A Forlorn Hope by Rudolfo San Miguel
A Forlorn Hope by Rudolfo San Miguel
Charles Stanton was going to die. He was exhausted and snow blind. Everyone recognized his condition. He traveled to our camps from Fort Sutter through the blizzard and over the mountains. He explained that he needed time to rest, to rejuvenate for the journey back. None in our group were too naïve to believe his bravado, and though whispers suggested that we should stay with our benefactor and rescuer, everyone continued on, leaving Mr. Stanton to his inevitable death alone in the snow.
None in our group looked at on another. No one was talking; except for Luis and Salvador, who spoke to one another in their native tongue. Both had accompanied Charles Stanton from Fort Sutter. Being Indians of the Miwok Nation, the two upon arriving in our camp with Stanton had alarmed everyone as we had many malign and belligerent encounters with Indians. Stanton had explained they were friendly and sympathetic to our plight, and then warned us that only their knowledge of the region could guide us out of the snow.
Now Stanton was gone, and our group was lost. The Miwoks explained that the snow ridden landscape had taken away any hope of discerning the proper path. And though nothing could be seen across the landscape aside from the cold white death that rained upon us, all eyes gaped at the two Indians quietly.
Months earlier, our entire party, under the leadership of George Donner, had taken an ill-begotten “short cut,” sowing the seeds of our plight. After misfortune on this trail, we had found our way into the mountains and towards the final stretch into California. That’s when the snow began to fall. With Stanton’s arrival, fifteen of us left our comrades to escape and bring help only to be caught under the mountain’s endless ice.
We were walking across a field of trees that were half covered by snow. It was a little past noon, and no snow fell. The slope was near even and easy to travel across. This was a blessing. We continued forward slowly. Stanton was far beyond eyesight somewhere behind us. We had left him behind nearly three hours earlier. Everyone stuck close together. I kept an eye on them to make sure nobody fell behind. Carrying up the rear to guarantee the entire party was in my sight, I walked unnoticed for several more hours until Patrick Dolan decided to join me. He was a gangly man that this horrid winter had reduced to a pale twig in a baggy outfit, which sagged against his body like a coat on a coat-hanger.
(The expeditionary party actually consisted of 17 people, but two return shortly after the group’s departure.)
“You reckon Mr. Stanton will be able to rejoin us shortly?” Dolan said.
“I reckon. Mr. Stanton will do so.”
“But, do you believe he will rejoin us?”
“With God’s blessing and Mr. Dolan’s effort, he should return.”
“Yes,” Dolan said after a fit of coughing, “I agree he shall return shortly. A man of his stature can surely judge his own stamina; otherwise, why would he have laid against that tree?”
Dolan was truly a self-center fool. Did not all of us feel guilt for our actions? “The man has been through quite a bit. It is understandable that his constitution is far more reduced than ours.”
“Yes, yes, but he is a man of able to judgment. He shall return to us shortly.”
“Of course, he will. That is why we left him behind.”
The next morning there was no sign of Charles Stanton. No one mentioned his name, not even Patrick Dolan. No one also looks around for signs of his arrival.
The following day was our first day without food. This day would be our second. No one was questioning how much longer it would take to climb down out of the snow, nor how much longer afterward it would take to arrive at Fort Sutter. No one made a sound except for Sarah Foster, who sang quietly to herself:
Soon will the Lord my soul prepares,
For joys beyond the skies,
Where never-ceasing pleasures roll,
And praises never die.
I am bound for the promised land,
I am bound for the promised land
O who will come and go with me
I am bound for the promised land.
The melody rolled off her tongue cold and hollow, reverberating through trees and snow. Her husband, William, looked at her blankly for some time while she sang but said nothing.
The second day after abandoning Stanton was quiet. Some hours after mid-day, the slope began to become steep, reducing our pace. Mild snow fell against the mountain. I prayed throughout the day that our journey would continue with such mild weather. I felt the pangs of hunger throughout the afternoon and could discern from the party that my pain was mild compared to others.
