Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: STORM (10/05/17)
TITLE: Safely Home
By Ann Grover
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There’s a cow camp on the mountain, near the high pastures. Nothing fancy, mind. A cabin with a potbellied stove. A shed with some hay. A corral for holding gathered cattle.
I’ve been riding up to the high pastures every spring and fall, ever since my belly was thin and my hair was thick. Now my belly’s thick and my hair’s thin. Yet I ride every spring and fall, turning cattle out onto summer grass, then gathering up before the snow flies.
Rob Roy whickers, letting me know there’re cows nearby. I investigate, and sure enough, I roust out four pairs tucked behind a stand of willows. We point them in the right direction, and they head down the trail to the cow camp. It’s suppertime, so we call it a day as I lock them in the corral.
I don’t heed the sky, the taint in the air. I think only of my grumbling belly and frying up some bacon and swiping bread in the drippings. Which is what I did as soon as I had those cows secured and forked out some hay for Rob Roy.
Would it have made a difference? There’s nothing unusual about leaden skies in September. Or frosted window panes, water frozen in the pail, breath hovering in icy air. First snows mean little. I had a job to do.
Lead the cows safely home. Every one.
In the morning, about an hour after we’d set out, the first flakes swirl, like midges on a summer’s night, settling on my chaps and Rob Roy’s mane. I saw the sky then, gunmetal-grey and so heavy and low I could have grabbed a fistful of cloud.
I hear bawling, high above us, so we climb, Rob Roy sure-footed as a mountain goat, following the echoing cattle cries. The snow falls then in earnest, downy, feather-like, first melting from my brim and mustache, but then freezing in slender icicles. Ice clots on Rob Roy’s hide, dangles in thin shafts from his shoulders and flanks.
The bawls become muffled, then crystal-clear and muffled again as the wind swerves through gullies and twists around trees. The cattle are to the north of us, then to the south, phantoms that seem to fly from invisible meadows to unseen ridges. His hoofbeats muted, Rob Roy slogs on in the deepening snow. I can’t see the ground or the horse’s ears, and then I can’t see my own numbed hands, so thick is the snow enveloping us.
Finally, I hear no more bawling, only the shrieking wind, the creaking of the saddle, Rob Roy’s laboured breathing. My own breath is wrenched from my lungs by the clawing wind.
Rob Roy stops. I urge him forward, but he will not move.
I trust Rob Roy. But there are cows to gather. I cannot abandon them any more than I could my own child.
For the second time in as many days, I do a foolish thing.
I step off Rob Roy.
I sink past my knees and then tumble down, down. A spindly pine breaks my fall, and I cling to it. I call Rob Roy, but my words are lost, torn from my lips like tattered scraps. He must be above me, and I stagger, futilely trying to scramble up, following the shadowy trail of my fall.
I am trapped in a Jack London saga, and I chuckle through chattering teeth. I’d scoffed at those romantic tales written by a city-born fellow, and the irony was that I had not a twig for fire nor a dog for warmth. My horse, my saddlebags with matches and jerky, have vanished.
Jack London was no fool.
I hollow out a nest in the snow, embracing the warmth that tingles through my fingers, my feet, such heat that I nearly swoon with relief and comfort. Indeed, I must sleep, for later, I am roused by hands, strong arms, that reach through the snowy blanket and lift me up, up, upward to the fiery sun and eternal brilliance.
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