Western Short Story
Mountain Men roamed America’s unexplored West, trapping beaver, from about 1820 to 1840. This breed of rugged men, with their buckskins and long rifles, faced hostile Indians, wild animals, hunger, and often death, hundreds of miles from their families and civilization.
They often hunted together as employees of big Eastern fur companies. But sometimes they hunted alone as "free" trappers in the rugged Rocky Mountains, or along remote rivers and streams, relying on their own cunning and courage to stay alive. This is one such story.
* * *
There was a time when Buck had tried hunting as a free trapper. He thought for a long time before heading alone into America’s last wilderness.
By 1840 America’s mountain men had trapped-out most of the West. Buck didn’t known that until he entered the remote high mountains and deep valleys. But he was to learn...the hard way.
* * *
Snow was coming. Buck saw its dark festering clouds clutching the sky. Winter was here. In these mountains, snow meant big storms and biting wind. There had been a cold rain the day before. He'd stayed too long in the high country. The trapping hadn’t been good.
The lone mountain man walked on, occasionally glancing toward the rapidly changing sky. His gloved left hand pulled a fur collar higher around his neck and beard. A thick fur cap and tattered coat stopped some of the cold. Buck stopped to readjust the heavy pack and small bundle of fur pelts wobbling on his stooped back. He flipped the coat's hood over his fur cap. An ancient flintlock rifle was balanced in his right hand, his frayed glove aware of its cold steel.
“Snow’s coming,” he said. His pace quickened, became deliberate as his worn boots sought firm footings on rain-slick pine needles. An uneven muddy ground twisted before him. He vainly searched the trees and cliffs for shelter. A sharp wind cut through his clothes. He could feel its icy fingers. The fall days had gotten shorter.
"Should have gotten out of this high country earlier," he said. "Should have known winter was coming."
Buck often talked to himself. Why not? There was no one else within miles.
There wasn't panic in Buck’s eyes—-yet. But it hovered below the surface.
The tall young man struggled forward, trying to move faster, hampered by his cumbersome load. A metal hatchet, long knife and pistol were at his waist.
"Damn!" he said. "Sure wish I was out of these mountains."
An old animal trail snaked downhill toward a small grassy meadow ringed by gigantic boulders and cliffs. Off to the left was a huge moss-covered stone, resembling an overturned tower. The long horizontal outcropping supported the base of a high cliff. A ledge began at one end of the stone, abruptly ending in a small cave at the opposite end.
"This’ll do," he smiled, pleased at his good fortune. Some anxiety left his squinting eyes as he again searched the swirling clouds. The wind snapped his fur collar and rummaged through his long beard, its inquisitive fingers revealed streaks of premature gray. A snowflake drifted in front of Buck's tired eyes—-then another and another. Suddenly it was colder and darker.
Buck crawled into the cave. Thick black soot covered its low stone ceiling. Someone had been there long ago; maybe Indians or primitive man. The dusty floor smelled of wolves, amid scattered bones, and their fresh paw prints.
He'd heard their distant howling back on the trail. His long rifle could handle them, but he was low on shot and black powder. He rechecked the old weapon. He might need it before morning. Sooner, if the wolves returned. Their howling seemed closer. He leaned the rifle against the back wall.
The cave was his now. He kicked at the small stones and bones littering its dirt floor, pockmarked with shallow wallows.
"Survival of the fittest," grunted Buck. He slipped off his pack and leaned it next to his rifle.
Dry branches were nearby. Buck broke the wood and tossed it into his new home. He felt his luck had turned.
The cave would protect him against a threatening night of snow, wind and freezing cold.
His trapping hadn’t gone well for his months in the high mountains. He’d only gotten a few beaver and rabbit belts, and one elk skin.
"Ain’t enough skins to buy whiskey at the next rendezvous," he said, with disgust. He referred to the annual hell-raising gathering of mountain men where they traded their fur pelts for guns and supplies, and, occasionally, for the affections of a woman or two.
