by Danielle L. Parker
|part 5 of 11|
Teddy Bremner’s weathered red face was almost hidden behind the grizzled white beard that hung down upon his muscular, flannel-clad chest. Two button-bright black eyes peered up at Blunt from beneath the brim of a well-worn, grease-slicked leather hat.
The trapper hung both meaty thumbs inside the straps of his red suspenders as he spat a stream of brown juice on the ground almost between Blunt’s boots. “Dat’s der horse. Dat paint dere. Ve can ride?”
The black-and-white gelding had mean pink eyes and an ugly block of a head. The horse was stout as a retired madam, but still the tallest and most powerful of the four mounts Blunt saw in the foggy pre-dawn dimness. Two were pony-sized packhorses, laden with a mountain of unidentifiable supplies; the third, a thin brown mare tossing her meager mane to keep off imaginary flies.
“Let’s find out.”
The paint laid back his ears. His rubbery lips and thick tongue worked furiously. Long yellow teeth clenched on the bit. Blunt swung into the saddle. A swift and ferociously executed pas de deux ensued: the paint sidled, stamped a staccato tarantella, kicked out his hind legs, and erupted in energetic bucks. The iron grip of Blunt’s legs and firm hand on the reins eventually settled their duel in the captain’s favor.
Teddy Bremner nodded. “Ve can ride. Dat’s goot.” The trapper mounted and shook the reins on the neck of the thin brown mare. “Dis fog is bat today. Don’t get too far behind, hey?”
Underneath Blunt, the paint bunched like a cat about to spring. The captain murmured an obscenity-laced warning. The gelding replied with a contemptuous snort and laid-back ears.
The fog-shrouded view soon proved monotonous: Bremner’s broad back on the tail-swishing mare; two more equine rumps buried under the mountain of swaying supplies; the enclosing wet, silver mist. The flat city boulevard and half-glimpsed structures gave way, after hours of dull clip-clop, to a dirt trail.
Now the path climbed sharply. Thinning fog revealed new shapes: eerily terrestrial trees whose leathery brown leaves whispered like beating bat wings.
The paint grunted as his powerful haunches worked, kicking a shower of stones into chasms whose shrouded depths were more felt than pierced. At midday, dazzling light burst upon them suddenly as they climbed out of the cloud. Teddy Bremner clucked to his horse and drew rein. Blunt followed suit.
On the right, where the switchbacks fell away, a vast bed of fog slept, pierced by the tips of the tallest trees. A trickle of water ran across the trail ahead of them, falling over the edge in sun-sparkled spray. A blazing white sun cuddled upon the laps of multiple mountain ranges before them. The clear sky was blue, though a greener tint than the cerulean Blunt compared it to; tourmaline, perhaps. The air held an unfamiliar carbolic cleanliness.
Teddy Bremner dismounted. “Eat here. Rest de horses.”
The trapper, donning a pair of rubbery gloves hung on his saddle, plucked an armful of fat leaves from the nearest tree. He cast them into a blackened ring of stones that marked previous campfires, and struck a light. The oil-plumped leaves burst into flame.
Bremner doffed his gloves. “Dese leaves burn, hey? Blister der fingers. Use gloves if you pick ‘em.”
“Might be marketable if you extract the oil. Smells like a phenol of some kind.” Blunt sniffed the sharp clean smoke as he straightened. The paint had not cooperated with Blunt’s intent to check his hooves for stones, but they had, by the third leg, reached another hard-fought understanding. The animal’s ears were still laid back, though.
The captain patted the thick neck. “You’re the bastard cast of a broken-down nag and a jackass-flavored can of dog food. Don’t try biting me again.”
The other horses proved more receptive to his attentions and eager for his offered handfuls of grain. By the time Blunt had finished checking hooves, girths, and pack straps, Bremner had a meal of sorts ready.
The hot mushroom-flavored broth served in mugs dipped into the merrily boiling contents of a smoke-blackened pot was the star entrée; the salty strips of unidentified meat served as an accompaniment were tough enough to make Blunt’s jaws ache. Swigs of water from canteens completed their simple repast.
Bremner seemed a man of few words. He kicked dirt over his guttering fire; stamped it firmly in a heavy-footed dance, and hung his tar-colored pot once more upon the packhorse. He swung up on his hoof-stamping, head-tossing mare with no more than a grunt to his companion. The paint was now weary enough that Blunt’s climb into his own saddle was nearly, though not entirely, uneventful.
Their trail wound down; then, in the way of mountain paths, once more up, and down, and tediously up, and down, as they gradually gained altitude. As the afternoon wore on, the air developed bite, and patches of snow lay in the shadows.
The trail grew steeper and rockier and the leathery-leaved trees thinner and sparser. The horses huffed and their hides gleamed with sweat. Blunt, and then the trapper, dismounted and led his animal. Urgency fed their labor now, for the peak of the first summit speared white and stark in the lengthening rays ahead. The dread of an evening met upon the chilly height was on them.
At deep dusk they paused, for no more than silent moments of reverence, upon the summit. Great gray boulders lay scattered on the snowy barrens like steel boules played by a giant. Below, a new vista of shadowed hills opened before them like the ripples of a dark, petrified sea.
Teddy Bremner pointed with a gnarled finger toward some scarcely glimpsed distance. “Down dere, camp for night. Too cold here. Watch now! Pards hunt at dusk. Crab-monsters too, maybe; pray not! Don’t see ganglions in de dark. Stay out of de trees!”
Blunt was no more familiar with the meaning of the word ganglion than the dictionary provided, and that did not seem to be the trapper’s meaning. But he nodded and loosened Old Eliminator on his thigh, and they continued with renewed caution, leading the exhausted horses. True dark fell as they descended, and the trapper fumbled for a torch to light their uncertain path.
Above the sigh of evening breezes, Blunt heard strange sounds in the deeps of the forest: an occasional hoarse cough; the shrill squeals of nocturnal wild zooks; the creak of rustling limb and swaying tree trunk. Now and then, as he strained his ears, he heard something else, unlike any sound he had ever heard before — a strange, sad, singing whisper — almost, but not quite, the wind. At that sound the paint jibbed and jerked at the reins, and his black-and-white hide shivered with cold sweat under Blunt’s reassuring palm.
“Ho!” the trapper muttered. “De ganglions are singing tonight! Stay away from de trees!”
But among the trees they perforce must go. “Soon now!” the trapper called over his shoulder. “Almost dere! Stick to de center of de trail! Watch trees! Ganglions! Pards!”
Something caught Blunt’s alert eye. Ahead was a faint glow: the red warmth of flames. “Someone’s made camp ahead of us, Bremner. Expecting company?”
The old trapper spat and grumbled doubtfully in reply, but Blunt’s words proved true. In a small clearing, a man warmed his plump person at the comfort of a campfire. A blackthorn staff and a small haversack rested at his feet.
The man’s bald pate was reddened with sun. His safari-style canvas khakis were the worse for wear. Near-sighted eyes peered their way; the man sneezed, and fumbled in one of his many pockets for a large linen square he used to wipe a dripping red nose.
“Hallo!” he shouted in clipped British tones muffled by the hoarseness of an incipient cold. “Livingston and friend, I presume? Sorry to disappoint. Milton Rutgers here. Senior research fellow, Cambridge. Glad to meet you. Damned lonely tonight!”
Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker