We hadn’t even made it quite out of Kansas when the dust storm hit. Had it not been for Hansen’s Hovel, coupled with Tam’s weather sense….
I certainly didn’t know the thing was coming. Didn’t even believe the tall tale taller when he suggested we linger after breakfast. In fact, it had seemed more likely my partner simply wanted to hang around Herman Hansen’s place fer as long as he could. Not fer the eggs and hickory smoked ham, which might have been incentive enough, but Herman had an ugly Choctaw wife and a right purty halfbreed daughter whose curves and wandering eyes–yeah. I was betting she made him think of Laughing Brook, wife to the mountain man, Believer.
Nope, I didn’t really suspect the weather fer a New York minute. After all, late summer wasn’t when these storms hit the southern plains, at least normally. The morning sky was blue as could be, jist a gentle breeze wafting along.
Still, Tam never asked fer much, and then again, his instincts had helped keep my scalp pinned to my skull more’n once. So I’d simply nodded, said, “Your call,” and waved young Rose Hansen over to refill our coffee cups.
By the the time the sun was halfway to high noon, you couldn’t see the durned thing. Herman had allowed us to tuck our horses into a couple of spare stalls in his barn, and we buckled down to do some serious waiting. Our host was a skilled builder; despite being jokingly called Hansen’s Hovel, the place was well put together. Couldn’t keep out all the dust; no structure built by mere human hands could do that in this country. But close enough.
The wind howled something fierce, like it held a personal grudge, but inside it was calm enough we could talk.
“Got a story fer us, Tam?” I asked, noticing three sets of Hansen ears perk up when I said it. Herman, Goes West Woman, and Rose were all familiar with the skills of the storyteller and starved fer entertainment. “Or two?”
He glanced briefly over at the Hansens, and I knew what he was thinking. He had plenty more to tell about his winter at age thirteen with Believer and the Cheyenne girl he refused to call Myrtle, but so far I’d been the only one he’d opened up to about that time in his life. Did he want to let these people in on it?
We all waited him out. One thing you learn out here, or you die young, is patience.
But I was betting he’d go for it. The Hansens were good friends, good people, didn’t talk out of school. Plus, if anybody could understand relationships between red women and white men, it would be them.
I was right.
“Why not?” He nodded at last, hunching forward and wrapping both hands around his coffee cup. “Reckon the day of the hunt might be a place to start.”
Believer and I hadn’t quite made it back to the cabin before the blizzard hit. Up there in the high country, where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam, the worst of them snowstorms can discombobble even a horse’s uncommon ability to find its way to the barn, and this was one of them kind. I was half frozen and all lost, hunching over the mane of Laughing Brook’s little mustang and hoping like Hell the big mountain man leading the way knew what he was doing.
Which he did.
I had my mount’s nose dang near glued to the tail of Believer’s dun gelding, not wishing to git separated from my only hope of surviving, and my eyelids were purty much frosted shut to boot. That’s my excuse, anyway, fer why I didn’t have a clue until I heard Believer call out, clear and strong,
Not that we’d literally be taking the horses into the cabin. They had their own place, a corral out back with a leanto fer shelter from the wind. It was jist the man’s way of letting his woman know we was home.
When I looked up, I could see a candle lit in the front window of the friendliest home place I ever seen in my life. Come to find out, there was a candle lit in every one of the windows on every one of the four sides of the building. Which made sense, once my brain unfroze enough to think about it. Had we been even a bit out of route, we could have passed right by the place at close range and never known the difference.
Laughing Brook wasn’t taking any chances.
The storm raged fer three days and nights, finally petering out shortly before dawn of the fourth morning.The Cheyenne girl had breakfast on the table while it was still pitch dark out. “This is the last of the meat.” She spoke softly, not concerned, jist reporting.
“I know.” The mountain man looked at me, his face limned by the flickering firelight. “Today we hunt.”
I thought about that. “You’re out of meat this early in the year?”
He nodded. “I do things some different from everybody else.” Throwing in a grin, he added, “In case you hadn’t noticed. The usual thing is to hunt hard in the late summer and early fall, smoke or jerk whatever game you can find, and hope you’ve enough not to starve before the snow melts in the spring, since hunting when it’s 40 below outside is kind of an iffy proposition.