More snow flakes settled beyond the cave. Buck dragged broken tree limbs inside, chopping furiously, using his hatchet which had helped save his life more than once, especially during an encounter with a Blackfoot Indian.
Buck had tried to make friends with all Indians. He'd been successful until a brave's beautiful young squaw made side-glances at Buck that angered her warrior husband. The Indian, a tall sub-chief, wore a captured Army jacket with sergeant strips. Scalps covered his battle shield.
Buck’s accuracy during a show of hatchet throwing convinced the brave that battling someone who had such a weapon wasn’t wise. The Indian offered to trade his young squaw for the hatchet.
"Good cook," he said. "Keep you warm cold nights."
They parted friends after agreeing on trade goods. The squaw later got a beating from her husband.
Using a pine bough, Buck swept the cave’s floor of its bone fragments. He made a fire pit, using large stones as a buttress against the wind, and built a pyramid of sticks and twigs in the center. His battered tinderbox slowly smoked into life, his foggy breath gently blowing against the flint-and-metal sparks as the tiny bed of dry grass ignited. Then its embryonic flame reached out, snagged a breeze, and licked the stack of twigs. The flame expanded, gradually spreading its tentacles of fire.
Buck stretched his gloved hands toward its warmth.
"God, that feels good," he said.
He added small pieces of bark as the fire sprang into fuller life, its light shadow dancing on the walls.
"That's better," he said.
The snow increased. But Buck felt secure. A faint smile covered his wind-stroked face. He relaxed, and began thinking about filling his belly.
The howling of the wolves came closer as the mountain man sought more wood. Some was damp. He dropped it alongside the fire to dry. Within minutes it began steaming.
He would wait out the storm in his burrow. It could be days before it passed. Maybe weeks, or maybe it wouldn't stop until spring. Or maybe he'd die there. That sent chills though his body not caused by the wind.
The cave would protect him from the night and the wolves seeking their den. Protection! Survival! Life! Good reasons for them to want back what was now his.
Buck knew the wolves would soon be watching from the darkness. Angry, cold animals, snarling, circling, knowing the hairy man-beast inside their shelter threatened their existence.
Daylight was fading as Buck dragged logs back to his shelter. He propped them against the cave, slowly enclosing it, and then stuffed and patted the cracks tight with layers of snow.
Inside, his snapping fire blocked the side of the cave that extended under the long overhanging ledge. The narrow opening provided a crawl entrance and acted as a protective barrier.
The wind increased, howling through the mountains like a wailing, deranged banshee.
Buck spread a thick layer of pine needles on the long stone shelf in the back of the cave. His backpack would be his pillow, his furs, a thin mattress.
Satisfied, he rolled a log near the fire, to dry and eventually become its heart. He lit his old pipe and settled back, wrapped in his furs and tattered blankets, waiting for his small, battered coffeepot to boil. The inner bark of the red willow helped stretch his tobacco supply. His sugar and coffee were gone, but tea made from a sassafras root would do.
Buck filled his tin cup with steaming liquid. A handful of pemmican--an Indian mixture of powdered dried meat and berries-—provided his evening meal, along with some deer jerky, softened in his tea.
Using his small bundle of furs, he began stitching together a crude blanket. He might still trade the furs at the next rendezvous, but avoiding freezing was more important than preserving his pelts.
The wolves were now outside. They paced, snarled, yapped at each other, and growled at the creature occupying their den. They frantically pawed at the makeshift wall. Buck’s yelling drove the wolves back several times, but they returned. He knew they could come crashing through his flimsy barricade. His rifle was cocked and ready.
The shadowy bodies dashed through the night, then raced forward, only to reverse course before ripping through the shelter. Buck hadn’t wanted to kill, but twice he fired his rifle, driving the wolves back. Then suddenly they fled, taking their mournful howls with them.
Buck had to be careful not to waste his powder and shot. There wasn't much left.
