My first memory is being lost on a cold December night when I was four. Behind our run-down house, I'd spotted an injured blue-wing duck flapping in distress. Wanting to catch it and take care of it, I chased it far into the woods, but the duck vanished into a thick row of gallberry bushes. I spent a few moments searching and calling out for the bird, but it was gone.
I don't know how long I wandered amongst the forbidding trees pointlessly calling for Mother or Father or my sister, Elizabeth. Mother was dead since summer, Father was probably drunk, and Elizabeth was only seven. I started to cry.
When night finally fell, I found a dry space under a log, crawled into it, and lay there shivering until the sun came up. Hungry and freezing, I staggered about the next morning until I was nearly trampled by cows being driven to pasture by a farmer.
"Whoa, there, little fella," the farmer said to me. "'Tis awfully early for you to be out. Where's your pa or ma?"
I was in such a daze, I could only look up at him.
"You're lost then, aren't you?" he said, sliding off his horse. "I'll have you home in no time. What do you call yourself?"
Ma called me her "Chappie," Pa called me his "Woe," but I didn't know what I called myself.
Snow spewed forth over my shivering form as I glanced backward one last time at that hellish region of western Pennsylvania known as the Allegheny Plateau. For the first three days of November, I'd battled across the plateau's stony, windswept heights, surviving only by some miracle. Thank God, it lay behind me.
Peering ahead, I tried to make out the yawning valley stretching ahead of me, but it was quickly lost in the swelling gloom of night. My only hint of the best way down appeared to be the faint scoring of some animal's hooves upon the steep rocks descending beneath me. Even that trail would soon be lost in the dark, leaving me to find my way down the precipitous route by feel. I felt dizzy just looking at the descent. It was far too easy to imagine the fatal slip that would send me careening onto the rocks far below.
My name was John Chapman, though I would gladly have been anyone else if given the chance. Two months had passed since I'd watched the Major die. Once again fingering the now tattered flyer upon which I'd foolishly pinned so many hopes, I smiled grimly at my appalling circumstances. I felt certain I was to follow in the Major's steps before morning.
At least I was ready to do so.
For hours I clambered downward over icy snarls of shattered stone, razorbushes that rent my clothes, and twisted, tangled roots that snagged my feet. I was more than exhausted by the damnable wilderness; I was being overwhelmed, crushed like a snail under the iron heel of a marching soldier. By the time I reached the bottom, I literally counted it another miracle I hadn't broken my neck.
At some point as I pushed along the valley floor in a haze of delirium, the storm passed on. Without even realizing it had stopped, I found myself in a clearing staring upward at the unexpectedly cloudless sky. Above me arched a panoply of brilliant, sparkling stars that would've taken my breath away if the cold hadn't already done so. And in front of me, not more than fifty paces away, stood a cabin.
I turned and fled back into the woods.
Here I was, frightened, confused, and dangerously close to dying, and upon being offered a reprieve, I hid in the woods. No wonder, as Father had oft pointed out, I would never achieve more than keeping myself alive -- and I was barely doing that. Shivering, I sank against the trunk of an enormous tree, wondering what to do, when any fool less timid and shamed than I would simply have gone up and asked for help.
A thin ribbon of white smoke, barely visible in the early-morning light, streamed up from the top of the cabin's chimney. The sharp, pungent scent of a fire reached my nose, sending pangs of hunger sweeping through me like brushfires across sun-baked fields in summer.
This was absurd. Gathering my courage, I rose and stepped into the clearing, common sense telling me to call out a warning before approaching. Otherwise I risked startling someone who would bestow me with a belly full of lead instead of soup. However, before I could utter so much as a syllable, the barrel of a gun bit deep into my neck. The strong stink of whiskey assaulting my nose only frightened me all the more. Without being told, I walked forward, being certain to keep my hands open and at my sides.
"I'll say this once," said the bearer of the gun. "Whether you live or die is up to your own sorry self. Drop your pack and tomahawk and step away."
At least whoever stood behind me didn't sound as drunk as he smelled, though his intent was unquestionably clear: do as told or die. I slid the leather straps off my shoulders, letting the nearly empty pack pitch to the ground. The barrel of the stranger's rifle stayed flush with my neck as I crouched to lay my tomahawk next to it, then stepped away.
"By the devil's accursed soul, who are you?"
Certain this man would just as soon shoot me as not, I tried to speak but found my voice had fled as surely as the summer sun.
"Not talking? You don't value your pitiful life much, do you?" Anger and distrust radiated from him like a fever. "I said, 'What's your goddamned name?'"
