Line of Sight
Peter stayed on at Rendezvous for a full week, learning something new each day about the art of a mountain man’s daily life, and his survival. He did not get his rifle back until the day he was ready to leave. On his second day at the encampment, the day Johnson, discharged by Bridger from his service, left with a small band of followers, Peter ran into an armorer while practicing at the shooting range. The man was trying to sell a newly invented device called a telescopic sight. It consisted of a brass tube with lenses running its length. It magnified any target about four times normal size, or so the armorer said. He asked the armorer why nobody else used them, but the man replied he had only one and nobody at the rendezvous would pay the twenty dollars for purchase and installation.
Peter had not been sold until the man had taken him down range. The range ended at two hundred paces, about as far as a man could see a fist sized target. He demonstrated how an imaginary line from the tip of the barrel, two hundred paces away, to the center of the target was called the line of site. Line of site always remained the same. Then he pointed to the tree line, about five hundred paces distant, and asked Peter what he could make out from the bark of a tall oak.
“Can’t make out a thing,” he told the man, honestly.
“That’s right. The line of site to any spot on that tree, however, remains
the same. It’s straight and true, but what you really see is called the line of sight, and you don’t have any sight of that tree trunk at all. Now look through this Chapman device.” He handed a long brass tube over.
Peter squinted, staring with one eye through the tube. He could make out almost all the detail of the oak’s bark.
“That there beautiful Percussion you got can shoot accurately all the way to that tree and beyond, but your line of sight is lacking. This here invention fixes that, and its got regular blades atop it for short stuff.”
Peter was convinced. He handed the man, almost unwillingly, his rifle.
“I got one double eagle. You can have it if you’re done by the end of the week.”
The armorer left with his rifle. Peter was happy that the man trusted him for the money, until he reflected upon the simple fact that the man also his rifle, while he himself had nothing.
With his rifle once more comfortably positioned, hanging from his shoulder, Peter hefted his pack, loaded with powder, shot, beans and flour, plus a folded supply of calico material covered with a pleasing floral print for Neema. He planned to return later to pick up the beaver traps he’d ordered along with some Castor lure. He’d never trapped a thing, but he figured he could learn during the long winter. Beaver pelts were bringing top dollar. Peter didn’t need the money but he’d found out how easy it was to spend at Rendezvous. He was leaving four double eagles lighter than when he’d gone in.
If you bought traps, then you had to have a sled to tow them, and, nothing was cheap to buy at Rendezvous. Most mountain men were constantly indebted to the operation they worked for, drinking away whatever profits they might make.
He was three days in, about half way to the camp along the side of the river when Cat joined him. He could hear it in the brush nearby for hours before it revealed itself. He knew it had been making all that noise on purpose, but he couldn’t figure out why. The animal was well capable of moving through any terrain with the silence of death. Peter could not help but smile at its loping presence nearby. Before he encamped for the night, Peter noted something else. A number of men were traveling the same trail before him. Their tracks criss-crossed back and forth but they were definitely headed south, through the exact same valleys he himself was following.
By the fifth day a knot began to form in Peter’s mid-section. There was not going to be any way that the troop of men before him, if they continued to the river, could miss the encampment. The thicket of birch and willow would conceal it somewhat, but he now had a healthy respect for the perception and capability of mountain men. They would not miss it.
When he came to the top of the hill, overlooking the camp, he was immediately able to ascertain that the cache was intact. The snows were long gone, even from the higher altitudes, and there was no beaten path. Neema was smarter than to leave one. Peter stopped at the very edge of the ridge. The cat stopped with him, sitting erect, staring down toward the river below, where Neema stood naked, tied between two trees by her wrists. Peter knew it was she, even from the distance, as it could be no one else.
He confirmed his fearful angry suspicion using the Chapman device. Even in such a state, he still felt a great pang of longing when he stared through the scope at her naked body. One of the men he had been following came through the thicket. He was as naked as Neema. He took her while Peter watched.
He pulled the rifle down, then, with shaking fingers, unstrapped and opened his pack. He’d purchased the new paper cartridges. No more pouring powder down the barrel. And the paper was marked with the number of grains it held. He took out a half dozen marked ‘hundred,’ for the one hundred grains of powder it held.
It was the longest-range cartridge the store sold. One was already set at the bottom of his rifle’s barrel.
Peter lay across the top of the hill, using his pack to brace the rifle. The cat lay next to him, about five feet away.
“Its tough to estimate range, Cat,” he told the animal, trying to calm himself down. You could not shoot long distance with the kind of shaking he was doing. He breathed in and out deeply, sighting the glass cross hairs, then adjusting the knob that raised and lowered the brass tube above the barrel. He set it for seven hundred yards and hoped he was close.
