Restlessness drove him out, into the gray light, louring cloud already swirling around the high peaks to the north.
Too many memories inside the stone and log cabin. Too many images he couldn’t shut out, not with exhaustion or whiskey. The crackle and spit of the hearth kept fading away, silence drawing close to wrap him in a mantle of the past, the way the cannon fire had faded and left him devoid of his senses when he’d seen the bodies, in the rubble.
Burning in his chest, freezing the moisture in his nose, the still air on this side of the ridge settled over him like a heavy blanket. Winter wolf pelt made up the outside of the coat, the inside lined with mink. He was warm enough, ploughing through thigh-deep snow to the windswept ridge line. Above the cabin, he kept within the treeline.
A walk to clear his head, check the creek traps, remind him of why he was here. The rifle nestled in his hand.
The wind moaned through the bare trunks and branches, its fingers plucking uselessly at the high, furred collar, seeking a way to his skin. It’d taken time to learn how to survive here.
A flurry of soft white spiraled from cloud low enough to touch. He blinked as the flakes clung to lashes and beard and brows, brittle and dry. The snow thickened, falling in curtains. It wasn’t too far to the creek. He didn’t want to go back. Not yet.
At first, the mountains had filled him with peace. Beautiful, wild, game everywhere and always a place to make camp, light a fire. Life had slowed to the walking pace of man or horse, up or down, picking the path with care. No people. No noise really, just the songs of the wind through the trees, the music of the water, chuckling over rock and timber, the wild calls of the wolves deep in the nights.
No screams. No whine of bullet or thunder of crumbing walls.
Spring, and the summer following, had been full of work, too full to let the past sneak in. He couldn’t recall it being easy but it hadn’t been hard. Physically, mentally taxing, learning it all. Putting old, half-remembered skills back to use.
The ground sloped downward on the other side of the ridge, into another pocket of deep cold, without wind. His fingers ached around the barrel, the metal freezing through the wrappings covering his palms. Beneath the tough, worked buffalo hide, his old trousers, with their stripes down the sides, were still warm and dry. They wouldn’t last much longer. The extra insulation, the familiarity of the soft fabric, gave traitorous comfort.
The turning of the leaves that year had shocked him out of his complacency. Cold had come in the nights, unlike any he’d known. Winter had almost killed him, turned on its head everything he thought he’d known about the wilderness and survival. The mountains were cruel and efficient killers, impersonal yet not without reason. He’d lost the reasons for the deaths he’d witnessed, those he’d participated in and instigated.
In the dark watches of those frigid nights, curled tight and shivering continually, those memories returned, masquerading as dreams, horror seeping through him in sour sweat and in constant movement, caught unawares in the corners of his eyes. Daybreak brought waking images. A season in hell. Enough mistakes made that he ought to have died. He hadn’t. There was always another dawn.
The snow was deeper, driven into drifts and packed against the jutting slabs of rock, underlying ice treacherous. Slithering down the channel between two boulders, he checked involuntarily when he saw the whitened outline. The toe of his boot caught in a crevice and forward momentum cartwheeled him down, into the trunk of a tree.
His head was ringing, speckled light dancing in his vision. His shoulder hurt, and he flexed his fingers, then moved his arm. Bruised, not broken. Lifting the rifle from the snow, he breathed a sigh of relief when it looked unharmed. He could survive here without a lot of things. The rifle wasn’t one of them.
Sitting opposite, back against a high stump, the object of his distraction stared back at him, a tableau of white and blue, real color long gone.
Hair hung down, matted and solid with ice. Beneath, the skin was polished, shadowed with blues and grays, gleaming like bone over brow and cheek. Even in the somber light, the heavy beard glittered.
Pale blue eyes, clouded and open, were fixed on a line just past his left shoulder. He resisted the temptation to follow their gaze, look behind him. Those eyes would never move again.
The winters ate the unprepared, the unlucky and the ignorant. Under the dusting of snow, the tweed coat was torn, lining dragged out in a dozen places. Rocking forward onto a knee, he edged toward the body and brushed the snow from the small sack by its side.
The contents told their tale. No food. A tattered book, mould-spotted, its cloth binding worn thin. The book beneath it was bound in leather, scuffed and dulled. He pulled it out. Some of the pages were clumped together. On the others, a spidery hand filled the paper to the edges. At the last entry, a picture, blanched with time, slid from the book. He knew without looking what it was.
He slipped the sack from the corpse’s shoulder, breaking the ice lines. Pistol, balls and horn clanked at the bottom.
The cabin would be the place to turn over the meager contents of this man’s life. He hunkered down beside the corpse, plucking the fallen picture from the snow, tucking it face down into the front of the journal. Turned the pages, eyes skimming until the words began to resolve into things he knew.
November 10, the days and nights are cold. I have to find shelter. Get more supplies. The loneliness crushes me. I think of you often. My heart knows no solace. December 4, I have been traveling for two weeks in search of another human being. I see the signs of the savages but never a person. Never someone to speak with. January 5, I think… out of food. The snow and wind is unrelenting. I will join you soon, beloved. May be that is what I came here for.
He shut the journal, pushed it back into the sack and levered himself onto his feet.
By Spring, not much would be left of the body. No one would come looking, or wonder. Those who came up here and stayed had no one left to care.
One day it would be him. He reached for the slab of rock, pulling himself up the narrow channel he’d fallen through. Injured or sick. Or too damned weary to want to keep going.
But not today.
Climbing the slope, he shut thought and feeling away. The push of the wind seared his cheeks as he reached the ridge line and he turned, heading for the trees.
There would be a better day to die.