Western Short Story
Cold Comfort
Jim Bryson

Western Short Story

Nate Ford shivered against the chilly wind and pulled the fur collar of his heavy coat up over his chin, tightening the chin strap of his fur cap. The heavy-coated Montana horse he rode was cold-mountain bred and the temperature bothered it not at all. It just kept moving forward at the same steady gait.

"You're a damn fool," he said out loud, more to himself than to the horse he was riding. And there was no doubt that compared with all of the other foolish things that he had done, which were plenty enough, this was probably the most foolish. He turned to check on the pack horse, another Montana heavy-weight. It also stood the test of the bleak weather easily and without complaint following its companion without hesitation. He wished he felt the same but he was cold, as cold as he had ever been, and he had been cold, very cold before. Even with the heavy down-filled coat that he wore, the lined cap and down-filled mittens, he felt the temperature out in the open dropping and knew he would have to find shelter for himself and the animals long before he really wanted to. But he was not going to do those people any good dead and dead he would be if he did not pay attention to the lessons learned in the past.

'Those people' he was thinking about were four Virginia families who had set out a week earlier to travel through Montgomery Pass in the South Dakota Territory toward Aberdeen. It had been pretty late in the season for wagons to head through the Pass and they had been told so by those who knew the mountains. But it was the last stretch of a long and tiring journey to new places and new opportunities and they felt they had no choice but to move on despite the advice to the contrary. As with many people coming west, they knew the risks well and knew that they had to live with the consequences of the decisions they made. Or they would have to live with them if people like Nate Ford were not around to help them when that help was needed. And were willing to help.

Sure enough, two days after the wagons had pulled out of town the big mountain winds began to blow and the heavy snows had started to come. When they did, they came in bountiful amounts, several feet of heavy wet snow falling over a three day period, blanketing the world in white. Those that knew the mountains knew that much more could and probably would fall in Montgomery Pass. They also knew that those wagons would most likely be caught in the middle of it. There was a lot of talk about putting together a rescue mission but there were few people willing to take on something that might get them killed. And for some of the town folk, for many actually, those on the wagons and their people had made a bad decision, made against much experienced advice and so were the architects of their own demise. And they, not the people of the town, should pay the ultimate price for that decision.

Nate Ford understood the sentiment and to some extent he agreed with it. Still, these were families with children. He had chatted with them when they were in Gatesville and they seemed nice, sincere folks. Knowing them was different than contemplating the fate of those one has never met. So, while they were not family or friends, they were no longer strangers to him and that changed things. He knew they were better prepared than most for winter travel and he told himself this over and over. Still, he knew the passes and he did not hold out much hope for their survival without his help. Not in these mountains.

He talked with Milt Shockley and the other folks on the Gatesville town council and they reluctantly agreed to supply him with what he needed if he was crazy enough to head out to help those 'foolish wagon train folks.' While he was not a citizen of the town, he had been through it and stayed enough times to be known as someone reliable, skilled and experienced in dealing with winter weather. And they were good people in Gatesville. They gave him sufficient credit, at town expense, at the general store and Martha Finlay, the owner, helped him to determine what would be the best things to pack. They also gave him the extra Montana horse he would need to pack those things and wished him well while silently certain he would never make it back. It would be their loss but they were prepared to accept it.

"Well, they might have been right," he said aloud, to no one in particular. But two windy and cold days out of Gatesville he was still moving forward and he expected to come upon the wagon train in the next day or so if he judged things correctly. He expected to find them alive and well enough but stuck in the snow, uncertain and without a plan for how they could manage their situation. That was where he would come in. He had been through more than his share of winter storms and knew what needed to be done to survive in such conditions. He lived through such winters as a boy and a man and he had learned what needed to be done and what must not be tried. Especially what must not be tried.

