Dead of Winter (by Monette)

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Summary:  A rare story of how the Cartwrights survived one particularly bad winter.

Rated: MA  (5,510 words)

Dead of Winter

January, 1857

Ben Cartwright attempted to stand.  But dizziness forced him back onto the settee.  He had stumbled all the way down the stairs and now doubted he could make it back up.  The habit of expecting breakfast to be waiting fuels a man who’s starving to death, even when the thought of it had long past died of hopelessness.  And he wasn’t even as bad off as his boys, as they’d gotten in the habit of sneaking some of their portions onto his plate until he stopped them—so long ago.  When they still had food.  How many days now without?  He couldn’t remember.

Finally Ben got to his feet.  With a hard beating heart and the hope of the slowly dying, he stumbled to the door and looked outside.  On the Ponderosa, his expansive ranch high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe, snow sat heavy and deep, glistening like the many sword blades of the Mexican cavalry and just as deadly.  No sign of the January thaw—just deep and gut wrenching cold.  The Cartwrights were isolated, alone, out of supplies and he had to admit it—he and his three sons were dying.  January thaw was due weeks ago but no sign of it.  Ben shut the door again and fell against it before righting himself.

“Hop Sing!”  But no, Hop Sing ran out of here three days ago, wielding a heavy butcher knife and a rifle, swearing to return with meat or die trying.  “I no see Cartlight men turnee to bones,” he had yelled.  Ben wondered, with a mind unable to focus, if the Chinaman had been properly dressed for the Tahoe weather, or if he even had enough meat left on his bones to withstand the frigid air.  “Meat on his bones.”  Everything became food to a man starving, he realized.

How would the Chinaman find game when they had all tried for weeks and failed?  The game was down in the valley for the winter, they all knew that, along with the winter stock, and so hope in all of them died, the spirit losing its will even before the body.  Hop Sing had gone mad and now lay out in the snow, frozen to death.

And there wasn’t a damn thing Ben could do about it.

Ben sat again—more like collapsed—into the settee and put his head back.  No way to feel comfortable anymore.  Everything hurt.  No food at all for five days.  That all?  Felt like five months.   And before that, starvation rations for nearly a month.  They had eaten all their animals except for the remaining three saddle horses.  Plenty of hay for them but they’ll starve too with no one to feed them.  No sense leaving them alive.  He had to butcher another horse today.  They all agreed. No more time to wait.  He kept hoping Hop Sing would return first, because as long as he was out there, there was a glimmer of something in his veins Ben recognized as hope.

An odd feeling, hope.  Not something Ben could remember living his life for, because there was always something to do, somewhere to go, and hope was just for someone who didn’t have the brains, brawn or back for hard work.  Now since all he had was hope, he found it kept returning, and that alone meant he was still alive.

They hoped for the thaw every day so that a horse, still living, could carry one of them to Eagle Station, down in the valley.  But if they ate all the horses, then what?  None of them were in any condition to walk it.  But the snow had piled so high on the mountain that the thaw would have to last two weeks for even a sleigh team to break through.  And would have started last week.

Still, he hoped.  They’d already been through so much together, breaking horses, breeding stock, and picking up land by making long excursions in every direction.  Ben found a smile on his face at the memory of explaining to Joe, years back, how they increased their herd size.  Sometimes they didn’t wait for the natural mating.  Ben told Joe about breeding techniques by hand and then showed him—and how big Joe’s eyes got at realizing what they were doing.

Now Ben had to kill Buck.  Family.  The last gift from Sutter, and Ben had to break Buck himself.  A rifle would be easiest, but then the sons would hear it and perhaps refuse to eat.  They all felt the pain of starvation but really didn’t feel much hunger anymore.  So they might refuse and Ben couldn’t bear that. [1]  A knife plunged into Buck’s heart?  What if he missed?  He never had to kill a horse quietly before, and a frightened horse could kill him easily.  Ben Cartwright never figured to die easy.

How did they get in such a desperate situation?  Early snows cut off the pass, isolated them.[2]  But they’d had early snows before and were always prepared.

