Mack’s Winter

By Dorman Nelson

The birds, overhead, were making no progress against the wind. It had been blowing cold, then colder all morning and now with the sun slanting down in the west through the trees the shadows were chilling fast. Felt like a frost coming on.

Mack shook his auburn hair out of his face, and tied on his hood. His ears were tingling as he realized this year would be the first Christmas he would spend out of St. Louis. It took him most of the summer and the start of fall of 1861 to get up to the Montana Territory without resorting to boating along the Mississippi or Missouri thus avoiding most travelers…McClelland was a loner; as it was with most of his family. The men seemed to wander off into the world, the women making home and hearth, stirring the heart and latch strings of the men so they eventually didn’t wander so far…and still there were numbers of children every generation feeding upon that wanderlust that continued the Clan of McClelland that had started so long ago in the Highlands across the sea.

He strode back to his camp. He’d have to hunt tomorrow and fetch in more wood. He gazed on the brush and earth lean he had made against the two trees on the edge of the chest high grassy meadow. Further over was a half finished cabin he had started on as soon as he found this valley. Clear running water meandered around the edge of the far tree line. Mostly evergreen there with a smattering of white trunked birch. He was far enough away to not scare the game coming to drink, but close enough to score a hit with his rifle. Handy, he thought, but realized lugging water to the cabin and livestock was a downright chore.

There had been rains and some hail. Snowfall was not far off, and he had to get his camp in order and try to finish the cabin before winter was in earnest. He bend down and gathered up an armful of wood from his pile and threw it near the rocks he had propped up against the dirt on one side of the structure. Some day it would be an honest fireplace, now the fires just reflected the heat back and did for cooking.

He thought about his life in St. Louis as he bunched some tinder together in his callused hands, grabbed some small limbs and some chunks of wood making a pile in a small circle before flinting sparks to start his fire. He bent lower blowing on a prospectral glow and the fire started up. He fed a few smaller twigs in the flame.

He reached over and broke a larger limb over his knee swelling the material on his shoulders that hid the slabs of muscle underneath. He was a very large man in a larger world; and aware as he was of the dangers and pitfalls, he felt the strength of life bubbling up entwining with his youth knowing he would always persevere. With him it was no small boast. His family concurred. Especially his father who had tried one more time to bully him into work around the family plot. At the last the young brute force of 17 summers overcame the power and want of the elder resulting in Mack’s packing to head west. He hoped the tales told in the markets and taverns would come to pass. Rich farmlands, herds of bison, gold and silver, vast expanses of plenty there for the taking, waiting for a young lad such as he to go, conquer, start new roots, make something count and thus becoming a man in the process.

The fire crackled up. The heat was a fine thing reminding him of his mother, sisters, brothers and even his father. His father wanted him strong, capable, and schooled in the makings of a farming life. The blacksmithing, tanning, grain sowing, carpentry and all, did round him out, but he wanted more than to be chained to the house and land there. He wanted his own way and here he was. He frowned, thinking for once maybe his father was right…he shook his head. His father was fists, fury and fully in charge of his own domain. Mack was no slave, and wanted to be treated as a man, not a sniveling boy to order around every day. He finally had enough. He realized he was able to harm his father when he grabbed the swinging arm intended for his shoulder. His father’s eyes widened as he uttered, “aye, it is so.”, and stopped to look over his growing son. They stood for a time in silence feeling again that closeness they had over the years of toiling together. Time had passed. Mack was more man than youth. It was understood. The next few days his mother was grim, but embraced him before he left. His father gave him a full shoulder bag full of tools and gripped his hand. St. Louis was far, far behind him now.

He gathered more wood for the night and started over to the corral. The mule and his horse needed be led to water, and staked out for an evening dinner. He had some left over meat for himself, which he’d delve into after chores. The sun had set down behind the mountains and the cold had set in. As he marched across the meadow he and the animals were exhaling drifting clouds. Though the grasses were green to mostly brown awaiting full winter, they had now faded to grey in the shadows.

He watched the mule and horse drink, and looked up. The wind was finally dying down.  He gently pulled the pair away and wrapped each, one at a time, to a stake he had set out earlier in the day. He tied both front legs together from the neck to the stake, giving both enough to move but not run. They wouldn’t go far with this lush grass in any event.

