The new mule has already objected to the steep switchback trail of dirt and fist-size rock. This next section is really going to flatten her ears. Old Pete looks back at her, then leans forward and studies the path ahead as he absently pats the more experienced Hepzibah's gray shoulder.
A narrow rain-slicked shelf of fragment-covered black shale juts out of the mountainside over a precipitous drop and a tree-obscured ravine below. Old Pete grunts and glances to his right. A wall of granite and shale frowns back at him. He grimaces. The trail is narrow here and the section behind long and twisted. He has no choice but to move forward.
He slips off Hepzibah, works his way back to Sandy, and strokes her light brown neck consolingly. "We're almost out o' this," he says. "Just hang on a mite longer and then we'll be back on real dirt."
Well, not entirely dirt. But at least it won't be slick wet shale. Sandy jerks her muzzle at him and Pete chuckles. "Just a mite longer," he says again, as much to himself as the mule. He circles her, checking her pack load of supplies and beaver plews, then tightens the knot on her halter rope and maneuvers back to Hepzibah, playing out the rope as he goes.
He stands between the gray mule and the wall of rock and studies the ledge of shale. It's as wet now as it was ten minutes ago. Better not try riding across. Even Hepzibah's likely to object to crossing this with a man on her back. Old Pete shrugs and begins looping the end of Sandy's lead rope around the older mule's saddle horn. It's not an ideal arrangement, but he can't very well lead both animals at the same time. Hepzibah turns her head and nods at him.
Pete chuckles. "You just know what I'm thinkin', don't you?" he asks.
The mule twitches her gray ears, nickers, then turns her head to peer at the ledge. She snorts disparagingly.
"I know, I know," Old Pete says. "Don't you go naggin' me, too. That Sandy's bad enough."
He studies the looped rope, then thinks better of it and ties it properly with a bowline knot, just in case he needs to release it in a hurry. Then he touches the knife at his waist, confirming it's there, and makes sure his rifle is well seated in the scabbard lashed to Hepzibah's saddle.
He lifts the bridle reins over her head and holds them loosely as he steps out onto the ledge. The mule pulls back slightly, as if questioning his judgment, but when Pete clicks his tongue at her, she twitches her ears and steps gingerly onto the rock.
"Good girl," Old Pete says. "At least one of you's got some sense."
They're a quarter of the way across when Sandy's hooves click onto the wet shale. She balks and Hepzibah jerks to a stop. The bridle reins slide across Pete's palm and he tightens his grasp on them and half turns, painfully aware of the slick rock underfoot.
Sandy yanks backward and Hepzibah's metal shoes scrape the shelf as she braces against the younger mule's panic. Small pieces of shale skitter toward the drop.
"Take it easy now," Old Pete says soothingly. He steps back, positioning himself between the granite wall and the mule, and tugs on the reins, trying to angle her straight again. But Sandy's lead rope is pulling hard on Hepzibah's saddle horn, and the gray's head twists toward the drop.
Hepzibah's chest strains toward Old Pete and Sandy brays furiously. Her shoes ring against the rock as she tries to scramble to the perceived safety of the dirt track behind her.
"God damn it to hell!" Old Pete growls. He forces his voice calm. "Just take it easy now."
Neither mule responds. He stretches a soothing hand toward Hepzibah's neck. Her ears flick toward him, then toward the ravine. The rope is stretched tight. Sandy takes another step back, and Hepzibah's chest and front hooves are forced closer to the edge.
There's no help for it. He'll have to free the pack mule and hope for the best. Pete reaches to release the bowline knot.
But just as his fingers touch rope, the younger mule yanks on it again, and twists Hepzibah further toward the ravine. The knot moves out of Old Pete's grasp.
Hepzibah's shoes grate on the shale as she tries both to gain purchase on the rock and to reduce the rope's pressure. Her eyes are wild now, her breath huffing in fear.
Pete lunges, trying again for the knot, and grabs at Hepzibah's saddle with both hands. His feet slip on the wet shale, pulling him off balance, and he lurches into the mule's shoulder, pushing her sideways.
