Snowfall features another sharp-tongued, uncompromising heroine, Catania Olsen. She is the doctor for and spiritual guardian of a band of hunters who live at the edge of a great Wall of ice in what was once Colorado. In the country of the Trappers, books are hand-copied so that knowledge may be preserved, but the technology described in their precious pages is mostly lost to their fur-clad readers, despite Catania's attempts at scientific treatment and the Trappers' careful husbanding of ancient metal tools.
As a resurgent population moves west and north from the more settled places that had once been the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast of the United States, they drive tribesmen-Cree, Arapaho, and more-before them. On the run and desperate to find new homes, the tribes slaughter entire populations to claim their lands. The Trappers are innocent of this until Jack Monroe, banished years before for murdering a fellow Trapper, arrives, urging them to flee their ancestral home, the Trappers do not listen until nearly too late, until the first enemy arrows have found their marks.
The southern flight of the surviving Trappers is a journey through time as well as space. From a frozen northland where summer lasts two chilly weeks through a burgeoning forest where the Trappers taste their first beef to a gulf coast where warm breezes carry exotic scents and sounds; from a primitive life of hunting and trapping to the luxurious Gardens, where people can still weave and make paper, to a bustling trade mart where man-beasts created by unnatural science tread the dirt streets, Catania is shocked to recognize that the proud Trappers have spent generations clinging to civilization with their fingernails.
The journey into the warm lands will change Doctor Catania Olsen, mind, heart, and soul. She will gain and lose a love, see great wisdom and greater folly, witness amazing miracles and terrifying science, and, most surprising to herself, become a mother. Finally, she will have to choose between her people and her freedom.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
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About the Author
Mitchell Smith is the author of critically-acclaimed novels of suspense, including Reprisal, Sacrifice, and Karma. His evocations of the natural world and of human nature, as in Due North, earned him a devoted readership. Smith has also written a trilogy of near-future, post-apocalpytic novels which illuminate what the Earth might be like after the next Ice Age: Snowfall, Kingdom River, and Moonrise.
Smith and his family live in Washington state.
Mitchell Smith is the author of critically-acclaimed novels of suspense, including Reprisal, Sacrifice, and Karma. His evocations of the natural world and of human nature, as in Due North, earned him a devoted readership. Smith has also written a trilogy of near-future, post-apocalyptic novels which illuminate what the Earth might be like after the next Ice Age: Snowfall, Kingdom River, and Moonrise.
Smith and his family live in Washington state.
Read an Excerpt
Sam Monroe was leading a two-day hunt. He had three Olsens and William Weber with him.
The five men, all senior hunters except William, were the left hand of a two-hand hunt of the last winter herd. Six other men, Olsen-Monroes and Richardsons, were playing right-hand, swinging wide to the west around the flank of Alvin Mountain to hunt the stragglers as the caribou trailed by. They had taken the dogs and sleds with them.
Sam Monroe was a big man, like all the men in his family, with heavy shoulders and a thick, muscled belly. His face was broad, deep-lined, and wind-beaten, burned the color of seasoned wood by more than forty-six years of sunlight glaring off snow. His hair, mustache, and beard were cropped short and grizzled gray.
Old for a Trapper, he was still strong and enduring, so breathed easily after their long climb up the glacier's col. Sam had never cared for slit-goggles, which, it seemed to him, made too narrow a world, so he left them in his parka pocket and squinted into the brightness of late-afternoon sunlight on the snow, surveying the great river of ice.
The Trappers called this glacier "The Old Man." It cut across their hunt country from north to south, paralleling the route of the great herds. Above the hunters, the glacier narrowed to only a mile or so as it shouldered its way between the two mountain peaks--Alvin, to the west; Mount Geary rising even higher to the east.
The river of ice was frozen in immense curtains, laceworks thousands of feet high, draped and festooned one upon the other as if a torrential mountain flood had suddenly been halted, stopped still in its race and rapids, and turned instantly to stone, perfectly white, glittering now in June sunlight.
Its stillness was deceptive. Among those enormous cataracts of ice were blue-black crevasses so deep that a large stone dropped into them soundlessly vanished, dwindled into darkness…and was gone, with no echo heard of its fall ending.
