Thursday, July 17, 2014

OCHO continued...by Jim Satterfield

This is the third installment of my serialized novella, Ocho. See June 19th for second scene.





3

Los Montanas Solitarios (The Lonely Mountains)

The trail wound in a series of switchbacks, from the valley floor to a plateau resting above the last stony wall of the Front. Zefarino labored up the steep slope, the snowy path packed firm the day before by the two ranch hands’ mounts. The old man had strapped the rifle across the back of his rucksack at the trailhead, leaving both hands free to grip the walking staff and tree limbs sweeping across his way. After climbing for over an hour, he paused to survey the surrounding country.
            The sun cleared the eastern horizon, chasing away morning shadows as its slanting rays spread up the mountainside. Ice crystals suspended in thin air glistened like tinsel in the golden light. Overhead, a dazzling sky of blue promised a fine day. Zefarino looked up the rocky draw, figuring he was nearly halfway to the notch in the great reef. There, the grade would lessen, and he could pick up his pace. For now, he resisted the urge to rush, saving his strength for the miles ahead.
            Pushing on, he found his rhythm, leaning against the staff every few steps to catch his breath and rest his bad knee. He had learned a determined man could cover much ground, traveling slow but never stopping…never quitting. The old man knew he was going deep into the wilderness. Ocho would not have retreated from his stronghold of cold and snow. To find him, the hands must have ridden well above timberline, a land of wind-swept basins sprinkled with boulders and stunted evergreens the Americanos called “shin-tangle.”
            Zefarino steadily climbed, his only task to follow the trail broken by others. Soon, he left behind tall firs and passed through stands of stubborn limber pine, their trunks twisted and deformed by wind. He always marveled at their hardiness, their resolve to take root in limestone and rock bereft of nurturing soil. If a tree can sprout from stone, perhaps an old man can scale a mountain, he thought. Grabbing an overhanging limb, he startled himself by saying aloud, “We are not that different, you and I.” He laughed, “You are nearly as bent and crooked as me…but we endure.”
            By late morning, Zefarino neared the gap in the mountain. Tired but elated to approach the summit,
he gazed east upon the rolling prairie below. From over a mile above sea level, the home ranch and outbuildings looked like specks in an ocean of tawny grass. He thought of Lucas, wishing for the boy’s company. “No,” he said, “it is good for him to prove himself without my help.”
A wave of worry washed over the old man, but he slowly shook his head. Lucas loves the animals as much as I, he thought. He will take care of the horses and mules…because he knows no one else will.
            Atop the massive battlement, Zefarino did not look back, following the trail into a stand of lodgepole pine. He flinched when a snowshoe hare exploded at his feet, stirring him from a pleasant daydream. The big rabbit’s coat had turned white for the winter, all but the black tips on its ears. Dodging trees in a blur, the hare disappeared in the underbrush.
After the old man recovered from the scare, he slipped off his pack, leaning it against a fallen log. He untied his rifle and opened the action, reassured to see the full magazine of cartridges. He slid the bolt closed, chambering a round, then flipped the safety on. Shouldering the worn Mauser, he peered through the peep sight, taking a bead on a distant boulder.
“I am in a wild place now,” he said. “I must be alert and keep my weapon ready.”
            Zefarino squirmed back into the rucksack and slung the rifle over his left shoulder, using his right hand to grip the staff. He made better time as the path leveled off on the plateau. Within a few hundred yards, the horse tracks veered left of the main trail, heading south toward a long gulch. The old man’s spirits rose. He knew this country well, having herded cattle and sheep through it years before.
            He took a shortcut where the riders had looped around a finger of aspen running down the shoulder of a nameless mountain. It was a trick to save wear on his bad knee, already aching from the steep climb up the pass. But Zefarino knew from experience, he could rely on his damaged leg if he did not linger too long, allowing the recalcitrant limb to stiffen. He would intersect the trail an hour or two later.
At noon, he stopped in a small meadow, resting his pack on a waist high boulder. He drank from his canteen and ate an apple, cutting it into thin slices with his pocket knife to ease his teeth. Resisting the urge to nap, he lifted on his rucksack and continued through the patchy white-barked trees. Coming over the crest of a hill, he gasped, striking the tracks of a grizzly bear headed in the same direction Zefarino traveled. The old man raised his binoculars, studying massive footprints that disappeared in the shadows of the aspen grove.
            When he tossed a small handful of powdery snow in the air, tiny flakes gently drifted back toward him before settling to the ground. The wind is in my face, he thought. Oso will not smell me as I walk south. I must not surprise him as the conejo startled me.
