The Snows of August
Jory Sherman was a member of the San Francisco community of beat poets that included Jack Kerouac. He is also one of the best western novelists of all time. "The Snows of August" contains elements of Ernest Hemingway and Ambrose Bierce, but don't be fooled; when you read a story about bear hunting and you come away smelling of bear, that story is all Sherman.
THE SUN GLAZED THE SNOW UNTIL it shone like a carpet of smashed diamonds, blinding to the sight. Cal Reese squinted his eyes to block out the glare as he followed the tracks that had broken the crust, leaving shards of cracked plates that looked like blanched slate tablets strewn helter-skelter along the ridge by some monstrous schoolboy scurrying home after the last bell had rung.
Half blinded by the sheer cruelty of the light, Cal looked up at the pine-studded rimrock that towered above him like some ancient city cobwebbed in white dust, and the sight gave him some relief from the blinding dazzle that made his eyes feel as if they had been rubbed with sandpaper.
He could smell the bear, smell its rank, carrion-wallowed hide, thick as its winter coat in his nostrils, and the scent stirred the juices in his belly, made his stomach roil and undulate with hunger, a hunger that had been gnawing at him for days, a hunger that no stink could assuage.
Cal stood there a moment to calm himself, to align his scattered senses and to think about the people waiting far below the slope, huddled together next to their wagons, the eternal fires burning through the day like forlorn beacons in the hope that some rescuer would come, some savior would pass by with a wagonload of food and a friendly face, a warm smile.
Tears stung Cal's eyes as he thought of his wife, Suzie, and his son, Billy, and Billy's little brother Eddie. Their bright eyes seemed to burn into his senses and he could feel the pleading in them, could feel the silent accusations in their hungry gazes.
In his mind he saw the wagons, nearly covered with driftedsnow, could hear the old people rummaging through them looking for a scrap of food, a piece of cured bacon they had somehow overlooked, a pinch of flour, a few desiccated beans, anything to chew on, to fill their empty bellies.
The men had not hunted for days, but he had seen them venture out from the protection of the wagons and flounder in the deeps of a snowy sea and come back frozen mindless without seeing so much as a bird track.
Where were the snowshoe rabbits they had heard about on the other side of the pass? Where were the deer and the elk, the beaver, the ermine, the mink? They had not even seen a wolf, although folks had said the mountains were full of them, and they had searched the night for their long lean shadows and watched beyond the fire for their dancing eyes and listened for their mournful keening in the deep silence of stars, cold stars, scintillating like brilliant fireflies so far away from the bleak snow-glazed moon.
And, sometimes, the stars looked to them like distant campfires burning on an open prairie and Cal would hear the children sobbing, the women weeping, the men clearing their throats for words that would not come, could not be uttered in the midst of such hopelessness, and there was no sun-drenched prairie, no friendly campfires burning in profusion on a desolate plain, but only the ageless stars impervious to time's inexorable seep of fine sand through the hourglass, and the loneliness rose up in him like some powerful smothering thing that blotted out all hope, leaving only the desolate feeling of despair in an empty heart.
Cal shook his head as if to rid himself of the thoughts that threatened to plunge him back into those dark gelid nights when he had gazed upward at stars and suddenly realized that there was no God, not on earth, at least, no God, no salvation, no rescue. No hope.
Cal stepped out from where he had stood for what seemed like hours, but had only been a few seconds, and realized his shoes had already begun to stick to the snow. He climbed ever higher, following the bear tracks, willing himself to stay warm, moving his fingersinside his stiffened gloves to restore circulation, wriggling his toes inside his boots so that they would not turn black and die.
Cal reached the ridge, and tugged himself over it until he stood, shaking, on its very spine, and from that promontory he could see for miles in nearly every direction. Snow-clad peaks jutted from the land, scraped the blue sky like divine towers built by long-ago gods and the air was silken and thin as a spider's spinnings, sharp in his lungs, filled with invisible razors.
He could not look at the spectacular vista for more than a moment. The vastness of the land overwhelmed him and he felt small and weak, an inconsequential being in a kingdom of unspeakable majesty. He could not lose hope again, not now, not when he was so close to his goal. The bear spoor was strong there, the musk so powerful he felt drenched in its smoldering musk.
There, on the heights, he felt suddenly uplifted and he closed his eyes again against the blinding glare of light and became part of the sky, floating atop the world as if he were wraith and bondless in that split second of eternity. Light-headed and giddy from the climb, Cal filled his lungs and let his heart slow to match the inner peace that pervaded his being.
The bear was close now, and he knew he had to press on, to follow the tracks and make the kill. Cal opened his eyes, squinted to shut out the blare of sun glancing on sheets of ermine snow, and found the track a few yards away. He followed the ridge, the trail winding through the pine and blue spruce, the mantled boughs dipping low, casting soft shadows like pale blue scarves.
