His father dead and his mother remarried, Bill felt alone. Now his father’s old horse was missing, and Bill was determined to find him and bring him home.
From the Relief Society Magazine, March, 1951 –
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Skeets heaved himself up the last two yards to the top of the hill. Safely there he stopped to blow. Bill shifted in the saddle as his glance went swiftly, then carefully, over the pageantry unfolding about him. The undulation of hills, spotted with jack pine and seamed with canyons, moved majestically among shifting cloud curtains. Nothing in sight. He reached for the glasses that hung on his saddle horn and lifted them to his eyes. Still nothing, except those warning curtains.
An aching heaviness settled the boy deeper in the saddle. Those colts must be somewhere near. For days he had ridden the lower slopes without a glimpse of them. A cold wind struck his face and his hopes soared. Maybe the wind would drive the clouds away. More likely it would close the curtain completely. something was haywire for, with this weather, the horses should have been headed for the valley.
“Let them go,” Jake, Mom’s new husband, had said last night. “Colts have wintered out before and, with this spell of weather on the way, you are more likely to run into trouble than horses.”
“Yes,” Mom had echoed. “They’ll come home when they get hungry.”
Bill hadn’t answered that. Mom could sure play dumb sometimes. She knew as well as Bill that there were several reasons why a horse might not come back to the ranch. Every fall Dad had combed these hills for colts and geldings that had summered out.
“Rings is with them.”
Mom had blinked hard at that, but almost at once had asked, “How do you know?”
“Because I know, and he’s the one I’m …”
“He knows his way around,” Jake had interrupted, “and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth the risk you are taking. There is a bad storm brewing. Don’t leave the ranch tomorrow.”
“And who are you to be giving me orders?’ Bill’s eyes had demanded, but because of Mom he had kept quiet. He would never forgive Jake for that crack – never. And he would never treat him as a father, even if he was Mom’s new husband.
Rings was all that Bill had left now that Mom had turned traitor. A year last summer to have seen Rings was to have seen Dad, and the other way about. Why, that horse was practically human. That’s why he had run away. Bill might try it himself. He would like to run so fast and so far he would leave behind forever the aching emptiness left by Dad’s going. He had thought he was forgetting a little when this situation over Rings had come up. Maybe if he and Rings tried they could find that mysterious place where Dad was.
Kid stuff! He shook his head to clear his eyes. It didn’t do much good. Oh, well, he could bawl all he wanted. There was no one to see or care since Mom was so wrapped up in Jake. His mouth tightened stubbornly. After that crack by Jake he would find Rings or die trying.
Now Bill turned in the saddle and looked back the way he had come. Through a break in the hills he could see the toy buildings that marked the Home Ranch, and back of this last ridge, but out of sight, was the Halfway Ranch. The men there still hadn’t gone to the valley for the winter.
A stinging wind struck his face. It felt like snow and he’d better get a move on. No one but Dad had ever found his way out of these hills in a blizzard. Jake had been right about one thing, Rings did know his way around, and that was why he should have been home. And every horse had his blind spot, even Rings.
Skeets jumped at an unexpected dig with the spurs and started to run down the short slope. He was still running when the upward slope of another hill slowed him. Again Bill searched the landscape. Skeets grew restless but was held by the pressure of his rider’s knees.
The drifting clouds had massed for an attack. The hills were a confusing hotchpotch of dull lights and darker shadows. Back of the hills the mountains thrust their white peaks above the clouds. Bill was alone in a world of silence and space. Why hope to find a horse in this expanse of eternity?
With a grunt of despair Bill dropped his glasses, then raised them abruptly. something had moved, a shadow had emerged from a clump of pines. Bill’s heart knocked hard against his ribs. It was a horse. Skeets jumped at his yell of triumph, but headed north by east as the reins directed. The ground was seamed by gulches and stippled with shrubs and boulders, but they pushed relentlessly ahead. It was not far as the crow flies, but Skeets was not a crow.
The next time Bill stopped to look he had trouble locating the spot. When his eyes finally caught it he expelled his breath with relief. It was Rings. He could tell by his size and by the way he held his head. There was something so like Dad in the proud free way the horse threw his head. The sight brought back the aching. The colts were there, too, but they were milling around instead of traveling. Bill knew the spot. It was a base high knob jutting out from a broken point of the mountain. He and Dad had often passed there when they went fishing in Crystal Lake.
The knob and Crystal Lake brought fresh memories of Dad and of home that wasn’t a home any longer. If only Dad hadn’t tried to ride that black bronc. He had ridden wilder ones, but this time something had slipped. Later Jake had shot the bronc, but that hadn’t brought Dad back. Jake had been foreman of the Home Ranch ever since Bill could remember. He had a place joining on the south, but ever since his wife’s death he had lived with the rest of them. Now he was running the Home Ranch and trying to run Bill. Some day Bill would run that ranch himself with no help from anyone – least of all Jake.
