The sun shown brightly against the wall of supplies just in front of his face, as Peter groaned, working his way out from under the pile of blankets he’d pulled on top of him in the night. The fire was long gone, and it seemed that the biting cold had departed with it. He refolded the blankets, just as he would have done back on the farm, then he attacked the small wooden box of Pemmican. It was impossible to eat it fast. It was just too tough. Made from jerked lean meat, bison fat and local berries, it was considered the indispensible travel food of all mountain men, even though it had originally been created by Indians. With one pocket stuffed full of the rope-like strands, Peter chewed while climbing from the life-saving cache.
The sun was high and everything was melting when he climbed out of the hole. He examined Jed’s body. He realized that he needed the man’s leathers and gear. Travel through winter altitudes with the season just coming on was not possible in his condition. Not in the hopelessly threadbare garments he had. A hand axe lay atop all the boxes stacked in the hole. Peter bent and retrieved it. The tool was so sharp and well made that he was able to chop and worry one of the sprouting branches from the fallen oak in only minutes. Using a nearby rock for a fulcrum, it didn’t take much longer to lever the much larger branch upward, brace it and then pull Jed from under it’s fatal weight.
The man’s rifle was under the brush behind him. Peter retrieved it. His father had owned a flintlock, although he’d never taught Peter to shoot it. Jed’s gun was percussion, a much more advanced weapon. The hammer struck a small brass cartridge instead of a flint and open powder. There was no flash in the face of the shooter, no failure to fire from moisture, and only an occasional misfire, at least according to the men who had gathered for the rendezvous.
Peter hefted the rifle. He decided to examine it in more detail later. The sun was melting the snow. Before long the beaten trail Jed had made would be gone. Peter knew he needed to find out where that trail led. He stripped the body, changing into the dead man’s soft leather jerkin and pants. They fit badly.
Peter was too hefty, but they would do. The heavy leather moccasins were most welcome and nearly a perfect fit. Pulling them on, he noticed a leather band that circled Jed’s body. Loosening a leather tie he pulled the band to him. It was a long pouch. Inside the pouch, between thin folds, were new gold coins. Peter sat on the snow. There were twenty-one coins, each bearing the word twenty over the top of an eagle. They were ‘double eagles,’ Peter knew. He’d heard of them but never seen one.
Strapping the leather band around his own waist he looked down to see a piece of paper in the dead man’s hand. He pulled it free. A pencil fell from Jed’s stiff white fingers. The note said: “If White Man finds me have all. Use well. Body be buried at river, face water.” Peter tucked the note into a fold of the belt under his leather jerkin, and then proceeded to cut more branches with his new hatchet.
At rendezvous, the Indians present, those with horses, had traveled with triangular shaped devices called travois. He loaded the body onto newly cut branches, covered the cache as best he could, slung the rifle over his left shoulder, and then took up the pointed head of the travois. He would act as the horse.
The trip was not a long one. Melting snow lubricated the branches splayed out behind Jed’s bouncing body. The last hill was the hardest, not because of the incline but because of bad footing. Finally Peter came to the top of the rise. He stood, panting, gazing down upon a thin winding river. It was early in winter so the line was of black moving water instead of white covered ice. The tracks he was following also meandered in a dark line, right down to near the edge of the river.
Half sliding, half running, Peter guided the travois toward a thicket where the tracks seemed to end. He wondered what he would find. He fell twice, swore, got up and then went on. The leathers had not been dry when he started. After two plunges into the wet soggy snow they were nearly soaked through.
Smoke came from the far side of the thicket. Peter stopped, dropped the travois and crept slowly forward, peering through the branches of trees for which he didn’t know the names. His new rifle was at the ready. A lean-to came into focus, set forty feet, or so, up from the slowly moving water. He could not see inside it.
“How could a fire have burned that long?” he said, aloud.
A woman in pigtails stepped out of the lean-to. Peter almost sat down in shock. The woman stared at the thicket. She was an Indian, he realized.
“Come,” she said, very softly.
Peter backed up, regained his hold at the point of the travois, and then moved around the thicket. He lowered it next to the lean-to. The woman did not move.
Peter took the rifle from his shoulder. He leaned on it uncomfortably.
“He died when the tree branch fell near his cache,” he said, haltingly.
The woman walked to the side of Jed’s body, took a step back, and then kicked it in the head as hard as she could.
“Made sure,” she stated flatly, before returning to the lean-to.
Peter stood frozen, gazing from the body to the woman, and then back at Jed’s newly crooked neck. When he looked up again he caught movement further up the hillside, above the lean-to. Quickly he shouldered the rifle, pulling back on the hammer.
A large cougar sat not twenty yards from the lean-to, staring down at him hungrily. He took careful shaking aim, centering the top of the long barrel on the animal’s chest. He pulled the trigger. Snap. Nothing happened. He tried it again.
Another loud snap. The animal did not move. The woman walked to his side and stared up at what he was trying to shoot at.
“Cat,” she said, unconcerned, while Peter struggled with the weapon.
