Grunt, Chapter 17: Exploding Snow

Not once during the morning’s portion of the journey did any of the Sentinels relax their vigilance, but Dawg had to admit his own focus on possible threats did slip a mite from time to time.

It was quite the comedy of errors, watching those students unfamiliar with horsemanship make every mistake in the book. The seasoned warriors didn’t lift a finger or say a word to any of them, so Dawg found himself in the role of fixer. When a fellow student’s constant pull-back on the reins caused his mount to refuse to move forward, it was Dawg who advised him to relax, let the reins droop a little, and allow the horse to resume forward motion. One saddle cinch was ridiculously loose, thanks to the horse swelling up when the cinch was pulled, and the rider ended up hitting the trail head first under a suddenly nervous critter that could have wound up stomping the student; it was Dawg who caught up the horse’s reins and showed the embarrassed man how to knock the extra wind out of the fool equine with a well-timed knee, allowing the cinch to be pulled tight. “You can simply wait until the horse lets out a breath and pull it up before he can inhale again,” he explained, “but this is quicker.”

It went on like that for hours, each incident blurring into the next so that by midmorning it was impossible to remember who had needed help with which bit of ignorance. Only lean Hank, mounted on the big pinto stag, managed to avoid needing Dawg’s assistance. Paint and his rider seemed to have come to an understanding.

The seasoned Sentinels ignored them all as if they weren’t there, utilizing the error-stops as excuses to disappear into the pines. Scouting for real, or were they simply slipping out of sight so they could silently laugh themselves silly? No telling, but the fact that the senior warriors all magically appeared in time to head out as soon as each new snafu was corrected…yeah, that did look suspicious. What would they have done if he hadn’t been there with his little bit of knowledge and the willingness to share it? Would they have helped, or was the extra margin of time allowed for the journey designed to let wannabe Sentinels sink or swim on their own?

Sol was directly overhead when the warriors called a stop for lunch. They were positioned in the midst of a scattered jumble of boulders, many of them large enough to cut the wind that seemed to be getting friskier the higher they climbed. Here, their instructors–if they could be called that–relaxed considerably, going so far as to loosen the cinches on their saddles and digging out a bag of grain from one of the packs and passing it around. “One double handful for each horse, but use these pans to feed them,” Emory advised. “Wesley! Blackie there is going to head right back to the barn if you don’t hang on to those reins!”

Wesley. Yeah, that was the fellow who’d ended up underneath his horse. Dawg made sure his mare’s cinch was loosened, but not ridiculously so. The “pans” were really shallow bowls, cowhide linings laced to bent-willow frames. “Here you go, girl,” he murmured to the horse. The Sentinels used hackamores, so the tall bay had nothing in her mouth to interfere with munching. He hadn’t known Fort 24 even grew oats, but he was glad they did.

It felt surprisingly warm out, what with the sun shining joyously and the boulders cutting the wind, but it was still well below freezing. Which meant their supplies were all frozen, but not for long. Before the last student had his horse’s cinch loosened, the Sentinel called Turtle had a fire going with a long, shallow skillet crossing above the flames and lashed firmly to a small tripod at each end. A fascinating design, one Dawg had never seen before. It couldn’t be cast iron, too heavy to be carrying back and forth on a pack horse, so did Fort 24 have its own steel foundry hotshots? Or some other alloy? Or had some trader brought this back from one of his forays?

The steaks were simple enough, as was the frybread warming on each side of the skillet-thingie. Wesley and the others, again excluding Lantern Jaw Hank, squatted on their haunches, staring at the meat with undisguised greed. Hank caught Dawg’s eye and winked; Dawg felt the corners of his mouth twitch upward. Whatever Hank’s history might be, it had to include more than a few classes in the School of Hard Knocks. It took one Hard Knocker to recognize another.

“These steaks come from the Moss herd of Highlander cattle,” Beef began without preamble. “Oh, and before I forget, you may have noticed we’re not even posting a sentry for this noon break. There’s a reason for that. There’s only one trail through this spot. A man on foot might be able to get here by another route, but it wouldn’t be easy, and the odds against it are astronomical. I’ll leave you students to figure out why; after you get back to Lower Valley, you’ll be quizzed. Maybe not till next week, but think about it in the meantime.

“Now, our relief runs up to Sentinel Outpost almost always call for a lunch break right here. You’ll notice it’s midday, or close enough, and with this good weather, making it to the outpost before dark should be no problem. It takes energy to make this ride, so warming up and throwing some chow down makes sense. On the downhill run, that’s a different matter. The men are heading home and the horses know they’re heading for the barn. Besides, it’s downhill all the way, give or take a dozen little ridge climbs that don’t amount to much. Most times, you couldn’t get man nor beast to stop short of home if you were a charging grizzly with its fur on fire.”

