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'Thank you' again to those who have written with words of encouragement. Here
is an another chapter.
Once again morning brought them back to the reality that winter would soon be upon them. It was cold and a wind blew down the mountainside. There was very little frost, and the sky was gray with fast moving clouds.
"We'd better a move on," Rusty said after they eaten, "It seems to be getting darker."
"Yes," Jessie said, "A storm's brewing for sure."
Jim said nothing, but he agreed. Even though he wasn't from this part of the country, he knew bad weather when he saw it. And he not only saw it, he felt and smelled it.
They started down the mountainside toward the herd of cattle that grazed restlessly on the lush pasture that was still green. They saw that the herd numbered more than three hundred now that they could see them in the daylight. They hadn't even reached the floor of the valley before the first snowflakes began to swirl about them. Rusty had hoped that they could get the cattle on the move before the snow began. Still the wind was not blowing strongly in the valley, so maybe it wasn't too late. The herd would simply not move during a storm, they knew better even if the cattlemen didn't.
Jessie looked about the valley for an exit that would lead to the other herd. When he spotted a way through he pointed.
"There it is," he shouted, "that should take us to the other herd." The three men rode rapidly to the other end of the valley and then began shouting and shooting a few shots into the air from their pistols. The herd began to move. Slowly at first, since the cattle at the other end of the valley didn't know what was going on. But as those closest to the cattlemen began running, the noise and confusion took over, and the entire herd began moving in the direction that the men wanted them to go.
The valley slow climbed out and upward at one end. The men didn't keep up the noise that had begun the movement. They had to allow the herd to climb slowly out of the valley, but they watched for any sign that they were going to stop. As the cattle began slowing, the men fired a couple of shots in the air to get them started again. After the third volley of shots the cattle were nearing the crossing point into the next valley, and were content to continue moving in that direction. When the three men reached the summit of the ridge they could barely seen into the valley and wondered if it were the right one. The snow was coming down hard now. If it wasn't the right valley, it was still unlikely that they could get the herd they were following to climb out of its protection again. But as they started down into the valley there was a slight lull in the snow, and they could see the other herd beginning to mill about.
The cattle that were joining them slowed and began mixing with them. Gradually there appeared to be no movement toward the obvious exit at the other end of the valley. Once again the snow began to come down in earnest. The flakes were at first large and wet, but quickly became the smaller more dense kind signaling the onset of serious snow.
"Jessie, Rusty," Jim said, "we'd better find some shelter for ourselves while we can still see."
Rusty pointed off to the right, "There, isn't that some sort of bank we could pull up against?"
The three of them rode hard in the direction of the side of the mountain. It was more than a bank; it was a cave like opening, which had been caused by the movement of rushing water at some time in the distant past.
They pulled up outside of the opening and climbed down. Jim rushed in to inspect it. Jessie held his horse while Rusty held onto the pack horse. Jim quickly returned.
"Come on," he said, "we aren't the first ones to use it."
The three led their horses up just inside the opening. It was large enough that they could bring the animals inside further if it was necessary. But for now they would tie them just inside. The animals sensing that they were now sheltered for the storm settled into their usual placid position, with their tails to the wind.
The three men inspected the cave a little further in. They found evidence that others had been there before them. There were even several anchors to which they could tie their canvas shelter cloth. A roughly formed fire ring was still in sight, even though a large amount of dirt and sand had filtered in around it.
Jessie quickly scooped it out while the other two search around for wood to burn. They had to go quite a ways from the opening before they found much in the way of usable wood. They carried and dragged the dried tree parts back to the cave, and went back for more. Jessie quickly began breaking up what they had brought and building a small fire.
Once he had a small blaze going he added larger pieces. When the other two returned with more branches the fire was blazing warmly. They paused to warm themselves before returning out into the storm. It had become quite cold now, and the snow was accumulating rapidly. They needed to get a goodly supply of wood, as there was no way of knowing how long they'd have to stay. This time Jessie went out with them.
When they returned once more, Jim said, "Rusty, you're the good cook. Why don't you fix us something to eat? Some hot coffee would be good first."
"I don't know about being a good cook, but the rest of what you said sounds mighty good." While the other two warmed themselves he began getting the supplies out, and the utensils for cooking. He didn't bother pouring water into the coffee pot, rather he walked outside and scooped up the fresh snow and carried the packed pot back to the fire. Jim knowing that more would be needed as the pot got hot, took the kettle out and packed it full too. Then he and Jessie made another trek out into the storm.
"We'd better stick together," Jim said as they skirted around the edge of the mountain to gather more wood. They came to a small stand of elders which would prove to be a goodly source of firewood should they need more than they already had. They cared and dragged as much as they could back to the cave.