He thought of Art Dolan, the one man on the wagon train to whom he had taken an instant dislike and who liked Nate no more than Nate liked him. Sullen and taciturn, Dolan had resented Nate even talking to the people on the wagon train. He seemed suspicious of everyone and afraid of everything, but bull stubborn once his mind was made up. Dolan might be trouble. On the other hand, Tom Bowles, the leader of the group and an old army man, was an affable and reasonable man and he would appreciate Nate riding out to offer help in this weather. Bowles would listen to what Nate had to say and, Nate suspected, so would most of the others. Their fear would make them particularly attentive.

He saw the darkness of the tall rock formation through the light snow and turned the horses toward it. He found a sheltered space and bent thick pine boughs, tying them to form a bower under which he made his night camp. The warmth of the fire was like a living thing coursing through him and he sat close to it until he was warmed right through, while the water for his tea boiled noisily. Tea was much better than coffee for cold weather his mother had taught him, and living in the high Montana Mountains they had certainly needed it. He ate his meal then built up the fire, stacked wood for the night and crawled gratefully into his thick blankets. Three times during the night he stirred with the cold and the noise of the wind, added more wood to the fire and just as quickly crawled back into the welcoming warmth of the blankets. Given the overall situation, he was actually quite comfortable for most of the chilly night.

He took the time for a hot breakfast in the morning, noting that the snow had eased a little bit. He fed high quality grain to the two horses, checking their feet, shoes and the balance of the load on the pack horse. Without them, despite the snowshoes on the pack horse, he would be lost. All was good and he mounted and resumed his gradual climb toward the high Montgomery Pass.

It was early in the afternoon when he saw the faint plume of smoke ahead and to the east and turned the horses toward it. They scented it and moved ahead on their own. He had been able to find the easiest paths for the horses up to this point but now he had to point them directly at the smoke as that was where they wanted to go. There were times during the next little while when the snow was up to the horses' chests but the Montana horses seemed to be undisturbed by it and just plowed their way through without hesitation or difficulty. He marveled again at the strength and endurance of the breed and swore he would never ride any other kind of horse. That is, if he lived through all of this.

Three hours later he was within hailing distance and called into the camp, riding down into the large circular area when he heard Tom Bowles call out for him to come in. He rode into the circle they had cleared in the snow, dismounted and brushed off the two horses. Caddie Bowles, Tom's teenage daughter came over to help, leading the horses over to a makeshift corral of brush.

"Sure glad to see you come over that rise, Nate," Tom Bowles said. "We're in a real pickle here and we don't rightly know what to do. We seem to be snowed in pretty good and we been trying to figure a way out. I'm hoping you can point us in the right direction so we can get through the pass the safest way."

"There's no way out of here, Tom," Nate said. "In fact, as hard as it might be to believe, you're going to be stuck right here until the snow melts in the spring. It's too deep behind us to get back to Gatesville and I believe it's even deeper if you go ahead. I know it looks like there's little snow between here and the pass but a few miles from here it'll be at least four feet deep, thick, wet and heavy. There's simply no way to move now until spring and if you try I don't believe you'll make it. Not any of you. You'll get stuck higher where it's even colder that in this valley, run out of food and freeze to death."

"You're crazy!" Art Dolan said, pushing his way past some of the others to face Nate. "We ain't staying here through a winter! We'll never make it! Besides, what makes you think you know everything?"

"What you do is up to you," Nate said calmly. "But those that are smart will stay right here where it's safe. They'll make it through the winter just fine and get to Aberdeen in the spring. Maybe even in early spring if the animals and Indians have it right this year, as that's what they're predicting."

"Well, not me," Dolan said. "I'm getting out of here!"

"Fine by me," Nate Ford said, not wanting to antagonize the man. "You need to do what you feel is right and it'll be two less for us to feed. Feeding this group is going to be about as important as gathering wood for a continuous fire to keep everyone warm. It's cold now and it won't get too much colder I don't think, but it'll stay cold for some weeks to come, especially on more cloudy days. We have a lot to do to get ourselves organized and to prepared, and the sooner we get started the better off we'll be."

"Well who died and made you king?" Dolan muttered.