At some point, Sarah Foster, with hollowed cheeks and cavernous eyes, began singing again. This provided some levity to our group. William Foster eventually joined his wife, followed by the Miwoks and Harriet Pike. We made camp next to a small grove of trees buried in the snow where the slope was evener. This was our second evening without food, and no one knew what to do.
“Can we all agree that we are lost?” William Foster said, who equally was as depleted of body mass as his wife. No one answered for several minutes. There was no sound but the murmurs of our fire.
“What of it?” Harriet Pike, who had taken to rocking back and forth, continued throughout the last two days, answered finally, “Are we not traveling down the mountains? Are we not surely to find ourselves below the snow eventually? Isn’t it obvious to be understood that game a plenty should be available for our consumption?”
“There is truth in this,” Foster said, “But one must ask how long this will take.”
“Trust in God, Mr. Foster,” Mrs. Pike said.
“There is truth in what Mrs. Pike has said,” I added, “Patience and a keen wit will be our chief virtue on our journey.”
No one said much after this. I stared at the fire, considering what options we had for reducing our time in the mountains.
“What of our stomachs?” Patrick Dolan said after a period of silence, “One can only go so long without nourishment.” By this time, Patrick Dolan was as thin as he could get and during the beginning of the previous evening, had begun to shake periodically. His eyes were red, as was his skin.
“There is plenty of food amongst us,” Dolan continued, “I mean, can we not find someone willing to make a sacrifice?
“What do you mean?” Antonio, a Mexican teamster, asked, “I don’t understand what sacrifices we can make. Should we begin eating our clothes?” Antonio was a small man that hunger had shriveled into a knot of bone and ligaments. He was of the most amiable nature throughout most of our journey from Missouri but, after becoming trapped in the mountains, had begun to keep company only with himself and speak only when spoken to.
“You know what I mean, sir,” Dolan replied, glaring at Antonio.
“No, actually,” William Foster said while gaping at the fire, “I don’t think anyone understands your words. Talk simply or say nothing at all.”
“Someone should die so the rest may live,” Dolan said.
“Mister,” I said with a little indignation, “Do you speak of murdering and consuming one among us?”
“If no one is ready for this sacrifice,” Dolan continued, “We can always draw straws.”
“Madness,” Sarah Foster barked, looking at her young brother Lemuel and pulling him close to her, “Do you propose to commit murder and abomination?”
Lemuel Murphy was twelve years old and volunteered to join the group along with his younger brother William even without snowshoes. He said someone would have to look after his sister. Sarah, with a deep concern for her young brothers, screamed and put up a fight to keep him out of our group. Her husband was able to convince her that their chances were as fair going with us as staying. The boys seemed to feel cowardly for remaining with the others. Lemeur wasn’t the only one without snowshoes. There were also two others. His younger brother William and Charles Burger, a teamster who went by the name Dutch Charley and worked for Louis Keseberg. Mr. Burger was a short Dutchman who showed some courage and a lot of words of guff. Both Mr. Burger and William were forced to return once frostbite began to show in their feet. Sarah pleaded to anyone who listened to ensure Lemeur would return as well. No one has the strength to do anything. Later, William Foster was able to fashion some snowshoes for the boy who continue onward with great courage. Over the last few days, his health deteriorated, and he had stopped speaking.
“I propose that the many survive by the sacrifice of the few,” Dolan replied.
“Like yourself, I assume, Mr. Dolan,” Jay Fosdick said.
Jay was only a couple of years older the Lemuel but had the frame of a man. His constitution had been stoic but now began to wither like an old plum rotting on the vine.
“You’re out of your God-forsaken mind,” Mary Graves said in disgust, “Is this why we left our companions at the lake? Shame on you!”
“If we must eat,” William Foster said, “Then I believe a man should have the opportunity to go out under his feet.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“We should have a dual,” William Foster proposed.
