He waved the match until it went out and flicked it into the woods before taking a large drag of the cigar. His face went back to being in the shadows, though I could still see the ember’s glint in his eyes and the way his dark, arched brows knit together in a permanent frown. At first I thought that was just the way he looked at me, then it became clear he looked at everyone that way. He viewed the world like it was a hostile beast.
He wouldn’t have been wrong about that.
“What’s a matter?” he prompted. His voice was very low and gravelly, like he smoked too many cigars in his life, and its roughness did funny things to the flesh at the back of my neck. I tried to place his age but came up empty-handed. Twenty-five, thirty, I didn’t know. He was strangely ageless. “Injun girl don’t speak English?”
No matter his age though, he was a rude bastard.
“Of course I speak English,” I snapped, refusing to be intimidated. “You’ve been hearing me speak all day.”
He scratched at his sideburns. “I tend to tune out when a woman’s speaking.”
I leaned further into Sadie, as if that would help me escape his chauvinism. “That’s probably because a woman’s never said a good thing about you.”
He let out a puff of cigar smoke directed at my face but a light breeze whipped it up into the forest boughs before it could engulf me. “You’re damn right about that.” He cocked his head and looked me over. “Except where it counts, if you know where that is, and judging by what you’re wearing to bed, I reckon you don’t.”
I peeked down at myself and noticed my thick flannel nightgown was showing. I quickly wrapped the shawl tighter around me. “No woman would be foolish enough to wear anything less than this to bed in these mountains.”
He grinned at me, his eyes deeply creasing. “Seems that you care what I think about your apparel.”
“I don’t care about what you think or anything about you,” I said hastily. I held my head high in the air but I couldn’t hide the shakiness that came through in my words.
“Careful, child,” he warned. “I may be the only one left to save you out here.”
I scoffed. “Save me? I don’t need saving. None of us do. Or will.”
He grew silent, taking another long puff. His eyes watched me in the darkness, the wheels in his brain turning. I noticed that without his hat on, he had thick, shiny hair that curled at the back of his neck. “You say that but I don’t reckon you believe that.”
I frowned at him. “This is a search party made up of capable people, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” He took a step closer to me. “Are you capable? If you ask me, I think inviting you along was the worst idea Isaac ever had, and the whole thing about you being a great tracker is a load of horseshit.”
I flinched. I rarely heard anyone use profanity. Oh, Avery sometimes had cussing contests with Uncle Pat, but that was entirely different.
“You more shocked by my mouth or what I just said about you?”
“Both,” I replied quickly. “Both were uncalled for. I never claimed to be a good tracker.” I was getting flustered and hated it. “I can’t help what the people in River Bend think of me. My father was the best, the one everyone used. I’m sure they all think I take after him. I’m sure they think I eat pine nuts for dinner, too.”
He let out a puff of smoke. “Interesting,” he said slowly.
“I beg your pardon?”
“How quickly you downplay the very thing that Tim and Isaac hired you for. If you ain’t a great tracker, then why you here?”
I swallowed thickly. “Because. I didn’t have a choice. My uncle wanted the money.”
“You always have a choice. Either you are a good tracker and believe you can help, or you’re being a lovestruck filly bent on keeping her man close to her.”
I blinked dumbly and he went on, “That Avery kid. You two betrothed or somethin’?”
“He’s just my friend,” I exclaimed in a hush, as if Avery could hear me. I could feel my cheeks getting hot. For pity’s sake, was I really that obvious?
“Well if that’s true, then I guess you are a good tracker. Did your skills bring you out here just now?”
It took a moment for me to remember why I’d gotten out of bed in the first place. “I heard the horses.”
“So did I. Thought I smelled something a little peculiar, too.”
“Rotting meat,” I said absently, thinking back.
He nodded. “Something like that.” He puffed on his cigar and watched the smoke sail up into the darkness. “Huh, I guess you have a lot more Injun blood in you than you look. Might as well be good for something.”
That did it. I was wasting my time talking to this loathsome man when I could have been sleeping. “I think I’ve had just about enough of you,” I told him as I started to leave.
“Oh, darlin’. You’ll never get enough of me, I promise you that.”
“I say goodnight,” I added curtly, leaving him alone with the horses like the animal he was. I crawled back under the hides and hoped my anger would dissipate enough so that I could get some sleep.
Instead, I lay awake till the air became fuzzy and grey, thinking about all the unladylike ways I wanted to punch Jake McGraw in the face.
“You look a little tired, Eve,” Avery said to me the next morning as I helped him load up the mule. Ali flicked her long, fuzzy ears back and forth as if she felt just as agitated as I did.
“That’s not a very nice thing to say to a girl,” I said to him. He was right, I was tired, too tired to care much what I looked like. The lack of sleep was becoming a nuisance, and the heavy grey clouds that settled in overnight didn’t help either.
He smiled at me. “You’re still pretty, don’t worry.”
I bit my lip, trying to hide my grin. My gaze immediately went from Avery’s familiar and angelic face over to Jake’s craggy one. He was at his horse—turns out his name was Trouble—and intently packing gunpowder into the hollowed horn that hung from the saddle.
“What do you think of him?” I asked Avery as casually as possible.
He looked over Ali’s rump at Jake and shrugged. “I like him just fine. Ain’t nothing wrong with those strong silent types. Almost everyone here is all right, even though Meeks talks too much and Clark won’t talk enough.”
Avery’s eyes flitted over to Hank O’ Doyle who was polishing a Bowie knife against a rock, his face as mean as the blade. “I don’t particularly trust that man,” he said under his breath. “Something about him gets me the wrong way. My dad used to get that same look about him right before he’d beat my ma.” Avery’s father had left him when he was still a boy, hence why he worked at Uncle Pat’s in order to provide for him and his mother. After she died, he just stayed on.
