Andy Spencer leaned over the saddle horn and grinned down at his wife.
"Now, Diane." He drawled. "There ain't no use goin' on that way. I'll be back before dark. I don't need any help on this ranch. I been combin' those mountain valleys for strays every spring and fall for two years now and nothin' bad has happened yet." He tipped his hat and winked at her. "You just make sure you have supper ready when I get home."
She tucked a stray auburn curl under her bonnet and stared at him through eyes cloaked with worry. "It wouldn't matter if you'd been riding those mountains for thirty years. Something could happen, and with you all alone up there…." She shuddered. "What if you met a grizzly bear?"
Spencer shrugged. “You ever fix bear meat?"
Her eyes widened. "Will you be serious for a minute?"
He straightened in the saddle and glanced up at the clear blue sky. This argument was getting old and time was wasting. "I'd better get going. All this yammerin' isn't getting the work done." He turned his horse toward the mountains and touched his hat to Diane. "See you tonight."
He pulled up at the top of the first knoll and glanced back. She was still standing there, watching after him. He waved at her and then kicked his horse into motion. In almost every way she was the perfect wife, but she had this thing about him getting hurt in the mountains. She'd like for him to hire that know-it-all Jones, but Spencer couldn't see riding an hour with him, much less all day. Anyway, the mountains were safe enough for a careful man. Mostly it was knowing the terrain and the animals. Sure, he could run into a grizzly up there, but he could fall off his horse and break his neck right there by the barn. It happened to old man Perkins last summer. No point stewing over maybes. There was work to be done and snow would be slipping down from the peaks, filling the high passes any day now. If he didn't get those cattle out of the high meadows, they'd be trapped there for the winter and freeze.
Spencer urged his Appaloosa up a steep rocky grade and knew a moment of pride when the animal surged powerfully ahead. The horse picked its way carefully through the loose rocks with sure-footed ease. It was no coincidence that the horse was fitted so well to this work. Spencer had selected the gelding because of his composure in sticky situations. The horse knew these mountains as well as Spencer, and they had seen grizzly tracks more than once. The scent of the bear had frightened the horse, but it didn't get all wild eyed. They'd get along all right.
The trail gradually became steeper. Occasionally Spencer had to dismount and lead the horse up an incline. They reached the first valley around mid-morning, and found twenty head of cattle grazing peacefully. Spencer eyed the cattle as he crossed the meadow. They were in good shape, too. There was another meadow a little higher up, and he'd bet there were more cattle there. No point spooking these cattle. When he trailed through on his way back down with the other cattle, these would drift with the herd.
He followed the trail around a few switch backs that gave breathtaking views of the valleys below and finally came out on a high plateau. The grass was thick here and another thirty head of cattle lingered in the crisp air. The wind was picking up and Spencer eyed a suspicious haze over a distant mountain. A storm brewing? He wasted no time rousting the cattle and started them down the path. They were willing enough - probably sensed the storm coming. He followed, keeping an eye out for stragglers. It was a good thing, too, because a big brindle cow spotted an inviting patch of grass up the mountain a ways and left the herd to investigate. The other cattle paid her no mind. Their heads nodded in half sleep as they plodded down the path.
Spencer reined his horse around and headed up the hill after the cow. Seeing she was being followed, the cow scrambled up an incline and disappeared into the forest. Spencer made a wide circle to come out ahead of her and force her down the mountain. The pines were thick and several times he had to detour around an impenetrable group of trees. Finally, he could see movement in the bushes below him. He urged his horse in that direction.
They had covered half the distance when the Appaloosa stopped and snorted. Spencer gave the horse a nudge with his heels, but it wasn't going to move. What was in that jumbled mess of brush and trees? A bear? A rattlesnake? He had worked with the horse long enough to trust its judgment, so he gave the horse its lead.
The appaloosa snorted again, and his ears went back. He danced to the side and shook his head, snorting again. He was getting a whiff of something he couldn't identify - something he didn't like - but what?
"What is it, boy?" Spencer asked gently. At that moment, the horse went up on its hind legs. Caught completely by surprise, Spencer let one foot slip out of the stirrup. He clung wildly to the saddle horn as the horse plunged and reared. The skyline was a blur of trees and horse...and then the ground lunged up to meet them. Spencer kicked his other foot free and hit the ground with bone aching force. He rolled free of the horse and lay still. The horse whirled and galloped down the slope, leaving Spencer to face the unknown enemy alone.
The air was pungent with a smell like rotting flesh. Maybe a dead cow? But the horse had seen dead cattle before. Spencer lay still, his eyes the only thing moving as he searched the area around him. If it was a bear, playing dead might save his life. He waited, hoping his breathing didn't sound as loud to whatever was out there. He counted to thirty, but nothing happened. Maybe the horse had frightened it away.