"As far as I'm concerned," Tom Bowles said. "Until we get ourselves out of here, Art, I'll do whatever Nate tells us to do. I'm told he's familiar with mountain winters," He turned to the others. "How about you folks? What do you think? We're a community, after all, and everyone should have a say."

Most nodded and some voiced aloud their approval of the plan to stay put until spring. Dolan snorted, turned on his heel and headed back to his wagon, his shoulders hunched and his frustration obvious.

"What do I do about him?" Tom Bowles asked Ford.

Nate Ford shrugged. "Not much you can do, Tom. You know that. He's a grown man and out here we sort of let grown men do what they want to do. Then they own the consequences of their choices."

"Easy if it was just him," Tom said. "But his wife Rebecca will also suffer from whatever mistakes he might make. Thank goodness there's no kids to worry about. He's a good man, Nate, in his way, but he's bull-headed and stubborn. However, I'd not want to see anything bad happen to him or Rebecca. It worries me some that he might just do what he said and try to get out of here."

"I understand, Tom. Try to talk with him some more when there's a chance and see if you can get him to listen to you. Clearly he won't listen to me."

Tom Bowles nodded and headed toward Dolan's wagon.

The two other men, Milt Owen and Dan Wall, along with Caddie and another teenager, a strong-looking young boy, came over to talk with him. "So, Nate," Milt Owen said, "What do we do first? What's most important? Tom says we're to take directions from you about getting organized."

"You've already done pretty well if you ask me," Nate said. "You've cleared this big open area and we have to keep it clear as that's where we'll be spending a lot of our time. We'll put together a bit sturdier corral over there next to that flat wall of brush for the horses and mules. We can make it out of all the deadfall. Someone will have to be in charge of the animals' feed so we'll have to ration out hay and oats properly."

"I can do that," Toby Wall, the boy, said. "I used to work in a livery and I know how to take care of animals."

"Great," Nate said. "Then that's your number one job, Toby. You'll be in charge of caring for the livestock. We'll also need to hunt and hunt pretty far away from here for game. Nice thing is that freezing it will be no problem."

"Why far away?" Caddie asked.

"So that if there comes a time when we can't get too far from here because of weather or we don't have the energy, there will be game close by. If we hunt out all the game nearby we'll have to go farther and farther to hunt as the winter goes on. Same with wood gathering. While we're all fresh we gather as much wood as we can from farther out. If later in the winter we have less energy, which might happen, we won't have to go too far. There's plenty of deadwood. The high winds may be trouble in some ways but they bring down a lot of wood."

"I can take charge of that," Milt Owen said. "And I can help with the hunting, too. I can skin and dress pretty well."

Others had come over and joined the group and together they worked out duties and schedules, the families becoming more excited about the challenge of making it through the winter. That was what Nate had hoped for.

Tom Bowles soon came back and waved Nate to the side. He was shaking his head. "Art won't listen. He plans to head out at first light."

Nate shrugged. "His mistake, but his to make. I wish him well."

Darkness was falling and they had a quiet dinner, Art Dolan and his wife Rebecca deciding to join them. She seemed to be nervous, Dolan a bit combative but quiet about it and Nate worked hard not to antagonize the man any more than he had. Over dinner they talked about how food would be rationed and Helen Bowles and Tabitha Owen offered to take care of their diet. It seemed each of them wanted to be responsible for something and that was good. However, the presence of the Dolans at the fire and the knowledge of what they planned to do the next day dampened the mood of the meal.

At first light, just as he had said he would, Art Dolan clicked the reins and the six big mules pulled their heavily loaded wagon out of the small depression and onto the slope. In about fifteen minutes they were completely out of sight and as they disappeared over a rise, snow began to fall. Nate Ford studied the sky and did not like what he saw.

"What do you think?" Tom Bowles said, coming up.

Nate shrugged. "Hard to say for sure, but if I was to guess I'd say they'll not make the first climb before the snow's too deep. I hope he's smart enough and man enough to recognize his mistake and turn back. If he waits too long or goes too far they're likely to be stuck in one of the nearer passages and we'll be burying their frozen bones next spring. They won't survive, Tom. I'm sure of it."

