Blizzard


by BadgerGater



Summary: In the episode Day of Vengeance, Jess makes a brief mention that he once spent a night during a blizzard in an old mineshaft. Here’s the story behind that remark, as it might have happened. Would be taking place during Season One

Author’s Note: Special thanks to Nan for another great beta job! Thanks, pard.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Prologue:

Jess Harper hunched his shoulders against the chill wind, burrowing deeper into the warmth of his heavy coat. “We should have stayed in Texas, boy.”

Traveler flicked an ear back toward his rider, but kept plodding through the steadily falling snow. It was approaching fetlock deep on the bay and more of the white stuff was coming down steadily, thick and heavy flakes blowing before the wind like leaves racing in a storm. Minute by minute, it was getting harder to see, the sky nearly as white as the ground.

And Jess Harper was a long, long way from home.

oOoOo

 

Part One:

Earlier that morning—

 

“I don’t like the look of this weather,” Slim announced just after breakfast, pulling the collar of his jacket up higher around his neck as he stood on the front porch, gazing out across the ranch yard. “That sky looks like it could blow up to a real snowstorm.”

Jess followed Slim’s gaze, peering up at the leaden gray sky and the heavy, wind-whipped clouds. The air held a biting chill that hadn’t been there just the day before, and the gusts of wind were sharp, cutting like a knife. “The mares and colts are still up in the high meadow,” he remarked with a worried frown.

Slim nodded in agreement, his face equally grim. “And if we get heavy snow, those cattle grazing on the north range could be in trouble, too.”

“I can move those cattle over the ridge and down into the lower hills. They’ll have plenty of shelter there,” Jess volunteered.

“That’s a big job for one man.” Slim frowned as he considered the offer.

“I can handle it.”

Slim mulled it over, then making up his mind, nodded in agreement. “Okay, if you’re sure, then I’ll move the horses.” He shivered, and threw his ranch hand a pointed look. “Be sure you take some extra gear with you, Jess. I’ve seen the temperatures drop forty degrees in an afternoon when a norther blows in.”

“Don’t worry,” Jess answered, grinning. “I’ll be home a’fore you will.”

Slim shook his head, concerned over the cowboy’s bravado. “That could be, but don’t you be takin’ any fool chances. Take your bedroll and a feed of oats for your horse. Just in case. You can’t be too careful in weather like this.”

Yielding to Slim’s experience with Wyoming’s winter weather, Jess turned on his heel and went back into the house, taking his heaviest sheepskin coat off its peg by the door and adding an extra wool scarf to wrap around his ears. Jonesy was stashing food in Jess’ saddlebags while the cowboy went out to the barn and returned with a small bag filled with oats.

Slim meanwhile was checking the cinch on his own horse as he watched Jess tie his gear to the saddle before mounting up on Traveler. Still frowning, the wind and clouds making him uneasy, the tall rancher warned, “Jess, you be careful, watch that weather close. And be sure to get back here before dark,” Slim hollered after Jess as the ranch hand spurred his horse into a lope and headed out of the yard and up the trail.

“Yes, Ma,” Jess shouted back at him with a smirk and a wave, the wind snatching his words away.

x-x-x-x-x

 

The weather wasn’t so bad, Jess decided as he rode away from the ranch. The wind was brisk and there was no warmth to the air, but it wasn’t cold enough to make a man anything more than a bit uncomfortable. Still, every time he looked up at those looming clouds, they seemed to be sinking lower toward the ground, growing thicker and darker and more ominous with every passing minute.

Jess made good time for the first hour on the trail. Traveler was full of energy and the cowboy let the bay lope out and cover a lot of ground. However, once they left the easy going on the stage road they were forced to move slower as they headed up through the rough line of hills, climbing steadily.

It was nearly noon before Jess saw the first flurries. The snow started with a lone flake here and another one there: big, pretty and fluffy, drifting gently down out of the clouds. They quickly grew more and more frequent until it looked like it was raining feathers.

It didn’t seem possible that something so tiny and dainty could pile up into big, life-threatening drifts, but Jess knew it could. He’d seen a few big storms in the Panhandle country, and Kansas, too. Blizzards, in his experience, were nothing to fool with.

Still, there was nothing threatening about that first snow, and about the time Jess thought the storm wasn’t going to amount to a hill of beans, conditions switched plumb around faster than a lady could change her mind. First, the wind swapped directions, sweeping in out of the north and blowing the snow before it in powerful, swirling gusts. The air, grown suddenly colder, filled quickly with smaller, heavier snowflakes that fell thickly, sticking to Jess’ coat and Traveler’s hide. Within minutes a white blanket began to coat the ground, the brush and the trees, and visibility dropped to just a few feet.

Shortly after the snow began, Jess found the cattle. They were scattered in half a dozen small bunches up at the north end of the valley, standing with their butts swung around into the wind and their snow-blanketed backs all hunched against the cold. He quickly tallied up the number, then counted again just to be sure. By his hasty figuring at least half a dozen heifers were missing, so he urged Traveler further up along the creek, following their meandering tracks. Within half an hour, he came upon seven strays huddled deep in a draw, just the kind of place where cattle could become snowbound.

Quickly, Jess bunched them up and drove them down to join the rest of the herd. Then he circled up the whole herd and started pushing them across the open ground to their destination in a valley sheltered by the folds of the hills.

“Get up!” Jess hollered, slapping his rope against his chaps-covered leg. “Move along! Get up there!” Since he was driving them south, with the wind behind them, the cattle moved along easy enough, content to drift before the wind. He worked Traveler back and forth behind the stock, keeping the heifers bunched up and moving briskly along.

They made good time until the cattle crossed the center of the valley and, now out in the open, the wind struck full force. Jess ducked his head down into his coat’s collar like a turtle pulling his head into his shell and cursed Wyoming and whatever dumb idea had led him to settle down in country this far north. With the cold nipping at his ears and cheeks and his fingers quickly turning to ice, he drove the herd hard across the valley and into the trees on the opposite hillside. They wanted to quit there, but Jess had to keep them moving to get them up and over the ridge before dropping down into the valley where they’d find real protection and plenty of graze. He stayed hard on their heels, slapping his rope and shouting, reining Traveler back and forth behind them, forcing the reluctant stock to keep moving.

Once he’d pushed the herd through the trees and toward the ridge, the cattle turned even more ornery. They didn’t want to leave the protection of the pines and Jess couldn’t blame them. The wind was steady now, hurtling along like a roaring beast, driving the snow harder and right into their faces, and the cattle kept wanting to turn tail and run back into the trees.

“C’mon, get movin’, you worthless steaks on the hoof!” Jess shouted.

Even Traveler was unhappy with the conditions, wanting to turn tail to the wind, but Jess spurred him into the gale and pushed the beeves over the ridgetop. Finally, they were into the shelter of the downwind slope of the hills and Jess could relax.

He pulled up and watched them spread out into the grassy valley in the lee of the ridge, satisfied that his work was finished. There was plenty of feed to keep them content for weeks in this sheltered spot.

Pleased with a job well done, Jess turned for home, already looking forward to stretching out in his favorite chair in front of the warmth of a roaring fire.

He could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d stayed with the cattle, but he had no way of knowing that.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

On the far side of the ranch, also riding through thickly falling snow, Slim herded the mares and foals out of the high pasture and down into a sheltered lowland valley.

Moving the horse herd was one of his favorite jobs—despite the cold, he smiled as he watched the youngsters cavort alongside their dams, already big-bellied with next spring’s foals growing inside them. This was a nice bunch of horses, the best the Sherman Ranch had ever raised, Slim was certain. Good, stout, well-built colts, spirited and strong animals, they would grow up to make a good string of ranch horses, to keep or to sell.

There was one especially handsome bay colt in the bunch, one that Slim was thinking might make a really nice Christmas present for Jess. The gift would be a little extra incentive for him to stick around until the colt was old enough to ride, two years from now.

With a last admiring look at the stock, Slim turned his horse for home, eager to get in out of the weather.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Now that he had the cattle taken care of and mindful of Slim’s warning to return home before dark, which fell early in these short days of mid-winter, Jess considered his options. It had taken him a whole lot longer than he’d expected to find and move the small herd, and he knew he had only about two hours of good daylight left. If the conditions weren’t too bad, he reckoned that would leave him plenty of time to cross over Hartman’s Hill and drop down onto the Laramie Road. He wouldn’t quite make it home before dark, true, but he should be close, and on the good footing of the stage road Traveler would be able to make good time despite the snow. Even if it did get too dark and snowy for a human to find his way, Jess knew that all he had to do was give his horse his head and the bay would unerringly take them home. Traveler always knew where to find his oats.

Deciding he had a good plan, Jess set his spurs to his mount and rode for the ranch.