This time everything went horribly wrong…

***

The front door opened and slammed.  “PA!  They found gold at Spooner Creek!”

Ben had been waiting for his youngest son, who had already missed supper by an hour.  “That’s not what I expect to hear, Joseph.  What about selling those head of stock?  The winter snows are coming and we need supplies—.”

“Pa, you don’t understand.  They found gold on our land and now—.”

“We have just one concern right now, young man, and that is to get this ranch ready for the long winter ahead.  You know what we do to trespassers—and they know it, too.”

“Yessir.”  Joe hung up his hat and walked to the table to see if Hoss had left him any food.  “Where’s Hoss and Adam?”

“You never mind them.”  Ben strode to the table, his heavy arms crossed over his chest.  He often worried that he gave his 15-year-old too much responsibility for his age, but Joe kept demanding to be allowed to do as much as his brothers.  So Ben made the tasks he gave Joe sound very important, and increased the importance as he earned it.  This time he might have given him a little too much.  “Tell me what I need to know, Joe.”

“I was on my way, Pa, honest. I had the five steer all going with me real nice.  But then these three guys, they come to me and ask if I knew you.  And I says, well, depends.  So then they tell me about the gold and I rode with them and then we followed the creek apiece and doggonit, Pa, we should go out and get it before they do!”

“And what happened to the five steer?  You know it’s all the cattle we can spare—.”

“Well, I left them grazing, for just a little while, Pa.  They’re pretty well protected, I think.”  He swallowed some milk and gave Ben a white-mustached grin.

“I need a straight answer, Joe.”  Ben crossed to the table where dishes had been cleared except his brandy glass and the food Joe was eating.  “How old are you, young man?”

Joe looked down at his finger tracing the hole in the tablecloth.  “Old enough.”

“Old enough to admit you don’t know where the stock is, right?  A simple job, locate them, deliver them, and bring the money home, that’s all.”  Ben sat at the table and picked up his brandy glass, but the golden liquid couldn’t quell this feeling in his gut.

“Oh, I know where they are, Pa.  Charlie and Stu are watching ‘em.  Just for tonight, because it was getting so late.  I’ll go back and finish the delivery tomorrow.  Well, I had to, Pa, I had to tell you about the gold.  I thought you’d be…” he shoved a piece of bread in his mouth, suddenly less animated.  “Excited.”

“Charlie and Stu?”

Joe stared up at his pa a moment before his eyes dropped and he threw the bread down on his plate.  “You don’t know who they are, do you.”  He slowly lifted his eyes to meet Pa’s.

“No, I don’t know who they are.”

Joe leaped to his feet and grabbed a handful of slice pork.  “Let’s go find ‘em, Pa.  You know what we do to trespassers.”

“It’s too late, Joe, you want to wander around out there with torches?  Cattle get skittish around torches.”

Hoss ran in the front door and slammed it behind him.  Joe sat back down, hoping to hide and eat at the same time.

“Pa!  Pa!”

“In here, Hoss.”

Hoss ran to the dining table.  “Our cattle’s been stolen, Pa!  The cattle Joe was…”  He saw Joe slouched at the table.  “Oh hi, Joe.”

“How do you know that, son?”

Hoss’s face was red from the wind and his exertion.  As Ben’s biggest son, he preferred to take things slower, and told his brothers he could get more done that way.  “These two fellers, I tried to stop ‘em because I saw the steer with our brands on ‘em, but one of them drew down on me so quick there was nothing I could do!”

“That must have been Charlie and Stu.”  Ben turned and glared at Joe.

Joe slunk down in his seat.

“Huh?”  Hoss looked from one to the other with no answer forthcoming.

“What’s all the ruckus?”  Adam walked down stairs fastening his pants, his red shirt unbuttoned. “Can’t a man get any sleep around here?”

Ben put a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  His eldest had been ailing lately and was trying to catch up on his sleep.  “Sorry, Adam, but Hoss and Joe—.”

“Adam, there’s a—.”

Ben put a hand up at Hoss.  “Our cattle’s been—.”

“I didn’t—!”

