Off the Mountain

Off the Mountain

Roman slipped out of his sleeping bag and reached over to untie the flaps of his teepee tent. During the night, the rain had turned to snow, and in the faint light, he could see the snow was beginning to pile up. It would be a long, cold day.

He fell back and reached inside his sleeping bag for his clothes. He slipped into his pants and shirt easily. His boots were a different matter. They had been left outside the warmth of his sleeping bag and only through his clamorous cursing and stamping of feet was he finally able to overpower their stiff opposition. It would be a long, cold day, his body told him.

His oilskin was tied to the back of his saddle inside the cook tent. He put on his vest and stepped outside his small tent. No one else stirred, not even Windy Boy, the cook. He rustled the flaps of Windy Boy’s tent as he walked past on his way to the cook tent. The snow was wet and clung to his vest and cowboy hat. He wished he had his winter cap.

He stepped inside the long cook tent. It served as not only the mess hall but as storage space for the cowboys’ gear. The six saddles were flung on the canvas floor. He untied his oilskin from the back of his saddle, shaking it out like a stiff rug, shivering as he slipped into it, blowing out quiet puffs of steam inside the dark tent. He stepped back outside and threw aside the canvas tarp that covered the camp firewood. Windy Boy should have had the fire going already. He looked over at his tent. No one stirred. He carefully stacked kindling in a teepee shape over a handful of dry hay inside the fire ring, reached frozen fingers inside his vest pocket for a match, struck it against the underside of a rock, and set it to the kindling. Once the kindling was ablaze, he stacked on dry wood and stood close to the fire to embrace its warmth. He yelled toward Windy Boy’s tent. “Ayeee!” He stamped his cold feet, hoping to get the blood flowing. “Ayeee!” he yelled again trying to stir everyone in camp.

No one stirred inside the small camp. He could hear the rustling of the horses as they moved in the soft snow. Pike would be pleased they were so close in. Roman walked to Windy Boy’s tent and stuck his head inside the tent flaps. “Hey, shake it out,” he yelled inside. Windy Boy raised his head just enough to peer out at Roman. “Whatcha?” he asked. “Get a move on, my friend,” Roman said. Windy Boy slid further down inside the sleeping bag.

Roman walked over to Pike’s tent. Pike was the youngest cowboy in camp so the responsibility to wrangle the horses fell on him. Roman shook the flaps, stuck his head inside the small tent and yelled, “The horses await.” Pike jumped out of his sleeping bag and hurried into his clothes. He too struggled to get into his boots. Roman was standing by the fire when Pike peaked outside. “Dammit,” he said. “What’s up?”

“Should be easy for you to find the horses today in all this fresh snow,” Roman said.

“Ah, damn, Roman, do we have to?” Pike asked. “This ain’t weather to be out in.”

“But just think how nice the campfire will feel tonight,” Roman said. “Get a move on, Windy Boy will have breakfast in no time.”

Pike looked around and scratched his head. “I don’t even see him,” he said. “It’s still dark.”

“But it won’t be dark for long,” Roman said. He turned to warm his hands. Pike walked over next to the fire. He shook one foot and then the other, kicking off clumps of snow from his boots. Steam rose from his boots as he held up the souls to the fire. He blew warm breath into his cupped hands. “Where’s the coffee?” he asked.

“It’ll be here any minute,” Roman said. “Hey, Windy Boy, shag your ass out of bed. The cowboys are clamoring for coffee.”

Pike looked around for  the other cowboys but the camp was quiet. He shook his head. “Gonna be a long day,” he said.

“Yep,” Roman said. “A long day. Why don’t you wrangle the horses while I shag the rest of these no goods out of the comforts of their tents.”

“Kind of hard to pull my ass away from this fire,” Pike said.

“Yeah, but it’s gotta be done,” Roman said.

“Ayeee!” Roman screamed. He walked to each tent, shook the flaps, and stuck his head inside. “Out you rough riders,” he yelled. “We’ve got cattle to get off the mountain.”