"We've got us a source." Jim said, "There's more than we can use in three days all in one spot." They broke up the larger pieces and took the hatchet to those that needed splitting. Soon they had a good-sized stack of wood pile nearby the fire.
Rusty dumped coffee grounds into the boiling water and stirred it with the wooden spoon. Soon the air was filled with the heady aroma of cooked coffee.
The snow blown by the wind was now drifting across the entrance to the cave. The horses were move further in to keep them from the cold and dampness of the snow that blew about their hooves. It was still early in the afternoon, but it was almost as dark as night. Without the light from the fire they wouldn't have been able to move about the cave even though they were within fifteen feet from the entrance.
With the fire they were not cold if they were close to it. But standing at the entrance the wind and blowing snow made it seem as if it were well below freezing, even below zero perhaps, they had no way of knowing.
"I expect we'll loose some cattle in this storm," Rusty said looking at Jim and Jessie.
"I reckon so," Jim answered, "especially if it lasts longer than today and tonight."
Jessie just nodded. He wasn't so concerned about the cattle as he was about the men and himself. Even though he wasn't in charge, he was still responsible for them.
"We'll be okay," Rusty said, looking a Jessie, "we've got plenty of food. God knows we'll have no problem with getting water. We may have a little problem getting more firewood when what we've got runs out, but Jim and you said you had a source. I reckon it can't be too far away."
"No," Jessie said, "it's fairly close. And right along the cliff here too, so I don't figure we'll get lost."
"I figure we got enough wood to last till morning, if we let the fire die down a bit tonight." Jim looked over at the pile of wood, and added, "If the wind goes down a bit we'll go out and bring in some more, just in case."
"You guys hungry?" Rusty asked, "I'll fix us something in a while, soon as I go through our supplies." He got up and went over to where they'd put the packs that they'd taken down from the horse. He looked through the bags to see how much of everything they had. He made mental notes on what they had, and how much. When he finished he sat back down near the fire.
"Well," he said, "I think we can last more than a week without even scrimping on things. If we see we're going to be longer than that in a couple days, we can cut back and stretch it even further.
"What are we, three days from the ranch, even with the cattle?" he asked out loud just to confirm his own opinion.
"Yeah, at most," Jim answered.
"That's what I figured too," Jessie said adding, "a' course it depends on how much snow we get."
"True enough," Jim said, "It might be four days then."
"That made it that we could be here up to three whole days without having to worry about cutting down on rations," Rusty thought to himself.
He proceeded to prepare a hearty stew using the last of the smoked beef and fresh vegetables they'd brought along. Using the big pot there'd be enough to two days more, even if they all ate heartily. When it was safely bubbling on the fire, he made a pan of cornbread and baked it in the Dutch oven next to the stew. He'd have to watch it so it didn't burn, which it would do even before he could smell its fragrance. He stirred the pot of stew slowly as it bubbled slowly. He couldn't cover it because it was being used on the cornbread. He peeked at the cornbread a couple of times as it baked. Then the third time he set it back on a rock next to the fire to finish. He tested the potatoes with the long knife to see if they were nearing done, they were not, nor were the other things.
After more stirring and checking and peeking at the cornbread, and sniffing to see if it was right, he passed the plates, cups and spoons to the other two men. Then he ladled up the stew and cut hunks of cornbread from the pan. Then after filling his own plate he pour the fragrant coffee from the pot that had quickly boiled while he was finishing up the other food.
They sat down to enjoy the meal. It seemed Rusty that food had never tasted as good before. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it, as they said nothing and ate heartily. Both Jim and Jessie accepted a second piece of cornbread when offered it. Rusty didn't mind that it would be gone in one sitting, as it wasn't as good the next day. Jim set his plate down beside himself and patted his stomach.
"Ah that was surely good."
Jessie who was just finishing agreed and asked, "So where's the apple pie?"
They all laughed. Jessie cleaned up the dishes using the snow that continued to pile up at the entrance. Rusty found a spot next to the wall near the entrance away from the horses, and pack snow about the stew pot. That would keep it fresh. Even though there was little chance of it spoiling in the time it would take them to eat it, he didn't want it to cook any more or the vegetables would turn to mush. When everything was put away from the meal, they all sat down to enjoy a second cup of coffee and smokes that Jim had rolled for them. They formed a semicircle about the fire and lean back against their saddles for comfort.
Jim took out his watch and looked at the time. The way it looked at the end of the cave it could have been midnight, but it was just past five o'clock in the afternoon.