He ducked under the low-hanging branch of a stately spruce and eased through its comely shade, able to open the aperture of his eyes wide once more. The bear had dislodged clumps of snow that had fallen on the trail, marring the pristine flatness, rumpling the smooth surface of the path that was obviously an old game trail. He shivered in the sudden chill and his teeth clattered like tumbling dice carved out of bones.
The snowstorm had caught them so sudden, turned into an Augustblizzard that left the wagon train stranded in a long deep valley. None of them had expected it, and none were prepared for its high winds, its whirling fury. The snows had lasted for a week and only today had the sun come out, so feeble and weak it had not energy to melt a single flake, it seemed.
A month ago, only. It seemed to Cal like a year, for on that first night he had made a stupid mistake, and the Rockies were not kind to those who made mistakes. He had seen the wilderness take others with its mindless blunt force on the long journey out from Kentucky, across the Mississippi, and along the Missouri. Young Jeb Morris had drowned, old Nate McBride had pulled his flintlock from his wagon muzzle-first and it had fired, blowing a hole through him big enough to fit a fist through, and Molly O'Keefe had broken her ankle so bad, they had to cut her foot off and then the leg had become infected and they had to saw that off, too, and the shock killed her two days out of Council Bluffs.
He had let himself get in between the oxen and the wagon and when he tried to free a clump of snarled harness, one cow had kicked him in the leg, right up near his groin, and the hoof had broken the skin going in and torn a chunk of meat out of him coming out.
Bob Purdy and his woman, Mary Beth, had packed the wound with snow and mud and moss, but that all dried up and after it snowed, they could only pack it with cold snow that burned worse than the raw wound.
But the leg did not hurt now and he paid it no mind as he followed the narrow indentation along the ridge that marked the old trail, where deer and moccasin tracks had worn it down to rock, probably, and he felt light in the high air, whole and virile, despite the teeth of the chill that hung in the shadows like ice in a cave.
The bear scent was overpowering now, fat, cloying, pervasive along the trail. The bear was moving more slowly, padding on all fours, and he saw tufts of its thin summer hair clinging to the bark of trees it had rubbed against in its passing.
A gust of wind caught him as he walked into a cleared stretch above the rimrock and he thought he smelled Suzie's lavender wateron the fresh breeze and a longing rose up in him that almost blotted out the bear scent. He saw her tending the fire when it was her turn, leaning down to push more green wood into the furnace of its heart, and he, gritting his teeth at the pain in his leg, helpless to give her a hand, and little Eddie trying to help, while wise old Billy looked on, teasing him as only an older brother can do, and their antics were like warm brandy in his belly and he had not felt the cold nor the shooting pains that streaked through his leg and groin.
God, why had he pulled up stakes in Kentucky and headed west with this accursed train, like so many others who had gone before? He recalled the tales of those who had returned, stories of rich green land by the sea in Oregon and California and his wanderlust had gotten so strong, he could no longer plow a straight furrow or root himself to a farm that had disgorged him during many a sleepless night and daydreaming morning when the mist rose from the river and the wild geese called from the heights of the heavens as they flew north in the spring, filling the sky with their ragged vees and their bugling cries.
The second storm had been worse than the first, barreling down on them just as they thought they had a chance to get out of the valley and cross the mountains before winter imprisoned them. The wind drifted the new snow atop the old, and they watched their food supplies dwindle and disappear, and during the night, they had heard the elk herds crashing down the mountain, passing them out of rifle range, and mule deer had gamboled through heavy drifts and disappeared before any man could prime his pan.
Then, the oxen got loose during the blizzard when a cougar appeared out of the woods and attacked one of them, tearing out its throat and dragging it back into the timber. The snow covered its tracks and none of them were able to find the slaughtered ox when the food ran out, though they searched for days in the still, empty woods.
Mistakes, Cal thought. They had made a passel of them after the first blizzard made their Indian-summer world vanish and brought the early winter down on them as if they were accursed. He couldstill hear the children crying in the night, their bellies swollen, distended into hollow gourds, their eyes shining with pain and fear each morning as they stood shivering by the fire, the fire that was never warm enough and lashed at them when the winds whipped through the valley, and whose tent had caught on fire? Purdy's? Hawkins'? Purdy's, he thought, and they all tried to beat out the flames, but Purdy's kerosene bottle exploded and spread the fire to all corners of the tarp and Bert Purdy and his wife broke down and cried their hearts out because they had lost their Bible and some letters from family in England. But, the Hawkins family took them in for two nights before they all started quarreling and Bert and Hattie said they would walk down the mountain and left before anyone realized they were serious, and had never returned. Now, everyone blamed Sid and Mandy Hawkins for booting the Purdys out and causing their deaths, most likely, from critters or frost, it made no difference.