“Howsomever, I don’t much like jerky–sets wrong with my innards somehow–and I’ve not been into smoked meat that much either, except fer a good ham. So, until everything’s hard-frozen this time of year, I knock down jist enough game to git us by month to month, using the ice pit to help a carcass last that long. Now, though, going after the bigger critters like wapiti or a stray buff will work out. The cold will keep everything fresh till spring.”
“Huh.” I shoved a bite of venison steak into my mouth, wondering if it would be my last, and talked around it. “So..that’s worked every winter?”
He chuckled. “So far, so good.”
The horses didn’t seem to mind the cold, but I sure did. Colder’n a witch’s tit in Alaska, it was. It turned out Believer had a spot in mind, a meadow some three miles from the cabin, mostly downhill. By the time we dismounted and tied the horses to a couple of saplings, the sun was starting to come up, but I needed to pee real bad and didn’t know what to do about it. If I tried, it was likely I’d not be able to find my business, it being shrunk up inside my body somewhere around my navel. So I tied a knot in it and jist follered the big man as he broke trail toward the meadow.
We hadn’t quite broke into the open yet when two bull elk crossed an opening in the timber right in front of us. That is, a bit more’n a hundred yards ahead, but straight ahead, simply walking easy, no idea whatsoever that we were there.
I seen ’em the same moment Believer did, and I surely didn’t want him having all the glory on this one, so I slipped up on his right side, jist a few feet between us, got myself set. Which involved getting down on one knee, taking aim on the lead bull, and easing the hammer back on the .44-40, muffling the click with my hand the best I could.
Believer looked around to see if I’d spotted the critters jist as I pulled the trigger.
The elk ran. Both of ’em! Crap.
It was my turn to look at the big man, though fer a moment I didn’t get it. Instead of taking a lead on the game with that Hawken of his and bringing down our dinner–which I had zero doubt he could do–he was jist standing there, watching! What the–?
Then the bull I’d shot at went down, plowing into the snow nose first, and didn’t get up.
“Nice shot, Tam”, Believer observed. “Right through his lights. Not an ounce of meat wasted.”
I was feeling purty fine, likely had my chest all puffed up with self-important pride like some little banty rooster. Which, looking back on it, was no bad thing. A man that age needs his ego stroked now and again, after having like to starved to death and being fed by these people like some starveling puppy.
Minutes later, with the horses brought up to the kill site and the gutting begun, the day suddenly changed on us.
Ever willing to teach, Believer had first cut the elk’s throat, letting the critter bleed out. “Some folks use the blood,” he explained, “But you need a container fer that. Jist as important, though, an animal with its throat cut and no blood left in the body is most likely dead and therefore unlikely to jump up and git you. Except fer rattlesnakes. Them buggers ain’t never dead.”
A slight exaggeration, but I knew what he meant. He had me make the first cut after that, slicing jist through the hide, stem to stern, which made me nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Ain’t never done well learning something new with somebody looking over my shoulder.
I straightened up. “Like that?”
No answer. I looked over at my mentor, and he was frozen in terror. There ain’t no better way to say it, though I’d never repeat it where the man could hear. Fer a split second, I thought I must have really messed up somehow–we humans always want to make it all about us, doncha know–but then I noticed something.
It had warmed up. A lot. With all the excitement of my first-ever big game kill, I’d not been paying much attention to the rest of the world. How had it gotten so warm so fast?
“Sh*t!” He spoke finally, the only time before or after I ever heard him cuss.
“What?” He had me scared now, big time.
“Stand aside, Tam. I’ll be moving fast now. Jist stay outa my way.”
“Okay.” I didn’t much like being dismissed like that, but at least the terrorized look on the mountain man’s face was gone. He’d decided on a course of action, and that was all it took. And as it turned out, he could move at top speed and talk at the same time, as long as I kept my mouth shut and he didn’t have to listen.
“Snow eater,” he explained, moving over the elk carcass, his skinning knife fairly flashing in the sun as he finished gutting the critter. “Chinook wind. Feel that warm breeze? How it’s picking up, getting both warmer and faster every minute? First time I ever seen one hit this quick after a blizzard, but there’s a first time fer everything.”
The animal was ready fer transport already, though I didn’t understand why he’d whacked the head and lower legs plumb off, clearly intending to leave them there fer the scavengers. Wouldn’t Laughing Brook at least want the brains fer tanning the hide?
“Hold that mustang steady.” He grunted, gathering up the shortened front legs of the elk with one hand and the back legs with the other.
