Posts : 1467
Join date : 2013-08-24
Age : 63
Location : Camano Island Washington
|Subject: Ice Wed Dec 23, 2015 6:36 pm|| |
The two horses struggled, front hooves coming up and out of the snow drifts, only to plunge back down again, the sharp edges of their shoes breaking through layers of ice that had formed upon the surface. They were sweating; their thick winter coats being too heavy for such labour, despite the freezing temperatures of a Wyoming December day. The falling snow flakes stuck heavily to their matted hair and gave them the appearance of strange, other worldly apparitions arising from the snowy depths, only to break through the surface and then disappear back into the white ocean yet again.
The two men astride the grunting beasts were in no better shape. They both sat, hunched over their saddle horns, their own thick winter coats just as matted and snow caked as their horses were. Thick, woolen scarves were wrapped around their lower faces, and up and over their hats in an effort to keep warm. They hung on, giving their horses the freedom to plough their way through the hard surfaced drifts, and only offering encouragement when one or the other animal sank to its knees, or got hung up on the icy layers. They had to trust their horses. The snow was falling so heavily that neither man could make out any landmarks, or even be able to tell where the land ended and the sky began. They had to trust their horses.
Then the second horse, a black, stumbled against the surface, his hooves refusing to break through. The animal’s knees buckled and he lost his balance. He rolled onto his side, despite his struggles to remain upright, and the layer of ice gave way beneath the animal’s full weight. He grunted as he rolled over further and then he and his rider disappeared beneath the snow.
The lead rider pulled up and turned his head to look back. His chestnut gelding stalled where he was, his belly resting upon the surface, while his tired legs surrendered his weight, and he hung there, as though in a sling. He rested his nose against the icy surface, and panted heavily with his exertions, vapour puffing from his struggling nostrils, and steam rising from his trembling body.
“Kid!” The voice sounded distant and weak, a combination of exhaustion, cold and the mollifying effect of heavily falling snow on the atmosphere. The plea was repeated. “Kid!”
A horse squealing in frustration sounded from beneath the white ocean. Four black legs flailed and kicked, sending snow flying into the air, as the downed horse fought to gain its feet once again. The legs continued to kick, digging furrows into the snow, until finally they disappeared and there was a heartbeat of silence. The next thing to put in an appearance was the snowed covered black head, ears pinned back and eyes rolling white with determination.
The mound of snow heaved as the horse’s powerful hind legs found their footing, and forced the body, with the man still hanging onto it, up and out of the drift, to where it could rest, like the other, on the belly-high surface of the ice layered blanket. He snorted and shook his head, trying to dislodge the snow from his cold ears.
“Kid, you alright?” came the concerned, yet relieved enquiry.
The Kid’s right hand came up in an exhausted wave. “Yeah.”
“C’mon!” Heyes yelled back at him. “Just a little further, and we’ll be out of these drifts. It’ll be easier going!”
The Kid simply nodded.
Heyes woke his horse up, giving him a couple of solid boots and a flick of the reins. The chestnut grunted in irritation, not wanting to pick up and leave his supported rest, but the human on his back was adamant. He groaned, but he did pick up his head and begin the struggle again. The black behind them needed no encouragement from his rider, and followed his herd-mate to wherever that horse led them.
The snow drifts ended even faster than they had begun. The chestnut plunged through one more time, and then his front feet only sank down 18 inches, and the snow became lighter and softer, and easier to walk through.
Heyes pulled up again, and turned to watch his partner get through the last of the deep snow, and then they both stood for a moment to let the horses catch their breath. The snow continued to fall and the cold was bone-chilling, but they would be able to make faster time now, as long as they didn’t fall into anymore of the deeper drifts.
“Do ya’ think they’re still after us?” Kid whispered through his scarf, as he tried to tighten his collar up around his throat. All he succeeded in doing, was to dislodge the packed snow that lie upon his shoulders and cause some of it to drop down his neck. He shivered.
“Yeah,” Heyes breathed. “I think they are.”
“Jeez,” Kid cursed. “Why would they be comin’ after us on a day like this? Ain’t they got warm hearths, and home cooked suppers ta’ occupy ‘em on this, of all days?”