Adam put a hand on Joe’s shoulder as Joe tried to stand in protest.  “I think I got it.  Little Joe, while you were in charge of the herd, our cattle got stolen, right?”  Adam broke the tense silence that followed by clearing his throat. “Heard there was a bad group coming through, men looking for gold, looking to take whatever they could.  Sorry, Joe, I should have warned you.”

Ben shook his head.  “Don’t blame yourself, Adam, you haven’t been well enough to think clear lately.  I heard rumors, too, but figured we didn’t have enough up here for them to bother with.”

“Well, what are we going to do, Pa?  You know what the Paiutes told us about a bad winter coming.  Think Sal over at Eagle Station will float us for those supplies?”

Ben looked at his hands clenching the table, and unclenched them.  “Not sure, Adam.  Ever since that ruckus with his sheep…” He shook his head.  “We’ll be fine.  But we’ll have to try to find those men and our cattle.  I suggest that since we can’t do anything now we all get a good night’s sleep.  We’ll get up early tomorrow and get on their trail.”

Adam finished buttoning his shirt.  “I could take a lantern, look around.”  He walked to the door and looked outside.  “No moon out.  Makes it more difficult.  Wait a minute.”  He walked outside, barefoot, and after a minute came back in.  “Snowing.”

***

Ben heard a rustling upstairs.  Someone else had enough energy to get out of bed this morning.  He felt a vague rush of surprise—they’d all been gradually losing stamina over the past two months, and now, after five days with no food at all…He couldn’t imagine any of them having the desire to exert energy, but after a moment Joe walked down the stairs, not steady, but walking.

“Any sign of Hop Sing?”

“None.”

“Pa, I gotta go out, there’s gotta be some cattle wandering.”

“Cattle’s not enough, Joe.  We’re not just out of meat, we’re out of everything.  Fruit, bread, onions.”

“I know, Pa, we’ll get scurvy, but at least we won’t starve to death.”

“Sit down, son, before you fall.  You won’t last two minutes out there.”

“I’m okay, Pa.  But you should see Hoss.  His skin is just hanging on him.”

“And Adam?”

“Oh, he ain’t been the same since we found his horse froze in the snow.”

“I know.  He’s probably hungrier than the rest of us because he couldn’t eat much of it.”[3]

Joe collapsed onto the settee next to Ben.  “You know what we should do, Pa?”  When Ben didn’t answer Joe leaned over him.  “We should let more people move in around us.  Then we’d have some neighbors to borrow from.”

“Next year, Joe.”  Ben sat up suddenly, making his head throb.  “Did you hear that?”

“No.  Did it sound like a cow?”

“I’m not sure.”  Ben forced himself to his feet.  “Maybe Hop Sing?”

Joe and Ben went to the door and looked out, but a blinding wind blew snow into the room and they shut the door again.

Ben leaned against Joe.  “I’ve got to shoot a horse.  We gotta force ourselves to eat Buck.”

Joe nodded, tears glistening in his eyes.  “I know, Pa.  I’ll go tell Adam and Hoss.  Don’t worry, Pa, we’ll eat it.  We all feel bad about not getting those supplies…”

***

Hop Sing swung his heavy knife in the air as he yelled at Adam for coming back empty-handed.  “You not bling supplies!?  You see list?  You takee list?  You forget???  Your pa break open big box and give you coins plenty for food.”

“Now Hop Sing, just settle down.”  Adam carefully took the knife from the Chinaman’s hand and turned back to the dining table.  “Pa needed us to track down the cattle thieves.  I’ve got the list.  I’m going.”

“Today not enough.  Today and yesterday not enough.  Today, yesterday and tomollow maybe enough.  How you goin do that?”

“I’ll bring twice as much home today.”  Adam started for the door but Hop Sing followed.

“Alleady snow.  You not find what you need at Eagle post, you go Truckee post.  Then to Mormon Station.  Get stranded.  Die in snow.”[4]

“I’m not going to die in the snow.  It’s gotta come down in buckets for the horses and wagons to get bogged, and there’s only a couple inches out there.  No problem.  Probably going to rain later this week, too.”