One by one the cowboys stepped outside of their tents, shaking off wet snow, and made their way to the cook tent for their oilskins. In silence, they drug themselves to the fire, on which Windy Boy had the coffee pot and biscuits rising in the Dutch oven. They stood quietly around the crackling fire.

“The footing is going to be treacherous today, so take it slow,” Roman said. “And stay close to each other. I don’t want anyone getting lost.”

Windy Boy handed out cups and poured coffee. The cowboys cradled the steaming cups of coffee, blowing steam back into their faces. Each of them knew this brief moment around the fire, holding the tin cups of steaming coffee, was the only comfort they’d have all day. They sipped the hot coffee, shifting from one frozen boot to the other to keep blood flowing to their feet. Once they were in the saddle, they knew it wouldn’t be long for their feet to go numb, followed by the burn. They stamped as much blood into their feet as they could to hold off the burn for as long as possible. But they were only kidding themselves, the burn was inevitable.

The hot fat inside the big cast-iron frying pan crackled and popped as Windy Boy moved thick slabs of bacon to one side and cracked open two dozen eggs. The hot grease bit his hands as he worked the spatula under the eggs to flip them.

“Hey, Rodge, would you fetch the big platter from the cook tent?” Windy Boy asked. “Grab your plates, boys, it’ll be ready in a flash.”

Each cowboy dished eggs and bacon onto his tin plate from the stainless steel platter. They cleared snow from flat rocks surrounding the fire and sat down, balancing the plates on their knees. Windy Boy handed out biscuits from the Dutch oven. “Any more coffee?” he asked. Gerry and Fin held their cups out to be filled. Roman waited until the other cowboys had filled their plates and sat down around the fire before he kneeled down, scooped three eggs and bacon onto his tin plate, and settled in next to Billy.

Billy was the oldest of the cowboys and had worked for the Bar Z longer than any of the others, thirty years longer than Roman. Roman had been hired as cowboss only a couple of years ago after George Jorgensen finally retired. Reluctantly. George would still be here if Franklin, the owner, hadn’t asked him to step down. Franklin kept George on the payroll but George stayed put at headquarters now, serving as Franklin’s confidant. Billy had always believed that he would move into the position, but Franklin hired Roman instead, which left a bad taste in Billy’s mouth. He had come to the Bar Z when he was still a teenager and George had taken him under his wing. Billy learned everything he knew from George. And both of them were a little put off when Franklin hired Roman from outside. Franklin explained to George that he needed a fresh set of eyes, someone with a different perspective. George went along with him but didn’t like it. And Billy always held it against Roman. And Roman knew it.

The cowboys looked up when the remuda, snorting and kicking, steam rising from their backs, streamed into the round pen. Pike stepped out of his saddle to swing the gate in behind them. He hobbled his horse, loosened the cinch, and walked toward the fire. The cowboys had made sure there was something left for Pike. Once Pike settled in with his plate, Windy Boy reached over a cup of coffee.

“Thanks,” Pike said. “Dammit, boys, it’s a cold one.” He held the hot coffee close to his lips. Windy Boy had put on more wood and smoke settled over the camp. Rodge stood up and slapped Pike’s chaps. “I don’t know, but I’d rather be here than stuck in traffic down below, even if I was in a heated car.” Pike looked up at him and shook his head. Pike thought all the cowboys were just a little touched in the head. He hoped to be out of here in another year. He planned to go back to college. The hell with this cowboy life. It was all right for now, but he sure didn’t want to be doing this when he was as old as Billy. Billy was so busted up from having been thrown from so many horses and stomped into the dirt by so many enraged cows he couldn’t stand straight. He even walked crooked.

