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To Face a Savage Land

Hawley Cooper came to with his face in the snow. His head throbbed unmercifully, and he was chilled to the bone. He just lay a while, trying to remember what had happened, but the pain in his head made it impossible.

He finally shoved himself up, groaning, until he was on hands and knees. He rested, panting, letting the raging inside his skull lessen. Then, with a deep breath, he pushed all the way to his feet. He clamped his eyes shut, feeling as if someone was jabbing them with hot pokers. He finally opened them cautiously, but the world twisted and spun before him. He swayed, and felt his gorge rising.

He fought off the sickness and, with great care, looked around. Where there had been a fairly comfortable winter camp, there was nothing but a few odds and ends that would signify only that a man had passed this way once. Josiah Weeks and Tall Grass were gone, as was the tipi the Pawnee woman had made not long ago. The furs, equipment, horses, mules, everything was gone.

Cooper realized with a stab of fear that his rifle, pistol, capote, belt and possibles bag were gone, too. “No!” he screamed into the depths of the canyon, the single, drawn-out word coming back with diminishing volume to mock him. He was utterly alone, in winter, without warm clothing, food, blankets or weapons. He was several hundred miles, at best, from any fort or town; and in the heart of Indian country, surrounded by wind-torn, snow-covered, dangerous mountains. He did not even really know where he was.

He slumped down, the pain in his head almost forgotten for the moment in his grief and fear. And he remembered how he came to be in such a state.

Cooper was bending over, picking up a piece of wood when there was an explosion in his head. A bright light burst before his eyes, and he half turned, seeing Weeks standing over him with a log in his hand. He was still conscious as he fell, but the pain in his head was so great that he did not feel his nose break when it hit the frozen ground.

Before the blackness overwhelmed him, Cooper heard Weeks mutter, “Piss on ye, boy. There’s a time for words, and a time for doin’. The time for words is long past. It’s time I was doin’. I know all about your rendezvousin’ with Tall Grass.” Sparks of fury flickered in his eyes.

Cooper was aware of Weeks pawing at him, but he was too stunned to know exactly what the trapper was doing. Then he was jerked around, and almost turned over.

“Try’n take my woman from me, will ye?” Weeks grumbled. "Got-damned Injun-humpin’, no-good son of a bitch. Ye got some gall, boy, I’ll say that for ye. Try’n to take my woman. Got-damn, thinkin’ ye could do such to old Josiah Weeks.”

Cooper tried to speak, but he was barely conscious. Still Weeks babbled on, “I’m in no tolerable mood for dealin’ with the likes of ye anymore, boy. We’ll just see how ye do after I’m through with ye.” He laughed and almost giggled. There was more mumbling, but Cooper could no longer hear it.

Then Weeks was gone, and Cooper gratefully let the blackness smother him.

Now he sat, unable to stand any longer, holding his throbbing head in both hands, sucking in deep breaths to keep from vomiting. The pain was incredible.

How long he sat there, he did not know, but finally he could bear inaction no longer. He pushed himself unsteadily back up, realizing it was nearly dark. He stood weaving for a few moments before regaining his equilibrium.

Thinking still came hard, but he knew he had to make some decisions fast or he would be dead very soon.

Cold. He was so cold. Those hours laying on the ground seemed to have sucked all life’s warmth from his body, until even his bones ached.

Fire. Yes, that was it, his benumbed mind concluded at long last. He needed fire. For warmth. And light. He would feel better then. If he had a fire.

And food. Food would be good, too. It would help warm him from the inside, as the fire would warm him from the outside. He would be able to cope then.

But where to start? Wood was scattered all over, but his small firepit—made of stones he had painstakingly dragged up from the stream—was gone, as were the firepits where the lodge had stood. His lean-to had disappeared, shredded almost into dust under the hooves of horses and mules.

Cooper groaned. It was almost overwhelming. There was nothing left of the camp. Nothing. He closed his eyes and said a silent prayer, something he had not done since he was maybe ten. When he opened his eyes, his mind was made up. There was work to be done. Much work. First he would need a fire—and then food. Everything else could wait.

He bent and picked up several pieces of wood he had been gathering when Weeks had cracked him on the head. It was a start. But for a moment he thought it might be the end. As he bent, dizziness splashed over him in sickening waves. The ground reeled before him, and small dots swam in his vision.

Cooper sat heavily, suddenly, breathing hard. But he had several pieces of wood clutched tightly in hand. After some long, deep breaths to calm himself, he leaned forward until he was on his hands and knees. He walked across the old campsite that way—like a dog, he thought bitterly—picking up sticks as he went, and shoving them ahead of him on the ice-covered snow. He returned to where his separate little camp had been, and without bothering to rebuild the fire ring, dropped the sticks. Shaking from the pain and the cold, he laboriously gathered tinder. With a thong torn from his shirt and a stick, he made a small bow.

With a monumental effort, he worked the bow until fire sprang forth in the tinder. He built it up until a pleasant little blaze was going. He leaned his back against a log. His face was beaded with sweat, though he estimated the temperature was near zero, and the pounding of his head threatened to overwhelm him again. He gulped frigid air, fighting the bile surging up his gullet seeking escape.