Authors: Gary D. Svee
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Gary D. Svee
The Rev. Gary Waddingham inspired this book
one sun-drenched Sunday at St. Luke's Episcopal Church.
When he isn't inspiring books, he is inspiring people.
is dedicated to him.
“And the angel of the LORD said to her, âBehold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ish'mael; because the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against him.'”
Cold, a bitter cold that steals the ability to move, to think. Miles Standish's legs plowed furrows through snow shoulder high to the mare. He might fall into the snow and drown. Sally was a good horse, as good as any Standish had known. She would wait, listening until the muffled sobs of a drowning man ceased, and then she would move down the mountain to find a warmer place.
Sally stopped, jolting Standish from his reverie. He touched his heels to the horse's belly, but she wouldn't move. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind, trying to see what Sally saw. Nothing. Maybe that was it. Maybe nothing lay ahead. He had been moving down a ridge where the wind blew most of the snow away. Maybe there was a pocket of deep snow ahead where both he and Sally would drown.
The wind howled victory. Its prey was trapped on the ridge top. Death lay in every direction. Maybe he
die here. Standish was surprised at how little he cared. He loosened Sally's reins. Maybe she could pick a trail. Maybe she could carry him off this damnable mountain. He touched his heels to the horse's belly, and she whickered. She was accustomed to having him show her the way. She hesitated for a moment, and then turned.
Standish ducked his head. The wind was blowing snow down his neck. Each flake took a bite from his flesh. His body was shivering, and Standish knew he was in trouble. Sally turned again, opening Standish's left side to the wind. He was being turned on old man Frost's spit. He cocked his head, trying to hide behind the brim of his hat.
Even under the snow, Standish could hear the click of his horse's hooves on the rocks below. They were traversing the ridge's knife-edge here. If she slipped either way.â¦ Standish shook his head. No reason to worry about things he couldn't change. He tried to remember where he had heard that, but his thoughts were wading through honey, very, very cold honey.
Sally lunged through the snow toward a knob on the ridge. The wind had swept the knob nearly free of snow. Sally dropped her head, drawing great drafts of icy air into her lungs. Standish reached out stiffly and patted her neck. “Good girl, Sally. We'll rest a minute, and then, we'll get down this damn mountain.”
Sitting was worse than moving. Running from this killing wind offered hope. Sitting stole that hope. Standish lost himself for a moment, disappearing into the cold, welcoming it. Sally snatched at a patch of dried grass and pulled him back to consciousness.
“No time for that now,” Standish said. “Not much time left until dark. We get caught up here tonight.â¦” Standish let the words drift into silence.
The other side of the knoll was steep, steep on a warm summer day when a horse's hooves could find purchase. Now it seemed almost vertical, and only the resistance of the snow kept the horse from falling head over heels. Down the mountain the two went, lunging through snowdrifts, hell bent for nowhere.
Miles Standish followed a faint wagon track deep into the trees. The trail hadn't been used that much, only enough to keep the two tracks clear of grass. He had a wild animal's curiosity about his surroundings. That had saved his life more than once. He sensed the opening in the trees before he saw it. He stopped and listened. No thump of axes or hammers. No rasping of a saw biting into wood.
Standish urged Sally forward. He let her walk about twenty feet and stopped her again. No sounds. No sounds but the chatter of a squirrel:
Beware a two-legged stalks the forest
. Ten more steps and Standish could see a clearing. Someone had carved a hole in the forest and built a cabin from the shards.
No smoke. That was a good sign. No smoke, no occupant. Even on this sundrenched day, smoke should be coming from the stove. The bite of winter had left these lower elevations, but it was too early in the spring for the cold to have left the cabin. Winter hangs in the bones of all Montana creatures. Standish pulled his arms tightly to his chest. He wondered if the bite of winter would ever leave his bones.
Another good sign. The cabin door hung open. No one would leave the door like that, unless.â¦ Standish didn't like to think about that. He didn't want to walk into this cabin, and find.â¦
“Hello, the camp!”
The squirrel's chattering took on a stridency.
A two-legged is in the forest, and he is growling
. Standish slipped off Sally, and stepped into the trees at the side of the wagon trail. The forest floor was littered with pine needles as old as the mountain he had descended three days ago. They were wet still with snow melt and spring rains, soft as the carpet in the Grand Union Hotel in Fort Benton. He walked carefully, watching where he placed each foot, stopping after every step to look and listen. Nothing, nothing but the sound of the squirrel and the cawing of a crow in the distance.