Once Billy had a loop on his horse, each of  the other cowboys stepped into the round pen, roped his horse, led him out, and hobbled him nearby. They gently ran curry combs along the horses’ backs, stirring the sweet aroma of wet hair. When his horse was carefully combed, each cowboy in one smooth motion swung up a thick saddle blanket and then the saddle. Roman’s horse was hobbled off to the side. He was pensive as he combed along the horses back. From the moment he stepped into the job of cowboss, he had tried to gain Billy’s trust. But Bill was a crusty old fart and wasn’t about to change.

Roman often deferred to Billy’s suggestions, which served only to incite Billy’s antagonism. After Roman’s horse was saddled, he walked up to Billy.

“It isn’t going to be easy today,” Roman said.

Billy was leaning over, digging snow out of his horse’s shoes. He looked up and dropped the leg he was holding. Still holding the hoof, he faced Roman. Roman could sense his hostility. “It’s never easy,” Billy said. “Ain’t supposed to be.”

“No, it’s not,” Roman agreed. “How do you think we should approach it today?”

“Why you asking me?”

“I value your opinion,” Roman said.

“My opinion?” Billy said. “You couldn’t care less about what I’m thinking.”

“That’s not true,” Roman said.

“What is it you’re really after?”

“After? I’m not after anything, I just want to get through the day same as you.”

“No matter which way you approach it, you and I won’t get through the day in the same way.”

“No, not exactly,” Roman said. “But there’s no reason we have to go about it from opposing directions. Our objectives should be the same.”

“Listen, you just tell me where you want me to go, and that’s where I’ll go,” Billy said and bent over to pick up his horse’s leg, carving snow from the shoe with the hoof knife. Roman, shaking his head, walked away.

“Listen up,” he yelled to the cowboys. They gathered around Roman, except Billy, who was still bent over working on his horse’s feet.

“Gerry, I want you and Rodge to head up Goat Ridge. And Billy and Fin will gather Blood Creek to Red Canyon. When you get to Red Canyon wait for Gerry and Rodge. Pike and I will head over to Owl Creek and meet you at Red Canyon. We’ll drop the cattle there for the night. Any questions?”

The cowboys looked at each other but said nothing. “OK,” Roman said. “Listen, I want you guys to stay close to each other. No heroics today. If things get so bad you can’t see at all, head back here. Tomorrow is another day.”

The cowboys moved away to unhobble their horses, pull cinches tight, and swing into their saddles. Billy finished clearing snow out of his horse’s shoes, slipped the hoof knife into his saddle bags, pulled his cinch tight, and swung his leg over the saddle. He and Fin rode out of camp. Gerry rode over close to Roman. “What’s up his ass?” he asked. “Ah, same old thing,” Roman said. “It’s nothing. One thing for sure, he’ll be waiting at Red Canyon when you get there.”

Gerry rode over to the fire where Windy Boy was putting things away. “Keep the home fires burning, won’t you?” he said. Windy Boy looked up at Gerry and smiled. “I’ll be here,” he said. “Stay safe.” Gerry nodded and he and Rodge rode out of camp.

“I’ll have something special for dinner,” Windy Boy yelled after him. Gerry waved and spurred his horse.

Roman yelled to Windy Boy as he rode past, “Stay warm.” Windy Boy whistled. “You got that right.”

In the steely dawn, Roman and Pike rode in silence. Roman tucked his neck in tight inside his oilskin, trying to keep out the wet snow, falling heavier now. Pike tucked in behind Roman down the narrow trail. He knew where they were heading, and he dreaded the steep descent into Owl Creek.

Roman thought how the men not only relied on his leadership but on his demeanor as well. All except Billy. He would never have Billy’s trust or allegiance. And this bothered him. But he couldn’t allow his insecurity to show.

When Billy and Fin reached the steep trail that led into Blood Creek, Billy told Fin to stay on the mesa and he’d gather the narrow canyon. He’d wait for Fin to move out ahead of him so he could pick up everything Fin kicked off the top. Fin nodded, and spurred his horse into a high trot, moving along the steep ridge that skirted Blood Creek. Billy pulled off a glove, blew into his hand, slid his hand back into the glove, shook the snow from his cowboy hat, and pulled off the other glove. He hesitated. And then he eased his horse down the slippery trail. When he reached Blood Creek, he looked up the steep canyon wall to the edge of the mesa, hoping to see some sign of Fin. He moved cautiously down the twisting trail along Blood Creek, shrouded in the dead silence of heavy clouds and falling snow.

