Beyond the Great Snow Mountains
When the burial was complete, she rode with her son into the hills. The Go-log tribesmen, sharing her sorrow for their lost leader, stood aside and allowed her to go. Lok-sha had been a great man and too young to die.
Only in the eyes of Norba and his followers did she detect the triumph born of realization that nothing now stood between him and tribal control. Nothing but a slender woman, alien to their land, and Kulan, her fourteen-year-old son.
There was no time to worry now, nor was there time for grief. If ever they were to escape, it must be at once, for it was unlikely such opportunity would again offer itself.
It had been fifteen years since the plane in which she was leaving China crashed in the mountains near Tosun Nor, killing all on board but herself. Now, as if decreed by fate, another had come, and this one landed intact.
Shambe had brought the news as Lok-sha lay dying, for long ago the far-ranging hunter had promised if ever another plane landed, he would first bring the news to her.
If the fierce Go-log tribesmen learned of the landing, they would kill the survivors and destroy the plane. To enter the land of the Go-log was to die.
It was a far land of high, grass plateaus, snowcapped mountains, and rushing streams. There among the peaks were born three of the greatest rivers of Asia–the Yellow, the Yangtze, and the Mekong–and there the Go-log lived as they had lived since the time of Genghis Khan.
Splendid horsemen and savage fighters, they lived upon their herds of yaks, fat-tailed sheep, horses, and the plunder reaped from caravans bound from China to Tibet.
Anna Doone, born on a ranch in Montana, had taken readily to the hard, nomadic life of the Go-log. She had come to China to join her father, a medical missionary, and her uncle, a noted anthropologist. Both were killed in Kansu by the renegade army that had once belonged to General Ma. Anna, with two friends, attempted an escape in an old plane.
Riding now toward this other aircraft, she recalled the morning when, standing beside her wrecked plane, she had first watched the Go-log approach. She was familiar with their reputation for killing interlopers, but she had a Winchester with a telescopic sight and a .45-caliber Colt revolver.
Despite her fear, she felt a burst of admiration for their superb horsemanship as they raced over the plain. Seeing the rifle ready in her hands, they drew up sharply, and her eyes for the first time looked upon Lok-sha.
Only a little older than her own twenty-one years, he was a tall man with a lean horseman’s build, and he laughed with pure enjoyment when she lifted the rifle. She was to remember that laugh for a long time, for the Go-log were normally a somber people.
Lok-sha had the commanding presence of the born leader of men, and she realized at once that if she were to survive, it would be because he wished it.
He spoke sharply in his own tongue, and she replied in the dialect of Kansu, which fortunately he understood.
“It is a fine weapon,” he said about the rifle.
“I do not wish to use it against the Go-log. I come as a friend.”
“The Go-log have no friends.”
A small herd of Tibetan antelope appeared on the crest of a low ridge some three hundred yards away, looking curiously toward the crashed plane.
She had used a rifle since she was a child, killing her first deer when only eleven. Indicating the antelope, she took careful aim and squeezed off her shot. The antelope bounded away, but one went to its knees, then rolled over on its side.
The Go-log shouted with amazement, for accurate shooting with their old rifles was impossible at that range. Two of the riders charged off to recover the game, and she looked into the eyes of the tall rider.
“I have another such rifle, and if we are friends, it is yours.”
“I could kill you and take them both.”
She returned his look. “They
,” she said, indicating the others, “might take it from me. You would not, for you are a man of honor, and I would kill you even as they killed me.”
She had no doubt of her position, and her chance of ever leaving this place was remote. Whatever was done, she must do herself.
He gestured toward the wreck. “Get what you wish, and come with us.”
Her shooting had impressed them, and now her riding did also, for these were men who lived by riding and shooting. Lok-sha, a jyabo
or king of the Go-log people, did not kill her. Escape being impossible, she married him in a Buddhist ceremony, and then to satisfy some Puritan strain within her, she persuaded Tsan-Po, the lama, to read over them in Kansu dialect the Christian ceremony.
