Excerpt: The Long Hunt
The Long Hunt
If Hell was a cold place, and not the blazing inferno that old preacher Sullivan used to rant about during his Sunday sermons back in Sandersville, Jesse Cade was sure he had found it.
He prodded his horse, whose entire body trembled and shook beneath Jesse’s own sore and numb midsection. But the action brought little result. The horse tried to plod forward through the snowdrifts, which were above the creature’s knees. And then it would tire, and stop as its breath froze painfully before it could even completely exhale.
“Come on, just a little more,” Jesse muttered, wincing as each breath he took in burned and stung the lining of his throat, working downward into his chest. “The sun’s dropping fast. We’ll make camp soon.”
Up ahead, not even forty yards away, was a small tree line of sorts. It wasn’t much, but there would be enough wood there to start a fire, which would hopefully warm them both enough to get them through the night.
The horse whinnied pitifully, a shadow of its once proud former self, thought Jesse, laughing at the irony of the thought. He wondered idly, his brain numb and blurred from hunger and cold, if he too was only a shadow of a once proud former self.
But all he knew was hunger. And all he knew was cold. And all he knew was that both he and the horse would be dead before nightfall if he didn’t make it to the tree line and get a fire started.
A strong gust of wind kicked up, swirling and stirring the fresh snow from the ground. It whipped up, and rushed at him, stinging him like sand from a sandstorm.
After brief hesitation, he dismounted the horse. His legs were so cold and stiff they almost didn’t work at first. In fact, he nearly fell over into a snow drift, but he grabbed a hold of the saddle and kept himself from sinking down into the snow.
His knee-high moccasins had seen better days, as had the two pair of old woolen socks, Union Army issue, that he’d taken off a dead soldier during the Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last hurrah of the Civil War.
Slowly, but surely he eventually led himself and the horse to the tree line. It was a monumental effort though, and his horse now shivered uncontrollably, almost as if it was already in the throes and spasms of death.
He tied the animal to a small, withered birch tree, again almost chuckling at his efforts.
“Guess it’s not like you could run off on me, even if you took a mind to,” Jesse muttered to the horse under his frozen breath.
He glanced out, trying to find the horizon line, which was lost in a haze of white. He hadn’t seen the sun for six days now, since he set out from Grand Junction. It was apparent before he left that the weather was changing.
Manny, the blacksmith, had warned him the slight changes, punctuated by a sudden overnight drop in temperatures, meant winter storms were coming. There was a point, after about a day of travel, when the first snows had fallen, that Jesse almost turned back around to head back to Grand Junction.
But it didn’t take long for those first snows to shift into an all-out blizzard, and before he knew it, it suddenly seemed too dangerous to try to head back. By his own estimates, he’d crossed the Utah border two days ago, and was well into the state by now. All he really could do now was continue to forge ahead, going south. He knew it would stay cold, but that once he hit the flatter lands of Utah, moving into Arizona, that the snows would probably cease.
Hopefully. If not, he would be in serious trouble.
It was cold. It was damned cold. His feet and legs were stiff and he tried to wriggle his toes to see if he could feel anything. They were numb as he expected them to be. The numbness had actually been creeping up both his legs for some time, but there still seemed to be some semblance of sensation there. He stomped his feet, in an attempt to get his circulation moving, to break the growing numbness. He might have been successful. But, really, it just hurt. He knew he had to get a fire going and quick, to thaw and dry out his moccasins and socks or else frost bite or hypothermia would set in.
But his legs hurt. God, they hurt, and his breath was coming in quick, burning, shallow gasps, like he just couldn’t get enough air. But there was no time to stop to think about it. He had to keep moving.
With that he made his way to the rucksack and saddle bags, which were still slung over his poor horse’s rump. He opened the rucksack first, being careful not to expose his Lucifer’s, or the striking stone he used to light them. He kept them wrapped in an old oil rag, the same one he used to clean his rifle and pistols with. Instead, he grabbed for his short-handled hatchet, which had been fashioned for him by the Apaches when he took asylum with them.
But that had been years ago.
With hatchet in hand, Jesse stumbled and made his way back to the trees. He worked quickly, and in a matter of ten minutes, he felled two small birch trees. He then cut them into smaller, more manageable pieces and began setting them in a circle, a good few feet out away from the tree line. As he noticed, most of the trees were bare birch trees. But he knew well enough that spruce trees and evergreen, which didn’t drop leaves, could hold large amounts of snow.
He’d heard tell of more than a few people who had perished in the cold, because evergreen boughs weighted down with snow had collapsed, putting out their only fire. As a result, Jesse never started a fire too close to any tree.
But once again, he thought, that wasn’t going to be a problem. The thin, withered branches above him were bare, reminding him of a gnarled spider web set against the wintry gloom.
“Nope,” Jesse said, talking to no one in particular. “My only problem tonight is going to be this damned cold. Now let’s see, if we can’t get this fire going.”
He talked to himself a lot while out on the trail, especially during times like these, when he was under duress. Along with the going through the motions of setting up camp, it kept him busy, occupied. Sometimes you had to keep your mind occupied. It was too easy to succumb to the elements, when all you did was think too hard on them.
