Louis St.Claire lay quiet, motionless in the quarter inch thin, crisp snow. He peered under the fallen Aspen tree at a massive bull elk straining his head skyward, nostrils flared, searching the air for the scent of a cow in estrous. His lip curled tightly in response to a fresh scent of urine somewhere upwind.
“Now is the time.” Louis thought. He quietly pulled the cock of his Barnett Trade Gun to full position.
The Bull Shred the silence of the quiet morning air of the valley letting out a deafening, long bugle followed by three short bugle bursts. The air around the bulls head billowed with steam from his breathy exhale. Louis watched keenly as the steam flowed over the elks back as it dissipated.
Louis had an open, right-rear flank shot. No trees, just tall grass and the fallen tree behind which he lay, between him and salvation. “Not a quick, kill shot.” He thought. “Turn, you damn beast.” Louis pleaded internally. “Turn just one step right.”
Louis applied slight finger pressure on the trigger awaiting any sign of movement. Any movement and he would take his shot. Praying the movement would be right.
The light layer of snow on the cold, moist meadow floor began to make remaining in a laying position uncomfortable. Louis’ buck skin turned soluble, it felt cold against his legs and groin. He briefly allowed a memory of his mother’s face callously stern announcing, “This too, shall pass.” His mind quickly dismissed the discomfort, remaining tightly focused on the Hunt. Louis drew a slow breath and held it in anticipation of the shot.
The Bull’s head snapped quickly left, looking over its left shoulder toward a spot directly across the meadow from Louis.
An airy whistle sliced the air. The massive Bull grunted, jumped one meter straight up, and pivoted in mid air, returning to the ground already in full stride. The shocked animal ran at full gallop up the hill behind and right of Louis’ position.
Louis curled to a kneeling position behind the fallen Aspen tree, his upper body exposed above it.
Across the meadow Louis spotted two, tall figures looking past him up the mountain toward the fleeing elk. They were both tall, their hair braided on each side of their heads. Their braids were wrapped in rawhide sleeves. Two black feathers adorned the left braid of each man. Their buckskins had finger length tassels hanging from every seam. Each wore a beaded breast plate of various colors. They held longbows just over a meter in length.
Louis stared unable to move. This was his second encounter alone with Indians. The first was with an unfriendly group of Sioux on the shores of the Platte River on the journey to the Rockies. That heated exchange cost him both his horses. At least they traded Louis a mule, a deal which did not seem negotiable at the time. The numbers were weighted heavily in the Sioux favor. Later Louis came to spitefully call the beast…Mule.
Across the meadow both Indians were occupied in celebration when they simultaneously noticed Louis. All three men became motionless, eyes locked. Tall, brown grass danced slowly over the snowy white expanse between them. Louis took mental note of the rising sun to his right, their left. That would be his direction of escape, up hill and into the Aspen grove toward the sun. He would have high ground, the trees for cover and the sun at his back… if he made it. Louis took a quick inventory of his arsenal, touching his chest. His powder horn and hat were on the ground. He blindly patted the snowy ground to his left searching for the horn, keeping his eyes keenly trained on the warriors. He lowered his eyes for a quick search. There; he quickly scooped them up. When he shifted his vision back toward the two Indians, they were gone, gone in that brief millisecond. Louis’ heart raced. He scanned the meadow then the Aspen trees beyond. Not a sign. It was as though they were ghosts from his imagination. Louis eyed the hill below and to his left as he pulled the tethered powder horn over his shoulder and stuffed the wool hat inside his buckskin jacket. Clutching his Trader Gun in the ready position, he made a hurried retreat up hill toward the rising sun. He scanned rapidly adjusting focal depth for any sign of movement, pivoting left then right then behind to monitor his flank. Once into the aspen grove Louis’ pace slowed, he held his rifle in his right hand by his side.
“Where are you?” He whispered, looking around slowly. “Are you also frightened? Have you run away home?”
He reached into his jacket pulled out his wool hat and fitted it snuggly onto his head. “Where the hell are you?”
Louis stopped in his tracks to get a fix on the direction of a noise. “What is it?” He had heard that sound before. “It had to be the elk thrashing his antlers. That means the Indians would be close by,” he thought.
Louis crouched looking over both shoulders. Then He proceeded up the hill toward the direction of the noise, His trader gun at the ready. One hundred meters up hill he could see the elk thrashing on the ground, its antlers tearing at the brush, a red stream flowed from its left shoulder turning the snow around it into a pink liquid flowing down hill toward Louis.
“Why are they not here to claim their kill? I know they could easily track…”
Louis ran straight up hill past the elk, dodging trees as he ran full stride. He had to get to back to his mule, supplies, pistols, and harvested beaver pelts before their thieving hands claimed it all. His throat felt raw from the cold air, his head pounded. He neared the top of the hill. His body wanted to stop. His legs ached and lungs burned. Over the top, “Only another half mile, down to the creek. I can make it now; it’s all down hill from here.”