Ten minutes later he came upon an old game trail, a shortcut that would take him up and over Hartman’s Hill. Even using the well-worn path, it was a tough, rugged climb. Twice he dismounted and led Traveler over the steepest and rockiest stretches, his slick-soled boots slipping and sliding on the snow. As a rule, Jess, like any other cowboy, was always against walking anywhere, anytime, but in this weather, getting out of the saddle did provide the welcome bonus of getting the circulation going in his near-frozen toes, warming him up some.

Finally, having reached the top of the hill, he remounted and reined his horse down out of the sheltering rock walls and toward the open road below. Jess still figured he could make good time and be back at the ranch in plenty of time to catch a warm supper.

He was wrong.

A half hour later when he rode out of the lee of the hills, the roaring wind hit like a hurricane, and in a single moment everything around the horse and rider turned pure white. Jess couldn’t tell the ground from the sky as the snow swirled and lifted, racing before the howling wind. Instantly, every single landmark disappeared into the wall of white, the snow so thick he could barely see his horse’s ears.

Jess knew he was in trouble.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

In the last of the day’s fading light, Slim rode down the hill and into the Sherman Ranch yard. The temperature had dropped considerably and the snow was falling thick and heavy, whipped by the racing wind. Dismounting stiffly after long hours in the saddle, he hurried into the shelter of the barn, grateful to be out of the gale.

Alamo’s coat steamed as Slim unsaddled the sorrel, gave him a quick rub down, and forked him a generous feeding of hay.

His horse tended to, Slim stepped back out into the storm, ducking his head away from the wind as he hurried across the yard and up to the house. Stomping snow off his boots at the doorway, the ranch owner opened the door and stepped into the welcome warmth and light of the house.

“Slim!” Andy called out, jumping up from his seat at the table and hurrying to stand in front of his brother, the youngster’s smile revealing his relief to see Slim home safe. “What’s it like out there?”

“The wind’s plenty bad and the snow is even worse,” the tall cowboy noted as he hung his heavy sheepskin coat on the peg beside the door. Looking around, he immediately noticed who wasn’t there. He frowned. “Jess isn’t back yet?”

“No,” Jonesy answered. “Haven’t seen hide nor hair of him.”

Slim narrowed his eyes, worry clouding his expression, matching the concern in Jonesy’s gaze. “I expected he’d be back before now.” Turning to reach back for his coat, “I’ll get a fresh horse,” he announced.

Jonesy stepped in front of the door, blocking the young rancher’s exit. “Slim, you’ll do no such thing. Don’t be a fool, a man’s got no business riding out into weather like that.”

Slim glared at the old man blocking his way. “Jess is out there.”

Jonesy didn’t budge. “Yes, he is. But you goin’ off lookin’ for him won’t do him, nor you, any good, not in this storm,” he replied heatedly. “Why, you could ride within five feet of him and not see him! Or ride right off a cliff out in that blizzard.” The old man softened his voice and tried to sound more confident than he felt. “Jess might be a hothead from Texas, but you know he’s got sense enough to find a place to ride out this storm. He’ll be fine, just fine.”

“I don’t know about that,” Slim countered, concern creasing his cold-reddened face. “He’s never seen a Wyoming winter before. And even if he does realize what’s happenin’, I’m not sure he knows where to find a place to wait out this weather.”

“Oh, give the boy some credit,” Jonesy argued. “He’s been here all summer, he knows the range around here well enough to pick a spot to hunker down till this snow is done.”

Unconvinced, Slim reached around Jonesy and lifted the window curtain to look out, seeing nothing but a world of solid white. “I can’t leave Jess out there.“

“You don’t have a choice, Slim. You can see the sense in that,” Jonesy reminded him, rolling his eyes toward Andy.

Reluctantly, Slim’s shoulders slumped and he nodded. He had a responsibility to his young brother, one he could never forget. And, if he was honest with himself, deep down inside he knew that Jonesy was right. Going back out there now would be foolhardy, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. A lot could happen to a man alone out on the range in a storm like this, even to a man as range-savvy as Jess.

Nevertheless, Slim grabbed his coat and started putting it back on.

“You ain’t goin’ out there,” Jonesy pleaded.

“I’m just going out to the barn to check the stock,” Slim answered unhappily, conceding to Jonesy as he stepped back out into the storm.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

He was freezing, his hands were like icy lumps, his face numb, and his lashes caked with frozen snow that made it even harder to see. The cold was seeping in under his jacket, and despite the thick pair of wool socks he was wearing, he couldn’t feel his toes at all. Jess knew he had to get off the open road. The wind was growing stronger by the minute, roaring across the open plain, so biting cold it seemed to burn every inch of exposed skin and threatened to turn his whole body into one giant block of ice. To top it off, the road definitely wasn’t fit to travel. Although sections of it were scoured almost clear of snow by the howling winds, much of it was covered by big drifts, belly deep and more on Traveler. The horse floundered through the first few of them, but Jess knew that in conditions like this, his mount would wear down long before they reached the ranch.

They couldn’t travel much further in this weather. After only a few hundred yards, Jess pulled up his horse. “This ain’t workin’, boy,” he told his mount, patting the bay’s snow-covered neck with a hand numbed by the cold. He flexed his fingers inside his gloves and decided he could still feel the digits. Sort of.

He had to find shelter. Jess knew this part of the ranch pretty well — he’d rounded up cattle in this section earlier in the fall, scouring every draw, hillside and brush patch for strays. Even though at the moment he couldn’t see anything but a cloud of pure white, the cowboy knew there were hills off to his right. He was somewhere in the area where Slim had once pointed out a draw — what back in Texas would be called an arroyo—leading up into the hills. This had been mining country a few years back, Slim had explained, and though they’d never found anything of real value in the area, the hills atop that arroyo were pockmarked with abandoned diggings where miners had once hoped to strike it rich.

An old mine entrance, Jess figured, would make good shelter for both man and horse.

Mind made up, he turned off the road and urged his horse up the hill. The wind was on his right now, and the bay balked, wanting to keep the wind at his back, or maybe just realizing he’d been turned away from home. At any rate, Traveler kept trying to drift south before the wind, and Jess had to keep pushing him along up into the hills as he searched for the arroyo.

In all the whiteness, it was hard telling just where they were. Once in a while, the snow would lift a bit, and Jess could make out rocks and trees, but it never stayed clear long enough for him to get his bearings. Still, by keeping the wind on his right, he knew he’d eventually have to cut across that arroyo.

A few minutes later, they did.

But not at all the way Jess expected.

x-x-x-x-x

 

PART TWO

 

His face numb from the cold and eyelashes caked with frost, Jess reined Traveler over the lip of the arroyo and immediately felt the wind lessen. He pulled up with a sigh of relief and peered ahead, searching for the best route down into the bottom of the draw. Everything was covered with snow, half a foot or more deep, but he could just make out faint traces of what looked like a game trail angling along the rim of the arroyo and then slowly descending.

Jess kneed Traveler forward, holding him to a cautious walk.

The big bay moved cautiously, feeling carefully for each step beneath the snow while Jess sat quietly in the middle of the saddle, letting the horse balance them both.

They’d gone just half a dozen strides along the steep slope when it happened.

He couldn’t blame his horse, not in these conditions, not on this rough terrain.

Traveler was easing along when suddenly, he slipped. Jess never did figure out how or why the bay lost his footing, he just felt the stocky little horse stumble. Traveler lurched, scrambling desperately for solid ground, and then without further warning, the horse simply dropped out from underneath his rider, throwing Jess over the bay’s shoulder and down the slope.

Jess Harper had spent nearly his whole his life on horseback. He’d been thrown many a time — riding a lot of rough stock, busting a lot of broncs, and traveling across rugged country — and one thing he did know was how to take a fall.

What he didn’t know was what was under that layer of snow, and unfortunately, it wasn’t more soft, fluffy, cushioning snow.

One second, he was flying through the air and the next he landed, hard, on a slope littered with broken, jagged rock.

All the air whooshed out of his lungs and there was a sharp, stabbing pain in his left leg.

Stunned, Jess lay motionless for a long moment, then groaned and lifted his head, shaking it to clear the snow from his eyes. Shivering with cold, he spit more snow, pushing up with his hands until he was sitting up, still fighting desperately to draw an adequate breath. It took him what felt like endless minutes to suck air into his straining lungs, and every try hurt, but after a bit he quit gasping like a fish just pulled out of a stream and gulped in several breaths.

Getting more air helped clear his head.

And that’s when he realized something else.

His whole body was cold and wet, snow having slid down his neck and up inside his jacket, but his left leg felt oddly warm and wet. He rolled over and despite the dimness of the late afternoon light, he couldn’t miss the bright red stain in the snow. His chaps and pants leg were ripped and there was a gash in his left leg, right on the shin bone, a couple of inches below his knee and angling across his calf. More blood was welling sluggishly but steadily out of his leg even as he watched. Quickly, Jess pulled the long scarf from around his neck, wrapped it firmly around his leg with a jerk, and knotted it tightly. Doing that sent white-hot sparks of pain shooting up the limb, but he finished the makeshift bandage and turned to look for his horse.

