Lily of the West

The two exhausted men stood staring at the snowman. Hoss took a careful glance at Adam and could see the expression on his brother’s face turn slowly from worry to rage.

“That scamp. That little rat! If this is some kind of joke of his, I’ll pound him into the ground like a fencepost.”

Hoss had to admit to having similar feelings. Last night Cochise had turned up at the ranch riderless in the midst of a vicious late fall snowstorm. They had paced the ranch house sick with worry, until at first dawn the storm had let up. They had quickly saddled up and, leading Cochise by a rope, pushed out into the mountains.

Hoss knew that Adam was gnawing on guilt in addition to worry; after all, it had been Adam who had reminded Joe just who was in charge during Pa’s absence by summarily ordering his young brother to take a trip into the mountains to repair and restock the North Ridge line shack for the winter.

They hoped that unhorsed and caught by the weather, Joe would have found shelter in the line shack. But they had found the cabin burned to the ground, probably weeks ago, the ruins covered with the new snow. They had poked around wearily for any sign, until Hoss had spotted the snowman sitting mockingly under a nearby tree.

It wasn’t a pretty snowman. It looked crude and hastily put together. Interestingly, a long branch was sticking out of its belly. That was odd. Hoss followed the direction it indicated with his eyes, and sure enough—

“Hey Adam, over there’s another one!”

“Why, that little useless…”

“Now lay off, Adam, I think he’s giving us a sign.”

They pulled their horses to the second snowman. Again, a branch pointed out from its belly. They followed and found two more snowmen, each of them uglier and smaller than the one before, as if Joe had been in great hurry.

Suddenly, Hoss slapped his forehead. “Dadgum, Adam, I know what he’s up to. There’s them little hot springs Joe and I found a couple years ago not far from here! He musta been freezing cold! Why, that clever little bug!”

Sure enough, Hoss led the way until they came to a small clearing. A creek flowed through it, and there was a bubbling, steaming pond along its edge, and in it, wearing only his hat, sat their smiling younger brother. His clothes were frozen into a bizarre heap on the pond’s edge.

“Howdy, brothers”, he greeted them cheerfully, “about time you showed up. Did you miss me?”

Adam breathed slowly. He looked ready to burst into flames. “All right, let’s have it. This better be good, Joe, or I’ll….”

“Now take it easy, Adam, this ain’t no joke. Cooch and I took a spill while crossing the river and well, he ran off, and here I was soaking wet in that blizzard. I got to the line shack and it was gone, burned down. I was so cold I thought I was dead, when I remembered these here hot springs. So I dragged myself over here, but I knew I had to leave some sign for you to find me, ‘cause my tracks would all blow over. So I made those snowmen.” He grinned impishly at Adam. “Pretty smart of me, don’t you think, older brother? Now don’t get mad, I was in real trouble when I got here. Hands so froze I couldn’t even get my clothes off. Had to get in all dressed at first. Couldn’t even make a fire to dry my things, cause my matches were in the saddle bags. But I tell ye, I’m ready to go home now. Longest bath I ever took.”

When Adam’s face failed to show any signs of lightening up, Joe decided to take a chance. “Tell you what, Adam, why don’t you two join me in here for a minute? It’s really very soothing! Do you good.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t push it, Joe.”

Hoss had just about had enough of Adam’s bad humor. A warm relaxing bath sounded just fine to him. “Aw come on now, Adam, there ain’t no harm in it. It’s been a long cold day.”

Adam relented grouchily. “All right then, but just for a few minutes.”

They undressed quickly, leaving only their hats on for protection against the cold wind, and stuffed their clothes into their saddle bags to keep them out of the wet snow.

Just as they slipped into the steaming water, a violent gust of wind swept down from the mountains. High above, a great Ponderosa pine lazily shook its crown and sent a half-ton load of snow avalanching towards the unsuspecting horses below. Sport, ever the most skittish, reared in panic, screamed, kicked out at Cochise, who squealed in his turn and sank his teeth into Chubb’s rump. A second later all three horses took off at breakneck speed and disappeared in a cloud of snow dust.

