The big rattler wouldn’t yield the right of way, all coiled up and buzzing at us like he was some sort of badass. Normally, we would’ve jist swung wide and rode on around him, but right at this point the brush to either side of the trail was thick enough to hide a hundred of his cousins, sleeping in the shade and waiting fer a horse leg to wander by.
“Do I have to?” I hauled out my .44 Russian and checked the loads. Not that they needed checking; I was stalling and Tam knew it.
The tale teller shrugged, crossing his forearms over the saddle horn while he enjoyed the show. “You’re the one that made the bet,” he pointed out. “From the leather, from horseback, take the head off, or do the cooking fer a month straight.”
I muttered something unsuitable fer polite compay under my breath, shoved the pistol back into its holster–and drew, thumbing the hammer back on the way up, trigger from the hip, and–
“Whew. Scared myself. Figured fer sure I’d bit off more than I could chew that time.”
“Frankly, cowboy,” my partner admitted with a wry smile, “I thought you had, too.” He stepped down from Smokey and walked over to the writhing but now headless body, pulling his skinning knife on the way. The .44 slug had hit where I’d intended, going through a chunk of the viper’s triangular head before taking out the smallest, most vulnerable spot on any diamondback’s body. Namely, the neck right where it joins to the critter’s skull.
I was improving. Still not the fastest draw in the West and never would be, but it’d been a while since I’d missed what I was shooting at. At least, any time the target was inside six-gun range.
Now he’d be cooking fer a month, first time ever he’d lost one of these bets. I was looking forward to the vacation.
“Tell me,” I said, one eye on the horizon and the other watching as he sliced out a few pounds of rattlesnake meat fer our supper and enough left over to short-smoke fer chewing on the trail tomorrow, “You ever let on to the Comanche that you, as a jug-eared, white-looking trail drover, are actually their famous war chief come back to life?”
“Nope. Ain’t likely to, neither. I’d say this one went a good sixty pounds, wouldn’t you?”
Covering two topics of conversation in one breath weren’t unusual fer Tam: I’d long since gotten used to it and learned to respond in kind. “Sounds about right, seven footer. Why not?”
“Lots of reasons. Fer starters, something’s always told me it ain’t up to me to tell folks about that. I told you, but nobody else. Ever.”
“Not even the Laughing Brook love of your life?”
“Specially not her.” He straightened with the center-cut rattler meat in one hand, kicked the still moving front and rear ends of the snake off to the side, and reached up to catch the meat carrying bag I tossed him.
“You said lots of reasons?”
“The Comanche people wouldn’t believe me if I did tell ’em, or worse yet, if they did believe, they’d likely have a problem with me showing up in a white body. Mostly white, anyway.”
“Huh. Okay. Guess I can follow that. One more thing, though. It’s been bugging me all day. How did you git through them drifts in that pass? Or did you?”
“Volcano eruption,” he replied, and I knew fer sure he was pulling my leg this time. I still had to ask, though.
“Yep. Figured to tell you that story tonight.”
The pass was in fact completely blocked. There was a tall, lightining-riven pine snag I’d noticed on the way west, its jagged top spearing the sky. On one side, I remembered that stubbed-off branch in the odd shape that reminded me of Medicine Coyote’s hind leg. When I’d seen it last, it had looked to be something like twenty feet above the snow, maybe a bit more.
Now the drifts touched its bottom side. We were stuck on the west side. Away from Piegan country, and Believer, and–most of all–Laughing Brook.
I was sick to my stomach.
How long I sat there, stockstill in the saddle, I have no idea. Wolf stood steady beneath me. The bay filly was content as long as she followed her great Appaloosa husband. But I was not functioning.
This could not be.
At length, with an effort as great as any I’d ever known, I forced myself to think. I could not stay here. Fer a time, perhaps, but the elk steaks Butterfly had cooked fer my journey would run out soon enough. If I hunted, I might find game or might not; the blizzard had driven most of even the hardiest animals southward.
There would be parties of Salish or Kootenai sooner or later.
The pass was drifted so deeply full, the grizzlies might even be coming out of hibernation before the snow melted enough to let me through.
This could not be.
Possibly, I thought, I might be able to retrace my route, down to the great Salish Lake. Traveling at night, slipping south along the shoreline, all the way to Hell Gate, then eastward, upstream along the Clark Fork River, then eventually turning north to trek toward the land of the Blackfeet from the southeast.
No. I did not know that route. It was filled with enemies, or at least strangers–and in this land, the word for “stranger” and “enemy” is often the same word. Besides, it would be a journey of hundreds of miles.
Home lay jist one day’s ride beyond those great drifts.
It was at this point it happened. Throughout my life–perhaps throughout my many lifetimes, back to the time of Tabivo Naritgant and even beyond–there have been times when the Volcano rescued me. I call it the Volcano for lack of a better word. Fer the Volcano to erupt, I must first be at the end of my rope, my fingers slipping rapidly from the final knot.
This was such a time.
Deep within me, deeper than can be described, I felt the Volcano shift. There was a rising, a swelling of magma, a power that increased steadily until the great blazing fire of the eruption exploded within my consciousness as the words exploded from my mouth.
“I will find a way today!”
And I knew I would.
The big stud shifted beneath me, but not much. He was used to his rider, this White Blackfoot warrior called Crazy Rifle. He flicked his ears and waited. My eyes scanned the great drifts, but with new, clarity driven awareness.