Through the still-falling snow he could just make out the dark form of Traveler standing far below, all the way down at the bottom of the arroyo. He couldn’t be sure the horse wasn’t hurt, but Jess noted with relief that he was standing squarely on all four feet. There was a rough trail in the snow plowing down the side of the draw where Traveler had slid, but, at least from this distance, the horse looked in better shape than he did.

Or so Jess hoped.

With his breathing now mostly back under control, Jess braced his right arm against a rock and pushed himself to his feet, keeping all his weight on his right leg. He was feeling pretty shaky and each breath sent a short, sharp stab of pain through his side—his ribs hadn’t fared much better in the fall than his leg had either, he realized, but the bones felt bruised, not broken—that’s what he was going to tell himself.

Jess waited a minute to get steady in the upright stance, then carefully tested his leg, trying a short, hobbling step. His injured leg wobbled and threatened to throw him to the ground again, but he gritted his teeth, ignoring the pain, and it held as he managed to keep on his feet.

So far, so good.

Another tentative step and Jess felt confident that the damaged limb would hold him up—at least it wasn’t broken then, he thought with relief. It hurt worse than Hades, though, and he could already feel the warmth of more fresh blood seeping through the makeshift bandage.

He limped along with one not-quite-steady leg, which was hard enough but adding to his predicament was the steepness of the slope, and his footwear. Cowboy boots were made for riding not walking, not even under the best of conditions, which these were definitely not. The combination of the boots, the slick surface of the snow, the rough ground completely covered by the blanket of white, and the unsteadiness of his leg, made it all but impossible to keep his balance on the snow-covered slope.

Jess followed Traveler’s rough path down the side of the arroyo, half-sliding, skidding, stumbling and limping along, adding more bruises and scrapes to his already battered body. He fell once, getting more snow down his neck and inside his jacket and into his gloves and leaving more blood to mar the pristine white of the drifts. Finally, cold and snow-caked, the cowboy reached the bottom of the draw and his horse.

The bay rolled his eyes at Jess’ approach, but with reins trailing, the horse stood firm and let his owner walk up to him.

Jess picked up the reins and the horse ducked his head and stood unmoving, almost as if apologizing for the tumble they’d taken. Jess quickly checked Traveler — there was a small cut on the bay’s offside foreleg and some skin scraped off his hocks, but the damage was nowhere near as bad as he’d feared.

Stepping up to the horse’s right side, Jess grabbed onto the saddlehorn and leaned against Traveler’s bulky warmth for a moment, resting his head on his arms. He felt shaky from the cold and the aftereffects of the fall and he needed a minute to gather himself. Ready at last, the effort of jumping for the stirrup made the earth and sky spin, but he hauled himself into the saddle and sent his mount up the arroyo, hoping that shelter was close by.

At the cowboy’s urging, Traveler headed willingly up the hill, climbing steadily though the curtain of heavily falling snow. Jess thanked his lucky stars as he felt the bay moving soundly beneath him — if the horse was hurt, it couldn’t be anything serious, he decided thankfully.

After nearly half a mile, the arroyo finally petered out along the south flank of a big, rocky hill. Jess paused to study the terrain, trying but failing to pick out any landmarks. All he could make out was that there seemed to be a gap in the trees off to his left; it looked like there might have been a road cut through there long ago. Touching his horse with his spurs, Jess sent the bay up the slope, following the faint remnants of the trail as it paralleled the rock face.

They’d gone only a few hundred yards before Jess found what he was looking for – the roughly square outline of an old mine entrance cut into the hillside.

Jess rode up to the opening and faced his next hurdle — getting back down off his horse. Normally, dismounting wasn’t something he ever thought about, but with his damaged leg and sore ribs, getting down to the ground wasn’t going to be pleasant. Nothing to do but do it, he told himself sternly. Traveler stood rock solid as Jess kicked his foot out of his right stirrup and slid down from the off-side, landing one-footed in the snow. He didn’t make a bad landing, but he gasped as the jolt of his right boot hitting the ground raised a sharp pain in his ribcage. Then, his balance faltering, he touched his left foot down and almost fell as his leg buckled and gave way. Only grabbing hold of the saddle saved him from tumbling down to the ground in a heap.

He held onto the horn for a moment until he could breathe almost normally again, and then he moved slowly. Keeping as much of his weight on his right leg as he could, Jess hobbled into the darkness of the tunnel entrance. The space was big and open— he could tell that by the echo as his booted feet crunched on loose rock. Traveler balked, not wanting to follow him into the darkness, but Jess tugged harder on the reins and the bay stepped forward, snorting and blowing, his shoes clattering loudly over the rocks.

As soon as they were far enough inside to be out of the wind, the cowboy dropped the reins and the horse stopped, standing with his head down and shaking with an exhaustion that his rider shared. Jess patted Traveler’s neck, understanding how the horse felt. They’d both had a rough day, he thought wearily.

Jess leaned back to prop himself against the rough stone wall, then dug a match out of his coat pocket, striking it against the rock with fingers shaking from the cold. He cupped the tiny flame with his gloved hands and held the match up high, lighting up a few feet around him. A rusty old lantern hung from a nail pounded into one of the support timbers, and Jess limped over to it and pulled it down. Shaking it revealed that there was some kerosene left, so he held the match to the wick and, happily, it caught. Light quickly filled the space.

The mine entrance was as big as he’d expected, maybe even bigger. Ahead of him was an open area, at least as big as the main room of the Sherman Ranch house, then a pair of doorways leading to passages going deeper underground

“Home sweet home,” he told Traveler softly. “This ain’t so bad, boy.” Truth was, he’d spent the night in a lot of worse places. This was a good-sized space with plenty of room for both him and his horse, even though a scattering of old mining tools, rusted tin cans, discarded crates, and broken, rotted timbers were strewn about the place.

Jess set the lantern down, pulled off his gloves and blew on his cold-numbed hands, then slapped them against his chest, trying to restore the circulation. His fingers felt stiff and thick as sausages, but they were beginning to tingle with returning feeling. Despite the warmth of his wool socks, his toes felt frozen inside his boots, and his face and ears were numb, too.

Getting a fire going was his first priority.

He started with a couple of the old wooden crates, breaking them apart for kindling. A stack of discarded, broken timbers lay in a jumbled pile against one wall; half-rotted, they didn’t weigh much. Normally, he wouldn’t have had any trouble at all moving one of them but he wasn’t in normal condition— bending over to pick up a jagged two-foot-long piece, he gasped as his ribs vigorously protested the motion. He paused to catch his breath, then tried again to move the wood, keeping his weight on his one good leg and leaning awkwardly into the wall for support. Finally though, Jess managed to get a couple of the smaller pieces tugged into the middle of the room. Breathing hard from the exertion, he shaved some bits off the edge of a post with his knife, added several small pieces of wood from the broken crates, then splashed a little of the kerosene from the lantern onto the pile. He struck another match, holding it to the improvised kindling and it took with a whoosh, bursting into sudden bright flame.

It took a while for the fire to take hold but finally Jess could feel the welcome heat rising from the flames.

The warmth and light made the place almost cheerful.

Traveler’s coat was soon steaming as the snow began melting off his back. Jess loosened his saddle but left it on—he wasn’t sure he’d be able to toss it back up onto the bay’s back if he unsaddled him, not the way his ribs hurt. Instead, he took off Traveler’s bridle and rubbed the horse’s ears, letting the bay lean companionably against him. “This is a lot better than outside, eh boy?” Jess asked him. “It’s downright cozy in here.” He’d made worse camps over the years, a lot worse. Well, this one *was* a mite short on water, Jess thought, though he could melt snow for that. And there was no hay, which he purely wished he had for his hardworking horse. And a nice, soft mattress to cushion his bruised and aching bones would be a fine addition.

“Well, wishin’ ain’t about to change anythin’,” Jess said aloud. Sighing, the cowboy pulled his bedroll from behind the cantle, setting it near the fire, then put his saddlebags there, too. He opened them and poured out a measure of the oats he’d brought along. Traveler about knocked him over in his eagerness to tuck right into his supper, all of which was devoured in half a dozen quick bites.

His horse taken care of, Jess turned next to his own needs.

Opening his bedroll near the fire, he slid down to sit on it and set out to doctor himself.

The scarf he’d tied around his leg as a bandage was wet and dark with blood, soaked clear through. Unwrapping it with an indrawn breath, Jess could see that the ragged cut underneath was deep, deep enough that he could see the white of bone showing through around the steadily oozing blood.

He needed to stop the bleeding. A bandage was easy to improvise— he pulled the tail of his shirt out of his trousers and using his knife, cut a long strip off the bottom. Slicing off another piece of cloth and folding it up into a thick square, he placed that on top of the wound, then used the longer strip to wrap around the leg, binding it in place.