"They ran down the ridge." Sam Monroe pushed back his parka hood and stood leaning on his bow.
"More'll be along." Jim Olsen was a tall bony man with a thin, fierce face. He was eleven years younger than Sam, and preferred to lead the hunts he went on.
And the truth is, Sam thought, the bastard is a good hunter. He had a momentary vision of himself, older, his knees stiffened, trailing along behind the others while Jim Olsen led them. He imagined the men turning to look back down the trail at him trying to catch up…shaking their heads, saying to each other, "Why doesn't the old man stay home?"
"We're not going to wait up here, hoping they'll herd high. We'll go down for outrunners." Sam pulled up his parka hood. He was dressed, like the others, in dark-brown caribou hides cut and sewn into soft trousers, and a loose-fitting parka trimmed with wolf and lynx. His high moccasins were lined with fur and double-soled with elk leather, piss-tanned and boiled.
He led them over the east ridge at a trot. As they crossed it, the Wall loomed into view behind Mount Alvin's peak. Blue-white in the distance, the Wall ran across the mountain range west to east, horizon to horizon.
* * *
The Olsen-Monroes and other families of the Range had been told--by travelers stopping by to beg a hunt, and by Salesmen come to trade old-steel, southern paper, or copybooks for fur--that the ice-wall ran from the Atlantic Sea, thousands of map-miles to the east, all the way past the Range to the Pacific Sea, where people in water-boats hunted swimming seals.
The Wall was almost a mile high. The Trappers hunted along its base in the winter, sometimes, before the spring thaw. Then it became too dangerous. Clouds gathered along its rim, and storms crashed and thundered down the cliffs, so fools prayed to Weather to spare them, forgetting their copy-Bible.
In the three weeks of summer, great pieces of the Wall broke free and toppled from it, so the earth shook. Sometimes waterfalls poured down from the crest and foamed high surf in flooding lakes. These cataracts stopped toward the end of August, when all froze and became silent again.
Over the glacier ridge and down the flank of Mount Alvin, Sam led the hunters through late afternoon, never stopping to rest. After a while, the five Trappers left deep snow for thin snow, then thin snow for granite, and finally left that, and went down into the spruce and hemlock that forested the base of the mountain.
They made good time through these dark-green woods. Old snow and spruce needles crunched softly beneath their moccasin boots as they trotted along in single file. They carried yew longbows, each almost as long as its owner was tall, in their left hands. Thick hemlock branches plucked at the full quivers strapped to their backs, and caught at their arms and legs as they passed.
Even in deep green shade, the men could see the scattered tracks and occasional dung droppings that a small group of caribou had left when they split from the great herd to feed.
When he paused and bent to test it, the dung was still warm in Sam's fingers.
They trotted, almost silently, for another little while, then stopped. Standing still, the Trappers could hear through a rising breeze the very faint, soft, clicking sounds of moving caribou. The men silently braced and strung their heavy bows, then slid long arrows from their quivers. The arrows were perfectly made, strictly straight, and well polished. They were fletched with goose flight-feathers--edge-tinted in trade powder-paint with each Trapper's family colors--and tipped with broad hunting-heads filed from fine-hammered steel. Each arrow was banded in a hunter's personal pattern of narrow stripes, painted with evergreen sap and rock ochre.
Their bows ready, arrows nocked to strings of twisted thread-stripped tendon, the five men spread out and moved quietly down through the trees. The breeze was slightly stronger now as daylight dimmed, and they moved only when its slow chill gusts came through, so their sounds became the wind's sounds. At last they reached the border of a small clearing, deep in soft old snow and dotted with sprigs of seedling spruce.
The caribou were there. A branch-antlered buck, a younger buck in velvet, and a doe and her fawn were grazing along the clearing's other edge.
Sam stood watching the animals from a screen of hemlock. He saw a flicker of motion to his right, a distance along the clearing's edge. Shit. It would be William, for sure. The boy is shaking that branch as if there were August blueberries on it!
Sam decided not to wait. He stepped out from behind the brush as he drew his longbow, touched the arrow's feathers to his cheek, and released.
