My darling Sadie,
Stanley Crenshaw and I may not live through this one. If we do, I’ve promised myself to leave the telling of it as dark and grim as our present reality. You and I promised to be real with each other, to hold nothing back, and I’ll honor that promise.
If this is found sometime in the future, perhaps in company with our picked-clean bones, at least the mystery of what happened to us will be solved.
And if it’s never found, if we are never found, then at least I’ll have had the writing of this letter to distract me from the howling wind and freezing snow piled sky-high around our tent–except that there isn’t any sky, not that you can see at the moment.
How easily a life–two lives in this case–can hinge on a single, seemingly simple decision….
“Looks like snow on the way, Henry.” My partner spit off to the side of the trail to show what he thought of that. We were finally done with Leadville for real, my knife wound sufficiently healed for travel and Tamson-hater Chauncey Devers on his way to prison. The Tennessee Pass summit couldn’t be more than an hour’s travel ahead of us; stopping early to camp would be at least mildly frustrating.
I shrugged. “Ain’t like we never seen snow before, Stanley.”
“True enough. But you’re kind of a lowlander. You ain’t seen what a storm can do in this high country.” He turned to run a practiced eye over the pack string trailing along behind us, three horses carrying sizeable but workable loads of the good things in life. The often patched Army tent, provisions of every sort including spare clothing, blankets, cookware…plus of course spare weapons and ammunition.
“Figure we can clear the pass before it hits?” I had no intention of stopping, but then again I’m young and dumb and full of–you know. It couldn’t hurt to at least discuss the matter.
He studied the western sky, up ahead of us, for another full minute before responding. “Maybe, maybe not. It’s gonna be close.”
“Hm. Well…what say we jist keep on keeping on fer now, unless we happen to spot an ideal place to set up camp. I’d kinda like to be on the downhill side before we call it quits fer the day, wouldn’t you?”
“Reckon I would,” he agreed, and thus the decision was made. We kept on going.
When the snow first started to fall, it was just big fat flakes slow-drifting outa the sky. No problem. Been there, done that. Until the wind came up…and when it came, it came with a vengeance. Howling so’s you couldn’t hear yourself think, blowing snow in our faces so hard and fast, neither we nor the horses could see our noses in front of our faces.
“We gotta camp, Henry!” Crenshaw yelled, and I could barely hear him above the wind.
“Let’s do it!”
The trouble was…where were we? I suddenly realized we were off the trail, but how far off and in what direction, there was no way to tell.
It didn’t matter. Not at the moment, it didn’t. There was enough of a flat spot to pitch the tent. Enough trees to safely tie off the horses till this thing blew over. It would have to do. Mid-September and trapped in the middle of a freak blizzard.
Except this was plenty late enough in the year for the first heavy storm to hit up here, above ten thousand feet, old Jack Frost himself looking to turn wayard pilgrims to ice any chance he got. We pushed on into the middle of the little clearing.
Got there the same time as the old boar grizlzly did.
It’s not like we heard the killer coming or anything. What we heard was the tail-end pack mare’s scream when the bear hit her.
To say we didn’t want to dismount to fight that sumbitch would be an understatement, but the problem was, there ain’t no such thing as a bear-fighting horse. The mere smell of a griz will drive any pony crazy, and here we had a thousand pounds of bad news in the middle of us.
We both had our Winchesters out, pumping rounds at the monster shape we could barely see despite being no more’n thirty feet from the big bastard. Then it weren’t no thirty feet, but zero feet; all them claws and teeth had decided our .44-40 slugs were mildly irritating, so it come fer us.
Stanley’s big mule bucked him off, leaving him sprawled in the snow while it run like the highly intelligent coward it was.
But that was one damn smart fighting boar; it ignored the fallen man and the running horse fer a moment while it tended to the guy still mounted, which was me. Moved faster’n I thought possible, swiped a giant, claw-laden paw down Rowdy’s right side and gashed my lower leg along the way.
The gelding went nuts. I couldn’t hold him from bolting, and I couldn’t leave Stanley to git et by the bear–so I bailed off as the horse launched into a gallop and headed fer the timber.
Got hung up. Hadn’t cleared my right boot from the stirrup. Managed to hang onto the rifle–I’ll never know how, but knowing a matter is life and death will put some determination into a fellow. Dang near cracked my skull on a rock, didn’t do any favors to my left shoulder, but finally come free at the timber’s edge.
The bear was on Crenshaw. I couldn’t see clear enough to shoot without likely ventilating my partner in the process. Scrambled to my feet, adrenaline pumping hard enough I didn’t fer the moment notice how bad I was already hurt myself, and run back at ’em.
