Stage coach to Silver Valley
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Cameron Westfield glanced at the man beside him. \"What do you think?\" He asked. The mans face was weather beaten, darkly tanned. Gray showed in his beard stubble as well as in his hair adding to a picture of a man in his fifties, yet Bob Johnson was only a year or two older than his own forty.
\"Can\'t say for sure yet, Cam.\" Bob Johnson replied, his eyes straining to pierce the mist. \"It\'s cold... damn cold! If\'n we get caught in a blizzard out yonder, we\'re goners fer sure.\"
\"That’s what I been thinking.\" Cameron replied, his mind tossing over the possibilities. \"Might be best if we haul up here for the night.\"
\"Ranson won\'t like it,\" Bob Johnson smiled back. \"not one damn bit, he won\'t.\"
\"To hell with Ranson!\" Cameron Westfield shot back. Then added with a half smile. \"Hope he heard me down there too!\"
\"With them big ears he\'s got, he\'ll have heard fer sure.\"
\"Pull her up and we\'ll ask him. And if I don\'t like his answer, well, like I said... he can go to hell.\"
The big overland stagecoach lurched as it slowed on the frozen ground. And even before it came to a complete stop, both men heard the gruff voice from within. \"Why the hell are we stopping? We\'re late already!\"
\"Told ya!\" Bob Johnson chuckled as he slipped stiffly from the seat.
\"What is this?\" Edwin Ranson half shouted as he emerged from the stage. \"Somethin a matter or are you two just looking to get fired?\"
\"You can fire us if you damn well please.\" Cameron Westfield said, and his eyes warned the other man that he was in no mood for banter. \"If we continue on and this storm hits us out in the open, we\'ve all had it.\"
\"Horse shit!\" Ranson snapped. \"Now you two get up there in the box and get this stage moving.\"
\"Uh uh, Mister Ranson.\" Bob Johnson drawled back. \"Cam\'s right, and I for one plan on living for another few years.\"
Edwin Ranson\'s glared from one to the other man. In his mind he was fighting his own demons. Half of him wanted to fired the two men on the spot and continue on driving the stage himself, but the other half... that half was scared. He knew Cameron Westfield. The man had only worked for the stage line for three weeks, but a man such as him came with a name and a reputation and if he said they needed to stop and wait out the impending storm, then they best do it.
\"Bah!\" He growled. \"You two are getting soft in your old age. I\'ll say it again, get back up on the box or you\'re fired!\"
\"Suit yourself, Ranson, but you\'re making the biggest mistake of your life if you take this stage on.\" Cameron Westfield said. Inwardly he too, was worried. Even more-so than he would ever let on. Edwin Ranson was risking his life and the lives of the three passengers inside the stage if he chose to go on, but he was also talking about leaving Bob Johnson and himself stranded twenty miles from the nearest settlement with a blizzard pressing in on them.
\"I don\'t think so.\" Edwin Ranson had his back up now and pride is a hard thing to swallow once you put your foot into it.
\"Maybe you best ask the gent and the two ladies what they think before you go off half cocked.\" Bob Johnson put in. \"Its not only your neck you\'re hanging out on thin ice, but theirs too.\"
\"As manager of this stage line, I\'ll make the decisions around here.\" Edwin Ranson said, but this time his voice wasn\'t so sure and his feet shuffled nervously on the frozen earth.
\"You ask them,\" Cameron Westfield said, and he stepped a foot closer to Edwin Ranson. \"You ask them or you won\'t be doing a damn thing. If they agree to take the risk, then we\'ll drive the stage and take our chances along with the rest of you, but if they say we\'re staying put, that\'s what we\'re going to do. You got it?\"
Even as Edwin Ranson started his reply, a cold blast of wind touched them. \"Yeah I got it, but you get this Westfield. No matter how they vote, you\'re through with this stage line and I\'ll make damn sure you don\'t work for any other. That goes for you as well Johnson. Now lets get it done with. We\'ve wasted enough time already.\"
Bob Johnson led the way to the stagecoach. Once there, Edwin Ranson opened the door and began speaking. \"Ladies, Mister Barnsworth, there seems to be a disagreement with the men up top and myself. As manager of the stage line I...\"
\"What he\'s trying to say,\" Cameron Westfield interrupted. \"is we\'re heading into a blizzard and this ass wants us to push on. Once into the open we\'re exposed to the wind, the snow, and the bitter cold. And if that happens, we\'ll have no chance of survival.\"
\"Now hold on, Westfield!\" Edwin Ranson barked angrily. \"I disagree and as manager, I say push on. We\'re late enough already.\"
\"Westfield?\" Tom Barnsworth spoke up. \"You wouldn\'t be Cameron Westfield now, would you?\"
\"Yeah, that’s me.\" Cameron replied, taking in the man for the first time. The light was poor, yet the man was solid stock and well presented in his business suit.
\"Well, there\'s enough for me.\" Barnsworth said. \"I\'ve heard of you. They say you\'ve been through here more times than anyone else. Say you\'ve fought the Sioux, the Crow and the Blackfoot. They also say you\'ve lived with them. So if you believe its too dangerous to go on, then I\'m with you.\"
The two women inside the stagecoach remained silent for another slow minute. Then the oldest of the two spoke up. \"I don\'t know what’s what about any storm,\" She began. \"but this nonsense is delaying our arrival in Silver Valley more than I can afford. I got a business to run and the longer it takes to get there, the more money I lose. For myself, I\'ll take the word of Mister Ranson here. It\'s his stage line so I figure he knows this country as well as the next man. Press on, I say.\"
\"Well, that only leaves the little lady to decide the matter.\" Edwin Ranson said, the old bolster and confidence returning.
\"How do you figure?\" Bob Johnson asked. \"With Mister Barnsworth on our side, it\'s three votes to two at the moment.\"
\"Uh uh!\" Ranson snapped. \"You two only get one vote between the two of you. That makes it two a piece with the lady here to decide if we go on or pull up for a long cold night.\"
\"What!\" Cameron Westfield stepped closer to Ranson. His patience was wearing thin. The only thing the man came close to being right about was that they were wasting time. Time they needed to get prepared for the blizzard.
\"It doesn\'t matter a damn.\" Edwin Ranson said holding up his hand as if to protect himself from a blow. \"We\'re wasting time here. What do you say Miss, do we stay or do we go on ahead?\"
The young lady hesitated a moment longer, her eyes searching the gathering darkness to gaze into the faces of the men outside the stage. Even as she did, the first snow flakes began to fall. \"I... I\'m...\" Her voice faltered. What did she know of the west and of blizzards? She asked herself, then gathered her courage. The man named Barnsworth trusted the one called Westfield and so did the stage driver...
Belinda Preston looked again at the men outside the stage. She had not like Edwin Ranson from the moment he set foot in the stage and as for the woman beside her, she reminded her of her aunt Lucile. A busy body and all too wrapped up in herself to be completely trustworthy.
\"I say we stay here for the night.\" She said at last. \"I trust the driver and Mister Westfield.\"
Edwin Ranson\'s breath gushed out along with his disappointment. Choice words formed on his lips but remained unspoken as Cameron Westfield cut in before he could start.
\"All right then,\" Cameron began. \"Bob, you get that stage up as close as you can to those tree\'s over there. We\'ll weave some branches in amongst them to form a wind break. If you ladies have blankets and extra clothing along with you, I suggest you get them out. It\'s going to be a long cold night, but at least we\'ll be out of the worst of it.\"
\"This is preposterous!\" Lily Rawlings, the older of the two women spoke up. \"Mister Ranson, I demand we go on immediately. Are you not in charge of this line?\"
\"You heard the young lady,\" Edwin Ranson replied, feeling the bitter cold of the Montana wind bite at his exposed flesh. The snow was falling heavier now and for the first time, he began to think he might have been wrong with his assessment of things. \"her vote decided things.\"
\"Well, I\'ve never...\" Lily Rawlings began only to be cut off by the lurch of the stagecoach. \"oh!\"
\"Right there,\" Cameron Westfield shouted when the stage had moved twenty odd yards and up closer to the tree line. \"That\'ll do it, Bob!\"
\"What can I do to help?\" Tom Barnsworth asked, stepping to stand beside the tall muscular figure of Cameron Westfield.
