Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chameleon, Rendezvous, Part III

Part III

It was a hard winter, with snow coming regularly about every third day. Treks back and forth to the cache were long, and potentially treacherous. The Indian woman had proven to be more than simply difficult. She and Peter shared the lean-to, separated by a pile of supplies. The woman was cold, demanding and almost totally silent unless poked or prodded in some way. The cat demanded meat. Peter had become a good shot with the rifle by practicing on a target range he’d established by the river, and because it took fresh meat, at least every other day, to satisfy the damaged predator. He’d gotten so good at muzzle-loading that he could shoot twice in ten seconds, faster if he just spit the ball down the barrel without a patch, but not as accurately.
Neema had fashioned snowshoes from twine and twigs. The ungainly things worked well but they were extremely work intensive to use. In spite of the food supplies they had, and the constant flow of fresh game, Peter lost weight. He could cover miles in the shoes by the end of winter, however, and the rifle, which had once seemed so clumsy and heavy had become like an extra limb of his body. The woman came up with solutions to every problem they faced but never discussed any of them.
“The cat is a better companion than you,” Peter said to the woman, in exasperation one day.
“Cat likes you,” she responded.
“And you?” he asked, but there was no answer. He looked at her for a long while, waiting for the answer that never came. She worked on sewing some new piece of fur and leather adornment while she prepared their meal at the same time.
She was severely attractive. Peter felt longing deep inside his body, but rejected it. The woman was an Indian, and she had about as much regard for him as she had for the cat, which was close to nothing at all.
Peter could not touch the cat. Any time he came close the animal focused its eyes on him intently. The message was easy to read: ‘touch me and you die.’ Peter got the message clearly each time, drawing his hand back, happy to still possess the appendage. But Neema was not governed by the same rules. She shooed the animal, sometimes smacking it hard on the rump to get it further away from the fire or out from under the small leather tent Peter had built for it off to one side. The cat would simply move, and then sit a distance away, licking its bad paw. Those were the only times when the cat and he looked at one another with any understanding.
He’d taken to talking to the cat, which caused Neema to stare at him as if he was insane. The cat did not seem to mind. Somehow, Peter found it more comforting to be deliberately ignored by the beast rather than by the woman. He called the cat ‘Cat,’ which seemed to bother Neema all the more.
In the spring Peter prepared to leave for Rendezvous, hoping that he was guessing right about when the event was and what day it was in his life. The woman seemed to understand, equipping him with new lighter moccasins, new pouches for his ‘possibles’ and a fine coonskin cap. The cat simply disappeared one day in the week before. Peter had looked for the animal constantly, sometimes calling his name, then looking back to see if the woman had heard him. She never turned, however. Peter realized that the animal’s paw was probably healed and that the predator was doing what predators were set upon the earth to do. He missed whatever the cat had provided, as well as being forced to hunt successfully every few days. With that need no longer in place, his shots with the rifle seemed to miss as often as they hit.
One day, with the sun just above the horizon, Peter prepared himself to leave. Neema helped load the pack onto his back, strapping it down securely, then patting it sharply to indicate she was done. He turned to the woman, prepared to say something about his leaving and eventual return, but she walked away into the brush above the camp.
He walked for days; dry camping at night without a fire. He knew nothing about who or what might be about in the strange valley he was traversing. He moved north. He knew nothing about trapping, skinning, or even jerking beef. He also knew he was about the poorest excuse for a mountain man as had ever prowled the area. Only Rendezvous could help him. There he could find advice from real mountain men, some supplies and possibly friendship. He had money. He could pay for the advice and supplies. Friendship would be more difficult, he knew.
Once he had crossed the last swale into the final valley Peter knew he was headed for the right location. He had not run across a single living soul. In fact, he had not seen another man since he’d left rendezvous the year before. Peter heard movement in the brush off to his right side. He froze, and then slowly dropped down to his knees, swinging the beautiful rifle up smoothly. He stared over the top of the barrel into huge unblinking eyes.
“Cat,” he whispered, lowering the weapon. The mountain lion sauntered out of the brush, walked right by him, and then swatted him once across the thighs with its black-tipped tail. It sat ten feet from him, staring. Peter sad down too, cradling the rifle across his knees.
“So, you’re going to Rendezvous? That would be some scene,” he laughed out loud at the thought, “there would be real mountain men running for the hills, I’d be willing to bet.” The cat just stared, licking its lips, as if wondering whether Peter was worth biting into or not.
“Don’t get any ideas,” he cautioned the animal. “I’m pretty good with this thing now,” he said, gesturing with the rifle. The cat blinked once, very slowly, as if completely discounting the threat. Peter pulled his pack from his back, took out his remaining supply of Pemmican, about half a pound, and tossed it before the cat’s front paws. The cat sniffed, and then lay down to chew.
