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?”