“Madness,” Mary Graves barked again, “You’re disturbed the both you, and I will not have it!”
The conversation continued for a while longer. I am willing to admit, it did kill time before sleep. The idea of a dual gained much traction, but a few thought it was horrid.
“In our current predicament,” I said, “Someone will die shortly by the will of the mountains.”
This idea was somewhat acceptable to a few in the group, and eventually, everyone decided to take this as an opportunity to consider this for a topic for the next day.
Antonio and Franklin Graves were discovered dead the next morning. No one was surprised by Antonio’s passing. He showed no signs of his morbid fate in his behavior, but the lack of flesh on his physique hinted at his nigh end. Franklin Graves, though, was a hearty man and was still very limber the day before. Without a doctor amongst us, we all took it as God’s will. His wife, Mary, cried incessantly and refused to hear anyone’s words of condolence. In light of these deaths, the group decided it would be prudent for our wits and constitution that we settle in our camp for a day or two longer.
The Fosters decided to take care of Mary, who sat alone desponded. We placed both dead bodies a distance from our fire but took no actions to bury either.
By noon, the snow had returned, and shortly afterward, it got rough, and as the group set up their tents, the snowfall became a blizzard. We sat in our shelters throughout the rest of the day as the blizzard continued to pummel the mountain. I shared a tent with Dolan. We sat there silently watching our fire become ash. The cold was intolerable. I could feel its bite in my bones.
Dolan’s complexion became pure red, and his shaking became worse. He would not respond to any of my concerns or attempts at conversation. Shortly after nightfall, he began speaking, but his words made no sense to my ears. The more he spoke, the more he shook erratically. His voice became louder, and after several attempts on my part to calm him down or gain an understanding of his words, Dolan began to undress.
“Mr. Dolan,” I said, “What is this to accomplish? Do you wish to die? Mr. Dolan!”
“I’m burning up,” he mumbled in his erratic haste, “I don’t like this. I don’t like this one bit. It’s time for me to go back. My apologies, Mr. Eddy, but it is time for me to return to the camp. I am no use anyone here.”
Naked and ranting, Dolan crawled out of the tent and ran into the darkness with the noise of the blizzard enveloping his hysterics. I heard several of his frantic prancing through the snow and deep into the wilderness. Weak and suffering from hunger, I sat there quietly and stared out at the black, watching the blizzard blanket the darkness with ice.
The thought of alerting the others and searching for Dolan crossed my mind. But how could I ask others, who were starving and frozen, to do something? Was there anything that could be done?
(In the historical record, this expeditionary group from the Donner Party, known as the “Forlorn Hope,” had no tents. For shelter, they resorted to sitting in a circle and covering themselves, as a group, under a large blanket together. For the mercy of their fictional counterparts, I provided tents.)
I lay down and dozed off for several hours only to be awakened by Dolan at some unknown hour. He rushed back into our tent out of nowhere as I quickly regained consciousness. The redness in his skin had turned to white. He looked at me with pleading eyes. I looked at him, unable to gather words. He lay down beside me, still naked. I tossed him his blanket and invited him to join me in prayer. We prayed for a while. Within an hour, Mr. Dolan quietly died as I prayed.
The next morning the blizzard left us, and there was no snow falling. I explained what happened to Patrick Dolan and asked for help moving his remains to lie with the others. Weak and distressed over the deaths, no one was willing to help until a new fire was begun. Shortly after the fire was started, we sat around the flames silently and warmed ourselves as best as possible.
“Mr. Dolan was right about one thing,” William Foster said as his wife glared at him, “If we do not eat, we shall all die shortly and fail in our task.”
His wife Sarah looked despondently at her young brother, whose stoic determination to endure our journey had inspired all of us. Unfortunately, Lemuel’s constitution, along with his lack of food and refuge from the cold, had hollowed out his eyes and depleted his mass until his ribcage pressed against his pallid flesh. Sarah kept silent.
