Snow – Excerpt
THE RAVEN tucked its wings tighter to its body and shivered. It tugged one foot from the frozen bough, then the other, scanned across the snowy treetops to the distant icy peaks. Nothing moved but the sweep of bitter wind in the pine boughs.
Far too cold for life. Rabbits, mice and chipmunks all gone to earth, chickadees taking a last refuge in the firs. Coyotes denned, none leaving prey – no guts, no skins, no bones. Deer yarding up in the young spruce but none starving yet.
The early hunger season, before the men come. When they come they kill everything – elk, moose, deer, bear, wolves, coyotes, grouse, raccoons and many others, leaving guts, lungs, heads, skins and legs all over the blood-blackened snow. Many more animals get away injured and die later. So the men make food for all winter. Marrow bones and frozen innards to dig out when cold cracks the trees.
Now that the cold had returned the men would come. And this season of early hunger would be done.
Men bringing death. Good men. Good killers.
THE MAN followed the blood trail up the mountain through deep snow toward a steep ridge of young aspen. Frothy lung blood spattered the white crust: the elk wouldn’t last much longer.
The man halted gasping, bent over hands on knees, sucking in the thin air, and wiped frozen sweat from his face. He stood wearily, rifle in his right hand, and climbed toward the ridge.
Below the top he turned to look out over thousands of miles of conifered crests, glaciated cliffs and valleys of firs and lodgepoles all covered in white, and beyond them the faraway mountains shimmering in their blankets of snow and ice. It felt sacred and deep, this ice and cliffs and forests of wild creatures, this frozen wind, the sighing pines and scurrying drifts. It wakened something deep inside him. How the whole earth once was, when people were in a better place.
He took a deep breath, loving its icy sting in his lungs. Almost like a drug, this air. How it changes you. Renews you. He climbed the last few hundred feet to the ridgetop where in a little saddle fringed by oak brush the elk stood huffing out his blood.
The man faced him, forty yards apart. “I’m sorry.” He raised the Winchester and aimed for the elk’s brain.
Their eyes locked, and in that instant he was sure the elk understood, and his last glance was eternal hatred.
THE REGRET was always like this. You hunted because you loved it, to be back in our primeval life, how we’ve lived for millions of years… And the elk so overpopulated that they eroded the stream channels and ate down the willows and cottonwoods to the bone. But it was always painful to kill, he hated it. Life lives on death – but he still regretted it.
He leaned the Winchester against an aspen trunk and knelt beside the dead elk. “Thank you, for giving your life.” That was how Curt, their half-Cheyenne guide, would say it. To reach out to the elk’s spirit on its way to the death world.
He cut the elk’s throat and dragged him headfirst downhill to let him bleed out, sliced down the chest and belly and down each leg. The guts steamed in the subzero sun when he pulled them out. But already the elk was cooling and lines of ticks were running down his legs and halting at the snow.
When the man heard the sound behind him he paid it no mind, busy cutting the elk’s thick-furred skin away from the ribs. Then he heard it again, turned and leaped to his feet, the skinning knife useless in his hand.
A big grizzly. The kind so huge he towers over everything, his thick fur copper-bright, his shoulders so wide they crush down trees, his jaws like steel, enormous teeth.
The grizzly trotted down the slope toward the man, a dreamy cold look in his black eyes.
The man stumbled backwards from the elk, realized the Winchester was too far to reach, turned and ran knowing you’re not supposed to run because a griz can outrun a race horse, and running makes it mad.
He had to reach the trees.
The bear smashed him down. He curled in the fetal position with his arms covering his head as the grizzly’s great snout burrowed into his neck, the hot black lips and grating teeth rasped his skin, hot saliva down his neck.
The griz moved away. The man didn’t breathe. The griz ambled to the elk. The man ran for a tree, jumped into the low branches and scrambled up the trunk. Looking back he saw the griz squat leisurely beside the elk and start to eat.
Clouds sifted across the sun; the snow turned gray, lifeless, the long-limbed conifers shorn of light. The grizzly finished eating the elk guts and with a shake of his jaws ripped a rear leg from the body and chewed it down, bones crunching like tinder.
The light thinned, seeming to rise up the mountain and fade into the sky. The grizzly dragged the elk’s body into a spruce thicket, swished his huge muzzle back and forth in a drift to clean it, sat to scratch behind an ear with a rear paw, stood, shook himself and slowly wandered uphill till he was a far golden tinge between the aspen trunks.
The man slid down the tree, grabbed the Winchester and ran downhill toward a northwest-draining valley with deep drifts between the scattered lodgepole pines.
Panting, he halted to look back but the griz wasn’t coming. He realized he didn’t know this valley, but if he climbed the left side and headed southwest he should find camp.
He rubbed at his neck but there was no blood, just soreness where the grizzly’s lips had abraded it. He felt less fear, deeply moved and alive. The drifts underfoot felt weightless. Thank you, he told the grizzly. Thank you for letting me live.
Ahead of him trees had been snapped off, shattered; he worried maybe the grizzly had done it. No, this was a wide gouge in the forest as if a huge boulder had smashed through it.