Exhausted, he tried to sleep, his body cramped atop the stone ledge, bundled in his blankets and furs. He soon moved from the unyielding shelf to curl next to the fire, to spread the last of his pelts on the ground to insulate himself from the cold earth. He rose several times during the night to tend the fire, carefully rationing his small wood supply. He’d get more in the morning. The tea forced him to frequently relieve himself outside.
The night churned in a cold, dense white fog, driven by winds that tore at the shelter.
Buck got little sleep as snow blew into his frozen world through the cave’s side entrance, ending in a half-circle by the smoky fire.
Dawn brought a gale-force blizzard that cut visibility to a few feet.
Buck thanked the Almighty for letting him survive. Frost covered his buckskins as he hung his shivering body over the fire, scraped snow into his coffeepot, and twisted its base into the glowing coals. He added wood to the embers, crouched under the low ceiling, slapped his hands together, pranced on numbed legs and feet, and then enjoyed a steaming cup of tea through his cracked lips.
He thickened the cave's outer wall with snow, and improved its small entrance, building a crawl hole of snow, its mouth turned from the wind. Then he sealed it with a slab of rock. A tiny vent near the ceiling let smoke escape. Faded blue light entered Buck’s crystal world through his packed wall.
Without the cave, Buck knew he would be dead--a quick frozen meal for the wolf pack--or his remains undiscovered until spring, animals fighting over his thawing carcass. In the open he couldn't have started a fire or kept one going. The cave meant life.
Buck remembered an old trapper telling how he had survived a snowstorm by crawling into an ice cave.
Remembering the story, Buck used his knife to dig a shallow circle as the old trapper had done. He scraped live coals into the depression and brushed a thin layer of dirt over the top. He eased himself onto the spot, his back cushioned against the wall by his backpack. Cross-legged over the coals, Buck pulled his blankets and furs around his head and tucked them under his feet and back. He scraped away the dirt, and let the heat from the coals slowly spread to his feet and legs, filling his blanket-and-fur tent. He was cramped, but began to feel warm. He leaned back and tried to sleep.
During that restless second night, Buck added wood to the fire, rolled its hot stones under his makeshift tent and relished their warmth. He longed to stretch out, but couldn't. He returned to a disturbed sleep, only to be awakened later by cramps. He unwound his stiff body, fed the fire, drank more tea, and exchanged cold stones for hot.
Days became weeks. Buck searched for food and fuel in the mountains, his hands and feet unfeeling like the walrus-icicles that dangled from his mustache and beard. He dragged back what little dry wood he could find, occasionally trapping a rabbit for food.
The starving wolves became bolder. Buck's rifle failed to drive them away, his gunpowder supply almost gone.
When leaving the cave, Buck always buried his meager food supply in the floor, and covered it with heavy stones. The wolves invaded, but couldn’t reach the food. Buck drove them away again and again. One time the pack’s leader, a big silver gray wolf, blocked his path.
"Get away you son of a bitch,” yelled Buck.
The snaring beast refused. Its long fangs dripped saliva, as it crouched, ready to leap.
Buck raised his rifle and pulled the trigger. The flint hammered the striker. There were sparks, but the weapon didn’t fire.
"What the hell?" stammered Buck.
A thin layer of ice had kept the sparks from igniting the weapon's tiny pan of gunpowder that would have set off the main charge.
The wolf edged closer as Buck tried--but failed—-to clear the weapon. Desperately, he cocked it again and pulled the trigger. The hammer smashed forward. Sparks flew. The weapon didn’t fire!
The wolf advanced.
"If it’s a fight you want," yelled Buck, "you’ll get one you bastard." He gripped the rifle's barrel by both hands, and prepared to use the long weapon as a club.
"Come on-—try me," shouted Buck.
The wolf suddenly raced forward and leaped as Buck swung the rifle, hitting the big gray in its shoulder, knocking it sideways into the snow.