“There, I’ve bought momentary safety from your clutches. I’ve got to go down. Maybe we’ll see one another again some day.” The cat ignored him, as it chewed on the Pemmican. Peter began the long hike down to the bottom of the valley, where smoke rose up in the distance. He didn’t look back. He knew the cat would never give him the benefit of looking to see him leave.
Men began appearing out of the trees, walking parallel to his own path.
He heard them before he saw them. His hearing had seemed to improve immensely since living through the winter. Peter came upon the welcome scene of the rendezvous. Fires burned everywhere. Temporary shacks had been thrown up that appeared as substantial as any built on the main street of a regular town. Animals were corralled behind fences all over the end of the valley, with open areas occupied by men playing games, riding horses or putting up new tents. Peter slowed as he walked through the area, from one end to the other. He looked for the men of Jim Bridger. The same men he’d tried to get on with the year before. They proved to be easy to find. Laughing, yelling and an occasional gunshot came from their camp.
Without preamble he stepped in among them, meaning to announce himself, but he never got the chance. The same man who had fooled him into being a target for the previous year’s spitting competition encountered him directly.
“That’d be Jed’s rife,” the man stated, flatly, bringing a quiet over the entire area. The man’s outstretched finger pointed directly toward Peter’s chest. Peter stopped. He thought for a moment about explaining how he had come by the dead mountain man’s rifle, and other stores, but he again did not get the chance.
“I’ll be taken that,” the man said, moving sinuously toward Peter, his hand still outstretched, but no longer pointing. He wore a huge coonskin cap, the kind with the Raccoon’s head set above his own.
“What?” Peter asked, shocked by the turn of events.
“The rifle. He promised it to me, if he went over to the other side. You wouldn’t be strutting around with his rifle if he weren’t a deader. Maybe you had something to do with that. The rifle is mine, hand it over.” The man stopped five feet before Peter. They stared into one another’s eyes.
Peter saw mean-spirited drunkenness in the man’s eyes. He’d seen that same look in his uncle’s eyes, the day he was cast from his family’s property. He brought the rifle down from his shoulder, and then swept it up, all in one continuous move. He aimed quickly and fired. The man’s coonskin cap shredded, with bits flying all about through the air, while the man screamed, clutching his head in both hands.
Peter reloaded faster than he’d ever done before. Spitting the ball down the barrel, tamping the rifle butt once hard upon the earth, then swinging it back up into battery. Men ran all about around him. He held the rifle barrel rock steady, aiming at the recovering man’s chest.
“Gentlemen!” a powerful voice shouted. Quiet again came over the encampment. A tall man in splendid new buckskins walked into the open central area. “What do we have here?” he said, opening his arms wide.
“I’m gonna gut him,” the man who’d lost his hat said, through gritted teeth, his face near black from powder stains. His large ‘Bowie” knife was extended in his swinging right hand.
“Put that away,” the big man intoned. He was instantly obeyed, but not without complaint. “What about my cap? He shot my cap right between the eyes.”
“Tell me,” the big man demanded, looking straight into Peter’s eyes, ignoring the other man. Peter knew that he was standing in front of Jim Bridger himself.
“Jed died. Tree fell on him. I found his body. Took him awhile to die.
I got this,” Peter pulled up his Jerkin, and then carefully retrieved the paper he’d found on Jed’s body. “I found this note in his hand.”
Bridger took the scrap of paper. He read, and then began to laugh. “I’ll be damned,” he said, “that son of a bitch had more class than I thought. Actually thought of somebody else but himself in the end.” He handed the note back.
“This here is the White Man who found Jed’s body. Jed left him everything proper and legal. He’s got the paper.” Bridger talked to the men around him, almost all of whom nodded back at him in agreement. When he was done with his speech, he pulled Peter aside. “Walk with me over to the exchange.” They walked for a bit before the big man spoke again.
“You’re the tenderfoot from Ohio who came though here a year ago, aren’t you? The one my men spit on?” he asked. Peter said he was. The man looked Peter up and down as they walked. “That idiot Johnson was lucky you didn’t shoot him right between the running lights, instead of his coon. Shouldn’t have happened, what they did to you. What’d you come back for?”
“Need some advice and supplies,” Peter said, leaving out the friendship part.
“You can get all the supplies you can buy over at the store. What advice you lookin’ for? Bridger stopped. They faced one another.
“I got this rifle, skins, twenty-one double eagles,” Peter pointed at his stomach, “an Indian woman back at the camp, a cache of stuff and some strange mountain cat who’s adopted me, I think.” Peter blurted out everything he could think of.
“Don’t tell another living soul about the double eagles,” Bridger replied, looking around them, but there was no one nearby. “What’s the advice you’re lookin’ for?
“I don’t know what to do? Do I go back to Ohio and claim the land my uncle stole? Do I go back to school? Do I try to sign up with one of the companies here?
I have money, and all this stuff, but I don’t know what to do.” Peter finished, feeling exhausted in giving his huge problems over to a man of such known wisdom. They walked for a while without speaking.
“Let’s see if I got this right. You came here last year with nothing. Now you got what you learned during the winter, a fine rifle, skins, an Indian woman, a cache of supplies, some sort of mountain lion, and twenty-one double eagles. I don’t have any advice. But I do have a question. What does God have to do to get your attention?”

