Peter moved as quietly as someone wearing leather street shoes and fabric clothing could move through heavy snow. The trees were spaced fairly closely so he could creep from one to another in turn, wait a few seconds and then move on. That he was lost and cold no longer mattered. He had a trail. A mountain man who went by the name of Jed left his tracks nearby. The mountain man’s trail did not flow from tree to tree, as he did not appear to be tracking anyone, attempting to avoid detection.
Peter had been following the man for five days. He calculated that he was about a day behind. Both men had come from the Green River Rendezvous up above the Utah Territory. His attempt to become a mountain man at that annual celebration had been a complete and utter disaster. Coming out of Ohio, with farm clothes on his back, without a gun or proper travel equipment had been his undoing. That and his childlike wonder and enthusiasm. He could not shoot, wrestle, knife-throw (he had no knife) or tell tall tails. He also had no money. To the bands of mountain men and trappers he had been nothing but a ridiculed source of rolling entertainment. They’d tossed him coins after they’d used him as the target in a spitting competition. When he had simply stood there, not bending to pick up the coins, tears in his eyes, they’d laughed some more and taken them back. Reflexively, he looked down at the brown stains still adorning his torn woolen coat. There had been no chance at all that any of the companies filling the valley would let him join them, much less as a sharing member of their group.
He was going to die in the pine forest. He knew it, but he continued to trudge from one unfeeling foot to the other anyway. There was no place to go back to, and he lacked the energy. He followed Jed, his only hope. The man was a loner. He didn’t hunt or trap as part of a team, as most of the men did. Peter had figured that it would be easy enough to follow the man to wherever he was going. But there had been no snow at the lower altitude of the Rendezvous. There had been no intense cold. He could not go back. He knew he’d come to far. He could only go on, hoping that Jed might be holed-up just ahead. Peter knew that he could not last another night without proper clothing, a fire or a place of warmth.
He was twenty-two, but he looked fifteen. He was tallish, thick of body and whipcord tough. His blue eyes were bright with an educated glint of intensity. He could read. He understood numbers and he knew how to work, long and hard, but the snow was slowly sucking the feeling and life from his body with each swishing step. He thought about the farm, where his sister and parents had perished in the fire. About his uncle who had come and taken ownership of the land. Ohio law, the sheriff had told him, when he’d guided him to the county line.
Jed had won the shooting competition and Peter had been impressed. The beautiful English rifle the man had used had impressed him even more. Jed had proclaimed the rifle itself to be the real winner, as it had shot so straight. The mountain men had loved that. But it was Jed’s other comments that had caused Peter to follow him. After drinking, or‘pulling,’ as they called it, many times from an acrid smelling bottle, in celebration, he’d told everyone why he was a loner.
“I was born of woman who left me to be alone. I’ve lived alone, hunted alone and howled into the night alone…and I’ll die alone.” The mountain men had laughed, but not Peter. He’d understood.
“And I like it that way,” the mountain man had finished, to more 'pulling' from the ceramic container. Peter had watched the man intently after that. He wanted to live alone too, but he needed someone to teach him how to do it. So he’d decided to follow Jed and learn.
The light was beginning to fade when Peter saw a large oak rise above the pine in the distance. Following the tracks, his mind beginning to grow numb as the rest of his body, he made for the tree. A huge branch had fallen from it earlier. The great thing lay atop the snow, with only a light dusting on it’s bark. Peter squinted. The branch had fallen recently, he knew. The wound way up on the oak’s trunk was bright and fresh, although barely visible in the fading light. He crouched with the smell of smoke. Someone had had a fire nearby. He knew the smell of old wet smoke.
Slowly, Peter moved to the main trunk, then eased around. He looked for Jed’s tracks. He found them, but saw immediately that they were too thick and deep.
It was like the tracks had been made by several people walking the same path, or one person going back and forth to some distant destination. His eyes grew round. The deeper tracks began at the far side of the fallen branch. Peter ran to the mess of limbs and old dead leaves. Down through the bracken he saw the outline of a man’s torso.
“Oh no,” he whispered, gently climbing up over. Breaking branches and casting twigs aside Peter uncovered Jeb’s upper torso. A small pile of ashes lay near the man’s head.
“He lit a fire, but there wasn’t enough fuel,” he said to himself, having brushed aside enough to see the man’s pinned and mangled legs. The branch had fallen across Jed’s lower body. The man was frozen hard to the touch. Peter knew he had died during the pervious night, when he himself had almost passed, warmed only by a thick layer of needles beneath a large pine tree. He climbed back atop the main trunk of the branch, to consider how to free Jed’s body. The climbing activity warmed him, but he knew he didn’t have much light left to work in, or much energy either. Fleetingly, he wondered why it was important to move the body at all, but he discarded the thought. He jumped down to the ground at Jed’s side, having come up with an idea, but the ground was not there. Peter plunged right through the earth, wood and dirt cascading around him as he fell.
He hit the bottom hard, knocking the wind from his lungs. In panic, he clutched his chest, and then looked up. As the first breaths sucked through his gaping mouth, he stared at the broken opening above him. He breathed deeply several times. All around him were stores. Hides, blankets, boxes of lead and pemmican were neatly stacked against the walls of the pit.
“The cache,” he sighed, thinking of Jed at the Rendezvous. The men had talked of caches buried around special high mountain hideouts. In such secret store houses the mountain men kept supplies which enabled them to weather through the long cold months of winter.
Peter climbed to his feet, his head just barely rising to the height of the hole he’d created by jumping through the roof of the cache. A stack of split firewood lined one side of the pit. Conveniently, a forged iron bar and a flint striker hung from leather thongs over the wood. Using the kindling from broken door pieces, Peter set to work building a fire at the bottom of the cache. Once lit, he propped ‘Tee-Pee’ stacked chunks of fire-wood over the small fire. He then pulled down several thick blankets from a pile, threw then under, around and over him. He stared at the box with pencil writing on its side that said ‘Pemmican.’ His mouth watered but he could not move to get the box as deep sleep claimed him.