Every touch, every contact, caused the pain to spike and Jess gasped as he pulled the bandage tight and knotted it. He sat quiet for a bit then, eyes closed, teeth clenched, rocking back and forth, waiting for the throbbing pain to let up enough so that he could breathe normally again. Gradually, the hurt eased up, but it took a lot longer than he would have liked.

Finally, with the pain settled down to a dull but steady ache, he dug his uneaten lunch out of the bag Jonesy had given him. There was a sandwich, roast beef between two thick slabs of bread slathered with rich butter, and a dried apple. He ate half of the roast beef sandwich, saving the rest for breakfast, and ate the apple, sharing the core with Traveler.

Lastly, Jess hauled another piece of wood over to the middle of the room, setting it crossways over the fire. That done, he limped over toward the mine entrance to make one more check on the conditions outside, but before he even got close to the doorway, he could hear the wind still howling viciously.

No point in going any further, he decided.

With one final pat for his horse who stood in the corner, head down in weariness, Jess rolled into his bedroll and slept.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Slim sat quietly beside the fire trying to read but found it impossible to concentrate on the words in front of him. His gaze kept drifting off the page and around the room to where Jonesy was mending a pair of socks and Andy was dozing off at the table, his schoolwork forgotten in front of him.

Checking his pocketwatch, Slim saw that it was almost midnight. He climbed to his feet and went over to the window near the door. Rubbing frost off the inside of the glass, he peered out into the night, but there was nothing to see in the pitch darkness. He hadn’t thought the wind could get worse but it had, whistling loudly under the eaves, the gusts battering the walls of the house until he worried that the roof would be torn off.

The old man looked up as Slim stepped to the doorway and cracked open the door a few inches, gripping the wood tightly as the wind threatened to rip it right out of his grasp. A dusting of snow swirled inside, and Slim hastily slammed it shut.

“Still snowin’,” he announced needlessly, turning back to the others.

“Saw that,” Jonesy agreed added, looking up from his darning. “Nasty out there. Wind’s stronger than ever.”

Slim nodded.

“Jess would have found himself a place to wait out the storm,” Andy uttered confidently, though his eyes betrayed his worry.

Slim smiled and looked over at the boy with what he hoped was a reassuring expression. “If there’s one thing I know about Jess, it’s that he can take care of himself. Now, we should all turn in. It’s late, and we’ll have plenty of work in the morning.” And one missing friend to find, he thought to himself worriedly.

oOoOo

 

Jess woke up wondering where he was. The only illumination was the faint reddish glow of the last dying embers of his fire. He was shivering and cold, and something big and dark was hovering over him. Instinctively, he rolled off his bedroll and tried to get up onto his knees, regretting it immediately — pain lanced through his left leg like someone was twisting a knife in it. He grabbed onto it with both hands, rolling onto his back and realizing he was looking up into Traveler’s long face. The bay was blowing warm breath into Jess’s face, nickering at the man.

It took a long while for the throbbing in his leg to die down to a bearable level, and when it finally did, Jess realized with dismay that his hands were wet and sticky and warm. Worried, he stirred up the fire and looked down at his leg. The bandage was once again soaked with fresh blood, and more was caked on his jeans and staining his bedroll.

He figured it was somewhere past the middle of the night, judging by how far the fire had burned down, and the fact that there was still no light coming in from outside.

That meant his leg had been bleeding for hours.

He was, he realized, feeling a little lightheaded, and shaky and exhausted, too, and those he knew were signs of blood loss.

Serious signs.

He had to do something.

And quick.

Jess unwrapped the sodden bandage and looked at the bone-deep gash in his leg. Even as he watched, more blood seeped out and trickled slowly down his shin.

He had to stop the bleeding. It didn’t look like much, slow and sluggish drops trickling down his leg but leaking steady as it was, it would drain away his strength, even his life, if it wasn’t stopped.

And in this cold, it wouldn’t take long.

He tried the simplest thing first. Limping out to the entrance of the mine, he scooped up a double handful of snow and packed it tightly into the wound. The cold stung, but in only a few seconds the pure white turned red and began to melt.

The situation required something more drastic.

Grimly, he pulled out his knife and set it beside the fire, propped up so that the blade was inside the flames.

As he waited for the knife to heat to red-hot, Jess didn’t let himself think about what it was he was about to do. It had to be done, and that was that. No use fretting over it, because that wasn’t going to make it one bit easier.

Just so long as it worked, or this mine tunnel could turn into his tomb.

Once he figured the knife was hot enough, he tested it by dropping a bit of snow on it, watching as the blade sizzled and the snow disappeared instantly. That done, he sat back on his bedroll, leaning against the cold stone wall. Gathering his courage, Jess took a couple of deep breaths, grasped the knife in his gloved right hand, and with his jaw clenched tight, laid the red-hot blade directly on the wound.

He heard his skin sizzle and smelled the acrid odor of burning flesh and then the pain flashed into white-hot roaring agony and he passed out.

oOoOo

 

PART THREE

Slim was up and dressed well before first light, adding more wood to the glowing embers in the fireplace and stoking the kitchen stove. Even then, the house was cold as a mountain-fed stream. He made a mental note to rechink the walls come spring, especially around the windows and doors, spots where he could feel the icy tendrils of drafts seeping in.

He quickly put on his boots, coat and hat, and headed outside to tend the horses. There was a monstrous drift piled up against the side of the house, nearly as tall as his own shoulders, barely allowing him to get by and out the door. The snow had slowed to just an occasional solitary flake, but the wind was still blowing and the air had turned sharply colder, quickly frosting up his eyelashes and stinging the inside of his nose with every inhalation. Gusts swept the light and fluffy accumulation into the air, driving it and piling it up in ever more fantastic drifts.

Slim struggled through half a dozen more drifts just to get over to the barn.

Inside, the building was warmed by the heat of the horses and the milk cows. The ranch owner quickly forked hay to all of the stalls, filled the water buckets, and soon was listening to the contented sounds of livestock eating. About then, he heard the door open and close quickly, and Jonesy joined him in the barn, milk pails in hand.

“Mornin’ Slim,” Jonesy called out.

“Mornin’,” Slim answered as he switched from feeding stock to cleaning stalls.

The old man pulled the three-legged stool down from its hook on the wall, set it beside one of the cows, took a seat, and began milking the old Guernsey. “You look worried,” Jonesy said quietly without looking up from his task, his hands steadily massaging the cow’s udder. There was a steady ping-ping-ping sound as the streams of warm milk hit the bottom of the metal bucket.

Slim paused, leaning against the fork. “There’s a lot of snow out there. It’s gonna be hard on the stock.”

“And you’re worried about Jess,” Jonesy added without slowing his rhythm.

“Sure.”

“Me, too,” Jonesy said, very quietly. “Me, too. I hope that boy had sense enough to find himself some shelter.”

oOoOo oOoOo

 

It was the cold that brought him back to consciousness, his whole body shaking in the icy air. Feeling sick and weak, only half awake, Jess sat up slowly, staring around in confusion at the unfamiliar place he found himself. It took long moments for him to recall where he was, and why—the snowstorm, Traveler’s stumble, and the old mine. He looked down at his leg then, at the deep cut beneath the torn jeans, a thin, watery scab now covering the red burn mark. Fingers shaking with the cold, he loosely covered the wound, using the bit of cloth he’d cut off the end of his blanket for a bandage. Too weary to do anything more, Jess pulled the blankets up to his chin and went back to sleep.

 

The sun was well up by the time Jess woke again. Not that he could have seen the sun, even if he had gone outside. The sky was still covered by thick clouds, but even in the mine tunnel it was light enough for the cowboy to know it was day.

He felt weak as a newborn kitten, and it took all his strength just to sit up. His leg throbbed steadily, but it did seem to have stopped bleeding—the bandage looked clean and dry. His throat was parched, though, and he had a raging thirst. He took a long drink from the canteen he’d filled with snow and left near the fire, then gulped another mouthful before burrowing deep into his bedroll and falling exhaustedly back to sleep.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

With the chores done, Slim saddled Alamo. He lead the sorrel up to the house and tied him to the hitch rail, then went back in the house and quickly stuffed a saddlebag with food, some oats for the horses, and an extra bedroll. “Thought I’d go out and meet Jess,” Slim explained to Jonesy as he packed.

The old man threw him an understanding look. Slim might be saying ‘meet’ but Jonesy knew he actually meant ‘search for,’ though how much searching a man could do in this wilderness of white the old-timer wasn’t sure.

Jonesy watched Slim work for a moment, then hurried into the bedroom. Kneeling before the old wooden storage chest in the corner, he dug clear to the bottom before finding what he sought— the old buffalo robe that hadn’t seen the light of day for years. Lifting it out, he shook out the dust, then carried it back into the main room, adding its bulk to the pile of gear Slim had stacked by the door. “Nothin’ better than this to warm a man up. If’n a man was to need warmin’ up,” Jonesy suggested.

