Grunt, Chapter 23: Whiteout

RODNEY

Our third day out of the mountains was turning out to be one of those good news, bad news kind of times.

Good news: Jay Dotson was not only still alive, but he was healing, finally able to sit a horse instead of riding slung in the litter. Not that he wasn’t hurting, but the man was tough. He didn’t whine a bit.

Bad news: Two of the horses came up lame enough we had to leave them behind.

Good news: With Jay riding, we still had enough stock to stay mounted and trail a decent pack string. Probably should have butchered one, taken what meat we could carry, but with fewer animals to haul our stuff, even packing an extra fifty pounds of protein with us would have been iffy. Still would have done it, since we were down to the last elk foreleg already, but neither Garber nor the Dotsons cottoned to the idea. Wussies.

Bad news: We were down to two pack horses now. If we lost another one in the next hundred miles, before the elk meat was gone, it was going to hurt.

Good news: No sign of any pursuit behind us. Not that I’d figured there would be, once we left the timber. Those Fort 24 schmucks were fair weather warriors at best; they wouldn’t have the stomach for a long winter chase in open country like this. Even if they’d found our meeting place at the waterfall and been tempted to track us, the little present I’d left for them should have finished discouraging the fools. Garber had been wrong; we were in the clear.

Bad news: The Dotson brothers would never question my decisions again, now that I’d rescued Jay from Bledsoe’s jail before he could be executed, but Pen Garber had possessed the gall to argue with me when I turned us east this morning instead of continuing on south to the sunny warmth of the distant Gulf.

Good news: It hadn’t taken more than one of my ugly looks to shut him up.

Bad news: From the look of the darkening clouds behind us, we were in for some weather. More fuel for Pen’s bad attitude, since another few days of travel south would have taken us clear of the snow belt for this time of year.

Speaking of Pen, he chose that moment to spur his horse up along side me, daring to ride side by side with the leader of the Demons. I gave him the squinty eye, but he didn’t even notice; he was looking outward. “That dark line should be trees along a creek bank. Maybe a drop-off if we’re lucky. At least some cover. We camp there?”

Hm. “Got another good hour of daylight, Pen. You going soft on me?”

Garber chuckled. “Not hardly, but I have seen storms in this kind of country. We don’t want to be out in the open when one of them hits, and maybe there’s decent cover a little farther on, but maybe there ain’t. None of has been this way. The horses could use some grass time; their ribs are starting to show. Joe’s toughed it out in the saddle since daylight and we’ve made good time today, but pushing it could get us all in a heap of trouble.”

Well, what the hey. My dear old daddy always did say it was best to throw a nervous dog a bone once in a while, and I’d sure enough made Pen Garber edgy by choosing this direction he didn’t understand or appreciate. And come to think of it, those storm clouds to the west did look a bit closer. Mean, too.

“You’re making sense.” I nodded agreeably, tickled at the surprise in my second in command’s face. Nick nack paddy whack, give a dog a bone. “Let Jay and Joe know.”

By the time we reached the trees, I was blessing Pen’s wisdom. The wind was picking up, cutting up something fierce, gusting and squalling like the last girl I’d had, before I settled her down. Couldn’t backhand Mother Nature to any good effect, sadly enough, and the first flakes had already begun to fall. Thankfully, the streambed was about as good as it got in this blasted open country. Luck of the Devil was still with us. Not only were there trees aplenty, including the ubiquitous water sucking willows, but there was a curving cutbank that knocked the wind down to practically nothing. It was even big enough for the horses to join us, and the animals weren’t complaining. They huddled in close, wasting no time in pawing through the snow to get at the winter-dead grass along the frozen-over watercourse. Joe Dotson, surprisingly capable on the trail and willing to work, had the axe out of the pack and was chopping a hole through the ice for the horses. As for us, only Jay was drinking much–maybe something to do with his wounds healing?–but the horses could use a sip or three.

“You called this one, Pen,” I said cheerfully, going so far as helping to gather wood for the fire Jay was starting. “I’d promote you, except the only job left is mine, and you can’t have it.”

