Neighbor Ephraim© 2005 by Clayton Emery
Hear the story read by the author!
Muzzleloader Magazine was kind enough to publish several of my stories. When fans clamored for Mountain Man stories, I obliged with this tale.
"Mother says we are lost!"
"We ain't lost!"
Well, not much. Hube mightn't know where he was nor where he was going, but by gadfrey, no mountain man was ever lost.
Truth to tell, Hube could barely see his mitten, much less a single stone of the Absarokas. Wind howled down this pass. Snow pelted his eyes like bird shot. Ice glazed his eyebrows and beard. And the squall was thickening. It might last three hours or three days, with cold too bitter to strike fire. Plumb unfair in the Moon When the Ponies Shed, but such was life in the mountains.
Stamping a path back through the snow, Hube crowded close to his wife and kin-woman huddled beside the second horse. Beet-red faces peered from under snow-topped blankets. Still, Little Hand's dark eyes shone under lashes dappled with stars. Half Shoshone and half Crow, she was the most beautiful belle west of St Louis, hard-won with sweet talk and a-plenty of presents. Hube smiled just to see his wife's face.
But with every rose came thorns. A sour puss like a withered apple shoved into their palaver and spouted vinegar in Shoshone. Hube's mother-in-law. Iron Britches.
"Mother says," trilled Little Hands, "a Shoshone warrior would not get lost!"
"A smart Shoshone would stay home and trade his mother-in-law to Blackfeet to feed their dogs!" said Hube, but in English. In Crow he hollered over the gale, "Gimme your left hands!"
Little Hands obeyed, as did her mother. Iron Britches had been born Shoshone, and spoke only that tongue to her daughter. Hube knew the old heathen had spent half her life making Crow men miserable, but any lingo he ventured got shaken off. Her real name wasn't Iron Britches, of course, but some Babel that meant "Seat of Authority". Hube just translated loosely.
The mountain man lashed each woman by a wrist to the butt ends of the lodge poles tied atop the second horse. Both women shivered, teeth chattering. "That's safer! Wouldn't want dear ol' Ma to step off the mountain!"
Growl-grunt passed in Shoshone.
"Mother wants to turn back!" said Little Hands.
"Tell Mother - I wish her happy trails!"
Shoshone shrilling cut even the gale.
Little Hands called, "Mother wants to cut loose the lodge poles! They drag and hinder the horses -"
"No!" Bone-weary as Job, Hube hollered back. "I've an idea to cache with 'em! Prop 'em agin the rocks and drape the lodge skins, shovel out the snow and burrow into the plews like squirrels - Just trust me, darlin'!"
"I do, Long Knife!" Little Hand's brave smile flashed. Hube suddenly felt strong enough to tote horses and women clear over the peaks. With an ice-rimed grin he pushed on.
Bulling through drifts, breaking trail for the women, Hube clenched the lead horse's bridle and batted a mitten against rock and aspen and juniper that smelt of gin. Drifting snow piled near to his knees. The animals would balk soon, but they couldn't stop. Even the gray light was fading. Hube suffered as the squirrel-headed lead, a crop-eared Appaloosa named Knothead, trod on his feet for the hundredth time. Needing both hands, Hube had even wrapped his rifle in buckskin and lashed it atop the horse. Without the slim iron in his hands he felt naked and helpless.
And skittish. Snow meant no sign, so he stumbled on blind, whapping his left hand along the mountainside. Mountain savvy shouted in his ears like nine devils. Some warning - maybe the way the wind cut up under his eyes, or that high hissing sound, or the lack of an echo - something told Hube that not far to the right hung a hellacious dropoff, maybe ten feet, maybe a thousand. Knowing he walked a razor's edge, Hube kept the horse to that fearsome side.
"Lord, please favor a fool," he puffed, "such as one who didn't marry an orphan -"
The horse whinnied and swung his long jaw. Clocked alongside the head, Hube set to cussing. Then his mitten missed the mountainside.
Half-blind, Hube plunged to his knees. He heard steel ring on rock for the first time in hours. No snow drifted. Hube clawed ice from his eyelids and prayed they'd struck a cave.
Knothead screamed high and shrill as Iron Britches on a tear. Struggling to keep hold of the bridle, Hube wondered what could frighten a Nez Perce' pony so.
Then he smelt it. A reek like a scorched privy.
The grizzly hit like a runaway Rocket. Knothead jigged on all four feet sideways. Hube was jerked to his feet and then crushed between horse and bear. He lost breath and footing. The stumble saved his life. Through icy lashes in dim light Hube saw black claws scoop air a whisker from his head. The blow hit the laden horse like an axe. Knothead screamed.
Hube lurched for his Hawken. One frantic grab ripped loose whangs and buckskin. The bear loomed so large a greenhorn couldn't miss. With half a lifetime's practice, Hube cocked and fired. Sparks reflected as yellow shards in the bear's angry black eyes. The iron kicked Hube's hip and bounced off the horse behind. The bear didn't even blink as the ball vanished into fur and fat.
Howling himself, the mountain man hoisted the stock and butt-stroked the bear. Teeth like icicles clacked together as the maple stock snapped off clean. Hube bashed straight down with a barrel and ragged lock, aiming for the eyes. He gashed the black nose. Red blood spattered white snow.
The bear snapped. Hube's numb hands lost the remnant of rifle. Yellow fangs closed on Hube's wrist as he whipped his hand back. One gulp sheared off his capote's cuff. Hube smelt the beast's breath, every foul meal it ever ate. Cornered against horseflesh, Hube jerked his fighting knife and shot it stiff-arm at the dimness below the bear's gaping jaws. The blade sank in and the haft was twisted from Hube's hand.
