Chapter Thirteen: The Rescue
There was little that Graydon could do for Mike beyond what he'd already done. He refilled his water bottle and left that within easy reach, with some dried fruit, nuts, and chocolate snacks. He put a rolled jacket under Mike's head, and carefully lifted his right side to lay a folded wool blanket under him, and another blanket over him to ease the cold and reduce the shock from his injuries.
He'd built a tiny fire, just enough to make a pot of camp coffee and to boil the shirt fabric for a clean dressing on Mike's leg. Mike sipped a cup of sugar-laced coffee. He smiled weakly at Graydon.
"Leave my medicine bag here beside me, with the water. I'll be fine until you get back. I expect to see the two of you back here about this time tomorrow, then."
"Good. If you want, I can leave some small firewood pieces here in easy reach so you can keep this little fire going."
"No. I'd worry the wind might come up in the canyon, and it would get out of hand. I'll be fine. These wool blankets are good. They remind me of good woven blankets I had once, in the desert. You've done all you can for me, so you'd best douse that fire now, and get down to Jim's."
It was five miles down to the forks and another five to the trailhead at the edge of Brightman's ranch. Graydon was there as the sun was sinking behind Mount Gardner. He calmed himself, patted Buster, the friendly old cow dog who came out to run circles around him as he approached their door. Jim and Vi were sitting inside at the table, starting dinner.
"You're here early?" Jim puzzled, as Graydon doffed his felt hat and walked in. Vi eased out of her chair, grabbed a cup and filled it from the coffee pot, hot and ready on the stove's back corner.
"There was a rock slide. I found Mike... I reckon he's your friend, since he asked for you... he's hurt bad up the North Fork trail."
Vi's eyes grew wide but she said nothing as she motioned for Graydon to sit in the extra chair. She placed the full cup in front of him.
Jim's eyes squinted a bit as he leaned back. He quietly studied Graydon's face. Jim and Vi considered their next words. The effect was similar to a sudden radio announcement that a colony of little gray men had been discovered living on the moon. The secret was out and they didn't know what to say next, except to deal with the obvious: Mike was hurt and needed help.
"Well, I suppose you'd better tell me how badly he's hurt, then," Jim finally said. "I expect he can't move, since he sent you down here. We need to decide what to take, and how to get him out of there. We'll deal with the rest later."
The details were discussed over the table while they ate and sipped coffee and considered their options. Jim was too old to hike that distance up and back, so he'd take his saddle horse. They would need a good pack horse to carry Mike. Once they had him stabilized with proper dressings and thickly padded splints for his crushed leg, they would carry him in a basket stretcher slung from the pack saddle. Bags of feed slung on the other side would balance the load. It was the only way to get him down the narrow canyon-side trail, around the sharp bends and through the timber thickets. A travois would be too wide and a much rougher ride than the gentle pack horse. Mike would ride easy as long as they kept their pace to a slow walk.
Two big concerns lingered: how well would Mike make it alone through the cold night, and how long before his crushed leg became infected? The third concern was medical treatment: no one said anything, but Graydon was guessing that they wouldn't be taking Mike into town or to a hospital. He lay awake for a short time, bedded down in the spare bedroom in the Brightman house. There were too many questions and he was too tired. Sleep came quickly.
The rich smell of coffee and the sounds of a cast iron skillet sliding around on the wood range woke him. Darkness lay unbroken outside his window. Graydon dressed and joined the elderly couple at the table, yawning and reaching for his first cup of coffee, laced with two spoons of sugar and a slug of thick cream. He could drink it black, and usually did, but pre-dawn awakenings called for sweetening in his cup.
Vi set out a platter heaped with home-fried potatoes and sausage patties; she passed around another plate piled high with scrambled eggs.
"I expect we can be up the North Fork, clear a trail down to him through the timber this side of that slide, get him splinted and loaded up, and back down here before dark. Vi will have the parlor open and warmed up and a guest bunk fixed for him by the time we're back.
"In case you're wondering, we've got a good friend who's a retired doctor living down the valley. His wife worked with him as his nurse for most of his practice. Vi will get word to them to be here this evening in time to meet us. And no, there's no point in either of them trying to go up the trail with us. There's precious little they could do. If Mike has hung on for this long, he can hang on a while longer until we can get him down here for some proper care."
Graydon sat quietly. None of the many pieces of this ever-widening mystery were sorting themselves out, but there was no time to get into it now.
"But, damn... !" his mind rebelled. He sure hoped to get some answers, sometime soon, from somebody!