Winded and physically spent Louis slowly approached his camp, clutching his rifle tightly, rapidly scanning the area for signs of the Indians. His breathy, steamy exhale betrayed his position. As he drew closer he watched his mule intently, watching his eyes and ears. The beast would sense a presence or betray any rapid movement nearby. Yet, it remained calm. No muscle twitch, no spooked eye movement, no stomping. Just calm chewing as Louis approached.
The camp was not disturbed. No supplies were missing. All was in order. “Where in gods grand mountains are they? Could they have feared my presence more than I theirs?”
Louis sighed as he laid his riffle against a close rock. One more look around as he pulled a day old biscuit out of his saddle bag and began eating as he packed the mule in preparation for departure. “This mountain is all yours; I’ll hunt the next one.” Louis mumbled, lashing down his bed roll.
A full day walk and feeling quite alone, Louis finally stopped to sleep if he could. He chose a strategic spot one hundred meters west of the river shore. It was high ground above the river, with a twenty meter protruding cliff behind it, plenty of forest surrounding with open sloping terrain beyond and down to the river, a perfect strong hold if necessary.
Louis prepared a sleeping area of pine branches in a rock crevasse of the cliff. Loaded both Horse Pistols and strategically placed them either side of his bed roll on the make shift pine bed. Once Mule was tied securely to the closest tree Louis piled his beaver pelts into the crevasse. Scouting the area one last time he pulled his bear skin over him and leaned against his beaver pelts, laid his trader rifle across his lap and settled in for a cold night. “No fire tonight Mule,” he quietly said, “Can’t take the chance.” Shivering against the night, Louis repeatedly whispered The Lord’s Prayer until hunger and fatigue forced his mind to rest.
Louis awoke to the sound of Mule haw-ing his displeasure at something or someone. His body jolted awake, he threw the skins off jumping to his feet. Pain racked his legs and back in protest of sudden movement. His rifle at the ready he pivoted his body left then right. Adrenalin possessed his movements. He spun quickly pointing his rifle above, ready for an assault from atop the cliff. Nothing, no sign of movement just the still morning air quietly interrupted by a ground squirrel gathering on the forest floor.
His attention immediately returned to Mule. Louis quickly made an inspection walk around Mule. One of his burlap bags was open on the ground. A small, leather bag lay open next to it. “My Salt!” Louis exclaimed aloud. “The devil spawn took my salt!” He picked up the bag in his left hand and looked inside. “At least they left me half.” He said to Mule, who was looking backwards with interest. “I must have awoken and scared them off, hey Mule.”
Mule quickly pulled his head up and stepped backwards wide eyed, ears forward and stiff. Louis dropped the salt bag and pulled his Trader rifle to his cheek. Looking down the barrel sight he turned in a complete circle, holding his breath to ensure the exhale steam did not obscure his vision. As he completed his circle a fluttering in the tree above him caught his eye. Louis jolted backwards two steps grunting involuntarily as he aimed into the tree.
It was a feather. A glossy, black feather reflecting the early morning rays as it twisted in the light breeze. The feather was tied to an old, tattered deer skin bag hanging from a pine branch.
Louis approached keeping his rifle trained on the bag. Rapid puffs of steam billowed from his mouth. “What could they have left and why hang it?” His mind raced. “Snakes!” “They want me to open it so they can watch me die slowly.”
Louis lifted his rifle slightly and poked the bag, withdrawing quickly then glancing around and behind for sneak assault. No movement from the forest and not a sound or movement from the bag, it just swayed slowly from his gentle push.
“What the hell is in there?” He whispered toward Mule. “It felt solid, and look, there is blood on the bottom of the bag. It felt like…” Louis’ eyes widened, his heart accelerated. “A head, he thought, “a human head!” Louis’ stomach turned. The mental image in combination with his empty stomach forced an involuntarily gag.
Louis looked at Mule who had now shifted to get a better look at Louis’ actions. “Let’s get a hold of our selves Mule. Why would they leave me a head? Besides, I have a perfectly beautiful head they could have taken while I slept.”
Louis lowered his rifle giving the surrounding forest another cautious scan. Laying his rifle against a rock under the bag, he reached around his waist pulling his hunting knife from its sheath. He stood on the rock and carefully cut the leather tassel. Stepping backward off the rock he held the bag by the tassel at arms length. A familiar smell permeated his senses. He knew instantly what treasure the bag contained. He fell to his knees frantically cutting the leather tassel, the bag fell open. A fresh, still bloody, ten pound cut of elk shoulder glistened in the morning sun.