Mindless, senseless things they all had done on this journey. In the pure air of the mountain ridge, he saw everything so clearly, and all at once, as if the knowledge had come from some divine revelation.
Suzie, I'm so sorry, he thought, and a deep sadness gripped him once again and he wondered if he was not making another mistake in following the bear. Had he blazed the trees on the way up? No, he had not thought of it until now, but as he looked around him, he saw that this was a place that he had seen before, before the snows. It was much different now, but he recognized the view, the landmarks.
Ahead was a huge boulder and a wide-open place, in which there was a massive juniper tree with a thick trunk. When he walked to it, he knew what he would see and, sure enough, there was a flash of light wood where the rope had rubbed away the bark.
Cal stood at that place and looked down the slope. He could not see the smoke from the fire, but he saw the place where the wagons had gained the floor of the valley. At intervals, he knew,buried under drifts, were the stakes they had driven, the trees they had used when they winched the wagons down. It had been a slow, agonizing process, fraught with peril, but one by one they had lowered the wagons, the men gradually letting out rope to ease each one down gently. His back hurt with the thought of it, the strain he had felt holding the ropes that held the heavy wagons.
They had performed that same ritual many times before in these mountains. He remembered the men squatting in a circle as they discussed the strategy each time they came to a place too steep for the oxen to pull the wagons down safely. And this was the last place they had done that, right here, so very long ago, it seemed.
Cal heard a noise that seemed out of place, disconnected from anything certain or natural. It took him a long moment to discern its source and meaning. He turned around, looked beyond the juniper to the east, and his gaze lingered on a jutting granite peak that he remembered. They had used that for a sighting when they brought the wagons here, a beacon so that they would not lose their bearings. Hawkins had sighted it, and guided them toward it, for it was visible for many miles, even from some of the deep canyons they had traversed, places where they had to drive stakes to haul the wagons uphill, hard, treacherous work, with the men cursing and the women and children pushing from behind like pyramid builders moving stones of immense size under the snap and sting of the overseer's whip.
Then, it came to Cal where the bear was headed. Around the face of the rock outcropping was a ledge, a rimrock path, and in the center a cave they had all talked about, dark and brooding, mysterious.
The bear, Cal knew, had been caught by the blizzard, the same as they, and was heading for its den high up on the rimrock. The sound he had heard was the slide of shale, after a dislodged rock had tumbled down the cliff face and into the trees.
He must hurry, he knew, cut off the bear before it reached the cave. Quickly, Cal rounded the juniper and headed for a spot wherehe knew the bear must be, a long sloping pile of detritus that would give the animal a ramp to climb. That rock he heard must have been among those at the very bottom, above timberline.
Cal started to run and was surprised that there was no pain in his groin. The gunpowder Purdy had poured into it and lighted with sparks from his flintlock must have seared the wound shut and it must have begun to heal. But, wasn't it only last night that he had screamed with the pain of it, screamed until Suzie had to stuff a sock in his mouth?
No, that must have been the day before, or a week ago, he reasoned, and he ran, the air no longer burning his lungs, the excitement of the hunt electric in his veins, strong in his quick beating heart.
He ran through a copse of trees and broke into the open and there, at the base of the rock pile, the bear had found carrion and was wallowing in it, an elk carcass that smelled to high heaven, grisly, horrid in the stark light of morning. The elk must have fallen from the cliff in the dark, and smashed its heavy body on the rocks below.
As Cal drew closer, he heard the bear grunting, and the sound was like people whispering in a rooming house like the one he and Suzie had stayed in for a time back in Virginia after they were married and before the westward urge had come upon them. Suzie no more than a girl, and he just off the family farm, happy to be the one she loved, but not knowing what he was going to do, or where he was going to go after the honeymoon.
They had followed Joe Walker's clan to Kentucky and had fallen in love with the woods and the green hills, and land was free, with no taxes to bear, and then Suzie had become pregnant and Billy had been born, and they meant to stay there forever after little Eddie came along, and then Joe Walker had come back talking about grand mountains and a land by the Pacific Ocean that was even better than Kentucky or Tennessee, and Cal could think of no other place to raise his family. Others shared his vision and before long, they had all sold their properties and bought wagons and oxen and said good-byeto all their friends who could not see beyond the valley of the Ohio, and set out for Oregon, where it was forever green and crops could be raised with only a thought and a prayer.