Fortunately, the plane had not burned, and from it she brought ammunition for the rifles, field glasses, clothing, medicines, and her father’s instrument case. Best of all, she brought the books that had belonged to her father and uncle.
Having often assisted her father, she understood the emergency treatment of wounds and rough surgery. This knowledge became a valuable asset and solidified her position in the community.
As soon as Anna’s son was born, she realized the time would come when, if they were not rescued, he would become jyabo
, so she began a careful record of migration dates, grass conditions, and rainfall. If it was in her power, she was going to give him the knowledge to be the best leader possible.
Lok-sha was sharply interested in all she knew about the Chinese to the east, and he possessed the imagination to translate the lessons of history into the practical business of command and statecraft. The end had come when his horse, caught on a severe, rocky slope, had fallen, crushing Lok-sha’s chest.
She had been happy in the years she’d spent as his wife, certainly she was better off than she would have been as a refugee in the civil war that gripped much of China or as a prisoner of the Japanese. But as happy as she had learned to be, as safe as she had finally found herself, Anna never forgot her home, nor ceased to long for the day when she might return.
Now, her thoughts were interrupted by Shambe’s appearance. “The plane is nearby,” he said, “and there are two men.”
Shambe was not only Lok-sha’s best friend, but leader of the Ku-ts’a, the bodyguard of the jyabo
, a carefully selected band of fighting men.
They rode now, side by side, Kulan, Shambe, and herself. “You will leave with the flying men?” Shambe asked. “And you will take the jyabo
Startled, Anna Doone glanced at her son, riding quietly beside her. Of course . . . what had she been thinking of? Her son, Kulan, was jyabo
now . . . king of six thousand tents, commander of approximately two thousand of the most dangerous fighting men in Asia!
But it was ridiculous. He was only fourteen. He should be in school, thinking about football or baseball. Yet fourteen among the Go-log was not fourteen among her own people. Lok-sha, against her bitter protests, had carried Kulan into battle when he was but six years old, and during long rides over the grasslands had taught him what he could of the arts of war and leadership.
Her son jyabo
? She wished to see him a doctor, a scientist, a teacher. It was preposterous to think of him as king of a savage people in a remote land. Yet deep within her something asked a question: How important would baseball be to a boy accustomed to riding a hundred miles from dawn to dusk, or hunting bighorn sheep among the highest peaks?
“We shall regret your going,” Shambe said sincerely, “you have been long among us.”
And she would regret losing him, too, for he had been a true friend. She said as much, said it quietly and with sincerity.
When she heard of the plane, her thoughts had leaped ahead, anticipating their homecoming. She had taken notes of her experiences and could write a book, and she could lecture. Kulan was tall and strong and could receive the education and opportunities that he had missed.
Yet she had sensed the reproof in Shambe’s tone; Shambe, who had been her husband’s supporter in his troubles with Norba, a chief of a minor division of the Khang-sar Go-log.
Over their heads the sky was fiercely blue, their horses’ hooves drummed upon the hard, close-cropped turf . . . there were few clouds. Yes . . . these rides would be remembered. Nowhere were there mountains like these, nowhere such skies.
When they came within sight of the plane, the two men sprang to their feet, gripping their rifles.
She drew up. “I am Anna Doone, and this is Kulan, my son.”
The older man strode toward her. “This is amazing! The State Department has been trying to locate you and your family for years! You are the niece of Dr. Ralph Doone, are you not?”
“My name is Schwarzkopf. Your uncle and I were associated during his work at the Merv Oasis.” He glanced at Shambe, and then at Kulan. “Your son, you said?”
She explained the crashed plane, her marriage to Lok-sha, his death, and her wish to escape. In turn, they told her of how they had seized the plane and escaped from the Communist soldiers. Their landing had been made with the last of their fuel.
“If there was fuel, would you take us with you?”