It took a long half hour to reach the slope opposite the knob. Bill saw at a glance why the colts weren’t traveling. There was but one way down from the knob and that way led across a steep narrow cut. From there it zigzagged down to meet the forestry road. There was no snow on the bluff, but a blanket of it lay across the gulch. Undoubtedly the horses had taken shelter in the grove of trees during an earlier storm, and when it was over snow blocked their way either up or down. With all their sense, horses were sure dumb about some things. They might break through a fence but they would never cross the snow.
A dark roan, with white rings about his eyes, had been watching their approach. At Bill’s greeting he came galloping down the short slope, but stopped abruptly at the edge of the snowdrift. He tossed his head and whistled excitedly. Bill swung form the saddle and went to stand opposite him. With reins dangling, Skeets followed.
“You are half-starved.”
There was a deep hollow below the horse’s hip bone, and his ribs could be counted at a glance. The colts had taken an even harder beating. A quick look at the trees in the background showed how hungry they were.
“Come on, Rings, come on across.” Bill took a handful of oats from his pocket and held it out coaxingly. The horse sniffed and stepped forward gingerly. Bill held his breath as one powerful foot after another tested the snow. Rings gained confidence, but abruptly one leg sank to the shoulder in snow. Squealing with terror, the horse plunged back to solid footing, nor could Bill coax or threaten him into make the attempt again. The yearlings had followed Rings down the slope and, excited by Bill’s coaxing, they milled about the older horse.
Hunched so the collar of his sheepskin jacket protected his head, Bill considered. The only way to release these cayuses was to break a trail for them, but it was now or never. If he took time to go for help the storm would block the passes before he could get back.
“No horse is worth the risk you are taking,” Jake had said. Maybe not. If he had a gun he might shoot them, but now that he was here he wasn’t leaving them to starve. From the looks of them, that wouldn’t take too long.
Tentatively Bill put out a foot to test the snow. There should be a crust from an earlier storm that would hold his weight. The gulch was twenty or thirty yards across, but the snow might vary from six inches to twenty feet in depth. He studied the slope to determine where the gulch might be the shallowest. The colts followed Rings back and forth slowly, as if they had no part in what was going on.
Bill started across. He had gone a dozen feet when the crust broke and he was floundering in snow to his armpits. Panic seized him, and he twisted about and fought his way back to solid footing. He stamped hard, beating the snow from his boots and levis. He beat his hands together to warm them. He looked about for help but there was none. There were only the hills and the silence and the storm that was coming his way on the double. A few stinging flakes struck, his face and sifted under his collar.
“I can’t do it.” He turned, and Rings, as if sensing his doubt, whinnied softly. Misery clouded the boy’s eyes. “If I stop to help you out the storm will take you and me, and the colts.”
Wasn’t that what Jake had said? But Jake – with vivid clarity, a memory came to Bill, something out of his life with Dad. The time had been the Fourth of July and the occasion a community rodeo. His Dad had won several events, and Bill had decided he wanted to ride a calf.
“No,” his father had told him several times, “you will get hurt.”
“No, I won’t.”
“But you will. In five years you may ask me again.”
But Bill had persisted. “I ride them at home all the time and I want to try.”
“All right.” Dad’s mouth had looked grim even to a six-year-old. “You might as well have your lesson right now, but don’t expect sympathy.”
Bill still remembered the awful sting of the sand as he had plowed face first into it. He had wanted horribly to cry, but he had blinked hard and staggered away. The next thing he remembered he and Dad had been sitting on high stools sipping ice cream sodas. The cool inside his throat helped a little to make him forget the burn on his face and hands. That night Mom had laid them both out while she was trying to wash the grains of sand from his face.
“When a man asks for something,” Dad had answered, watching the washing with one eye and his paper with the other, “he has to take what he gets.”
Okay. He had lived through that, he could live through this – maybe. Skeets could help. Bill uncoiled a rope from his saddle horn and tied the loose end about his waist. If he got in too deep he could climb out hand over hand.
“Hold it,” he told Skeets.
The frozen ground creaked under his boots. Bill studied the slope carefully and chose a spot slightly below where he had tried before. Carefully, tentatively, he pushed one foot ahead of the other. Maybe, just maybe, he would have luck all the way across. Here the blanket might be shallow enough to – the thought ended abruptly, as one leg went through the crust. Once broken, the snow refused to hold him. For a frightening moment he floundered, but gradually his feet packed the snow so he could work forward. He shuffled and stamped, going ahead by falls rather than by steps. In five minutes he had broken into a sweat that chilled instantly when he stopped to rest. The sharp wind, sweeping down from the slopes, picked up and loosened snow and flung it in his eyes and under the cuffs and collar of his jacket. He lost track of time. There was only one thing in the universe, and that was the need for speed. Slowly, slowly, he lessened the distance between him and the horses.
He reached the part of the snow that should be the deepest. This was where the test would come. If the snow were too deep, his cause was lost. He lurched ahead and was jerked abruptly onto his back. Scrambling frantically to his feet he looked about – he had just come to the end of his rope.
Without hesitation, he took off his gloves and held them under his arm while he fumbled with the knot. The rope was frozen and refused to yield. From the pocket of his levis he took his knife and when he had managed to get the blade open he cut the rope. Skeets whinnied, not understanding the sudden slack.