Came Brer Bruin's turn. The beast reared like a tornado, only ten times more terrible. Down swept a paw like a thunderbolt that smashed Hube's shoulder. Bashed onto his heels, Hube crabbed backwards, seeking shelter under the horse's belly. Claws caught his capote. Wool, buckskin, and linen parted, then the man's skin was scoured by burning pokers. Hube smelt hot blood, either his or the critter's, as he swam through snow between Knothead's dancing legs.
Dimly Hube wondered why the horse didn't bolt, why the stupid nag stayed penned with the bear. All while he scooted backwards for parts anywhere east of this cranky neighbor.
And discovered, too late, why the horse stuck fast. Smarter than its owner, the horse had locked all four hooves hard by the whistling dropoff.
Hube ran out of mountain. Windmilling both arms like a hummingbird, hanging onto the good earth by his hams, Hube had the awful thought that his mother-in-law was right. He was a jackass.
But salvation surfaces in strange ways in the Shining Mountains. As if dreaming, Hube watched the grizzly rear full height. Made a gift of a wounded horse out of a howling snowstorm, the bear aimed to keep it - and threw its awful weight atop the horse's back.
The unfortunate animal was smashed square across Hube's legs.
Hube learned he was still a part of the world when stone walloped the back of the head. When he lost his old felt hat to the gale, he realized he hung head down, pinned by the deadweight of a crippled horse, suspended over a frightful drop mercifully misted by swirling snow.
Savaged by teeth and claws, the horse keened like a steam whistle and kicked like a driving wheel. Hanging head-down, the mountain man grunted in sympathy. Every buck and squirm ground Hube's trapped legs to mush. His right arm hung numb as a fence post while his naked skin burned and sizzled from slashes and snow. Watching drops of bright blood vanish into the squall, Hube wondered which was the worse fate: falling to distant rocks, being crushed bone by bone, or getting tore in half and eaten.
Gasping, groping, grabbing with his left hand, Hube finally snagged thongs along the horse's pack. He tried to drag himself upright but only snapped the whangs. The trapper watched in horror as half a season's worth of plews spun away into the storm. That blow hurt worst of all - until half a dozen jangling traps bounced off his jaw and brow.
Still, bucking upward and grabbing air, Hube finally hooked his hands into Knothead's harness. Slowly he hauled himself up the horse's carcass.
To come face to face with Old Griz.
Black eyes, red jaws, and long yellow teeth filled Hube's vision like a peek into Hell. Helpless, not even blinking, Hube watched Ephraim raise a bloody paw to swipe off his head. Came a final thought: Should'a written to the folks back home -
"Kee-yii, yii, yii, yii!" Crow and Shoshone war cries cut the storm like cannon fire.
The grizzly turned its hoary head smack into a lodge pole. Another jolt punished its bleeding nose. Another jabbed the bear's eye. Enraged, the grizzly swung like a bull and reared upright to charge its attackers.
And was instead attacked. Little Hands and Iron Britches counted coup, slamming the brute in the brisket with the trail-tattered end of the lodge pole. Hanging over eternity, Hube watched fascinated as the bear tottered, tripped over the dead horse, then toppled - straight at him. He ducked his head as a half-ton of bear whacked him in passing, then disappeared into white darkness.
Flopping belly-down over the dead horse, the Indian women snagged Hube's blanket coat and raised him like Lazarus. Hube collapsed on the snow-covered shelf, too parched to even croak thanks. Rather, he crawled for the cave.
It wasn't much for shelter, just a pocket
high enough to sit up, but it suited. Shaking all over, one arm
hanging dead, Hube fumbled with flint and steel at sticks and
driftwood washed up in the cave. Little Hands took the tools
and struck sparks into tinder, then let Hube feed the crackling
fire with one hand. Iron Britches dragged the surviving horse,
it balking at bear stench, half into the hollow. Together the
women wedged the lodge poles upright, draped the skins to block
the slanting wind, and shoveled the chopped snow outside.
By then Hube could crawl out into the storm. Knothead was already dusted deep, but the mountain man carved out the liver and heart, a swathe of ribs broken by the bear, and a long bloody steak. He yanked loose a possibles sack from the harness, then scurried back to find their barrow warm and homey as any hogan.
Shucking his shirts, Hube lay still while
Little Hands packed a poultice on his bear gashes. Meat sizzled
over the fire, a mouth-watering aroma. Pawing through his bag
one-handed, Hube found the blessed brown bottle, the last of
his Jamaican rum, and his pipe and 'bacca. He croaked, "Time
for a celebration."
Before too long, the mountain man was sitting pretty and feeling no pain. Feet propped on a pannier, warmed by fire glow, belly full of steak, he gnawed a rib and finally even chuckled.
"Woof!" he told the women. "What a life the Lord offers in the West! I lost my rifle and knife, a good horse and half my plews, but I kept my hide and hair. And ain't I give a grizzly bear Green River and busted a Hawken over its head and lived to tell the tale? For certain none of those liars at rendezvous will believe that!"
Pious as Jed Smith, Hube extended the peace pipe. "Good wife, thanks many times over for saving this worthless child. And tell your ma thanks too, from the heart. She could'a stood by and watch me pitch over to Perdition, but instead she hauled me up like a drowning sailor. I do thank her. She ain't such a bad old gal."
In Shoshone Little Hands droned to Iron Britches, who sat slit-eyed almost in the fire. Worn teeth worried a hank of meat as she barked back.
Hube frowned at the tone. "What's the old woman want now?"
"Mother says, a Shoshone brave -"
"Wife!" warned Hube.
"Mother doesn't like horsemeat. She wants bear liver."
Hube bit clean through a rib bone.