He strode off to his camp as the first star winked in the sky. He heard a sound. He stopped. It sounded like a moan. Nothing. He started to….there! He heard it again. It was off to the right on the edge of the mountain on the south end of the meadow. He only had his knife, but looked around as he moved off toward where the sound came from. He could see nothing through the gently waving plants, and where the tree line was there were rocks, bushes and tons of fallen rubble. Could be anything.

He crouched down as he moved. The grasses would hide him for a time. Since arriving here he had seen not a soul, only various varmints, birds, some deer and the sounds of larger animals trumpeting and snorting echoing around the valley. He had to remind himself to be on guard. This was his new venture and new place. He listened, he looked, he saw nothing moving. No sounds, the evening was still. Taking his time, searching every direction he came up upon the edge of the rock tumble. He stood up next to a large boulder and looked…a moan came from overby a copse of trees where there seemed to be a flow of shale, dirt, sticks and small round rocks.  He watched his feet; most of the edge of this mountain was loose. He climbed up. The light was starting to fade, more stars nibbling the rest of day away. He was 20 feet up when he saw a form between the tree and one of the larger boulders holding the earthen flow at bay. He slipped here and there, but managed to get closer. He reached down and it moved. He turned the shoulders gently, and…SHE moaned again.  Tarnation! Looked like she came down with the whole side of the mountain. Her hair was matted and there was dried blood on the rocks and on her face and garments. He easily picked her up and half slid back down to the meadow floor. He walked directly back to the camp, his horse’s head coming up half way there. The darn’d mule could care less. He set her gently down and entered the lean bringing out blankets and a small pack. He made a small bed and moved her to them covering her. He stoked the fire until there was warmth in the small area placing a log in the middle with the trunk out—he’d push it in as it burned down. He brought over his tin drum canteen and wet a cloth from his pack. He wiped her face and wet it more and put it to her cracked lips. She moved a little. He put more water on the cloth and her lips moved as he moistened them more. He tilted the canteen to her mouth and poured a little in and she finally swallowed. Her eyes were still shut.  He felt her shoulders, arms and looked at each hand. There were cuts and scrapes on them. He gripped her arms and the bones seem to be sound. There was a gash on the side of her head, her nose and cheek lost a little skin. He checked her legs and in the firelight could see one ankle was swollen when he pulled her moccasins off. Nothing he could do except try to keep her comfortable.  He poured water into a pan, rummaged around in a covered pot and pulled two pieces of meat adding them, pushed some stones to the edge of the coals and placed the pan to cook. She needed some broth and he was hungry. Supper. He went out and rounded up the mule and horse bringing them to the corral. It was darker and looked like there would be no moon tonight. It was clear, cold and just beautiful. He looked over to the glow of the fire and the form laying there and wondered where she came from. She was Indian, alone, and hurt. He wondered where her kin was. The pan and meat were boiling, he pulled it off using two sticks and waited awhile musing about how life was far different than just plowing, fixing, even schooling. Life always brought something new, different, that made a man think, change his environment, experiment with challenges, learn and move on. Tomorrow would be waking up to more, he thought, as he glanced her way. He grabbed a piece of leather and poured some of the heated liquid into a cup. He took a taste. Hot, tasty and tolerable. He poured a little onto her lips and some into her mouth. She swallowed, and encouraged, he poured a little more. He sat back, slid his knife out and stabbed into one of the hunks of meat and chewed on it. He was running out of provisions. He needed to hunt. He reached into the pack and pulled out 2 dried corncobs. Some he saved for seed, but these two he plopped into the pan and put it back on the fire. It would cook, swell up and taste just like it was fresh picked.    Morning all hell broke loose. He was prodded, poked and kicked out of his blankets and there were angry feathered men around him yelling and grunting at him. He sprang up and the closest eyes widened as he kept getting up—Mack was a head taller, but the anger was prevalent and more prodding with the butt end of the spear, Mack moved off to one side and two of the men brought the girl out of the shelter. She was awake. She looked at him. Mack stared back their eyes meeting. Something shifted and it seemed to him they were the only two in the world.  