Western Fiction posted August 20, 2010

This work has reached the exceptional level
Fighting for survival in the Tetons

The Lonesome Pines of Mt. Teewinot

by Realist101

Inside the cabin, a fire blazed hot in the huge hearth, its heat melting the frozen snow and ice from the grizzled trapper's beard. His snowshoes and the bearskin he wore as a coat, were stiff as death itself, but served him well, on these cold and windy days.

He groaned as he took them off, age was slowly taking a toll on him and he was starting to contemplate his mortality. His life would not allow him to survive once he became frail and feeble-minded. It was a bridge he would have to cross one slat at a time and for now, the stiffness was his only major weakness, but a weakness none the less and it trifled with his peace of mind.

After years of wind, cold and the hot sun in summer, John LaRue's face had the look of fine leather. His hands were calloused from a lifetime of toting the iron traps up and down the riverbanks, where he fought grizzlies and trapped the beaver as they chewed down the aspen to make their dams. And he fished for the cutthroat trout too, while keenly observing the abundant wildlife of the high country. Life was good to him here in the Teton Range and he wouldn't change one thing about it, even if he could.

He undressed down to his red long-johns and filling his pipe with the rare tobacco, sat back in his hand-made rocker and let out a tired breath. The fire stoked, old Dog lying there and pipe in hand, he was glad to be inside the cabin that had been his home for over twenty years.

The dog, who was as tough and grizzled as his master, was getting old too and the fire was making him lazy and tired. He wouldn't move until LaRue had fetched them both their evening meal and even then, it would be with regret that he would leave the deerhide before the fire.

"Hey there, Dog!" Old John LaRue chuckled, he knew the animal was awake and listening to his every word. He hadn't really named his friend, he simply called him what he was. Dog.

"Git up hound! It's colder'n a witch's titty in them thar' mountains today!"
His laughter rang out at his own joke and Dog opened one eye, the tip of his scruffy tail thumping on the chinks in the floor, as if he too, were amused.

The trapper never petted or caressed the dog, but they had a good relationship none the less. Company in Pickford Pass was far and few between ... they needed each other, for companionship and survival. It got mighty lonely when the pines whistled in the wind and the only things that seemed alive were snow, the crystal ice and the wolves howling, unseen and ghostlike. It could be unnerving, when the days got shorter and the nights stretched out forever. LaRue was grateful for the hound and he sat staring into the flames of his fire, glad too, just to have a roof over his head on this long, cold night.

His thoughts turned to the rest of the world, briefly interrupting his peaceful reverie and he was hopeful that he would never have to live in some town again, with nothing but crowds and noise. The mountains were his home, his life and his only desire. He went downside just twice a year, to trade furs and buy his few provisions. He was always glad when he was done trading and it was time to make the long trek back up the slopes and passes of Mount Teewinot to the tranquility of his one room cabin and the mystical forests of the mountainsides.

He played a tune on his harmonica, a sad little song, that was a lullaby for a mountainman and his dog, a tune LaRue had heard many times before, back when he had had a wife, back when she sang for their only child. Back when he had lived down below in Jackson town, now the center of the world for the fur trade, it seemed. Its hustle and bustle strong lure for the summer rendezvous and gaiety. But LaRue still prefered the melancholy of the lonely pines to the company of men, so he and his old dog stayed halfway up Mt. Teewinot, where his best neighbors were the wildlife and the weather.

They both finally slept, while outside, the snow swirled and quickly deepened, muffling the world of all sound, save the far off call of a lone wolf, beckoning his pack to gather for the hunt. And the moon didn't emerge until almost dawn, as the wolves crossed the pass into the places where John LaRue and old Dog set the traps along the river. They followed each other in a line, to better get through the snow, but tonight, the alpha female stopped, her nose quivering. In unison, the pack turned and retreated back into the pines, wary of the lingering scent of human and dog. New winds picked up then, obliterating the tracks of the wolves with the new snow and it was as if they had never been there.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, the storm had moved on, leaving a sparkling panorama around the cabin in Pickford Pass. Trapper John awoke, with Dog's cold nose in his face, the request to go outside clear. He sat up, mumbling to himself, as Dog slowly moved over to stand in front of the door, staring at it, his tail going slowly side to side.