Normally, Zefarino would have turned back, giving the big grizzly a wide berth, but this day he could not retreat. Still, he abandoned the bear’s path, returning to the cowboys’ trail, always with an eye to his right flank as he walked through scattered pines. Soon, he regained the horses’ tracks, but did not forget a grizzly prowled somewhere ahead.
            Zefarino trudged into the afternoon, stopping at the edge of every crest on the rolling bench to glass the next sweep of land with his binoculars. He spotted herds of mule deer does and fawns browsing bitterbrush and serviceberry, and once he spied a great buck, his mahogany antlers gleaming in the autumn sun. Finally, at the edge of a wide rim overlooking an open basin above timberline he found what he looked for.
            The tracks told their tale. Below the ridgeline, the two hands had dismounted, tying their horses to buckbrush. Then they crawled ahead, stopping to study a distant elk herd. While the unsuspecting animals dug through wind-swept snow to graze on rough fescue, one cowboy pointed out the regal bull, imploring his accomplice to wait for Ocho to step from behind his harem of cows. Shiny cartridge casings still glimmered on the ground, marking where the reckless hand wildly fired at the panicked elk, rather than pausing for one sure shot.
            Zefarino picked up the empty brass, slipping them in his pocket. He crossed the ridge and walked down the bowl, following the widely-spaced footprints of the sprinting men. He saw they had passed a tuft of hair near the tracks of a single elk that had peeled away to their right. But the old man left their path to take up the spoor. Soon he spotted drops of blood frozen in icy hoof prints, then at the edge of the basin, he spied a brown lump partially hidden by shin-tangle.
            Zefarino caught his breath mid-wind, cold sweat running down his back. He poked his staff into the snow and dropped his pack. Carrying his rifle at the ready, he crept forward, eyes fixed on the dead elk. At a stone’s throw from the brush, he recognized the scavenged remains of the cow…surrounded by grizzly tracks. The cowboys never realized they wounded this animal, the old man thought. But the bear found the cow, nearly taking her head off with one vicious blow before disemboweling the prize and gorging on viscera. A crimson ring surrounded the ravaged carcass. The grizzly’s bloody tracks led into a maze of stunted poplars below the basin.
            Zefarino shouldered his rifle, slowly backing away. A cool breeze brushed his neck, the fickle wind carrying his scent toward the distant cover. An instant later, he heard snapping limbs and clicking teeth. A low growl erupted from the poplars followed by a choppy bark. The old man retrieved his staff and pack, watching the brush. He backed away over a low lying ridge, the dead cow now out of sight. But he knew the bear, hidden in the brush, still waited to defend his kill.
            Rushing across the bowl, Zefarino retreated to where the misfits had followed their intended prize, Ocho. He noted a maze of scattered tracks where dozens of elk had milled about, unable to scent or view the men and unsure which direction led to safety. Eventually, the elk had regrouped, fleeing deeper into the wilderness. The cowboys followed, searching for blood as they zigzagged through the wide swath of churned snow left by the herd.
            Zefarino walked along the side of the spoor, studying the sign, and turning now and then to check his own back trail for a stalking bear. After several hundred yards, a single elk had split from the main herd. The two hands followed, surely noting the tracks were twice as large as the others. Ocho left his cows to hide alone in the brush, the old man thought.
            Soon, Zefarino spotted dried blood where Ocho had brushed against serviceberry and mountain oak. They did wound him…but how badly? The ranch hands followed for a mile or more, stopping at bends and crests in the trail to spy the crafty bull. Eventually, the blood petered out and the men abandoned their search, looping right to return to their picketed horses.
            Now Zefarino stood at the edge of a deep ravine where Ocho had disappeared. No longer following in the steps of others, he paused, thinking on his next move. He looked at the mighty bull’s tracks, knowing Ocho waited at the end of the trail, just as surely as a great fish pulling at the end of a line. Zefarino had not eaten or rested for hours. With a grizzly to his rear, he had painstakingly untangled the messy hunt, oblivious to the passing time.
Perhaps I am not too old to roam the Front, the old man thought. I came far today, scaling a mountain and finding Ocho’s path. Tomorrow, I will finish what I started and return to Lucas.
In the chill gloaming, Zefarino searched for a campsite. Gathering darkness would soon swallow the mountain, bringing with it a deepening cold.








Jim Satterfield is the award-winning author of The River’s Song and Saving Laura. Go to www.jimsatterfield.com to learn more about his writing.


1 comment :

Finbarr said...

Enjoyable. Well done.