Excerpt of The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe
(Page 3 of 5)
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Press on, my boy.
As the October dusk drew down, Simon had argued desperately for making camp. But Witherspoon would not hear of it; the imposing face that ecstatic love could render soft as soap in London was now cast as hard as an Old Testament prophet's certainty. We shall not yield to adversity.
So on they went, deeper and deeper into bewildering nightfall, Witherspoon flogging his mare until he opened a safe ten yards, a cordon sanitaire between himself and the weak-kneed naysayer. Ten yards to symbolize the moral gulf separating master and disciple.
The last thing Simon could remember before falling asleep was the Reverend's broad shoulders rocking side to side like a wagging forefinger, reproving his feebleness, admonishing his sloth.
How long had he slept?
"Reverend Witherspoon! Reverend Witherspoon!" The snow drowned his cry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Witherspoon had ridden on and Simon was alone. A cold clinker of fear settled in the grate of his belly. Lost. He lashed his horse into a trot; the gelding submitted for a hundred reluctant yards, then faltered, came to a complete standstill.
How dreadfully cold it was. A breeze sprang to sudden life and his cheeks, wet with melting snow, stiffened at the icy touch. The wind panted, flakes swirled, thickened. Twisting in his saddle, Simon strained for a glimpse of Witherspoon hastening to gather the lost lamb, some darker blot in the darkness of night. The blizzard was strengthening, slapping at horse and rider; he could feel the gelding's mane fluttering against his hands clamped to the reins.
Bouncing his heels on the gelding's ribs, he urged it to resume an unwilling shamble. The gusts were growing fiercer, snow was biting at his face like flying sand. He ducked his head and watched the drifts unroll beneath him, a white scroll of vellum, luminous in the dim light.
The scroll stopped. His hat sailed off. Dismounting, Simon rifled the saddlebag, found his old Oxford scarf, bandaged his burning ears with it, knotted it under his chin. Wind keened through the weave of the wool. Never had he known such cold; it drew heat out of the body like a leech draws blood. Forehead, eyes, cheeks ached from the frigid, sucking mouth.
Weariness overwhelmed him, dropped his forehead heavily against the horse's flank. He let it rest there. Just a minute. Only a minute. Then he would move. Go on. The gelding's rump was crusted with ice and snow, so was Simon's beard. Raking his fingers through it, he plucked away clots of ice, trying to pray. "Lord God of Hosts," he began, but his thoughts were lost in the roar of the storm, brain nothing but a puddle of numb slush. Falling back on memory, he recited from the Book of Common Prayer. "O most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below,'" he mumbled. "Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring . . .'" His voice ebbed away.
It was no good. He dove back into the saddlebag, fingers turned to pincers by the cold, and grappled a tin, pried away the top. The wind caught the lid, tore it from his hand, kited it off into the howling night. He patted, crooned and clucked, feeding the exhausted horse his shortbread, trying to kindle in it a little strength to continue on.
The gelding shied when he tried to remount. Somehow Simon snagged the stirrup with his boot and clambered aboard, weeping when the horse once more stubbornly stalled, beating its neck with a fist. But then it swung its head, put the wind to their backs, moved off hesitantly. With the blizzard whipping its hindquarters, the gelding broke into a lope, then a wild staggering gallop, heaving like a storm-driven ship. Simon tasted long white streaks of snow, smears on the chalkboard of night, as his brain jerked from spot to spot on his body, probing. Face dead, a slab of wood. Fingers dead. Twigs.
Copyright © 2002 by G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.