Hepzibah's front hooves scrape frantically and her shoes leave long pale grooves in the black rock as she and Old Pete slide toward the brink. Then man and mule are tumbling together, she braying in terror, he fighting to throw himself out of her way. Above them, Sandy hauls back on the rope, then screams in fury as she too is yanked over the side of the cliff.
Rock. Trees. Dirt. Mule. Pete forces his elbows to his sides and twists, trying to stay out of the way of his animals and their metal-clad hooves. Their legs flail wildly as they tumble. A tree branch whips across Pete's face as he arches around its trunk.
Finally, a sprawling half-dead juniper breaks his fall. Pete gasps, trying to get his breath. He wipes at the blood on his face, then grapples with the tree's broken branches and struggles into a sitting position. The old wood is thick with wet dust and reeks with the urine stench of the tree's crushed gray-green needles. Pete grabs a spiky branch, pulls himself awkwardly to his feet, and stares in horror at the far side of the ancient tree.
Hepzibah has landed chest first, impaling herself on one of the juniper's multiple trunks. Her eyes glaze as Pete watches. Gray mule, dead wood, and living branches are splattered with blood. Pete looks down at his hands and realizes that at least some of the red stickiness he's wiped from his face is the mule's, not his own.
He touches his waist, reflexively confirming that he still has his knife as his eyes move from the mule's gory chest to the saddle on her back. Sandy's lead rope is still attached to it. In fact, the bowline knot has tightened. The rope stretches like a freshly-strung bowstring across the bloody juniper and past Old Pete to the top of a craggy piece of sandstone on his right. From there, it cuts a narrow furrow across a rock-studded ridge of dirt that juts down the slope.
Pete can't see Sandy, but he can hear a wheezing sound from the opposite side of the ridge. He struggles out of the juniper's clutches and pitches himself toward the noise. His feet slip on wet rock and debris and send pieces tumbling into the ravine below. He reaches to steady himself on the rope, then thinks better of it.
When he peers over the stony ridge, he's glad he's kept his hands to himself. The mule lies on her side, feet toward the ravine, head pointing away from him. He can just see the rope, which is looped three times around her head and neck, clamping her muzzle shut and wedging up against her windpipe. The battered pack of furs and supplies is still on her back. She wheezes anxiously and her belly shivers, making the pack tremble.
Pete shakes his head. It's a wonder she can breathe at all. He clambers over the ridge, then works up the slope to come in above her, out of reach of her hooves. Sandy's ears flick when she realizes he's there, but she's already discovered the futility of trying to move her head. She snorts and rolls her eyes at him instead.
"There now," Old Pete says. "You did good. You just lay quiet there and I'll deal with that darn rope. Yessir, you did good." He kneels on the damp slope above her head and strokes her tan muzzle with his left hand as he pulls out his knife with his right. "Now you just lay still, and I'll cut this old rope and you can ease on up nice and slow," he says soothingly. "Real nice and slow now, you hear?"
He leans forward, settles his left hand firmly on the mule's forehead, slips the knife flat between the rope and her muzzle, twists it, and slices swiftly upward. Sandy twitches her ears and snorts at him, but she doesn't try to move.
"That's the way," Pete says. "You just take it real slow now." He slips the knife back into its sheath, then reaches around her head and begins to gingerly unwind the rope.
When he lifts his hands away, Sandy wheezes and staggers to her feet. She braces herself on the slope and shakes vigorously. The pack slews sideways over her right shoulder. She shakes again and it teeters precariously. Her belly expands and contracts as she sucks in loud mouthfuls of air. Then suddenly, she goes quiet.
Pete's eyes narrow. What now?
Sandy peers over her shoulder toward the rocky ridge. Her nostrils flare and she snorts anxiously. She maneuvers around to face the ridge, then snorts again and steps back, away from Old Pete and the rib of rock and dirt behind him.