“Take you? But of course!” Schwarzkopf’s eyes danced with excitement that belied his sixty-odd years. “What an opportunity! Married to a Go-log chieftain! So little is known of them, you understand! Their customs, their beliefs . . . we must arrange a grant. I know just the people who–”
“If it’s all the same to you, Doc,” his companion interrupted, “I’d like to get out of here.” He looked up at Anna Doone. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you mentioned fuel. Is there some gas around here somewhere?”
“Several months ago my husband took a convoy bound for an airfield in Tibet. He captured several trucks loaded with gasoline. They are hidden only a few miles away.” She paused. “I can drive a truck.”
Yet, first she must return to the Go-log encampment to meet with the elders and the fighting men of the Khang-sar. Kulan, as jyabo
, must be present. It would be improper and even dangerous if she were not present also, for a decision was to be made on the move to new grazing grounds, and there might also be some question as to leadership.
The time had come for the Khang-sar to return to their home in the Yur-tse Mountains, and the thought brought a pang, for these were the loveliest of mountains, splendid forests and lakes in a limestone range near the head of the Yellow River.
“Whatever you do,” she warned, “you must not leave the vicinity of the plane. Start no fires, and let no metal flash in the sun. When our meeting is over, Shambe will remain near you until Kulan and I can come.”
She swung her horse around. “If you are found, neither Kulan nor I could protect you.”
“Kulan?” The younger man looked at the boy in surprise.
Kulan sat straight in the saddle. “I am now jyabo
,” he replied sternly, “but our people think all outsiders are the enemy.”
When they had gone some distance, Kulan sighed and said, “The machine is small. There will be no room for Deba.”
She knew how much he loved the horse. “No, Kulan, there will be no room, but you would not wish to take him away. He was bred to this country, and loves it.”
“I love it, too,” Kulan replied simply.
She started to speak, but the horse herd was before them, and beyond were the felt yurts of the camp. Tsan-Po awaited them before their own tent. With Lok-sha gone, the Khang-sar Go-log would have need of the old man’s shrewd advice.
Kulan waved a hand at the encampment. “How would we live in your country?”
“Life is very different there, Kulan, and much easier. You might become a fine scholar and lead a good life.”
“If that is what you wish. I shall do my best, for both you and my father have taught me obedience. Only sometimes,” his voice tightened, “sometimes I shall think of Deba and these grasslands, and of Amne Machin, the God Mountain.”
For the first time she felt doubt, but quickly dismissed it. Of course she was doing the right thing. Once he was adjusted to life in civilization, he would be as happy there. True, he was mature for his years, as boys were apt to be among the Go-log. It was natural that he would miss Deba, and he would miss Shambe, as she would. Shambe had been a second father to him, even as Tsan-Po had been. The old lama had taught Kulan much that was beyond her.
Yet, how long she had dreamed of going home! Of luxuriating in a warm tub, conversing in English for hours on end, and the good, fireside talk of people who were doing things in the larger world of art, science, and scholarship. She longed for a life where she did not have to live with the fear that her son might die from something as silly as a tooth infection or as serious as the bullet from the rifle of a Communist soldier.
She was thirty-six, soon to be thirty-seven, and if she ever wanted a relationship with another man, it could not be here, where she had once been the wife of a king. Nor could she wait for too many years after the rough life on the steppes, a life that had been good to her so far, but was bound to leave her a windburned and arthritic old woman.
What Dr. Schwarzkopf had said was true. Her experience was unique. A book might sell . . . she could make a contribution to anthropology, and even to geographical knowledge. As for Kulan, he would do well in America. He was tall and wide-shouldered, and would be a handsome man with his olive skin, his dark, curly hair and truly magnificent dark eyes. There was a touch of the exotic about him that was romantic, and at fourteen he was already stronger than most men.
As she entered the yurt, she sensed trouble in the air. Shambe was beside her, but when had he not been present when she needed him?