LaRue groaned, sleep didn't want to leave him and their fire was almost gone.

"Dog! Fetch us some burnin' wood, ya mangy mutt ... " And when he twisted his ankle stepping out of his cot, he fell into a flurry of cussing, using his native French tongue, his beard bouncing off his chest with each epitaph. Dog held his ground. He knew LaRue wasn't angry with him, the morning routine was a familiar one for them both; the outbursts would pass with a warm fire and fresh pot of coffee.

Letting the old dog outside proved to be another obstacle for a man still half asleep. The door was half frozen and when LaRue got it to budge, snow tumbled into the cabin and its glare almost blinded man and beast. More French swearing could have been heard, had anyone been near Trapper John's cabin, but as it was, the only witnesses to this, were Dog and the wolves, as they observed the going on's from the distant edge of the forest.

Dog smelled them as LaRue began to shovel the snow back outside and he bounded out across the frozen snow, each leap burying him up to his shoulders. But he was used to it and soon disappeared into the pines, leaving odd markings in his wake as he went off, in search of adventure.

It would be a while before he would return, tired and worn out, but content and glad to be home. The snow back outdoors, LaRue swung the heavy wood door shut against the cold and went in to drink his first cup of coffee. He decided that this day would be one of rest, a day to clean his rifle and catch up with reading verses from his worn Bible. He had enough fur to take down to Jackson and would need re-newed energy to make the trip down the mountainside and back. He was a contented man, maybe not happy, but contented and at peace with himself. And his life.

The Airedale followed the scent of the wolves for a few miles, his hair stiff with aggression. He was not afraid of anything. He had fought off cougar, wolverines and many mink and badgers too. He wore the battle scars of a real warrior and the wolves had marked his territory. This was something the old dog wouldn't allow. He put his scent on top of theirs at every spot, telling them he was waiting.

Long about the time the sun started to descend in the western horizon, Dog became thirsty and thought of where he slept, where there was food, friendship and warmth. With these thoughts, he ventured into a snowy meadow, where the form of a man sat, leaning against a granite boulder. Dog advanced slowly, temporarily forgetting home, he raised his hackles and a soft growl came from deep in his throat. The shape didn't move and he relaxed. The man was dead, frozen and black. A mule lay on it's side a few yards away, it too, was cold and stiff. There were bullet holes in both of them and the old dog turned and headed for the cabin. He knew danger could be near, and it was the kind of danger he would not be able to fend off.

LaRue listened for the scratch at his door, the sign Dog was back. He looked out and the sun was almost down and it cast golden lines across the snow, giving the land the look of something splashed with the paint of an artist. LaRue remembered art. He had seen pictures in the saloons; and some from his childhood in Paris. It was something that was a luxury for the wealthy, the ones who lived in palaces and the big houses in the cities. He sighed and shut the door, hoping old Dog would make it back.

The dark would cast more danger for them both and LaRue had seen sign of someone passing through. It wasn't the Shoshone, they moved to the warmer valleys in late fall and besides, they had left him be, for the most part of his existence here. He had always respected their burial grounds and hunted away from where he knew they camped. But lately, there had been more trappers moving through, and he knew they would not take kindly to it. He picked up his .50 caliber Sharps, making sure it was loaded and ready, in case it would be needed.

Darkness descended quickly on the cabin and LaRue checked outside his door several times before finally, some time later, came the familiar scratching of Dog. LaRue got back out of the cot, cursing and telling the animal he ought to make him stay out there with the wolves, but the door was opened quickly, the trapper was glad his companion had made it home and in one piece at that.

