I straightened up and brushed the snow off my back. “I’m fine. I’m surprised you even bothered coming after me, since I’m one of those savages you despise.”
He raised his brow. “And this is the thanks I get for saving your ass.”
“I didn’t need saving.” I swallowed hard and tightened the bonnet strings under my chin.
A darkening cloud came across Jake’s eyes. He walked over to me and put his large, strong hand on my shoulder, his jaw setting in a firm line. “Believe me, darlin’, you did need saving. And I don’t think it’s proper for me to tell you exactly what you needed saving from. You should never, ever underestimate that man.”
I was finally able to look away from the intensity in his eyes and focused on the hand on my shoulder. He abruptly lifted it as if I were burning him. The air between us felt heady and vibrant.
I ignored it and looked in the direction of the outhouse which was now barely visible in the fading light. “I saw it again, you know.”
He frowned, folding his arms across his broad chest. “Saw what?”
I lowered my voice. “It. The pale man. I…I heard him outside of the outhouse and saw a shadow. When I looked through the crack, I saw a blue eye looking back at me.” I felt foolish even saying it since the evidence wasn’t around anymore. I could have even imagined it.
“Blue eye,” he repeated. “Couldn’t have been Avery. Couldn’t have been anyone. They were all back at the cabin. I left as soon as I saw Hank step outside.” I had to admit to myself, I was strangely touched that he was being protective of me, even though I couldn’t quite figure out why.
“So you ran?” he continued.
I nodded. “Then I ran into Hank. He wanted me to…show him, I guess. He said something about using me as bait.” I took in a steadying breath. “I just don’t understand why he and Isaac care so much about this thing now…it’s as if their focus shifted from finding George Clark to hunting it down.” Funny how I could never quite decide on whether to call it a thing or a person.
Jake sighed and stared down at his boots, pressing a hand on the back of his neck. “You’re right about that. I just had this discussion with Tim when we checked on the horses earlier.”
His eyes flitted up to mine. “And Isaac Clark has always been obsessive. I suppose he’s switching from one obsession to another.”
“No,” I said. “That doesn’t make sense. This whole trip doesn’t make sense. Why hire me as a tracker to find someone that’s most likely dead? Does he really believe that his uncle is alive out here?”
“No. I reckon he doesn’t.”
“Then why are we here?” I watched his face carefully and saw him flinch. “Do you know?”
“No,” he said thickly.
I frowned, wishing I had more light to study him in. “Would you lie to me?”
“Pine Nut, I don’t know you well enough to lie to you,” he said. He then looked up at the sky. “We should get you back inside. The storm is letting up but you look right cold.”
He was right. The flakes were falling more slowly and the wind was down to a rustle. Of course the mere mention of it being cold and I started to shake and shiver uncontrollably.
He stared at me for a moment, his rugged face looking torn, before he quickly put his arm around me and led me toward the cabin. There was something so wonderfully solid about the gesture, the feeling of him behind me, that it made me momentarily forget who this was. He may have just “saved” me, but it was still Indian-hating Jake McGraw, and we mixed about as well as oil and vinegar.
Just as we got under the slight overhang and he pulled away, putting his hand on the door knob, I reached out and grabbed the sleeve of his coat. He looked down at me expectantly.
“Should we tell the others what I saw?” I asked quietly.
He took off his hat and shook the snow off of it. His hair was messy, giving me a weird urge to run my hands through it. The thought was surprising and I tried to push it out of my head.
“Guess it depends if Hank’s been shooting his mouth off about it,” he mused. “If he hasn’t, let’s just keep it between you and me for now. Avery, Donna, Meeks…they don’t need the worry. And neither do you. Tim and I will take turns on watch tonight, just in case. You’ll be safe.”
And I believed him.
Once I got inside, it took most of the night to get some feeling back into my limbs. The cold really seized hold of me and could scarcely let go, even when I was practically sitting on top of the fire. Avery was giving me an odd feeling too; he kept looking between Jake and me as if there was something more to the story or something between us. I really wanted to tell Avery about what had happened, but I couldn’t risk it in the cabin with everyone around us, especially since Hank seemed to have kept his mouth shut and passed out on the middle of the floor.
Eventually, when everyone went to sleep, I finally grew warm. The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes was Jake sitting by the door, his rifle in his hand, staring out into space. I was warm, and for that night, I was safe.
The next morning felt like Christmas. The snow had stopped completely overnight and the temperatures were rising back to normal levels. Though it was a challenge for the men to dig us out of the cabin and get the horses up on firmly packed snow, they were able to do it and soon all of us were setting out on our way further west. Five days in a cabin with these people was far too long of a time.
As before, I was right behind Jake and in front of Tim, and Tim was back to telling me stories that sounded too unbelievable to be true. It didn’t matter though. I was so happy to be out of that cabin, to have fresh, mild air in my lungs and sun at my back. Even Sadie was rambunctious, all that pent up energy from being cooped up in the shanty. She was a little thinner than before, with not much feed to go around while the snows had fallen, but I knew she’d pull through. She was tough, just as my father had raised her to be.
As we climbed further into the mountains trying to reach our final destination, Donner Lake, my thoughts kept going back to my father. I wondered if he would know what it was out there. If it really was a rabid man or something else. My father and his people believed in a great deal of creatures and spirits most white folk would scoff at. I wondered if this was something he would recognize, if it had a name. Or if it was an infected mountain man gone mad.
The Diggers we had met, they seemed to know what it was and that it was out there, waiting for us. I felt like kicking myself for not understanding what they were trying to say. At the time, the words they’d strung together made no sense but now that I’d seen it, it was obvious: “Snow,” “Man,” “Animal,” and “Eat.”
I could only hope that on our way back down—if Isaac could ever find what he was looking for—that we would run into them again. My curiosity about the creature was both eating me up inside and filling me with fear.