"Be a damn shame," Tom Bowles said, shaking his head and walking away. He and Milt Owen were heading into the forest to hunt for deer and other small game. Nate had shown them how to make snowshoes and the two teens, Caddie and Toby were busily making sets for everyone in the group. They would be needed to travel through the snowy forest for food and fuel.

The day unfolded without incident, very little snow falling from the dark and ominous clouds. Milt and Tom returned with two deer and several rabbits and spent time cutting and dressing the meat and then hanging it from trees out of reach of other animals. That would get them through at least a week. There were now twelve of them to feed and care for. The Bowles, their two kids, the Owens and their two kids and the Walls with their son Toby. And Nate Ford. All in all, not too many to survive the three or so months he expected them to be in the mountains.

It was the middle of the next day when Tabitha Owen found Nate helping Toby feed the animals. They were tightening up the brush corral and beginning to build a sturdier fence from deadwood.

"Mr. Ford," she said. "I wonder if I could ask a favour of you."

"Please call me Nate," he said. "I guess it depends on the favour."

She hesitated, then continued. "I'd know it's asking a lot but I'd like to ask you to ride out and see if the Dolans were able to make it through the pass," she said. "I fear for Rebecca and for Art and I'm having trouble sleeping through the worry. I'd feel much better if I knew they were alright."

Nate Ford hesitated, but he had already had the thought himself time to time over the past twenty-four hours.

"Alright," he said. "I'm sure that they won't have made it to the upper pass and I hope that they're trying to get back here. I may not be able to find them, but I'll try." He found Tom Bowles and explained what he intended to do. Tom was doubtful but he understood.

"I appreciate it, Nate," he said. "But don't put yourself in undue danger on their account. Like you said, he made his decision and he has to live with it. It's a harsh rule but the longer I'm out here the more I understand it."

"I know," Nate replied, "I'm hopeful I'll meet them coming back. But still, I think it's best I try. I may not be able to get all the way to where they are if they're still in one of the higher passes but my horse is a good one and I can try."

A half-hour later, with saddlebags containing food and first aid supplies he hoped he would not need, he headed out, bundled up as much as he could. He was surprised as he rode up out of the depression how strong the wind became. Below the lip of the valley they were pretty well sheltered from it. He moved the Montana horse along at a gentle walk, the snow being less than six inches deep where he first rode. A half-hour later, though, it was almost a foot deeper and he wondered just how deep it would have to be before he had to turn back.

But luck was with him and for another hour the going was not too demanding on the strong horse. The snow was falling heavily and visibility that had been good until now was down to about fifty yards. That was still acceptable and the snow was not much deeper, but the sky was black ahead and he had only a couple of more hours before it he would have to find a place to hole up for the night.

Then he saw the billowed top of the wagon.

He rode up to it twenty minutes later and stepped down from the horse as Rebecca Dolan, hearing the horse whinny and snort, opened the back flap of the wagon and stepped down. Her face was white and her fear was evident. As was her relief in seeing Nate Ford.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We only got this far before the wagon became stuck in the mud and snow," she said. "The mules tried to move forward and Art pulled too, but to no avail. We couldn't get it to move."

"Where is he? Where's Art?"
"He went ahead on foot to see if he could scout a better way through the pass once he found a way to get the wagon moving. That was the middle of yesterday afternoon and he hasn't come back. I'm afraid for him, Mr. Ford. He's not used to such conditions and might not know what to do."

Nate said nothing for a moment. Then, taking a shovel, he began to clear a large circle next to the wagon. "I'm going ahead to find your husband," he said. "I want you to dress warmly and then unload everything from the wagon that you can lift into this circle. Don't lift what's too heavy for you but just unload whatever you can. When he and I return we'll unload the rest. Then we should be able to get the wagon moving but we'll be heading back to join the others, not going ahead. There is simply no way to get through the pass now."

She nodded and went back into the wagon for her coat.