All of the Khang-sar Go-log chieftains were there. Tsemba was the chief of two hundred tents and an important man whose opinion counted for much. Beside him were old Kunza, Gelak, and of course, Norba.
Norba was a towering big man with one muscular shoulder bare, as was the custom, his broad-bladed sword slung in its scabbard between his shoulder blades. His coterie of followers was close around him, confident now that Lok-sha was dead.
Norba had both hated and feared Lok-sha, but had no heart for a fight with the jyabo
. Yet had Lok-sha left no heir, Norba would have become chief.
The impending shift to new grazing grounds promised trouble. A faction of the Khang-sar led by Norba wished to go to Tosun Nor, but Lok-sha had decided, under the present circumstances, it was better to graze far from the caravan trails and let a season go by without raids. The new soldiers from the east were not the undisciplined rabble of old. Something was afoot in China proper, and Lok-sha had thought it best to gather more information before testing fate. Moreover, there had been rumors of serious drought around Tosun Nor, and drought meant losses from the herds.
She seated herself beside Kulan, with Tsan-Po beside her, and Shambe seated on the other side of her son. Norba had moved to take the seat of jyabo
, but Kulan was before him. Norba’s face flushed angrily when he saw the boy take the seat where he wished to sit.
“Move, boy. Go play with the children.”
Kulan sat very straight. “Unless it is decided otherwise, I am jyabo
,” he replied. “Until then, take your place.”
For an instant there was utter stillness, then a mutter from the followers of Norba, but Kulan ignored them. Glancing at her son, Anna Doone was astonished. Truly, he looked every inch the young king. There was strength in him, of that there would be no doubt, strength and courage.
Norba hesitated, then reluctantly took a seat. Anna could see his repressed fury and knew there was trouble to come. It was well that they were leaving. The thought of escape from all this sent a little tremor of excitement through her, excitement tinged with relief.
The yurt filled and the air was stifling. Anna studied the faces of the chieftains, but they were expressionless. Would they follow Kulan, or would they demand an older, more experienced leader?
Tsan-Po whispered to her that most of those within the tent were supporters of Norba, and Anna Doone felt inside her coat for the pistol she was never without.
Their very lives might depend on the selection of Kulan as jyabo
, for if Norba were able to take power, he would at once seek to rid himself of his rival. It would not be without precedence if Norba attempted to kill Kulan here, now. Her hand on her pistol, Anna suddenly knew that if Norba even moved toward her son, she would kill him.
She accepted some tea, drinking from a bowl that had come to Tibet from India in the dower of a princess, more than a thousand years before. In those years, Tibet had controlled most of western China, as well as part of India and Kashmir.
Abruptly, without waiting for the others to assemble, Norba declared himself. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we will move to Tosun Nor to pasture upon the old lands.”
There was silence as he looked around the yurt. That silence held for a slow minute, and then Kulan said one word.
The word was definite, the tone clear, the challenge accepted.
Norba’s face flushed with anger, but Kulan spoke before Norba could frame a word.
“There is drought at Tosun Nor. The grass lies yellow and dead, the air is filled with dust. The beds of streams are cracked earth. We must go to the mountains, to the Yur-tse.”
Again Norba prepared to speak, but Kulan interrupted. “My father is dead, but I am my father’s son. We rode upon the high grass together and he taught me what I must do.”
For the first time, he looked at Norba. “You are deba
of two hundred tents. You may ride with us or go to Tosun Nor. I would advise you to come with us.”
Norba looked around at his followers. “We are men, and not to be led by a boy. It is I who shall lead the Khang-sar. When you are of an age to lead,” he added slyly, “you may lead.”
Tsan-Po spoke. “The boy is his father’s son. Leadership falls upon him.”
Norba got to his feet. “Enough! I say that I shall lead. I say it, and my men say it.”
Kulan arose, and Shambe and Anna arose with him. Anna held her gun in her hand. “The Ku-ts’a stand without,” Shambe said, “and they follow Kulan . . . Unless all the chieftains say otherwise.”
