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February 18, 1847
Bloody footprints in the snow greeted the rescue party from Bear Valley. They approached the camp from the direction of frozen Truckee Lake. The stained tracks veered, looped and crossed themselves—a drunken, demonic scrawl, an artist signing an infernal work in crimson. They ended at a mound of snow and ice roughly the size of a man.
"John, go check out that drift," Reason Tucker said to one of the Rhoads brothers. Tucker was a big man, broad, with a plain face and kind eyes. He wrapped his exhausted horse's reins around a low-hanging tree branch, trembling with fresh snow, and patted her shivering neck. "Rest of y'all start making a noise, call out. See if anyone is alive."
Mr. Eddy had told them where they would find the cabins, but all Tucker could see were misshapen hills of snow. So much snow, like the Almighty had grown tired of creating and had just decided to white it all out.
On the way up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Ned Coffeemeyer had opined over their puny campfire, likening the snow and the violence of the blizzards to the Great Flood of Noah's time, swallowing up the wicked.
"That's a myth," the dark stranger said as he rolled a cigarette. The stranger had joined the party after they set out from Fort Sutter. Knowing what dire and ugly work was likely afoot once they reached the camp, if they reached the camp, the remaining seven members of the rescue party had taken the stranger up on his offer to join them.
They had lost so many men. Some dead, due to the weather and the treachery of the climb, others deserting due to fear of certain death. The somber-garbed stranger's appearance, with his black hair, goatee and mustache, his fine ebony horse and his eyes the color of sin, stark against the snow, had seemed like providence. "The flood wasn't God's doing," the stranger said.
"You don't believe in the holy word of the Lord, sir, the Bible?" Daniel Rhoads said across the campfire, rising slightly in agitation at what he perceived as blasphemy. The stranger narrowed his eyes and regarded Rhoads. The gaze was enough to knock all the righteous anger and the surly irritation of the trail out of Rhoads and freeze him in his tracks. His brother, John, took his arm and pulled him back to his seat on the fallen log.
"Let him be, Danny," John said softly. "Sumbitch got eyes like a rattler. Nothing good gonna come from riling him."
"To answer your question, sir," the stranger said, and then licked his rolling paper. "I do believe in the Almighty, more than most, I'd wager. I just don't believe everything I read."
"You have some queer views on the Good Book, Mr.…," Septimous Moutrey said, sipping his cold, bitter black coffee.
"Bick," the dark stranger said, lighting his quirley. "Malachi Bick."
Now, seeing the massive mountains of snow where the cabins should be, Tucker had visions of women and children, still, cold, buried in tombs of ice. Frozen, dried up, like the pharaohs of old, some leaning with blood-caked fingernails against doors sealed by tons of snow and ice. Unmoving in the frozen darkness.
Joseph Sels's shout, frantic and muffled by the eerie, silent weight of the winter tableau, snapped Tucker back to his senses.
"Captain Tucker! Up here! It's bodies, sir!"
Tucker and the others shuffled-waddled-ran as best they could to avoid the sudden trap of falling into a thirty-foot snowdrift, which didn't support their weight. All of the party were shouting now, hollering out greetings and calls for any survivors to come into the washed-out daylight. Sels had climbed a narrow path behind one of the drifts that should have concealed a cabin. Tucker and John and Daniel Rhoads joined him. Daniel was still ill from the rarity of the air this high up in the Sierra, fighting for each breath.
Piled obscenely, like firewood, were human bodies: dozens of bodies, all frozen stiff and partly clothed. They were covered by a few inches of newly fallen snow. Near the bodies was a wide, low tree stump with a rusted axe, its blade buried in the wood. Blood had seeped into the wood grain of the frozen stump
"Children," Sels said in a whisper. "So many children. They're so tiny…"
Sels was a coarse man. He had been a sailor; he had lived a harsh life on and off the sea, and was only a few steps ahead of a deserter's noose. He had seen much ugliness in this world, but the tiny stiff forms, the sunken faces, brought him to his knees. He crossed himself and muttered the Lord's Prayer to the cold children.
"Most of the adults were lost when Graves' party tried to make it to Bear Valley," Tucker said, putting his hand on the former sailor's shoulder. "Say your peace, but be quick. It's getting dark, and we need to keep looking."