The power of the Volcano roared within me, piercing the mysteries. I understood the depth of the snow, its weight and texture. The knowlege of every force balancing against every other force was mine fer the taking, and I took it. From the horses on their hooves to the trees on the south slope to the great snow masses accrued upon the steep, nearly treeless north slope, I sensed precisely where a potential avalanche pushed for release, where every root of the occasional pine tree clutched frozen earth and stone as it struggled to remain upright.
Within this enhanced awareness lay the answer I was seeking, or at least what I chose to construe as the answer, and that was good enough.
That north slope snow mass would serve me. Poised to hurtle down upon the unwary traveler in its crushing, smothering fury, it would instead be my slave. Pulling the Hall carbine from its scabbard, I tucked the butt to my shoulder without bothering to dismount. I bellowed,
“Serve me now!”
And fired. The boom of the rifle roared through the pass, quivering the poised drifts blanketing the slope. The .52 caliber bullet arced its high trajectory to the target…and struck. I had fired not as a marksman, not as a mountain man, fer my target could not even by seen by mere mortal eyes. No, this I had done as a shaman, a sorceror, speeding the half-inch chunk of lead unerringly toward a hidden fault buried beneath a single inch of snow more than a quarter mile up the steep grade.
The small force of the bullet, focus point for the much greater force of my will, slammed into the wide crack between the boulder and the granite outcrop upon which it rested. No bigger than my own head, the piece of rock flinched…and tipped forward, slowly at first but quickly gaining speed, wrapping snow about itself as it descended the steep slope.
Suddenly realizing what I had done, I yelled, “Holy Crap!”
And turned the horses to run for our lives. It was a replay of the day the Chinook wind had thrown the mountain at Believer and me and barely missed, only worse. The weather was cold, so there would be no mud, but I had jist given the mountain a one-two punch. The great snowball, huge as it was becoming as it flew down into the pass, was not the real danger. The real avalanche would thunder down after the snowball crashed into the pass itself, plowed across, and smacked the treeline on the south slope.
That would rattle the mountain, awaken the real snow monster.
Wolf ran, losing ground to the bay filly whose eyes rolled in fear as she showed a turn of speed I’d not expected from her; she would have passed the stud entirely had I not held her back by the lead to her war bridle. We galloped all the way back to the previous night’s hunker-down place, and still it caught us.
The wall of snow hit us broadside, knocking the filly into me and the Appaloosa so that we all crashed down on our left sides together in one great, ungainly pile. In a tangle of thrashing limbs, it was more than a wonder I didn’t catch a hoof to the head.
When it was over, the snow covered us, but not deeply. I made it to clean air and to my feet first, mostly because neither horse could struggle out from under the snow unaided. It took nearly another hour to extricate them.
We had taken damage. My right shoulder was dislocated until I slammed myself sideways into the trunk of a fir tree, screaming like a woman at the pain but shifting the bone back into the socket where it belonged. Fer a time, I’d be holding that elbow tucked close to my side; God forbid I’d need to grab onto the rifle’s forend to shoot anything–and thank God it was my right, me being left-handed.
I thought the filly might have a couple of cracked ribs, and she limped slightly on her right front foot.
Wolf, durable bugger that he was, seemed the least dinged of the group. He showed only a shallow gash along his right hip, likely received from the filly’s sharp hoof as she flailed helplessly in the snow.
We took our time studying the situation, but not too much of it. Snow clouds were building; a new blizzard might well hit by nightfall. If my insane gambit was to pay off, it had to be now.
“There. I think we can do it,” I told Wolf, but he didn’t answer. Frankly, I suspected he was a bit disgusted with me, trying to get him and his filly killed and all, and I couldn’t blame him. Besides, I wasn’t all that sure of the route myself. Jist determined.
As I’d expected, the avalanche had filled the pass to a depth of what looked like a hunnert feet or more. But it had also cleared the steep north slope above the pass, which was entirely the point.
The footing was treacherous, slick and not entirely devoid of snow at that, but we made it.
Scary? Hell, yes. Jack the steep on the side of that mountain up a couple more notches and you’d have a cliff. We climbed, scrambling till we reached a level a couple hunnert feet above all that snow piled into the pass, and eased our way on across. Kept reminding me of them stories of the sidehill gouger, the animal what lives on hillsides like that and has the legs on one side a lot longer than the other so’s it can stay level when the terrain ain’t.
If we lost it, started slip-sliding down that grade, and ended up in the snowpile at the bottom, we’d be jist as dead as if the avalanche had caught us dead center. It’d be soft at the top, pull us down. We were nearly halfway across before I thought of that and scared myself all over again.
But we made it, and that’s what counted.
Once we cleared the thing, I wanted to celebrate, holler a victory yell or something, but I flat couldn’t. Slumped down with my back against a tree, shaking like an aspen leaf in a windstorm, my teeth chattering, I was all of a sudden way too aware of how close I’d come to getting all three of us killed outright. . Thought I was gonna pass out fer a minute. I hadn’t fully recovered when I seen the Appaloosa was standing right in front of me, nose down almost in my face and them big know-it-all eyes looking right through me. He spoke in my mind then, all right.
“Don’t ever do that again, okay?” He told me.
“I won’t,” I gasped. “Swear to God I won’t.”
Apparently satisfied, he turned to the side and started pawing down through the snow, looking fer something to eat. At least one of us had an appetite.