Wind Of The Mountain by Brian D Kelling by Brian D Kelling - Read Online

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Wind Of The Mountain - Brian D Kelling

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Chapter 1

The first white Americans who crossed the Plains of North America thought they were great, alright—they called it the Great American Desert. And had you been out in the middle of this so-called ‘desert’ at that time—for they hadn’t yet discovered the real deserts of this country—and found yourself literally several weeks travel from what we would call civilization, it would be easy to understand how they could think it so. Travelling due west, once you got past the one hundredth parallel (roughly halfway across Kansas,) there was simply nothing there. No trees, no farms, no people. Nothing.

Of course, some of that changed. The Desert became the Great Plains. But even in the late nineteenth century, out there by yourself on horseback, it would be easy to believe you were the only human being within a hundred miles in any direction, and it very well could be true, although there was never any telling where an Indian might be.

It’s no small wonder the Plains took so long to be settled. Everything out there was hostile. The land, the weather; the animals, the native peoples.

Out there at the time I speak of—the 1870’s—one man rode a horse against the late evening sky. Two packhorses trailed behind on their ropes. The dark outlines of the little caravan made a sharp contrast against the flashing cloud lightning in the big western pre-dusk.

The very presence of this man and his pack animals was in direct opposition to the assumed dead wastes of the arid grasslands. Sure, Indians lived out there somewhere—they could. White men had, of course, made their inroads, but their towns were mostly farther west, near the mountains. The plains were just something they crossed through to get somewhere else. And the horses? Yes, it’s true there were occasional wild horses on the plains, but they were rare indeed, and the fact that these packhorses were connected to a human endeavour somehow removed them from that part of the equation.

This man, and the animals under his control, simply seemed out of place here, especially when one considered what the sky looked like to the west.

The rider and his little pack train were headed into bad weather; that was easy to see. Contrary to what you may have heard, bad weather rarely arrives unannounced in the West, with the possible exception of a Blue Norther. Usually, you can see the storms coming for many miles, and such was the case here. Not that it would help much.

The rider had his head down, hat against the wind. From time-to-time he’d peer up from under his breeze-bent hat brim, evaluating the storms. Then he’d look back to make sure everything was all right with the pack animals. After this, it was back to head-down, an effort to keep the cold wind out of his clothes. That was another thing about the West: it sure cooled off when the sun disappeared.

During one of his storm-checks, the rider saw a line of ground-level dust blowing his way. That would be the ‘gust-front’ of the storm, a stiff wind that would most likely bring with it a good twenty-degree drop in temperature. He pulled his canvas slicker tighter around his body and held it close with elbows against his ribs.

He said nothing, since swearing wouldn’t help. And other than to look around now and then, he did nothing except keep riding, since there was nothing else to do. Dourly, the man reflected on the fact that a storm like this was actually beautiful to see some twenty miles away from the shelter of a dry porch, and in the past he’d often done just that, sat there with coffee in hand and watched it release its pent-up anger against the earth.

But out here, there was just no getting away from a line of storm cells like this. There was no shelter, no place to wait it out, no place to hide. What else could a man do but continue on through it, hoping God wouldn’t smite him with a thunderbolt? But the hapless rider didn’t believe in God right then. And he’d lived through many such storms in the past, in places just like this.

The sudden blast of dirty air pelted these four living things with sand and earth and pieces of weeds, buffeting all about with its force. But although a gust front typically carries the strongest winds of the storm with it, it usually passes quickly, ushering in the eerie period where it’s easy to believe time has stopped. But you know better. In fact, the storm’s gathering, winding up for a crushing blow to the tiny interloper who dared cross its path. Sometimes your hair, and that of your animals, stands on end with static electricity, and you wish—just like this man—that the metal lightning rod that is your rifle was on the last pack horse, instead of under your leg, which, incidentally, is also close to where your pistol happens to be.

Somehow, and no one can really explain it, you can tell when the cloud is about to split open from its full tenseness and electrify some possibly—or at least hopefully—random spot on the earth below. You can feel it. You can hear it. And you can know it. When it does, brother, the wrath of God is unleashed. Several billion volts of white-hot liquid steel blisters the earth. If you’re close enough, you can hear that terrifying crackling sizzle; closer yet and you can actually smell the electricity. The thunderbolt blasts the grass into instant fire, and just as quickly—the enormous explosion of thunder, which again, if you’re close enough, hits you with a concussion like the muzzle-blast of a cannon barrel. At the least, it deafens you temporarily.

The animals, of course, want to run—a bad idea, since each wants to bolt in a different direction. The lightning blasts all around you, and you wonder how long it will be until it decides you just might be an attractive target. Involuntarily, you hunker down against it all. You pray without knowing it.