"It's John. John Chapman."
"Who sent you here?"
"Sent me? Nobody."
"You're a beshitted liar, that's what you are. It's the Company you're with, ain't it?" He jabbed me with the gun. "Ain't it?"
"No, I swear I'm not. I've no idea what you're talking about."
"Maybe. Maybe not." He pressed the barrel harder against my, flesh. "Perhaps you're a brigand preying on decent folks. I'd probably be better off killing you now and being done with it."
"Please," I begged. "I'm nobody. I'm not with anyone. I'll leave right now, and you'll never see me again."
"Where's your horse?"
I don't have a horse."
"It's the truth."
"Then how in hellfire did you get here?"
"You make as pathetic a liar as you do a brigand. Where are your supplies?"
"In my pack."
He kicked the pack where it lay by my feet. "It's empty."
"I ran out a couple of days ago."
"You mean to tell me that you have no supplies and no horse?" The gun slid down my neck to my back.
"You're not just a liar, you're a liar who takes me for a fool."
"Please, I'm not a liar. I'm lost and hungry."
I felt his eyes on me. "You do look as if you've taken more than one meal with Saint Anthony."
"You're right -- I haven't eaten in three days. I swear I intend you no harm."
"So said Judas to Jesus." He jabbed me again. "I'm supposed to believe that you show up here on the heels of a blizzard -- goddamned weeks from nowhere -- with no supplies, no horse, and all by yourself?"
I started to shrug again, but he jabbed me so hard in the back that I stumbled forward. If I lived until tomorrow, I knew I would find a bruise there. Furious, I nearly spun around and charged him. Only knowing that I would surely die held me back.
Then the anger drained away as quickly as it had come. Now the only feeling I could muster was despondency -- after all, who wants to die alone, unmourned, and having done nothing in life but run?
Not ready to die, I snapped back to the present. "What did you ask?"
"You must think me as dull-witted as the Indians who traded this valley for a barrel of whiskey. Well, I ain't buying what you're selling." Before I could speak, he grabbed me by the shoulder, then spun both of us around so I was positioned between him and the woods.
"It's a trap, ain't it?" he whispered, his mouth pressed next to my ear. He had wrapped his arm around my chest as if holding me in a lopsided embrace. His face felt warm, rough, unshaven, and the scent of whiskey-saturated sweat emanated from him. "You are a brigand, ain't you? Your friends are hiding and watching us right now."
For a moment, all was silent, except for the crunch of snow under his feet as he shifted about. "I know you're out there, you shits!" he bellowed abruptly. "If you try anything, I'll splatter your friend's guts from here to the Allegheny River!"
Already half out of my mind with cold and fear, I had to suppress an insane desire to yell "Get him now!" just to see what he would do. Instead, I said as evenly as possible, "I'm alone. I swear it."
"I doubt it, you filthy bunghole," he snarled. Without warning, he shoved me away. Before I could run or even fall to the ground, his rifle exploded from not more than two feet behind me. Petrified I'd been shot, I staggered forward, my ears ringing as I frantically searched my torso and arms and stomach.
I hadn't been hit, but missing from that distance hadn't been by accident. He must have been firing into the woods, hoping to frighten my nonexistent companions.
Weak-kneed and nauseated, gagging on the choking smell of gunpowder, I finally dared to look at the lunatic who might yet be the last person I ever saw. He retrieved a second rifle, then began pacing along some unseen border like a dog defending its territory. I half-expected him to stop and piss on one of the tree stumps.
In the dark, I could only make out his silhouette -- short but broad-shouldered, and as solid-looking as the trees that ringed us. Pausing, he drank from a bottle he took from his pocket, then stood facing the Cimmerian woods. Though he mostly struck me as a foolish drunk, there was also bravery in the defiant way he stood there ready to face the unknown.
"All right," he said at last. "So maybe you are alone. But where are your supplies then?"
I all but threw up my hands. "I told you before -- I ran out."
Raising the rifle, he stepped toward me. "Unless you want to see how interesting your insides look spattered all over the snow, you better watch your uppity tone. Understand?"
Wide-eyed, I nodded.
"Christ. You must be telling the truth about not being with the Company. Even they wouldn't hire someone this incompetent. You get lost, is that it? Been wandering around out there like some goddamned pudding head? What must your father think?"
At first I'd only felt humiliation, but at the mention of my father a wild anger swept over me. "Yes, I'm lost like some wretched pudding head! Is that what you want to hear? I can't do anything right, damn you! So if you're going to shoot me, you whoreson, then just do it! I don't give a twopenny damn anymore! Just get it over with! Go on!"
