Adventure Thriller Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Selected Excerpts from the Travel Log of Mr. Charles Edward Rutherford

December 2, 1826

Johnson announced he would turn back today. This late in the year, he said, there’s no chance we shall find passage across the Teton Range before the snows come. He pleaded with me to join him; told me the chances of a greenhorn like myself surviving a snowstorm in the wilderness are exceedingly slim. But I promised Fisk that I would not return to the Colorado settlement without documenting a route through the Tetons. Competition in the fur trapping business has grown steeper as of late, and Fisk & Co. is in desperate need of an advantage.

Johnson and I spent the morning poring over his maps, planning the path I will take across the mountains. He has made this very journey half a dozen times in the past decade, and I am confident that as long as Lawrence and I stick to the map and maintain a swift pace, we shall reach Idaho territory in less than a week’s time. We have enough supplies to last us twice that, so even if we are slowed by an early-season storm, we’ve no cause for worry. Still, Johnson refused to take the risk. We sent him off just after midday with a pack full of jerky and gunpowder, and a letter Lawrence has asked Johnson to deliver to his new bride. It was a pity to see him go; up until now, he has been a most shrewd and knowledgeable guide, and I surely hope to be reunited with him next spring when we return to Colorado.

Now it is only Lawrence and I. The boy is decent company, although he is admittedly better at sums and accounting than he is at conversation. He has been in a most agitated mood all afternoon, presumably due to Johnson’s warning. I have assured him that he has nothing to worry about. We will cross the Tetons with time to spare, and when we succeed, Fisk & Co. will bestow us with an exceptional bonus. And when the company booms thanks to our achievements, even more money will follow – enough for him and his wife to live in comfort the rest of their lives. This seemed to settle his nerves somewhat.

He retired to bed some time ago, leaving me to write this by the embers of the dying campfire, under cover of the thick, shaggy pines that shield us from whatever creatures lurk in these woods. As the heat from the fire wanes, I can see my breaths cloud and crystallize before my face. I suppose I should feel apprehensive to be crossing the mountains this late in the season without a guide, but in truth, I am pleased I will no longer have to share my compensation with Johnson. 

The embers are all but gone, and the chill has grown quite harsh. I must wrap up this entry and return to my tent. We have another long day ahead of us tomorrow.

December 7, 1826

Snow today. The first sparse flakes began falling just as we packed up camp this morning and have grown heavier throughout the day. By mid-afternoon my boots were sinking an inch deep with every step. Although it is not yet especially late, I am writing this from the comfort of my tent, my furs wrapped around my shoulders. 

Lawrence expressed some concern at the inclement weather, asking me through chattering teeth if I was sure it would be wise to continue. I had forgotten he poor thing was born in the Carolinas, and is thus quite unaccustomed to northern winters. No doubt a few days of trekking through snowdrifts will toughen his blood and bolster his character. Still, I gave him one of my spare pelts for his bedroll.

I grant that it may become necessary for the two of us to take shelter for an extra day and wait out the storm. We have made considerable progress in the days since Johnson left, and assuming his maps are accurate, we have only two more days of travel before we reach the Idaho territory. The thought makes me half mad with excitement – a wagon-accessible route through the Tetons will truly revolutionize Fisk & Co. and set us on the path to become the preeminent fur trading company in the territories. Come spring, this very stretch of land will be bustling with traders, leading scores of fur-laden horses through the pine-carpeted forest, setting up campsites along the trail where men shall sing and gamble away their newly-minted fortunes and drink to Charles Rutherford.

Indeed, there shall be much to rejoice in the coming year. For now I must attend to my correspondence and perhaps read a few pages of a novel I picked up back in Colorado – Robinson Crusoe, written by an old British fellow. I hope that it brings me some comfort on this bitter night.

December 19, 1826

The terrain has proven somewhat more difficult than I had anticipated. Between the steep mountain paths, dense brush, and knee-deep snowdrifts that have since accumulated, our pace has slowed to a most tedious slog. The snow cover has also made it quite challenging to interpret Johnson’s maps, and several times I have had to take my best guess with regards to the correct route. There are no stars to guide me either, as the skies have been clouded over since the snowstorm began. In truth, we should have long since summited the Tetons and begun our descent into Idaho, and it is admittedly worrisome that we are several days behind schedule. Nevertheless, I maintain faith that as long as we continue due west, we will eventually reach our destination. 