“Twenty thousand dollars, is why, Kid. You know that.”
“So much for the spirit of givin’.”
“They got the spirit of giving,” Heyes pointed out. “I’m sure that thinking about all the things they can give their families with our reward money, is the very thing that’s keeping them on our trail, on this ‘of all days’.”
The Kid sent his partner a hard look, and somewhere, from deep down in his outlaw heart, Heyes found the energy to grin back at him. He reached over and gave his cousin a slap on his back, sending more snow cascading down, off the heavy coat, only to be replaced within minutes by a fresh layer.
“Come on, Kid,” Heyes encouraged him. “Let’s get moving, or we’re going to get frozen to this spot.”
“Yeah,” Kid agreed. “Don’t want to go makin’ it any easier for them fellas.”
“Nope. We sure don’t.”
They both nudged their horses and the tired animals sighed heavily, but forced their feet to start moving again, despite their own desires to simply lie down and go to sleep.
The going did become much easier, and the horses were soon trotting through the lighter snow, getting their blood pumping again and putting more distance between themselves and the persistent posse.
Kid, being the optimist, hoped that the group of men who were on their trail, would have become discouraged by the deep drifts, and given up the chase in order to return to their homes before nightfall set in. Heyes, being the pessimist, or, as he liked to say; the realist, couldn’t quite bring himself to believe in that hope. He and the Kid had already ploughed a nice passageway through those drifts, so all that posse had to do, was follow in their footsteps and they’d be having a much easier time of it than their quarry had had.
No, Heyes knew they were still being followed, and since he didn’t know the lay of the land here, even if he could see it, he had no idea where to go to get away from them. They might already be out-flanked, for all he knew. He couldn’t tell if there were any hills, or rock outcroppings where a posse could hole up in, just waiting for them to come stumbling by. He could only hope that the lawmen were being hindered by the lack of visibility just as much as he and the Kid were.
Then Heyes was abruptly startled out of his musings, when his gelding slipped on ice, lost his footing, and crashed down to his knees. The animal grunted in his own surprise, but was quickly back up on his feet, and blowing with indignation.
“You okay, Heyes?”
The two men sat their horses, and looked out at the flat expanse before them.
“What is it?” Kid asked.
“I know that!” Jed snarked. “But why?”
Heyes looked around at the landscape surrounding them. The snow had lightened up a little bit, and they could actually see across the ice sheet to where the land picked up again with the normal irregularity.
“I think it’s a river,” Heyes announced. “Frozen over.”
“Oh.” Kid didn’t sound too enthusiastic. “We ain’t gonna cross it, are we?”
“I don’t know,” Heyes admitted. “It might be solid enough to hold us.”
“Yeah, well it’s the ‘might’ that I don’t like,” the Kid pointed out. “Cause if it ain’t, we won’t know until we’re right in the middle of it.”
“Yeah, I know,” Heyes agreed. He sighed as he thought about their options. “I suppose we could continue on along the bank until we find someplace safer to cross. At least it’s something we can see, and follow.”
“Except it would also make it easier for them other fellas ta’ follow us,” Kid pointed out.
“I know it,” Heyes agreed. “but it’s wide open out there. We’d be sitting ducks if they’re waiting for us.”
“And if we follow the river bank, we’re practically invitin’ ‘em ta run us down.”
“I know that, too.”
They sat silently for a moment, pondering their situation.
“Toss a coin?” Heyes finally suggested.
“I don’t know about you, Heyes,” Kid pointed out. “But my hands are too dang cold to be able to catch a damn coin. Let’s just do this.”
“Okay,” Heyes accepted that decision. “But I suggest we dismount and lead the horses across. You know, spread the weight out a bit. Less chance of us going through.”
Kid sighed, but nodded. “Yeah.”
Slowly and stiffly, the two men swung their legs over the cantels, and carefully eased themselves down to the snowy bank. They both took a moment, carefully stamping their feet to get the circulation going in them, but they weren’t having much luck. Accepting the fact that their feet were going to remain cold and numb, they finally took up the reins of their horses, and with silent prayers to the patron saint of reformed outlaws, they began the slow and treacherous journey across the ice.