The wolf clamped its jaws on Buck’s left arm. The two rolled in the snow, the wolf ripping Buck’s sleeve, sinking its teeth into his wrist. Buck yelled with pain as his right hand clawed at his waist, trying to reach the pistol buried beneath his bulky furs.
The pack leader was on Buck's chest, tearing at his bearded throat. Buck lashed out with his arms and feet. He rolled onto his stomach, then onto his back, the wolf still at his throat. Buck's fur coat fell open, exposing his pistol. His right hand lifted the weapon, and fired point-blank into the wolf's underbelly. It leaped into the air, and collapsed across Buck's chest, its teeth still clamped on his throat. The animal went limp.
It was several seconds before Buck could breathe or move. His wrist and throat were bleeding. He pried open the wolf's jaws and rolled the dead animal to one side.
The remaining wolves seemed confused, running and howling. But within minutes they began circling and growling, prepared to attack. Buck raised his pistol and shot the nearest one, then the next. The pack turned and fled.
Still bleeding at his throat and wrist, Buck dragged himself back to the cave, there to bind his wounds as best he could, and to reload his weapons. Snow helped stop the bleeding.
Buck feared the vicious pack. But he also admired their beauty and grace, their perfect bodies built for speed and endurance. He also admired their savagery and courage, and their willingness to fight and die for the pack’s survival--as the big gray had done.
Buck skinned the three wolves and sealed their remains under snow and rocks in his enlarged underground food locker. He wasn’t ready to eat dog yet, but he might. Starvation makes men do strange things. The animals' thick fur would keep him warm.
That night the blood-lusting pack returned, their fiery red eyes staring from the dark, their bodies darting forward, and then suddenly retreating.
Buck’s two wounds healed slowly. He stayed by the fire, drinking tea, puffing on his pipe, rationing his meager supply of tobacco and food. Drinking and smoking eased his hunger and helped keep him warm.
A week later, Buck stumbled on the frozen remains of a small deer wedged in the top of a snow-covered tree. He believed the doe had plunged to her death from the cliffs above, probably chased there by the same wolf pack. He climbed the fir, cutting the branches with his hatchet, the wolves watching nearby. He was forced to shoot at the animals before he could drag the deer away.
He gorged on venison, thrilled with his good luck.
But the wolves, smelling the roasting meat, became frantic. He tossed the deer’s frozen guts, head and feet toward the hungry animals. The others held back as the pack’s new leader lunged for the food, snatched the largest chunk, and raced to a ridge above the cave. Then the pack devoured the remains of the deer.
Survival now seemed possible, but Buck knew he must carefully ration his food, and be constantly on the alert against the wolves. He had to prepare for what could still be a long winter. If a break in the weather occurred, he must be ready to leave before another storm.
He cut the deer skin into long strips, and using saplings, made a pair of crude snowshoes. He also made a small sled, and braided a rope.
Days later the storm broke. A warm morning sun revealed a pristine day under a cloudless sky. Buck took advantage of the moment, packed his supplies, and pulled his loaded sled down the mountain.
Before leaving he hacked up the frozen bodies of the three wolves he had killed, and scattering them to the pack—-an ironic gesture of good will. The animals didn't know or care it was their own kind. Buck hoped the wolves would survive until spring.
He tipped his fur hat toward the cave that had saved his life. It again belonged to the wolves. Inside, he had scratched crude letters in the fire-blackened stone:
SURVIVED LONG WINTER HERE IN 1840.
BUCK LONGWORTH, MOUNTAIN MAN.
Two days later Buck reached low rolling hills, forever leaving behind the snow and mountains. He was the last of his breed. Most beavers were now gone from America's mountain wilderness--trapped out by countless men who had preceded Buck. His days as a lone trapper were over.
"There are many ways to make a living," he said, "and I’m going to find one where it’s warm all the time.
There was a young woman back home who had been on Buck’s mind for a long time. Maybe he’d look her up.
He turned and saluted the mountain. The warm sun felt good as he readjusted his tall backpack, and moved toward flat country and home...as the last mountain man.