I’ll tell you, folks, I surely don’t expect this next part to be believed. Shucks, I was there and I still don’t believe it. But he done it; I swear on my sainted mother’s grave he done it. Had to be a good 400 pounds of raw elk meat and bone he yanked right off the ground. Swung it up in an arc, somehow let go of the off legs without releasing the near side, and dropped that gutted carcass so’s it straddled right atop that little horse.
Which didn’t please the pony none, as you might imagine. Even with me hanging onto her bridle reins fer dear life and Believer doing the snow dance so’s her fidgeting didn’t dump the elk carcass right back down in the snow, it took us a full minute to git things settled down.
It didn’t take no genius to realize Believer hadn’t originally intended to do it precisely this way, but at least I could see now why he’d gotten rid of the head and lower legs. Them hooves would have been dragging in the snow all the way back, and the head–well, you git the picture. As it was, that little horse was carrying the equivalent of two big men fer weight.
Another two minutes to lash down that load of meat so’s it wouldn’t be sliding an inch in any direction, and we were off, me riding double on the dun behind Believer, trying to remember not to either gig the critter in the flanks with my heels or git yanked off over the horse’s rear end by the heavy-loaded mustang I was leading.
Things settled in fer the trip back pretty well after a bit, though, and I begun to wonder what the fuss was all about. Moving at a steady walk, as we were, we ought to be back to the cabin in an hour, easy. Overloaded or not, the mustang was tough enough and then some. The weather was no longer freeze-you-to-the-bone cold but downright balmy; I even unbuttoned the top buttons on every layer of clothing I owned to let the sweat evaporate.
What was the big deal?
Fer the first mile, I kept on wondering. Then…not so much. It was getting sloshy underfoot fer the horses, slippery, and in some places downright muddy. Rivulets of water coursed down the slopes like it was time fer spring runoff. Believer kept us moving steadily enough, but sometimes he changed course a bit in order to find easier, or at least slightly less dangerous, traveling.
Once, maybe two thirds of the way home, we heard something roar. The only thing I could think of was one of them trains back east, when the engineer had dropped dead on the job–a heart attack, they thought–and knocked the throttle wide open on the way down. Runaway train.
Believer knew what it was, though, and bent over his dun’s mane, digging in his heels. The big gelding lunged forward, and the mustang with her huge load of meat did dang near yank me down that time. Not quite; I had a good hold on the saddle strings with my free hand. But she stretched me out some, and that shoulder wasn’t quite right fer most of the winter after that.
The avalanche missed us by a hair. It was my turn to show a face frozen in terror, but nobody seen it, since I was staring back behind us at the wall of snow, ice, water, mud, rocks, and entire growed-up trees that went blasting down the grade.
That was the day I truly begun believing in divine Providence. If we’d been a bit slower on the trail, it’d have been the end of us, and Laughing Brook might never have known for sure where we ended up. If we’d been a lot slower, we’d have been stuck on the other side, unable to git back to the cabin fer quite some time, though we might have survived.
Believer had said every minute counted. He’d been wrong. Every second counted.
I decided to blame that warm, wet feeling in my crotch on the weather, or better yet, to jist pretend it wasn’t there.
After that, thankfully, there weren’t no more close calls, though I kept waiting fer the mountains to rear up and eat us all the way to the familiar, gentle slope leading up to the aspen grove where the cabin was situated. It was jist a matter of slip, slide, and struggle along fer the horses, and a matter of realization fer me.
See, the day of the hunt was a critical part of my education in more ways than one. I learned, from watching Believer, that the biggest, toughest, smartest man in the world has got to know his limitations, which he most surely did. I learned that there really are times when every second counts. I learned that peeing your pants ain’t no big thing.
Not only that, but when we did finally come straggling in, loaded down with enough fresh meat to last the three of us through the rest of the winter, I learned something else. I learned that the wildly joyous greeting from a beautiful young Cheyenne girl can be what makes life worth living fer two men she’d feared were dead.
Oh. Did I say that last part aloud? Hey, I am not blushing! Real drovers don’t blush!
Anyway, most of all, I learned you don’t mess with Mother Nature. That dust storm out there ain’t giving any sign of quitting, is it? Herman, I’ll bet you a dollar to a doughnut hole, if Goes West Woman could manage to wrangle up a plate of liver fried with some of them garden onions and maybe followed by a slab of that cherry pie…why, I’ll jist bet I might be able to remember another tale.