There were more shouts from the other men of the party, but Tucker didn't hear Bick's powerful, controlled baritone among them. Looking at the bodies, Tucker allowed a grim fantasy to cross his weary mind—that Bick, the stranger, garbed in black and astride a stallion the color of coal, was Death himself, come for an accounting.
"You were right about that drift with the bloody tracks, Captain," John Rhoads said. "Dead man. Been that way a long time—almost looks like some kind of a ghoul. He didn't have any shoes, but he was dragging a leg bone; looked the right size to be a man's too."
"Lord preserve us, the stories are true; they've degraded to man-eaters, cannibals," Sel said, rising off the snow and fumbling for his pistol under his coats and cloak.
"Steady," Tucker said. "We have nothing but scandalous rumor, gents. Let's not fly off the—"
"Captain!" It was the teamster, Sept Moutrey, shouting. "Look, they are coming out of the ground! The dead rising!"
In the feeble, struggling twilight, Tucker and the others began to see sections of the large and small snow mounds shudder and the snow fall away. Figures—skeletal, dirty, and pale—began to crawl, to rise, from the drifts. For a second, even Tucker felt fear clutch his stomach and balls. It was as if the snow itself had given up its corpses and animated them with a cruel mockery of life.
Bick appeared from a tangle of trees off to the left of the cluster of buried cabins. He walked quickly toward a shriveled, dark-haired creature that may have once been a human. She had appeared out of a hole in a drift near the center of the camp, and even in her pathetic state, she moved as if she were in charge. There was a nobility, a scrap of will in her that had not been devoured in the long frozen horror.
She stood and regarded Bick, while the other rescuers struggled to approach her as well. One of her small hands covered her mouth, the other hung limply at her side. She looked at the dark stranger with the last of the tears she could muster from the well of her soul. "Are you men from California, or do you come from Heaven?" the woman asked. Her voice was a dry rasp.
Tucker and the others had arrived now. Tucker noticed the rescue party was looking at the woman with revulsion and more than a little fear. She was like a bleached corpse, still moving, barely. Her face was a skull with pale, blotchy skin pulled too tight over it, like a drum. Tucker was surprised at how Bick regarded the woman, though. It was the first time since Tucker had met him that Bick had compassion in his eyes.
"These men are from California," Bick said. "They have come to help you, take you home."
"I'm Levianh Murphy," the woman said. She faltered, her eyes rolling back as she began to fall. Tucker and several of the men rushed forward to catch her, but Mrs. Murphy regained herself and stayed on her feet.
"Thank you, gentlemen," Mrs. Murphy said. "The Lord God has sent you to us, as providence. I'm sorry we can't offer you better hospitality."
Tucker heard Bick mutter under his breath as more of the cadaverous survivors crawled from their holes and gathered around Mrs. Murphy and the rescue party. "Remarkable," Bick said softly. "You people never cease to amaze me."
* * *
Darkness fell over Truckee Lake and the razor wind howled through the survivor camp, vicious and brazen, ripping into the makeshift shelters and rattling the collapsing cabins the survivors and rescuers huddled in. The full moon, bright and accusing like a vengeful queen, burned cold, silent light onto the camp.
The man out in the snow with the human leg bone was identified by Mrs. Murphy as a Mr. Wolfinger. She implied that he had met his fate at the hands of another member of the party. When Tucker inquired about the leg bone, a queer look crossed Mrs. Murphy's face.
"It makes my soul sick," she said. "No one can sit in judgment of us, though, save the Good Lord above. That's what Leanna told us."
"Leanna?" Tucker said.
"Leanna Donner," Murphy said. "George's little girl."
"Why in God's name are you people listening to a child?" Tucker asked.
"Because it talks to her," Mrs. Murphy said. "She is its High Priestess."
"The little girl?" Tucker said. "Whose high priestess?"
"The God," Mrs. Murphy said, her eyes glazing over. "The God in the Pot."
She would speak no more and went to her bed, turned to face the wall like an errant child, and hummed herself to sleep.
Many of the children, despite their lethargic condition from starvation and the life-sapping cold, were too excited by the prospect of rescue to sleep. A little girl named Naomi, who was about two years old, fidgeted in Tucker's lap, under the horse blanket he had with him.