\"You can gather as much fire wood as you can,\" Cameron replied, then added. \"and take Ranson with you. We\'re going to need a lot if we\'re going to get through the night without freezing to death.\"
\"You really think it\'s going to get that bad?\" Belinda Preston asked when Tom Barnsworth moved off toward the stage. At seventeen, she had come west after the passing of her mother. Little did she know of the hardships she would have to face; heat, bone chilling cold, droughts, wild winds and thunderstorms, not to mention the Indians that roamed these hills, snakes, stampedes and the wild white men she might meet. Still, there had been nothing for her back in Philadelphia except her aunt Lucile and she wanted know more of her strict discipline and selfish, greedy ways.
\"It\'ll get that bad, Ma\'am,\" Bob Johnson said, coming up to the two. \"If Cameron thinks it, you do yourself a favor and believe it. We\'re in for it, Ma\'am. In for it bad.\"
\"What can I do to help then?\" Belinda asked. She was worried, scared to be more honest with herself, but the man beside her gave her strength.
\"See what blankets are available, Miss...\" Cameron started.
\"It\'s Belinda,\" The girl cut in. \"Belinda Preston.\"
\"All right, Belinda,” Cameron started his instructions again. \"Get whatever blankets you can from the others, then see if anybody has some food we can use.\"
When the girl had started back toward the stage, Cameron Westfield set off with Bob Johnson to start collecting pine branches. His idea was simple. They would weave the pine bows in between the tree\'s next to the stage. With luck it would cut some of the icy wind giving them and the horses a little protection. Between this crude shelter and the stage, they would erect their fire. The bows also serving to reflect the heat back toward them and the stage.
\"Where do you want the fire?\" Tom Barnsworth asked, returning with an arm load of wood.
\"Just by the stage door, Half way between the blind and the stage.\" Called Bob Johnson from where he and Cameron Westfield chopped pine bows with an axe taken from the boot of the stage.
\"Sure thing! Will get on it soon as Mister Ranson gets back with the rest of the wood. Looks like you were right.\" Tom Barnsworth spoke up then went on to no one in particular. He was a talker, a habit of his sales trade business. \"It\'s cold, damn cold. Going to be a long miserable night for sure.\"
The wind had gathered in strength sending an icy finger through the tree\'s chilling them to the bone. The snow too, gathered in intensity, swirling on the wind and settling in ever expanding drifts.
Inside the stage, it was only slightly better. Yet there at least, the wind could not bite at exposed flesh. The cold was there. That, and the gloom of the ever growing darkness.
Belinda Preston searched her bag for what she could find. It was very little for she had little in the way of things. A couple of pieces of jerky and dried biscuits carefully saved for a time when she was left with nothing else. A spare set of travelling clothes, a jacket, gloves and the lone blanket she sought.
\"I\'m supposed to gather all the food I can find, and blankets.\" She said to Lily Rawlings.
\"Is nothing sacred to that man?\" Lily Rawlings responded. \"Why should I be forced to hand over my own personal things to... to that..\"
\"Ma\'am,\" Tom Barnsworth cut in. \"That man and Bob Johnson may be the only thing between us and freezing to death. So you give up what you got and don\'t hold nothing back.\"
\"I got a lantern up in the box.\" Bob Johnson said, coming from where he and Cameron Westfield had finished weaving the pine bows into the tree\'s.
\"Will it work?\" Tom Barnsworth asked him.
\"It\'ll help,\" Johnson replied, then went on. \"its going to be a tight squeeze in here tough, and we got to do something about the horses yet.\"
\"Where\'s Ranson?\" Cameron Westfield asked coming up to the stage.
\"Last I saw of him he was still gathering firewood.\" Tom Barnsworth said. \"Should have been back by now. He knows I\'m waiting on the wood.\"
\"Ranson?\" Cameron Westfield called, but the wind blew his words back into his face.
\"Ranson?\" Bob Johnson tried with equal results.
\"Damn him!\" The words slipped from Cameron Westfield’s lips softly. \"I\'ll go find him. Bob, you and Barnsworth get that fire going. I got coffee and some bacon up in my bag. Get it, and get it on as well.\"
Ever growing darkness greeted Cameron Westfield as he moved further into the tree\'s. In his mind, worry touched him, worry and anger. If Ranson was screwing off, shirking the work... His gut told him it wasn\'t that though. Something was wrong.
\"Ranson?\" He called anew. \"Where are you?\"
Nothing! No reply what so ever.
Edwin Ranson lay wedged face down toward the ground between two tree limbs. He could feel the pain coursing through his broken leg, feel the numbing cold sapping his life\'s energy from his body. And worse of all, he could feel the terror that gripped his soul.
\"Hel... help me.\" His voice was weak. \"Somebody... please... I don\'t want to die... not like this. Help... somebody, anyone.\"
Sweat formed under his arm pits, his body and groin area. Soon the bitter cold would turn it to ice and he would slip into a deep sleep and finally die. \"No, God, no... help me someone.\"
A fresh burst of pain escaped his lips as a heavy hand took hold of his jacket collar lifting him up to a somewhat sitting position. Pain, followed by a knowing realization that he was saved. \"Oh, God, thank you.\" He breathed.
\"Hold yourself steady, damn you.\" Cameron Westfield snapped, yet his hand was gentle as he worked to free Ranson\'s broken leg. \"How did you get in a fix like this anyhow?\" He asked, his voice softer now. In the dim light he could see, but more so sense, the agony in the man, the weakness and the fear. \"A couple of more minutes and I\'ll have you back at the stagecoach. Then we\'ll take a look at your leg and see what we can do for it.\"
\"Thank you,\" Edwin Ranson voice was barely audible. \"thank you.\"
Strong arms lifted Edwin Ranson, legs trembled briefly, then Cameron Westfield was moving. He had travelled a good distance from the coach in order to find the man, yet he knew the general direction he must go.
Wind and snow ripped at their clothing as Cameron struggled back toward the stagecoach. Twice he slipped, the latter falling to one knee with a thud that jarred both men.
\"Cameron? Ranson?\" The words came scattered on the wind, yet he was sure he had heard correctly and changed his route of travel. Another fifty yards and he saw the glow from the fire.
\"Bob,\" Cameron Shouted when he drew closer still. \"over here.\"
\"What happened?\" Bob Johnson asked.
\"Broke his leg.\" Was Cameron\'s matter of fact reply. \"Help me get him to the stage coach.\"
Even with the two men carrying the injured man, they had to struggle every foot of the way for the wind again blew harder and colder sending snow scattering all about them.
\"What ya want me to do for him?\" Bob Johnson asked scratching his whiskers after they had set the man gently down on the ground near the fire.
\"Grab some more pine bows and make me a bed over there.\" Cameron said. \"Then find me something we can make set this leg with.\"
\"What happened?\" Belinda Preston question, a look of concern on her face.
\"Done his leg,\" Bob Johnson spoke up. \"done it right good by the looks of him.\"
\"I have some whiskey in my bag,\" Tom Barnsworth commented. \"It aught to help dull the pain and warm him up some.\"
\"Yeah, but it\'s a shame to waste it on the likes of him.\" Cameron Westfield replied.
\"You don\'t like him much do you Mister Westfield?\" Lily Rawlings spoke up, resentment and anger in her voice.
\"I don\'t dislike him, Ma\'am,\" Cameron began. He had never really thought about it one way or another. \"I only know that had he had his way, we would have been caught out in the open with this storm and we would have been struggling to make it.\"
\"It doesn\'t seem all that bad.\" Lily Rawlings persisted with her defence of the injured Edwin Ranson.
\"You don\'t think its bad?\" Cameron Westfield\'s voice took on an anger of it\'s own. \"Go out of these woods here, then come back and tell me it\'s not bad. Better yet let me save you the walk and tell you what you\'d see. You\'d see nothing but snow everywhere you turned, you\'d feel the wind and bitter cold robbing you of your strength and then you would die.\"
\"Why I never...\" Lily Rawlings complained only to be cut off.
