert’s aversion to using domesticated critters for pemmican-making. Not that buffalo ever get truly domesticated. No beef, obviously no pig, no underpowered chicken meat.
Lots of salt. Jack insisted on that.
We’d bedded down dehydrated on purpose, taking just a few sips of water with our evening meal. Rolling out six times a night to pee in the grass…nah, not a plan. Water up good in the mornings, dry up for the night. All those braindead water pushers on TV have no clue. Drinking lots of water is not always good for your health.
Not only does it flush out potassium and other needed minerals, but it can get you shot for being a dumbass.
We carried watches, but only in case we needed them to coordinate an attack or something like that. For marking time at night, we had the moon. I wasn’t sleepy, so Sissy got a bit of extra snooze time before I laid a hand on her shoulder.
“Quiet so far,” I whispered in her ear. “Horses were looking at something off to the east in the woods, hour or so ago. Monocle showed nothing. Something was out there, but nothing bad. Deer, maybe. Horses settled back down, nothing since.”
She gave my hand a squeeze, we switched places as silently as possible–bedrolls and all–and I fell aleep before my head hit the saddle.
When my eyes popped open, Jack was already on his feet, saddling his grulla. It was my turn to have my ear whispered into–by Sissy–while I was still struggling to recall key elements of my dream. “Jack’s worked it out,” she informed me. “He’s pretty sure he knows which way they went, and why.”
I whispered back, “Did he say why?”
She shook her head. “No. But he said if he’s right, we need to hustle our butts.”
Good enough for me. I rolled out and got going. We’d all slept in our clothes, of course, so that didn’t take much doing. Forget watering up; a quick leak and a couple of sips from the canteen would do. This land was full of water, even more so during spring runoff; we wouldn’t die of thirst.
As for breakfast…well, forget that, too. We’d eaten well yesterday before riding out, then waited till we were camped for the night to eat again. Today looked like a one-pemmican day, if we were alive come sundown to enjoy it.
Despite our haste, we weren’t careless. It still took at least fifteen minutes before we were all mounted up and moving out. You can’t afford a wrinkle in a saddle blanket or an improperly tightened cinch no matter what,
Nor did “hustle our butts” mean traveling faster than the horses’ natural walking pace. I understood that.
What “hustle” did mean was no more zig-zagging around hither, thither, and yon. Once back out at the headland, Jack led us around the rim of the flat rock area, staying under tree cover but barely, until we reached the dropoff leading to the fourth gulch from the right. At that point, wheeling his horse around a spring bordered by monster cottonwood trees, he arrowed downhill. Not down the bottom of the gulch, where the easiest going and the greatest likelihood of ambush would be, but thirty yards or so below the ridgeline.
Sometimes he took game trails for a bit, or angled off to plow through a virgin snowdrift, or just plain drifted along the grade. He was clearly no longer concerned about where the horses stepped, how many tracks we were leaving behind.
Ditz, bless him, only stumbled once, and then not badly. Steady was…steady. And Jack’s mare–did that thing have a name?–moved like she was born for this assignment.
There was no leisure to this leg of the journey. Not like yesterday. My eyes were roving, senses extended as usual…but I started thinking. Trying not to lose focus while I did it, and for the most part, I reckon I succeeded. But this was important.
Jack’s sense of urgency. The maps of the Bob Marshall Wilderness we’d studied so intensely before embarking on this little jaunt. And…my dream.
It was there, right at the edge of consciousness.
More than anything, it was the Google Earth looksee that kept forcing itself to my forebrain. My eidetic memory started scrolling through those, trying to pin down what it was that was pecking at me. Even Google Earth flyovers aren’t perfect. Most of what I’d reviewed (and reviewed, and reviewed) simply looked like a lot of steep, rugged country…
…and then I got it.
I knew the destination Jack had in mind. And I knew what Morse Code was up to, at least in the general sense.
We’d been operating on the assumption–blast that word!–that Jonathan Morse and his merry band of merciless mercenaries were renegades, operating as a pack of rabid wolves, attacking the Trace ranch again and again for the psychotic revenge of the thing.
But what if they weren’t? What if they’d been acting under orders all along? Orders that came from, say, black bag money at the Department of Defense, backed by evil Pentagon scientists lusting for the edge part-human mutated mega-wolves could give the military in its Unending War against Everybody But Them?
Yeah, sure, now it’s me sounding like a bleeding heart blame-it-on-Bush progressive George Soros Obama style radical, but what if?
The Wolfers, meaning WMI, Wolf Management Inc., and all of its ravening cohorts, had already tried to kill us with a telephone pole dropped from a Sikorsky helicopter. Since then, we’d struck back in Wisconsin, then Morse Code had been brought into the picture. We’d bloodied his group to the point that it was obvious his masters had washed their hands of him.
But what if they hadn’t? What if he wasn’t limited to shank’s mare for transportation in these mountains? Yeah, we’d tracked the Final Five up this way, and I had confidence in Jack. If Hill said that’s who we’d been following, then that’s who we’d been following.
But it could have been a ruse. A maneuver born not out of desperation but as one planned step in the Eliminate the Citizen Opposition program. That opposition being us.
Us being, specifically, Sam Trace, B.J. Hennessey–who’d been instrumental in backing the law enforcement bunch down when they tried to frame us in our own welding shop–Jack Hill…and me.
Time and time and time again, ducking tree limbs and watching my horse’s footing as we went, I ran over the details. It all fit. The first attack using a helicopter. The precision with which Morse had struck when they got Sam, then retreated efficiently to the high country before suddenly changing course–as if they’d had this route planned out all along. My dream of a red bird with whirling wings.
There’d been one Google Earth image I’d never quite figured out. Here in the Bob, in the wilderness where no man is supposed to go unless on foot or on horseback, there was a spot along the trail bordering the west side of the Upper South Fork Flathead River, South of the Gordon Creek drainage . A spot that shouldn’t be there, a wide area in the trail that showed a dark, straight, horizontal line.
Nature does not do straight lines.
Men do straight lines. Like when they’re constructing a makeshift helipad. Smack dab in the middle of the Cardinal Peak trail.
Jack was right. There was no time to waste…if we weren’t too late already.
Reaching back with my free hand, I snagged a pouch of pemmican out of a saddle bag and began munching. If I had it right, we’d be reaching that Google spot by sunset at best. It wasn’t likely there’d be much time for eating after that, and a growing boy needs his energy.