Hoss burst into the house, hitting Adam with the door.  “Adam, we got problems!”

Adam grabbed the door and his jaw and glared at Hoss.  “Keep coming in the house that way you’ll have worse ones.  What’s wrong with you?”

“Them cattle thieves, they done it again.”

‘Oh, no, they went after the winter herd?”

“Yup, got five of ‘em, including the one we just bred!”

Hop Sing grabbed Adam’s arm.  “You lookee for cattle thieves instead of winter stock for kitchen, and not get either one?”

“Listen, Hop Sing, I know you’re busy, but would you mind going for the goods today?”  Generally the Cartwrights preferred not asking this because they knew what tends to happen to Hop Sing when he goes to any of the posts alone.  Just about everyone in the area despised these newcomer Chinamen and took every chance to let them know.

Hop Sing stared hard from one to the other and back again, his ponytail bobbing angrily.

Hoss shrugged and placed a hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder.  “Listen, Hop Sing, you know I would just plume waste away without my nourishment.  Tell you what, Adam and me will take the wagon and look for cattle thieves and go to Eagle Station, all right?”

“Yeah,” Adam nodded.  “We’ll see if we can hire us some more protection for what’s left of the winter herd in the valley, too.”

“Find us a cattle guard, Adam?”

“Something like that.”

They dashed out into the light snow before Hop Sing could brandish the knife again.

“You think we can get everything done, Hoss?”

“Guess we gotta, Adam.  Tell you what, you take the wagon and follow me along, and when we’ve done lost the trail of them thieves, you’ll head down to Eagle Station for the supplies and the guard, and I’ll head back to reassure Hop Sing, so he don’t go and do nothing foolish.”

“Oh, no, you don’t.  You made the promise, so I’ll go back and reassure him that you’re getting the goods.”  Adam gave Hoss a smug smile.  “Besides, I’m still recuperating.”

“Well, dadburnit, if you ain’t just the most cantankerous brother.  I thought it was Joe but now I ain’t so sure, uh-uh.”

They hitched the team to the wagon, and Adam finished putting boxes in the back while Hoss saddled Adam’s horse, something he taken to doing while Adam was recovering from the gripe.  Adam figured it only right because Hoss gave it to him.  “Hey, Adam, do you think that Kudwa is right about a bad winter this year?”

“Well, he’s not a medicine man of the Paiutes for nothing, Hoss.  I mean, he’s been dead on in pretty much all his predictions.”

“Ah.  How’s he do it, you reckon?”

Adam jumped into his horse’s saddle as Hoss clambered up into the wagon.  “You know, you could move more quickly if you lost ten pounds.”  He laughed at Hoss’s scrunched up attempt at an angry face.  “Kudwa tried explaining to me but I’m not that up on my Paiute.  His tribe puts great faith in him, though.”

“Yeah, well, I wish you hadn’t told Hop Sing.  Made him downright jumpy.”  Hoss flicked the wagon reins and they headed out.  “Come to think of it, I ain’t much happy about it myself.”

***

As sunset settled around the ranch house Hop Sing paced impatiently.  Ben never saw him so worried about a load of supplies before.  Ben and Joe kept exchanging looks but not words while eating.  They knew they couldn’t possibly get as riled as Hop Sing was.

Finally Ben grunted.  “Hop Sing, why don’t you sit and have a bite?  No sense it all going to waste.”

Grumbling maniacally and tossing food onto a plate, and sometimes missing—though Joe dared not giggle—Hop Sing sat at Adam’s plate and dug in.  He ate meticulously but furiously, with this break of routine causing only half of his discomfiture.  “They plomise supplies today.  They late.  They gettee stranded.  We starve.  Best to eat now.”

Ben cleared his throat. “I’ve never known Adam or Hoss to let you down, Hop Sing, but it’s true we’ve had a bad time of it so late in the year.  I hope—.”

They heard the clattering of wheels outside and all ran out, Hop Sing in the lead.