Then come moderate winds, and it’s easy to think it’s over, that maybe this storm is not yet mature as it continues to build over you. Until the first smatterings of raindrops hit you, hard, like little pebbles. A steady rain is usually next up, unless it decides to hail instead. If it does, well...many are the living things that have been killed by incredibly large hailstones falling from heights unbelievable.

At this point, the storm marshals all of its forces and joins them together into an electrified, riotous, earth-trembling, hard-flooding downpour. Hopefully, it won’t spawn a tornado.

Great fun, this is, and it can go on for upwards of an hour, depending on the storm. One hopes there aren’t more behind it. At times like this, it makes a man feel small, helpless, and extremely insignificant.

Fact is, when you come right down to it, it’s frightening being out there, in one of those.

In reality, it’s remarkably similar to being shelled on the battlefield. You don’t know if you’ll live—there’s a good chance you might die. But the one thing you definitely are certain of is that the power that controls your life or death is completely out of your hands. Somewhere inside yourself, you continue to believe this power is genuinely random.

On and on you go, avoiding the places you think the lightning’s already hit, even though they say it never strikes twice.

But not long after, you notice the lightning is mostly exploding behind you now, and that cheers a person immensely. And then the rain lets up, and you start to be able to see again, and you realize that God let you live a little longer. Ten minutes after that, the storm is finished with you, and you’re back in the clear. You and the animals start to settle down, and you begin to think that maybe you were just plain lucky.

A short time later, and incredibly, you begin to believe that ‘Awww, there was really nothing to fear after all’. Just another thunderstorm, not worth getting so excited about. And you forget all about Him and continue on your merry way—a lot like a kid whistling beyond a dark cemetery.

Curiously enough, at this point, a few select idiots may even have the thought they’re so strong or tough or important that it didn’t dare touch them...

But deep down inside, most people, they know. Even if it’s easy to forget. But this rider did not know. Nor did he care.

Consequently, there was nothing of this nature to forget.

* * * *

Every day was like that. Mostly beautifully clear weather and hard sunshine, followed by thunderstorms, trailed by clearing again. If you topped a ridge, the view was immense, but largely the same: lightly undulating grasslands for miles in any direction, the distance you could see was limited only by the landscape and the curvature of the earth. Not that a wise man would do such a thing, skylining himself for hostiles to see.

Only the timing of the storms changed, daily. But that was because he was continually moving west. From previous experience, the man knew that if you stayed in one place, you could nearly set your pocket watch by the arrival of the August thunderstorms. In fact, it was even possible to calculate your distance from the mountains by their onset. Simple, really, using basic distances and given storm speeds across the prairie. However, you’d normally need a reference point to do that, a place to start your figuring from. In several respects, the man just flat didn’t have one—and it mattered little to him.

These storms were merely a constant in his life. Every day, they started to build over the Rockies, at the same time. Every day, they rolled eastward over the plains at the same speed. It was because of the heat of the day, coupled with the lifting action of the mountains on the easterly movement of air masses. Orographics is the name for it—it’s part of the stuff that fascinates those people who continually try to predict the weather.

This man wasn’t fascinated with weather, or anything else, for that matter. In fact, he felt as blighted as the landscape he passed through.

Indeed, every day was the same. He’d wake up, and that simple act in itself usually brought a curse. His head would pound from the hangover, so a little ‘hair of the dog that bit you’ would go into his coffee. Reluctantly, he’d pack up and get underway again. Twenty miles a day on beans and hay was the old Army maxim, a standard day’s travel for cavalry. Any more than that—say, twenty-five, or at the most thirty—was considered a forced march, and couldn’t be held to for any length of time, the limitation being on the strength, or more particularly, the endurance of the animals. A forced march was okay for short trips, like fort to fort, after which a rest period for men and animals would ensue. But over the long haul, it simply couldn’t be held. You’d wear out the horses pretty quick; kill them if you kept it up. And if there’s one thing a man needs out on the plains, it’s his horses. Without them, he’d be dead, too.

Brandon McCallum, cheated man, knew all that. He’d had first-hand experience in the matter, so twenty miles it was.

And again, normally, when a man starts out on a journey like this, he can calculate the time necessary to reach his destination. By keeping track of the time that’s gone by, he should know, within a matter of a few days, when it is that he’ll get there. Of course, this is assuming he has a destination in mind.

* * * *

Now, for a man, there’s an incredible freedom in being in your prime, and being in a position in life where you’re able to gather a few things together and just go. Head out to see the world, to try your luck, test your fortunes, and all that good stuff. And good stuff it is, too, when nothing ties you down. When you can determine your own future, go wherever you feel like going.