\"That’s right, Lady,\" Cameron Westfield snapped. \"You\'ve never been caught out in a blizzard. You\'ve never had to struggle to stay warm, never had to go hungry for any amount of time, never had to wonder if you\'d live to see another day. Well, I have, so don\'t you tell me what\'s bad or not bad.\"
Bob Johnson\'s return with his arm load of pine bows ended further argument. A bed was quickly laid then Cameron Westfield went to work on the injured man. With his knife, honed razor sharp, he cut the injured mans pant leg up past the knee. What he saw turned his stomach. \"Have a drink of this.\" He said, handing Edwin Ranson the bottle of whiskey. \"Have another. Drink until you can\'t drink no more.\"
\"It\'s bad, isn\'t it?\" Edwin Ranson said hoarsely.
\"Yeah, but you\'ll be all right once I get the bone back in place.\" Cameron replied quietly. A jagged piece of bone protruded from the leg and blood slowly oozed from the open wound. Whatever Edwin Ranson was, he most certainly wasn\'t a weak man.
\"You want us to hold him down?\" Bob Johnson asked, exchanging knowing looks with Tom Barnsworth and Cameron Westfield.
\"You\'d better.\" Cameron Westfield said with a sigh. \"We\'ll wait a while though. Let the whiskey take effect.\"
\"Is there anything I can do to help?\" Belinda Preston asked. She had gasped when she saw the ghastly wound and felt sick to her stomach, but if she could help, she would.
\"Yes you can,\" Cameron Westfield let his eyes take in the girl. She had courage and strength, he told himself. \"Put some water on to heat up, then find me something to use as bandages.\"
A tension filled ten minutes passed as they waited for the liquor to take effect. Cigarettes were built, smoked to the stub end and discarded. Feet shuffled nervously, hands rubbed together for warmth and for comfort of the nerves.
Cameron Westfield had seen breaks like this before, but he had never tried to put one back in place. \"Ready?\" He asked glancing at Bob Johnson and Tom Barnsworth.
\'Lets get it done.\" Bob Johnson replied. He had no liking for it either. The injured man needed their help and that’s the way things went in the west, but he sure as hell would have preferred someone else to be doing the deed.
\"Tom, you ready?\" Cameron questioned.
\"Yeah,\" Came a quiet reply. \"What do you want me to do?\"
\"Just hold him down.\" Cameron said, then added. \"All right, when you\'re ready then.\"
A pain fill scream split the night as Cameron Westfield pulled the broken bone back into place. A warm cloth bathed the wound. Bandages were applied and at last the leg was splinted using two straight branches wrapped in clothing and fastened with bits of rawhide.
Edwin Ranson, his face greyish white, though unseen by those who helped him, lay unmoving. The pain had been too great for him to bear and he had slipped into a world of darkness.
\"Is he going to be all right?\" Belinda Preston queried in an unsteady voice. Seeing it, being a part of it, had been a shock to her.
\"All we can do now is wait.\" Cameron Westfield replied.
\"Wait and pray if you\'re the religious type, Miss.\" Tom Barnsworth added taking a long drink of the remaining whiskey.
\"Best be thinking about ourselves now.\" Bob Johnson said. Like the others he had been shocked by the event. \"You know,\" He added softly. \"I\'ve fought Indians, rustlers, storms like this one here tonight... hell, I fought in the war, seen men killed and wounded, but I\'ve never had to do something like that before and I hope to hell I don\'t have to ever do it again.\"
\"I know what you mean.\" Cameron Westfield said, he was feeling drained and his nerves were unsettled. \"How about some of that coffee and a bite of grub?\" He asked. He wasn\'t hungry, yet he knew he, they would all need to keep their strength up, for there was no telling how long the storm would last.
\"You can eat after that?\" Lily Rawlings asked disgustedly.
\"We did what we can for him.\" Cameron started. The woman had a way of getting under his skin, but he tried to keep his temper out of voice. \"Now it\'s time we did like Bob suggested. Take care of ourselves. This storm is only beginning and its going to be a long cold night. If you don\'t keep your strength up...\" He let his words die out and turned to add more fuel to the fire.
\"I\'ll get the coffee.\" Belinda Preston spoke, breaking the momentary silence and easing some of the tension that hung in the air. \"Then I\'ll get the food started. Lily, will you help me?\"
\"All right.\" Came the woman’s reply.
The coffee was hot, strong and black. The food, what little there was, was picked at, yet slowly their appetites returned. No one talked as they ate. They were all adrift in their own thoughts. The bitter cold and the heavily falling snow forgotten for a time. At last however, Cameron Westfield and Bob Johnson got up from the fire.
\"Best be getting more wood for the fire.\" Cameron commented.
\"Yeah,\" Bob Johnson replied. \"Night like this, the fire will eat \'er up faster than we can collect it.\"
\"I\'ll lend a hand.\" Tom Barnsworth offered, getting to his feet.
\"No, me and Bob can handle the wood.\" Cameron said. \"You take care of things here.\"
\"All right.\" Tom Barnsworth agreed.
\"If Ranson wakes up while we\'re gone, see if you can get some broth into him.\" Bob Johnson spoke from the edge of the fire. Then he turned and followed Cameron Westfield. Like Edwin Ranson, he had really only known the tall rangy man for the three weeks he\'d worked for the stage line, but he had come across the big Texan a time or two in his travels of the west and he had a sincere like of him. The man had nerve and strength.
Cameron Westfield was just a shade over six feet tall and though he weighed upward of two hundred and twenty pounds, most of it solid muscle, he didn\'t look that big. He had eyes of icy blue that looked upon a man with quick appraisal, brown hair tinged with flecks of grey and a handle bar moustache, set on a face deeply tanned and hardened by years of sun and wind.
\"I\'m getting too old for the shit.\" Bob Johnson remarked as they started away from the stage and the warmth of the fire. \"Cold goes right through me these days.\"
\"You and me both.\" Cameron replies. He had been forced to grow up fast and he had faced hardships for most of his life.
At seventeen, Cameron Westfield had ridden away from his west Texas home to take up arms in the bloody Civil War. Not for the South though. His father had taught him to stand up for what he believed and to back water for no man and by Cameron\'s way of thinking, it was wrong to break up a nation. If the country was ever to grow and really prosper, then there needed to be laws, not for but a few, but for everyone.
\"Your friends won\'t like it, Cam\" His father had told him when he had made his decision. \"They\'ll be lining up to take your scalp. So you stand tall.\"
\"I will, but what about...\" Cameron started.
\"Don\'t you worry about me and your mother, Cam, we\'ll be fine. Truth of the matter is, there\'s a lot of folks here abouts that think your way. You ride on, and you take care.\" David Westfield had told his son.
Four years later when the last of the powder smoke had burned away and the killing ended, Cameron Westfield had ridden home again. Nothing was the same though. His Ma and his Pa had passed away or had been murdered. He wasn\'t sure which it had been, and he got few answers from those he questioned. The house had been ransacked and burned to the ground, the livestock taken.
For a time then, he had drifted. Avoiding trouble when could, meeting it head on when he couldn\'t. At twenty three, he signed on to drive a herd of long horns up the trail to Dodge, but old memories and bitter resentment are hard to let go. A man recognized him. Angry words were spoken and the man had died.
\"Sorry, Cam,\" The herds owner had said after the killing. \"These are Texas boys and most of them fought for the Southern cause. I don\'t blame you for what ya done, but I can\'t keep ya on. You\'d wind up killing half my crew or getting killed yourself.\"
Cameron Westfield had drifted ahead of the cattle herd with bitterness and anger in his heart. Another careless word from a \"Jayhawker\" in Wichita led to another killing. In Dodge he avoided trouble, yet trouble found him in the way of two older brothers of the man he\'d killed in Wichita.
\"I\'m looking for Westfield.\" The oldest of the two had asked bellying up to the bar where Cameron stood with his glass of whiskey. \"When I find him, me and my brother here are going to kill him.\"
\"Well, you found him.\" Cameron replied and the back of his hand slashed against the face of the man knocking him backward into his brother. In an instant his gun was out. \"I\'m not looking for trouble,\" He said, then added. \"but if you want it, you got it.\"
The two men had backed down if only for the moment. Later that day they braced him in the street. Three shots rang out and when it was over the two brothers joined the Wichita brother in heaven or hell. Cameron Westfield had shot true. A bullet in each of the two men’s chest and only one of them had gotten a shot off.
\"You\'re fast!\" A man had said from behind him. \"Too fast! I think you\'d best sign on with me before that gun gets you into more trouble than you can handle.\"
When Cameron turned around, he stared into the face of a man equal his age and size. Cold black eyes challenged him and the shiny tin U.S. Marshals badge pinned to his shirt pocket told him he was no man to argue with. The law was the law and Cameron had a respect for the law.