His bow pulled ninety Warm-time pounds, and the long arrow sprang from it humming. Across the clearing, the young buck had only time to come alert before the broadhead struck him, chopped into his chest, and knocked him down.
An instant later, Sam heard a bow-string twang behind him. Jim Olsen, he thought, and the arrow flashed across to take the older buck through the throat as the doe and her fawn leaped and landed running, crashing away through the evergreens.
The Trappers ran to the fallen bucks, drawing long double-edged knives from their belts. Sam and Jim, by custom, cut their own kills' throats, and touched their foreheads with bloody fingers. Then the bucks were strung up into branches by their heel tendons, and the men gathered round and butchered them. They tied off the bowels, drew out the guts, bellies, livers, spleens, gall, lungs, and hearts.…Then rumps, hams, ribs, and loins were butchered out and wrapped with the innards in the fresh hides, to make heavy bundles for carrying.
"William," Sam said, but smiling, since they'd taken so much good meat, "--when are you going to learn to be still in the woods?"
The Olsens nodded, and William said, "I was still." Younger than the other men, stocky, and with lighter-colored hair, William Weber ate so much that in the summer weeks he had fat on his body.
"Never still and never quiet," Jim Olsen said. "You fart loud enough to scare the herds away." The men laughed.
William, his face red, started to answer, and an arrow struck him in the back.
Very much as the caribou had, he gave a little jump and started to run. But Sam seized him as he staggered near, and dove with him into the evergreens as Jim and the other two Olsens jumped into cover beside them.
For a moment, they all crouched silent in the greenwood brush, arrows nocked to their bowstrings.
William groaned and tried to sit up, and the shaft stuck into the small of his back moved as if it were driving deeper into him. Jim leaned over to hold William still, and get a better look at the arrow. It was slender, painted black with pitch, and fletched with owl feathers.
"Tribesmen," Olsen said. "That's a Cree arrow."
"Why?" Tom Olsen spoke softly. He was young, not much older than William. "They've come down before, and they never hurt anybody!"
Now they have, Sam thought. Pitch arrows, short wood-and-sinew bows. Soft puffs of fur around the string just below the bow-tips, to muffle the twang of the shot. And more than one of them out there, to take on five Trappers.
Jim was staring at him, waiting for a decision.
"All right. Pick William up and let's get out of here."
The three Olsens--Jim, Tom, and a cousin named Chapman--took William's bow and quiver, then lifted him up and slid quickly back into the denser forest behind them. Sam stayed, down on one knee, his longbow held horizontal and half-drawn, watching for a Cree to show himself.
But nothing human stirred across the clearing, only small branches shifting in the breeze gusting down from the glacier ridge. The big blotches of caribou blood were freezing dark red in the snow beside the bundles of meat.…William had left smaller drops of his blood behind, still warm and bright in the failing light.
Sam looked along the clearing's opposite edge once more, then stepped quickly into the woods and trotted after the others. Now, William was leaving no blood trail, but the scuffling track of the men who carried him was easy to see, even in gathering darkness under the trees.
Carrying William, they would not be able to run from the Crees--or hide from them, either.
Jim had found as good a place as possible for cover in the forest, a space between two big fallen trees. Struck and split by lightning a few years before, they rested almost side by side in the snow.…Jim and the other two Olsens had laid William down between these logs and crouched beside him, waiting for Sam or the Crees, whoever caught up with them first.
Tom Olsen, watching the forest up-slope, saw Sam coming, waved him in, and kept watching.
Sam slid over the near snow-covered log and crouched low beside Jim. Behind them, William Weber lay still.
"No," Sam said. "But I guess they'll be along, unless they just wanted the meat."
"Which you don't think is so?"
"No, I don't think they just came by and wanted the meat. They were waiting for us to come down. I'd say there are maybe ten, maybe twelve of them, to start this killing trouble." Sam sighed, drew his long knife, and drove it into the log in front of him so the elk-horn grip was ready to hand.
"They won't rush us," Jim said.
"Not till night."
Olsen's bony face was taut with anger. "It was a Cree moved a branch back there--and you mistook it for William being clumsy."