Spencer rose cautiously from the ground and squinted into the shadows. Nothing. He worked his way around the brush, keeping as much as possible to the open. The smell was still there, but he saw nothing. He headed down the mountain, keeping a keen eye out for any movement in the brush. There was a line of trees ahead, and he saw no way around them. Where was the Appaloosa? And where was that dead cow? The stench seemed to follow him. Once he heard a twig snap and he peered into the brush, but he still saw nothing. Probably a deer. He approached the trees cautiously and wove his way through them. He saw a few head of cattle below on the trail and breathed a little easier. Surely the Appaloosa would be down there with the cattle. He hurried, trying to put as much distance as possible between himself and that smelly corpse up there. A limb snapped behind him and he whirled, reaching for the gun on his hip. But the gun wasn't there. It must have fallen from the holster when he was thrown from the horse. Why hadn't he thought of it then?
As he completed his turn, he froze. A hairy brown creature stared at him from no more than a hundred feet away. The eyes were amber colored and looked human. But this was no human - nor was it a bear. What it was, he couldn't say, but he suddenly knew why the Appaloosa had been so frightened. His mouth went dry and it seemed he couldn't breathe. Not that he wanted to take in any more of that rotten stench anyway. He backed away, fighting the panic that threatened to rob him of his senses.
The beast stared at him for a moment longer, and then casually turned away, walking with a loose armed stride that resembled that of a human. It walked upright on its hind legs and glanced over its shoulder a few times as if to see if it was being followed. With the beast, the stench faded.
Spencer stared after the animal, taking in great long gasps of breath. His heart pounded and his knees were weak. Finally he turned and headed down the slope again. The cattle were on down the trail now, but there was no sign of the Appaloosa's hoof prints. Where was the horse? Had that beast killed it? Spencer ran a hand through his hair, realizing for the first time that he had also lost his hat. No gun, no hat and no horse. Well, at least he had his boots - and his life. He jogged down the trail after the cattle. The horse would show up after a while. In the mean time, he had to get off this mountain. He glanced up at the sky, which was rapidly filling with clouds. Could he make it down the mountain before the storm struck - before dark?
In that moment, he knew Diane was right. If he'd had someone with him, there would be someone with the cattle now - someone with a gun and a horse - someone to know where he was. If he died up here now, who would know where to look? Diane. The thought struck him like a sharp knife. She was crusty enough to come up here looking for him, even though she knew nothing of the mountains. She might get lost, or killed by a bear. No, he had to get out of this mountain - tonight.
He found all the cattle grazing in the lower meadow - even the brindle cow - but there was no sign of his horse. For a moment he had a wild idea about herding the cattle down the hill afoot, but on second thought, he might get gored to death up here. Again he was urged on by the idea of Diane trying to find his body - and of her finding his mutilated body. No, he had promised to take care of her. The cattle could wait. They'd probably be all right in this lower meadow for a few more weeks, anyway. Long enough for him to find or replace that dad-burned horse.
He skirted the meadow, chagrined by the idea of avoiding his own cattle. If the boys down in Cheyenne could see him now, they'd laugh themselves silly. Of course, that was what this was all about, anyway - him trying to prove he could run this ranch on his own. He hadn't been so smart the last two years. He'd been darned lucky, that's all.
He turned his collar up against a cold gust of wind and stepped up the pace. If he hadn't used up all his luck, he might beat that storm home. In his haste, he put a careless foot down and the rocks moved under his feet. He windmilled his arms, trying to regain his balance as his feet slid down the hill in front of him. He hit the ground on his backside and rolled several times before he came to a slamming halt against a pine tree.
He moaned as he pushed away from the ground. Two bad falls in one day. He was going to be one sore spot tomorrow - if he was lucky enough to feel it. He made his way down the steep incline, this time slower and with caution.
Several hours later, he knew he wasn't going to beat the dusk or the storm home. He still had a good hour or so left and the wind was howling through the trees. The clouds emitted a low rumbling sound and a thin streak of lightning lit up the evening sky. He pulled his coat collar up around his ears and moved on. It would probably be smart to hole up when the storm hit, but Diane would be worried.
The sound of metal striking a hard object brought him up short. It sounded like a horseshoe against a rock. His horse? He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled shrilly. Immediately he was answered by a high pitched whinny. That was the Appaloosa, all right.
The Appaloosa materialized from the trees, dragging the saddle behind him. Spencer replaced the saddle and cinched it down. He mounted and loosed a sigh of relief. Yes, he still had some luck left - or maybe someone was watching over him. He nudged the horse into a lope and headed for the ranch.
He rode into the ranch yard as the storm hit. Diane had supper ready when he got inside and gave him a strange look.
"Where are the cattle? Couldn't you find any?"
He shrugged out of his coat. "I left them up in that last meadow. I'll go get them in a few days. Maybe I'll go get Jones to help me."
She dished him a plate of stew and eyed him suspiciously. Finally she shrugged and sat across the table from him. Someday he'd tell her about that animal up in the mountains, but not tonight. He'd given her enough to worry about for one day.
This story can be found in the short western story collection "Horse Opera."