\"Maybe I will.\" Cameron replied. He did, but he found it was not a job for him and he quit a year and a half later.
At twenty five, he again drifted back to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. He fought the Apache, Comanche, wind, sun and drought. For a time he found work on a small ranch, but again he found his feet itching for more.
Saddling his horse Cameron Westfield rode north to Colorado, Wyoming, the Dakota’s and further into the Montana. The Sioux were on the war path, yet he managed to find himself a small valley to settle in. A two room shack, a few head of cattle, wild horses to break and ride... it was a simple life, dangerous but good for a man with an aching soul.
Eventually however, the Sioux had caught up with him and burned him out, leaving behind three dead warriors for their trouble. Cameron Westfield had buried them, white mans style. It was his way and it would send a message to the Sioux at the same time for he marked their graves with broken arrows and the bones of small rodents.
At twenty seven, he had found his way back to Colorado. Drifting, prospecting here and there. Living off the land and growing lonelier with each passing day. It was then that luck smiled upon him. For a time that is…
Later in life he had been a freight hauler, wood cutter, buffalo hunter, foreman on a ranch in Wyoming, Indian scout. Before he knew it, Cameron Westfield was pushing forty and again he drifted north where he took the job Edwin Ranson offered him.
\'Cam?\" The voice of Bob Johnson ended further thoughts of his past. \"Damn snows thickern than fleas on a hound.\" The older man grumbled. \"Hey! Where you at?\"
\"If I was any closer I\'d be wearing your coat.\" Cameron Westfield replied ghosting up behind the man.
\"Sheesh! You sure know how to scare the devil out a man.\" Bob Johnson chuckled, but it was a nervous laugh.
\"Best get back to the others.\" Westfield said. \"We\'ve been gone for quite a spell. They\'ll be getting worried about us.\"
The temperature had plunged to near zero, with the wind chill, it was far below zero. Exposed flesh became endangered, easily freezing in biting cold. Heavy snow still fell, but it had changed from soft and wet to hard little pellets the stung the face and eyes.
At the stage the two women and Tom Barnsworth huddled close to the fire. The injured Edwin Ranson lying near by. \"She\'s cold,\" Tom Barnsworth commented as the two men returned with their arms laden with wood for the fire. \"mighty cold.\"
\"That she is.\" Bob Johnson replied, dropping his heavy load.
\"How is he?\" Asked Cameron Westfield glancing at Edwin Ranson.
\"He hasn\'t moved.\" Belinda Preston said.
Dropping his arm load of wood near the fire, Cameron Westfield knelt down beside the injured man. He was alive, but it was clear that the cold was robbing him of his strength. They had to move him, but where? The stage coach would be only slightly better than the bed of pine bows he now lay on.
\"Damn!\" The word slipped from between his teeth silently.
\"Bob, ya best get yourself warmed up fast.\" Cameron spoke as he stood. \"He won\'t make it the night unless we do something and do it quick.\"
\"What do you have in mind?\" Bob Johnson asked.
\"Something I saw when I was first living out here.\" Cameron replied. \"It\'ll be hard work and we\'ll need your help as well Tom.\"
\"Glad to do what I can.\" Tom Barnsworth said.
Cameron Westfield laid it out for them then. Not far from where the stage was stood a stand of small pine tree\'s. Working together they would bend one over, then another, the two would be tied together with rawhide strips. Then a third and a forth tree would be added making the frame work of a dome.
Pine bows would be piled around the crude structure leaving a small opening in the middle for the smoke from their fire to escape. With luck, the snow would cover the pine bows insulating it from the wind and bitter cold.
\"I\'ve heard tell of it.\" Bob Johnson remarked. \"Think it will hold us all?\" He asked.
\"It\'d better.\" Cameron Replied taking up the axe once more and starting back into the woods. \"You ladies keep an eye on things,\" He called looking back. \"above all don\'t let that fire go out.\"
It was brutal hard work. The temperature had fallen below zero. The snow tapered off to a dusting of fine hard little pellets. Twice, as the three men struggled to bend the small tree\'s over they found their effort fruitless. The young tree\'s, frozen deep within, snapped and cracked. Yet, finally their toil paid off and soon they had the makings of their wigwam.
Two hours had passed since the decision to stop was made and a long night lay ahead of them still. No one had to tell Cameron Westfield or Bob Johnson what it would be like. Both men had been around long enough to know.
\"You two head on back to the wagon.\" Cameron said when the last pine bow had been laid in place. \"Gather up what you think we\'re going to need, then bring the women and Ranson on down.\"
\"You figuring on getting a fire started?\" Bob Johnson asked, though he knew the answer already.
\"I\'ll get a small one started, then I\'ll rustle some more wood.\" Cameron replied. \"Don\'t have to tell you it\'s going to be a long night.\"
\"Figuring on keeping both fires going?\" Came another question from Bob Johnson.
\"That\'s what I\'m planning unless you got a better idea.\" Replied Cameron. He had been thinking about it as they worked. The bitter cold would kill the horses the same as it would kill any of them. Someone would have to be up to maintain the fires and that someone would either be him or Bob Johnson unless Tom Barnsworth offered to take a turn.
\"Ain\'t no way around it.\" Bob Johnson offered. \"We the three of us, we can make do and not lose to much shut eye.\"
Tom Barnsworth had stood listening to the short conversation. He wasn\'t exactly sure what it was all about, but he was a western man and pride wouldn\'t let him not take part in whatever it was the two men were planning to do. \"count me in.\" He said, then turned to follow Bob Johnson back to the stage coach.
Twenty minutes later they returned carrying the injured Edwin Ranson, the two women struggling behind with arms laden with blankets and such. Inside the make shift shelter, Cameron Westfield had laid out beds of pine bows, a small fire burned near the center, then he had departed once more to find more fuel for the fire. It wasn\'t warm warm inside, but the wind didn\'t cut through them as it did outside and one might say it was comfortable even though it wasn\'t.
Edwin Ranson moaned as they lay him down on one of the beds. His eyes opened briefly, then he lost once more to the world of darkness and inner turmoil.
\"You stay here,\" Bob Johnson told Tom Barnsworth. \"I\'ll go back and get the rest of our things, stoke up the fire and check on the horses.\"
\"What about Mister Westfield?\" Asked Belinda Preston.
\"He\'ll be fine, Miss, don\'t you worry none too much about him.\" Bob Johnson replied. \"He\'s an old curly wolf, part grizzler bear and part mountain lion.\"
Belinda Preston wanted to ask what that meant, but she let it slide. Somehow... she couldn\'t put a finger on it. On her feelings that is. Yet, with him and Bob Johnson around, she somehow felt as if it was going to be all right.
\"Humph!\" Lily Rawling bemoaned after Bob Johnson had gone. \"He ain\'t showed me nothing yet!\"
\"Now, Ma\'am, we\'d likely be dead or lost out in that blizzard if it wasn\'t for him and Bob Johnson.\" Tom Barnsworth spoke up. \"You haven\'t seen him working like I have. He\'s doing everything he can to keep us alive. And pardon my language, but hell, Mister Ranson there would dead already if it wasn\'t for him.\"
That shut her up. Stopped her dead in her tracks. She had no liking for Cameron Westfield, yet she had to grudgingly agree that the man had more than likely saved their lives. And the shelter they were in now was by far better than the stage coach. She had sat inside it for most of the time and it had been cold. Colder than she had ever knew before. And it was true, Edwin Ranson was alive thanks to him.
The night drew on, the temperature falling even lower below the zero mark. Then wind died suddenly, but like a good prize fighter who had gone twenty rounds, it found its second wind, tossing a gale through the little forest with a vengeance.
Of Cameron Westfield, the saw him only briefly. After getting the others settled, he had returned to the woods in search of firewood. It was a never ending struggle, for the fire was hungry this night, consuming the offered food as fast as it was fed.
\"How about some coffee?\" Belinda Preston asked, when he returned with his arms heavily laden with wood. \"You\'ve been at it for over two hours. You need to stop and rest. Warm up a bit.\"
The warmth of the fire sounded good to him. The thought of coffee appealed even more so. He was tired, nearing the point of exhaustion for they had been up and going before the sun, yet he knew what stopping would mean. \"Maybe later.\" He told her, then turned to Tom Barnsworth.