“We cannot eat the flesh of another man,” Louis said, breaking his silence and looking at Salvador,” We humbly decline any such meal, but understand others must do what they believe is necessary.”
Mr. Foster looked at the Miwok harshly with his chapped and depleted countenance. There was silence for a minute longer. I looked for words to offer in defense of the Miwoks, but before I could speak, Mr. Foster offered his reply.
“Indeed,” Foster said, “To each man belongs his own judgment.”
“Certainly, everyone should make their own choices,” I said, “Considering the dire situation we face. I will abstain as well.”
“Then we are in agreement?” Mrs. Pike said near tears as she held the hand of Amanda McCutcheon, who also had become silent after we abandoned Charles Stanton.
“Agreed,” Jay Fosdick said as his bulky frame had withered and left him draped loosely in his clothes like a boy in a man’s outfit, “God Help Us.”
“Indeed,” Foster said, slowing rising to his feet.
What I remember vividly was the color of the red blood staining the white snow and the stench of the congealing gore, which reeked of rusty metal and spoiled meat. William Foster and his wife Sarah did the butchery while the rest gazed despondently at our fire. The harvesting of Patrick Dolan occurred as quickly as possible, considering the state of the butchers. I watched the Fosters butcher Mr. Dolan; whose emaciated corpse barely carried any beef between bones and skin. Part of me mourned the fate of Dolan’s remains; another part lingered on my forsaken opportunity to eat.
The harvest was cooked on dead branches over the campfire and distributed. Most stared listlessly at the fire while holding their pieces of meat, charred beyond resemblance of human flesh. Harriet Pike was the first to commence eating. She began by nibbling at the end of her food while continuing to look at the fire. Soon, she was biting deep into her meal, chewing it slowly as she gently swallowed and waited for her stomach’s judgment on whether to keep her deposit.
This process was repeated by nearly everyone else who was participating in the meal, except for Amanda McCutcheon, who wolfed down her portion of Mr. Dolan without any rebuttal from her stomach. Sarah attempted to feed her brother, whose health had continued to deteriorate. The boy’s continence was pale, and he was unable to walk unaided. His breathing was coarse, and his eyes stared languidly at nothing.
Harriet Pike, with grease pasted over her lips, glared at me. She chewed softly, seemly to make her meal last. “Envy me not, Mr. Eddy,” she said while chewing, “Though the meals welcome, it is horror. I know not what I eat. Is it Mr. Dolan’s limbs or his chest? The meat is tough enough, so I am sure it isn’t his entrails or his heart.”
We spent the rest of the day in our tents. The snow didn’t fall. I prayed for the weather’s continued mercy upon us. It was quiet and still. I could hear nothing but the crackling of the fire and Lemuel’s coughing, which would come in fits throughout the afternoon. An hour before sunset, Lemuel became silent indefinitely. Sarah Foster then started to sob hoarsely shortly after the sun left us. There was no snow that night. I slept restlessly with an empty stomach, which was agitated by the putrid stench of remains of our departed companions.
The morning was no less morbid than the day before. The snow around our camp was carpeted with Mr. Dolan’s blood. Its color darkening from a cherry red to a dark maroon. His bones and gristle were hastily left near a tree not too far from our tents. The stench of its decay had lingered into the morning. The remains of Mr. Graves and Antonio lay a distance further.
William Foster carried the body of Lemuel Murphy from his tent. His wife Sarah remained inside. Lemuel’s eyes were closed, and his thin limbs swayed. Mr. Foster carried him to the remains of Mr. Graves and Antonio and laid Lemuel there next to them.
Mr. Foster did not return but remained with the bodies and began butchering them for their meat and organs. Mrs. Pike eventually got up and assisted him with the harvesting of flesh. I listen to the sound of chopped flesh and snapped bones while I stared at the fire.