Pushing their feet through the snow, rather than stepping, put less pressure on the ice and it seemed to both men that the footing beneath them was solid enough. Even at that, they were anxious and careful. Ice that could hold two men might not be able to hold two horses, and the horses seemed to be well aware of that fact. Their eyes rolled white, and with each careful step they blew nervous vapour from their lungs that often escaped into the cold air as a quiet, praying snort. All four looked to the far bank as a taunting gift of salvation.
The Kid wiped snow flakes from his lashes in an effort to clear his vision. He kept his eyes on Heyes’ form, hoping that his cousin was able to feel where the ice was the thickest. He also watched intently for the one thing that he dreaded the most; that the ice would break beneath the weight, and the last thing he would see of his cousin would be he and his horse plunging into the icy waters. Kid also knew that he and his horse would be right behind them if that ice gave way; following his cousin as always, into the paralyzing grip of a watery death. His throat tightened up with fear as he waited for that loud crack that would precede the end of all things, and he stared hard at the far bank, praying that no dreadful sounds would come to his ears.
Then the ominous crack did sound; loud and sudden, it seemed to boom across the ice sheet, and both the men and the horses jumped and froze in their tracks. Nothing happened. There was no breaking up of the ice, no shift in the footing, no abrupt plunge into the dark waters. Silence settled over the snowscape, and Heyes turned cautiously to look back at his cousin.
“Yeah,” Curry assured him. “Nothin’ happened.”
“What was that?”
"I don't know..."
Another sharp crack boomed from the distant bank behind them. This time, chunks of ice and snow jumped into the air right in front of Heyes’ horse. That animal snorted in surprise and began to pull back, fearful of what it could not see.
“Dammit!” Heyes cursed as he fought to control his horse. “It’s the posse; they’re shootin’ at us!”
Another shot split the air, and more ice and snow danced into the air in front of the Kid.
“They’re shootin’ at the ice!” Kid yelled. “They’re tryin’ ta break the ice beneath us! C’mon Heyes, move!”
Another shot hit the ice and Heyes’ horse reared up, fighting against the frozen hands that held him. Kid didn’t know where he found the strength, but he hurried forward, and using his long reins, he repeatedly slapped Heyes’ chestnut horse on the rump until the animal gave up the fight and lunged forward.
The pressure proved to be too much for the ice, and a chestnut leg broke through it and dropped down into the dark waters. The shock of that cold water did more than any whipping could have done, to encourage that horse to move forward. He pulled his hind leg out of the river and allowed his human to hurry him along, towards the safety of the far bank.
Kid felt the solidity of the ice beneath his feet begin to shift, but neither he nor his horse waited around to see what was going to happen. They moved, and moved fast, hurrying now as more rifle shots cracked out through the snowy air and ice shards were bouncing all around them as their pursuers attempted to bring down their game.
The heavy snow that continued to fall, must have been in the outlaws’ favour, as any shots that might have been intended to hit them or their horses, failed to find their mark. But those bullets could kill them in another way just as sure as hitting them. Every time a piece of lead hit the ice, small hairline fractures radiated out from the point of impact, and the solidity of their bridge was compromised. The ice hadn’t broken up underneath them yet, but both men and horses knew that speed was of essence now and they had to make landfall, or be swept away by the current, and drown beneath the solid winter coffin.
Finally, Jed saw Heyes make it to the bank, and he and his horse scrambled up the snow covered incline to relative safety. Heyes pulled his horse around and watched anxiously as his cousin fought against the elements to get to that same spot himself.
More shots rang out, and Heyes was forced to duck in behind snow covered branches of a tree, in hopes of finding some cover there. More bullets hit the trunk of that tree, and zinged through the leafy foliage, sending snow cascading down on top of both Heyes and his horse. The chestnut once again pulled back, being completely out of patience for this situation, and Heyes had to turn back and focus on that animal, long enough to get him back under control. Above all else, they couldn’t afford to lose their horses.