“Windage is even harder than range, Cat,” he murmured, trying to gauge the wind, but the air seemed completely still. He waited for the man to step back from Neema. It was an agonizing wait.
When the man finally stepped back, Peter squeezed right through the trigger. The gun bucked and the cat raced away with the blast. Peter didn’t try to see through the billowing smoke. He stood and reloaded in his now automatic fashion.
He dropped and lay as before, studying the terrain. Neema stared out toward where he lay. He wanted to wave, but did not. The naked man was down, not moving. Two clothed men rushed to his side. When they stopped to consider the downed man, Peter fired. Again he reloaded as the smoke cleared. When he returned to his position he could see that one of the buckskin clad figures was down next to the naked man. He was moving, but not much. Nobody else was visible.
Quickly, he picked up his pack, backed from the edge of the berm, and then ran east for about two hundred yards. He set up, as before, the warming rifle across the back of the pack. Two men came into view. He knew that one of them was Johnson. The man had found another garish coonskin cap. Peter resolved never to wear his own again. They stood, peering through the bracken of the thicket, trying to see their attacker. Both men had their rifles braced against the sides of willow trunks. Peter heard the cat behind him.
“Not much of a shot this time, Cat, they’re in the trees,” he said, his voice now smooth, his breathing steady. “Looks like seven hundred was right on, for the range, I mean.” The cat made some kind of purring noise behind him, as if in assent.
Peter fired at the tree one of the men was braced against. He reloaded,
this time hearing an awful scream from below, as well as the first return rifle-fire.
He smiled to himself, coldly. Unless those men had a Chapman device and had invested in paper cartridges, which was most unlikely, then they were firing out of fear and frustration. Seven hundred yards was well beyond their line of sight.
He stared down through the smoke and trees. Both men were down.
“Now how did that happen, Cat?” he asked the animal, knowing it was just behind him. There was not answer.
“Wood splinters,” he whispered, after observing for a few more moments.
“I love you, Mr. Chapman, wherever you are,” he finished, patting the rifle before he held it out before him. Dragging the pack, he headed down the hill toward the camp, remaining aware that wounded men could still be extremely dangerous.
The cat preceded him. Before he could come upon the scene he heard one more loud scream, then it was suddenly cut off. Peter peered around the trunk of thick birch. The cat had one downed man by the throat. He shook once, and then cast the body aside. The strength of the animal was astounding to observe. The cat stared at the remaining man. It was Johnson. He held his rifle up, as if that might deter the cat from attacking. His face was covered with blood. It appeared obvious that he’d been unable to reload after being hit, or Cat would have been shot.
“Don’t let him eat me?” Johnson begged, his voice quivering. Peter ignored him, collecting guns. Four rifles, all flintlocks. Up on the hill he was never in any danger, Peter realized. The importance of the new equipment came home to him.
Cat sat, ten feet from Johnson, looking at him quizzically, tilting his head upon occasion, as the quivering man shuddered and tried to ease backward in his half-sitting, half-laying position. Peter moved to cut the woman down from the trees.
Once released, she rubbed her wrists, quickly pulled her torn leathers over her, and then smiled. Peter stood stunned. He’d never seen the woman smile before.
“Did not think you come back,” she stated, as if they were in the middle of some celebration.
Peter examined the men he’d shot. Both were dead. He’d aimed up around their shoulders but hit both in the center of their torsos. He walked over to Johnson. The man next to him was dead, his neck bent at a ninety degree angle. Cat still waited, watching Johnson in its curious manner.
“Please,” the man begged. Peter grabbed his leather jerkin, then dragged him all the way to the river and dumped him in. Johnson floundered for a while before recovering. He crawled to the edge of the water.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“Do?” Peter asked. “I’m not doing anything. Get the hell out of here.
I’ve killed enough scum like you for one day.” Peter didn’t mention that the men were also the first men he’d ever killed, and the last he ever wanted to kill.
“Who are you?” Johnson asked, climbing to his feet, holding one hand against the damaged side of his skull. Peter just looked at him.
“First you were a tenderfoot. Then you were a mountain man. Now you’re some kind of shooting expert. Who are you?” Peter stared at him, unmoving. Slowly Johnson backed down the riverbank.
Neema stood beside Peter, Cat moving to sit next to the body of the man he’d killed. All of them looked in the direction of the slowly disappearing Johnson.
“Chameleon,” Neema said.
“He is chameleon,” she yelled through cupped hands, before turning to the river and throwing off her leathers. Suddenly, Peter realized, there seemed to be no barrier between them.