Sarah Foster sat silently, staring listlessly at the flames. I couldn’t imagine the depth of horror and sorrow she felt as her beloved brother was being butchered for our future meal. Could she accidentally end up eating a portion of Lemeur? Did she ponder who would be eating her dear brother’s remains? At some point, she turned to me with dead eyes. Her lips were chapped, and her skin had receded into the depth of her skull.
“Is everything alright, Sarah,” Mrs. McCutcheon asked cautiously.
Mrs. Foster looked over at her with her empty eyes. “I am hungry. That is all.”
There was something I was hiding from the rest of the party. I discovered it on the second day of our journey. My wife Eleanor had hidden a small portion of bear meat in my pack. I hadn’t touched it until that afternoon and told no one of my find, not even the Miwoks who were starving after refusing the flesh of our dead comrades. My companion’s morbid banquet had soured my stomach, and the cramps were sharp. That being said, my craving to eat was unbearable. I tried to ration what Eleanor had left but ended up consuming at least half of it.
The bear flesh was hard and stale. I welcomed it gladly and devoured it. Fearing someone was behind me while I chewed, I looked over my shoulder. There was no one. Nonetheless, I moved to a corner and crouched with my back facing the exist. There I cautiously gnawed and trembled at every sound that came from my eating.
The next day we continue forward with what strength we could muster from our rest and nourishment. The harvested meat was dried and preserved in the cold, then distributed amongst everyone, including the Miwoks and myself—as an encouragement to eat and as an auxiliary to the company’s rations. Harriet Pike made painstaking attention to ensure that each member did not receive meat from a relative.
There was no blizzard to push through, though snow fell on our brows. I could not feel anything at that point. We saunter forward without any sense of purpose or direction. We moved for the sake of moving. Everyone became accustomed to remaining silent.
By the end of the day, we made our fire as usual, and everyone began taking their allotted meal for the day. Thinking of the bear meat and a method of excusing myself, I considered simply walking away to my tent. Regardless, I remained and ruminated, thinking of the meat intensely. This would be my last meal if I ate it. While considering this, I retrieved the rations that I was given to carry. These actions wholly escaped me while contemplating the bear meat. Losing any kind of morality, I saw the rations in my hands. I ate.
We had begun following a frozen river at the bottom of a canyon westward. The route was easy to traverse and was moving in the correct direction. The condition of our party was forlorn. I personally hadn’t spoken to anyone in days. We were at least a couple of more meals away from running out of food. But we had fed for at least a week. Regardless, we were battered and starving. Footwear throughout the party was haggard. Boot leather was marked with gashes, and soles entrenched with craters reaching to the foot. Moccasins and other shoes began falling apart, and many of our party’s feet looked as if they’d been wrapped in filthy rags. As a result, many suffered swollen and bloody frostbite; some had toes that were black as coal and hard as granite.
After numerous days, the river turned southward. For the sake of remaining westward bound, we decided to climb out of the canyon and continue west. We consumed the last of our rations, slept, and began climbing an hour after sunrise.
It took us the rest of the day to finish the climb. The women had better luck making the climb as Mr. Foster, Mr. Fosdick, and I had been suffering a torpor of the spirit that sapped the vigor from our limbs. Far behind us, the Miwoks crawled upwards desperately, being many days without nourishment. The ground was so far from being level that a short distance became a ruthless endeavor. We eventually found ourselves clinging to any shrubby that protruded from the snow. By using the foliage as a means of grappling the canyon, we were able to travel out of the ridge. God had shown some mercy by taking away the snow, and so only the wind challenged us on our climb.
By the time we had reached the rim of the canyon wall, it was nearly the end of daylight. Somehow, we were able to make fire and set out tents. We all went to sleep soon after sunset without eating. This would have been extremely hard if it were not for exhaustion consuming the party. The next morning my stomach was sour and knotted. I looked for signs of anyone else, but everyone was still in their tents. I quickly retrieved the last of my bear meat and had breakfast.