Nate Ford stepped into the saddle and urged the Montana horse forward. He felt bad, knowing the horse had worked hard to get him this far. And he was not hopeful he would find Dolan, not hopeful Dolan was still alive, but he had to try. How he might talk the stubborn man into returning to the camp with the other wagons he was not sure, but he guessed it would not be easy.

He pushed the horse through deepening snow for almost an hour. It was as he was walking the horse along a ledge that he saw the body below. He did not need to go down and check it but he did. Art Dolan had fallen from the ledge and broken his neck and back, at least that was how it looked from the angle of the body. The body was frozen and Nate decided to leave it there.

He climbed back to the top, looked around to mark the spot in his mind by the landmarks and then climbed into the saddle and turned the horse back.

Rebecca Dolan knew it the moment she saw his face. She covered her face with her hands and began to sob quietly and Nate Ford could do nothing but stand helplessly and let her. Uncomfortable with doing nothing, he went to the wagon and began unloading the rest of their belongings. Once that was done he unhitched the mules and walked them around to the back of the wagon. Using leather straps from the harnesses he fashioned a way to tie the harness to the back of the wagon. Then he urged the mules and slowly the wagon was pulled back until it was free of the ruts and snow. Since it was being pulled down the grade rather than up the grade as Art Dolan had attempted, it went well.

He unharnessed the mules and let them wander while he and Rebecca Dolan loaded her goods back into the wagon. Then he tied the Montana horse to the back of the wagon, hitched the mules and clicked the reins, heading back down a gradual slope toward the campsite where the other wagons were located.

About a half-hour later Rebecca Dolan climbed up out of the wagon onto the seat beside him, a thick blanket wrapped around her.

"He was a good man, Mr. Ford. I know he must have frustrated you some but he was always trying to do what he thought was best."

"Please call me Nate,' he said, "I'm sure I frustrated him no less than he did me, Mrs. Dolan. I'm very sorry for your loss."

"Please call me Becca," she said. "Do you really think we have a chance to survive the winter up here? That we'll make it?"

"I'm quite sure of it," he said. "There's plenty of game and deadwood in the forest around the campsite, adequate feed for the animals if we're careful and everyone is healthy. It may only be a couple of months, no more than three at the most. And if there's a chinook before we might be able to move earlier. But even if not, three months won't be that difficult if we're careful."

"Thanks to you."

He shrugged that off and they drove in silence for a time.

"What will you do now?" he asked. "I mean, when we get out of here."

"I don't know. We came all the way from Virginia. There was nothing more for us there. I've family in New Mexico, but we were heading to Nebraska with the others and we were going to purchase land and start our own farm and family. Now, I just don't know."

"I think it's important not to try and make decisions too quickly when you've suffered a loss. Besides, you'll have a lot of time up here to think about what you want and where you want to be. I'd advise you not to rush it."

They rode in silence for a time, a comfortable silence.

"Why did you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Come up here after us. Most men wouldn't have done it. They'd have said we made our bed and would have to lie in it. And they'd have good reason."

That same shrug. "I don't really know. I guess I just thought it was the right thing to do. I have the sort of experience and skills to do it, really good horses and some time on my hands. And I admit it was more than a little bit foolish and impulsive." He smiled again.

"What kind of experience?"

"Like most men out here I've done a number of things. I've driven stage coaches, ridden with trail herds, been an army scout, hunted and trapped for railway workers, worked on cattle ranches and I've even been a town marshal a couple of times. Those kinds of experiences help prepare you for most things out here. I was born and raised in the high mountains of Montana where the winters are even more demanding than this and so I learned how to manage such conditions, not challenge them."

"Don't you ever want to settle down? To own a place of your own? To have some stability and permanence?"

"Actually, I own a nice piece of land in southwestern Arizona near the New Mexico border. I spent almost sixteen months there three years ago and built a fine cabin and stable. It's beautiful there, lying on a wide dark river and bordered by forest and mountains. But it was lonely and somewhat boring after a while and I got restless. Someday I'll get back there."