Cal jolted to a stop as the bear rose up on its hind legs and looked at him with small fierce porcine eyes. Cal fumbled for his priming horn and lifted the rifle, opened the frizzen. With shaking hands, he poured a tiny amount of fine powder into the pan, blew the excess away, and closed the frizzen.
The bear let out a mighty roar and the sound echoed from the rimrock and the towering rock above it and it seemed to Cal that he could feel the hot blast from its breath as he put the butt stock to his shoulder and took aim.
The bear did not charge just then, but stood there, snarling and bellowing, and Cal lined up the rear buckhorn sight on the Kentucky rifle with the front blade and leveled it at the bear's heart. The barrel wavered for a moment until Cal took a deep breath and held it, then steadied on the target and it seemed so easy to gently squeeze the trigger and listen to the flint strike the frizzen and shower tiny sparks into the pan, then the little huff as the powder caught fire and exploded through the blowhole and into the chamber, setting off the main charge that would propel the .64-caliber lead ball and ticking patch out the muzzle at high velocity.
Then, the bear fell to all fours and charged Cal, moving at great speed, its hackles bristling, its fur rippling as its muscles flexed beneath its dark coat.
Cal stood his ground and as the bear approached within a few yards, it stood on its hind feet and roared.
And in that moment of utter clarity, Cal saw the bear as something other than animal, as something godlike and powerful, huge, towering, facing death with no fear in its heart, and he wished he had not pulled the trigger and could stop the lead ball from speeding toward the grizzly's heart.
In those last seconds, there was an awesome roar in Cal's ears and a cloud of smoke billowed out from the barrel that spewed a bright orange flame and the smoke blotted out the bear, the highgranite peak, and all that lay before him as if none of it had ever been there but was only a vision of something torn out of a half-remembered dream, a fragment of fantasy from a distant childhood when he made mud pies at the watering trough while his father plied the pump with strong brown arms and whistled some aimless tune that reminded him now of the bullet's faint whine as it sped through the thin crisp air straight at the mighty heart of the bear.
The bear opened its arms and covered the last few feet to lock Cal in its crushing arms.
The bear clasped Cal in its powerful embrace, locking him in a final dying caress, and Cal saw the black hole of death as it blocked out all light in that final, fatal moment.
Then, there was a flash of blinding brightness nobody saw, that was whiter than the snow, as dazzling as an explosion of a photographer's phosphorous in a pan, more brilliant than the brightest star, that seemed to wash over the land in one infinitesimal moment and consume Cal and the grizzly and sweep their spirits away in a single breathy exhalation.
Once, a few days after they had been in the mountains, he had stood at the edge of a small lake at twilight. The water was perfectly flat and motionless, the color of a pewter plate. He could ftel the darkness coming on in the stillness. Suddenly there was a brief flash of light and the lake shimmered for a split second like a signaling mirror, bright as nickel or mercury. And, then the light disappeared. He had wondered all these days where the sudden light had come from and where it had gone.
"WHEN DID HE GO, SUZIE?" HAWKINS ASKED, STARING DOWN AT Cal, who had been sitting on a chair wrapped in blankets. Cal seemed to be staring beyond the fire, into the cloud-flocked sky.
"A few minutes ago, I think," Suzie said.
Luke Morris, standing with the others on the opposite side of the fire, leaned over to whisper to his wife, Lorene. "At least we won't have the stink of gangrene no more."
"Shush," Lorene said.
"Thanks," she said. "I think he wanted to go, at the end."
"No, I mean it. He was very sick, and he was tired, and I think he was worried about us, about me and Billy and Eddie."
"I'll miss him," Suzie said.
"We all will. Cal was a fine man, truly a fine man."
Billy and Eddie were fastened to their mother on either side of her, clinging to her as the young of the opossum, and neither did they speak nor cry as they looked at their father sitting there, as if alive, in that old chair their mother had brought out from Kentucky because her father had made it from an ash tree and she said they'd need it in Oregon when they got there.
"Good-bye, Cal," Suzie said, and then bowed her head and began to weep softly. Hawkins drifted away in an awkward shuffle, and the two boys hugged their mother and burrowed in closer to her warmth and tried to hold back their tears.
Then, there was only the sound of Suzie sobbing and the murmurs of the others who had endured one more tragedy among them and were marveling at the sudden wind that had sprung up, and suddenly the sun seemed to warm them even as high up above them they heard the soft sough of a building south wind that they knew would bring the thaw to their frozen valley, where they had managed to survive all that God and nature had borne against them to test their faith. And the wind, like a river of air, picked up speed and blew warm breath all along the snowy valley and beyond until the trees soaked up the sobbing sound and swallowed its brief gusting moan and, for a long moment, as if God were holding His breath, granted a deep, peaceful silence that was beyond all understanding.
Copyright © 2001 by Loren D. Estleman