"You intendin' to settle on a spot, Little Miss?" Tucker said. The girl's face was scabbed with patches of frostbite and dark from soot. Her cracked lips spread into a big smile.
"'Ventually…," Naomi muttered.
"Well you better hurry that process up, directly," Tucker said gruffly, although there was a smile in his tired eyes. "The cot you're jumping on intends to get a spot of shut-eye. You hear me?"
The little girl giggled and hugged Tucker's arm. Her laugh was the best sound Reason Tucker had ever heard. Children were a mystery to him still. He hoped to have a mess of them someday. Children could endure disasters, madness, and evil far better than grown men. Perhaps, he thought as he was drifting off, it was because the world had not yet fully beaten out of them the notion that anything was possible, that people were good, and that God answered prayers. Tucker was so tired, even with the numbing, painful cold, the stench of death and the constantly squirming, occasionally kicking, little bundle of life on his lap; he fell into a hard, dreamless sleep.
There was noise in the darkness, a blast of sub-zero wind. Tucker awoke with a start, raising his rifle to protect the slumbering charges all around him. It was Ned Coffeemeyer, opening the door to the Murphy cabin and stepping inside.
"Colder than a witch's tit, Captain," Ned said as he shook the snow and ice off him. Several of the sleeping forms on the floor groaned. In the darkness, a child coughed.
"Mind your language," Tucker said. "Got children in here."
Tucker blinked a few times as Coffeemeyer adjusted the wick and the hood on the lantern the rescue party had brought with them and held his hands near the lamp to warm them. Tucker looked around the room.
"Where's Bick?" Tucker asked. Coffeemeyer shrugged as he laid his blanket down on the cold, damp, earthen floor of the cabin. He used his pack as a pillow.
"Blazes, far as I'm concerned," Ned said. "I relieved him couple hours ago."
Tucker carefully lifted the little girl and covered her under his still-warm blanket as he stood. He buckled on his gun belt and picked his rifle up again.
"He ain't here," Tucker said, "and I'll wager that mudsill is up to no good somewhere."
"Well," Coffeemeyer said as he dimmed the lantern and pulled his hat over his eyes. "He's got to be over in the Breen family cabin, next door, Captain. Nobody's fool enough to walk miles to get to the cabin the Graves and Reed families are supposed to be holed up in, and Mrs. Murphy said it's about seven miles down to the Donner family camp."
Tucker stepped carefully over the sleeping forms to reach the cabin door.
"I'm checking the cabins," Tucker said. "All of them."
"Want me to come with you?" Ned asked, sitting up and pushing his hat back.
"Nah," Tucker said. "You get a few winks. If I'm not back by the time you wake up, come looking. If you can't find me and Bick shows up, you restrain him or shoot him. Understand?"
"Will do, Captain." Coffeemeyer said. "Be careful. I don't trust that sumbitch."
Tucker picked up one of the torches they had made from oiled cloth and tree branches. Once outside, he turned his back to the screeching wind and used his body to cover the match as he lit it and then the torch. The flame shot up the oiled rags and crackled and fluttered like a banner in the relentless maelstrom. He trudged toward the drift that held the cabin the Breen family had staked claim to when the party of pioneers had been forced to ford here at Truckee Lake for the winter. It took a few minutes of checking with Aquilla Glover, the current sentry on third watch, to ascertain that Bick was not in the Breen cabin.
"Why not wait to morning, Captain?" Glover asked. "Sun will be up, it will be warmer. We were headed out there anyway."
"Not waiting," Tucker said. "I'm not sure who or what Malachi Bick is, but he's up to no good and I can't wait to see what he's about. These people are already crazier than a pack of dogs in the sun; can't blame the poor bastards. Bick might take advantage of them. You gather a crew and follow me out in the morning. You hear a racket tonight, you shake a leg and come on out quick as you can."
Taking a few extra torches and a spare flask of oil, Tucker set out on the narrow walking path worn into the frozen packed snow. It was a little over a mile to the Graves family's cabin, and then about six more miles to the tents and shelters the Donners had quickly assembled to hold about twenty people near the bank of Adler Creek.