He paused, not really looking for commentary from his audience, but Wesley of the Loose Cinch tossed out a question, his face a picture of indignation. “Why didn’t you Sentinels check us out better before we left? I coulda been killed under that horse!” So. A whiner. Maybe twenty years old.

Beef turned his head aside and spat into the snow. “Survival of the fittest, son. This ain’t an easy life, being a member of the fort’s military. True, we ain’t seen a full scale war, or even what you’d call a serious battle, since the raiders of thirty-eight, two years back. But we take sentinel duty seriously, there’s scouting which ain’t a tenth as romantic as them old Before books make it sound, we’re constantly training to keep our skills sharp and master new ones, we gotta train up recruits like those of you who might one day decide it’s what you want to do, and to top all that off, we’re away from our families more often than we’re not. So if you had kicked the bucket under old Blackie there, well, pardon me for being blunt, kid, but good riddance. This is no place for weaklings.”

Wesley had no more to say. His eyes were wide, though whether due to shock or outrage or simple disbelief that the man with the screaming eagle patch on his shoulder could so casually dismiss his entire existence…it was impossible to say.

Dawg kept his face straight, but he was laughing inside. Hank, too, showed a flicker of amusement in his eyes. The rest of the students were clearly gobsmacked to the tenth power. What the dickens did they think this was all about? Strutting around town yelling “I’m a Sentinel! Look at mighty me!?”

Once back on the trail, they discovered the easy part was over. Exiting the timber put them squarely at the mercy of the wind. Howling down from the peak, it kept the snow drifting here and there despite the cerulean sky overhead. Emory, breaking trail at the front of the single file group, had all he could handle, watching every step as his sturdy bronc plowed forward. The lead Sentinel wasn’t watching for attackers now; he was paying strict attention to certain boulders as well as tripods of thin poles jutting up from the whiteness, marking the sides of the narrow passage up the steep slope. Watching for a possible ambush was left to Beef, riding right behind Emory, following his fresh tracks and therefore free to cast his gaze forward as well as to left and right.

Not that there was much to worry about. Few men would be fools enough to brave the cold, the wind, or the steep slope itself. Besides, though still distant, they were in plain view of the outpost now; at least one of the Sentinels waiting to be relieved would have eyes on them. The Abominable Snowman, the mythical Yeti, might be right at home here, but humans? Not so much.

Strung out and quartering uphill as they were, with the higher part of the steep grade to their left and the downhill plunge to their right, everybody was visible to everybody else. At least for the man who refused to let the wind and driving snow close his orbs to anything but the horse’s rump in front of them, it did. Dawg decided to pass the time by memorizing the names of his fellow students, all of them having been uttered at one point or another during their lunch stop. After the two warriors up front, there was Lantern Jaw Hank on his pinto stag, leading a pack horse as all the students were, then Wesley the Whiner on Blackie, followed by Marcus on the flashy little palomino. Then Dawg himself, and…”Easy, girl.” His tall bay mare was getting nervous, skittish almost, eyes rolling, ears flicking back and forth. Not a good thing with a slip on the downslope side being such a sure recipe for disaster.

None of the other animals seemed overly bothered. Maybe he should have taken the black–

The snow exploded.

From its lurking spot some thirty feet upslope on the left, the Yeti rocketed into the middle of the column in a flurry of snow, fangs and claws, leaping at the palomino, knocking horse and rider off the trail, nearly dragging the pack horse with it before the lead rope came loose from Marcus’s stunned hand. Dawg heard nothing, not the scream of the dying saddle animal, not the startled yell of the fallen rider as horse, rider, and predator cartwheeled down the grade, bouncing off rocks half hidden in the drifts. Instead, his world had gone silent, images and analysis taking all the processing power he had.

His mare reared in fright. He didn’t bother to try calming her but used the momentum to roll back-and-sideways out of the saddle, clutching both Sedlacek Special short spears in one hand. Over and over, sky-snow-sky, nearly losing his grip as he snowballed more than halfway down the hundred feet to the monster’s position before getting to his feet and closing the remaining distance at a dead run. At least the waist deep snow was less here, smashed down considerably by the near-ton of animals-and-human that had paved the way.