"I'm afraid that's Hepzibah you're smellin," Pete tells her. He maneuvers across the slope, reaches for the section of rope still hanging from her halter, and strokes her tan shoulder. "Just settle on down now," he says.
But the mule's not interested in settling. Her eyes roll. She snorts impatiently and tries to back farther away from the ridge.
"I know it ain't a good smell," Old Pete says apologetically. "But I can't just leave her there. I've at least got to figure out how to get that saddle and gear off of her." He reaches to scratch the mule's forehead. "You're gonna have to settle on down now, so I can go tend to her."
Sandy huffs impatiently, her ears almost flat against her neck. Suddenly, her muzzle jerks up, then back, and pulls Pete's feet out from underneath him. He falls onto his rear end, drops the rope, and begins sliding down the slope. Only the surface of the soil is wet. His sliding feet tear into the dry rocks underneath and rocks and dirt rain into the ravine below as Sandy backs further away.
Pete makes a grab for the trunk of a small pine and stops his slide. "All right, if that's how you want it," he grumbles. The pine's needles are still coated with raindrops. He pushes himself to his feet and waves a wet hand at the mule, then the trees below. "Just go on down there a ways and find yourself some place to calm down a mite. I'll be down directly I deal with Hepzibah, poor thing."
Sandy snorts contemptuously and moves down the slope, her hooves sending more dirt and rock into the ravine.
Pete shakes his head, swipes at his face with his wet hands, and begins making his way back to the ridge. "Hell and damnation!" he mutters. "The only mule I've got left is the one that got me in this mess in the first place. Idiot animal. Though I reckon it couldn't get any worse than it is, 'less both of 'em were dead." He scowls. "And there's no tellin' where my rifle is. Sure as shootin' it ain't still in that scabbard."
He lunges onto the near side of the rib of gravel and dirt between him and the old juniper. "Damn that mule!" he grumbles.
Then he reaches the top and stops abruptly. "I'll be damned," he mutters. "No wonder she was in such an all-fired hurry."
A cinnamon-colored bear rears up from the far side of the juniper, its paws and muzzle black with Hepzibah's blood. The beast looks around blankly, as if puzzled by something. Pete drops sharply and rolls out of sight behind the ridge.
But it's too late. The bear has picked up his scent and Pete's drop has sent a noisy scatter of gravel down the slope. More rocks tumble as the bruin comes to investigate.
It may be brown, but the creature is a black bear, not a grizzly. It'll chase anything that moves, even up a tree. There's no point in Pete running. Pete flattens his back and legs against the damp slope, swipes his hands dry on his breeches, and reaches for his knife.
The bear's head and shoulders appear at the top of the ridge. Pete can smell its hot rancorous breath. Its bloody muzzle swings, investigating. As far as it's concerned, the man here and the dead mule behind are all part of the same carrion. The blood smells the same.
Pete grips his knife hilt in both hands and braces it against his chest, point straight up.
As the bear extends an investigating paw, there's an unearthly scream from the ravine below. It doesn't really register with Pete. He has other things on his mind. He bellows a challenge and slashes at the bear's paw.
The blow misses its mark. The bear snuffs at him again, then rears back, gathers itself, and pounces off the ridge, straddling Pete's chest and pinning his upper arms to his sides.
The oily bruin smell is overwhelming. Pete holds his breath and tightens his grip on the knife. His upward thrust is hampered by the bear's weight on his biceps, but he tries anyway, aiming for the chest. The beast only grunts and shifts a little, positioning itself for the kill.
As the dirty yellow claw lifts from Pete's right arm, the scream comes again. It's closer this time, more deadly in intent, and mingled with a mule's terrified bray. But the bear's shift has given Pete more freedom of movement. He shoves upward awkwardly, aiming as best he can for the heart. But again the beast shifts. The blade does nothing but nick its thick pelt.
Something moves on the slope to Pete's left. Old Pete and the bear both glance sideways. Sandy, blood on her flank and braying in terror, tears across the slope. The pack on her back is split wide open now, and cooking equipment and beaver pelts scatter behind her and down the slope.