Slim flashed the old man a smile that didn’t manage to hide his worries. “Thanks, Jonesy,” he said as he carried the supplies out the door. He loaded them aboard his horse, waving to Andy who was peering out one of the frost-rimed windows, then turned his mount and headed determinedly out into the snow.

oOoOo

 

Jess woke to see a square of bright light streaming in through the mine entrance, but there was no warmth to the air. Sometime in the past few hours his fire had gone out, and all the wood had turned to cold gray ash. He dragged over another piece of rotted timber and poured the last few drops of kerosene from the lantern onto the crumbled edges. Shivering, shaking so badly that he could barely feel his fingers, Jess fumbled in his pocket for another match. His searching hand at first found nothing, a moment of panic gripping him, and then, deep in the corner of the pocket, he found one last match.

He struck it off a rock and it flared brightly to flame before sliding out of the grip of his cold-numbed fingers to land on the dust and rock of the floor, and died out.

Jess stared dumbly at the burnt out match lying in the dirt.

His last match, used, dead, gone.

He shivered, feeling colder already, partly from the weather, partly from dread. It seemed as if the very air, cold as death, was sucking the warmth clear out of his bones.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

It took Slim an hour to ride as far as the creek, a distance that on a normal day took ten minutes; even at a walk, it shouldn’t have taken more than 20. After just the first mile out the sorrel was sweated up to a steaming lather and blowing from the hard work of plowing through the succession of huge drifts that blocked the road.

Slim dismounted and walked his horse for a while, giving the animal a breather, then mounted up and forged on, driven by the rising knot of fear that was tightening his chest with every passing minute.

Between the snow and the cold, the conditions were worse than he had expected.

He had to find Jess.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Jess stuck his hand back into his coat pocket, his fingers frantically reaching into every nook and cranny.

His fingers found nothing.

There weren’t any more matches!

And then he realized that he must have been more exhausted than he realized because his brain sure hadn’t been working at normal speed. He opened his coat, put his hand inside and into his vest pocket, and with a sigh of relief, pulled out another match.

He blew on his hands to try to warm his fingers, and when at last he could feel them, he struck the match and carefully set it to the wood. For an awful moment it fluttered, then the kerosene caught, and a tiny tongue of flame began curling around the wood.

While the fire grew, Jess re-bandaged his leg. The wound was crusted over where he’d cauterized it, and while it looked downright ugly and felt like he’d been stomped on by a whole herd of horses, it wasn’t bleeding anymore. Relieved, he cut another strip of cloth off the end of his blanket and wrapped a fresh bandage around his leg.

It took him a minute to tame the pain and catch his breath before he braced himself against the rock wall and climbed carefully to his feet. His head swam, the floor and walls swapping places as his stomach lurched – he hadn’t felt so dizzy since he’d gone to town on his birthday, enjoying toast after toast and woke the next day to the giant-sized hangover that had been his unwanted birthday gift. He slammed his eyes closed and counted to ten while waiting for the queasiness to pass, then opened them cautiously. He was still feeling shaky, but after a moment, he was pretty sure that he wasn’t going to just keel over like a lady wearing a too-tight corset.

Jess limped slowly over to his saddlebags and poured out the last bit of oats for Traveler. It wasn’t much and the bay devoured it quickly, immediately searching for more. His horse, the cowboy knew, was going to need something more to eat soon.

Which meant that he ought to be riding. As good of a spot as the mine was, dry, out of the wind, and filled with fuel for the fire, he couldn’t stay put. No one would find him, and hurt and without food, he’d only get weaker.

Jess warmed himself by the fire while Traveler searched the ground for any stray grains of oats he might have missed. Once the bay was done, Jess slipped the bit back into the horse’s mouth and the bridle up over his ears. Standing pretty much on just his one good leg, he pulled the cinch up tight, a move that drew a gasp from his lips at the resulting sharp stab of pain from his sore ribs. He waited a moment, then swung his saddlebags up into place. Reaching up to tie them didn’t improve the feel of his ribs, either, but by half-holding his breath, he got the job done. Finally, he slid his rifle back into the scabbard, and with Traveler following close on his heels, he buttoned his coat and pulled his collar up high as he limped to the mine entrance.

The clouds had gone, bright sunlight now glared blindingly white off the snow that covered the trees, the rocks and the ground, making his eyes water and reminding him of the danger of snow blindness. The sun was high—it had to be after noon already. Jess had the sudden realization that he should have been in the saddle hours ago if he was going to make it back to the ranch before dark. Instead, he chided himself, he’d been lollygaggin’ in his blankets.

Jess was anxious to get moving, ignoring the catch in his ribs as he jumped up into the off-side stirrup. He awkwardly swung his left leg over the saddle, a simple move that left him hunched over and breathing hard, his side aching and his leg throbbing. Finally, after a long moment, Jess gigged Traveler forward.

Once outside, they found the going was slow and treacherous. Traveler had to feel for every step because he couldn’t see what lay beneath the foot or more of white covering everything-- dirt or rocks or deadfalls. The bay skidded and slid, time and again jolting Jess’ already aching body, making it hard work to stay in the saddle. Every few yards, they’d encounter another drift, some only knee deep, some much more. A few seemed so deep and wide that Jess took the extra time to guide his horse completely around them.

The air was stunningly cold, searing his lungs with each indrawn breath, and Traveler’s exhalations sent a frosty cloud into the air. Jess quickly began to lose the feeling in his fingers and toes. He jammed one gloved hand into his coat pocket to try to warm it, wiggling the other that gripped the reins, and pushed on.

As horse and rider arrived at the top of the arroyo, a panoramic view of the Laramie basin stretched out in front of Jess’ gaze. Everything—trees, rocks, grassland— was covered in an unending layer of white. He could have called it breathtaking if he was the kind of man who took notice of such things. Instead, he pulled his hat down low to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun and urged Traveler toward home.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Slim wasn’t sure where to start searching for his missing ranch hand. It was miles up into the hills where Jess had planned to move the cattle. He could have taken shelter there, in the same area where he’d moved the herd, which would have been a good decision. Or he could have started for home, gotten down out of the hills and needed to find a place to hunker down anywhere along the way. Slim hoped the latter wasn’t the case—there wasn’t near as much shelter out along the road, and on a night like last night, a man would have needed a good spot to hole up in.

Slim pulled the collar of his coat up higher around his neck and shivered in the cold air, considering where to begin the hunt.

The entire landscape was blanketed in glittering white, but the one good thing he could see in that was knowing Jess and his dark bay horse would stand out clearly.

oOoOo

 

The afternoon passed slowly as Jess and Traveler moved down the arroyo, every step a risk on the icy rocks as the bay felt cautiously for his footing on ground buried under the snow. Jess braced himself in the saddle as he descended, putting pressure on the injured leg. It was hurting more with every rough step as Traveler slowly worked his way down the steep draw.

He was almighty tired, too. After a bit, rough as the ground was, he found he needed to steady himself by keeping one hand locked onto the horn in addition to the one on the reins. He gave Traveler his head and let the horse pick his own way, using all of his own energy just concentrating on staying in the saddle.

It sure seemed like hard work.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

“I thought they’d be home by now,” Andy worriedly told Jonesy, peering out the window as he’d been doing every ten minutes since Slim left. “Shouldn’t they be back here already?”

“That depends,” the old man answered calmly. “It’s slow going out there in those conditions.”

“Not that slow,” Andy countered, pacing in front of the fireplace.

“Well, I’ve got hot stew on the stove that’ll be waitin’ for them two whenever they get in.”

Andy stopped and his question was hesitant. “Jonesy, do you think Jess is alright?”

The old man rubbed his chin, choosing his words carefully. “That boy’s been takin’ care of himself through thick and thin for a lot of years, since he wasn’t much older’n you.”

Andy’s brown eyes were troubled. “I know. But — ”

“But don’t you be worryin’ so much. Slim’ll find him, and they’ll be just fine. Just fine, both of ‘em,” Jonesy repeated, talking as much to convince himself as Andy.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Slim resolutely tried to ignore the fact that the sun was now rapidly sinking to the west. The deep draws between the hills were already darkening with shadows. It wouldn’t be much longer until all the light would be gone and further searching would be impossible.

And he hadn’t seen a single sign of Jess.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

At some point, Jess just lost track of things. He was cold to the bone and exhausted, as weary as if he’d been riding for days. He wasn’t sure anymore where he was going or why. He just knew that he had to stay in the saddle and trust Traveler to get them home.

Stay in the saddle, Jess, he told himself.

And then all of a sudden he wasn’t in the saddle anymore. He was lying on something very cold and very wet. Traveler’s warm breath blew against his neck and Jess tried to get up, pushing with his elbows to raise himself up out of the snow, but he didn’t have enough strength left to get to his feet.

He tried once again to get up, and then all thought and awareness and worry just slipped away into the encroaching blackness.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

With each passing minute Slim’s worry grew. He should have come across some sign of Jess by now. Night was closing in and it was getting steadily colder and darker. This was typical weather following a big snowstorm — clear skies and bitter cold that could hang on for days. He’d try just one more hill, and then, no matter how much he wanted to keep on searching, he was going to have to find himself a place to camp for the night. Even if he wouldn’t sleep, his weary horse needed the rest.