Jessie got up and walked over to the entrance. He patted the rump of the horses as he passed.
"It doesn't seem to be letting up any," as he peered into the darkness of blowing and swirling snow. The drift that had blown across the entrance was nearly four feet high and extended again as far into the cave. There weren't even shadows visible beyond it. He walked back toward the fire and saw the Rusty and Jim had rolled out the blankets. Rusty was leaning over Jim kissing him softly. Jessie paused a moment and watched, not wanting to disturb them. Rusty caught sight of the figure emerging from the darkness and motioned for him to join them.
He moved forward, stopping momentarily to put another log on the fire, before settling down on the blanket next to the two lovers. He longed to have a lover too. But as long as his father lived he'd never be able to live openly with anyone.
Jessie pulled off his boots and jeans and joined the couple under the blankets. They welcomed him not in words but in the way they reached out to him and pulled him within their embrace.
Rusty woke during the night with the need to go to the bathroom. He slipped gently from the arm of Jim who lay between him and Jessie, with an arm around each. He pulled on his boots and his fleece-lined coat. He felt cold in spite of their warmth. The fire was still glowing with coals and radiated warmth around it. Carefully he laid a couple of good-sized pieces from the pile into them.
He looked toward the entrance and in the half light from the fire could see the horses with their breath steaming from the large nostrils steeled against the cold of the wind swirling a short distance behind them.
Rusty walked over to them and patted their noses gently to reassure them that all was well. He walked around them out to the edge of the drift that had encroached into the cave. The drift now was waist high, and the wind still howled outside in the darkness. Beyond the drift he could see little. It was still night and the storm continued, was about all he could tell. He continued to stare into the darkness.
He turned when he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Jim.
"Hi there," Rusty said. "Had to take a piss."
"What time is it?"
Jim pulled out his watch and held it up so the light from behind them played on the face.
"It's almost six thirty. Unless we slept longer than I figure, that's in the morning."
"It should be light outside by now," Rusty said.
"Sure doesn't look much like it." Jim walked to the wall opposite the horses and got ready to relieve himself.
"Hey, not there. Our dinner is in there somewhere."
"Opps, sorry." Jim grinned and he stepped away toward the center of the opening next to Rusty. They both urinated into the drift making a yellow stain in the snow.
They hurried back to their bed and climbed back under the blankets.
"What time is it?" Jessie asked as he felt the coldness of the body next to him.
"Six thirty," Jim answered as he pull Rusty close to himself.
"Wow! I guess this is still the best place to be."
"Sure is." Jim said, "Nothing to do out there anyway." Jim lay back and put his arm around Jessie.
"I'll be back in a minute," Jessie crawled and ran to the entrance and was back a moment later. Despite the short time he was gone he was cold when he climbed back under the blankets. He snuggled against Jim.
"God it's cold out there," he said.
Jim giggled, "You should have dressed first."
"It didn't seem worth it."
They woke some time later. Rusty was the first to notice that there was some light coming from the entrance.
"Hey look," he almost yelled.
The other two sat up and followed his gaze. They saw that indeed the storm was beginning to subside. Not far beyond the opening they could see the dark shapes standing in the snow. The three of them climbed out of bed and dressed hurriedly. Pulling their coats tightly about them they went quickly to the entrance. Although the wind still blew fiercely outside away from the cave, it appeared as if the snow had stopped falling. They could see the cattle that huddled close together against the storm. Out beyond the herd they saw a few dark spots that indicated some which had not survived.
Rusty quickly assessed the size of the herd. Even with the looses, it was larger, than they had estimated in the near darkness of the day before. It appeared that there were almost a thousand in the herd.
"Look at the size of the herd!" Rusty exclaimed, "Must be a thousand out there."
"Yes," Jim said, "it was quite a find."
"I'll say!" Jessie chimed in.
While Rusty fixed them something to eat, Jim and Jessie crawled over the bank to check out the snow depth further away from their shelter.
They also went down against the cliff and gathered some more firewood. I was quite a challenge to carry much back through the drifts. When they got to the big drift at the entrance they had to throw the pieces over it and climb back through the hard packed snow. Although hard packed, not hard enough for them to walk over. After they warmed themselves Rusty served up the food.
It was close to noon by the time they finished. Even without looking outside they could tell that the storm had regained its strength. Not only was it blowing, but snowing harder than they had seen before. And although it was difficult to tell, it seemed, as though it was even colder than it had been before.
They huddled around the fire that now was blazing warmly. They kept the fire small but hot to conserve their meager supply of wood.
They could barely contain their disappointment, and conversation disappeared as each stood with their own thoughts.
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