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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

One More Spring

The old cabin creaked and shuddered in the harsh winter wind. It was late November, 1857 and Jess Bender sat slowly rocking in the big pine chair he had made years ago. He was wrapped in an old buffalo blanket, but was still shivering. The one room cabin was warmed by a fire burning in a small stone and rock hearth darkened by the soot of winters past.

The fire was burning down, but Jess made no move to feed or rekindle it. His breathing was rattling and uneven. He was stoved up real bad this time for sure. Sam, his old trapping partner was sitting across the room staring at the fire and he wasn’t much better off. Both of them had been sickly since the big blizzard two weeks ago. Spring couldn’t come too soon.

He glanced back over at his trapping partner for all those years and it saddened him a considerable bit. Yessir, they had been through heaven and hell together but more and more he had a hard recollecting those things. Almost like it had never happened.

The glorious life and times of the Mountain Man had come and gone in a damn blink. The peak that is, they were still out there, but there number was dwindling fast. It was an all too short of a time. Damn shame.

When you tallied it all up, the two had walked and rode a thousand of miles together. Hell, two thousand miles most likely. They’d seen harsh bitter winters, blooming warm springs and blazing summers. Both had stood dumbstruck and awed by the beautiful shades of autumn in these mountains and plains. They had hunted and fished and trapped. Some folks might have considered their lives peculiar back east, but that’s the way they liked it. Isolated, free and alone.

Neither of them had much use for anything this world had to offer other than just being up here in these mountains. Other people, and civilization on the whole for that matter, was something they preferred to live without. Those things seemed to only bring trouble with them.

Jess Bender had chosen this route at the age of fifteen, after his father had decided to settle the family in Denver. Jess knew that he couldn’t just stop there, not with so many places west, places yet to be seen. His family was done traveling, bone tired, disappointed and broken in spirit. Jesse on the other hand, felt he had to keep going and not necessarily just west, north or south. He just had to keep going.

It was a lucky thing for Sam that they met that last day because he was in poor shape, hungry and tired. Jess had cottoned to him right off. Being the older by far and much more experienced, he had offered to take Sam on as help.

He left in the middle of the night on Buck, the big black horse, one of three the family had. In his saddle bag he had some biscuits, jerky and a bedroll. He took the old Remington that his father had never shot. It was a poor hunting gun but it was all he had back then. Never saw his folks or siblings again.

His partner had left his family in much the same way. There was a certain wander lust they both shared no doubt. Sam had run away from his family near the border of Nebraska and Colorado, as they struggled their West in a doomed, bedraggled wagon train. He had struck off one night without anyone knowing.

Sam had been on his own for about a month when the two had met at the rendezvous on the South Platte River. Jess had always enjoyed the yearly meet but they lasted too long for his tastes and he was always anxious to leave.

It was a lucky thing for Sam that they met that last day because he was in poor shape, hungry and tired. Jess had cottoned to him right off. Being the older by far and much more experienced, he had offered to take Sam on as help.

After trading in Jess’s furs and re-supplying, they had set out, heading back into the mountains.

Jess looked at the dark cabin ceiling and thought that rendezvous might have been ten, twelve years ago. Hell he wasn’t even sure what year this was.

For the years that followed, they had enjoyed high adventure, dangerous times and grand scenery. Landscapes that took your breath away. They had crossed paths with Blackfeet, Comanche, Utes and the Crow.

There was peace, war, friendships and enemies. It had been a quarrelsome life at times and not just with the tribes. There were men of ill repute, men with no souls and rogues of all kinds to be dealt with. Jess and Sam had cheated death on more than one occasion to be sure.

onemorespringThey had traversed rivers such as the Columbia, Snake, Colorado, Green and Platte. They had enjoyed the brief acquaintance of famous trappers and mountain men, such as Jim Bridger, Henry Fraep and even Captain Bonneville one summer. Also came to know men that no one knew then, or ever.

Jess slowly closed his eyes. He could hear the wind blowin’ outside and it seemed to take him with it.  Drifting him now, slow and easy, like a slow moving stream in summer. His memories were flowing like they hadn’t for quite awhile.