Not a Yeti, he saw now, but a great cat of some sort, many times the size of even the largest mountain lion, its jaws clamped firmly on the hapless palomino’s spine, halfway up the prey’s neck. Marcus, a man in his twenties and weighing at least one-eighty, looked like a child as he struggled to no effect, his leg pinned between the horse’s soon-to-be carcass, helpless against the killer’s belly weight. The giant cat lay comfortably, a long awaited feast between its jaws, paying no attention whatsoever to the feeble human’s wiggling. Clearly, it had no fear of such miserable weaklings, not even bothering to acknowledge Dawg’s headlong approach.

Had he stopped long enough to think, the teenager would never had dared attempt his next move. Without slowing, he flipped one spear so that it stuck upright in the snow a mere fifteen feet from his adversary, allowing him to use both hands to grip his chosen weapon. His desperate plunge finally caught the feline’s attention, but too late for the fanger as it turned toward the midget monkey who dared challenge it. At the last instant, Dawg tripped over a small rock hidden under the snow and had to adjust his aim as he fell forward, missing the rib-encased heart entirely, driving the razor sharp spearhead into the huge cat’s flank.

All the way to the haft.

The first sound that registered in his newly awakened hearing was the predator’s ungodly squall of rage and pain. Getting stabbed deep in the gut did not make it happy. Before Dawg could get set to pull his spear out of the animal’s vitals, two things happened. He became aware of the gaping jaw with its great fangs, realizing suddenly, “This might not have been a good idea,” and one massive, clawed paw struck his shoulder, the force of the blow sending him spinning all the way around, a full one-eighty.

Yet he kept his two-handed grip on the spear, which saved his life. The blade tore back out of the animal’s flank, widening considerably the hole it had made going in, and the monster hesitated, apparently deciding to give this puny two-legged with the sharp stick a bit of respect.

No. The respect was not for the young man after all. There were voices now, bellowing voices full of rage as more of the human’s pack came pelting down the slope. The cat was not stupid. It had been hurt badly by one human willing to attack, and now there were more. Time to go.

And just like that…it was gone, lunging past Dawg, disappearing around a boulder and…not reappearing.

Except for the blood trail. Dawg stood in a ready stance, bloodied spear in hand, staring. How much time passed like that, he had no idea. A crazy thought occurred to him, that possibly Marcus had been jinxed when Dawg memorized his name. He knew the crazy thought was crazy, though, and tried to throw it off.

“Son?”

Emory, the lead Sentinel. “…Yeah?”

“You good to climb back up to the trail?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” He realized the stupidity of the question immediately; his shoulder was on fire. Curious; his coat was shredded at the right shoulder. Oh. He’d lost a bit of blood himself, apparently.

“You need to be fixed up,” Emory pointed out, “but it’ll have to wait till we get to the outpost. We’re about an hour out.”

Ah. Dawg looked around dully. Marcus was being helped up the steep slope by Beef and Turtle, stumbling and slipping and sliding but on his feet. Good. That was good. He tried not to look at the pretty palomino, now just a blood-smeared pile of meat. Had he charged into battle for the sake of his fellow student or on behalf of the innocent equine? He had no answer to that question.

The rest of the journey was a blur, his only moment of clarity coming when he had to reassure the bay mare, convincing her to let him mount while reeking of blood. She didn’t like it. Then, somehow, some way, they were in the warm safety of the outpost, a redoubt that had begun its life as a simple rock overhang before being excavated and reinforced with oversized timbers. How on Earth they’d gotten those old growth tree trunks up that trail, the Founders only knew, but once the gate/door was closed, nothing–not even a crazy giant cat–was getting in.

The treatment for his shoulder stung like a thousand bees and brought him right back to life. “Kiss my dirty buckskins, that smarts!”

His nurse, a grizzled fellow with a twinkle in his eye, chuckled. “That’s good, son. Means you’re alive to know it.”

“Thanks. I think.”

Marcus’s injuries amounted to a welter of bruises, a severely sprained ankle, and a dislocated knee. He yelped when they popped the knee back into place but uttered no other complaint; the man was keenly aware that he was lucky to be alive. As they gathered around the sizeable fire, watching Turtle slice potatoes for the boiling pot, he caught Dawg’s eye. “Want to thank you, brother. Until you jumped that monster, I was just waiting for it to get tired of chewing on my horse’s neck and bite off my head.”

“Um,” Dawg replied, embarrassed. He began to see why Jake Sedlacek’s signature form of communication was the grunt. It got worse when he realized every other student except Lantern Jaw Hank was staring at him with something like adulation. Hank, he knew, had been ready to join in the fun, but Beef had told him to stay with the horses and keep the others from panicking and running their mounts recklessly up the trail. Now Hank did catch his eye, though, and nodded subtly, adding a discreet thumbs-up.