“Then I’ll be staying as far away from him as I can,” I said solemnly. The fact that he shared my instincts about Hank was unsettling. It was hard to judge what people were like when you were isolated with them.
We watched him for a few moments until it became a risky game then quickly got everything else ready for the trip. Even though the skies hadn’t let loose with rain yet, it didn’t mean they wouldn’t. The weather in the mountains was unpredictable compared to the valley below. Tim came around, puffing on a long pipe, and handed me an oilskin raincoat to keep rolled up beside my pack.
Soon we were all mounted and heading away from the lean-tos, back on the trail made by wagon wheels. As the path grew narrower the higher we went, skirting around tall trees and rocky outcrops, it was hard to imagine any wagon trains coming up here. I voiced this to Tim.
“The Donners gave up on their wagons a long time ago,” he said.
I turned in my saddle to see him packing more tobacco in his pipe, the smoke matching the grey of his frazzled beard. “How come we haven’t seen any?” Seemed unlikely that I would have passed by such a thing without sensing it.
“That’s what I’d like to know,” Tim said. “Anything we find will help us figure out what happened to George Clark.”
“Perhaps there’ve been scavengers,” I suggested.
“Perhaps,” Tim said with a strange gleam to his eye.
We rode on, the trail becoming steeper and steeper. Our horses were growing tired, and when the rain began to drizzle over us, Jake insisted we keep on moving. I clumsily slipped on the coat while in the saddle and asked what the rush was.
For a moment I thought I’d spoken out of turn, but Jake turned his head halfway around, the drops of rain spilling from the brim of hat. “The rush, darlin’, is that we’ve got to make it to the Graves-Reed cabin before nightfall. We ain’t all built for sleeping in the elements like you.”
Before I had a chance to smart at that comment, an unusual smell caught my attention, something like herbs and bone. Jake quickly pulled up his horse and said, “Speaking of Injuns…”
All of us came to a sudden stop. Up ahead on the trail were two Indians walking quietly toward us. Their animal hide coats blended in with the tree trunks perfectly, the feathers sitting atop their long dark hair looking freshly plucked from an eagle. They had no weapons in their sunburned hands but I knew none of us were letting our guards down.
Jake raised his hand in a greeting, though his other one was now resting on his revolver at his hip. “Can you speak to them? They look like they eat pine nuts just like you.”
They were Paiute Indians, I knew that much, and I knew they did a lot more than eat pine nuts. Even so, I wasn’t really one of them. I never had been.
“I don’t really speak the language…” I stammered as they came closer. I could see them peering at me curiously. I wondered if they knew my father. “I don’t know what tribe they’re from, the dialects could all be different. I…my father taught me a long time ago and I don’t remember.”
“Can you try?” Tim asked gently from behind me. “This could get ugly otherwise.”
I didn’t really have a choice. The two men had walked right up to Jake but their attention was all on me. At first I thought that perhaps they were twins since they looked so similar, but I could tell one was a bit shorter and had crooked lips.
The taller one began to speak to me in slow, careful tones. At first I couldn’t understand a thing, but after a while a few words sounded familiar: “No,” “Mountains,” “Dangerous,” “Snow,” “Animal,” and “Men.”
“What are they saying?” Tim asked.
“I think they are saying something about snow, men, animals, danger, and mountains.”
“You only think you know?” Isaac asked, leaning forward with disgust on his narrow face. “Damn it, Tim, what’s the use in having a mountain guide if she can’t even talk to the locals?”
“I never said I was a guide,” I said quickly over my shoulder. I looked back at the Indians who were realizing I couldn’t speak their language and only barely understood it. They were probably “Diggers” anyway, a word the white folk used to describe Indians who didn’t fit into one tribe or another. I guess I was a Digger in my own right.
I decided to try English on them. “What are you saying? There are dangerous snows ahead?” When it was lost on them, I started miming snow and repeated back the word they used for it.
The one with the crooked lips nodded. Something about a big snow coming, though that didn’t surprise me. Again he said “men” and “animal,” then added the word for “eat” and “hungry.” He kept repeating another word that I didn’t know, acting it out by snapping his jaw open and shut and pointing at me, then at Jake and Tim.
I looked up at Jake who was staring at the men with a volatile expression. I could already tell his opinion on Indians was low and these men were probably testing his patience. I hoped he wouldn’t try anything—he hadn’t taken his hand off his gun once.
“I reckon we should be on our way,” Tim announced cautiously. “We won’t learn much more from them, I’m afraid. We should be thankful they’re peaceful and leave while we can.”
“I could scalp them faster than they’d scalp me,” the hoarse voice of Hank rose up from the back.
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Tim admitted. He eyed me carefully. “Do you think they’ll let us go in peace? I didn’t come here to cause any more trouble. Too many deaths on my hands already, and I ain’t ready to add some more.”
I was tempted to shrug and tell him I had no idea because that was the truth. But I decided to go on instinct alone. These men had noble, if not kind, faces. They might have been Diggers and outcasts from the tribe, but they just wanted to help us. They wanted to warn us about something.
I just wish I knew what it was.
I smiled at the men and said thank you in both English and my shoddy Washoe, and raised my hand in farewell. They nodded in understanding and did the same. Then they walked on past our party. I looked over my shoulder before they disappeared into the trees. The last thing I saw was one of the men looking back at me with absolute pity in his eyes. He then shook his head, as if we were all a lost cause, and then was gone.
The air around us smelled like sorrow.
We were a somber, motley crew when we finally started finding remnants of the previous parties. It started off slowly, at least for me. Sadie’s ears started flicking back and forth as did Trouble’s tail. I smelled that rotting meat odor for a second before it was whisked away. A moment later Jake turned around to face me, his expression in that permanent frown.