The clouds were thick on the mesa. Fin couldn’t see a hundred yards ahead of him. How could he be expected to gather cattle that he couldn’t see? Billy at least could rely on the movement in the thick brush along the creek. He had nothing to go by. He rode deeper into the interior of the wide expanse, but the storm showed no signs of lifting. He studied the snow beneath him for fresh signs. Nothing was moving. He rode back toward the edge of the mesa to see if he could spot Billy. But it was hopeless, the clouds were inscrutable.

Billy was alert for the slightest stirring. Something jumped from the brush. A deer bounded down the trail. He shivered. There was nothing for him to do but to continue on toward Red Canyon. It is what the boss wanted. If he were cowboss, they’d have stayed in camp today. What a waste, he thought. He rode on in disgust and anger.

From the corner of his eye, Billy saw a form sneaking through the sagebrush along the low ridge below the steep canyon wall. He kept his eye on the ridge across the creek. Something was there even though he couldn’t quite make out what it was. A wolf perhaps. Or more likely a coyote. He detested both. Billy was old school. He viewed all predators as pests and menaces.

He peered through the thick clouds. He reached behind him and pulled his Colt from the holster tied to the back of his saddle. The pistol, heavy and firm in his hand, brightened his spirit. He hoped for one shot, if only the shadow would reveal itself. He kept his eyes fixed on the tall sagebrush across the creek.

With his teeth, the pistol tucked up underneath his left armpit, he tugged off the glove of his right hand and tucked it up underneath his oilskin behind the stampede string of his chaps. He liked the feel of the rough stock against the palm of his bare hand. In the cold, wet snow, he felt an urgency to fire off a round. He needed only a glimpse. And then he pulled up. It was a coyote, he was sure of it. Its ears up, staring at him, it waited. Billy sat still. He raised the pistol and squeezed the trigger. The cahruung of the pistol broke the heavy silence. Before Billy realized what happened, his horse bolted, running headlong down the narrow, twisting trail, Billy desperately holding on.

He ducked under low hanging limbs, branches slashing his face. He pulled back with all his might on the reins. There was no stopping the runaway. Up ahead, he saw a tangle of limbs, one branch pushed down by the weight of the heavy snowfall. There was no hope other than to throw up his arms in a vain effort to lessen the blow. His horse dipped its head and he was struck across the side of his head, tumbling backward out of the saddle, hitting the ground with a dull thud, the back of his head slamming hard into a rock jutting up in the trail. Dazed, he looked up into the falling snow. He couldn’t move. He felt the gun in his right hand, but couldn’t feel his legs. He tried to roll over but felt pinned to the ground.

Shit. He listened, aware of only the rapid rise and fall of his own chest. He lifted his head just enough to catch a final glimpse of his horse moving rapidly away from him. What good would his horse do him anyway? he thought. Now. He couldn’t even move. And then he thought of Fin.

The loud crack of the shot below startled Fin. He peered into the thick soup of the canyon. He yelled to Billy. There was no response. He yelled again. He stepped out of the saddle and walked closer to the edge. “Billy….!” The echo floated down the canyon. He kept yelling, not knowing what else to do, but only his voice came back to him from inside the dense fog of the canyon. He felt alone.

Fin’s cries came to him, but Billy couldn’t catch his breath to respond. Fin would come, he was sure of it. He would wait. He closed his eyes against the wet snow.

Fin threw himself back into his saddle and rode back toward the trailhead. He couldn’t do anything up here. When he started down the steep trail, his horse sliding on its haunches, he leaned as far back in the saddle as he could. Feeling a sense of relief upon reaching the bottom of the narrow canyon, he spurred his horse forward, calling Billy’s name as he raced along the narrow trail along Blood Creek. He needed to find Billy.