Nearly went down when the pain shot through my ankle. Not the one that’d been hung up in the stirrup, the other one. But there’d be time to worry about busted bones later, if there was someone left alive to do the worrying.
I stopped at a range of maybe twenty feet, close enough to be bear supper in a heartbeat if the bruin come after me before I could plug the thing in a vital spot, but the storm was so bad, I had to be that close to be sure who I was shooting. Dropped to my favored one-knee shooting stance, dropped the hammer.
Fifteen rounds in the tube, and I’d spent ’em all. It took another second to fumble inside my coat, fishing out the .44 Remington. Which was when Mr. Bear decided Stanley was finally dead, I guess, and turned its attention once again to me.
With Death staring me in the face, I finally got lucky. The bugger looked right at me, opened its nasty jaws and give one a them fighting bear squalls that’ll freeze your blood worse’n any mere blizzard. I squeezed off a round…oh, Hell, I jerked off a round; lets not be pussyfooting around the truth here. Jerked off a round, missed that open mouth entirely–had some idea maybe I could shoot through the palate and hit the brain. Missed the mouth…and danged if the bullet didn’t fly up and a bit to the right of where I was aiming.
Went right though the critter’s left eye. Dropped him like a stone; he never even twitched after that.
But the damage was done. I was dinged up more’n a bit myself, but a thousand pounds of deadweight bruin was now sprawled all over my unconscious–and possibly dead–partner. The horses, except fer the dying pack mare bleeding out in the snow, were gone who knows where and not likely to ever come back to this place of danger and death.
Well, I had it to do. First things first.
The Spanish folding knife Dawson give me fer my seventh birthday was still sheathed at my hip, and I thank the good Lord and all His angels fer that. Sharp, too, and needed to be.
I had to partially butcher the damn bear before I could drag what was left of Stanley out from under the carcass.
Turned out the crossyed old bugger with the skunkskin cap weren’t dead yet, at least not quite. He was breathing on his own, and from the supplies we’d had on the now dead mare, I was able to find enough material to bind his numerous wounds. Hopefully they’d bled out enough to prevent infection; the antiseptic herb packs Grandma Brook had sent with me were on another horse.
Couldn’t tell about internal injuries. Broken ribs were a given, but whether or not he had a punctured lung or liver or whatever…time would tell.
By the time I’d done what I could first aid-wise, the whiteout was becoming a grayout. Sun getting ready to set, out there somewhere.
We had to be under cover before dark or we were both dead.
The Army tent…yes, in this load on this mare, but…how to anchor the thing? No way to drive tent pegs–ah.
In the end, just as dark was turning into pitch dark, the tent was up and secure–never mind that the tent ropes along one side were tied off to the bases of handy saplings and on the other side were anchored to a horse corpse. You go with what you got.
Dragging Stanley’s unresisting form into the tent almost broke me. On a good, healthy day, I can pick up two hundred twenty pounds of dead weight and make it look easy–okay, maybe not easy, but I can do it.
As whipped as I was, jist sliding him over the snow and then muscling him in through the tent flap was an ordeal. And a half.
A fire was both essential and, for now, out of the question. I jist didn’t have it in me.
We did have enough blankets in the pack. Two beneath to cut the cold from the ground and a whole pile on top. I still shivered for a long time before drifting into a fitful sleep, most likely my body finally admitting it was going to have go into shock and shut down fer a time.
The storm was still blowing and going when it got light again. I was able to exit the tent all right, which was a relief. Looked like at least a couple of feet of snow everywhere, tons more in the drifts. Yeah, I’d known to set the tent opening facing downwind, but winds can change directions on you.
The horse and bear carcasses were nothing but mounded piles of snow.
My left ankle was badly swollen. The bone hadn’t busted through the skin or anything; in fact–near as I could tell–it was more or less in place where it was supposed to be. But I’d clearly done more damage hobbling around on it after the initial injury–whatever had caused that. I wasn’t going to be walking any real distance fer a while.
Which meant that even leaving Stanley and hiking back to Leadville fer help after the storm let up was not going to be an option.
The left shoulder didn’t seem to be swollen, but it was definitely talking to me, as were the gashes along my lower right leg. I felt a little fevered despite the cold, but nothing that was going to incapacitate me short term. Fighting the trauma, no doubt.
Stanley…I jist didn’t know. He was still breathing and in fact had started snoring kind of normally about the time it got light out. But he hadn’t regained consciousness even fer a moment. Brain damage? There were no bear marks on his skull, but he could have hit the ground hard. Concussion, maybe. Swelling brain? I’d heard of men dying from that.