"…Yes, I did."
"Your mistake--and likely to get us killed."
"When you're killed, Jim, you come complain about it." Sam crawled over to William. Someone had pulled the arrow out of him. He gripped William's arm, turned him over, and saw he was dead. His eyes were half-open, shadowed blue, and his tongue was hanging out of his mouth.
The arrows came in then--one, then two more hissing close over their heads and flicking away into the woods. Sam and the Olsens bent their bows, looking for targets, but the spruce and hemlock stood so thick around them they saw only rough tree trunks through dark green boughs, and here and there a narrow beam of fading light on the snow of the forest floor.
It would soon be difficult to make out a man's shape. More difficult, if he was still. Sam and the Olsens knelt in silence, waiting for the next arrow…It came from behind Sam, where Chapman Olsen was watching, and whacked into one of their guardian logs a foot from Jim's back.
Chapman returned the shot instantly, half rising to clear his bow-tip as he released. A man began to scream from that direction, then came running, staggering, out of the trees toward the Trappers' shallow fort. He wore his clan's sewn beast-suit of red fox fur and tail, and was masked in a false fox-head--its muzzle, of painted carved wood, studded with elks's teeth filed sharp.
The fox-man stumbled and whined. Chapman's shaft had taken him just under his left arm, and was sunk in fox fur to its feathers. The Cree called out in his language, gargling blood, and reeled first toward the Trappers, then away from them.
Sam rose to his knees behind the tree trunk and shot the Cree through the heart--the arrow snapping right through him--and the fox-man fell into the snow and pine needles, kicked, and died.
Then arrows came in like driven snow, sighing over the Trappers' low barricade, or cracking into the frozen logs, knocking loose little patches of ice and crumbled bark.
Sam and the Olsens kept low and husbanded their arrows. They didn't speak to each other, as if the fighting was making them too tired to talk.
Soon the sun sank past Mount Alvin. The mountain's shadow leaned over them and the light was almost gone.
The Olsens drew their knives as Sam had done, and stuck them in the snow or the logs in front of them, to be handy when the Crees came rushing with the dark.
When the tribesmen stopped shooting so much--saving arrows, or settling to wait--Sam leaned back for a moment to rest his cramped back. He stretched out his left leg to ease it, and an arrow flickered across his vision and nailed his leg to the log he hid behind.
The pain was very bad. It felt as if his leg was lying in a fire. Sam sat up and started to yank the arrow out. It had driven through his calf, caribou trousers and all, and pinned his leg firmly to the log. He gripped the arrow shaft to tear it out, and to hell with the barbs.
Then he saw Jim Olsen watching him. Jim made a face, as if to say, "Will you look at this old asshole? Can't even get his leg off an arrow."
Sweating, Sam took a deep breath and leaned forward to grip his leg at the knee and ankle, holding it as if it belonged to someone else. Then, with a sudden heave, he jerked his leg up along the arrow's shaft and off, over the feathers.
That hurt so fiercely that he fell back dizzy for a moment, sick to his stomach. And for the first time, as he lay under the curve of the log, taking deep breaths of icy spruce-smelling air so he wouldn't vomit, he was certain he and the Olsens were going to be killed.
We're not going to get out of this. My fault, for splitting the party and sending the other six men off around the mountain. If we had those six men with us, we'd be chasing these fucking Crees back up onto the ice.
His leg began to feel better now it was off the arrow. He thought for a moment about the tribesmen--Crees, or whatever the hell they were. Came trailing down after the caribou eleven or twelve years ago in little bunches, and didn't bother anyone. Called themselves Indians, Native Amers, though most were white.…They'd just hung around the caribou and took a few head, traded a little, and stayed out of the Trappers' way--until now.
Sam forced himself to sit up again, grunting at the pain, took off his bone-buckle belt and strapped it tight around his calf to stop the bleeding. He could feel blood in his moccasin, slippery around his toes.…When he got the belt fastened, he stuck his hands in his armpits to warm them for a moment, then got to his knees again behind the log, and picked up his bow.
All right. One of you bastards move just a little out there. That's all I ask of Mountain Jesus.