Not more than a mile into the canyon, Fin pulled up. At first, he thought Billy was dead. He jumped out of the saddle before his horse came to a complete stop, stumbling forward, tripping over the tall sagebrush. On his knees, he turned to Billy, relieved to see Billy’s chest moving up and down. Billy looked up into Fin’s horrified face.

“Hey, take it easy,” Billy said.

“Are you all right?” Fin asked.

“I don’t know, but I don’t think so,” Billy said. “I can’t move.”

“What the hell happened?”

“Ah, hell, I just fired at a goddamn coyote and my horse took off on me,” Billy said. “Threw me off before I knew what was happening.”

Fin reached down and took the pistol from Billy’s hand. He squeezed Billy’s hand, but Billy didn’t squeeze back. He looked around, unsure of what to do next. “Where’s your horse?” Fin asked. He knew it was a silly question even before Billy had time to answer. He patted Billy’s shoulder. “Listen, Billy, I need to get help.”

“From who?”

“I got to get to Roman,” Fin said. Fin stood up and took off his oilskin and tucked it in around Billy. He pulled up stems of rabbitbrush from along the side of the trail, and, gently lifting Billy’s head, tucked it underneath his head to make him more comfortable. When he looked down at his hands, he noticed the blood. He didn’t want to alarm Billy, so he asked, “How’re you doing?”

“OK, I guess,” Billy said smiling up at Fin. “You look worried, my friend. What’s got you so worried?”

“This isn’t good,” Fin said. “Are you going to be all right while I go for help?”

“Can’t I go with you?” Billy said, swallowing a laugh.

“I wish you could, partner, I sure as hell wish you could,” Fin said. He knew Billy was busted up. He didn’t know how badly he was bleeding, but he knew there wasn’t anything he could do for him. He hoped Roman could. He untied the wild rag from around his neck and tied it around Billy’s head, hoping to slow the flow of blood.

He hesitated, unsure what to do now. He looked down into Billy’s twisted smile. The snow was falling heavier now, it seemed to Fin. He wished he had a blanket to put over Billy. He didn’t want to leave him here in the cold, but what choice did he have? He looked around. He was anxious to get started, the cold had settled in around him. Fin stood up and stamped his feet to get the feeling back. Billy looked up at Fin, he seemed a thousand miles away. “Hey, Fin,” he said. “It’s all right. I understand.” Fin looked down into Billy’s face, wrenched in pain. He sensed urgency but still hesitated. He couldn’t be sure Billy would last until he got back. But the longer he waited, the worse it got for Billy.

Fin held the reins to his horse, his means of escape. He could simply ride away from a bad situation. But how could he be sure it was the right thing to do? Roman would come looking for them when they didn’t show up in Red Canyon. But that would be hours from now? Billy didn’t have hours. He kneeled down again and touched Billy’s chest. “I’ll be back,” he said. “As fast as I can. Hang in there.”

Billy nodded, his eyes closed against the snow. Fin stood, pulled his horse around, and stepped into the saddle. He wheeled around in the trail and raced away. A sense of relief flowed over him as he rode away. Billy was no longer in his hands, he was in the hands of God now.

As he heard the sounds of Fin’s horse fade into the distance, Billy knew he’d never hear them return. And he was all right with this. It didn’t matter. He opened his eyes to the falling snow. Death would be a wonderful retreat, a long rest. He was ready for a long rest. This had been a hard life. He wouldn’t have done it any differently, but it had been hard. And now this hard life was seeping out of him. And there wasn’t a goddamn thing he could do about it. He couldn’t even move, stuck on the ground like a turtle on its back. He laughed at the irony. He never believed in God. He never believed in much of anything. Never thought about it. Wasn’t any need to. He relied on his wits. They’d always got him through the tight spots. But it was different now. There was a certainty to this he couldn’t quite fathom. He always liked thinking that the view would be different over the next ridge. And there was always another ridge. Life was an endless search for another stray. This was enough. And at the end of a cold day in the saddle, there’d be a warm fire and a cup of coffee and a shot of whiskey to warm his hands and belly. Now he couldn’t even feel his hands.