With mugs of hot tea in hand, they finally got around to discussing the situation. “Penny was a good horse,” Emory began. “We’re mighty sorry to lose her. But we’re far more relieved that she’s all we lost. Dawg’s shoulder will take a while to heal and Marcus, you’re going to be sore for a good long time, but we’re all still breathing.”

Wesley could take it no longer. “What was that thing?”

Emory shook his head. “Wish I didn’t have to say it, but that was a tiger.”

“A what?”

“Tiger. They’re not native here, not by a long shot, but before the Fall, who knows how many they had in zoos, and even some rich folks kept them as exotic pets.”

“Some pet,” Dawg muttered.

“Couldn’t agree more. But you wouldn’t believe the things the more foolish among the population got up to Before. There was even, way back before my great great grandfather’s time, a couple of men-who-like men, had an act in a big city where people came to watch this one of the two partners boss a white tiger around–until the tiger had had enough one day and started to eat him. Or at least that’s the way it was told to me. Them buggers can go six hundred pounds or so, and it’s all muscle, teeth, and claws.”

“That…doesn’t bode well.” The Sentinel who’d treated Dawg’s wound looked pensive. “Reckon we got one of those critters in these mountains, we’ve got more.”

Wesley piped up again. “We do. Got more, I mean. I saw another one, just a glimpse. Not nearly as big as the one who jumped you, Marcus, and it had some color to it, but when the one that attacked ran off, this littler one looked like it was angling to join up with the bigger one.”

“That…explains a lot. Wes, that’s helpful information. What you saw had to be a cub, which means the other one was its mama. Mother tigers hunt for their offspring for a long time. Boy cubs don’t leave mama until their at least eighteen months old. Girl babies will sometimes hang around till they’re a full two years old. Trouble is, there’s at least one more full fledged danger out there.” He paused to fish a pipe from his pack, dug out some sort of plant material, and began packing the bowl. “Dawg stuck mama tiger hard. I don’t see how she’s going to survive that. It might take her weeks–tigers are tough–but like as not, she’ll die. And without her to do the main hunting and teaching, the younger one will probably starve to death in the end, too. But,” he built the moment by sticking a splinter in the fire, then lighting his pipe, puffing fragrant clouds of smoke to life, “somebody had to make her a mother, eh? So there has to be a male out there somewhere.”

Along with the others, Dawg had to think about that. One night’s sleep, and then they had to reverse course, heading back down that same steep, narrow, slippery trail. Every rider would be seeing crouching tigers in every snow covered boulder or, farther down the mountain, in every bush in the forest. The pack horses would be unladen, but that only made it easier for a long-toothed predator to get to their necks. Taloned fear would dig deeply into their psyches all the way back.

And then…what if the tiger(s) decided to come down into the valley to hunt? Horse herds would be at risk for sure. The Highlander cattle would be a question mark at first; no one knew if their ability to use their lengthy horns like fingers would extend to taking on tigers or not. People would find themselves moving about in armed parties or not at all.

Marcus shifted gingerly on the block of wood he was using as a seat. “Pardon, Mr. Emory, but how come is it you know so much about these tiger beasts? I’m willing to bet most of us thought before today they were figments of some fevered author’s imagination, if we’d heard of them at all.”

The Sentinel sprouted a sheepish sort of grin. “My wife, Rachel. She works at the library in Lower Valley. Always bringing books home. Can’t hardly get her to light a fire for the morning meal, she’s got her pretty nose in a book so much. She read up on tigers this one time, preached the information at me when I got home for my days off. I still remember the title: Striped Killer it was. Written more than a century ago.”

Well. Dawg hadn’t paid much attention to stripes; he’d been too busy. But there had been stripes, even on that white mama cat, now that he thought about it. So. Killer tigers on the mountain and mangy coyotes in the valley in the form or Rodney Upward’s disreputable bunch. Could life get any sweeter than this?

Later, curled in his blankets with his back to the fire, seeking sleep that would not come, he cried silently. He cried for the beautiful palomino whose pure white mane would never again flow above her golden neck as she ran across spring meadows. He cried for the great tiger he had gut-wounded, the stunning mother cat who was out there somewhere, dying slowly and in agony by his own hand. He cried for the cub who would mourn its mother and then, eventually, waste away until it starved to death. The young warrior could kill a fellow man without compunction, as he had shown in Fear Trace, and as he would undoubtedly do again…yet he could not bear witnessing the pain of animals who knew no better.

What weakness was this, he knew not, but he did know the role he must play among his peers. By the time reveille was called, urging them to rise for the coming day’s descent into the valley, his features were calm and composed, his mind clear.