copyright 2009

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chameleon, All Alone, Part II

Part II
All Alone
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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Chameleon, The Cache, Part I

Part I
The Cache

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.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Present

The Present
James Strauss

The child who was not a child crouched, his back to the warm window. It was below zero in Wisconsin, but not in the deep window well. A mouse looked up at him, its puzzled stare demonstrating no understanding, but also no willingness to back down. The child smiled. He looked down at his fellow traveler, but did not extend a hand. He knew about wild animals. Wild animals survived. Wild animals fought and died over territory. He was in the mouse’s territory, but he wouldn’t fight. They could not be friends. Wild animals had no friends. He knew that, at eight years of age, for he was a wild animal himself.

His name wasn’t Zack, but that was the name he called himself. His real name didn’t matter. The police couldn’t do anything with Zack, because he’d made it up. A couple of times he’d been printed but his finger-prints were too small to register in their computerized network. He’d been remanded to youth authority custody as Zack Zack each time, a name he’d seen in a cartoon somewhere. The window was warm to his back. He turned his head to study it. The basement light was unaccountably on. If someone was in the basement he would be visible, but he’d seen no one at all in the hours he’d been there. The lock to the window was not fastened. He pushed. Very very gently he applied sideways pressure to the multi-layered glass. He didn’t have gloves. The glass was so cold, even though much warmer than the above-ground temperature. It moved. An inch. Then a few more. Warmth cascaded out, filling the window well. Zack checked back for his companion, but the mouse had disappeared. Zack was not disappointed. Everyone disappeared in his life.

He didn’t try to open the window far enough to enter the basement. He was not stupid. If he went in, and got caught, then the cops would be back real quick. If he stayed out he could jump out of the well and run.

The window was open about four inches when the cat appeared. A gray cat. Big. Sitting there, having come silently form nowhere. Zack felt a pang of fear. The cat was nearly a fourth of his own size. If it had claws it could hurt him, he knew.
The cat stuck its head through the window, its eyes wide open, unblinking, as if in question. Zack stared. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a pet. Cats ran when they saw him. Dogs too. But not this one. Unable to stop himself, Zack reached out one dirty hand to pet the cat’s head. The cat did not react. It blinked once. Zack patted its head several times. When he stopped, the cat stepped through the window, and then curled up on the cold detritus of autumn leaves and junk which had fallen into the window well earlier, before the snow had come.

Zack stuck the fingers of his right hand into the cat’s gray fur. The cat looked up at him, but made no move at all. The boy’s hand felt wonderful. The cat’s fur was warm and it seemed to draw his fingers in welcome. He sighed deeply. The coming night was the best he’d had in a week, no matter what. Sleeping in the fields, even under rolled crops or piled hay, had been terrible. But that was before the colder temperatures. When it was as cold as it was there was no sleeping. Zack intrinsically knew that. Sleeping in the fields was the same as dying, and he didn’t want to die, so he’d come to this house. The lights had attracted him. There were other homes about but they were all dark. He knew he would have been safer from discovery there, but the promise of warmth from the lights had drawn him in.

The lights were Christmas tree lights. A single tree, down the hill right in front of the house, glowed. Across the back yard was a row of five more trees, all lit up as well. Only one tree, in the middle of the five had colored lights. The rest were little white ones. Zack wondered why the one tree was colored. Deep snow covered the trees so the lights were a glowing soft white, except for the colored tree.