He hoped his horse was all right. He guessed he’d stop somewhere farther up the trail. They’d find him once they got to Billy. Cowboys knew how to take care of each other. And they knew how to treat their horses. Shooting at that damn coyote wasn’t such a good idea as it turned out. Billy laughed. He’d shot at hundreds of coyotes before and nothing ever happened. But the odds caught up with him. This is how life goes. You get cocky because you’re winning. Each day you get through you escape defeat. But your odds get slimmer. You can’t win every time.

He wished he’d quit thinking, it didn’t do him any good. He struggled to raise his head, the snow tickling his eyelids. From where he lay, he could see the red willows along Blood Creek and the red and yellow leaves of the aspen farther up the slope. He always liked this time of year. Fall meant the end of something. The turning of the leaves touched something deep inside him. And the haunting bugling of the big bulls brought back memories of his childhood. He had had a hard upbringing, but he’d always looked forward to hunting elk with his father. His father taught him patience. And when his father died, he hunted alone. His mother never understood this part of his life.

And fall meant a time when things slowed down on the ranch. He guessed things would be especially slow for him this year. He listened. Blood Creek gurgled. Soon it would gurgle underneath patches of ice. And the Western Tanagers shook the slender shoots of red willow. The snow continued to fall, stirring the quiet landscape. What a peaceful place to die, he thought.

Fin’s horse breathed heavily as he spurred him up the steep trail that led out of Blood Creek. He was hoping to intercept Roman before he’d dropped into Owl Creek. Once he was on the wide expanse between Blood Creek and Owl Creek, Fin pushed his horse even harder. Through the heavy clouds, he could barely see ahead of him, but he knew where he needed to go. He doubted he’d be able to get to Roman before he’d begun the steep descent into Owl Creek. If Roman had already started down, they’d have an arduous climb back out. Fin raced on.

He pulled his horse up on the rim overlooking Owl Creek. He peered into the dense fog and snow. He listened, surrounded by silence. He rode along the rim until he found the trail down. He stepped off his horse and studied the tracks in the snow. Roman and Pike were ahead of him. He blew into his numb hands and stamped his feet. His face was frozen. He stepped into the stirrup and threw his leg over the cantle. He urged his horse down the steep trail, his legs thrown forward. The horse sat back on its haunches, sidling, sliding down the treacherous trail. Fin didn’t have time to think.

When he reached Owl Creek he stepped out of the saddle again to look for signs in the snow. He threw himself back in the saddle, the flying hooves of his horse kicking up clumps of snow as he rode with abandon down the narrow trail. He wasn’t so much racing toward something as away from something.

Up ahead he heard bawling cattle. Through the low clouds, he could barely make out Pike pushing a small herd. When he caught up to him, out of breath, he asked him where Roman was. Pike looked at Fin in disbelief. Fin’s horse, his chest heaving violently, was slathered in white foam. “What’s up?” Pike asked.

“Where’s Roman?” Fin asked again. “Billy’s hurt bad.”

“He’s over there,” Pike said pointing across Owl Creek. Fin looked across the creek but saw only heavy snowfall. Pike stayed hard behind Fin as he crashed through the underbrush. Alerted by the commotion of splintering sagebrush behind him, Roman pulled up. He knew something was wrong immediately when Fin and Pike jerked their horses to a stop. Now that he had found Roman, Fin didn’t know what to say. He blurted out, “He’s bad, real bad.”

“Billy?” Roman asked. He knew right away that something had happened to Billy. In all his years as a cowboy, he’d seen some bad wrecks. Some ended all right, some not. From the look on Fin’s face, he had the feeling that this one wasn’t going to end all right. “Slow down and tell me what happened,” Roman said.