It scared him though he didn’t know why. And because it scared him he went closer.
A crashed plane lay on one crushed wing, nose buried in the snow, the other wing raised toward the sky as if in supplication, the propeller twisted and the tail torn half off.
The man edged forward and peered in the shattered windshield expecting to see death, but both pilot seats were empty. In the rear behind them were two long dark wooden shapes he realized were coffins. One coffin had cracked open and snow had drifted over it.
As he backed away he saw tracks: human, heading downhill. Strides wide apart, no blood, a person moving fast, practically running from the plane.
He followed the tracks to the bottom of this valley where they dove over another ridge into the lower forests of lodgepole, aspen and spruce toward distant Highway 191, the road from Bozeman to West Yellowstone.
Whoever had made these tracks needed no help. He hiked back up the valley and climbed through the dark timber toward the next valleys and camp. He was tired now, the late afternoon sun bouncing off the white drifts and icy trees glared into his eyes; his legs were leaden, his feet wet and numb. He thought of what he’d tell Steve and Curt in camp: this plane, the grizzly, the dead elk.
Motion ahead made him flinch – the griz? No, a lynx staring at him with yellow slit eyes. It hissed and trotted away on wide fluffy feet. It scorned me, he realized. But how could it not? We’re destroying their world, and they know it.
It began to snow, tiny glittering flakes against the blue sky.
Didn’t matter. Soon he’d be sitting round the fire with Steve and Curt, warmed not only by the flames but by this special companionship, guys you rarely saw but with whom it was a joy to be. To like and respect them as they do you. A brotherhood, almost.
In a way it was these ten days of hunting he looked forward to most, every year.
He crossed wearily over the crest into the next valley, and across that up through another steep slope of firs and aspens, the snowflakes tumbling faster, darkening the trees.
A bullet smashed into the aspen beside him as a rifle roared uphill. “Stop!” he screamed. “Don’t shoot!”
His voice echoed away through the forest of ridges and cliffs; chunks of ice fell from branches down his neck.
“Zack!” a voice yelled uphill. “That you?”
“Steve? You nearly shot me!”
“You aren’t supposed to be here!” Steve came running downhill rolling clods of snow before him.
“You shot at me.”
Steve threw down his rifle and dropped to his knees, head in his hands. “Holy shit! I thought you were the elk I was tracking.” He stood, wild-eyed. “Christ, you weren’t supposed to be in this valley. That’s how we divided things up this morning.”
“You can’t tell an elk from me?”
“You were coming through dark timber where there’d been an elk a minute ago. I thought you were him –”
Zack lowered his gun. “Damn!” he spat, fierce in some way he didn’t understand; more than being shot at, it was fury at the type of person who made these mistakes. Not like Steve.
“I’m truly sorry, man,” Steve was saying. “I’m gonna regret this all my life.”
Zack nodded, not mollified. There was no way to explain or forget.
“Really sorry, man.” Steve repeated. “Really sorry.” He jacked the empty cartridge out of his gun and put his thumb over the breech to keep another from entering from the magazine. He took a bullet from his pocket and shoved it down into the breech.
“Forget it.” Zack said. For some reason he didn’t want to mention the bear and the plane but did anyway.
“A crashed plane?” Steve stared uphill. “Why didn’t you say?”
“With two coffins in the back.” Zack glanced at the aspen trunk smashed by Steve’s bullet. “Let’s get to camp and tell Curt. That’s where I was headed.”
A hesitant smile crossed Steve’s rangy, lean face. “You call 911?”
“Uphill’s like here, no coverage.”
“Weird there’s no bodies. Coffins? Spooky.” Steve slung his rifle. “Can you show me?”
Zack leaned against the aspen. “What for?”
“Hell of a pilot, to survive a crash landing up here.”
“We need to tell Curt.”
“It’s what, half mile away?”
“A mile. At least.”
Steve brushed new snow from his shoulders. “Let’s do it. Or I have to follow your footprints all the way down the valley where you tracked that pilot, then up again to wherever the plane is. And by then it’ll be all covered with snow.”
As they climbed the ridge in last light toward the plane, Zack could not stop thinking how close it had been, that bullet hitting the aspen.
I could be dead now.
NEW SNOW half-covered the plane, giving it a sepulchral air in the deepening darkness.
“Holy shit!” Steve circled it, wiped aside snow to peer in the windows, leaned his rifle against the smashed tail and climbed the fuselage.
He tugged open the starboard door till it pointed straight up like a broken cross. “How the pilot got out.” He dropped feet-first into the cabin, checked the instruments and squirmed over the seats toward the coffins.“Don’t worry,” Zack called. “They’re already dead.”
Steve reached the broken coffin with the snow atop it. But where had that come from, Zack wondered: there was no break in the fuselage where it could have drifted in.
Steve licked a finger, touched the snow and tasted it. “Snow!” he called. “The real stuff.”
“Snow?” Zack still could not figure how it had landed on the coffin.
“Whooeee! We just found ourselves a plane full of cocaine!”