Angry voices brought him back as she finally spoke to one of the older ones. She pointed to the area Mack found her in, and gestured around her. Mack had enough of getting prodded and yelled at. He grabbed the spear out of the hands and threw it off to one side, pointed to his chest and said, “Mack!” Silence. They all looked at him. He said it again. Suddenly they moved, Mack completely ignored. One grabbed her moccasins and threw them to her, which she slid on and tied. Two helped her up and before the dust settled they were gone. He saw them riding off from where they had left their horses and crept up on him…. he scratched his head and picked up his blankets, shook them out, folded them and placed them in pile in the lean. Just like that. Well, they didn’t bother with him. Time to get to work, he thought as he looked again.  The next week he was trying to set some traps farther down stream, he waded up out of the water and turned around. She was there not ten feet away. He stared. She walked over and gave him a leather bag and pushed his hands over it. She studied him for a minute, turned around and left. He heard the whinny of a horse in the trees. He opened the bag. Looked like food. It was. Over the next month, she came at odd times when he was out on his trap line, working on the house or snaking wood to camp. Never in his camp, but always when he least expected it. She brought a bag full of food. He started to look forward to seeing her.  He wondered where she lived. It had to be close. He decided to follow her. He had brought out the horse this time to carry the traps and make good his plan. He kept looking and glancing around but she never showed. Several days passed and when she did, he was not ready or aware of her even being there. She caught him in mid song as he went about his business. She was covering a smile as she brought her leather bag. He motioned to her to stay and went up and untied a bundle of her previous gift bags and gave them to her. He pointed to himself and said, “Mack”. She pointed to herself and said something; the first time he heard her voice. She turned and walked away. He waited a bit and grabbed the horse’s reins and went in her direction. He heard a horse and his answered.  He swung up and let the horse follow. The mule was company, but this was another horse. Mack chuckled. He was just as lonesome. The horse wandered on for about a half hour winding through trees and up and down small hills and half up a mountain before there was a discernable trail heading down the side into another large valley. The going was rough, but traversable with slides and tree falls every so often. The trail meandered down into another valley and off on the far end was a lake and there, beyond, smoke and teepees.  There was no one on the trail, and as the next hour went by, there were no sounds as he went past the trees and onto the flatland. He saw a few birds and only heard the dull clomps of the horse and his own breathing.  Several faces turned his way as he rode into the edge of the village. They did not look alarmed, just curious and a little disgruntled as if he imposed himself upon them, which, he reflected, he had. He definitely was not part of their world. There were dogs around him sniffing his horse and several gave a howl. Several men came to him and indicated he dismount. They seemed angered somewhat, but not surprised. He was led to a teepee and pushed to sit; his horse now lead off by a young man. He sat.  Then she was there. She brought a wooden bowl of food to him. It looked like stew and smelled delicious. It was. When he was finished he looked around as he set the bowl down. There was a row of young faces and five dogs behind him. The dogs came forward and tried to lap up what was left in the bowl. One came and snarled at him, another came and lay down next to him. He reached and scratched the dog behind the ears. Another came, he scratched that one. Suddenly all the dogs were wagging and arching up to him and he was startled to see the children had squatted close, but just out of arms reach and were staring at him. She came with two much older women, who, with sticks, threatened and scattered the dogs. The children stayed out of reach of them, but disappeared when several men approached. The oldest boy rushed up and touched Mack as he stood up running off. She indicated herself and said “Ni sh tah” and “Sismtehah” pointing at the older man. Mack thumped himself and said, “Mack”. There were glances between the men, but an uncomfortable silence. Mack offered his hand to the elder. Hesitating, and with a questioning look the man took his hand. A light grip, but dry and firm, the fellow looked searchingly in Mack’s eyes. Grunting, the elder seemed to confirm to himself that intensions were honest in the huge man. This white man….a hairy bear, not the black but the brown with the hump. The handshake confirmed the strength, to he and the rest of the village the man would be known as Hairy Bear. The elder backed up in thought. Now, to what he wanted. He had eaten. He had not harmed the children nor even kicked the dogs. Why was this white man here? Are there others? Where is his woman? Where did he come from? Years back, the villagers killed outsiders. Now the country was full of others including the bearded white men trapping and hunting the mountains and plains. She found him. She will have to deal with him. His mind made up he told her. Mack saw her eyes widen as the elder spoke to her. She looked back and forth from both men, and then the entire group left Mack and her alone. She tried to talk to him. Then