He remembered at one point a few years back, him and Sam had even enjoyed a little notoriety themselves. They was mentioned by name in a pamphlet book published back east somewheres. Imagine that.

There had been a woman once. His woman. Little Feather, a Ute girl. She had been hard and soft, mean and gentle. She was a mystery, like all women were to him. He’d loved her and mourned her all in a span of a single year.

He smiled to himself now, thinking of him and Sam walking and riding the damned Overland Trail. A hundred other trails with no names and many steep mountain passes too, by God. He’d always thought that a man hasn’t really lived until he looks down on the clouds. Looking down at tree lines from peaks so high they seemed to have touched heaven itself. Mountain lakes that were so clear that a body couldn’t distinguish the real landscape from the reflection.

Season after season, year after year, it had gone on and it had seemed like it would never end. That it would last forever. But that was foolishness and he knew it, even back then. Now, it was coming to an end. All of it.

Jess had no regrets though and as he opened his eyes again to look over at Sam. He knew his partner didn’t either. Hell, they had lived spectacular lives when you came right down to it. He stared back into the dying fire and nodded to himself. He thought that was right, in fact he knew it was. Damn it all though, he’d take just one more spring.

Across the room, Sam looked over at Jess and it was as if he could hear the man’s thoughts. What a prize that would be, but he didn’t think there was another spring coming. The wind shrieked a little stronger outside and he turned toward that noise for a second, but then shifted his gaze back to the fire. It popped and cracked from time to time but it was going out.

A short time later, he heard Jess take a sharp breath in, causing him to look over again at his old partner. He watched Jess’s head fall slowly to one shoulder. The rocking chair creaked to a stop and Sam stared at him hard. He waited for him to rouse back up but Jess didn’t move. He never took another breath.

He was never far away from Jess, never far off at all and he sure wasn’t going anywhere now. Jess had taken him in as a partner, had always made him feel wanted and given him years of loyal friendship. He wasn’t about to leave his pardner. Not now, not later.

jimwilsky Jim Wilsky has had a lifelong passion for writing and storytelling. His short story work has appeared in some of the most respected online magazines such as Shotgun Honey, Beat To A Pulp, All Due Respect, Yellow Mama, A Twist of Noir, Rose & Thorn Journal, Pulp Metal and Plots With Guns. In addition, he has stories two recent anthologies; Both Barrels – Shotgun Honey and All Due Respect – The Anthology.

His first novel, Blood on Blood, co-written with Frank Zafiro and published by Snubnose Press, was released in August 2012. Two WO He is supported and strengthened by a wonderful wife and two beautiful daughters.

Sam got up stiffly, looking around the small dark cabin, lighted only by the fire and a small grease candle by the wash pan in the corner. Scanning the room slow and sad, he looked at the familiar sparse contents. A worn out bunk, small table, guns on a gun rack made from antlers, two wood plank shelves, an ancient cook stove, some old pots and pans. He walked unsteadily over to the fire as if to do something about it, then paused and looked back at his old companion.

This was the end he thought simply. His head was low as he hobbled slowly over to Jesse’s chair and put his paw softly on the old man’s boot, letting out an almost silent whine. For a minute or two he stared into Jess’s face, intently looking and hoping for any kind of reaction, any small trace of life.

Finally convinced of what he knew already, Sam painfully shifted around and rested his head on his old friend’s lap. He whined softly just once more, which was his way of saying a sorrowful goodbye. The big pale yellow dog slowly sunk down to the floor and he leaned heavily against Jess’s leg. His eyes drooped and his head sank to rest on his paws. It wouldn’t be long now. He had been waiting and trying to hold on but now Jess was gone, so he could go too.

Just a minute later the fire died out to just embers, the weak blue flame finally sputtering out. As it went, Sam started to go with it.

His last thought was of him and Jess walking through a lush green valley. The South Platte was running high with the thaw. There were exploding clumps of wild spring flowers everywhere. The mountains peaks still draped in snow were off in the distance.

The last sound he heard was the hungry wind that whistled with a vengeance now, forcing its way through the cracks of the old cabin walls.

The cold crept in claiming its dark victory, but the old man and his dog were already gone.

They were walking through that lush green valley together now, warmed by a spring sun.