The torchlight jumped and shifted. Making a feeble, faltering circle of light in the dark, skeletal wood. Tucker's boots crunched and slid on the packed snow and ice every few steps, making him lurch and stagger like an infant learning to walk. The woods and the snow ate the noise of his passing, his panting breath, making him feel claustrophobic and watched. He clutched his rifle tightly, waiting for shrieking, pallid cannibals to spill from the dead woods to rip and bite his flesh. Tucker was not a religious man, but he quietly began to mutter the Lord's Prayer as he struggled through the all-devouring darkness.
As he neared the Graves' buried cabin, he began to imagine knocking on the cabin door, it flying open and dozens of scab-covered, talon-like hands tearing at him and pulling him into the putrid-smelling shadows of the cabin interior. He imagined being forced to participate in alien rituals to ravenous, inhuman gods. He imagined the sensation of teeth sinking into his flesh everywhere, a bloody morsel of impure meat being forced between his lips as obscene chants and prayers drummed into his brain.
Tucker had no desire to knock on that door and no idea what waited on the other side. If it were daylight, with his fellow rescuers at his back, he knew that the buried cabin held starving men women and children. But here and now, alone on the stage of his fears and imagination, he saw only snapping, stained teeth and madness.
A fear settled into him like the cold, turning his bones to frozen stone. And as many men do he began to attempt to rationalize a way to avoid his fear. Near the Graves settlement, he had spotted some horse tracks, which he took for Bick's black stallion's. Now, searching as quietly as he could near the cabin, he saw that the tracks went past the cabin and continued toward the Donner campsite, five or six miles distant. He decided to avoid the Graves and whatever waited within. Tucker trudged on, his fear spurring him to put more distance between himself and the cabin door.
He neared the Donner camp after long hours of struggling, of near exhaustion at the efforts to navigate the jagged scar of a trail, to avoid falling asleep in the warm, narcotic slumber of the life-stealing cold.
Dawn was near, a purple bruise across the throat of the east. Somewhere, crows cried out, laughing at his struggle in the ash-colored predawn. Tucker heard the choked gurgle of the creek mostly frozen but still fighting to escape.
He saw a fire jumping, dancing in the smaller of the two tent shelters. He saw shadows moving about the fire, and he saw Bick's horse waiting patiently outside the shelter. He cocked his rifle and made his way down, trying to shake the weariness, the dizzy fear and the numbing cold out of him.
"I understand, Leanna, this was not your doing," the voice said as Tucker approached the flaps to the shelter. The fire stood watch outside the roughly constructed tent. It was a fresh fire, newly made and set on a wooden base, like the campfires they had made during their ascent to Truckee Lake. The voice was warm oil, rubbed into leather—Bick.
"But now we have to make this right, and I have come to help you with that," Bick said. The voice paused. "Please, Captain Tucker, you must be cold from your trek. Come inside."
Tucker stepped around the campfire, dropping his torch into the fire. He pushed the rotting blanket aside, stepping into the shelter. There were dozens of people in the dirt-floored tent; most were too weak from hunger or exhaustion to stand. Near death, their eyes were already seeing into the lands of shade. They looked at Tucker with glassy, bulging orbs, but they were seeing things he could not. Some of them looked at Bick and mouthed words silently. One feebly crossed herself and smiled at him with rotted, stained teeth. Bick, seemingly untouched by the cold, the ice, the stench or the plight of the survivors, stood next to a little girl, maybe ten, perhaps twelve. It was hard to determine through the starvation and the neglect. She was wearing a filthy, torn nightshirt covered with dirt, shit and blood. Her hair was brown, long and matted. Tiny bones and black feathers were tied in her hair like ribbons. Her brown eyes were wide and sad.
"Leanna, this nice man is Captain Tucker. He's in charge of the rescue party I was telling you about. Captain Tucker, this is Leanna Donner."
"Bick," Tucker said, leveling his rifle at the man in black, "what are you up to out here?"
"Put the gun away, Tucker," Bick said. "I'm here to help you and them." Something in the timbre of his voice filled Tucker with an overwhelming desire to kneel, to bow his head to this man. The jumping light from the lantern in the tent cast Bick's shadow larger, almost inhuman, like some great bird, on the rotting canvas. Tucker lowered the rifle.
"Now, Leanna, please tell Mr. Tucker what you told me about how this all started."