"Jesus hisself above, Dog, where ya been? I thought them injuns got ye!" Dog responded with a shaking of his wet hair that sent small ice crystals all over the place, some sticking to LaRue's long-johns. But none of that mattered, he fed Dog a hunk of bearmeat, stoked the fire and laid back down. His cot felt more comfortable now that his dog had come back. He knew in the back of his mind, that someday he'd not see Dog again and he surely dreaded it. But for now, all was well and he slept the deep sleep of a man who had no regrets.

The moon shone down onto the cot where John LaRue slept; gleaming off the rifle leaning next to where he lay. Dog was on the deerhide, resting lightly and like a cat, he slept with one eye open, listening and hearing everthing that ventured near the cabin. This moonlit night he raised up, his soft growl waking LaRue in an instant. Swiftly and in one motion, the trapper John had his Sharps in hand and was standing next to the door. Crunching snow could be heard. Very slow steps, as someone, or something tried to quietly move toward the cabin.

Dog growled again, but this time was hushed with a swift hand motion. He fell silent and stood next to his master, ready and willing. Every hair on the ridge of his back was raised and his eyes were bright with anticipation. LaRue strained to hear more, but the sound had stilled, making the situation worse.

Both dog and man stood rigid, waiting for whatever was outside the cabin door. There had been sign of grizz lately, as well as other trappers and LaRue didn't mind a bear, he needed meat and another hide would do nicely. But if someone else were coming around at night, it was not good. He breathed shallow breaths, expecting a thump at his door, but hoping whatever was there would hurry up and leave. Dog took a step forward, his nose making snuffling sounds as he tested the air. LaRue held him back as he knelt silently to peer beneath his door. He had put hides there to hold out the cold, now, he gently moved one from the door, so he could try to see.

The moon was bright, with the shadows pitch black around the trees and LaRue could see a shape take form to the left of his porch. But without new movement, he could not tell what it was, or how big it could be. He hoped it was just a bear snooping for food, there was elk hanging, along with meat from brother bear too, out in the trees behind his cabin. Standing quickly, rifle ready, he stood back as he dragged Dog with him.

Then they heard the loud snuffle of a bear. They should be hibernating, in full winter sleep. But LaRue had seen tracks a few days ago. One was awake, which meant it was either sick or starving. He braced himself and prepared to shoot.

The old male was sick, it had contracted rabies in the autumn and now was aching in its skull, a pounding pain that was making it crazy with bloodlust. It smelled the scent of living things and the urge to maul grew intense as it began to push on LaRue's door. Dog lunged forward, himself hitting the door with all his weight. He went into full fight mode, but LaRue could not let his dog fight the grizzly; if he did, the dog would die. The man grabbed his rope and threw it around Dog's neck, swung him backward and tied him to the support pole in the middle of the cabin floor. As the door caved in with the force of the bear, he just barely got the Sharps up in time.

The blast hit the huge, but appallingly thin bear square in the middle of his chest, knocking him up and back out through the door. Its roar of pain echoed through the forest and resounded mightily across the meadow below. It was the sound of death, but LaRue put another shot into the animal to be sure. His ears rang from the rifle's report; he would be deaf for a while now. But he and Dog would live to see another day.

Dog and LaRue both, quivered with nervous relief, as the moon hid behind a cloud and the night grew still once more. They would not sleep for hours, the dead grizzly would have to be butchered, taken away from the cabin and burned. It could not be used, it was tainted with the sickness and LaRue just hoped no other animals in the area had the terrible disease; he would find out as the winter slowly passed and spring brought the mountains back to life, but for now, in this moment, life tasted sweet indeed, as it always did, when death came knocking and was turned away.

He went to his friend and for the first time since Dog had been just a pup, he gently stroked him, telling him thank you. And the old dog licked the hand that fed and cared for him, his golden eyes shining with love for John LaRue.

Playing with a Topic contest entry


I chose "It's cold in them there mountains" as a topic to play with...thank you for reading and also to Deloralock for a fine picture!
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