Slim pushed his tired mount up one last slope, topping out on a high ridge. Behind him was the snow-choked stage road, ahead was a maze of scattered rocks, clumps of pine trees, and steep draws leading up into the rugged hills.

Slim pulled up and carefully studied the shadows below him until something dark caught his eye. He didn’t know why, just that this shadow seemed out of place.

At first, that’s what he thought it was — just another shadow. The light was so dim, he couldn’t really make out anything more than a large dark spot against the pure white of the snow. Squinting, he tried harder to see, studying it in an attempt to make out more details, but the thing, whatever it was, wasn’t moving. It was probably just some odd-shaped rocks, or maybe a tree, he finally decided.

And then, just as he was turning away in frustration, he saw movement, and his next thought was that it was most likely a big elk. But it was an odd place for an elk to be just standing, out in the open in the deep snow.

Slim was still puzzling over just what it might be that he was looking at when suddenly Alamo raised his head, tipped his ears sharply forward, and whinnied.

The dark spot far below whinnied back.

It had to be Traveler!

“Jess!” Slim leaned forward in his saddle and reined his horse down the slope.

Despite the hurry he was in, it took him quite a while to work his way down into the draw, fretting all the while, and then, in near-complete darkness, it was even harder to find the spot where he’d seen the horse. “Jess!” he shouted again and again, but there was no answer to guide him. The dark bulk of the bay was hard to distinguish from rock or trees jutting out of the deep snow and it was difficult to keep his bearings in the dark. “Jess!” he kept calling, getting no reply. “Jess, answer me! Jess!”

The only reply was an echo, his own voice mocking him as it bounced around between the hills. Finally, after what seemed like far too long, through a thin stand of pines Slim caught sight of the animal standing in the snow, and urged Alamo to go faster.

When at last he got up close to the horse, Slim’s heart sank-- the bay was riderless and he knew there was no way Jess would ever be caught afoot unless there was something terribly wrong.

Slim dismounted and stepped forward to check the horse and gear. Jess’ bedroll and saddlebags were tied behind the cantle and his rifle was in its scabbard. As the rancher looked closer, he could see something dark staining the groundsheet. He reached out to touch the spot and recoiled at the realization -- it was blood, caked and dried, and a lot of it.

Jess was hurt, and lost.

“Jess!” he called, his voice rolling across the silent hills. “Answer me! Jess! Jess!”

All he heard in reply was the echo of his own frantic shouts.

 

PART FOUR

 

He thought he heard someone calling his name, but he was having such a pleasant dream. He was lying on a soft bed, floating, and his leg and his ribs didn’t hurt anymore. He wasn’t even cold, and that was truly a wonder.

oOoOo

 

Slim waded through the knee-deep snow, backtracking along Traveler’s meandering path. He’d only gone a few dozen yards when he spotted the dark form nearly buried in the white of the snow.

His heart skipped a beat.

Jess was lying facedown.

Not moving.

Slim ran forward, dropping to his knees in the snow beside the still form. Gently rolling over the body, he was relieved to see Jess’ chest softly rising and falling. “Hey, Jess! C’mon, wake up!” Tearing off his gloves, Slim put his hands on Jess’ face, dismayed to find that the man’s skin was ice cold. He patted his friend’s grey cheeks, then, getting no response, slapped them, harder. “Jess, hey, you talk to me! Come on!” he ordered roughly. Jess’ eyes fluttered enough for Slim to see a flash of blue, but they didn’t really open. His head rolled to the side, and he mumbled something.

What was wrong with him? Slim took a closer look at his friend, quickly spotting the bandaged leg and the blood-caked jeans but thankfully finding no other sign of injury.

“C’mon cowboy, I could use a little help here,” the tall man suggested. There was no response, so Slim raised his voice and ordered, “Jess Harper, wake up, now.”

It didn't work. Jess mumbled something and then subsided.

Without wasting another minute, the rancher hauled Jess upright and then slung the man over his shoulder, depositing him with a groan on Alamo’s saddle. Jess slumped bonelessly over the sorrel’s neck as Slim put Jess’ hands on the horn, wrapping the stiff fingers around the leather and squeezing them tightly in place. “Hold on,” he ordered, and Jess, though saying nothing, seemed to follow the order this time, swaying but making an effort to stay put.

Quickly, Slim pulled the buffalo robe from where he’d tied it behind the saddle, wrapping it snugly around the injured man. Finally, he stepped into the stirrup and swung up to sit behind the saddle. With one hand wrapped around Jess’ shivering form, steadying him, he turned his horse and headed down the draw with Traveler following along behind.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

He was on horseback and there was comfort in that. It was a familiar rhythm his body knew as well as it knew how to breathe, the rocking motion of a horse beneath him. That sound was back, too, like someone familiar talking to him, making him feel good, so Jess relaxed trustingly and gave in to his exhaustion.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Slim had one immediate goal-- he had to get Jess to shelter in a hurry. A man who’d lost a lot of blood was in serious danger, and the cold made it ten times worse. And cold it was. Slim could already feel the changes in the air in the short time since the sun had dipped below the horizon. The temperature was sinking like a stone with every passing minute.

They needed a place to hole up, and fast, and Slim’s thoughts were racing, recalling all he knew about this part of the range. Though this area was at the far end of the ranch, he’d been riding these hills for years, and he knew every single nook and cranny.

Their best bet in this area of rugged hills, he decided, was Old Zechariah Bartlett’s cabin. It had never been anything fancy, Slim recalled, abandoned back when he’d found it as a boy. His father had told him it had been home to the old trapper before the Shermans moved in, back thirty or more years ago when the creeks had been teeming with beaver. It had been standing empty since long before the war, but if the snow hadn’t brought the roof down, it could provide enough shelter to get Jess warmed up and safely through the night.

The moon hadn’t risen yet, but there was just enough faint starlight reflecting off of the brilliant white of the snow to make it possible to see where they were heading. It was all Slim could do to keep Jess and himself on the horse as Alamo floundered through the snow drifts. The struggling horses crossed over another ridge top and at last dropped down into Bartlett’s meadow, finally reaching the floor of the little valley. Slim pushed his tired horse forward until he could make out the shadowy outline of the cabin up ahead in the trees.

He pulled Alamo up in front of the old building and quickly slid down off his horse, keeping one hand on Jess to steady him. “Hey, we’re here. Come on, get down.” Jess lifted his head a bit and then Slim was rewarded by the man making awkward but helpful movements to dismount, though Slim still had to do most of the work of getting him off his horse. Once the injured cowboy was down on the ground, Slim slung an arm around Jess’ waist, all but carrying him as he helped his friend through the snow and up on to the cabin’s porch.

The tall cowboy kicked open the rickety front door with a booted foot and surveyed the dark interior. The old cabin was full of dust and cobwebs. Part of the roof had caved in over the lean-to at the back, sagging low to the floor, but the main room was still mostly intact.

Slim eased Jess down to the floor, still wrapped in the old buffalo robe, and got quickly to work lighting a fire on the stone hearth. He gathered some of the old wood that was still stacked next to the fireplace, striking a match to it, and watched gratefully as the dry tinder caught quickly. Flames leapt upward in a rush and a bit of smoke drifted back into the cabin.

Jess coughed.

Slim knelt down in front of his friend. “Jess? You with me now, partner?”

“Hmmm.”

“Jess!” Slim said the name more forcefully and Jess’ eyes fluttered. “Jess, I need to go out and see to the horses. Will you be all right here by the fire ‘til I get back?”

“Umm hmm.”

Slim wasn’t too sure that was a real yes, but it would have to do. “I won’t be gone long. Just stay put, right here, okay?” He wrapped the buffalo robe more tightly around Jess, then turned and hurried out the door. He led the horses around behind the cabin into the shelter of a stand of young pines that would provide them with some protection from the wind. Ting them to the trees, he quickly stripped off their saddles, and carried the gear into the cabin, anxious to get back to his friend.

Jess was right where he’d left him. Slim opened up both his and Jess’s bedrolls and spread them on the floor near the now-roaring fire. He helped Jess move over onto them, then once again covered the injured man with the heavy buffalo robe.

As the fire began to warm the room, Slim pulled off Jess’ snow-wet gloves, rubbing the man’s icy hands to get the circulation back into them.

After a few minutes, Jess pulled his hands back.

“Jess?”

“Hands hurt,” he said distinctly, even though his eyes weren’t open.

“Do they feel sort of pins and needles?”

“Ummm hmm.”

Slim smiled. “That’s the circulation coming back. That’s good.”

“Hurts,” Jess complained, flexing his fingers.

“I know. But it’ll be better in a little bit.”

“Sure?”