For several long minutes, the three men stared in disbelief, trying to absorb the meaning of this new calamity.  Hoss was the first to find his voice. “Dadblamit! We gotta go after them!”

“Without clothes?” Joe was near hysterics. “You ain’t gonna last five minutes in that wind. Believe me, I tried! Oh please, not again! When am I ever gonna get home?”

They were both startled by the strange sound to their right. Adam sat there in the shallow water, gazing at his knees and chuckling a low rich laugh that seemed to gradually break loose from somewhere deep in his belly. Hoss wondered if his brother had finally gone loco.

“What’s so dang funny”, Joe asked darkly.

Adam smiled sweetly at his brothers. “Pa’s face when he finds us three graces sitting in here with nothing but our hats on.” He had another private little laugh. “Let’s see. Pa will be home tomorrow night. He’ll find the note we left on the table. Maybe the horses will have come home. He’ll fret, he’ll worry, and by dawn at the latest he’ll be on his way to the line shack. He’ll find Joe’s snowman trail, he’ll follow it, and with any luck he’ll be here by about noon. Of course, he won’t have the foresight to bring three sets of clothes. So after he gives us his opinion on the situation” –another deep chuckle- “he’ll have to go and get clothes and come back up here, another ten hour roundtrip. I’d say the earliest we’ll be heading home is late Saturday night.”

“Adam”, said Hoss, horrified, “if I didn’t know ye better I’d say ye’re enjoying all this.”

Hoss did not miss the quick fond glance Adam threw at their younger brother. “Hoss, let’s just say, all in all this trip turned out a lot better than I expected.”
Exhaustion finally got the better of him. Sighing deeply, he slid long and low into the warm water until his head came to rest on a pillow of moss at the pool’s edge. “Aaaaaaaah, that feels good. Now excuse me, gentlemen, I’ve had a rough couple of days.”  With that, he tipped his hat over his forehead, closed his eyes and drifted towards a deep, refreshing sleep.

Fascinated, Hoss watched Adam’s features relax as his older brother put aside worry and cynicism and stepped through the wall to some secret place where he found relief from his responsibilities. In a minute, the worry lines had smoothed and he looked years younger. Well, if all this mess they’d gotten themselves into meant that Adam was finally getting some rest, then by golly, it just might be worth it.

Joe’s panicky voice interrupted Hoss’ reflections. “Adam, you can’t sleep now! Are you crazy? I gotta get home! I can’t sit in here for another two days. I’ll…. I’ll dissolve! Look at my hands, for Pete’s sake. I’m a prune! Hoss, how can he sleep at a time like this? He’s doing this just to annoy me. Hoss? Adam! Adam?”

“Joe, don’t ye twitter at me, ye’re getting’ on my nerves. There ain’t nothing we can do but wait for Pa. Hot dangit, but I’m getting’ hungry.”

Joe threw his wrinkled hands up in exasperation and turned his back on his brothers. He mumbled and splashed for a while, and then huddled by the pool’s opposite edge to suffer in silence.

Much later, Hoss sat staring at the night, thinking slow warm thoughts of home, of family, of food. But mostly of food. Was it even possible for a man to go seventy-two hours without eating? Certainly not! Hoss had heard of miners who ate their boots in such emergencies. Frowning, he removed his hat and contemplated it. Felt, wasn’t it? He turned it in his hands and sniffed at it. What was felt made of anyways, grass?

“Matted wool”, came a laconic note from his right. Adam was watching out of one half-openend eye from beneath his black hat. “I wouldn’t.”

“Adam, I won’t make it, not til Saturday night.”

“You will, Hoss. It’ll hurt a little, but you’ll be fine. Trust me. ‘Sides, you and that hat kinda go together.” He gave his brother one of his rare warm smiles, closed his eye and went back to sleep.

The moon rose insolently like a fat yellow cheese, its buttery light dripping all over bread crust mountain ridges and spreading across soft sourdough pancake slopes, until it flowed enticingly all the way to the clearing, where the pines poked like candles on a birthday cake out of a blanket of Hop Sing’s delicious sugar frosting.

Hoss sighed morosely. “ ‘You’ll be fine’ my foot! I’m hallucinatin’ already.”

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