Thus far the cold has not much troubled me, but poor Lawrence has fared much worse. His nose and cheeks appear frostbitten, and he hardly ever stops shivering. He complains that his fingers have gone completely numb; it took him twice as long as usual this evening to set up his tent and sleeping roll. As we sat by the fire, I attempted to rouse his spirits by reading to him from my novel, but it does not seem that he is very fond of literature. 

I have decided we must start rationing the remainder of our food supply. Despite the cold and the added physical toll of trudging through snow, we simply cannot risk running out of provisions in the middle of the wilderness. Although I still have my rifle and plenty of ammunition, I have not seen a single game animal in days; not even a squirrel. As I have previously written, we have plenty of extra supplies, so there is not yet cause for alarm. 

While it is certainly less than pleasant, I must admit there is something thrilling about our precarious situation. I feel as though I am going into battle with the harshest conditions Mother Nature can supply, armed only with my wits, my rifle, and a well-honed handaxe. I awake each morning rearing to take on whatever challenges may be thrown my way, and retiring every night having survived another day’s tribulations fills my chest with triumph. I hardly desire to return to the Fisk & Co. offices now, after having tasted the freedom of the mountains. But I am a man of business, above all. I must not abandon my duties.

???? 1826

I shall try my level best to record the events of the past few days with utmost accuracy. I write this still in the throes of grief, but grateful to be alive. I fear I have assumed a debt I can never hope to repay.

On Christmas Eve, a blizzard the likes of which I have never seen in my four-and-forty years of life swept down the mountain and forced Lawrence and myself to take shelter beneath a rocky outcropping, surrounded on three sides like a shallow cave. We remained there for quite some time, huddling under our pelts as we watched the snowdrifts grow higher and higher. They soon rose as high as my waist, so that it became impossible to leave our place of shelter, much less continue our journey. We would have to remain where we were until the blizzard stopped and the snow melted enough for us to return to the path. 

Lawrence was quite distraught, and asked me more than once if we were going to die. I assured him all would be well; that the storm was sure to reach its conclusion before long and we would be on our way in no time. Still, he spent several hours penning letters to his wife, his parents, and his older brother, just in case we should not make it home. I briefly wondered if I might do the same – though I have never married and my parents have long since passed, I suppose I could have written to Fisk and a few other colleagues of whom I am somewhat fond. But I figure this log shall serve as record enough for anyone who cares to learn of the events that transpired on this journey.

An hour or so after sunset on the second day, the snow finally stopped. We were both eager to emerge from the outcropping and press on, but the drifts were far too deep to navigate back to Johnson’s route with any degree of confidence. I told Lawrence to get some rest and hope that the weather should warm up soon. 

The next day proved no warmer than the last, even though the skies had cleared. There was no wood for a fire, although I set a stack of spare papers ablaze to provide a few moments of warmth. That afternoon, we ate the last of our provisions. I promised Lawrence that we would be well on our way before the pangs of hunger set in, but we had been restricting ourselves for days, and I had already begun to feel a dull, constant gnawing in my stomach. The cold was starting to trouble me as well. I lost all sensation in my toes, and no amount of stamping or writhing could get the blood in my feet flowing again. 

My memory of the next segment of this ordeal is somewhat hazy. I recall Lawrence and I pressed against the back wall of the cave, covered with every last one of our pelts, staring at the mound of snow blocking our exit from the terribly cramped space. I remember that I slept fitfully. The cold and hunger kept me from ever feeling fully rested, and even in my waking moments, my mental faculties were rather diminished. I began to lose sense of who I was, where I was, how I had ended up there. I was aware of the light outside growing brighter and then fading again as the mornings and nights went by, but in my nebulous state of semiconsciousness I could not say just how many days passed. During a rare stretch of lucidity, I sat up and read aloud a passage of my novel, determined that I would not let my wits abandon me entirely, although Lawrence’s muffled sobs and intermittent moans made focusing on the pages quite a challenge.

Early one morning, as the sunlight glittered across the surface of the snow like a field of sparklers, Lawrence rose to his feet. In a hoarse, blistery voice, he said he was going to attempt to tunnel his way out and make his way back down the mountain. He told me that I was welcome to join him if I wanted, but he would rather make one last effort to get back to his family than stay and waste away in the cave. I pleaded with him to reconsider – wandering back out into the wilderness now would mean certain death. Surely a warm spell would come soon and melt the snow, I reasoned, to no avail. He had made up his mind. I told him that I would stay behind and continue to Idaho, but that if he survived, we would surely be reunited soon in Colorado. As a precaution, he left his letters with me, then packed up his belongings and disappeared into the snow. In that moment, I was sure it was the last time I would see the boy.

