Shadow in the Valley
The sky was an endless curtain of stars, hung like winter’s wool over the valley. It had been another long day’s ride following the sun, setting camp and settling for the night; the rider happened upon a decent clearing near a broad stream, sheltered by an overhanging rock. No bear or wolf tracks, but the water source was likely to draw predator and prey alike. It would do for a night or two, but he knew he would have to move on before long. He was not alone out here; the dark and shadowy thing that had been pursuing him since St. Louis was still out there. It had his scent. It would not stop. It never stopped.
He poked a narrow cedar branch had had fallen long ago enough to fully dry into the flickering embers of his campfire. Sparks popped and danced through the column of smoke, tiny amber lights alive in a swirling field of carbonized pine.
Now that dinner was contentedly easing its way through his belly, the rider took a few minutes to go through his supplies. In addition to his general goods – tools, traps, utensils and whiskey flask – he remained well covered. He had plenty of shot and powder to last him until he would need to head towards a trading post, and he would take care to avoid being so loaded down with furs that it would cause his cargo pony any troubles. Food and water he would find right where he was, with any consumables being replaced by the valuable goods he was out here to gather.
He figured another month or so and he would need to start heading back east to make the circuit complete. And every day’s ride west added an extra day to ride back, so he would have to decide if he wanted to risk another two weeks ride west or head south, or just wander aimlessly around the area. It was just barely summer; he wouldn’t need to worry about the snows for well past time to head back.
Having struck up a gentle alliance with the Nez Perce, he knew at least this general area would be safe from the locals. But there were still plenty of ways to die out here in the wild. Unlike the townships and trading roads back east, every step was on uncertain ground. Every breath needed your attention. He reckoned it was why he hated going back to town – one of the reasons, anyway. It was just that being in town around all the loud idiots that lived there seemed to just push him back further into himself. All the whiskey in the world couldn’t keep out their high-horse looks, their wrinkled noses. As if he was the one what smelled up a room.
After counting up his supplies, he took apart and cleaned his rifle and pistols. The flint in one of the pistols was worn down enough that he decided to replace it outright, adjusting and tightening the new stone. He tested the pull a couple of times to make sure it knocked sparks into the pan and made a mental note to get off a shot or two with powder to ensure its calibration. That still left him with one pistol and the rifle if he needed them, so he wasn’t concerned. He sat the rifle beside the head of his bedroll, gear ready in case something happened upon his camp in the night, and set about sharpening his long knife. The steady rhythm of steel against whetstone relaxed him, luring his mind into restfulness.
His long grey beard had just started to tickle his chest when he heard his name, whispered through the edge of darkness. The fire was mostly gone now, an orange glow shivering from the last lingering coals. So near to sleep, the shifting light made him wonder if he was even awake at all; he rested the edge of the knife against the back of his hand for a sense of consciousness. It was warm from the steadiness of its passes cross the stone, proving enough of a convincing to his wavering mind. And before he could assure himself elsewise, the voice came again from the shadows, calling his name.
He knew the voice, sure as if he’d been standing afore the old man himself what spoke. Of course it couldn’t be the man in the flesh, however. The old man had been dead long before the rider had left that world behind him. But out here past civilization, voices didn’t need a body to make themselves heard. He knew well enough not to answer the dead, though. No sense in giving them cause to start a whole conversation.
The rider sheathed his knife and tossed the whetstone back with the rest of his possibles, pulled the wool jacket up and over his shoulders and laid down with his back to the coals.
That night, the dreams came. More memories than new dreams, as if his brain had no strength left to make up new images for the mulling. Just rehashed old thoughts, replaying for his eyes alone. Flashes, more like. Arriving off the foul ships with his parents and siblings, working on a fishing boat by the age of eleven to help feed his family. The clogged and fetid streets and ramshackle housing tenements of the port of Boston. The back of his father’s hand when money got too hard to come by. Leaving home at fifteen, well of the age to strike out on his own. Never looking back.
When he woke, the shadow’s voice was still echoing in his ears. His cheek still stung with the old man’s hand. The sky was already shifting to shades of sunrise, giving him a limited scan of the area past his camp. Nothing of note; no footprints of beast or man. But then, the dead leave no trace of their passing.
To be continued