Later the next day, we came upon a clearing that began sloping downward. We looked down towards a tremendous plain and saw where there was no snow. We had finally reached a point of hope, and this brought some levity to our group.
“God is good,” Harriet Pike said, “Amen, God is good.”
“Amen,” several others in our party replied.
“Shall we take a moment for prayer?” Jay Fosdick said, “If Mrs. Pike would be so kind as to lead us in communion with God?”
By this time, Fosdick was a shadow of the massive young man that he had been. He was the thinnest among us and could easily have been mistaken for an old man overdue for his burial. At many points, he required the assistance of others to walk. At other times, he would fall behind only to rejoin us later.
“Very well then,” Mrs. Pike answered, “Please let us lower our heads in reverence to the grace of God.”
And so everyone lowered their heads.
“Dear Lord,” Mrs. Pike began, “Thank you for guiding us to this point. Please grant us mercy for the sins we have committed. Please grant the sunlight of your spirit on our deceased: Mr. Charles Stanton, Mr. Frank Graves, Mr. Patrick Dolan, Mr. Lemuel Murphy, and our brave and valiant Antonio. May they all rest in peace. Though hardships may devour our bodies, by the flesh of our souls, we shall triumph. And only through your grace and mighty will. Blessed be to you, O Lord. Amen.”
And so everyone repeated, “Amen.”
The rest of the day was spent receding down the slope of the mountains, below the snow cursed landscape, and into fringed yet bare earth and foliage. Though it was no great distance, our condition compelled us to meander towards the valley floor. There was still much to traverse before this goal would be achieved.
By the end of the day, we had collapsed in a small meadow with grass as cold as ice. It took us a long time to get a fire started. The silence of the party ended with a discussion about food and what we could eat. Many suggestions were leveled before a solution was unwillingly accepted. We cooked the throngs of our snowshoes and ate them.
This made sense. There was no more snow, so those throngs were put to a better use. I cannot express the hapless meal this made for all of us. Many choked or gagged on their meal, most suffered sour and cramped stomachs afterwards. Something was better than nothing was the common refrain when the agony of our nourishment afflicted a member of our party. I could feel the restlessness of our group chafing across my flesh.
“It may come to pass,” William Foster muttered, “That the time will come that some must perish for the survival of the rest.”
Mr. Foster looked coldly at the Miwoks as he mumbled his words. His condition had become worse days earlier. He staggered more than walked and uttered a whispering murmur of words meant only for himself. His young pale complexion was now marked with sores and a long beard made of bramble of whiskers, which overtook his chin. I offered no reply and felt that none was needed. He may have been speaking to me, but, more likely, he may not have even noticed my presence. Later, I spoke with Miwoks, who were resting in their tent and advised them to be wary of Mr. Foster. The next morning the Miwoks were nowhere to be found.
We continued on without a word. No one acknowledged or spoke of the Miwoks departure. I assumed our Indian companions had wandered off to die alone, instead of by one of our hands.
By the next day, I spotted deer tracks. It was in the morning before everyone had awoken. The animal must have wandered amongst us as we slept. My first thought was to kill it before the Miwoks, whose whereabouts were a mystery, kill and take it for themselves. I immediately began to gather what little supplies that could be mustered for this hunting expedition, grabbing my father’s old rifle. Nearly ready to leave, I noticed William and Mary Foster watching.
I paused, seeing them stare. We said nothing to one another for several moments. Eventually, I got up and attempted to stand up straight instead of hunching. “There’s a deer track here,” I said to point to some tracks, “I will take this as luck. I’m leaving to track and kill it.”
There was another agonizing pause as the Fosters looked at one another in silent contemplation. Eventually, Sarah Foster looked at me and spoke. “I will go too,” he muttered, attempting to stand.
I watched him struggle for several seconds before his wife rose to her feet. “I’ll go,” she said, looking at her husband dead in the eyes.