He stared at me a moment before lowering the gun. "I think I get it now. I've seen the likes of you afore."
My tirade left behind a throbbing in my head akin to a hangover. "The likes of what?"
"You're a fugitive from one thing or another. God knows what you're running from. Probably only God that cares."
Hoping this drunk, ignorant frontiersman's keenness went no further, I said weakly, "I'm not running from anything."
"Suit yourself. What's your name?"
"I already told you. John Chapman. What's yours?"
"None of your goddamned business. You ever even been on the frontier before, John Chapman?" He rolled his eyes. "I might as well be asking if you ever been to the moon."
Shivering again, I tried to respond, but couldn't. The longer we stood there, the more disoriented I became until the tall trees behind the man began to sway. First they tilted right, then as I tried to adjust, they swung back to the left. A strange look came over the man, and for some reason I tried to smile.
Then everything disappeared.
Somewhere nearby an owl called out. Looking up toward the heavens, I saw a shooting star arc its brief and brilliant path against the slowly lightening horizon. My breath, I realized, was drifting away into the frigid night.
I wasn't dead. Not yet. Either that or heaven was nothing like what the preachers had preached. On the other hand, not much about anything was what the preachers preached.
Coughing, I forced myself to sit upright. My legs were numb, despite my thick linsey pants, and I tried to massage some warmth into them. I wondered how long I had lain there like some ginned-up inebriate. Passing out wasn't the most auspicious start to my stay here -- wherever here was. Sprawled on my ass in the snow, I probably resembled my father more than I cared to admit. What a grand day this was turning out to be.
With a sigh, I rose and tucked in my shirt.
The cabin stood not more than twenty yards away. The open doorway, a lonely rectangle of light in an ocean of dark, put me in mind of the Longmeadow lighthouse. Fetching my pack, I trudged across the clearing but hesitated before entering. Warm air, redolent with the smell of frying and spices, flowed over me. My mouth watered, my body trembled.
"Are you going to come in, or should I just bar the door and let you freeze out there?"
The sudden sound of the man's voice made me jump. I half expected to feel the cold bite of his gun on my neck again. I entered.
An old oil lamp on the table threw a small circle of feeble light onto the floor. A log burned low in the fireplace while several rush lights -- dried rushes dipped in grease and then lit with an ember -- burned weakly and smokily in various cracks of the cabin walls. A large metal cross -- simple, barely more than two bars nailed together -- hung over a bed, the flickering flames dancing on it somber surface. Whatever else constituted the rest of the cabin lay swathed in quivering shadows.
After being cold for so long, the warm embrace of the cabin felt unnatural. The man sat at the table, just on the edge of the lamp light, his back to me. Next to the lamp sat the bleached skull of a horse, giving the entire tableau a somewhat ominous air. I watched the man's head bend downward as he scooped something into his mouth, then he nodded at a spot on the table across from him. "On the off chance you'd come to afore you froze to death, I dished up some mush. A few more minutes and I would've eaten it myself."
I stepped around the table so that I could face him. "That pitcher is filled with cider, and as soon as the griddle is hot, up some johnnycakes." In the dim light, all I could see was that had black hair framing a dark-complected face. "Or maybe you ain't hungry," he added sarcastically.
"What if I hadn't?"
He touched a large plate in the middle of the table. "There's chestnuts and apples as well. I haven't had much luck hunting late, so you'll have to make do without any goddamned meat." He lifted one of the apples, its dusky skin reflecting the lamplight, and took a crisp bite.
It was everything I could do to keep from rushing to the table.
Wiping his sleeve across his mouth, he said, "Well, by all the devils, are you going to eat or not?"
"You're fond of maledictions, aren't you?"
"Mallie-what?" He looked at me from under raised eyebrows.
"You like to curse."
"If you don't want to eat, it's fine by me." He reached for the mush.
"No, I do." I lowered myself into a chair. But I still hesitated until he shoved the bowl of mush toward me.
"You look like you haven't had a proper meal in weeks. Don't be so proud, you fool. Eat."
Actual pain rose from my stomach as steam curled from the warm mush into the cold morning air. My fingers shook so badly I had trouble gripping the wooden spoon. Unable to steady it, I gingerly lay the spoon down and resorted to using my fingers to scoop up a mouthful of mush.
Wasn't I just doing myself proud?
I ignored the derisive voice in my head and rolled the hot pulp on my tongue, savoring the sweet flavor. Food served in King George's court itself couldn't have tasted better.