It was becoming night. The evergreens were clusters of black in deepening shadows. As the four men waited, listening hard because it was such uncertain seeing, another arrow came flirting, struck a low branch, deflected with a soft sneezing sound, and whirred away into darkness.
It was so quiet, Sam could hear one of the Olsens, probably Tom, whispering to himself, praying.
Sam found himself getting sleepy from the cold and the wound in his leg. The blood was frozen in the moccasin now; it felt like snow when he wiggled his toes. Looking out, it seemed to him the pattern of the forest had changed a little, a shadow had shifted in the darkness. There was one more--or one less--black tree trunk out there; he was sure of it. What he was seeing now, wasn't what he had been seeing.
He rose, bent his bow--the yew creaking in the cold--and shot at what was different.
A man yelped like a hurt dog, and what might have been a tree trunk rolled away, thrashing, then slowly settled…and after a while lay still.
When the Cree began shooting at them again, they shot carefully, aiming to skim just over the Trappers' fallen trees. Soon, Sam and the Olsens had to lie flat behind the logs, and couldn't raise up for even a quick shot back.
The moon was rising now, and the woods, which had been so dark, began to be lit here and there by slender beams of moonlight filtering through spruce boughs. The snowy forest floor glowed pale silver.
Jim reached out to touch Sam's foot, and whispered to him, "They're going to come in on us pretty soon."
Sam could see Olsen's teeth shine in the moonlight.
"--We should run out of here right now. Some of us would make it.…"
Jim looked at Sam expectantly, as if Sam was going to say, "Yes. Let's do that, and see how far I get with this hurt leg, how long it takes these Crees to catch me and cut my throat."
Sam didn't say it. He lay looking at Jim until Olsen turned away. Son-of-a-bitch wants to get those skinny hands on Susan…wants to be head hunter, too. Sam reached for his knife where it stuck up from the log, and worked the blade free. He was sorry he'd thought about Susan; that made the whole thing worse.
It had gotten colder; Sam had to put his fur mittens on. Tom Olsen tried to raise up, find a target--and one of the Crees put an arrow through the top of his right ear. Tom lay down fast, with his hand on the side of his head, and said, "You mother-fucker!" which was something no one said, because of Lord Jesus' mother.…Then the Trappers lay still, huddled with William's body between the fallen trees. They couldn't even look over the top of the logs, the moonlight now made them such fine targets.
They lay quiet, their long knives in their hands, and waited for the tribesmen to make up their minds.
Sam wondered if the Crees might just stay back and let them freeze to death. It would be smart of them to make a fire back in the woods, then take turns watching while we freeze. I hope they're not that patient. I hope they come soon, so I can still move and kill one.
He felt sorry even for Jim, now. And his leg was hurting so much he began to weep. The tears froze on his face. Snot ran out of his nose, and that froze, too. He wiped his nose with his parka sleeve, shifted his knife to his right hand, and took a better grip on it.
One of the tribesmen screamed in the forest. Then another man called out, yelled something. Suddenly, men were running through the trees.
The Trappers struggled up, long knives ready.
Goodbye, Susan. My little sweetheart.…
Another Cree howled, and the tribesmen came rushing, their moon-shadows shuttling among the trees as they leaped and dodged past the Trappers and off through the forest, brushing aside thick branches, their moccasins thudding in the snow as they went.
Crouched gripping their knives, their mouths open in astonishment, Sam and the Olsens watched the Cree run past them and away.…Then, the tribesmen were gone, and the forest silent as if they'd never been.
"What happened?" Jim's bony face looked like a skull in the moonlight.
"I don't know." Sam tried to stand up straight. His leg was very bad. I'm going to have to ask Jim Olsen to help me. That's what this has come to.
"Why did they run away?" Tom still held his knife, ready to fight.
"What about William?" Jim said.
It seemed to Sam the Olsens were full of questions. "We take him."
"Take him?" Tom said. "Carry a dead man, when the Crees could come back on us? We're damn near dead, ourselves."
"We take William with us!" Sam took a step and stumbled. Couldn't help it.
A voice sounded from the forest. "Sam…you're getting old."
Copyright © 2002 by Mitchell Smith