Mr. Foster stared at her for a moment before sitting back down. she moved slowly but purposefully into their tent and emerged shortly with one or two items in a bag. Mr. Foster stared at the fire and said nothing. We left quietly without saying anything as well.
We followed the tracks for at least two to three hours before I caught sight of the gangly buck. It was struggling down the side of the mountain. It looked thin and exhausted. It appears it was coming out of the snow as well. It was in no better condition than any in our party. Still, it would feed us for at least a day or two.
I looked at Mrs. Foster, who was staring at the buck with wanton eyes. I raised the rifle, as the deer was as in good a site as could be hoped. But the weight of the weapon was greater than the strength in my arms. Still, I persevered to align the rifle with the target—a miss would be a lost chance to kill the deer as it would flee as much as it was able.
I couldn’t get the rifle to where I needed it to point. I decided to lower it for a moment and think of how I should handle the shot. The deer was focused on eating a scrub and was only concerned with filling its belly. I struggled to raise the weapon again but failed. Mrs. Foster sighed from behind. It was then that I saw a rock nearby that would be excellent to rest the rifle upon. I gently kneeled and laid the weapon onto it, took aim, and squeezed the trigger. The buck was hit in the rear and jumped before falling over. It began staggering away.
“Kill it, William!” Sarah Foster beckoned, “Kill it quick!”
I lurched over to the wounded animal while pulling a pocket knife out of my trousers. The animal could barely move. I fell over, trying to lunge at it, driving the small blade into his throat. I pulled it out and drove it in again, stabbing it relentlessly while it cried in agony. It was soon dead as I gasped for breath and lay beside it. Sarah Foster was hovering close by, and when she decided it was dead, she moved towards and grabbed a buck-knife she brought with her. She quickly started skinning it.
After regaining some strength, I started a fire without thinking about what I was doing. Sarah stripped enough meat to satisfy the both of us and began cooking it over the flames. We ravaged our meal with blood coursing down the sides of our faces. After filling our guts, we remained there exhausted by our work.
“That was good.”
“Yes, fine venison, fine meat. Dear Lord, thank you.”
“We still need to carve up our kill and take it back. It may be close to dark when we are finished cutting up the deer.”
“So should we stay here for the night? Under no shelter?”
“Our tents are more protection from the snow, and there is no snow. We have a sufficient fire.”
“Indeed, you had meat,” Sarah said grinning.
“And it was good.”
“You had meat you were hiding. I saw you on occasion eating when you thought no one was looking.”
I paused to think about how I should respond to her accusation, right as it was. “It was a surprise gift from my wife that I found in my bag. I do apologize for my greed.”
“Was it good?”.
“It was sufficient to overcome my hunger for a momentary while, but nothing more. This, I say honestly. Shall you tell the others of my sin?”
“No, there is no point. You hunted and killed us more food that will help the party. Besides, none of us could do anything about your sin anyways.”
We took the buck’s skin and, after cleaning it, used it as a blanket. We slept together under it, near the fire. I said the usual prayers of thanks and asked for more game soon. I only had three shots left. I fell asleep shortly after we retired. The next day we woke at the break of dawn, took our meat, and began our journey back to our companions.
We found everyone sitting around a campfire when we return, eating meat that they had cooked for a late breakfast. The group took the opportunity to sleep through the morning. They were devouring their noon hour supper when we returned. I felt this was fortunate. Their apparent kill would increase our surplus until we found more food. William Foster asked what happen to us. We explained the reasons for our delay. He was satisfied, especially since he was still in the middle of his meal.
“I see fortune favors us with two kills,” I said, sitting next to Mr. Foster while his wife prepared to store the venison, “Is it another deer?”
Mr. Foster looked at me for a moment before turning his gaze on the others around the fire. All kept their eyes to themselves. Mr. Foster looked back at me.
“Jay Fosdick passed away last evening. We did what we had to do and what we have done to survive.”