Next, he carefully removed his heavy, furred gloves. The cold instantly nipped and then stung his hands and fingers, but he worked quickly and deftly, opening the oil cloth, then striking a Lucifer on the oiled striking stone. His hands had already begun to shake involuntarily, shivering from the cold, and he was afraid he was going to shake the lit match out. However, he stealthily held the match down to the smaller kindling twigs.
Those few seconds that fell between holding the match to the twigs and the first wisps of smoke, followed by the tiniest of flame, seemed to stretch on for an eternity. But the kindling caught. Jesse held his hands over the small flame just long enough to alleviate the burning cold, and then he re-wrapped the Lucifers and the stone. He then re-warmed his hand again as he fed several more small sticks, which also began to flame. Again, he held his hands over the flame, long enough to maintain feeling in them, and then he slipped his gloves back on.
The gloves and his hands were so cold it was hard to tell if either was really wet, but with the fire started, those were things he could check and deal with later.
His horse whinnied, shaking its head and snorting at the small fire.
“Quit your complaining,” Jesse said. “It’ll be big enough to warm us both up soon enough.”
The horse, though, stood at a sort of weird attention, its eyes scanning the darkening horizon to the east.
“What’s the matter you smell something girl?” Jesse asked the horse, as he rose up next to the fire. “I don’t care if there’s a hundred wolves out there watching us. If we don’t get this fire blazing and get ourselves warm, they’ll be nothing left for them to gnaw on but our frozen corpses.”
Still, Jesse laid his hand on the rifle and scanned the horizon, for the glow of predator eyes, but the twilight, gray light-dark was still too light to play reflections off anything. And, the only howls Jesse could hear were the mournful sounds of the whipping winds, which ebbed and flowed like a faraway river.
Satisfied that there was, in fact, nothing out there, save for him, his horse and the encroaching darkness, Jesse let his hand drop from the rifle and turned his attention back to the fire.
“Besides, even if it is a wolf out there, it ain’t our wolf,” Jesse muttered. “And that’s the only wolf we care about.”
The horse snorted, as if issuing his own retort, and then, almost as if it understood what Jesse had said, began to settle down, although it continued to step, or march in place, more than likely, trying to keep sensation alive in its own hooves.
Jesse kept adding smaller sticks to the fire, until it had grown in height and intensity. He laid four of the larger logs cris-cross across the fire, allowing them to catch. These were slower to catch fire, but eventually they did. He glanced at the two trees, which were cut up into manageable pieces of fire wood, and realized he was going to need more to make it through the long night ahead.
Gripping the hatchet, he trudged back out into the thick, powdery, drifts of snow, being careful to watch his footing. With each step, he sunk just about up to his knees in snow and the tremendous effort of it had him practically gasping for air, which only stung his face and burned his lungs, rather than rejuvenated him.
Still, he doubled over for a moment, allowing himself to try to calm his breathing. He knew he was working against time though. He made quick work of two more trees, and then slowly, painstakingly dragged them back to his impromptu camp. He chopped one of the two trees up, placing the chunks in a stack with the rest of the fire wood.
With that done, he added two of the larger logs to the fire and they to began to blaze enough to finally start radiating blessed heat and warmth.
The large blaze hadn’t come a moment too soon. Jesse realized that the full darkness of the early winter night had enshrouded him like a tomb just as the fire began to cackle and hiss in earnest. And, just as he’d cleared himself a resting place, and hung his moccasins and heavy wool socks to dry, the snow began to fall once again.
As warmth and feeling returned to his hands and feet, which he practically had to stick inside the fire, so did the pain, which was a dull, throbbing ache. It was dark, but even in the orange flame of the campfire, his swollen feet looked purple, twisted and ragged.
His moccasins and socks were not dry yet, but hunger was getting the best of him and Jesse knew he needed to eat. So, against his better judgment, he removed one of his four spare pairs of heavy, wool socks, and slid them over his aching feet.
He then rummaged through the rucksack and removed several items, including his canteen and mess kit, and the returned to his spot next to the fire. With great effort, he managed to unscrew his canteen, but just as he figured, the water inside was completely frozen, useless to the cravings of a thirsty man.
He unpacked his small mess kit, removing a small kettle pan. He then scooped up a handful of snow, dumped it inside the pan and then hoisted it above the fire. He then opened a pouch that contained strips of salt pork and jerky. He shredded one of the pieces of salt pork and dropped it into the simmering water and then resealed that pouch. He opened a larger pouch, which contained at least fourteen pieces of hardtack. He removed one of the pieces and crushed it up too, crumbling it into the water and salt pork.
Using a small wooden spoon, he stirred up the mixture until if formed a bubbly, light paste. He removed the kettle from the fire, let it cool for a few moments, and then ate.
It wasn’t the best meal Jesse Cade had ever eaten in his life. But by the same token it wasn’t the worst either. In fact, under the hellishly, frozen and rigid conditions, it was down right delicious.