Zack loved Christmas. Not for the presents. He’d never had a present. His family had not been a family at all, just a collection of people laying around in different states of sleep. Zack loved Christmas because people were nicer during the Christmas season. They gave him money and things. That didn’t happen during the rest of the year. But he wanted a present. One Christmas present would be okay. Zack sighed again. He didn’t know anybody. He’d run from where he had been weeks before. He’d only gotten to the country because a drunken man had picked him up by the side of the road. He’d wanted Zack to drive for him, not understanding that he was only eight years old. Zack hadn’t minded the drive. The car had driven all over the road and it had been kind of fun, like circus rides he’d heard about but never experienced.

A boy appeared in the window. Zack froze in terror. The boy called softly, not looking a the window.
“Harvey, Harvey, where are you?” The boy said the same words over and over, looking up into the basement rafters, then at the many boxes stacked along the concrete walls.

Zack looked down at the cat. The cat had to be named Harvey, but he didn’t move. Zack gave him a gentle shove, but the animal just looked up at him, as if he was smiling in pleasure at the other boy’s inability to find him. The boy, who appeared to be about his own age, turned to the open window, noticing it for the first time. He saw Zack. They stared at one another for a full minute.

“What are you doing with Harvey?” the boy asked, pointing at the curled up cat.

The cat ignored the boy, remaining on the cold ground next to Zack’s foot.

“Nothing,” Zack whispered, truthfully, through the opening.

“Its cold out there. Why are you there? Its warm in here. Come in here, and bring my cat.” The small boy crossed his arms, waiting for his orders to be obeyed.

Zack crawled through the window, after pushing it open. He didn’t touch the cat. The cat seemed to know that he was supposed to follow, so he did. Both of them stood to face the child, once they were in and the window was closed.

“You don’t look happy,” the little boy said, “but Harvey seems to like you. Do you live around here? I didn’t know there were any kids around here. All the rich people go back to Illinois at this time of the year, and they take their kids. Not that those kids like me anyway. I don’t have any friends.”

“I don’t know,” Zack said, hesitantly.

“You don’t know what?” the little boy responded.

Zack’s face grew red. He didn’t know what to say.

“I think I need to go before the police come,” he forced out, turning to look back at the closed window.

“Why would the police come?” the little boy said, “Are you a criminal?”

“I don’t know,” Zack responded truthfully. “I don’t know what a criminal really is, but I may be one.”

“No, I don’t think so,” the little boy replied. I think you’re here because of Christmas tomorrow. I asked God for a different Christmas gift this year. I didn’t want a sled, an electronic game or a scooter. I wanted something interesting, like a real friend. My parents don’t understand me. So God sent you. Do your parents understand you?”

“I don’t really have parents and I don’t know about God. I went to school but only for a year. I’m not sure why. I learned to read, but I don’t have any books.” The little boy reached out one small hand. “I’m Clark, and I live here. You learned to read in one year? I can read now, but it took me three years. Maybe you can’t really read. Maybe you’re just saying that.”

Zack shook the serious little boy’s hand. “That box over there says ‘Maytag, this side must always be up," he intoned, pointing.

Clark followed Zack’s gaze, then nodded.

“Okay, you can read,” Clark said.

“Why are you down in the basement?” Zack asked, tentatively.

“Harvey,” the little boy replied, instantly, picking up the big cat, but not for long. Harvey twisted and jumped down. The boy laughed, delightedly. “Harv is my only friend, but he runs away from me and hides. He likes the basement.”

“What time is it?” Zack asked.

“Almost midnight on Christmas Eve,” Clark responded. “My parents are asleep. They ‘overserved’ themselves a bit. That means they drank booze. That’s why all the lights are on. I kind of like it. I can do whatever I want. What do you want?”

The question caught Zack off guard. He almost said that he didn’t know, but held back. He thought about what he really wanted. “I’d like a present,” he said, smiling for the first time.

“Cool,” Clark said. “I’ve got lots of presents. Let’s go upstairs and check them out. They’re all wrapped but I’ve opened every one without Mom or Dad knowing about it. Maybe you can guess what’s in the boxes.” Without another word Clark walked to the stairs Harvey followed him, then turned to look back. Zack realized that the cat was more like a dog than a cat. He liked that. He moved to follow the boy and the cat up the stairs, brushing the dirt and leaves from his clothes as best he could. The house was warm.
Clark lead him through a hallway at the top the stairs and into a front room library. A decorated Christmas tree stood against the outside window, its lights blazing with reflections of the lights in all the many decorations hung on its branches. In the distance, out the window, Zack could see the softened light of the snow covered tree in the front yard. Clark and Zack moved presents about until they’d handled every one. Zack had not been able to guess even one of the presents correctly, but he had loved trying. There was only one flat box left.