\"How is he?\" He asked.
\"He\'s asleep, but I figure he\'s still in a lot of pain.\" Tom Barnsworth replied. \"He\'s tossing about some and occasionally talking off his head.\"
\"Any news from Bob?\" Cameron asked. Like himself, the old timer had gone out once things were settled, the other fire needed tending too as well as the horses.
\"Was back here a little while ago.\" Tom Barnsworth said, then went on. \"He said if I saw you I should tell you to wait for him. Figures we\'d better get our watch going and the others get some sleep. Said its going to be a long damn night and tomorrow don\'t promise to be any better.\"
\"He\'s got that right.\" Cameron replied warming his hands over the fire. \"Looks like I\'ll have that coffee after all, Ma\'am.\" He added with a half grin looking at Belinda Preston. She was a pretty girl for sure and filled out in all the right places. Big blue eyes, long blond hair, pert lips... Made a man wish he was twenty years younger.
The coffee was good and slowly Cameron Westfield let all the tension escape his body. He didn\'t mean too, but he was asleep soon afterward.
\"Dead beat.\" Tom Barnsworth said of the sleeping man.
\"I should think so. He\'s been going since sun up.\" Belinda Preston agreed.
\"Got the best of him,\" Bob Johnson commented mildly surprised by the sight when he returned. \"Lord knows we all need some shut eye, so let him sleep. I\'ll take the first watch, you can have the second.\" He added, glancing at Tom Barnsworth.
\"Sounds like a plan.\" Tom Barnsworth agreed. \"Best be getting some sleep then. You too, Miss.\" He finished, letting his eyes take in the girl. Like the others, she was looking wore out. Only Lily Rawlings had failed to be of any help, but then you couldn\'t pick who you got stranded with. When it came it came.
\"You might be right.\" Belinda replied with a yawn. \"Good night all.\"
Cameron Westfield awoke with a start. How long he had slept, he had no idea. Silently he cursed himself. Lives depended on him and he had let them down. One glace around the wigwam showed him just how much he had failed them. The fire had burned down to coals and it was cold inside, bitterly cold.
\"Damn,\" He breathed, getting to his feet. You could not stand upright in the wigwam, but it was high enough so that a man might stand bent over. Quickly he added sticks to the fire. When that was done, he moved to the entrance. The others lay sleeping wrapped in their warm blankets, yet they too must being feeling the icy cold.
\"Someone should have been on watch.\" He grumbled, stepping outside into the cold. It worried him, but more than anything it angered him. He shouldn\'t have fallen asleep, he told himself.
Moving quickly, Cameron Westfield checked on the horses. What he saw made his heart sink. Three of the four animals were down, victims of the extreme cold. The forth was still alive though it was in bad shape.
Bending, he coaxed the fire back to life then added more fuel though there was little remaining. He would have to rustle more and do it soon if they were to save the remaining horse.
\"Bob,\" He hissed, returning to the wigwam and shaking the sleeping man. \"Bob, get up, there\'s trouble.\"
\"What is it?\" The older man asked.
\"Outside.\" Cameron replied.
When Bob Johnson joined him outside, Cameron quickly filled him in. An oath of cuss words spilled from the older mans lips, but after a minute he calmed down. \"Barnsworth was suppose to be on watch.\" He told Cameron. \"Doesn\'t matter though, what’s done is done.\"
\"Yeah,\" Replied Cameron, still feeling guilty over having fallen asleep himself. \"Can\'t blame him too much, we\'re all done in and this weather wears a man out twice as fast.\"
\"What do you figure to do now?\"
\"You keep the fires going\" Cameron replied. \"You don\'t have much wood over by the stage coach, but I\'ll fix that up as soon as possible. Do what you can for the horse. Beyond that, we\'ll see what the morning brings.\"
\"Damn!\" The oldster breathed. \"Got our tails in a crack for sure.\"
Cameron Westfield chuckled. \"When haven\'t we had our tails in a crack? You and I have been in worse messes than this and I reckon we\'ll get through this one just the same.\"
\"Maybe,\" Bob Johnson replied. What Cameron Westfield said was true, but this time it didn\'t feel right. They were in a fix for sure, especially if the storm lasted any amount of time.
An hour or more, Cameron Westfield worked finding wood and bringing it back to the two fire\'s. By the time he had a fair pile near each fire, he was near frozen. His muscles ached, toes and fingers numb and burning with the icy cold.
\"Might be able to save this one.\" Bob Johnson told him. It was a bit of good news, but one horse wasn\'t going to pull the stage by itself.
\"How long you figure it\'ll be before they start to worry about us?\" Cameron asked. He had been thinking about it for some time now.
\"With the storm, they\'ll figure we put up somewhere for the night.\" Bob Johnson started. \"If it clears tomorrow, then they\'ll be expecting us sometime during the day. If it don\'t, well then I don\'t figure they\'ll worry too much just yet. A day, maybe two for sure.\"
\"That’s what I\'ve been figuring.\" Cameron said gravely. \"More like two I reckon.\"
Two days! It was something to contemplate. If the weather held bad it might be even longer before the townsfolk in Silver Valley really started to worry about them. And as it was, even if they were starting to worry now, there was little chance of getting out and doing something about it.
\"You notice something?\" Bob Johnson asked suddenly.
\"I notice I\'m cold as hell.\" Cameron replied. \"How about some coffee?\"
\"The winds died somewhat.\" Bob Johnson went on undeterred by Cameron\'s remark. \"Snows picked a might as well.\"
Cameron Westfield had not noticed. He thought about it now. Less wind would be welcome, but snow... more snow could doom them, especially if the cold snap continued. They could not take the stage out of here. Not with just the lone horse, so if they went, it was going to be on foot with the horse carrying the injured man on a travios. If they waited...
Waiting was not a option to be considered unless they had no alternative. They had the shelter true enough, but other problems, the most being food enough to keep six people alive until rescued, remained. Getting wood required trudging further away from camp then struggling back again. The lone horse... they could eat the horse if they had too, but horse meat didn\'t suit his stomach worth a damn. “No,” he told himself with a certainty gained through many years on bitter trails, they would have to move.
\"Get this into you.\" Bob Johnson said, passing a steaming cup of coffee and momentarily interrupting his thoughts. “Haven’t seen a storm like this since sixty.” The older man added reflectively. “Second year I was out here. Started out looking like it was gonna be one of those winter days a man lives for, warm, sunny and a slight breeze tousling your hair…
“By noon time it was colder than blazes and the snow was piling up quicker’n you could knock yourself a path through for your horse and yourself. I was out with my pard checking on our beaver traps when she hit. We was lucky we weren‘t far from camp or we wouldn’t have made it back. Got so bad ya couldn’t see the hand afore your face… Say, you weren’t out here then, were ya?”
“No,” Cameron replied. “Was back East fighting in the war.” He added somewhat sadly for it brought back bitter memories that haunted him still.
“Should have figured that.” Bob Johnson said regretfully.
They sat around then, feeding sticks into the fire, taking turns going out to check on the remaining horse and keeping the fire going by the stage. Snow gathered on top their wigwam, insulating it and further keeping it warm. Had it not been for the bad situation they were in, it might have been called comfortable, but neither felt comfortable. They were in trouble aplenty and both men knew it.
“What time do you figure it is?” Bob Johnson asked glancing up finally at his friend.
“Three, maybe four O‘clock, can‘t say for sure.” Cameron replied. He was dog tired, needing more sleep, and thankful, yet angry at having gotten what he had earlier. “At any rate, sun up ain’t far off. Not that there’s gonna be a sun today.
A stirring of a bodies ended their conversation briefly as they turned to see who it was. “What time is it?” Tom Barnsworth asked with a yawn. “Feels like I haven’t slept at all… That coffee hot?”
“Its hot,” Bob Johnson spoke up. “it’s like tar though.”
“I’ll make a fresh pot then.” Belinda Preston offered, rolling out from under her blankets.
“We gonna tell him?” Bob Johnson asked Cameron Westfield softly.
\"What good would it do?\" Cameron replied. \"Chance are it would just ruin a good man and chances are further that he\'ll never get into a situation like this again. Naw, let it pass.\"
\"What are we going to tell them then?\" Johnson wanted to know.