Jake turned around in his saddle and eyed me underneath the brim of his hat, as if he sensed the tension in me. Sometimes he looked downright concerned about my well-being. When I stared back at him, trying to neutralize my face, he nodded up at the trees. “Are these here pinyon pines?”
I studied the large pines we were riding beside. “Looks like.”
“Think you’d be able to harvest some pine nuts out of them?”
I gave him a disgusted look.
“What?” he asked. “I’m being right with you. We’ve got enough food for ourselves for the next while so long as I can go back to bagging some rabbits and deer, but I’m a bit concerned about the horses here.” He smacked Trouble’s shaggy rump which caused him to flick his tail. “Pine nuts are high in calories. It’ll get ’em through this if we can’t find grass.”
“The harvesting season is over,” I said. I hated that I did actually know a thing or two about pine nuts. The way Jake smirked at that admission made it even worse.
“Too bad,” he said, then turned back around. I stuck my tongue out at him then couldn’t help but smile at myself. It was funny how being trapped in a cabin with someone for five days could make you feel like you knew them for a long time, even when you hadn’t.
I could have said the same, too, about almost everyone else. Donna proved how dedicated and resourceful she was with the way she looked after Meeks while he proved how quickly he could spring back from such a horrific event. He’d lost some of that spark, that jovial quality that had lightened our spirits before, but after the first two days had passed, he refused to feel sorry for himself. His change in attitude was probably one of the reasons why he was healing so nicely.
Tim too had gotten to feel more like a fatherly figure to me while I began to see Avery as more of an equal than anything else. It was like once I realized his feelings (or lack thereof) toward me and started interacting with everyone else, my silly infatuation with him began to dissipate. Had my crush on him stemmed from the fact that he’d been the only boy around me, the only person to really show me any kindness until now?
I was mulling that over when Jake abruptly brought his horse to a stop, causing Sadie to skirt around him. I pulled back on the reins and looked dead ahead to where Jake’s unwavering focus was.
The smell of rot hit me before my eyes picked up on it. Far up the path, in the middle of the snow, lay a body, lifeless and immobile. Its skin was pale, though not as white as the snow, and was clothed in what looked to be animal hides.
“Are they dead?” Jake asked me quietly as the rest of the group came to a halt behind us.
“Smells dead,” I said. We exchanged a meaningful glance. Even though it looked different from what I’d seen before, we were still too far away to properly check, and the smell was still the same as before: rancid and unforgettable.
“Don’t you think we oughta go over there and check?” Tim asked. “They could need our help.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Oh, goodness me,” Donna cried out from the back. I turned to see her bring her horse around Avery’s and toward us. Her face was collapsing with concern. “Someone’s hurt out there.”
Jake raised his hand to motion for her to stay put. “We don’t know that just yet.”
She shook her head, her blonde curls springing. “But they could be alive. We have to go check on them.”
“We’ll have to ride past, at any rate,” none other than Isaac shouted. “We’ve got guns if anyone tries anything.”
Donna frowned at him with disdain. “Tries anything? There is a poor soul out there who needs our help.” She gave us the same look. “You should be ashamed to call yourselves Christians. My heavens.”
And then she clucked to her horse and started off toward the fallen body.
“Donna, no!” Jake yelled. He kicked Trouble’s flanks and started after her. I was about to head out too but he yelled at me over his shoulder, “Everyone stay back!”
Donna was already dismounting and running through the snow toward the body, her calico skirts held high. Jake was quick off his horse, seeming to vault off with ease, but it was too late. Donna was already bending over the body and touching its shoulder with her hand.
“I think he’s alive!” she cried out excitedly.
Jake was so close to getting to her, just a few feet away, when the fallen person lifted up their head, and with an open, snapping mouth, engulfed Donna’s outstretched hand.
It was alive, indeed.
My hand flew to my mouth in horror as Donna let out a horrific scream that was made of terror and pain. Jake grabbed her around the waist and pulled her back and out of the way. But it was too late. She was missing her hand from the wrist down. It was now in the unhinged jaw of the person who was sitting up in a squatting position, hair wild and white, clothes cloaked around it like a dressed-up dog. Blood poured down its chin, staining the snow.
Before it could even move, however, Jake had his revolver out and shot the man through the chest. The man slowly looked down at the bloody hole with idle curiosity before chomping down the rest of Donna’s hand, her fingers twitching from the movement like she was waving goodbye. Jake watched, totally frozen, as the man swallowed it down like it was a piece of roast, his crazed, pale eyes glued to us. Then, with a final smack of his bloody lips, he ran off into the trees and disappeared.
Meanwhile Donna was still screaming and bleeding profusely, blood spurting everywhere. Jake ripped off his coat, trying to wrap it around the bloody stump. It took all of us a moment to snap out of the shock of what just happened.
I immediately kicked Sadie over to them and jumped off of her into the snow, running toward the horror, while Isaac and Hank spurred their horses off into the trees in the direction of the man, hooting and hollering in their pursuit.
Jake was trying to hold her in place, but Donna was wild and even too much for a man like him. I quickly grabbed his coat and tried to hold it on the stump, trying not to breathe in the stench of rot and blood nor look too closely at what was unfolding, while Jake held her back. Soon Tim and Avery were at our side, with Meeks too disabled to do anything but watch a fate worse than his own.
“What the hell was that thing?” Avery shouted. It was rare to hear him curse but I’d be surprised if we weren’t all cursing now. “What was that? A person?”
I shook my head, tears of horror and frustration threatening the sides of my eyes. “I don’t know. It looked like a man, but no man could do this.” And that was true, not only on the moralistic side of things but physical as well. Donna had small hands, but he had put his entire mouth around it and bit it right through like he was eating a carrot.