It was an odd sight that morning as the sun's first rays poked into Wolf Creek canyon to light the scene: the tall, white-haired elderly rancher astride his saddle horse, leading an old gray pack horse slung with a war surplus basket stretcher on one side of her pack saddle, a full bag of oats astride the saddle and a second bag slung opposite for counter-balance. The boy walked ahead, leading on foot with Buster, the eager ranch dog who refused to be left behind, bounding out ahead.
The boy, Graydon, barely a teenager, wore his wide-brimmed gray Stetson hat pulled down to his ears. A borrowed woolen-lined denim jacket was cinched tightly around him, its collar pulled up behind his neck in the chill morning air. They moved up the trail with soft snorts from Ruby, the saddle horse. A succession of loud farts and the sounds of heavy wet droppings from Dolly, the pack horse, expressed her opinion of the dark and chilly hour away from her warm stall.
Jim found a place off the trail to tie up the horses while Graydon made his way down through the timber to find Mike awake and well; as well as could be, anyway. He'd been warm enough with the blankets through the chill night. He was conscious and alert and ready to be hauled to safety. Graydon fetched more water and opened a small Thermos of coffee and a container of warm scrambled eggs and sausage.
"Vi insisted. She said you'd need some food in your belly for strength, and strong hot coffee to keep you from falling asleep in your saddle-bed," Graydon joked.
"Thanks. It is good to see you," Mike replied, taking the breakfast. Graydon doubled the rolled jacket to lift Mike's head so he could eat.
"Okay. Jim's getting the horses settled. We brought a bigger saw, and a couple of axes so we can cut a trail in here for the pack horse and that stretcher basket without it hanging up. It won't take long. Later, we'll check your leg, get these new dressings on it, and we'll wrap it in padded splints before we load you up. Jim said you might want to fortify yourself a bit. It's gonna hurt like hell, he reckons."
Mike chuckled weakly. "Jim would say fortify myself alright. He's had a time or two when he had to fortify himself. Most likely he hasn't told you those stories yet. Dig out that little bag and open it for me, like you did yesterday. I'll take another pinch and a mouthful of water before you two start grabbing and lifting on me."
Mike had slept in fits, waking when the throbbing from his crushed leg pained him. He would call on his reserves of will, his control of mind and nerves. He would push the pain down until it faded. He could sense the crushed tissue and broken bone. He willed his body to rally, to call up its host of healing resources to fight, to repel the bacterial attackers that sought to invade his torn flesh. His spirit was powerful and he could command his body's defenses if he stayed mentally strong, keen and focused. He used his razor-edged focus like the knapped edges of an obsidian knife to slash away the invading corruption.
He finished his meal and took another pinch of the green herb with a mouthful of cold water. A feeling of remoteness crept over him; he could relax for a while. Pain would not break through the barrier; he'd have relief enough to endure the ride down the canyon.
Vi fussed about in the kitchen with a burst of activity. She felt both a flood of relief and a huge wave of concern. She was relieved when the men made it safely down out of the canyon. Mike rested in a warm cot in the parlor. A small stove kept the room cozy. Kerosene lamps added their warm glow. She could hear Doctor Les Hardy and his wife June chatting with her husband Jim and the boy Graydon through the open arches between rooms. She was terribly concerned for the awful state of Michael Peterson's leg. And she was worried about their future.
Vi had wondered if things wouldn't come to something like this, something that would force everything out into the open. This was a big valley but a small world. It took only a whisper in the wrong ear, a suspicion in the wrong mind and literally all hell — as much as she hated to use that word — all hell would break loose and their peaceful life on the mountain would end. Oh, they could stll live here, nobody could take their ranch. They owned it free and clear, but that wasn't so important as their privacy, their seclusion, their freedom from rumor and gossip and spiteful speculation and hateful prejudice and the bitter fruits of bigoted minds.
Well, again, she sighed to herself as she spooned a heavy glaze onto a dark, hickory-smoked ham ready to go in the oven, Graydon has seen Mike, but he knows only the smallest bit of it and he's surely never been one to talk. I've never seen a boy so private, who could keep so to himself.
She pulled the oven door down. A wave of heat burst out. She slid the ham in its roasting pan onto the oven rack. The oven thermometer set in the green and white enameled door read a steady 350 degrees.
Good, she decided silently, reaching for another length of split wood to add to the firebox. There's a lot hanging over that young man's head. There's a lot he's seen and he's puzzled by it; there's a lot that he hasn't guessed at yet; and there's more that he can't even imagine laid out ahead of him. If what Mike told us is only half true, we've started something nobody would believe even if they saw it in plain daylight.