High Lonesome

Mark Erwin Harvey

Picking ’em up and laying ’em down as fast as his young legs could propel him, Dave Stein ran up the hill from the corral to the cook tent.  He charged through the canvas flaps of the tent, fought for control of his breath, and blurted out in hurried gasps, “Mr. McIntyre, Lady come home without Bob … I found her in the meadow … I don’t know how long she’s been back … her reins are busted … n …”

“Whoa, boy, take it easy.” But already the chest of the old man was beginning to pound as a lump formed in his throat. “You say Lady’s back without Bob?”

“That’s right Mr. McIntyre, I went and got her and put her in the corral with Sundance … she’s all scratched up like she took a fall … then came straight here.”

“You done good, Dave. Let’s have a look. Cookie, go round up the boys. I want ‘em all here in ten minutes. Then you better start building sandwiches.”

“You got it, Mac.”

Jim McIntyre got to his feet in one easy motion. Although nearing seventy years, his physique and agility were more characteristic of a man twenty years younger. Stepping out of the warm tent onto the fresh snow that had fallen that afternoon, his eyes immediately went to the northwest horizon. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains but there was sufficient light left to reveal a clear sky, void of clouds. He hustled to the corral with Dave close at his heels, thoughts racing through his mind: “Gonna be cold tonite, but at least the storm’s quit. Son, wherever you are we’ll find you. Hang in there. What the hell happened?”

*     *     *

Talk about a rock and a hard place    ain’t never seen it so tough   Goddam   hope you boys find me soon   hurting bad   think both legs are broke   ain’t sure  might be my back   been snowing and blowing all afternoon   got some shelter from a big rock   took me an hour to crawl the twenty yards   feel like I’m coming out of shock now   that goddam mare she never bucked harder  if she hadn’t bucked over the ledge I mightve stayed with her but she went down on me   that grizzly come out of nowhere   shouldve been on top of it    came on some fresh tracks not too long before   hope it ain’t the last chance I get to pay attention   its getting dark so I’ll try n write as much as I can   might not be able to come daybreak   sure is cold   wish I could build a fire  mabe you guys would spot it    can’t help ya   nearest wood is too far away and I can barely move  been lying here since noon  must be 100 yards or so up to the trail I was on  mabe I’ll try tomorrow to get there   Lady took off don’t know where  don’t know how long I can live on snow  never tried it before   guess I should’ve took up being a yogi stead of a cowboy   they say dying this way ain’t so bad  heard a guy just goes to sleep gets warm and dreams and never wakes up   sure will miss this old earth   she’s been good to me   I know I’m sounding crazy but it’ll be worse tomorrow if I make it    if ya don’t find me till spring I’ll keep this notebook in my jacket pocket   doubt that grizzly is hungry enough to eat the jacket too   I thot I’d let you boys know what happened   never did like mysteries myself   sure could use a hot cup of coffee   lucky I always ride with matches n extry smokes  been thinking of some camel stories   I know I’m drifting boys but bear with me   sure’d like to be telling this round a fire stead of writing   Chad  remember that story bout the guy who claimed to see god when he said ca-mel before he lit one up   I’d better give it a go when I smoke my last one tonite   wish I could turn a corner and be in Bagdad  happened to read Nate Champion’s journal last week   gave me the idea to do this  hope I don’t end up like him   course I doubt you’ll find me riddled with bullets  but I guess dying is all equal  knowing you dad you’ll be looking right now if Lady made it back to camp  that’s one good thing about her she’ll head right home  mabe she’s there now   getting too dark to write much more    the snow and wind quit so mabe there’s a chance   well boys if I don’t see you again it was good knowing ya     tell Vicki to save me a dance  

*     *     *

It didn’t take long for the eyes of sixty years experience with horses to know his son could be in a lot of trouble. Lady was standing hipshot, head down with her ears flopped, her left foreleg, chest and neck marked with cuts and bruises. The saddle was missing a stirrup and badly scarred.  He began to unsaddle her.

“Dave, go on out and get Red Rover, Jasper, Chief and Dusty. Better bring in Molly too, we’ll need a pack mule. Give ’em a healthy dose of grain and then doctor Lady like I taught ya, give her some grain and turn her out without hobbles.”

“Yes, sir … you think Bob’s all right?”

“I hope so, Dave, I hope so.”