Turning back towards the river, the Kid was still struggling to get to the bank. More shots were coming, and all of them were focused on the ice surrounding the blond outlaw. A loud crack that hadn’t come from a rifle, boomed out across the frozen sheet and the ice began to shift.
Hannibal and Jed locked eyes as both of them knew what was about to happen. Jed felt the ice beneath his feet crack apart and the dark river water began to seep into his boots and surround his already wet and freezing feet.
The whole section of ice beneath the Kid and his horse completely broke apart and both of them dropped like lead weights into the rushing current, only to be jolted to a stop as their feet hit the river bottom, twelve inches below the ice covering. Man and horse stood frozen in time as surprise and disbelief overwhelmed their instincts.
More rifle shots, and the sounds of men yelling from behind him, finally got the Kid to react. Heyes’ eyes were like cold chocolate saucers as he spied the posse men galloping their horses out from their hiding spots, and headed them onto the ice covered river. If the waterway was that shallow, there was no need for caution and they came on, full speed ahead.
“Kid, hurry!” Heyes yelled at him. “Mount up! We gotta go!”
Curry didn’t need any encouraging. Despite boots weighed down with water, he pulled himself aboard his antsy horse and they were all into a stiff gallop and heading into the cover of falling snow and trees blanketed in white.
Out on the river, the two lead horses suddenly put on the brakes. Just because their riders were stupid enough to attempt this crossing, that didn’t mean that a sensible horse had to agree with it. Digging in their heels, they tried to stop, but the icy surface wouldn’t give them a foothold. One of the horses lost its balance and ended up sliding along on its belly until finally coming to a halt against a snow pile, his rider looking comical and helpless upon the animal’s back.
The second horse wasn’t so lucky, and he and his rider kept on sliding until they reached the section of ice where the posse had begun shooting at the surface. Their efforts to break the integrity of that bridge proved successful, though unfortunately for them, delayed. The ice gave way, and both horse and rider slid into the deep waters of the body of the river. The only thing that saved them was the fact that, though deep, the current flowed slowly in that section, so neither of them were pulled down to be dragged under ice where they would surely have drowned.
The cold was paralyzing though, and both would have drowned anyway if it hadn’t been for the fast thinking of their companions. The deputy whose horse was still stuck on its belly, grabbed his lariat and making a quick swing, he threw it out to his buddy, who was just barely able to grab hold. But knowing that his life counted on him being able to grasp that rope, gave strength to his fingers, and he was pulled out to safety.
A number of the men had dismounted by then, and getting ropes around the frantic horse and attaching those ropes to their own saddle horns, they were able to haul the kicking, thrashing animal back onto solid ground.
“Well, that’s it, Kid,” Heyes prophesized as they sat their horses on top of the little knoll and watched the fiasco down on the river. “They’re stuck on the far bank now, with a man and horse who will likely freeze to death if they don’t get seen to.”
“They ain’t the only ones,” Kid grumbled, as he took his feet out of the stirrups and pulled off first one boot and then the other, and dumped out the water that had collected in them. “My feet are ice cubes. We gotta find shelter, Heyes. And this snow ain’t lettin’ up.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Heyes agreed. “C’mon. We’ll find something, Kid.”
Heyes turned his horse to head away from the river, and the Kid’s horse followed his buddy, while the Kid worked at balancing in the saddle and pulling his second boot back on.
Two hours later, the sun was on its downward trek and the snow was still falling. Heyes was kicking himself. They should have stayed right there by the river and built a shelter. There had been evergreens there and their boughs could have been cut down and used to line the inside of that shelter and insulate them against the worst of the cold. They might even have found some wood that was protected and dry enough to start a fire.
But Heyes hadn’t felt comfortable, stopping right where the posse had last seen them. Even if the chase was called off for that day, the lawmen would be back. They’d find a way to cross that river and then head straight to that spot to pick up the outlaws’ trail. Heyes and the Kid both knew they couldn’t stay there.