Less than an hour later, a low, distant groaning woke me from a restless mid-morning nap. At first, I thought it was some sort of game animal, and I started to salivate at the thought of fresh meat. But the groan grew louder and more human-like, and I realized it was Lawrence. Was he calling out for help? What had happened? Perhaps he had fallen, or become trapped under a heap of snow. Whatever the case, he needed my help.

I called back that I was coming and pulled myself up. A jolt of adrenaline temporarily replaced the excruciating hunger, and I summoned the energy to impel myself out of the cave and toward Lawrence’s voice, following the path he had carved through the snow. I am unsure exactly how long it took me, but eventually I spotted the top of his deerskin cap. His head was the only part of him still visible – the rest of him had sunk entirely into a snowdrift. Relief flooded his face at the sight of me. He explained that his foot had gotten stuck – under a root, most likely – and he was unable to extricate himself.

I immediately began scooping the snow away from his body in order to get to his foot. It was indeed trapped beneath a root, and freeing him required hacking at the root with my handaxe until it snapped in two. Lawrence attempted to stand, but promptly collapsed – it appeared his ankle was quite badly twisted. I slung his arm across my shoulders and helped him the rest of the way back to the cave.

By this point, the boy’s condition was undeniably grim. He could barely speak, and his nose and fingers were completely black with gangrene. I did my best to comfort him, but without food, fire, or medicine, there was little I could do. He expelled his last breath just as the last of the day’s sunlight faded and the cave was thrown into darkness.

I truly believe that what I did next occurred in the throes of insanity and desperation; that I was driven mad by grief and isolation and exhaustion, and I failed to realize exactly what I was carrying out until it was all over. I maintain that I am still a God-fearing man, and were I of sound mind I would never have considered desecrating another human the way I did. But at that point I was so blind with hunger I could barely remember my own name, and my faith was momentarily abandoned.

I tore off Lawrence’s clothing and used my axe to split open his abdomen. Having butchered my fair share of hogs and cattle, I was quickly able to locate and remove the liver. I attempted to sink my teeth directly into the organ, but it was too tough to bite all the way through, so I chopped it into morsels small enough to swallow whole. The rush that followed was unlike anything I had ever felt – the gnawing in my stomach subsided, and strength flowed back into my limbs like water through a broken dam. I knew it would be unwise to overfill myself straightaway, so I ate gradually, gulping down another chunk every few minutes or so. After that was gone, I started on the kidneys. When I had finished those, I set down the axe and enjoyed the best night’s sleep I had had since leaving Colorado.

With food in my belly, I was able to begin properly counting the days again. After a week, the temperature began to rise, and after yet another it had receded from waist height to mid-calf. I passed the time hacking off Lawrence’s arms and legs, separating the muscle and fat from the skin, and cutting the meat into strips that I stored wrapped in a rabbit's pelt. I consumed the tongue, eyes, and most of the heart, although I avoided the brain, stomach, and intestines. Truth be told, the taste of the organs hardly registered. When I ate, it was as though I was possessed by the primitive instinct to survive, without regard for the aspect or origin of the food. It is most unfortunate that Lawrence met the fate he did, but had he not, we both surely would have perished.

When I emerged from the cave, I felt as though I were a new man. I forged up the mountain with seemingly boundless energy. Harsh winds burned my cheeks, and the stunningly white snow nearly blinded me, but I did not stop until I reached the summit. It is here that I am now writing this, atop the very pinnacle of the Teton Range, the whole of Idaho territory spread below me. I am sitting in front of a tall, crackling fire for the first time in an age, allowing its warmth to dissolve the chill and stiffness in my bones. Earlier I ran a stick through one of the remaining cuts of meat and roasted it over the open flame. I had almost forgotten the utter pleasure of a hot meal.

Tomorrow begins the leisurely trek down the mountainside to the trading post near Idaho Falls, where I shall enjoy a bath, a proper bed, and a handle of whiskey. I am sure the other traders will be most interested to hear of my adventures.

September 10, 2022 03:25

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