How he made the remaining distance and how long it took him Bill merely guessed afterward. He suddenly became aware that he was lying on the ground and Rings was nuzzling him. There were tiny icicles clinging to the hairs about the horse’s nostrils. Bill fished for the oats and let Rings nibble them from his hand. Then he turned his attention to his problem.
He had not made much of a trail, and he doubted if the horses would attempt it. He clutched his fingers in Ring’s long mane and, talking soothingly, started across. Rings went willingly until he felt snow against his belly. Snorting, he whirled back, almost jerking Bill from his feet. The boy’s temper flared.
“You knothead! You think I’m doing this for fun? Darn horses, anyway. They don’t have a lick of sense sometimes.” Guess at that they showed as much sense as he had. He scanned the horizon anxiously. Another hour. Taking a deep breath, he plunged back into the snow.
Going across was not hard this time, or wouldn’t have been had his muscles been less tired. Back and forth, back and forth, he went trampling the snow with his heavy boots.
There. He had done all he could do. The temperature had risen, which meant the storm was near. Peaks and shadows that had guided him here were now curtained out. A sense of hurry made his cold fingers even clumsier than they had been. Making a hackamore of his rope, he led Rings onto the trail. Rings, contrarily, led as willingly as if they were crossing a pasture. The colts followed close behind.
By the time they were headed home the storm was on them. Flakes swept down the slopes with an alertness and precision that spoke of unlimited reserves. As the storm thickened one side of Skeet’s neck was covered with snow. Bill tired to beat it from his own clothes with the reins, but in less time than it took to remove it he was covered again. He thought grimly of old Gil Tanner who had started for his place on the Wolverine before just such a storm. The next March he had been found sitting with his back to a tree. A kindly blanket of snow had kept the coyotes away. His horse had never been found. Maybe – maybe this was his and Ring’s way of joining Dad.
Gradually Bill became aware of the snow hitting them in the face. Had the storm turned, or had he? For a moment he was incapable of deciding, then he turned Skeets and went on. Rings protested, but he spoke sharply to him.
On and on. Unnoticed by Bill, their progress became slower and slower. When he did become aware of it he kicked his horse to hurry him, but Skeets stopped instead. No amount of urging would move him. In dull desperation Bill dismounted. The jar of setting his numbed feet to the ground brought him fully awake.
What a jam! He didn’t know south from north, and he couldn’t see a yard ahead. No wonder Jake had ordered him to stay on the ranch. Well, he had always known that no one but Dad could find his way out of these hills in a blizzard, and he had made his choice back there when he stopped to rescue Rings. Rings. Yeah – if Rings was so smart, let him take them to safety. Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Taking the rope from Ring’s halter, he tied it to his tail. It took a lot of fumbling and cutting before he had a knot that would hold. The colts were crowded together with their backs bowed and their heads down. When the impossible was finally accomplished, Bill wiped the snow from the saddle and swung back into it.
“Go on, Rings,” he commanded. “We’re tied to you so we go where you go.”
Rings didn’t move. Bill repeated his command, and slowly the horse raised his face to the wind. He stepped tentatively ahead, then, realizing he was no longer being led, he turned and started off at right angles to the course they had been traveling. Bill’s heart leaped with fear, but he knew Rings was his last hope.
Darkness thickened the snow, and he could no longer see the colts. Soon he couldn’t see Rings, but the pull on the rope was there. He dozed and came awake as Skeets bumped into the leader. Rings was standing, and Bill sensed he was listening.
“Get going,” Bill urged.
Instead of moving, Rings whinnied, a loud clear call that brought the colts crowding about him. There was no answer. Again Rings called, and this time an answer came, faint but unmistakable. Hope went through Bill with the force of an electric shock and brought him upright in the saddle. Where there was another horse there might be another rider. He put all his strength into a loud “Hello!” His heart beat so thunderingly he half heard a thousand answers and was not certain of one. Again he called, and incredibly a man answered. Bill held to the saddle horn to keep from falling. Good old Jake.
Calling back and forth, sometimes losing each other’s voice, but always regaining it, they drew near each other. Then out of the storm a shadow appeared.
“Where did you find them?” Jake’s voice was so matter-of-fact it took away the terror of the whirling darkness.
“On the knob going to Crystal Lake.”
“I thought of that. Rings was stranded there once before.”
Hurt still rankled in Bill. “Why did you come when you hate Rings so?”
“I don’t hate him, Bill, but your mother took one mighty stiff jolt from a horse. She couldn’t take another.” He hesitated a moment then added, “We’ll try for the Halfway Ranch.”
Bill lost all sense of time. On and on they went, until dark and storm and time had lost their meaning. He was jarred into consciousness by a loud whistle from Rings and the rough feel of his ribs as they rubbed against Bill’s leg. The wind was bringing the smell of burning wood. They were against a fence and two men were helping Jake from his horse. He could not see, but the sounds told their story. They were safe at Halfway Ranch, and Dad could have done no better. Jake came up to help him, and for the first time Bill realized he was tied to the saddle.
“Well, son, we made it.”
A great weight lifted from Bill’s chest. For the first time in a year and a half he was not alone. With a sigh of deep satisfaction, he reached out and found Jake’s hand.