"When they put out the 'TIRE CHAINS' signs, beware. It's not just the ice, it's the snow, too."
The sign read, "LAST STOP THIS SIDE OF THE GREAT DIVIDE."
Intrigued, Thadeus Alsup decided to stop. It was a modern building made up to resemble an abandoned mine site. Though it shone with modern lighting, including not a few of the neon and strobe variety, it was covered in weathered clapboard that seemed on the verge of sliding off the frame into ruin. Gas pumps lined the apron. A small garage stood to one side, a large truck hoisted onto its lone rack for fitting with chains.
Inside, as expected, he encountered a modern sort of convenience store. He was surprised, however, to find an official state historical plaque in the entryway.
This explained that the structure was, indeed, a restored mine site, which was operational from circa eighteen seventy five to the turn of the century. A silver mine, it was, and very prosperous. For a time. Once, an entire town had stood in the vicinity, this being the last remnant structure.
He picked up a few sundries and paid for his gas, handing a twenty to the crusty, bearded old gent behind the counter. A man that might have been his unkempt brother sat on a stool in the corner, smoking a thin cigarillo.
"Heya there, young feller," grunted the old clerk. "Findin' everythin' okay, are ya?"
Tad smiled. "Yeah, sure. Malt liquor and corn chips, the breakfast of champions!"
"Breakfast?" cracked the old man with the cigar. "Hot damn, son, it's nigh on dinner time!"
"Not the way I live, pops!" He extended his right hand to receive his change, but the first old guy was peering intently through the frosted window and seemed distracted. "Say, what's up?"
"Them ain't snow tires, boy. And I don't see no chains."
Cigarillo shook his head and clucked his tongue and puffed his odorous cancer. "That ain't so good. The signs are up all through these mountains. Won't be long afore you can't get through the passes without 'em."
"It's state law," added the first, shaking his head, condemning Tad as insane or stupid or both. "But I ain't no dep'ty. Now, that's fourteen fifty two. So forty eight cent makes fifteen, and five makes twen'y." He laid five one dollar bills into Tad's upturned palm, and slammed the register shut. "But I wouldn't give a plug nickel for your chances in them mountains, dressed like you are and drivin' that thing!"
"Yes, sir," drawled smoky, puffing a cloud about his head, "I guess you'd better keep a sharp eye out for Johnny Law, too. Or, better yet, turn around and go back the way you come! These mountains don't forgive much, and sometimes they keep their dead."
For the first time since leaving Denver in the rental, Tad frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means, kid, that ain't no interstate out there. It's a state highway, one o' them 'scenic routes'," he spat this last as if it were a foul curse. "Two lanes of switchback that runs about sixty miles through some o' the roughest country in this nation. And you being from, what, Dallas? Atlanta? Los An-gee-lees?"
The old guys laughed together cantankerously. Tad waved the air clear and gathered his purchases unhappily.
"What the hell do you know about these mountains, boy?" cried the smoker, choking on his mirth or his cigar, Tad couldn't be certain which. "What the hell do you know about the score o' poor bastards me and my brother Jeb hall down outta them peaks every year after the thaw? Yep, with all that malt liquor and all them corn chips, you're sure done up fine for a party, boy! A Donner Party, that is, ha ha!"
"Now, Jim, this here's my customer, an' I don't like you carryin' on so 'bout his pendin' misfortune." The old fart behind the counter smoothed his long whiskers and smiled, winking. "You just have yourself a real safe trip, now, ya' hear?"
"Sure!" gushed Jim, bent over his knees laughing. "Send 'em on their way without a word o' warnin', Jeb! Merry Christmas, kid! See ya' 'gain come spring, ha ha!"
"Hey," Tad remarked sharply, his hand on the door to pull it wide, "What's your problem, old guy? My friend has a cabin just forty miles up the road. He knows this country, we'll be alright."
Cigarillo laughed, and finally stood to get a look out the frosted window at Tad's rental. It was a four wheel drive, the smallest, and cheapest, the rental company carried. Jim only laughed harder to see it.
"Hot shit! These city folk never fail to amaze me, Jeb!" Jim stuck his cigar between his stained teeth and hobbled over to the counter to lean there, chuckling. "Must be Dallas. Or Houston. I hear Texas in it. College boy, right? State college?" Tad nodded to both questions. "And your rich friend out there, his daddy owns the cabin, right? Am I right?" Again, Tad nodded. "A summer cottage, prob'ly. For summer folk."
"Yeah, I guess. Mostly." Tad started to pull the door open, tired of the old man's jibes.
Jim was quick with a stick cane that Tad had not noticed to be in the man's hand. It slammed across the metal frame of the door, and shocked the boy into letting go. It swung shut again. A gust of icy wind blew in through the brief gap, depositing a fine dust of snow on the floor.
"Now you listen here, boy," growled Jim, his face fallen flat, his twinkling eyes deadly serious. "This here is winter time, college boy. And that punk friend of your'n don't have no idea 'bout what can happen to the likes of you in these mountains come deep winter. I can tell by what you're drivin', as nobody but a real dumbass would drive northwest from here in that piece o' shit! These mountains can snap your life away on a cold wind or with a sharp, unexpected drop! These here mountains ain't no place for some kinda hopped up hippy college boy road trip! I says you done come too far a'ready, and it's the devil to pay gettin' down from here. Maybe," he gargled, chuckling blackly, rheumatically, puffing on his cigar, "Just maybe you can get back to Denver before it's too late. If you was to turn back now. If you press on, boy..." he trailed off, turning to shuffle back to his seat.