Now night was coming, and both men were wet and exhausted and shivering with the cold. Their horses weren’t much better off. Kid’s black especially, was having a hard time of it. Though Heyes’ chestnut had gotten one of his legs wet, all four of the black’s lower legs had gone into that river, and now the water on them had frozen, and his black hair had turned white with frost. They were going to lose him, if they didn’t find shelter soon.
Finally, Heyes pulled up and turned back to his partner. Jed was hunched over his saddle horn, shivering, and trying to ignore the aching in his freezing feet.
“I’m sorry, Kid,” Heyes whispered, as he too, was freezing and couldn’t seem to stop his teeth from chattering. “I took a gamble that we’d find a cave, or something, but it looks like I lost that one. There’s a copse of trees over there. We’ll stop, and I’ll put up as best a shelter as I can before night fall. Maybe we can even get a fire going.”
The Kid nodded, but didn’t say anything. Heyes turned his horse towards the trees and tried to get his feet to move in a kicking motion to get the animal going. They stumbled on, towards their destination, and Heyes thought idly how ironic it would be if they died out here tonight, of all nights.
“Heyes, wait,” Kid croaked out. “Hold up.”
“You smell that?”
Heyes lifted his head and did his best to sniff the cold, snow filled air. He wasn’t getting anything. Jed shook his head, and pointed in another direction.
“No, that way. Wait for it.”
Heyes looked off into the distance and waited. Then a small stirring of a breeze hit his face and his eyes lit up with hope.
“Wood smoke!” he said.
Kid did his best to smile. “Yeah.”
Turning their horses in the desired direction, they did the best they could to get them moving. Fortunately, both horses had also picked up the scent of wood smoke and knew from past experience, that it usually preceded warmth and food. As tired as they were, they picked up a stumbling trot and kept it going all the way.
Within twenty minutes, they spied the ranch house not too far off. The coming dusk, and falling snow had kept the warm lights of the house hidden from view, until the riders were almost upon it. Their hearts soared with relief, hoping against hope that the inhabitants wouldn’t turn them away. Surely they wouldn’t; not on this night, of all nights.
The horses stopped on their own, right in front of the porch, and Heyes slowly eased himself down to the ground. The Kid started to do the same, but Heyes stopped him.
“No, Kid,” he said, hoarsely. “Stay there. You shouldn’t even try to stand on those feet.”
Jed nodded and settled back into the saddle.
Heyes grabbed hold of the hand railing and tried to pull himself up the steps but his limbs were not cooperating. He pulled his woolen scarf even further away from his mouth, and called out.
“Hello…!” It sounded weak and wretched, even to him. “Hello…help…”
A dog started to bark, and then the animal itself came charging towards them from the nearby barn. The men and horses were so tired, that none of them even reacted to the guardian, and the dog stopped, confused as to why these strangers were not taking him seriously. This was a fine thing; roused out of his nice warm bed of straw to come out here and do his job, and nobody even cares? He started barking again and put a little bit more emphasis into it this time, and kept it up until he got the desired result.
Inside, the ranch house was a warm and welcoming family scene. Two teenage girls were sitting by the imaginatively decorated tree that their father and brother had brought into the house for the special day. The mother was in the kitchen, tending to the two large wood stoves where four savoury birds were roasting, along with chestnut stuffing and root vegetables. On top of one stove, one large pot of potatoes was on the boil right next to another large pot of chicken and vegetable soup. On the other stove top, two freshly baked pies were cooling in anticipation of dessert.
The whole house smelled like pies and roasting meats, and the family rooms were brightly lit with candles placed around in various positions of both strategy and decorum. A healthy fire was crackling away in the large stone fireplace, while the two men of the family busied themselves, playing a casual game of checkers.
Laughter, conversation, and a warm glow of holiday spirits filled the house to bursting.
And then the dog started barking.
“What’s ole’ Jake barking about now?” the man of the house complained.
“Maybe the Johnstons decided to come for Christmas dinner after all,” his wife suggested, but with a strong hint of scepticism.
“I can’t imagine anyone coming calling on a night like this, Christmas or not,” the husband countered. “Well, he’s not stopping, so I guess I better check it out.”