Norba’s lips flattened against his big teeth, and for an instant Anna thought he would strike Kulan despite the fact that the bodyguards surrounded the tent. The Ku-ts’a numbered fifty-eight chosen men, the hereditary guard of the jyabo
. Norba had not expected the Ku-ts’a. With the jyabo
dead, he had believed they would accept the situation.
He slammed his sword back into its scabbard. “We will go to Tosun Nor,” he said. “You are fools.”
“Go, if you will,” Kulan replied, “and those who survive are welcome to return. Our herds will be fat upon the long grass of the limestone mountains.”
With a pang, Anna realized that Kulan was no longer a boy. The discipline had been strict and the training harsh, but he was every inch a king. Yet she was impatient, for their time was short, and if the plane were discovered, the fliers would be killed and they would be condemned to more fruitless, wasted years.
Alone at last, she said to him, “What was all that about the drought at Tosun Nor?”
“It had been rumored, so while you talked to the old man of your people, I asked the other. He spoke of dense clouds of dust high in the heavens, and of sheep and horses lying dead from starvation and thirst.”
He paused. “It is well that Norba goes, for when he returns, if he returns, his power will be broken.”
He glanced at her slyly, his face warming with a smile. “My mother taught me to listen, to question when in doubt, and to keep my thoughts until the time for speaking.”
After Kulan was asleep, she went outside the yurt and stood alone under the stars. There was moonlight upon the snows of the God Mountain, reflected moonlight that seemed born from some inner glory within the mountain itself.
She thought of home, of the quiet college town and the autumn leaves falling. It had been almost twenty years, but tomorrow they would fly over the mountains to India. To a fine hotel, a room of her own, a hot bath, and a real bed . . . it was impossible to imagine such things still existed.
For fifteen years she had been virtually a prisoner. True, Lok-sha had treated her well, and she had been respected among the Go-log, but their ways were strange, and her nights had been given up to dreaming of home.
The thought of Norba returned. If Kulan was gone, he would be in control, and would probably lead the Khang-sar Go-log to disaster. Lok-sha had always said he was a stubborn fool.
No matter. It was now or never. It was impossible that another opportunity would occur, for travel was restricted. No Europeans or Americans would be flying over this country. It was her last chance.
She looked around at the sleeping encampment. She would miss it. Lok-sha, despite their differences of background, had been a superior man. If he had been slow to appreciate her feelings, there had been no cruelty in him.
The icy peak was austere in its bath of moonlight; it was taller than Everest, some said, yet it gave an impression of bulk rather than height. It was no wonder the Go-log called it the God Mountain.
Tsan-Po was walking toward her. “Do you go tomorrow?”
She had ceased to be startled by his awareness of things. “Yes.”
“You have been long away . . . does someone await you there?”
“We will miss you, and we will miss Kulan.”
“He goes to a great land. He will do well, I think.”
“Here he is a king. Ours is a small king, but even a small king is still a king.”
She felt the reproof of his tone, and together they watched the moonlight on Amne Machin. “He will make a strong man,” the lama said, “a stronger man and a better leader than Lok-sha.”
She was surprised. “Do you really believe that?”
“You have taught him much, and he has character. We Go-log face a trying time, for as the world changes, even we must change.
“Kulan has a sense of the world. You taught him of your land and of Europe, and I have told him of India, where I worked as a young man. He is schooled in the arts of war and statecraft, and I believe it is in him to be a great leader.”
He was silent, then added, “Your country could use a friend here.”
“Do you believe I am wrong to take him away?”
“We need him,” Tsan-Po replied simply, “and he needs you. For several years yet, he will need you.”
The lama turned away. “It is late.” He took a step, then paused. “Beware of Norba. You have not finished with him.”
When morning dawned, they rode swiftly to the hidden trucks. What Lok-sha planned to do with the trucks, she did not know, but presumably he intended to use them as a trap for Chinese soldiers.