"What will happen to it with you gone?"

"It'll be fine. I built it to last. It may be that others will come by and stay but I've left a note about who owns it and how it's to be treated and most folks will leave a place like they find it. I'll be going back some day, maybe soon, once I can get past the restlessness that keeps me moving."

They topped a final rise and saw the depression below, the three wagons standing as they had when he left. As they took the final gradual descent, people gathered in the center of the open area to watch them.

"I just realized I'm going to be a thirteenth person," Becca Dolan said. "Do you think that's unlucky for us?"

"I believe people make their own luck, just as they make their own destiny. To believe that life is anything but random robs us of the ability to make changes, make decisions and challenge obstacles and opportunities."

"I agree. Let's hope no one else finds it an unlucky number."

Nate turned the wagon expertly into the circle and drove it into the line before stepping down and beginning to unhitch the animals. Toby Wall came forward and began to help him with the mules, leading them to the corral they had made. Nothing needed to be said for everyone could guess what had happened. Rebecca Dolan walked away with the other women to the Bowles wagon as the men came to Nate. He told them what had happened.

"We'll bury him proper on our way out of here," Milt Owen said. "But I can understand not trying to carry the body up from where you found it."

"Nate, can I ask you to help take care of things with Rebecca?" Tom Bowles asked. "She'll need the help to get through."

"Sure, Tom," he replied. "Happy to help."

He took the tired Montana horse over to the corral, unsaddling it and rubbing it down thoroughly before giving it an extra measure of grain, a reward for a job well done. Then he went back and joined the others.

"We've got food enough for everyone, especially with the game around here," Milt Owen offered. "And we've already dragged in enough dead wood to get us through at least a month if not more. We'll cut and split it over the next few days. All in all, we're in pretty good shape."

Nate Ford nodded. "Actually, we're in excellent shape. The challenge now will be to keep everyone safe and healthy until we can get out of here. And to avoid people getting bored or depressed by making sure they have things to do, making sure everyone has work to do to contribute to our day to day survival. So far, the weather has been relatively mild but we're in for some snowy, windy and chilling days ahead and we have to prepare for that."

The days passed quickly. The weather worsened and then cleared and the group of thirteen prospered. Tom Bowles felt it was due to Nate Ford's leadership and Nate felt it was the inherent pioneer spirit they all shared. He tried to make sure each person always had something to do, but not so much that they did not have time for themselves and their families. For the families, it was actually a bonding time as they worked together and played together. They crafted a long, curved toboggan path on a slope west of the camp and the children, and adults, screamed with delight as they raced down the hill on improvised sleds. They even had races, usually won by Caddie Bowles. On good days it was a carefree time and helped them to stay positive.

Not that they were free of challenges. The two teens, Caddie and Toby were out hiking late one day when Caddie slipped on some ice and hurt her leg, unable to walk on it. Toby had listened carefully to Nate Ford's conversations about what to do in such situations. He made Caddie comfortable, built up a big fire that would keep her warm and keep animals away, gave her the rifle he was carrying and hiked back for help. That help was already on the way and he ran into Milt Owen less than a half-hour after he left Caddie waiting for him. Milt and Toby hurried back to Caddie and Milt checked her leg, feeling comfortable it was injured, not broken. They fashioned a makeshift sleigh out of deadwood and dragged Caddie back to camp. She had kitchen duty for the next few days.

Then there was the day that Milt and Tom were out hunting and ran into a pack of wolves. The wolves could smell the dead meat they were carrying on their sled and followed them for a couple of hours before Tom decided to toss part of a carcass aside onto the ground, hoping that would occupy the wolves while he and Milt moved further away. It did work for a time, but once they devoured the meat they were back on the trail of the two hunters.

