"Vengeance, like hatred and loathing, knows no constraint of time or distance."
East of the Animas River (High Colorado)
His horse topped the ridge, where he pulled up short on his reins. A fire. Someone had a fire going across the hollow.
His eyes followed a thin tendril of promising smoke up through the firs and pines that covered the mountainside opposite the valley. Against a threatening sky, that smoke, so wispy and slight, spoke of warmth somewhere down there. It spoke of hot food and dry clothes. And it promised the presence of men.
What sort of men, Josiah Stevenson could not say, but at the moment, he didn't much care. Natives or white men, cutthroats or thieves, he would speak with them. For it was men that Josiah sought. Particular men.
They had come this way days, perhaps weeks earlier. And perhaps they had stayed.
More likely not. Still, it was a chance. It was a stone, and Josiah must turn it.
So he cinched the gathers of his thick, snow flecked buffalo coat tighter beneath his chin, and drew down the bill of his weathered hat, and checked that his revolvers were ready and dry at either breast. Then he leaned low to stroke his animal's chilled jowls and whisper sweetly near its nervous ears, "Careful now, Shiloh. There's likely to be treacherous ground beneath this snow, so you just let yourself down slow and easy." And he kicked the gelding softly in the ribs, directing it along a half-visible trail that lead between two giant pines and around a missive outcrop of granite.
The passage was indeed treacherous, but Josiah and Shiloh had been long in these mountains, and the animal was as sure footed on the slopes as any buckhorn ram. It seemed to have a sense for finding the best trails and avoiding the sheer drops that often claimed unwary travelers in these parts. Josiah let his mount have its head, and tried to stay in the saddle.
Once in the valley, they shunned the cleared flood plains of the river for the trees, and turned north, upstream. They turned toward that telltale plume of burning.
Now it was in their nostrils, thick and cloying. Josiah thought he caught a sizzle of frying fat in it, and his mouth watered at the touch. He resisted the urge to kick Shiloh into a trot.
Such business as his was best left unhurried. Besides which, the animal was sorely weary after their long descent. Instead, Josiah kicked one booted foot over his saddle horn, and dropped to the ground, wincing when his cold feet struck the hard earth.
For a time, they walked so, hoof and foot kicking a light powder of snow from the withered heather and sage and grasses of a fading autumn. From time to time, they heard a screech of owl and a squeal of rabbit drifting down from the forested heights. From time to time, they heard the howl of wolf and the raucous rut of coyote. From time to time, between the sounds of their own footfalls, they heard the unmistakable sounds of chase and flight, of hunger and satiety, of predator and prey. And, from time to time, they heard a whisper of voice that was the mountain's voice, which sang to them a secret, undeciphered song and alternately cursed their living warmth, its breath coming chilled and indelicate in their frozen ears. Long this voice had lain in their minds, man and beast, for long had they plied these rocky ridges in search.
No matter its familiarity, however, Josiah could never understand its mysterious tongue. Though sometimes at night Josiah slept to dream of that voice. Within his dreams, it came terrible as hushed spells cast upon his black heart to dim it blacker. For ever within his dreams, those esoteric whispers hinted at deeper things that lay hidden beyond human understanding, darker things that dwelt only within the hearts of the forest's predators or their screaming prey. The mountain's quiet urges comforted his cold, barren soul at night as a monster might coddle a child. Its permissions were all, and denied nothing. It demanded nothing of him, but neither was it bounty or succor. It was not benign, and Josiah felt the whispered breeze often carried promises of life and assurances of death borne on the same gusts.
Even now, he paused to listen. He thought perhaps he had heard his name hissed from the darkness beneath the towering pines.
But no, more tricks of the mind. His name was unknown here.
And nothing lurked beneath the cover of yonder darkness that he need fear. Shiloh snorted and stamped his forelimbs impatiently. It was cold. Getting colder. Too chill to simply stand about listening to errant evening airs, the gelding seemed to impart.
Josiah agreed, and they started forward once more. Soon, they were abreast of the smoke plume, though they remained on the opposite bank of the Animas. It was a wild river, and afforded no easy crossing.
As he surveyed the lay of the land, he realized there would be no fording tonight. The sky was churning angrier by the moment, and the sun was nothing more than a brighter patch of gray in the west. It would set beyond the farther ranges before the hour. And a half hour of open valley lay before the river, and beyond that another half hour of the same. The fire was burning on the far mountain, deep in the forest. Another hour of climbing after that, then. And an hour to find a safe place to cross that murderous torrent.
Josiah, the seeker, shook his head in disappointment. It meant another night. Another day.
A part of him, the worst part of him, chided that another day was nothing in the face of so many years. While the better part of him admonished delay, and counseled foolishness in the face of reasonable fears. This half of his mind urged him on to the attempt, as it was the lustier facet of his character, the facet that had driven him so long in tortuous rambling through these unforgiving crags. It was the brash cut of his nature, and cared nothing for mortal danger.
Yet Josiah was of two minds, and both were equal within him. He listened to both, and eventually turned Shiloh back into the forest.