She started the truck with difficulty for the motor was cold. There was no road, but the turf was solid, and she had driven on the prairie during her childhood in Montana. The old Army six-by-six was no problem.
Kulan followed, holding off to one side and leading her horse.
Keeping to low ground and circling to avoid gullies or patches of rock, she needed all of an hour to reach the plane.
The pilot and Dr. Schwarzkopf rushed to the tailgate and started to unload the cans. As soon as the truck was empty, Anna drove back for a second truck, and by the time she had returned, the cans of the first had been emptied into the tanks of the plane.
Yet they had scarcely begun on the second load when Shambe came down off the ridge where he had been on watch. Kulan, also watching from a quarter of a mile away, wheeled his mount and raced back at a dead run, drawing his rifle from its scabbard.
“Norba comes,” Shambe said, “with many men.”
Schwarzkopf dropped his jerry can and started for his rifle, but Anna’s gesture stopped him. “Finish refueling,” she said, and when he hesitated, “Doctor, put that gun down and get busy!”
Kulan swung his pony alongside her as she mounted, and Shambe drew upon the other side. They sat together, awaiting the oncoming riders.
Norba’s horse reared as he drew up, a hard pleasure in his eyes. “So . . . you are traitors. I shall kill you.”
Anna Doone’s heart pounded heavily, yet she kept all emotion from her face. Her son’s life, as well as her own, was at stake.
“These men are our friends. We help them on their way,” she said.
“And I shall decide who is and is not a traitor,” Kulan added.
From behind them the pilot said, “One more can does it.”
Anna’s heart lifted. Behind her was the plane that could take her home, the rescue of which she had dreamed for fifteen years. The time was here, the time was now.
The sky beckoned, and beyond the mountains lay India, the threshold to home.
“Go with them, Mother.” Kulan’s eyes did not turn from Norba. “I cannot, for these are my people.”
Her protest found no words. How often had she taught him that kingship was an obligation rather than a glory?
Her eyes swung around the semicircle of savage faces, and then for one brief instant the dream remained, shimmering before her eyes: a warm quiet house, a hot bath, meals prepared from food from a market, life without fear of disease or crippling disfigurement, life without war.
“Dr. Schwarzkopf,” she said, “you will leave your rifles and ammunition, they are in short supply here.”
“If you are going,” Kulan said, “you must go now.”
“If these are your people, Kulan, then they are my people also.”
The winding caravan of Norba’s people appeared, heading north toward Tosun Nor. She should have remembered they would come this way.
Dr. Schwarzkopf brought the weapons and the ammunition. “You will not come with us, then?”
“I can’t. This is my son.”
“You will die,” Norba said. His eyes flickered over the three he hated–the wife of Lok-sha, the leader of the Ku-ts’a, and the boy who stood between him and the kingship.
Norba’s rifle started to lift, and Shambe’s started up with it, but Kulan put out a hand to stop the movement, then stepped his horse toward Norba and looked into his eyes.
“I am jyabo
,” he said. “I am your king.”
For an instant Norba’s rifle held still, then slowly it lowered. With an oath, Norba whirled his horse and dashed away, followed by his men.
Behind them the motors broke into a roar, and throwing up a vast cloud of dust, the plane rolled off, gathered speed, then soared up and away, toward India, toward home.
“You should have let me kill him,” Shambe said.
“No, Shambe,” Kulan replied, “many go to die, but those who remain will remember that I spoke truth.”
Three abreast, they rode to the crest of the ridge and halted. The caravan of Norba’s followers moved north toward the great lake known as Tosun Nor, moved toward drought and death.
Anna Doone, born in Montana, looked beyond them to a bright fleck that hung in the sky. Sunlight gleamed for an instant on a wingtip . . . then it winked out and was gone, leaving only a distant mutter of engines that echoed against the mountains.
Excerpted from The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour, Volume 4 by Louis L'Amour. Copyright © 2006 by Louis L'Amour. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.