She threw down the machine pistol and began to run.
Lana standing by the living room window, staring through frosted glass at the crowd of carolers come to serenade her this Christmas night, their faces awash in candlelight, Silent night, holy night, a figure stumbling up the alameda toward the front door, Darkness flies, all is light, the choir faltering, Feel free to get the f**k off my yard, the carolers dispersing, Lana retreating to the Steinway, seating herself at the piano bench, thinking, My playing soothes him, perhaps some Brahms, the keys tinkling icily as the front door opens, slams, the meter quickening with her heartbeat as his boots pound the hardwood floor, his footsteps and the piquant waft of cactus juice moving toward—
The stillness shook her from the dream.
Lana opened her eyes—starry and cold beyond reason, the horse standing in snow to its stomach, wind-broke and panting.
She was high above the timberline, between two promontories that seemed vaguely familiar, masses of rock and ice in black relief against the navy sky.
She realized she’d seen them two and half years ago through the dusty window of a coach that summer afternoon she’d first made the long trip to Abandon, though the wilderness had looked quite different then—greened out and only pockets of dirty snow in the shadowed mountain flanks. This was the crest of the main wagon trail, a twelve-thousand-foot pass between a pair of knobs collectively named the Teats.
Having slept with her head drooped the last several hours, she winced from a neck crick as she assessed the moon’s position in the sky, estimating the hour to be approaching midnight. Thank God the horse seemed to know the way, although she wondered how much farther she could push this salado. But what was the alternative? Dismount, unfasten the apron straps, and spread out the bedroll? Star-pitch in six feet of snow?
Falling asleep on the way out of town, her feet had tingled with cold. Now they hung in the stirrups, disturbingly innocuous, a complete lack of sensation that she hoped was warmth.
Her hands ached, which she took for a good sign, balled up into fists inside the mittens to conserve heat. She had a suspicion it was lethally cold, but in the absence of wind, the thirty-below air temperature felt less pronounced.
Lana turned in the saddle, looked back the way she’d come—a smooth snowy slope bright as day under the moon, bruised only by horse tracks that more resembled the delicate indentation of a sandpiper’s footprints on a beach.
Miles away, she could see the opening to Abandon’s box canyon, the town itself hidden from view.
Again she traced the path her horse had taken, following the tracks five hundred feet back down the slope, across a narrow bench, then one last dip toward timberline, where at that moment one of the trees broke away from the forest and moved upslope.
Stephen Cole, she thought.
She attempted to gauge the distance—a mile, mile and a half at most.
He’s following my tracks.
She looked at what lay ahead—it appeared as if the trail descended gradually over the next few miles, then dropped into the forest, where it paralleled the course of what she recalled was a river in the summertime.
Far, far on—ten, maybe fifteen miles beyond this drainage at whose headwaters she stood—something glowed in a distant valley.
It seemed impossibly far.
Lana darling. Could I steal your attention?
Her fingers rest on the ivory keys, piano bench squeaking as he eases down beside her, his breath heavy with a strange-smelling smoke and soured by tequila, maybe the better part of a jug, though she doesn’t know for sure. He can hold the liquor of three high lonesomes.
Why are you dressed up like a sore toe?
It’s Christmas, John.
Is it. He unbuttons his claw hammer, rising slightly to straighten the tails. I’m not back to stay.
She looks up at him, his eyes turned inward, dreamy with opium, pupils huge black disks reflecting the candles that line the top of the Steinway.
John, you aren’t yourself.
Thank God for that. He grins, something rote drunkenness rarely elicits.
You went to that hop-alley den, saw your celestial. I can smell the smoke on—
This is engaging beyond all expectations, but they’re holding up the game for me.
That grin again.
Down to my last chip, as they say, although it isn’t really a chip in the conventional—
How. Much. Did you lose?
It would appear that Mr. Carson is now the proud own er of our casa. What?
It was the worst streak of cards any man has ever drawn. Everyone at the table agreed.
You gambled our home?
Well. Yes. But all hope is not lost. The game took an interesting turn.
Lana tugged at the reins and pulled up just shy of the forest, the Teats looming under the brilliant smear of the Milky Way, and saw, not half a mile back, the rider progressing toward her.
She reached down and patted the horse’s neck a moment before booting it on.
The forest dark save for when she moved across glades, the sky like ragged spiderwebs through the branches, the silk glistening with stars, and so quiet when they stopped, she could hear the pulse of the albino’s tired heart.
She shifted in the saddle, the leather creaking.
The odor of the horse smelled strong in the cold.
She listened, heard nothing but the occasional clicking of her teeth, like Morse code in the night. She touched her heels to the horse and rode down through the spruce.
An hour later, she passed through a blowdown, the firs all bent over and tangled up in themselves like spilt matches and dusted with fresh snow, the horse threading its way through the felled trees like it had come this way before.
In the forest below, an elk bugled.
. . .
The moon low in the sky behind a mountain, the stars teeming, the horse wavering, Lana shivering under her white cape, trying to stave off a sleep that taunted her with the rhythm of the hooves breaking powder.
The horse would have crushed her, but it neighed two seconds before toppling, and Lana woke, just managing to drag herself away from where its hindquarters crashed into the snow.
She scrambled to her feet and wiped the powder out of her face, found herself standing among aspen, the snow to her chest and the stars obscured, yielding to dawn.
The horse lay on its side, blowing deep, snorting exhalations that weakened as she listened. She wanted to speak to the albino, give the animal some measure of comfort, but she could only squat by its head and stroke its great jowls until its heart quit beating and its big eyes traded their pained intensity for the empty glaze of death.