Still not looking at the man, I greedily ate the rest, sucking each bit from my fingers. When I finished, I stared forlornly at my empty bowl and said, "Thank you."
"Refined one, ain't you?" Shaking his head, he wrinkled his nose and slid his half full bowl across to me.
If not for my hunger, I would have felt even more humiliated. Never in my life had I imagined I would be reduced to such circumstances. Desperately I devoured the rest of his mush. When the mush was gone, I grabbed a handful of nuts and an apple, from which I took such a large bite that I was almost unable to chew it. Still, I thought I'd never fill the hunger that gripped me.
The stranger grimaced. "I do believe you're the most pitiable thing I've ever seen. I hope your pa didn't live to see how bad you turned out."
Not only had Pa lived to see, I'm sure he would have found this man's judgment of me just. I wiped my sleeve across my chin, My eyes met his as I chewed, but I said nothing.
Shaking his head, he stood, took the horse's skull, and set it on a shelf by his bed. Going to the fireplace, he began frying johnycakes that were hot and sweet and glistened with a beautiful golden glaze of fat, I ate them ravenously between gulps of cider.
"Where did you come from?" he asked.
"And you looking so much like an experienced trapper and all, figured you'd come from trading with Indians out west. Where back east?"
"Longmeadow? Never heard of it."
"It's in Massachusetts."
He sat the griddle down with a bang. "Are you stupid or are you just purposefully being bullheaded? I meant where did you come from, fool. And don't tell me you just goddamned walked here from Massachusetts."
His anger brought me up short, reminding me to tread carefully. "I don't know the name of the last place I was. I really don't. It was small place on the other side of the plateau."
"The other side of the plateau?" He paused. "The Allegheny Plateau?"
I nodded as he handed me another johnnycake.
"You're telling me you crossed that plateau in a blizzard, dressed like that, with no horse? You did all that?"
Some shred of dignity welled up within me, and I slammed hand onto the table. "For the last time -- yes!"
Narrowing his eyes, he carried the sputtering pan to where I sat. I flinched as a drop of oil spattered my cheek. "Do you like my food? From the way you're wolfing it down, I'd say that you do."
"Fine. Then you damn well better answer all of my questions until I'm done asking. You understand that?"
I nodded again. "Sorry."
He went back to the stove. "You're either lying like there ain't no tomorrow, or you're the luckiest bugger I ever met. I ain't so certain which to believe." He sat down across from me.
"I'm not lying."
He stared at me with an unnerving intensity. "You may be lost and you may be a fool, but you must be tougher than you look." For the first time, his voice carried a hint of -- what? Warmth? Admiration?
I took another bite of the apple.
"By the way, it's Daniel McQuay."
"Is that Irish?"
"Why do you ask?" The warmth in his voice vanished, replaced with cold suspicion.
"You sound English, that's all."
"Well, I've never even been to England."
"My mistake." I'd asked because he neither sounded nor looked Irish, though I still hadn't got a really good look at him. "You probably hate the English even more than I do."
"What are you going on about?"
"I just meant that the English are enemies for us both, but given all that they've done to Ireland, you probably loathe them even more than me."
"Right. Only good Englishman is one split from his skull to his breastbone."
He really didn't like them. "These are good," I said, nodding at my plate.
When I said I could eat no more, he removed several armfuls of straw from his bed that he heaped into an empty corner. I gathered I would be sleeping alone, rather than our bundling together for warmth. From a box, he yanked a large black bearskin that he threw over the straw.
"We won't be bundling until it gets colder and I know you better," he said, sounding as if he expected me to complain. "I don't expect you're the type to slit my throat whilst I sleep, but make no mistake -- I'll be keeping an eye on you."
Shared body warmth or not, I was both too exhausted and grateful to even consider arguing. I stumbled to the corner and tried to pull off my boots. My feet were so swollen and painful that at first the boots wouldn't come free. I considered sleeping with them on, but with a final tug they popped loose. I fashioned a rough squab for my head and settled down into the straw. No bed had ever felt more agreeable.
A shadow dropped across me as the man appeared above me.
"Thanks again for everything," I said, pulling the bearskin over me. My body was so exhausted, I knew it would take only moments to drift off to sleep.
"You're welcome. Get some sleep, and we'll talk more later."
As he walked away, I let out a deep breath and began to believe that maybe everything might come right after all.
The man paused, turned back to me, and said, "If I catch you messing with my gun, my tomahawk, or damned well anything else you haven't been given liberty to touch, I'll kill you. You understand that?"
Sleep didn't come as easily as I'd thought.
Copyright © 1999 by Michael Jensen