Standish slipped behind the cabin. No sounds issued from the building. He eased around to the window he had seen from the trail, but it was too dusty to see inside. He walked to the front of the cabin and knocked on the door. Nothing. No one was there. Standish sensed that the cabin had been vacant for some time, a feeling enhanced by a double-bitted axe rusting in a splitting stump by the door.
Standish knocked again, waiting for the answer he knew wouldn't come. He opened the door, a shaft of light following him into the cabin. He stood blinking, willing his eyes to probe the darkness around him.
A table, not much larger than the plate, cup and silverware it bore, sheltered a simple chair from the light. A blue-enamel basin that served for shaving and washing hands and dishes hung on a nail protruding from a log wall.
The room was heavy with the scent of wood smoke shaded by a fainter scent of tobacco. Standish ran his tongue across the roof of his mouth. He had stopped smoking simply because tobacco was rare in the high country, and the scent might kill him. He didn't want to go through the throes of quitting again, still. The thought was interrupted by another, subtler scent. Standish's lip curled. He couldn't get shut of the smell of death. It followed him wherever he went.
A lantern glinted by the window. He shook it, and kerosene sloshed in the tank. He scratched a match against the wall and touched it to the wick. A soft yellow light crept into the room. Not much light, but more than dust allowed through the windows.
The bed crouched against the far wall. Standish hesitated. He scratched his nose, and thought about where he would put the bed if the cabin were his. It wouldn't be against the wall. He would bring it nearer to the stove so that he could feel its warmth into the night.
Standish glanced at the bed again. He didn't like this, but it had to be done. He took a deep breath and walked into the bed's cloaking shadow. The covers were twisted with the throes of a dying man. The cabin was too plain to have been home to anyone but a man. A pair of boots lay on the floor beside the bed, as well as a pile of clothing.
Standish cocked his head. The boots were odd. They weren't crafted for riding horses or following a plow. The leather was too fine for that. Fine dress boots in a sparse cabin deep in the woods? A tiny table beside the bed offered some clues. There was a Bible there, and another book. Standish picked up the Bible. It was printed in a language he didn't understand. Standish shook his head. Hell, he had a hard time understanding Bibles printed in English. He left the other book lying on the table. He could look at that later. He returned his attention to the bed. The man hadn't lain their long. Someone had found him before he rotted. Either someone lived near the cabin, or the owner had a visitor. Standish didn't like either possibility.
He stepped to the door, peering into the shadows of the surrounding pine. A shiver crawled up his back. Wouldn't be good to be caught in this cabin. One man could cover the door with a rifle. Step out and be shot. Stay and be hanged. Helluva choice.
Standish sighed. Wouldn't be a bad place to die. Sally was snatching at the grass in the clearing. He whistled to her, and her head jerked up, but she didn't come. Fresh spring grass was not often on her menu. Standish whistled again, and Sally yielded, trotting over.
“Good girl,” he said, stroking her neck. “I guess I haven't been very good to you, have I?”
“That's what I thought,” Standish said. He slipped the bridle off, and loosened the cinch on the saddle. “You have a good time, Sally, while I poke around.”
Standish passed the outhouse in the trees behind the cabin. It appeared to be solidly built, but it could use some quicklime. A small log barn drew his attention. Two windows graced the walls he could see. The shake roof appeared almost new.
The barn door was rough dimension lumber two inches thick held in place by huge iron hinges. A bear after a horse would do some spitting and cussing before it got through that door.
The door opened without a sound, the hinges well oiled. Standish shook his head. This place was well kempt. The owner took care of his things. That was even more apparent when the light spilled into the barn. A light spring wagon, bright white with red trim. Standish ran his hand across the wagon box. Tight. Must be almost new. He leaned over and checked the wagon's hubs. Well greased. The man knew how to take care of his things. Two stalls marked one wall. One was lined with grass hay. On the opposite side was the man's shop. His tools hung from the walls, oiled and shining and ready for the next day's work. A small forge and a pile of coal slouched in the center of the partition. Next to the workshop was a covered bin. Oats. Where in the hell did the man get oats? Railroad. The Great Northern must be somewhere near here. The floor was solid four-inch planks. Hell the railroad could lay a track across this floor.