got a stick and drew cones on the ground, then an arrow pointing to a square and pointed to him. It looked to him like he was to go home. She pointed to him and walked her fingers along the arrow. She left. Minutes later she appeared with his horse. His saddle and pack were still lashed on. She handed him his rifle and the reins and started off through the camp. On the edge of the meadow he mounted and turned to go, trotting off toward the trail he came in on. He looked back and she was walking along behind. An hour passed, he looked again, she was not there. He stopped, got down and let the horse nibble along the trail. He couldn’t figure her out. She seemed friendly, the kids and especially the dogs, but the adults obviously didn’t want him around. At least they didn’t kill him. Being shunned, though, is akin to it…..loner or not, human company is fine on, at least, occasions.  Taking his time, he made it back to his camp, eyeing the surroundings as he did so. The mule was there, nothing seemed to be disturbed. So he unsaddled, rubbed the horse down with handfuls of grass and led both out to the stake and roped them up. He spied a nice well-formed pine by the way to the village and decided the next day he would decorate a tree in honor of Christmas. He thought about it as night fell and before he slept he had visions of his Christmas’s at home. He ran his trap lines early, fed, ate and skinned his catch stretching the beaver pelt on the hoops he had made. He brought out a pack that had some trade goods he had brought and wandered over to the pine he had chosen. He tied on the branches beads, a mirror, a knife, strips of cloth and some ribbon. He found some feathers and tied those on too. He stepped back and looked. It was not quite there. He made a star lashing together some of the hoop sticks he had cut and reached up and pulled the top of the tree toward him and tied it on. Now that was a fine tree! He turned around and almost ran over her. How did she do that? She had brought him more food…..  The cabin took him several more weeks to finish. He had killed a bear and several wolves that came into his little flatland. He decided when he had enough skins he would head back to any trading post he could find and refurbish his needs in food, ammunition and perhaps some more goo-gaws for his neighbors. It snowed lightly one night and every morning now had a cold sharp edge. It wouldn’t be long before he found out what kind of winter this country would bring. He looked around and at the metallic sky and thought it would be long and cold. She came around a few times. He moved into the cabin and shored up the corral with a roof and wind break for the animals, and days later found her in the morning sleeping in the old leanto. He looked around and realized it had snowed again. She stayed for a couple of days and then she was gone. Then she was back with more food. She left it by his door. He was thankful and tried to get her to come into the warmth of the little house. She shook her head no. One afternoon he came back to camp early. She was still there but this time at the cabin. He thought by now she’d wander off and head back to her tribe. He sat down on his latest addition–a fine hand-hewed bench. She came over to him as he was trying to whittle another float stick. His hands were aching from the exposure of the water and setting traps and all. She squatted down in front of him and took the knife and the stick and set them on the snowy ground. He looked at her. She looked deep in his eyes. She was a right pretty woman. Beautiful. He had been ignoring it as long as He could. But now…….what in tarnation was she doing? He liked to almost fallen over from the pain. She was rubbin’ somethin’ on his hands. She had him in a good grip. He tried to pull away—this woman was strong!

Seems funny that your hands never seem to crack or dry up in summer. It could be blistering hot and boiling but the hands just get callused and bruised and cut up.  But winter, the least little cold and they dry up like the bottom of a dead lake and every wrinkle or line in those hands crack wide open and fester and every seam seem to split like a knife had been there.

It hurt all the time and never seems to heal no matter what you put on it. He put fat and bear grease and even dirt. Nothing seemed to help.

She pushed him gentle to stay put. He did. She kept rubbin’ that stuff on his hands. Over and over, and, it was getting to feeling good. He closed my eyes and remembered his mother rubbing his hands once he had stayed out in the snow too long looking for the family cow. His hands had turned numb and she had said something about frostbite. He was a little tyke then and didn’t figure anything had bit him.

He opened his eyes. She was looking at him. He looked back. Suddenly she grinned. She had the whitest teeth. He had to grin back. Suddenly they were both laughing like a couple of coons. He pulled her to him and they howled while they hugged. They stayed that way simmering down and then quiet, holding each other until well after the sun had set. Him on the bench, her at his feet, holding on, not letting go

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Categories: Fiction, Issue 5 | Leave a comment

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