Alone with Lady, Jim McIntyre put his arms around her neck. Looking up with moisture in his eyes and a grating in his throat, he said his prayer. “Lord, I know I don’t do this very often, and only when I need You, but please watch over my son and bring him home safe. Amen.”  He stroked Lady’s neck and turned back to the cook tent.

“OK boys, we got our work cut out for us. You know Bob went scouting up on Indian Ridge today. Well, he’s still up there somewhere and probably hurt. We’ve got to expect the worse and hope for the best. Jay, you take Sundance and ride to the ranch. Tell the Missus to phone the sheriff and rescue patrol. Have them be here at daylight. Come daylight and you ain’t heard from us, phone the neighbors and try to get all the volunteers you can. Now, we got our first hunters showing up at the ranch tomorrow. If we ain’t found Bob by then, I want you to explain the situation to them. They’re all pretty green when it comes to horses so I don’t want them up here, period. They can wait at the ranch or go home. They’ll get refunded their money, but under no circumstances are they to come help. Understand?”

“You want me to stay at the ranch?”  Jay said reluctantly.

“I know how you feel, Jay, but someone’s got to. If we don’t find Bob by tomorrow, I’ll send someone down and you can come up. You better get going.”

As Jay left the tent, Jim turned his attention to his three remaining guides. “Now then, you all know how rugged that country is up there and how tough it’s gonna be to find Bob. Knowing him, he could be anywhere, though he told me he was going to scout around Indian Ridge. We’ll ride in pairs and stay in pairs. Under no circumstances do we separate from our partner. Chad, you ride with me. We’ll pack Molly with extra food, sleeping bags, the medicine kit and grain for the horses. We’ll stay up there till we find him. Jake and Bill, you search the east side of the ridge tonight. Take your pistols. Fire three shots five seconds apart if you find him. Otherwise, we’ll meet you at four in the morning at the trail junction on top of the ridge. That way you boys can ride back here and brief the posse at daybreak. Make sure you got extra batteries for your lights and bring your whistles. Cookie, I don’t know when the sheriff and his men will show up. When they do, tell ’em Jake and Bill will be here at daybreak to show ’em where Bob was headed.  Feed them good at daybreak and pack lunches for them. Have I forgotten anything?”

Chad spoke up. “What do you think about having Jay send Bob’s dog up with the posse?”

“Good idea, Chad.  Run out and tell him.” After Chad left, Jim went on. “I imagine that rescue team will bring tracking dogs as well but I don’t know whether they’ll be much help after this snow;   anything else?”

Grim, anxious faces replied with silence.

“Ok, let’s get going.”

The night stayed clear but was very cold for the last week in September. The two pairs of riders had only the light of the stars and the contrast of snow against black timber to help them see.  Riding the high mountain country of Wyoming in the middle of the night is awesome to the senses.  Hoodoo rocks no longer seem inanimate, becoming more like living beings. Sometimes, when riding through thick timber and brushing against limbs, it seems like arms are reaching out to grab or caress. The only sounds are the creaking of the saddle, a horse’s breathing and hoofs against the earth. When stopped, the silence is deafening and unnerving. Ears strain to hear even the slightest noise and to talk seems strange, almost sacrilegious. People find themselves whispering for no reason at all. At 10,000 feet above sea level, the billions of stars shine so bright it’s no wonder cowboys have sung of “shooting a comet and roping a star.” The infinity of the heavens reach down and capture the imagination.

For Jim, Chad, Jake and Bill, accustomed to the mountains at night, their attention was concentrated on one objective only. Oblivious of the wilderness wonder around them, their whistles and voices echoed off canyons and ridges, mountains and forests, into the ears of the ever-alert animal inhabitants.

Prowling along the slopes of Indian Ridge with Lordly power and grace, the silver-tipped grizzly stopped to scent the air. The human voices echoing through the night were a strange sound in his domain and he was confused but not frightened. He slowly continued his saunter until his senses picked up the human scent. Warily he approached the still figure under the overhanging rock and put his muzzle against the unsuspecting man.