I lowered my head and coughed, avoiding eye contact. “I cannot fault you for that. Mr. Fosdick would have wanted it no other way.”
Mr. Foster looked at me, coolly with tired eyes, and then returned to his meal. “Indeed”
Afterwards, everyone returned to their tents and slept. The next morning we continued our journey down into the valley.
Our journey became easier for a while, as we were able to eat. It did not add an inch to our bony frames, nor did it appease our pangs of hunger. We were able to endure the next several days of travel with more strength. The path we were following was now far below the snowline. Though there was still ice and cold present, it was less harsh and frequent. Only light snow fell, and there were no further blizzards.
It wasn’t long that we were out of food again. There had been no prey and attempted to find tracks were an utter failure. Everyone was exhausted and afraid. We had no sure path or sense of direction. Our vantage point above the valley quickly vanished as we reached the foot of the mountains. The wilderness was immense.
In the late morning, after two days without food, we spotted smoke from a campfire. Fear of the unknown crept into my bones, along with the adulation of finding someone else out amongst the wild.
“How should we approach them?” Mrs. Pike asked.
“Cautiously,” Mr. Foster muttered, “Is the most obvious method. That and in hiding until we can determine who they are.”
“I will go,” I said weakly, “It is best that only one or two of us go, while the rest remain behind—until we can know who they are.”
“Then I will go too,” Mrs. Pike said, “I’ve got more strength at this time than you, Mr. Eddy.”
“I will also join you,” Mr. Foster muttered.
We continued forward, leaving our companions to rest. Because of our lack of strength, we took half an hour to walk a quarter of a mile. The forest was wet with a recent drizzle. There was a light breeze blowing from the north. The woods smelled like decaying tree bark and rotting manure. As we approached, I could hear the hisses and crackles of a campfire. There seemed to be no one present until we approach within the heat of the flames. It was then that I spotted Luis and Salvador lying half-dead in front of the fire on a large log. Their skin was pressed against their rib cages, which protruded from their torso like it was about to rend through the flesh.
Salvador slowly turned his head and looked up at me. His eyeballs glared like large marbles ready to fall from their sockets.
“We will take whatever food you can offer,” Salvador whispered, “If not, then say a prayer for us.”
I was without words or thoughts, looking at my companions, who both returned my gaze. Mr. Foster began raising his rifle and walked towards the two Miwoks. He said nothing. Salvador returned to staring at the fire. Louis was praying in his native tongue. I looked at Mr. Foster and let him pass in front of me. He shot both dead. We took their bodies towards some flat ground and began butchering them for meat.
To the Lord God, I will have to repent for my sins, both in my actions and inactions. I have participated in abandoning a man, eating my companions, and watching others murdered while I did nothing. Though I have survived many hardships that have taken others, I have sinned and tarnished the flesh of my soul. May the Lord allow me to give penance in my remaining years and grace after death.
The Miwoks’ flesh only fed us for a day longer. After their murders, no one spoke to one another. Several days afterward, we were discovered. We were given shelter and food. The holiness of our saviors, along with their strength and compassion, shielded us from any further deaths among our party. Two strong saviors accompanied each of us on our continued journey west. Struggling from one settlement to the next, we were fed as we continued onward. On the final day of our journey, I was escorted by my saviors to a lone cabin, around 40 miles from Sutter’s Fort. I explained my companions were friends from a local village and that I had more in my group who needed food and shelter. We were all welcomed generously.
Though the Lord had brought us salvation, he had scorned our lack of faith through the kindness of these gentle and valiant saviors. They were, of course, local Miwok villagers. We accepted their salvation with a great amount of humility. No one mentioned the murder of their brothers or the unholy eating of the dead. It is said that the wickedest sins are buried beneath the best of intentions. We had passed through the mountains and were able to send salvation to our comrades. This excuses nothing. But I do hope that God can see fit to look on this as goodwill on our part before we receive his judgment.
Copyright Rudolfo San Miguel 2020