Leanna looked at the ground, shyly, as if she had been caught in a naughty act. "It sang so pretty to me at first," she said softly, with a bit of a lisp. "When we stopped at the end of the desert for water, I heard it singing to me, and I walked away from the others to go find where it was coming from. Momma would be very mad at me, but it sounded so pretty and so alone."
Tucker looked from the girl to Bick in bewilderment. "Bick, what is she talking about?"
"Go on, Leanna," Bick said, placing a hand on the child's head.
"I found it in a cave," she said. "It asked if it could come to our new home with us and I said yes. It hated the cave and it couldn't leave on its own. The songs of old men and angels kept it there. I hid it in my blankets. It was quiet except at night. It talked to me when I slept and sometimes it was in my dreams."
Tucker knelt so that he was looking into the girl's eyes. She was crying a little bit, but her voice remained almost a monotone.
"Did this man put all this fool nonsense into your head, darlin'?" Tucker asked.
"Let her finish, Tucker," Bick said. "This is important. Go on, Leanna."
"Everyone was really mad at each other a lot, and after I found it and brought it with us, things got worse," she said. "Mr. Reed and Mr. Snyder, they fought. Mr. Reed killed Mr. Snyder, but folks said Mr. Snyder tried to kill Mr. Reed first. They made Mr. Reed go away on his own. Everyone kept getting angrier and breaking up into little gangs and groups. And it was whispering to them, in their dreams and behind their eyeballs. Then we were here, and Pa … Pa said we had to stay here until after the snow, and it got worse. It all got worse. We didn't have much food and we ate shoes and rugs after the horses were all gone. But it told me what we needed to do to make everything better. It talked through me sometimes to everyone, and sometimes it told me the words to say."
Tucker looked at this small child who spoke so well … too well. It was hard to breathe. He felt like he was a few steps away from dizzy madness in his mind and a tight terror in his chest he would be helpless before, but what choice did he have in any of this? The little girl didn't appear insane. She didn't appear to be lying either. The eerie words of Mrs. Murphy came back to him. Murphy had said this sweet, disheveled child was the high priestess of a god.
"Leanna, honey," Tucker said. "You keep saying ‘it.' What is it?"
"I'll show you," she said with a joyless smile. "Come here. You, too, Mr. Bick, come."
She shuffled back into the shadows of the tent. The other occupants writhed on the floor, in the dirt, like maggots in a hot skillet. They moved to make a path for their priestess and the two pilgrims. Many of them began to whisper a chant through dried, aching throats. Bick and Tucker followed the little girl. Tucker clutched his rifle and tried to bury his fears from earlier in the night, but he was becoming drunk with terror. The horrible, ridiculous fantasies he had summoned alone in the woods were coming to life now. This was no dream, no nightmare. This was the waking world and nothing seemed sure anymore.
"Meat," the broken, starving faithful hissed, "meat, meat, meat…"
At the back of the tent was a large black iron cook pot. The rancid stench was much stronger in the shelter here. Tucker gagged.
"Meat, meat, meat," the starving chanted.
"Sweet Lord, save our souls," he muttered, realizing he was praying like a child, terrified and seeking any protection he could find. He and Bick peered over the lip of the cauldron.
Inside were the scabbed-on remains of old meals baked to the iron walls. There was a viscous liquid with islands of white grease and blue-green mold near the bottom of the pot. Jutting out of the rancid broth were human long bones—arms, legs—boiled clean and brittle from being cooked over and over again. Smaller finger and knuckle bones, dozens of them, clustered like colonies of pale grubs in the remains of the liquid. More bones crisscrossed near the base of the pot, and resting in the nest of bones was a human skull.
"Meat, meat, meat," the chanting grew louder, more insistent.
The skull was yellow from age, obviously not the same as the other bleached and brittle bones in the pot. A thin spider web of hairline cracks radiated outward from the left brow, just above the dark, hollow orbits where eyes had once been. From the crown, and slightly back, was a several-inch-long fissure in the bone. It looked like a jack-o'-lantern's smile. The mandible and the maxima were intact, but the sockets for the teeth were all cracked and empty.
"No," Bick said. "No, damn it! This is all wrong."
"Yeah, no kidding," Tucker said. "These folks are eating each other, and it looks like they are worshiping a skull, a dammed skull!"
"Damned," Bick said. "Truer words were never spoken."