\"The truth.\" Cameron answered. \"Three horses are dead, the forth may or may not make it.\"
\"That\'ll scare the bejeezers out of them.\" Bob Johnson said. \"Hell, scares me.”
“Can’t a body get any sleep around here?” Lily Rawlings grumbled from the corner of the wigwam where she chose to sleep.
“What are you two on about over there?” Tom Barnsworth asked, suspicion in his voice.
“Well, since your all awake there‘s no use keeping it quiet any longer,” Cameron started. “Three of our horses died during the night.”
“What! How?” The words bolted from Tom Barnsworth’s mouth then sudden realization hit him a mighty blow. “Oh my God!” He breathed. “That’s what you two were talking about. I fell asleep and the fire’s went out.”
“Forget it!” Cameron Westfield’s voice was harsher than he might have hoped for, yet he knew nothing was going to change. “What’s done is done.”
“Like Cameron said,” Bob Johnson interrupted. “forget it. Its done with and we move on.”
“How?” Lily Rawlings questioned, moving from her warm blankets. “I knew we should have went on like Mister Ranson said. Now we’re…”
“We’re alive!” Cameron snapped, losing his patience with the woman who seemed to know nothing but criticism. “Had we gone on, chances are we’d all be like those three dead horses.”
“Westfield?” The voice was hoarse and weak, filled with questioning pain.
“What is it, Ranson?” Cameron asked, moving to kneel by the injured man.
“You,” Edwin Ranson began. “you were right not to have gone on. I… I know that now.” His breathing was shallow and labored. “The passengers… see to it that they get to… Silver… Silver Valley.”
“You’ll be along for the ride.” Cameron Westfield told the man earnestly. Despite his differences with Edwin Ranson, he could not help but respect the mans courage and dedication to his job.
“No,” Ranson breathed. “You can’t possibly manage an injured man and the others. Not with just one horse. Leave me, I‘m finished.”
“Bob,” Cameron Westfield made his mind up suddenly. “you best check on that other horse. We’ll be moving soon as we get things ready.”
“You got it,” The elder man replied getting up. “Don’t figure on her going to far though.”
“She’ll make it far enough.” Cameron said, moving to follow the older man. “The rest of you get your things ready and get whatever food we got left into your bellies. You’re going to need your strength.”
“But surely someone will come looking for us.” Lily Rawlings complained.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Cameron said patiently. “but it won’t be today or tomorrow. Might not be for a week and by then we’ll all be dead.”
“Get yourself ready.”
As he moved outside the wigwam, Cameron Westfield let his mind work ahead. First he would construct a make shift travois large enough to carry the injured man and some of the others belongings. The stage road was there to follow, yet there would be drifts to block their path, blowing snow to limit their vision, and the bitter cold.
Twenty miles in blizzard conditions?
Questions dogged his mind as he started to work. How many miles could they make in an hour? Would the women folk hold up out in the elements?
Belinda Preston would, she had inner strength and courage. The other woman, Lily Rawlings…
“Cameron?” Bob Johnson called as he returned to lend a hand with the travois. “I rustled up some dry grass for the horse. It ain’t much, but it’ll help.”
“All right,” Cameron replied glancing up at the older man. “We’re about ready here. We’ll leave off as soon as the horse is fed and watered.”
They moved out slowly, managing a couple of good miles before Lily Rawlings began to fall back with voiced complaints. “Do we have to walk so damn fast?” She called from twenty yards behind the others.
Around them, snow fell in big dry flakes carried by a slight breeze. Cameron Westfield and Bob Johnson knew it was only a brief respite from the blowing bone chilling cold that would soon tear at their exposed flesh. The temperature had risen above zero and pushed into the upper teens, yet the cold remained with them. Just not as cold as it had been last evening, nor as cold as it would soon get.
They moved in a world of whiteness save for the multi-colors of the clothes on their backs and that of the remaining horse. Yellows, grey, green, red, brown and black.
Nothing moved with-in sight of their eyes. No sound except that which they made reached their ears.
By ten O’clock, they had covered another two miles. Edwin Ranson lay on the make shift travois, sweating despite the coldness. Fever gripped him. In his eyes shown something wildish. Fear, Cameron told himself, pain and fear. Occasionally words that made little sense escaped his bluish lips, mutters and groans.
Lily Rawlings still lagged behind, yet she was gamer than Cameron had guessed. Belinda Preston walked with strength, yet even she began to show the strain of the task. Of the men, Tom Barnsworth was game and plodded along without complaint. Bob Johnson was a man bred to this land and nothing short of dying would stop him.
In all, it had been easier than expected. Here on the open plain, the wind had whipped and blown the thread bare grasses of the prairie almost clean. Only here and there, amid hollows in the emptiness they had come upon deep snow that dogged their progress.
“How we doing?” Cameron asked as his cold numbed fingers rolled a thin thread of a smoke. A match striking against his stiff legged jeans flamed into life then blue-grey smoke trailed from his lips. Carefully, his eyes studied each of them. “If the weather holds out like this we’ll have no trouble.” He told them, but it was just words for their benefit and nothing more. They were in trouble and he knew it.
Sixteen or so miles to go, he thought bleakly. A mile an hour at best. They weren’t going to make it. At least some of them weren’t. The raging winds and blizzard snows would get them long before the reached the half way point.
“Bob,” His voice was quiet as the two men checked on Edwin Ranson. “Anyplace out here where we can find shelter?”
“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Johnson asked in way of answering the question put to him.
“We’ll never make it, not like this.” Cameron Westfield kept his voice low as he spoke.
“Might know a place,” The older Johnson, a cold hand scratching his beard roughened cheek thoughtfully replied. “It’s iffy, but just maybe…”
“Iffy is better than nothing at all.” Cameron told him with a hint of a bitter smile. “Lets move out.” He added louder, looking toward the others.
“Already?” Complained Lily Rawlings. “We just got here!”
Ignoring her, Cameron spoke to the older man. “Bob, you take the lead. I’ll bring up the rear with Ranson and the horse.”
“You got it.” Johnson returned and set off at a slow but steady pace that would eat another set of miles away before noon time.
Snow fell heavier. The breeze of earlier was replaced by wind blowing from the north. Tiny slivers of ice bit at their exposed faces and hands as they moved. It was getting colder.
Belinda Preston let herself fall back until she walked along side the horse and Cameron Westfield. “Will we make it?” She asked after a short silence. It was the question they all wanted to know the answer too, yet none of the others had found the courage to ask of the two men who guided them. Most feared the answer.
“We’ll make it.” Cameron stated flatly. Deep inside though, he wasn’t so sure. Around them was whiteness. Deep, thick, and almost impossible to see through.
Time dragged on endlessly. As the little precession moved, heads down, collars rolled up against the wind, few thoughts entered any heads. It was cold, bitter cold. Legs ached as the plodded along endlessly. Hands and fingers were stiff and painful, throbbing against the freezing. Eyes became red and sore.
Snow and more snow. Wind whipping, lashing at them, biting…
“Stay together!” Cameron called through the icy blast. “You’re do fine. Keep it up!“ He encouraged, urging them to push on.
Noon found them still short of half way. Their little food supplies were eaten cold. Coffee would have brightened them up, warmed them if but for only a short time, yet there was little material available with which they might build a fire.
“If it keeps up like this,” Bon Johnson commented. “we’d best be thinking of tying ourselves together. I swear, ya can’t see more than teen feet in front of yo’self.”
“Best be getting at it and move on.” Cameron Westfield spoke up. Time was running out on them. Time they didn’t have to waste if they were going to live.
“How much longer are we going to do this?” Lily Rawlings demanded. “I’m tired and cold.”
“You’re still alive.” Bob Johnson told her. “Be thankful for that.”
“If you stop,” Cameron added somewhat quietly looking at them all when he had the rope attached that would bind them together as a group. “you die.”
“Ready?” The older man asked.
“Let’s do it.” Came Westfield’s reply and he waited until he felt the rope begin to draw tight before pulling the horse to a staggering start.
Twenty minutes later, Tom Barnsworth stumbled, fell, knee’s hitting frozen ground and with it, he dragged the others behind down with him.
Ahead, Bob Johnson felt the rope pull tight. Struggled to keep his own footing as he was jerked backward. Instinctively, he took a half step to the rear feeling the rope slacken.