The cat took a few steps toward the lean-to, holding its left paw up, limping badly. It sat down once again.
“Cat sick, why shoot?” The woman asked.
“Its dangerous,” Peter said, his voice shaking, his eyes glued to the wild animal. “What’s it doing here?”
The woman sighed. “That one,” she motioned with her foot toward Jed’s broken body, “was feeding it, try to draw closer so he could take fur, but would not come close enough.”
“Oh,” Peter stated, knowingly, as if he understood. “What should I do?”
“Feed cat. Cat sick. Why shoot. Then learn to use rifle.” The woman sat next to the small hot fire when she was done. “Cat never come this close. Must know you cannot shoot.”
“What does it eat?” Peter asked, curious as to what the strange talking woman would answer.
The woman kicked a haunch of meat nearby, half buried in the melting snow.
“Deer. Cut. Throw. Cat comes close in night. No other animals. That,” she motioned toward where Jed lay, “not notice.”
“Not notice,” Peter mouthed. “And why’d he leave such a visible track to the cache?” The question had bothered him while he’d been dragging the travois.
The woman pointed toward the lean-to. Peter went to the pine and mud covered structure. Ceramic bottles, like the mountain men at the rendezvous had ‘pulled’ from lined the back of the lean-to.
Peter took out his new knife. It was a huge wonderful piece of sharpened metal. He severed the half frozen leg at the haunch of the deer, hauled it up behind the hut-like structure and tried to throw it. It thudded to the earth ten feet away.
The cat stared at him, the injured paw raised, as if in a wave of encouragement.
Disgusted, Peter grabbed the haunch again. This time he dragged it up toward the wild beast.
“If she’s not afraid of you then I’m not either,” he gasped out, slipping in the bright white snow. The cat never moved. Ten feet from the beast, Peter balanced it on end then let it fall forward. The cat slowly rose up on to its three feet. It stared into Peter’s eyes until the boy had to look away.
“Alright, alright, you can have it. I’m going now. Please don’t attack me.” He breathed the last words quietly, so the woman would not hear him. Bravely, he held his back square, not looking back as he made his way to the fire. Once there he squatted down, across the embers from the Indian. He fondled the rifle, wondering what was wrong with it, but not wanting the woman to see him trying to figure out the problem.
“Needs cap,” the woman said, in her unemotional way.
“What?” He gasped, understanding that she was trying to explain what was wrong with the weapon.
“Cap. In bag. On stomach. There.” She pointed at his waist. Peter looked down at the small bag hanging from a tied leather fringe secured to his belt. He opened the drawstring on the bag. The inside was filled with small brass caps. Carefully he took one out. He examined it. It was a tiny pointed thing, flat at one end. He brought the rifle up, pulled the hammer back and saw a similar brass surface. It was crushed. He turned the rifle over and pounded lightly against the lock with one hand. The old cap fell out. He put a new one in, and then carefully let the hammer down. He smiled thankfully at the woman.
“Load,” was all she said, looking into the fire. Peter’s face turned red. Of course, the gun had been fired and not reloaded. Jed had probably fired it to try to draw anyone nearby to him. Peter decided to load the weapon later, when the woman was not watching him. He did not know how to load the rifle, even though he’d seen his father load the flintlock many times.
“Who are you?” he asked, to change the subject. Steam came off his buckskins from the warmth of the fire.
“Take off skins. I fix. Skins too small. I take care. You no sell me.”
Peter stared at her. What was he supposed to put on if he gave her the skins? He was naked underneath. He’d left his farm clothes back at the cache. He shivered, and attempted to change the subject again.
“Name?” he asked, trying to talk like the woman.
“Neema. I Shoshone. That thing bought in summer,” she again pointed at Jed’s naked body. “Bad man. No honor. No soul. Bad heart. I with you now. Do not sell me.” Her last statement was not delivered as all she had said before. It was impassioned, and she had extended her hands before her, where they still were. Her face was down between her arms. Peter was deeply affected.
“I won’t sell you. I’m not sure I own you,” he replied uncomfortably. His life had suddenly become complex. He was a rich man. Four hundred and ten dollars would buy almost sixty fine horses, or a hundred head of cows. And now he had this woman. He looked up toward the cat, as it had moved again from where it had been. Somehow it had worked itself down to the side of the lean-to. It lay and munched comfortably, ignoring Peter and the woman.
“Cat has pride. We pride. But cat sick. Make good fur coat.”
Peter was stunned. “No, the cat can stay. Or the cat can go. But we won’t hurt it.” He didn’t know why he said the words, as they seemed to have come out all on their own.
“How is it that Jed,” Peter pointed at the body as the woman had, “said that he lived alone. That he howled at the night alone. That he’d die alone?” He didn’t expect the woman to understand him. She put her hands up, smoothed her raven black hair, and then looked at him intensely with her huge brown eyes.
“Did live alone. Did die alone. Is true,” the woman said.
Peter looked at the body, then all around him, and understood.