“This is from my crazy grandpa. He’s crazy but I love him. I never can guess what he’s going to give me. My Mom says that’s because he’s crazy. But that’s okay. Old people can be crazy and still love you. My grandpa taught me that."

Zack handled the wrapped box. It was wrapped with some kind of bright gold paper. He shook it. “Gosh its pretty,” he said, delaying his guess.

“Yeah, my grandpa is colorblind so he goes for the wildest colors possible. He has no clue. That’s why the one Christmas Tree outside is colored. Its for grandpa. But he’s crazy, so it doesn’t matter.”

Zack nodded, as if he understood at. He had no grandfather that he knew. The crazy grandpa sounded pretty neat to him.

“You can have it,” Clark said, out of the blue.

“What?” Zack asked, in puzzlement.

“The present. If you can guess what’s in it then you can have it.”

Zack set the box down. It was too much. He knew he could never guess what was in the box. It was like the rest of his life. He was never going to understand any of it. That was just the way it was. A tear almost rolled down his face. He grimaced, then turned away. He would not cry. He could not cry. He was in the best Christmas place he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to crawl under the beautiful tree and sleep. Then wake up and live there.

“You don’t have to guess. Here, its yours. Merry Christmas. Grandpa is so crazy he’ll never know his gift is gone when he comes tomorrow.” Clark pushed the box toward him.

Zack fought his tears back, knowing that Clark knew he had almost cried. He liked the boy for ignoring it. “He’ll know. You’re not telling the truth. I can’t take it if he’ll know.” Zack slid the box back.

Clark sat back on his think knees, staring at Zack. “Okay. You’re right. But grandpa is different. When he comes I’ll take him aside and tell him that there was this boy who came in the night and needed a present. Grandpa is the only person in the world who will understand. I just know it. He’ll just shake his head, and like me even more.”
Clark pushed the present over to Zack again.

This time Zack grabbed it and tore the wrapping off. It was a small model train. Inside there was even a small transformer. He opened the box very carefully. The train was from Switzerland, a place Zack had never heard of but loved the sound of its name name. Both boys worked to set up the tracks into an oval. They connected the transformer and plugged it in. The train ran. Zack could not believe it. The present was a marvel of wonder. A small light illuminated the engineer in the engine compartment. They ran the train around the oval many many times. Finally Clark told Zack that he had to go to sleep. Carefully, they packed the train back into the well formed box. Zack followed Clark upstairs to the bedrooms. Clark showed him his sleeping parents. Both of them snored gently. The boys smiled at one another.

“My Dad is kinda serious when he’s awake, but he’s a great dad. He wears an expensive watch called a Nardin, which I’m not allowed to touch, but I do when he's in the shower. Mom acts silly but she's not, even though she's a blond. She's okay.

Zack made believe he understood. They moved to the last bedroom on the floor. Clark climbed into his bed, then pulled the covers up to his neck. A small blue blanket was on the pillow next to his head. He reached for it, then inserted part of it into his mouth.
“Mom says I have to give up my blanket soon, and Dad says my 'rag' is unhealthy.”

“Its okay,” Zack said, standing next to the bed, with the train box under his arm, wondering what it would be like to have such a blanket.

“Will you be gone when I wake up?” Clark said, his voice beginning to grow sleepy.

“Yes,” Zack said, gazing down upon the boy.

“Are you the friend God sent me?” Clark asked.

“Yes” Zack replied, not knowing why he said it.
“Will you come back again.? You can live in the basement. Nobody will know. And then we can play every night when my parents are asleep. Harvey can come too.”

Zack stared at the boy. Clark’s eyes closed, then his breathing slowed, although the blue blanket never left his mouth. Zack reached for the light switch, and then flicked it off. He stayed for a few more minutes, just watching the sleeping child.

Back before the window in the basement he crouched. His back was to the glass, which now felt icy cold. He would sleep until morning and then be gone. The train set, his first Christmas gift ever, was clutched tightly under his right arm. Harvey lay stretched across his left ankle. Zack thought of Clark, in the bedroom way above him, as he waited for the dawn.

copyright 2009