"Meat, meat, meat!" the weak and the dying snarled, thrashing on the dirt floor like snakes.
"Stop!" Bick said softly, but his voice held thunder like a cannon. Everyone in the shelter heard it. A blast of frigid wind howled through the tent. The candles were snuffed out, and the lanterns guttered. The chanting stopped.
Bick knelt by the girl. "Leanna, is this the way it was when you found it in the cave?" The little girl looked down again; she shuffled a little under the dark man's gaze. "I promise you are in no trouble, Leanna, but I must know."
"Bick, leave her be," Tucker said.
"Mr. Tucker," Bick said, "I like you, I see you have a kind soul. Please don't interrupt me again." Bick gently lifted Leanna's chin until she was looking at him again. "Leanna?"
"The teeth," Leanna muttered. "It told me to pull all the teeth out."
"What did you do with them, Leanna?" Bick asked.
"I … It … told me to scatter them outside, at dawn. The birds came and took them."
"Birds?" Tucker said. Leanna nodded.
"Crows," she said. "I've never seen so many crows. They made the sky dark again. They swooped on down and took them all, like bread crumbs. Then they flew off in every direction."
"When, Leanna?" Bick asked, standing.
"Yesterday morning," she said. "It told me you were coming."
Tucker looked at the dark rider. Bick ignored the captain's gaze. He cupped the little girl's face as she looked up at him. She was crying.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I did bad. I'm sorry."
"No, Leanna," Bick said, his voice softened. "You just did what you were told. It's all right. I want you to help Captain Tucker in any way you can. He is going to take you and your family home. You understand?"
"Yes, sir," she said.
Bick removed his duster and carefully wrapped it around the skull in the pot. He took the bundle and placed it under his arm. Tucker noticed for the first time since he met Malachi Bick that the man's breath didn't stream out of his mouth and nose in a cloud of condensation like everyone else's in the soul-numbing cold.
"Leanna, you are going to forget about this," Bick said. "All of this, in time. You all will. Life is a dream you wake from. Don't let this nightmare ruin the rest of your dream. Good-bye, Leanna. You were very brave. Thank you, bless you."
Bick touched the girl gently on the head, nodded to Tucker, and made his way out of the shelter with the skull under his arm.
Tucker followed him out into the gray light of morning. "One dammed minute, Bick! What is all this, some of the Devil's work? Are you in league with ol' Scratch?"
Bick had placed the skull in one of his saddlebags and was climbing onto his horse, a beautiful Arabian the color of coal. His name was Pecado.
"I only wish this was the Devil's work," Bick said. "It would make this much easier. This is far worse. And, no, like I told you, I'm here to help you. This isn't my responsibility. I'm cleaning up someone else's mess."
"Can you tell me what the hell is going on here?" Tucker said.
Bick sighed, and then looked down at Reason Tucker. "You really want to know, don't you? Very well. These people passed through my home on their way west. The little girl took the skull into her possession, unknown to me, or anyone else. The skull exuded certain … influence over these people, and this is the result—all this madness, murder, death, all this terrible hunger and rage."
"These were decent, normal, God-fearing people," Tucker said. "What the hell did that skull do to them?"
"Nothing that wasn't already there," Bick said. "I'm taking it back home and securing it. Unfortunately, now pieces of it have literally been scattered to the four winds. It wants to be loose in the world, it always has, and it seems to have found a way for fragments of it to be so."
"How did you know all this?" Tucker asked. "Why are you taking it? Are you some kind of expert in all this witchery? You wander around collecting cursed things?"
"Actually, I'm more of a homebody," Bick said. "Like I said, I'm cleaning up some other jackass's mess. But I do seem to collect interesting … trinkets. Good luck, Captain Tucker. Safe journey to you and yours. I doubt we will meet again. I'd prefer you speak as little about all this as possible."
Tucker scratched his head. "I wouldn't even know what to say. Careful heading down, and headed home, Mr. Bick. I can't imagine a place with things like that skull, a body could ever truly call home."
"It's as close to home as folks like me ever get," Bick said as Pecado began to trot toward the frozen creek. The dark rider and his obscene prize rode away into the blinding, bitter white of the Sierra dawn. Overhead, the dark shapes of crows mocked him as he began his long decent.
Copyright © 2014 by Rod Belcher