Then the bear's left paw crashes into the right side of Pete's face. Five blades of excruciating pain. Blood flooding his nostrils and eyes. Pete swallows the metallic taste desperately, fighting the suffocation, the blackness, and the roaring in his head, trying to sense whether his hands still clutch the knife. Just one more try. Just one more chance to give this bastard a taste of its own medicine.
But then suddenly the bear lifts away and is gone. Blood surges through Pete's nostrils, choking off his breath, but when he tries to gulp it away, the slight movement in his throat triggers excruciating pain. The wet rocky slope beneath him tilts wildly away from the mountainside, then a roaring blackness overwhelms him.
After a long while, the blackness dims slightly. As Pete comes to, he's aware of flies buzzing around his head and the rustle of wings settling in a nearby tree. The ground under his breeches and shirt is rain damp, but the moisture under his skull is far thicker than mere water.
Somewhere to his left, a slurry of rock clatters down the slope. Pete's heart jerks in panic but his limbs don't respond as they should. When he tries to turn his head, pain sears through his skull.
It's worst on the right. He forces his hand to his face. Loose skin where his right eye should be. Wet slickness of blood. And pain beyond belief or description.
He fights back the nausea that burns in his throat, then gingerly touches his left cheek. There's blood there too, but the flesh is still firm. He cautiously squints that eye open. A buzzard studies him greedily from the top of a nearby ponderosa.
Then the pain cuts through Pete's skull again and the black waves crash over him.
The slope is in shadows when he once again becomes aware of the slant of dirt and rock under his back and legs. The ground is dry now. Even the blood beneath his head has drained off.
A raven caws from the treetops. To Pete's left, there's a shuffling sound, then the huff of expelled breath. For one brief terrible moment, he thinks the bear has returned. Then a leathery nostril tentatively touches his left cheek.
Pete cautiously squints his left eye open as a mule's chin whiskers brush across his forehead. A chuckle rises in his throat, then pain ricochets through his skull and cuts off his amusement.
Sandy blows softly into his face. The heat of her breath ratchets the pain higher and nausea clutches him again. Pete raises his hand and feebly waves her away.
The mule steps back, but she doesn't leave. Pete takes a deep breath and heaves himself into a sitting position. A red-hot knife jabs his skull and his stomach heaves. He makes a mighty effort, forces the bile down, then opens his lips slightly, just enough to take in the cool mountain air without triggering another, higher, surge of the pain.
Then he waits, trying to breathe shallowly, forcing himself to stay awake, letting a shaky strength seep into his limbs.
When the sun begins to set and shadows creep across the slope toward him, Pete knows he's out of time. He mutters, "Alrighty now," and heaves himself upward. Rock and dirt slip under his feet, sending rivulets toward the ravine. The effort to stand throbs through his skull and he staggers drunkenly against it.
Then Sandy limps toward him. Her neck is bloodstained and a hunk of pink flesh hangs loosely from her rump. What's left of the pack dangles precariously beneath her belly. She noses Old Pete's shoulder. This time, he doesn't wave her away.
* * *
"Damn mule," Old Pete mutters as the curandera places yet another poultice on the right side of his face. "Lost me my outfit, my rifle, and my eye."
The woman pulls back and gives him an impatient look, then says something in Spanish to the American man who's sitting next to the adobe fireplace in the opposite corner, smoking a pipe.
The man takes the pipe from his mouth. "Coulda been worse."
"Hunh," Pete grunts. The curandera's plaster is beginning to work. He tightens his muscles against the prickling, then breathes out. "Could of been better."
The woman moves to the roughhewn table in the far corner and goes back to crushing herbs in her black stone bowl.
Pete slews his eyes toward the man who found him three days before, clinging deliriously to Sandy's neck beside the rough track to Taos. "That mountain lion gave that damn mule one helluva mauling," Pete says. He moves his head slightly, trying to see past the poultice, then gives up and closes his good eye. "From what little I could see of her, that is," he says. "She gonna make it all right?"