“Hold up there!” He shouted above the howling wind. He could see the struggling figures on the ground and moved to help.
“Everyone all right?” Cameron Westfield was beside them. He too had felt the pull of the rope that bound them together. “Here, let me help.”
“I can’t go on.” Lily Rawlings, exhausted to the point of breaking, voiced what they all felt. Hopelessness and fear. “I can’t. We have to rest. We have to…”
“Get hold of yourself.” Cameron Westfield’s words cut her off. Lashed at her. “If we stop, we die!”
“I… I don’t care.” She was nearing hysterics. “We’re going to die anyhow. So why fight it.”
“We’re not dead yet.” Tom Barnsworth’s voice rose above the wind. He had walked along silently, guilt crowding his mind. It was his fault the horses had died. His fault if they all died out here. “As long as there’s a spark of life in us, there’s a chance.”
“No, you’re wrong.” Lily Rawlings cried. “I can’t go on. I just can’t!”
“Yes you can, Lily,” Belinda Preston told her. “You’re not the quitting kind. Otherwise you wouldn‘t be the woman that you are.”
“How would you know what kind of woman I am?” Lily questioned, some of the fear leaving her.
“You own a business.” Belinda replied. “You had to fight and sacrifice to get it going and you’ve had to fight even harder to keep it going. You’re no quitter. I can see that.”
They were wasting time. Time they could not afford to lose. “Come on,” Cameron urged them. “We have to keep moving.” Gently he started them off again. Then took his place beside the horse carrying the injured Edwin Ranson.
“There! There it is!” The voice of Bob Johnson reached the others ears just short of three O’clock. “I was beginning to have my doubts.” He added as he started moving once more. This time, he moved with purpose.
“What is it?” Tom Barnsworth asked, trying to see ahead of the older man.
In a little hollow guarded by a small stand of mixed pine stood an old run down shack. Part of the roof had given way to time, wind and weather, yet the remainder of the structure appeared sound. Inside at least, they could rest out and away from the snow and blowing wind.
“There’s enough wood laying around.” Bob Johnson called over his shoulder as the others stepped wearily inside. “I’ll rustle up a fire and get a pot of coffee brewing. Don‘t know about the rest of you, but I sure can use one about now.”
Coffee! Hot coffee, thought the others. They were exhausted, cold and miserable, yet a simple pleasure like a cup of coffee, even if it had to be shared in a few tin cups among the others. Spirits lifted and with it, hope.
Cameron Westfield busied himself with getting Edwin Ranson inside and made comfortable as possible. Then he turned to the horses needs. A rub down with a handful of dry grass he was able to find. More grass for feed, and lastly when the fire was going a hatful of warm melted snow. The others would wait for their coffee.
“How’s he doing?” Cameron asked Belinda Preston coming back from his chore. She was kneeling beside the injured Edwin Ranson.
“He looks bad.” She told him. “He’s sleeping, but he’s so cold and still he’s feverish.”
“The trip wouldn’t have done him no good.” Cameron replied kneeling down beside her and Ranson. “Cold might have kept the fever down a bit, but... We’ll just have to wait and see.”
She was right. Edwin Ranson didn’t look well. He was ashen colored. His lips and hands bluish grey with the cold. Turning to look at Bob Johnson, he asked. “Got any of that jerky left?”
“I think so.” Came the older mans reply.
“When the coffee’s done, how about shaving a few pieces into a bit of water for a broth. It might help his strength and warm him up a bit.”
“You got it.” Bob Johnson remark.
Snow filtered in through the hole in the roof, swirled now and then as a gust of wind rattled the sagging rafters. Still, the little shack was beginning to warm up a bit. It remained cold, but not as cold as it had been out in the teeth of the storm.
“We’ll rest up here and make a new start in the morning.” Cameron told them after they had filled the bellies with the hot black coffee. It was just after four p.m. They had cover perhaps nine miles, maybe a bit more or less for it was hard to judge distance in a blinding snow storm. “Might as well share out whatever food we go left.” He added, sitting down to rest his aching muscles against the wall.
Edwin Ranson was fed his thin broth of shaved jerky. The others nibbled on the same. It wasn’t much, but they took it with grateful thanks then sought out place along the wall or near the fire to sit and relax or doze in their exhaustion.
“Aren’t you worried?” Belinda Johnson asked Cameron about an hour later. It had been quiet in the little shack. No one had felt like talking up until now. “You seem so sure of yourself.”
“No, not sure of myself.” Cameron started. “Out here there a hundred different ways to die,” His hand waved to take in the vastness around them. “if you want to live, you do whatever it takes and ask questions later. That’s if you’re still alive to ask them.”
Cameron Westfield had been thinking of another time. Another blizzard. With the thought came painful memories. Bitter and guilt ridden. Over time, he had learned to accept the guilt and swallow the bitterness, but resting with time to think now, he was reliving the events all over again.
Life had kicked him around for the first six, seven years of his manhood. In that time he had had his fair share of barroom brawls, scapes with guns, knives, and of course hunger. For when a man is drifting, working from one lousy job to the next, hunger can be expected.
Luck changed though. A small pocket of gold discovered along the edge of the Colorado Rockies had given him a stake. A chance to at last live his dreams.
There had been more gold to be taken, yet it wasn’t what he wanted. A little ranch with a comfortable home, a few head of cattle, horses broken by himself. A magnificent view of golden sunsets and a cool breeze after a hard days work.
Then had come that wondrous early Spring day in Denver. Elizabeth McKlusky stood on the boardwalk, a fine tall young woman. Beautiful in everyway. Red hair catching the afternoon sun. Green eyes sparkling like fine gems. Her lips led and full, smiled at him melting the last cold and lonely edges from his heart.
Six years, he thought to himself, a mixture of emotions flooding through his heart and veins. Six glorious years with the only woman he had ever loved.
Cameron Westfield had been twenty seven years old when they married. Elizabeth, three years younger. The boy, their son, had followed with in their first year…
He saw it all then and he shuddered with the pain of memory. The dark grey clouds building thicker and stronger by the minute. Icy blasts of wind from the north. Snow then, whipped by the wind, blotting out their visibility…
When it was over three days later, he had found his wife and son’s frozen lifeless bodies. No one could ever be sure why they had left the safety of the wagon, but he could guess.
The wagon had stopped for a few moments, caught by a drift knee deep. Working furiously, he had given no thought to his wife and son. Never would he have dreamed that they would have left the wagon. When it was moving again, he was leading it, kicking down drifts, breaking a pass, yet he could not go on. They needed to find shelter away from the storm.
Panic had ripped his heart and soul out when he discovered they were missing. He had searched franticly through the day and into the long bitter night. The next day he searched as well. All in vain. They were gone lost in a world of snow and cold.
Starved, half out of his mind with grief and exhaustion, it had taken him two days to get back to the ranch. Another three days to return to the wagon and the bodies of his wife Elizabeth and son, Joshua. Two more days hauling the wagon back home and one final day in digging their graves.
After that, he had sold out. Drifting, carrying only what he needed to survive along with his broken heart…
Sleep over took Cameron where he sat. His mind at last giving way to the past, letting go and sinking into an exhausted dreamless slumber. He did not feel the blanket as it was laid over his shoulder. Did not see the tired smile the young woman gave him. Did not here the older man speaking to her.
“I reckon we’re lucky.” Bob Johnson told the girl softly. “If it weren’t for him, I’m not sure we could do this. He’s tough, Ma’am. Tough and smart. From what I’ve heard and from what I’ve seen since knowing him, there’s not a better man around to see us through this.”
“I think you’re right, Mister Johnson.” Belinda smiled back at him.
Cameron woke with a start. How long he had slept, he knew not. The others were there, minus Bob Johnson, asleep wherever they found a place. The little fire glowed, fighting against the cold of night.
Getting up, he moved on silent feet. Outside, he found the older man checking on the horse. “Why didn’t you wake me?” He questioned softly.
Around them snow continued to fall and pile up. The wind had faded slightly with the coming of darkness, yet even that small change helped relieve the bitter cold.
You needed the sleep.” Bob Johnson replied matter of fact.
“You been up all night?”
“No, Tom Barnsworth helped. Said he let us all down before and wasn’t about to do it a second time. Miss Preston and that Rawlings woman took a turn as well.”