***

Ben forced his youngest to go back up to bed to save his strength for the inevitable horse soup.  He fought the memories of how they got into this fix but memories kept returning until finally he took total blame.  That had been their last chance to get the supplies before the snows arrived.  He didn’t blame his sons for the failure—he couldn’t.  It was more like the stars had been against them this year, the stars he’d been thanking every year since he took Adam west so many years before.  If he hadn’t been so distracted with the books, dwelling on the possibility of selling some of the land to come out after this year’s thefts, he would have gone for the supplies himself.  All his fault.  Next year, Dear Lord, we’ll lodge for two months in the valley, just let us live.  Next year we’ll build us a winter lodge in the valley to keep an eye on our stock ourselves.  Please don’t take my sons.

Adam and Hoss had managed to catch the cattle thieves, running into them almost by accident, but then, in an odd turnabout, the cattle thieves caught them.  They had their mind on supplies and not capture, anyway, Adam explained, and before they knew it they were tied in their wagon and their horses stolen.  Fortunately this had happened only a couple miles from home so when finally they were able to free themselves, they pulled the wagon themselves all the way back, able to follow the wagon tracks already made in the snow.  They were both exhausted and starved and made short work of whatever food was left.  They nearly left the wagon behind several times, but knew that if they were going to get supplies they couldn’t chance the thieves returning and taking the only wagon big enough for the purpose.

And now where was Hop Sing?  Out killing himself to give them some kind of hope.

The boys had promised an immediate trip to town the following morning, but the household awoke to find the house buried by five feet of snow.  Silent killer, that’s what snow was.  Only then did Ben learn why Hop Sing had been so frantic for supplies.  He knew the snow was coming, and he knew their supply was only enough for a couple months, at most.

That couple months was gone.

And now, what cattle thieves and gold robbers and other cutthroats couldn’t do to him and his boys, snow could.  Like the Donners eight years before, they were trapped, and only family members left to eat—their horses.  Adam’s horse had found its way back home, only to die and give them another few days of food.  Could he do what the Donners did and eat a son who’d died?  No, he would die himself, instead.

Ben thought he heard that noise again and struggled to his feet, knowing every exertion brought him closer to death.  He jerked open the front door as though hoping to see sudden spring.   “Hop Sing!”  His voice had lost its boom but carried a short distance anyway in the cold thin air.  “You out there?”

The horses had enough hay but he could hear them stomping against their corrals, wanting exercise.  Ben picked up the rifle he’d stood beside the door.  Buck had to be first.  His horse.  He looked up into the sun, seemingly a universe away but it still brought a sparkle to the snow-capped trees.  In years passed he’d always enjoyed how quiet the world of Lake Tahoe became in the winter, how clean and brilliant everything felt, even the air as he breathed it in.  Now his breathing had become shallow, and the white world surrounding the brilliant lake was nothing short of hideous.  Could he kill Buck and eat him?  Could he do that to save his sons?  Maybe he could let Buck loose, let him break a leg first trying to run through the snow.

But Buck wouldn’t run.  He trusted Ben too much.

“Hop Sing?”  Someone was out there, beyond the bunkhouse.  Or in the bunkhouse.  Ben forced himself through the snow path to the bunkhouse and opened the door, at first unable to get it open because something had fallen, blocking the door.  He could see a hand, and then a head…”Hop Sing!”

Finally the door opened enough for him to step in.  Not Hop Sing but a man he’d never seen before lay there, his mouth opening and shutting as he saw the big man leaning over him.  “Help…please…” but then his eyes froze as he breathed his last.

Not knowing how to deal with a dead man in the frozen winter, Ben backed away toward the house.  A man…dead…as soon his sons would be…

Inside the house Ben fell into the settee and his eyes closed.  He could not say later if it had been a dream or a memory, but he felt immersed in the rescue of the Donners, stranded in the Sierras on their way to California in 1846, not long after he first moved to Nevada from California.  These poor folks on a wagon train had taken a new, supposedly shorter route but got a late start.  Stranded in the snow, their supplies ran out.  By the time Ben and a number of others arrived to rescue them in early 1847, they found the survivors surrounded by human skeletons, bones stripped clean.