“Wouldn’t want it,” he replied, deadpan. Do believe the man meant it. That was something I’d never understand, but some men are leaders and some are followers. Now me, I’m a born leader, known it since I was big enough to think. But a leader ain’t much without followers, so you wouldn’t hear me complaining. Specially not with Jay coming back from the near dead and him and his brother looking at me like two hounds at the feet of their master.

The more I thought about it, the better I liked this camp. Okay, so there weren’t any Fort 24 idiots following our trail, but if there were, the blizzard would wipe out our tracks like they’d never been, turn us plumb invisible. And more than that, we could finally get some sleep. Seemed like I’d been running on fumes for longer’n I’d been alive. “No need to set a sentry tonight, boys,” I told them, knowing they wouldn’t have been worth spit in a hurricane on watch duty anyway. None of us could keep our eyes open. “Let’s enjoy the winter blessings and get us some real shuteye for a change.”

With my personal canvas blocking the wind and enough blankets to keep a hairless Chihuahua warm in Alaska, wherever that might be, I was sawing logs before I knew it. Frozen ground for a bed had never felt better; damn the pebbles under my ribs and full snores ahead.

The old man was hard at work, red hair flaming as his Bowie made sure slices. With the utmost economy of motion, he peeled the feral hog’s hide slick as could be, all in one piece. An entire, unspoiled pigskin was treasure beyond counting, especially if the tanner down in Porter’s Wallow was a personal friend. Most yahoos trying to peel a pig with a big fighting knife like that Bowie would ruin the skin, but not him. The man was an artist with cold steel. Always had been, always would be.

“You jumped the gun,” he said, his blue eyed gaze boring right through me, triggering a whole cavalcade of emotions. “Another three years, I planned to hand the gang’s leadership over to you anyway. But you flew off the handle like always. And then the way you did your mother, well son, that was downright unforgivable. I thought I’d raised you better than that.”

“You’re dead, Kahn,” I sneered. My voice was contemptuous, hiding the sudden fear. I refused to give him the satisfaction of calling him Father. Or Devil forbid, dad. Or Daddy. Or Pops. Never again. “And I ain’t.”

“Do I look dead to you?”

He waved the bloody knife for emphasis, twisting his lips in that way I’d always hated. How a man could use so few muscles to express so much disdain for his one and only son was beyond me, but it triggered the resentment in me like it always had. He was dead, wasn’t he? I had killed him; he couldn’t have come back to life, but here he was.

Like so many times before, the fact that we were conversing somewhere beyond the physical world eluded me. This was reality. Firm ground beneath my feet, the bandit chief’s condescending holier-than-thou attitude as solid as all get-out, the same as it had always been. How does he keep coming back to life? How? Would I never be free of this yoke?

“You hurt her, kid. You hurt her bad.”

It took me a second to realize he was talking about his wife, my mother, the idiot female who had devoted her miserable excuse for a life to this monster in front of me, never seeing his faults, always counseling patience and understanding. Somewhere the injustice of it all triggered my courage, gave me the strength to tell Undead Kahn Upward the truth.

“She wanted to be with you,” I smirked. “I just sort of helped her along.”

“No.” The big blade was shiny-steel clean now and back in its hip sheath. The rugged outlaw still had his thick shock of flaming red hair, not even a hint of male pattern baldness to detract from the presence that drew women to him like so many flies to a rotting carcass in the swamp. His cheekbones were high and sharp, he still had most of his teeth, yet the man’s eyes remained the most overwhelming thing about him. When he’d looked at his wife, I knew from bitter experience, they’d been soft pools of immeasurable depth. Faced with hard decisions as leader of dozens of lesser bandits, they could suddenly turn cold and hard, or thoughtful and introspective.

But when he looked at me, here and now, those eyes were pale and glacial, and my terror ran before them. He straightened up, the hog and its hide nowhere in sight, and strode toward me. “No. She was not ready. Her love for you may have been ill advised, scorpion from her own womb that you clearly are, but a mother’s love often knows far too little caution. She never saw you for what you are. I screwed up and let you behind me, but I was not surprised at what you did. The woman who bore you refused to believe it, chose to believe the lie you told her about how I died, and then, worst of all, you betrayed her love. It was not that you murdered her, fool, it was that she finally had to face the truth that you did not love her!”