The large rancher pushed himself away from the table, and donning his coat and boats, took the shotgun down from its resting place above the front door. His son stood up and joined him at the threshold, just to be on hand in case is was something serious.
The husband took a deep breath, in order to prepare for the blast of cold air that he knew would invade their warm cocoon, and then taking hold of the latch, he opened the door with the intention of slipping outside, and closing it behind him again, as quickly as possible.
But the sight that the porch lantern brought to his eyes, stopped him in his tracks, and he totally forgot about closing the door. He felt the presence of his son coming up behind him, and looking over his shoulder.
The first thing they both saw was a man, hunched over at the waist, a gloved hand trying to hold onto the railing, and one boot set up on the lower step. And there he stood, as though frozen to the spot, unable to proceed any further on his own volition. They couldn’t really see his features, he was bundled up, from head to toe, and on top of that was thick layers of snow, attached to the man’s clothing like icing on a cake.
“Oh, good Lord,” the rancher finally whispered. “What in the world…?”
The form attached to the railing, moved slightly.
“Help us…” it croaked. “We got lost. My friend…fell in the river…”
The rancher rushed forward just as Heyes’ knees buckled and he was starting to sink down. But the large man caught him, and pulled him back up.
“No…my friend,” Heyes insisted. “He’s worse.”
“You look bad enough, yourself,” the rancher told him. “Don’t worry about your friend, we’ll see to both of you. Here Brett, help this man in, and then come back and help me with the other one.”
“Yes, Pa,” Brett dutifully agreed, and was already pulling on his own boots and coat.
“June!” the husband called back into the house.
“I’m already getting a place ready for them, right by the fire!” came the response from inside.
Within minutes, the two strangers were sitting down by the fire, as the layers of wet and stiff clothing were being pulled off them. Neither of them were in a state to resist, and soon they were re-bundled up in warm flannel and heavy blankets, with their feet as close to the fire as safety allowed.
“Here you go, boys,” the rancher offered them two cups filled with coffee. “I added a shot of whiskey to these. You have the fire warming you up from the outside in, and this oughta warm you up from the inside out.”
“Thank you, mister,” Heyes managed a dimpled smile. “We’re beholdin’.”
“Oh nonsense!” June stated as she brought in two bowls of steaming hot soup. “We would hardly turn you away on any day of the year, but on this day, of all days! Of course you’re welcome in our home. Dinner will be at least another hour, so you get yourselves around that soup, and you’ll soon be feeling better.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Heyes accepted the bowl.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Kid seconded.
“I’m Marshall,” the rancher stated, and both men tensed, ever so slightly.
“Marshall?” asked Heyes, cautiously.
“That’s right. Douglas Marshall. This is my spread.”
“Oh,” came the relieved response from both ex-outlaws.
“This is my wife, June. And our son, Brett, whose out there looking to your horses. And our two daughters, April and May.”
The two girls smiled warmly at their guests. Indeed, once they had been relieved of their layers of winter bundlings, the two girls’ eyes had widened appreciatively, and they continued to gaze admiringly at the two handsome men. Heyes and the Kid smiled back at the girls, and both made a mental note to watch themselves where they were concerned. They didn’t want to wear out their welcome.
“I swear, you two must have a guardian angel watching over you,” Marshall continued. “This house is the only one for miles around, and by the looks of things neither you nor your horses would have gotten much further.”
“It was the wood smoke,” Curry informed him. “We could smell the wood smoke from your stove. It led us right here.”
“Well, that’s still a miracle,” June added. “There can’t be more than two days out of the year, when I have both those stoves on at the same time. If it hadn’t been for that, why you would have stumbled right on by. Somebody up there likes you, that’s for sure.”
Heyes and the Kid exchanged smiles and tapped their two coffee mugs together in a salute.
“Yes ma’am,” Curry agreed. “I expect you’re right.”
April and May sat across from the ex-outlaws and continued to admire the view. Dimples! And such lovely eyes, like warm melted chocolate. Blond curls, and blue, like the ice outside, but warm now with the fire and whiskey soothing away the freeze.
“This is going to be the best Christmas ever,” April commented.
May nodded in total agreement.