As the story evolved, at first they ate only those who died naturally, and then, when that wasn’t enough, some began to kill…they began to kill each other for food.[5]

***

“Pa.  Pa, you okay?”

Ben opened his eyes to see Adam staring down at him, his once handsome son now skeletal and listless.  “What’s…wrong…”  One of his sons, had one of them died?

“You were screaming, Pa, about having to eat Hop Sing.”

“Oh.  Sorry, just a bad dream.”

“Must have been remembering the Donners, eh?  I’ll never forget you telling me about it.  We’ll be okay, Pa.”  Adam swayed and then grabbed the wall for support.

“How, Adam?”  His eldest, skin pale and dry, had only barely recovered from illness before they had to go on starvation rations.  How was he surviving?

“Pa, where’s Hop Sing?  Did he come back?  Is he dead?”

“No, I haven’t seen him, but there’s a … a strange man in the bunkhouse, dead.  Cold as an icebox out there.  Probably…keep there till spring.”

Adam bit his lip to keep it from trembling.  “Dead?”  He dragged himself upright.  “I might know him.”    He grabbed the coat Ben had worn moments ago.

It seemed to take his boy forever to return.  As Ben felt his heart fill his chest with the hard-beating pain of worry and without any energy to rescue him, Adam came back inside.

“Pa, that’s one of the cattle thieves.  One of the ones that got us in this fix.  Pa, Hoss is bad off.  He’s gotta have food.”

“We all do, son.”  Ben struggled to his feet.  “I’ll…shoot Buck.”

“No!  Pa, if the Donners can do it, we can.”

“What?”  Ben found he wasn’t as shocked as he should have been.  “Adam, you can’t be serious.”

“It’ll buy us some time until Hop Sing gets back.  Pa, we don’t have to tell Hoss what he’s eating, he’ll never know.  We’ll use a lot of spice.”

“No, Adam.  I couldn’t.”  Ben tried to picture himself carving some meat off that man out there.  “I just couldn’t.”

“But you can eat our horses?  I’d rather eat the guy that did this to us.”  Adam shook his head.  He grabbed the settee to stand and face the stairs, his entire body slouched.  “I can’t even take those stairs.  I’m going into the guest room and Pa…I won’t be back out.”

Ben watched Adam disappear.  Can’t be serious.  Adam wasn’t beyond saying something startling to get Ben to move.  He concentrated—hard to think with his head hurting.  He had talked to one of the Donners—the name escaped him—and asked how he could live with himself.   At first the man, who seemed double Ben’s age, only shook his head.  But after thinking about it, he said, “I never killed anyone in my life, and never will.  But not eating the meat the Lord provides, in whatever form, is also like committing murder, by letting others starve. Yeah.  I live with it.  Because I am able to.”

Ben had to admit it that a dead man was easier to butcher than a live horse.  He used the walls for support and got into the kitchen for Hop Sing’s biggest butcher’s knife and a clean bucket.  He put on the warm coat and hat and stepped outside.  Why couldn’t a cow have found its way into the yard before dying?

He forced cows into his head, until all he could see was cows, even as he stepped into the bunkhouse.  Ben knelt and forced all thought away except of cows as he unbuttoned the man’s coat.  Arms, legs, neck, chest, where to begin?  Ben kept undressing the cow until he found the source of the best fat.  He grabbed the frozen flesh in his hand, pictured his sons whole and healthy again, and after a look through the open door at the whiteness of the outside world, began to hack at the meat.

***

Ben ate several scoops of the stew to make sure it was edible.  He nearly gagged on the taste in his mouth, but then his body accepted the nourishment and he found himself feeling stronger.  He tried to bring some to Adam but found the guest room empty, and then heard the brief sound of laughter coming from upstairs.

Ben, bowl and three forks in hand, stepped into Hoss’s room to see Joe and Adam each holding one of Hoss’s hands as they talked.  Hoss sat up in bed but he was pale, skin lying in folds about his face and neck, eyes black and listless.  He looked up at the smell of food, and opened his mouth as though to talk but nothing came out.  Ben put the stew on his lap.