*     *     *

Well boys  I made it thru the nite    reckon on acount of the pain   wont let me drift off long enuf to meet my maker  I know yer looking for me  I could hear yer whistles last nite but they were pretty far away  Christ Im cold and weak and hurting  didnt know nites lasted so long  better find me soon dad  I know yer still looking   the sun sure feels good   its starting to warm up pretty good   I mustve slept some last nite as I can see I had a visitor   that dam grizzly paid me a visit  why he didnt make me his main course Ill never know   mabe it was the Old Spice I put on yesterday morning   as you can tell by my hand writing  Im getting to the end of my rope   I plan to tie a knot here pretty soon and then its up to you and god   I wont be able to figure in this mess any more   I thot about trying to make it on top of the ledge so Id be easier to find but it was no go   every movement hurts too much   Im barely able to do this   the sun is melting the snow but theres enuf to last today and there seems to be more water content    I dont think I can last another nite   what they call hypothermia will probably get me if the grizzly dont   never thot about heaven or hell much but I guess nows the time   mom and I watched that picture show on Shirley McClain not too long ago    talk about being out on a limb   I told mom it was a bunch of bs but now Im hoping there was something to it    just think   flying around in a spirit world   hell I could play pranks on you guys till you saw red    I always wanted to be invisible so I could go in a womens locker room and just watch    guess Id better be careful if judgment day is today seriously   I wonder if Jesus had a corner on the market or if regular guys like us have a chance at the eternal   reckon Ill come to find out by and by    come on and find me boys   I dont want to die just yet   Im starting to drift off      tell Vicki to save me a dance

*     *     *

Although there had been many times during the morning that Jim McIntyre and Chad Hendrick had spotted men on horseback in addition to a Search and Rescue helicopter, it wasn’t until just past noon when they finally met up with members of the rescue patrol team. Jim and Chad had just come up one of the many timbered draws on the west side of Indian Ridge.  Topping the ridge, they rode out of the trees and onto a grassy flatland which undulated up and down as far as the eye could see in both directions. Varying in width from fifty to sometimes two hundred yards, the top of the ridge consisted of grass and rock, with a few pines and spruce dotting the landscape. In places, the ridge climbed above timberline, with steep, rocky ledges falling off on either side. The grandeur of the country seen from atop Indian Ridge was breathtaking. The Wind River Mountains stretched for fifty miles to the southeast while the vast Gros Ventres country took up the western horizen. Everywhere a man looked were mountain peaks, forests, valleys and ridges. From almost any spot on the top of the ridge, a person could see the Tetons, over eighty miles away. The scope and ruggedness of the country was certainly disheartening for a person trying to find a solitary, immobile man. Like a needle in a haystack, there was the substantial possibility he would never be found.

Sheriff Ben Johnson, along with one of his deputies, were riding along the top of the ridge searching for any kind of clue when Jim and his guide climbed out on the ridge only fifty yards away. The usual jovial meeting between the two longtime friends was dampered by the solemness of the occasion and the condition of Jim McIntyre. The sheriff was shocked at the appearance of his old friend. The thirty-six hours without sleep combined with the hard riding and emotional strain on the old outfitter had taken its toll. Jim was physically and emotionally drained and his haggard face was lined with worry, seemingly to have aged overnight.

“Hello, Ben, thanks for coming. Thanks for bringing Teddy.” At the end of a leash attached to the sheriff’s saddlehorn was Bob’s dog.

“No trouble, Jim. We saw your mule tied to that tree a spell back and figured you was close by. Can’t say you’re a sight for sore eyes. Why don’t you ride on back to camp and get some rest. You’ve done all you can do for now. We’ve got twenty men out searching plus the copter and more due this evening. I know how you feel, Jim, but …”

“No you don’t, Ben. I know he’s right around here someplace and I ain’t quitting till I find him.” A surge of energy and emotion enforced the conviction in Jim’s voice.

“You going on a hunch or did ya find something.”

“We’ve cut the fresh tracks of a grizzly a couple of times. That mare, she might be tempermental, but she’s as sure-footed as a mule. I’m laying odds that grizzly spooked her. You can call it a hunch if you got a mind, but I got a feeling Bob’s close by and alive. Teddy’ll find him … won’t ya, boy.” A bark and the wagging of his tail was the dog’s answer.

“Well, you always were more stubborn than a porcupine in heat. Will you promise me if we don’t find him by dark to get some rest. Your gonna be as worthless as tits on a boar hog tomorrow if you don’t.”

“Don’t worry about me. It’s a waste of time. But I’ll grant your wish, we’ll need a change of horseflesh anyway. Chad and I have been combing every one of the draws over to the west. I’d appreciate it if you’d call that copter and have him concentrate on this area for the rest of the day.  I know I could be wrong, there’s so much damn country, but just call it a favor for an old friend, Ben.”

