It was a long day. They rode most of it, climbing through bottoms heavily timbered by fir and spruce with patches of aspen yellow in the draws and along the creek. At first, they followed a marked USG Forest Service trail, the blazes browned with time. Ora lead the packhorse and Mike rode behind. Near the head of Jackson Creek, where the large meadow opens up just below where big spring comes into the snow-melt stream, Ora turned his horse up the open, bunchgrass and brush slope, and they worked through the rubble and brush, up toward the divide between Jackson and Helms Creek. There was a trail into Helms Creek, but it wound interminably to reach its destination. Ora was never one to follow a trail if decent alternatives were available. They paused often to let Ora’s horses breathe, and once or twice in dicey situations, Ora thought it best to dismount lead them.
“We probly should have taken the trail,” Ora said.
“You’re the boss,” Mike told him. He was not familiar with this part of these mountains. He was also not ready for them. Before he retired and came back home, he was a grant writer and administrator, putting on a gut, working nine-to-five and riding the daily commute from office to the suburbs. He gasped in the thin air. They had crossed a scree, leading the horses, and were stopped, sitting on rocks, for a breather of their own, out of the heat of the sun in the shade of a vast White Bark Pine. An arid wind whoo’ed through it and bent the grasses and scrub on the slope below them. The dark, timbered Jackson Creek drainage lay below them.
Ora had his binos out and was glassing the rock ridges across the drainage. Mike stretched his legs out and rubbed the ache in his knees. Riding always made them ache. He liked sitting a good horse, even working cattle on a good cutter or roper, but any more, his knees did not last very long in the saddle. He tended to put off these rides into the mountains with his pal Ora because his knees bothered him and because the ground had become a hard place to sleep. Mike loved being horseback again, but his knees and lungs were objecting to the ride and the altitude.
“There’s a couple a goats on the edge of that white spot there three o’clock off Dread Peak, down about a thumb,” Ora said. He handed the binoculars to Mike and pointed. “They’re about to start across the snow, that nine-shaped white patch there, going left across it, the biggest part of it.”
Mike lifted the binoculars and scanned below the distant ridge. “Yeah,” he said. He had never seen goats in the wild. Even with the binoculars they were just white shapes in the gray rock of the cliffs. “Yeah,” he said.
They sat on the hillside, watching, without the binoculars, the distant white dots merge with the snow—mere scintilla, small white sparks, in the vastness of sky, rock, and air.
Then they were in to snowfield and Mike couldn’t see them.
“Not as close as the picture in your book,” he said. It was a book Ora had made for friends and family.
“You don’t get that close very often,” Ora said. He cased the binoculars and shoved them into the saddlebag. “I’ve only done it twice.”
“It was a great picture. Could’ve been an ad for the railroad.”
“Never thought about it,” Ora said. He leaned his elbows on the seat of the saddle and looked out over Jackson Creek drainage. “Never thought about it.”
“You could ‘a been a famous photographer.”
“Well,” Ora said, “This is enough, isn’t it.” He grinned at his cosmopolitan friend. “This is as good as it gets.”