He’d been up and fighting the bear till nearly the last second, but…I didn’t know enough about concussions.
I just didn’t.
Food was no problem for the moment; every horse had carried some of that. We even had a supply of coffee, though not the coffee pot. With a fire, anything was possible. Fevered or not, I was shivering again. Gotta get a fire going, take my mind off running out of the food (of which we have plenty, we really do) and maybe having to eat the horse or–God forbid–that stinky old boar bear.
“We still in the land of the living, kid?”
I grinned down at the crosseyed old fart who’d been giving me the scare of my life fer the past twenty-four hours. “That remains to be seen, Stanley. Storm ain’t let up yet, neither one of us is fit to walk, most of our gear is gone along with the horses and the wild, wild goose, and I ain’t got the slightest dang clue where the Hell we are.”
He quirked one side of his mouth up a bit. “That’s the spirit, Henry. Keep them rose colored glasses on.”
A grunt escaped him when he tried to sit up.
“You might not want to try that too quick-like, old man. That bear ’bout bit and clawed you to ribbons.”
“Hunh. Do believe I got that figured. Seems to me I was there. But I gotta piss like a race horse, cowboy, so either you help me up and outside that tent flap or you add the smell of Crenshaw piss to every other fragrant aroma in this here oversized domicile.”
“Hunh yourself. Guess if you can spew out a sentence that long, you deserve to piss in the wind. Grab hold.”
It was a process, but the tough old bastard managed. Though he was shaking some from the effort, not to mention the wind.
The fire banked a few feet out front of the tent helped, as did the cowboy coffee I’d boiled in a leather bag. Using heated rocks, Indian style, of course. I’d been lucky to find the rocks; they’d showed up in the very spot I’d selected to build the fire.
“I did save the liver outa the bear.”
“Looks good? No liver flukes?”
“It’s clean. A lot cleaner’n that old bugger’s attitude was, that’s fer sure.”
“Hell, Henry, there weren’t nothing wrong with his attitude. He likely jist figured a nice autumn snack of horsemeat would finish filling him on up fer winter hibernation. Can’t blame him fer getting upset when we gave him a dose of indigestion.”
“So, how’d you finally drop him? He still seemed pretty peppy the last I can remember.”
“Got lucky. Missed a mouth shot with the Remington, bounced a round in through his left eye.”
He sipped on his coffee fer a bit, mulling that over. “Ain’t nothing wrong with luck. It’s surely stood your family in good stead over the years. Mine too, I reckon.”
I’ll be signing off here for today, sweetheart. The light is starting to fail again. It’s still snowing and blowing, I don’t know when we’ll be able to get out of here–wherever here is–or even how. But so far, there’s one dead horse and one big damn dead bear, and we’re both still kicking. That’s gotta count fer something.
My darling Henry,
Did you know I can sometimes see through your eyes?
I talked to Brook about that. She understood. Says certain people can do that at times, especially with people they’re really, really close to. Or even through the eyes of animals.
Yesterday, just all of a sudden–about midafternoon–I started seeing a bear. A really big, really mean bear. And if that’s what I was doing, seeing through your eyes, you must have shot it through its eye, ’cause all of a sudden blood spouted out of an eye and it fell down.
That’s all I saw, but baby, that was more than enough. Freaked me out at first, and then worried me even more after I talked to Brook about it.
Better than seeing the inside of the bear’s stomach, I guess.
But I believe you’re in trouble, and it’s such a helpless feeling, being able to do nothing about it. Except pray a lot. I’m not sure I believe in the Christian God any more than you do, but I’ve still been praying. Sort of like,
“Dear whatever’s out there, please watch over my Henry.”
Not much of a prayer, maybe, but the best I know how to do.
Nobody else here at Flywheel knows. Your Grandma and I decided not to tell the rest. She says it’s the lot of those who wait to do just that–wait. Not to worry everybody around them.
Sorry this letter is so one-track. Guess I should try to write about something else, too. After all, it’s not like you don’t know it if you are in trouble, right?
I’ve got a hate going on for one of the teachers at school this year. Mrs. Brecken, the hoity-toity one. Overheard her telling Mr. Cobbins you were wasting your life, chasing all over who knows where, when you had such a fine mind . Said you were wasting your talent.
Like she knows. Not having any talent of her own. Except to badmouth good men.
Love and an extra prayer for good measure (think I’ll put the lust on hold till I know you’re okay),