“I’ll do more than that. I’ll get some more riders over here too. You know this country better than anyone and he’s your son. What you say goes, Jim.”

“Thanks. Chad and I are going to ride up to that outcropping there and check the country below that rock ledge. It’s a big country with a lot of draws and such. We outta be there the rest of the day.”

“Ok, Jim. We’ll go pick up the mule and then search the other side. Three shots five seconds apart?”

“Let’s hope so, Ben.”

With Teddy leading the way, Jim and Chad rode along the ridge, steadily climbing until they reached the huge rock outcrop on the top of the ridge. They were above timberline now, the country below them broken into rock strewn draws and gulleys. Much of the snow that had fallen the day before was now melted or windblown, leaving the country bare in many places. There was a desolate and foreboding nature about the country and it seemed to influence the tired men and horses. The rocks made it difficult going as the horses slowly picked their way through the shale and boulder fields. Only Teddy seemed to be enjoying himself, running here and there, his nose to the ground, chasing the small inhabitants of the mountain that he found. It was on one of these excursions that he picked up a scent he didn’t know.

Following his nose and oblivious to anything else, he stayed on the scent until his nose came across another scent, one that he knew very well. It wasn’t long before he stood over his unconscious master, licking the passive face. The unusual lack of response puzzled the dog.  Frustrated, he began to bark in order to gain the customary attention of his master.

“By God, Chad, he might’ve found him.” A rush of hope gripped the tired man and he put his spurs to the flanks of Red Rover, directing the horse toward the sounds of Teddy’s howls.

The few minutes in finding the dog seemed like eternity to the newly inspired outfitter. He was pulling his .45 Colt at the first sight of his son and fired the first shot while vaulting out of the saddle. The last shot came three seconds after the second and then he was at his son’s side. For a minute he was afraid he was too late. His son showed no sign of life. Feverously Jim searched for a pulse on the very cool body. Finally, Jim detected the faintest pulse on his son’s neck.  Immediately he stood up and starting stripping off his clothes.

“Chad, take his clothes off … hurry.”

The next few minutes were filled with the silent, frantic motions of unclothing. When both Bob and Jim were naked, the old man lay down on top of his son. He could not stop his emotional tears, choking pleas and prayers for his son to live. Chad, meanwhile, was in constant motion.  After covering the men with every particle of clothing, he unsaddled Red Rover and brought the horse blankets over. Laying them next to the two men, he was able, with Jim’s help, to slide the blankets between Bob and the cold ground. Grabbing the canteen, he trickled some water on Bob’s face and then left it within Jim’s reach. Chad then jumped on his horse and rode to the nearest timber. He wasn’t long in finding a suitable deadfall, which he roped and dragged back. He had a fire going within minutes next to the father and son. Picking up Jim’s Colt, he fired three times and this time received answering gunfire. Stoking up the fire, he rode to the top of the ledge and used his whistle. Within fifteen minutes, Sheriff Ben Johnson, his deputy, and the helicopter crew were all on the scene.

*     *     *

“You know, Dad, beside the fact you found me, the doctors say I would have never made it if you hadn’t given me your body heat. I was that close.  Where did you ever learn that?”

“Oh, I don’t quite remember son. Must’ve come across it in Reader’s Digest, I reckon.  Didn’t really think about it, just seemed the right thing to do at the time. Speaking of reading, your mom found your notebook the other day when she was doing the wash.”

“What notebook is that?”

“The one you had with you on the mountain.”

“Oh yeah, I plumb forgot! Christ, I can’t remember what I wrote now. Just last week I read an account of the Johnson County war and Nate Champion’s journal was in it. You know, the guy who was murdered at the KC ranch by those Texas invaders. I guess I figured I had a good chance of dying and wanted to leave something, I don’t know.”

“I’m glad you did, son. Ain’t many people who’ve stared death in the face and been able to get down their thoughts like you did. Shows what I always knew, you got a lot of guts. I gotta get going. Those hunters like to have me in camp. You rest good, now, ya hear. They say you’ll be coming home soon. And, son, don’t molest those nurses more ‘n they want.”

“Sure thing, Dad.”

As the figure of his father reached the door, Bob called after him. “Dad, say Hi to Vicki, and tell her to save me a dance, will ya?”

“You bet, son … you bet.”

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