“Yup.” Slim could see a bit of blue now — Jess’ eyes were open slightly, though he was surely having trouble keeping them that way. He looked like Andy when the boy had stayed up long past his bedtime, Slim thought, thankful to see even this little improvement in the injured man’s condition.

Jess finally managed to get his eyes open a bit more, lifting his head a little and swinging it slowly from side to side, looking around at his surroundings in obvious bewilderment. “What’s this?” He waved a hand vaguely at the cabin before tucking it back inside the warmth of the buffalo robe.

“That old trapper’s cabin, below Bartlett’s ridge. Old Zechariah Bartlett himself built this place before I was born, so Pa told me, back in the days when there were beaver up here.”

Jess half-nodded, still looking sleepy. “How’d I get here?”

“I found you lyin’ out in the snow, brought you here.”

Jess digested that information for a bit. “Thanks.” He was silent a moment more and then suddenly tried to sit up.

Slim pushed him back down on the blankets. “Whoa, whoa there tough guy, go easy now. You need to be restin’.”

“My horse?” Jess asked. “Where’s — “

“Traveler’s fine. Found him standing near ya. That was how I found ya, actually.”

“Good.” Jess sighed and relaxed back into the blankets, letting his eyes fall shut.

“Where’d you stay last night?” Slim asked, encouraging Jess to keep talking.

“That old mine, atop that arroyo.”

Slim nodded, knowing the spot. “Good choice. How’d you hurt your leg?”

“M’horse stumbled in the arroyo. Threw me. I landed on the rocks.”

“I’m gonna take a look at it, okay?” Slim asked and when Jess nodded, pulled back the buffalo robe and then began unwinding the bandage.

“Ow!” Jess jerked when the bandage stuck, then pulled free of the wound.

Slim grimaced when he saw what was underneath — the long, deep gash, the surrounding swelling mottled deep black and blue, and the burn mark whose origin he recognized. His voice was soft when he asked, “Cauterized this yourself, did ya?”

“Yeah.”

Slim’s face was grim, but he fought to keep his tone light, imagining what his friend went through, hurt and alone and tending his own injury. “I don’t suppose that felt so good.”

“You suppose right.” Jess’ voice was still soft, but a bit stronger.

“Leg’s not broke is it?”

“Nah.”

Slim started to put a fresh bandage on the injury, working gently. He did notice that Jess didn’t seem to be shivering quite so much. That could be a good sign, that Jess was getting warm, or a bad one—that his body was beyond feeling the cold. “You feelin’ any warmer?”

“Some.”

“Hands still hurt?”

“Some.”

“That’s good. I don’t think you’ve got any frostbite. We’ll hunker down here and head home tomorrow. It’s gonna get almighty cold out there tonight.”

oOoOo

 

Jess figured he must have dozed off about then because the next thing he knew, Slim was offering him some supper.

“Here,” Slim helped his friend sit up a bit and then lifted a full spoon toward Jess’s face.

“I can feed myself,” Jess muttered, taking the spoon from Slim’s hand.

Slim smiled. “You must be feelin’ some better then,” he announced, giving Jess the plate and sitting down on the floor beside him, working on his own meal.

“Been better,” Jess told him, and ate a bite. It was ordinary trail food, beans and salt pork, but warm and filling.

“I imagine so.”

“Been worse, too.” He ate another spoonful.

“Now that I can believe.”

“You bring any coffee?” Jess asked.

“Coffee ain’t good for a wounded man.”

“I ain’t that wounded,” Jess insisted.

oOoOo

 

Slim stoked up the fire as Jess ate about half his food and then dozed right off before the coffee was ready. He still looked mighty pale and exhausted, almost gray faced, and Slim knew that blood loss would do that to a man.

Jess would be all right, once he got home, got thoroughly warm, and got some rest, Slim assured himself.

It would just be so much better if he had all those things right now.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

“I think we should go lookin’ for them,” Andy declared as he added more wood to the already blazing fire. Sparks jumped and flames licked hungrily around the edges of the fresh log, crackling loudly.

Jonesy, sitting at the table peeling potatoes, shook his head at the boy. “Won’t do no good, Andy. We haven’t got a clue where to start lookin’ for ‘em; we’d never find ‘em out there in all that country.”

Andy stared out the window, then paced back across the room and flopped into the rocking chair in front of the fire. “We could follow Slim’s tracks.”

“Wind’s covered ‘em over by now.” Jonesy reminded the boy. “Besides, it’s too cold to be out tonight.”

“Then it’s too cold for them to be out there, too!” Andy protested.

Jonesy tamped down his own worries and reassured the youngster. “Don’t you be worryin’ so much, boy. Slim and Jess, they’re smart enough to do what they need to do to be safe. Ain’t neither one of ‘em some no-account tenderfoot.”

“But why didn’t they get back here before dark?”

“Lot’s of things could have happened,” the old man drawled.

“All of ‘em bad,” Andy said dismally, his shoulders slumping.

“It’s hard travelin’ out in all that snow, boy, takes a whole lot of time to cover any ground at all. Wears out the horses somethin’ fierce. So don’t you go all pessimiserist on me just ‘cause they ain’t here yet. No sirree, there ain’t no cause, no cause whatsoever for that kind a’ negative thinkin’.” But there wasn’t much conviction in Jonesy’s words because his own thoughts were as dark as Andy’s.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Hours later, Slim sat before the fire in the old cabin, sipping his coffee. Jess was wrapped in the buffalo robe, sleeping soundly. He hadn’t stirred at all when Slim had gone out to feed the horses and bring in more wood for the fire. The tall rancher pulled his coat closer, the night was bitterly cold in the drafty cabin, even sitting this close to the fire, and Slim shivered.

In the morning, after breakfast, they’d start back to the ranch. He hoped Jess would be up to it.

oOoOo

 

Morning dawned cold and bright. “Won’t be no stage again today,” Jonesy predicted as he stoked the fire in the cookstove.

“I don’t care about the stage,” Andy announced as he looked out the window at the drifted over ranch yard. “I just want Slim and Jess to get home.”

“You just keep your britches on, boy. Patience is a virtue you need to practice.”

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Slim let Jess sleep as late as he could. Finally, though, it was the smell of coffee that woke the ranchhand.

Slim was half way through his second cup when he saw Jess finally stir and his blue eyes open. “Hey there sleepyhead.”

Jess shifted, drew in a sharp breath, and used his elbows to push himself up to a sitting position before running a hand through his unruly hair.

He looked better, Slim decided, less like he was about to cave in at any minute and more alert. “How ya feelin’ this mornin’?”

“I’ll have a better idea after I get some of that,” Jess answered, gesturing toward the coffee.

“Sure thing.” Slim poured him a cup and handed it over.

Jess cradled it between his hands, savoring the warmth before sipping it gratefully.

“Let’s take a look at that leg, huh?” Slim pulled the buffalo robe off Jess’ leg, then unwound the latest bandage. “This looks good, Jess,” Slim said, examining the wound. The bandage was clean and dry, he saw with relief, though the wound itself still looked red and angry. “I think you’re gonna have a scar, though.”

“Wow, my first,” Jess answered sarcastically, sipping more coffee.

Slim rolled his eyes. “You hurt anywhere else?”

“My ribs are sore, but they ain’t busted. I’ll live I reckon.”

“I reckon so,” Slim smiled, relieved. “You’re too blamed stubborn to kick the bucket.”

Jess grinned at his friend over the coffee cup. “You got that right.”

The rancher carefully bandaged the wound once again while Jess finished his breakfast, and then the tall cowboy packed up their gear. He carried the saddles out and tacked up the horses, then led them back to the front door of the cabin.

With Slim’s help, Jess got up on his feet-- well, up on one foot at least. He tried putting his weight on his left leg, but it gave way like a broken twig, and only his friend’s steadying hand kept him from falling. Slim slid his arm around Jess’ waist and helped him out to the horses, watching him mount and noting the way Jess’s breath hitched as he did so. His ribs must be dang sore, Slim realized, and the rancher’s face clouded with worry. “You sure you’re up to ridin’?”

Jess nodded, his face pale but determined. “I’m on my horse. I’ll be fine.”

Slim mounted up and led the way back across the meadow, at first following their tracks from last night, but then they needed to veer off toward the road.

The snow was deep here and the horses struggled. It was hard work staying in the saddle, and the animals were quickly exhausted from the heavy work of plowing through the big drifts, their weariness compounded by days of short rations.

They settled into a routine of riding a hundred yards, then pausing to let the horses catch their breath before moving on. Slim got off and walked in some places, leading the horses around the drifts when he could, but they made slow progress.

Jess’ morning burst of energy didn’t last, either. By noon he was slumping in the saddle, his hands wrapped around the horn, with nothing more than his oversized streak of stubbornness keeping him aboard his horse.

Slim’s concern for his friend rose higher and higher as the hours passed. Jess was trying hard not to give in, but he was obviously exhausted. Combined with the slow travel, the worn-out horses and the approaching darkness, Slim knew he would soon have to make a decision: risk traveling in the dark or camp out one more night.