“Dig in, boys.  Hop Sing found and cooked…some sort of animal.”

By the expression on the faces of first Adam and then Joe, Ben knew Adam must have told Joe about the dead man.

“Yeah,” Joe said to Hoss, a little louder than he needed to.  “Some animal kind of wandered into the yard and died.”

“Yeah, like one of our cows,” Adam said, perking up a bit with a kind of vague and unrealistic hope.

“Or a chicken,” Joe added.

“Hell, I’d even eat that cattle thief right now,” Hoss managed to whisper as he ate slowly at first, and then with more vigor as he realized this really was food and not an illusion.

Adam and Joe covered their eyes and swallowed hard before looking back at Hoss.  “I’d even eat you if you died right now, you skinny thing,” Adam said.

“Yeah, we got a new name for you, Hoss, we’re gonna call you Little Hoss!”  And Joe laughed a moment and then, dizzy, laid back against the bed post.

Ben pointed to the two extra forks.  “Adam, Joe, you need to eat, too.”

They hesitated.  “Well, what about you, Pa?” Adam asked.

“I’ve had my share already.  You’ll find you can only eat a little, at first.”  Ben swallowed hard at the sudden thick wetness in his throat.  “Hard to get your appetite back.”

Joe picked up a fork, and after a moment, Adam took hold of his.  Adam watched as Joe scooped up a forkful and put it to his lips.  “Smells okay, Adam.”

“Tastes great, Joe, what you worried about?”  Hoss looked from Joe to his Pa, and then down at the food again.  “Hey, what is this stuff?”

As if on cue Hop Sing burst into the room with another helping of stew.  “This I findee wandering.  You like elk, Hoss?  You Joe?  Adam, elk is always favlite.  Hop Sing know ways to make it last.  Then find way down mountain to valley for supplies.”

Ben laughed when he saw the expression on Adam and Joe’s faces.  “What did you boys think we were eating—Hop Sing?”  Ben grabbed the extra bowl that Hop Sing brought and as Hoss ate with a savoring appreciation of every mouthful, the four gathered around the bed and joined him.  Slowly, small mouthfuls at a time, all savoring and the room filled with the merry tunes of mmmmmmm.

“Hop Sing,” Hoss said, for once not getting scolded for talking with his mouth full, “you are just plain plum magical.”

Hop Sing nodded and laughed.

***

When they seemed satisfied, Hop Sing took the bowl and silverware back downstairs.  Listening to their happy conversation above him, Hop Sing snuck back outside to make sure the other dead cattle thief and his sleigh were well hid.

 

[1] See Oliver Knight, Following the Indian Wars: the story of the Newspaper correspondents among the Indian Campaigners (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1960), 267.  John F. Finerty, War Path and Bivouac (Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961, originally published 1890), 184; from Lt. Lawson on the Starvation March under General Crook in 1876, “When it comes to eating a horse, I’d as soon think of eating my brother!”

[2] By the middle of December, snow around Tahoe is on average 15 feet deep.   Average annual snowfall is 18 feet.  Information from the “Lake Tahoe – Facts and Figures” given out at the 2005 Convention.  The January average temperature is 36 – but for this particular winter, I have it at just under freezing until mid-January, or right around the time they start to starve.

[3] Gerhard Luhn wrote his wife on September 10, 1876, proud at how long he could hold out on Crook’s starvation march without eating a horse.  “The Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition of 1876”, Annals of Wyoming, 44.

[4] Carson City was founded as a community in 1858, seven years after the establishment of the Eagle Station Trading Post in 1851.  http://www.carson-city.nv.us/aboutcarson/history/1.htm .  Truckee Post is creative license.

[5] See more on the history of the Donner Party at http://www.donnerpartydiary.com/.

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

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Author: Monette

Author of two Bonanza novels, Felling of the Sons, and Mystic Fire; if you've read both of them, email her for a FREE copy of Passion of the Sons. She also has other historical novels, and a nonfiction published. Her published novels are available at Amazon.com

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