If you’ve ever said to yourself, I want to see the Rocky Mountains, and then started packing, you will never forget the way you felt at that moment. Never.

Young men, out for adventure, not a care in the world. When people asked what you’d do to survive, you confidently answered, Oh, I’ll find something, I always do. Older men, tied down forever, envied you. They longed for those times, all the while knowing they would never see them again. Some spent the rest of their lives dreaming about it.

But McCallum didn’t just up and leave for the hell of it. Adventure? He’d seen enough of that in his life, although he never intended it that way.

Chapter 2

It was several weeks into the journey, and Brand knew the time had come for a decision. He’d delayed it long enough. When he’d started out, it was simply with the intention of getting away—going west, to the wide, lonely, expanses. And that, he’d done. Now, to the best of his reckoning, he was about halfway across one of the plains states. After a whiskey trip such as this—truth-be-told—he wasn’t entirely sure which one it was. But he’d run out of those square bottles several days back, and that was just as well. He’d never been much of a drinker to start with, but under the circumstances...

Well, at least the storms were drying up. Soon, they’d be gone altogether.

He’d been enduring another morning’s endless plodding when he came to a small valley crossing his path. Lightly wooded, there would be water, and forage enough for the animals. Brand decided to call it an early day. Maybe he could think there.

The stream was nearly two feet wide, but only an inch deep. With his hands, he dug holes in the sandy bottom so the animals could immerse their snouts without sucking up the creek bed. Sand in a horse’s belly is bad news anywhere. Out here, worse.

He let the horses drink first, since their last water had been before morning, and also because there was no way of stopping them. Upstream, he scooped another hole and pushed his canteen underwater, drank, and pushed it under again while he looked around.

Just beyond the few trees on the other side of the creek was a tiny meadow. Hmph...good, Brand said aloud, surprised to hear his own voice. It had been a while, and several of the horses pricked their ears at the sound.

There were some rocks in the meadow. Not very big, but quite a few of them. Something about their placement looked curiously unnatural, so he stepped over the creek for a closer look.

Scattered along the border of the meadow, there were nearly half a dozen rock-rings about eighteen feet wide, their circles each made of rocks spaced several feet apart.

Tipi rings, he mused. Indians sometimes used rocks to hold down the covers of their tipis. When they moved on, they would simply roll the rocks off the bottom of the cover, a foot or so away. There was no reason to move them any farther.

Smaller, still intact fire-rings sat near the center where each lodge had stood, but the ashes had long since been blown or washed away. Intrigued, he couldn’t help but wonder who they’d been, and where they might have gone.

Looking back, he spoke aloud what he thought: This really is a nice spot. A little oasis on the barren plains. He could see why Indians had camped here, and for a moment, wondered if people a hundred years from now would still find these rings undisturbed.

Well, back to the task at hand. He’d need to think clearly now, although that wasn’t exactly easy to do. Certainly, it would do him no good to ride along in misery like he had been, that much was obvious.

The horses had finished drinking, and began to mill around. Okay, he said, since he’d found out it was pleasant to hear his own voice again, First things first. He stripped the animals and grazed them in the little meadow.

Gathering wood, he made a small fire and put water on for the last of the coffee. Checking his guns one at a time, he unloaded each and checked it for cleanliness and operation, then reloaded it. There were two boxes of ammunition. The knife in his boot was damp but sharp. No rust. Twelve years old, it was a relic of his military service.

He laid his blankets out and went through everything he owned. In his bedroll he found some money; in his pockets a little more. It added up to several thousand dollars from the sale of his house. Good, he declared, much relieved.

As he dumped out his saddlebags, the stuff clattered onto the blanket: a whetstone, more matches, two horseshoes and nails. Among these things was a picture of Lil. It started to tremble in his hands, and he swallowed hard and put it in his shirt pocket.

He went through the packs. One held tools: an axe, hammer, drawknife, things of that nature. The other held his field glasses and compass from the war, also several changes of clothing. Seeing them, he raised his arm to see how his clothes were faring. Whew! He needed a bath, and he simply hopped into the stream. No soap, no towels. Afterward, he broke off a green twig, frayed the end with his knife, and brushed his teeth with it.

Next came the horses. The smaller packhorse, he knew, was fading, even though its load was light. The others were in good shape yet. He picked out their hooves with the knife, noting that it had been a while, then rubbed them down with handfuls of grass. They seemed pleased with the attention.

When all was done, he knew he had an obvious problem: he was low on just about everything edible. He had to get supplies. Of course, there was the horse to replace, and it would also do to find out just exactly where in hell he was. For now, he would estimate his whereabouts and make a plan of action. It wasn’t like him to stumble along blind; he’d always had things worked