As they neared the camp, Tom sent Milt ahead to warn the others and to tell them of his plan. Instead of heading directly toward the camp, Tom headed past without getting close and then made a big circle around it. By the time he got to the far side of the bowl the wolves, five of them, were less than twenty yards behind him and getting bolder. At the top of the peak, Nate, Milt and Toby waited, rifles in hand. As Tom came by with the sled of meat, with the wolves closing in, the three men opened fire, killing all five of the animals before they could escape. That added meat to their store of food for another two weeks. The pelts were used to fashion warm mitts and caps, the group letting nothing go to waste.

Other than those incidents, the winter was uneventful. Tabitha Owen got a nasty virus and was bedridden for almost a week but no one else became sick and she got past it and was soon her normal happy self.

Nate spent a lot of time making sure Becca Dolan was managing the day to day demands and Tabitha Owen was a wonder in keeping Becca's spirit up and encouraging her to think big and to look ahead, not behind. That helped her get through her grieving and kept her connected with the rest of them.

Nate, Becca, Caddie and Toby were snowshoeing a couple of miles west of the campsite one sunny and cold afternoon, looking for deadwood they could mark to be later dragged to the site for cutting and splitting and the two teens had raced ahead as they often did, laughing their way along.

"Nate," Becca Dolan said, "It's been more than a month now since Art died and you've been very helpful and always respectful toward me. I appreciate that. I want you to know that."

He looked at her. "I'm happy to help, Becca. Think nothing of it. We've been thrown together into this peculiar situation and we're making the best of it."

Another month passed, the second of their seclusion. Then came a warming wind from the south. It flowed up the valley from Gatesville toward Montgomery Pass and with it the snow began to melt. Nate Ford monitored it carefully, not wanting to get everyone's hopes up too high.

"If it gets too warm too fast there will be too much mud for the wagons to get through," he cautioned. "But if it only lasts a couple or three days it might be just enough to drop the snow levels to where we can manage over the solid frozen ground below. Let's keep our fingers crossed and wait patiently."

He was relieved when it blew itself out in two days. Nate and Tom Bowles saddled the Montana horses and rode ahead for most of a day, studying each of the possible trails, judging the snow and the solidity of the ground beneath it.

"What do you think?" Tom Bowles asked. Hope was in his question but also a sense that they did not want to take unnecessary risks.

Nate nodded. "I think we can do it, Tom. I vote we try."

They rode back and informed the others that they would be loading up and heading out with the first light in two days as long as it did not snow. The next day was a flurry of activity as wagons were loaded, animals checked, fed and watered, a buzz of excitement running through the small campsite. The next morning, after a quiet breakfast and smiles for each other, they pulled out, Nate leading the way on the Montana horse, Tom Bowles' and the other wagons behind. Toby Wall drove Becca Dolan's wagon so Nate could ride ahead and scout the route. They made good time up the gradual slope to the pass and from the top of the pass they chose the eastern route down to the valley below. It was three days and they were not days of easy travel but they persevered. When one wagon was stuck they hitched a dozen animals to it and pulled it loose. When a wagon wheel split they worked together to fashion another into place. No complaints, just determination and that continuing sense of community that had developed among them.

When they reached the spot where Art Dolan's body lay, the area was still deep in snow and Rebecca decided to leave him where he lay. They had a short memorial service and then moved on.

About noon on the fourth day they rolled onto the plains, with snow no more than hoof deep. Ahead lay the trails north, east and west. They found a shady grove of trees and stopped for a well-deserved lunch and extended break. The animals found some early spring grass and munched away at it contentedly. For everyone, there was a sense that everything was now alright.

Nate and Becca had talked regularly throughout the days through the mountain passes and had reached an understanding.

"Tom," Nate said. "Becca and I will be heading south to New Mexico. I'm going to take her to family living there. Then I'll head on to my place in Arizona for a while. I don't think you'll have any trouble the rest of the way."

They gathered around, the women hugging and the men shaking hands, not wanting to part ways but knowing that was the way of it.

"We're wishing you the best on your way south," Tabitha Owen said. "Were it not for you, Nate, we'd have been lost. Thank you on behalf of all of us."

The wagons departed, three for Aberdeen, one for New Mexico and all for adventure and opportunity.