He lunged then, one great fist rocketing toward my face with the speed of a shoot gun’s bullet. There was a terrible -CLUNK!- as my head snapped back–

And I awoke, drenched in sweat inside my blankets, so wet that it took me a few minutes to realize I’d pissed myself. Again.

Shaking, I poked my nose out from my roll, peering around. It was deep in the night. There were only a few coals still glowing in the campfire, not enough to see anything by, but the wind howled overhead, cheated of its victims as we huddled next to the cutbank. The horses were mostly settled down, asleep on their feet, with only one still chewing grass. The smell of their urine and manure slowly brought me a measure of comfort; this was the real world. Kahn really was still dead, thank the Devil. As for dear old Mom, well, experience had taught me that the details of my unlamented late sire’s tirade would fade with time.

The worst part was knowing that I had to sleep the rest of the night in wet clothing, wet blankets, unless my body heat eventually dried them out.

It could have been worse, I thought. With my bladder empty, at least I wouldn’t have to climb out into the cold to relieve myself.

Joe Dotson was surprised when he rolled out, figuring on building up the fire and starting breakfast. “You’re right boss,” he murmured low enough avoid rousing the remaining sleepers, “you ain’t retarded at all.” He rubbed his eyes, taking in the crackling fire, the strips of elk shoulder already sizzling in the pan. “In fact, you’re kind of spoiling us.” He half-grinned, revealing a corner of snaggly teeth.

“Don’t get used to it.” I grinned back, turning the elk strips as I spoke. “I woke up with the night sweats and needed to dry my duds before tackling the long cold trail, that’s all. Taking care of you hombres was just sort of incidental.”

“Ah.” He stretched and yawned. I avoided looking at him; staring into a Dotson mouth first thing in the morning could put a man plumb off his feed. “Storm seems to be settling down some.”

“Yep. Ain’t gone yet, but it’s going.” We might get back out on the trail by noon, but I wasn’t going to say that. This was not my kind of country–yet, anyway–and I wasn’t going to chance looking stupid by making predictions that might not come true. “Reckon we may as well roust our sleeping beauties now; the meat is done and there’s plenty to do while we’re waiting for the snow to stop.” And the wind. Man, that prairie wind could blow.

Luck was still with us…sort of. The horses had managed to fill their bellies, the snow finally quit entirely, the sun came out, and we rode up past the cutbank and out of the streambed a good hour before midday. But the wind wasn’t gone entirely, and the snow on the ground was blowing freely across the plains. “This could get hairy,” Pen Garber opined.

“Could,” I had to agree. “Sort of a ground blizzard, ain’t it?”

“Yep. But at least with the sun out where we can see it at the moment, we know which way is east. Any time we get into the middle of one of those blowy areas, it’s going to be a whiteout, though. Be lucky if a man can see his own horse’s head at times, even with the clouds gone.”

“How good’s your sense of direction?” I smirked at him, not expecting an answer. He surprised me.

“Better than most.” He looked thoughtful, studying the swirling snow eddies. “If we zero in on that flat-topped butte,” he indicated a prominence that had to be three or four miles away, “and you put me on point, I can probably bring us out of most of those bad patches no more than two or three degrees off course.”

“Probably?”

“Ain’t nothing sure in this kind of country in the winter, boss.” He patted his horse’s neck absently, then brought up the thick woolen scarf to cover his mouth and nose. Looked like one of them Arabs in the Fort 24 picture books, only clothed in dark colors instead of white and sailing snow instead of sand. Snow Arab. Heh.

“All right, then.” I didn’t like giving up the lead position, but if Pen got us lost, at least none of the guys could blame me. CYA was generally a good thing. Besides, there were already some serious drifts out there; why not let the fool who volunteered stumble into them first? “Let’s get to it.”

I swore I could hear my dead father laughing in my head. I shook it off as we moved out. As far as I could tell, we still had several cold hard weeks ahead of us, and sitting here wasn’t getting us there.