“What time is it?” Cameron asked after a moment of silence.
“Four or so.” Bob Johnson replied.
“You get some sleep, I’ll take over.”
Without argument, the older man turned back toward the cabin. “Horse is all right. Rustled it some feed and warm water when I come out.”
“Bob,” Cameron called as the older man started away. When he had turned back, he continued. “Thanks for the rest. I guess I needed it more than I thought.”
“Don’t mention it.” The old man said and started back toward the cabin, but Cameron Westfield’s voice stopped him again.
“What time do ya figure we should head out of here?”
“Might as well go as soon as we’re ready.” The old man began. “Should be close to the woodland. Ought to be able to make better time there.”
“That’s what I figured.”
Their morning coffee was weak. More so hot water than not, but it steeled them for what lay ahead. Another day of misery. Cold brutal wind, snow and frost bite. “Damned if I couldn’t eat a horse.” Tom Barnsworth spoke up scratching his beard stubble. “Damned if I couldn’t”
His eyes looked to the others, but he found no complaint in any of their eyes. Like him they were all hungry. Food of any kind at that moment wouldn’t be turned down.
“Ready?” Cameron asked them all. It was just passed six O’clock in the morning. Snow, cold and wind awaiting their departure and their long trek a foot.
“No,” Breathed Lily Rawlings. “but I guess there’s no hope for anything else.” Struggling to her feet, she followed the others outside.
Edwin Ranson was laid on the travois once more. Covered with blankets. The rigged attached to the horse. Then Cameron Westfield led the way. He wasn’t sure exactly where they were, but he knew the spur off the mountain would funnel them into the pass and the tree line beyond. Once more they were all roped together to prevent any of them from becoming lost in the blowing storm.
An hour and a half saw them sheltered somewhat by the spur of the mountain. It was tougher going here and in spots they had to blaze a trail through deep drifts, yet the wind did not bite their flesh or tear at their clothing.
Eight O’clock brought them into the pass. Wind whipped down upon them. Snow blocked their way in horse high drifts. “Keep it up!” Cameron urged. “Just a little further and we’ll be out of the open.”
It was the work of the better part of an hour breaking through the pass. It exhausted them, chilled them to the marrow. Convinced them that they could go no further. Then they saw the tree line and hope sprung anew.
“Thank God.” Breathed Belinda Preston.
“Don’t thank him yet.” Tom Barnsworth told her. “We’re still not home yet.” He was feeling his aged. Older in fact, yet there was no quit in him.
“We’ll make it.” Belinda returned.
“I wish I could be that certain.” Lily Rawlings spoke up through the wind.
“We’ll rest up here for an hour.” Cameron spoke up when they found themselves surrounded by three’s, leafless they were, but here the wind didn’t touch them so hard.
Their tiny fire warmed them. Warmed their hearts a little. It was dashed when Bob Johnson came from tending to the horse. “She won’t go much further, Cam.” He said leaning over the fire to warm his hands. “She’s all done in. Floundering badly.”
“All right,” Cameron said. It was a bad shock, yet he took it in stride. “We’ll do it the hard way then.”
“No,” Edwin Ranson spoke from his place on the travois. “Go on without me.” He had heard Bob Johnson speak and he had a fair idea what Cameron Westfield had in mind. “You can’t manage that.”
“We’ll manage.” Cameron told him. “Now you lay back and rest and let me do the worrying.”
“We’ll leave the horse here.” Cameron spoke to Bob Johnson as they readied themselves to go on, but they all heard him. “There’s a bit of grass… she might pull through given a chance to rest.”
“If the wolves don’t get her.” Bob Johnson replied.
“But what about Mr. Ranson?” Lily Rawlings spoke up, not fully understanding what was happening.
Cameron Westfield moved to the travois. Hands reached down and picked up the poles. He took his first tentative steps, muscles straining under the weight of the injured man. “Tie us up, Bob, then lets hit the trail.” He said, setting the injured Ranson back down.
Lily Rawlings mouth hung open. They all stared except Bob Johnson. He had know what Cameron Westfield had planned to do. It was what he would have done. “Come on folks,” He said over his shoulder. When they were all attached to the line he shouted to Cameron. “All set, Cam.”
Once more Cameron Westfield lifted the man. His hands ached, numbed by the cold of the wood, but that would pass he knew. Stepping out, the others slowly followed.
An hour passed. Twice he had stopped to rest his weary arms and legs, but only for a few brief minutes. Noon came and went with brief rests in between. “How we doing back there?” He called over his shoulder. There was no need to ask, he knew they were stumbling along through the snow and bitter cold. The wind a constant companion.
“You better let me tote for a spell” Bob Johnson said when they stopped once more for a rest just before one O’clock.
“Not yet,” Cameron replied doggedly. “Maybe later on.” His muscles ached, burned. Hands were chafed and blistering. The cold numbed his mind. Yet there was no quit in him. Bob Johnson would willingly take a turn, but Cameron knew his older friend was in no shape for such an ordeal. The others…
He would see it through to the end or die trying.
“Lets go!” He called once more, picking up his burden. Snow continued to lay its blanket of white across the land. Wind whipped the faces and exposed hands. And cold! Always the numbing cold.
Stumbling Cameron Westfield fell to the ground. He lay for a moment remembering the groan of pain that escaped from Edwin Ranson’s lips when he dropped the travois. Slowly then, gasping for breath that wouldn’t come, breath robbed by the wind and cold.
“Here,” Tom Barnsworth was beside him, helping him back to his feet. “let me help you.”
“Bob,” Cameron called when he was upright again. He was swaying on wobbly legs. “best untie us.” In his heart he knew he couldn’t go on, not without help. For him, it was a hard thing to swallow. For so long, he had always done it his way. Always independent and very much alone except for those wonderful years with Elizabeth.
“I’ll take one side of the travois,” Tom Barnsworth offered. “Mr. Johnson, you take the other side.”
“You got it!” The older man replied, hurrying to get the ropes free.
“We’ve got to be getting close.” Cameron breathed heavily. It was nearing twenty minutes to three by his pocket watch. Another hour or so, and then Silver Valley. A place of warmth, food, hot black coffee and rest!
“All right, lets do it.” He added start off once more.
An hour can be a long time in the cold, snow and wind. They struggled, numbed in body and mind. Tired dragging step after another. At last however, they came to the slight rise that would lead them down into Silver Valley.
“We made it!” Gushed Lily Rawlings at site of the dim outlines of the town.
“Fifteen minutes or so more.” Cameron Breathed. He was once more dragging the travois, but this time he had help in Tom Barnsworth.
Stumbling and staggering they worked their way down the rise. The building took shape through the snow and wind. The street that served the town fell in under they feet. Livery barn, leather shop, Miller’s dry good emporium, Woodville and Woodville mining assessors, the Lucky Strike Saloon.
They stopped exhaustedly in front of the Silver Valley Hotel. Few people had watched them enter the town. The residents snug and warm with the confines of their homes and shops. Those few who had seen the tiny cavalcade enter the town joined them, helped them into the hotel with a dozen questions.
“Westfield?” Edwin Ranson, voice weak and quivering with cold and fever, called to the man he had disliked at the start of the trip. He now had new found respect for the man. “you did it. You and Bob Johnson. Thank you, thank you both.”
“I think we all had a hand in getting back safely, Mr. Ranson.” Cameron Westfield was too tired, hungry and sore to say more. He just wanted to rest his aching body and to eat and drink his fill of coffee. Later, when things had settled down, he would think back on their journey, think back to another storm and the woman and child he had loved so much.
Standing in the hotel lobby, he watched Edwin Ranson carried up the stairs to a room and a doctor to treat him. Lily Rawlings had gone to her place of business. Bob Johnson sat in a old leather chair, cracked and sagging.
“Just as soon as we’re able, Ma’am,” A man behind the desk was saying to Belinda Preston. “we’ll go out and bring your things in. For now though, my wife says she’ll fix you up with a few things. You’re about the same size. Shouldn‘t be too inconvenient for you.”
Moving at last, Cameron Westfield stepped into the hotels dining room. He found a seat in the furthest corner and sat down, eyelids heavy with sleep. Coffee first, then a healthy filling of steak and all the trimmings.
Time would tell for him.
"You cannot worry about that which you cannot control."