Either choice had serious drawbacks.

Slim didn’t want to stop, he wanted to get Jess back to the ranch, but it was clear that his friend needed a break, and the horses needed one even more.

On the other hand, he didn’t have any feed for the animals, and not much grub left for himself or Jess.

Slim was still mulling over his choice when Jess made up his mind for him. One minute, they were riding along side by side, as they’d been doing most of the day, and the next, Jess was slipping slowly out of the saddle.

Slim was quick enough to slide off his horse and reach up to steady his friend before he fell to the ground. “Whoa, partner, where you goin’ there?” Slim could feel Jess shivering.

Jess was shaking his head and blinking like he was only half awake. He rubbed a cold hand across his face and looked around, bewildered. “What?”

“I think we need to stop for a rest,” Slim answered.

“We won’t make it home tonight if we do.”

“I know. But you — ”

“I’m fine,” Jess mumbled, pushing himself upright in the saddle with an effort but definitely not sounding, or looking, fine.

“Right. You’re fine,” Slim agreed sarcastically. “So fine you can’t sit your own horse. Well, it doesn’t matter, though, how ‘fine’ you are because these horses need to rest. They won’t make it much further today,” he added gruffly. Jess might not listen to reason about his own welfare, but he’d care about the horses, Slim knew.

As Slim expected, Jess nodded slowly in agreement.

They were going to have to make camp and quick, but Slim knew of a good place nearby. “We can go down to Stone Creek, camp there tonight. The rocks will provide good shelter.” It would be cold but a big enough fire would go a long ways toward making a decent camp, even without a roof over their heads. Slim even recalled that an old tree had gone down there in a storm last summer—it would supply more than enough wood to keep a roaring blaze going all through the night.

That was where Slim lead them a few minutes later, down into the little pocket where the stream rippled down the rock-strewn hillside and widened into the pond where Andy liked to swim in the summer. Nobody would be swimming there now, of course -- the pond was completely frozen over.

As soon as they stopped at the bottom of the hill near the water, Slim dismounted and picked a spot for their camp, clearing the snow away and laying out their groundsheets before helping Jess off his horse. While Jess sat huddled in the buffalo robe, the rancher tied their horses to a tree, gathered wood, and quickly got a fire going.

It didn’t make a bad camp with the fire burning hot and bright and the rocks reflecting the heat. Soon, Jess was dozing beside the warmth of the fire.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Jonesy tried to keep the boy’s, and his own, spirits up, but it was getting harder and harder as the hours passed. As they faced another night with Slim and Jess still missing, it was all Jonesy could do to hold in his own growing fears.

“I should have gone out after them,” Andy declared angrily, peering out the window for the tenth time in the past hour.

“Now Andy, that’s just not sensical at all.”

“Well, I should have,” the boy insisted.

Jonesy could see Andy was near to tears. “There’s plenty of good explanations why they aren’t back yet.”

“Name me one,” Andy demanded, standing with arms folded across his chest and glaring at the old-timer.

“Jess’s horse could have thrown a shoe.”

“Not likely.”

“Slim might have broke the cinch on his saddle. They might even have needed to help out some other folks a’stranded out on the road.”

Andy glared at the old man. “Jonesy, now who ain’t makin’ sense?” The youngster spun around and stomped off to his room, slamming the door in frustration. He didn’t even come out to eat supper.

Then again, Jonesy couldn’t eat his, either.

He sat alone by the fire, smoking his pipe, hoping to hear the sound of hoofbeats that did not come.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

While Jess slept, Slim used the last of their supplies to make supper. Once the meager meal was ready, he filled one plate and carried it over to the ranch hand who was resting, head down, wrapped in the buffalo robe. The tall man knelt down, and put one hand on his friend’s shoulder, shaking it gently. “Jess.”

The blue eyes opened slowly. “Hmmh?”

“Here’s your supper.” Slim handed him the plate and a fork, then turned away to kneel down to hold his hands out in front of the fire to warm them.

Jess took a bite, and then realized what he was, or rather wasn’t, seeing. “Slim?”

“I already ate, while you were sleeping,” the tall man fibbed.

Jess seemed to accept the lie and ate, finishing about half of what was on his plate. He didn’t have much appetite, he was still hurting too much for that. When he couldn’t eat anymore, he called out, “Slim.”

Slim turned from where he was adding more wood to the fire. “What do you need?”

He pointed to the food left on his plate. “You might as well finish this. I’m full.”

“Eat the rest, Jess.”

“Can’t.”

“There wasn’t that much. Finish it.”

“No. I can’t eat another bite.” Jess reached out and pushed the plate toward Slim. “It’d be a shame to throw it away. Go on.”

Slim eyed his friend, wondering if his growling stomach had led to Jess figure out the truth. “You sure?”

“I said so, didn’t I?”

“Okay.” He wiped off the spoon and dug in.

Tucked inside his blankets, Jess smiled. Slim thought he was sly, but Jess wasn’t near so easy to fool as his friend sometimes thought.

Slim hardly slept all that night. Worried about Jess getting cold, he stayed up stoking the fire constantly until the sun finally rose, bringing light and the first bits of warmth to the day.

oOoOo oOoOo

 

Jonesy and Andy had finished the morning chores and by mutual agreement, neither one saying a word to the other, they each saddled up a horse. They were going out to look for the missing men. The cold seemed to have broken at last. Thick clouds covered the sun, but a Chinook wind had risen during the night, bringing warmer air with it.

Andy had just tied his horse to the corral fence when he thought he saw a flicker of movement at the top of the hill. He stepped around the animal and held a hand above his eyes, squinting to see better.

Someone was riding in—no, wait, there were two riders, coming in real slow.

“Jonesy! Jonesy! Someone’s coming!” Andy untied his horse, leaped into the saddle, and with a slap of the reins sent his horse galloping up the hill.

He’d gone only a dozen strides when he saw one of the figures wave, and quickly recognized him as Slim. At first glance, though, the boy wasn’t sure the rider next to him was Jess. The man looked small and slumped in the saddle, wrapped up to his ears in some sort of blanket; and then Andy was close enough to be sure that the horse was Traveler, so he knew the rider was Jess. He kicked his horse into a faster gallop and a moment later pulled up beside the two men, the first smile on his face in days. “It’s about time you two got home!”

“Hey, Andy, sorry we worried ya,“ Slim smiled back, but he looked gray-faced with fatigue.

“Andy,” Jess said softly, his face barely visible and his voice all muffled by the way the buffalo robe was wrapped around him.

“What happened? Are you all right?” Andy asked, worriedly.

“Jess liked the snow so much he decided he’d like to just stay out in it.” Slim teased.

“Yeah, right,” Jess responded without his usual energy. “I near busted my leg, and my ribs, and then I could have froze to death, not to mention riskin’ my life eatin’ your cookin’.“

Slim smiled broadly. “Why Jess, I thought you Texans were tough.”

“We are tough. And I’ll be fine, along about spring, I reckon,” Jess kidded right back.

oOoOo

 

The men devoured a hot meal, Jess barely able to keep his eyes open, and then he took to his bed and slept for nearly all of the next two days, waking only long enough to eat and drink and use the facilities before dropping right back off to sleep again.

On the third day, near mid-morning, Jess woke feeling clear-headed and rested. He pulled on his pants and shirt and limped slowly out toward the kitchen, in search of coffee and food.

Slim was seated at his desk, account book open in front of him. He smiled as his friend appeared, relieved to see Jess up at last. “I was beginning to think you were going to hibernate until spring.”

“I was thinkin’ about it.” Jess answered with a yawn. “There any coffee around here?”

“On the stove.”

Jess poured himself a cup, hobbled across the room and sat gingerly in the rocking chair in front of the fireplace, hitching it up closer to the heat. He wrapped both hands around the cup, letting the steam waft up against his face and soaking in the warmth before taking a drink. “You know, hibernatin’ ain’t such a bad idea.”

Slim shut the tally book he was working on and walked over to stand beside the fire. “It’s warmer out today. Snow’s even startin’ to melt a little. Most of it’ll probably be gone by the end of the week.”

Jess shook his head in puzzlement. “Why’d your family ever pick such a god-forsaken place for ranchin’, anyway?” he asked, sipping at the coffee.

Slim smiled. “It’s beautiful country.”

“In the summer.” Jess countered. “Me, I’ll take Texas.”

“In the summer? I’ve been there in that heat. And no thanks.”

Jess stared into his coffee. “Yeah, guess just like horses and people, when it comes to places, there’s none that’s perfect.”

“That includes ranch hands, too. You know how much work ain’t been done around here the past few days? Why I bet all that snow took down half the fences and we’ll need to haul hay up to the pastures to feed the cattle, and then there’s wood to cut because we’re sure to run out and--” Slim was building up a head of steam like a freight train on a downhill run.

Jess closed his ears, no longer listening but smiling. He was safe and warm; he was home, and that was all that mattered.

_____ The End _____

 

 



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