“Billy got thrown, he’s busted up pretty bad,” Fin said.

“Where?” Roman asked.

“Blood Creek.”

Roman considered for a minute. They were a good half-hour away if they rode hard. Fin’s horse was worn out. It would be better if Fin rode on to Red Canyon and from there to headquarters. He didn’t know what needed to be done, but chances were Billy would need more attention than what they could give him. He wasn’t sure they’d be able to get Billy out. But he wasn’t sure how anyone else could get in. There weren’t any roads except into cow camp. They were over five miles from cow camp. That’s a long way for a rescue effort. And there weren’t any helicopters going up in this soup.

Roman took his time explaining to Fin what he wanted him to do. He and Pike would ride into Blood Creek to take care of Billy. If they were able to get him back up onto his horse, they’d ride back to cow camp. Fin needed to get a rescue squad to cow camp. If he and Pike weren’t there, Fin would know why.

“Relax, Fin,” Roman said. “They’ll know what to do if we aren’t in camp. You gotta trust the rescue squad. Got it?” Fin nodded, watching Roman and Pike ride away. He slowly turned his horse, crossed back over Owl Creek, and rode toward Red Canyon. Once he allowed his horse time to catch its breath, he broke into a high trot, suddenly realizing how cold he was.

Roman and Pike raced toward Blood Creek, not knowing what they’d find. Or what they’d do once they got there. Roman’s whole life had been one of surprise and reaction. We never have time to fully comprehend our circumstances. We only have time to react to what confronts us. He didn’t think about what lay ahead of him, he would find out soon enough. And he would do whatever it took to get through it.

They soon reached the edge of the canyon and started down the steep trail into Blood Creek. They rode in silence, Pike following close behind Roman. Roman peered through the heavy snowfall. He hadn’t asked Fin if Billy was on the main trail. He assumed he would be. Maybe he should have asked. But he never asked.

When they had gone about a mile into the canyon, Roman pulled up and stepped out of the saddle. He looked around. He knelt down to examine the tracks in the snow. The horse tracks were steady. Two sets of tracks going in, and Fin’s tracks coming out. The fog was thick. Roman thought a minute: Billy was up ahead. He stepped back into the saddle and they rode ahead, Roman studying the tracks in the snow.

They reached a place in the trail where the tracks were jumbled. He stopped. This was where Billy had pulled up to take a shot at the coyote. He was confident now that he was heading in the right direction. He kept his eyes down. And there he was. Billy sprawled out right ahead of them.

Roman spurred his horse into a frenzy to cover the last hundred feet. He jumped out of the saddle and knelt down next to Billy. Billy’s eyes were closed but he was still breathing. Roman touched his chest. “Billy,” Roman whispered. He shook Billy. “Billy,” he repeated. Billy’s eyes remained closed. His breathing was shallow and his lips quivered. Roman leaned close to Billy.

Billy slowly opened his eyes. Through the falling snow, Billy struggled to keep his eyes open. He knew there was nothing Roman could do now. He was cold. Roman stood and stripped off his oilskin and laid it on top of Billy, whose broken body shivered against the cold, wet snow. He knelt down and took hold of Billy’s hand and squeezed it. But the hand was limp. He squeezed harder. And still nothing.

“Can you hear me?” Roman asked. But it didn’t matter if he could, it didn’t change anything. They weren’t going to get him off the mountain. This was it. This is where it would end for Billy. Roman looked up at Pike. Pike looked away and stepped inside the heat radiating from his horse, its head bowed. For the moment, Pike clung to this small gift. It would be a long ride out of here. A long, cold ride on a long, cold day. From the moment each of them had slid out of the comfort of his sleeping bag and looked out into the dark snowfall, each of them had known a long day lay ahead of him. They just didn’t know how long. For Billy, his day would be a little shorter.











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