Marnie and her daughter Josie rely on Isaac to protect them, but the primitive Wyoming wilderness is fraught with danger.
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Five-year-old Josie wanted to catch a dragonfly. She searched along the shoreline, an empty jar in her hand. I told her to be stealthy and sneak up on them, so she raised each foot as though stepping out of a muddy hole, tiny face cloaked in concentration.
I love to sit here along the pristine lake that nestles against the towering Grand Teton mountains. While Josie plays, I often take out my sketchbook and draw the trees, the hills, and the deer who wander out from the woods.
Even though our cabin is close by, Isaac always warned me to stay indoors unless he is with us. He works our small parcel of land, planting the few vegetables that thrive in the harsh weather of the foothills. I help, bending over the tilled furrows, dropping seeds into trenches and patting the soil over them. Isaac fishes and hunts almost every day until the snows arrive. He’s gone for hours at a time, but is always home for supper. It is as though we have a silent understanding. He must be home by nightfall, so he can protect us from this unruly land that wants to swat us away as though we are nothing more than mosquitoes.
There are wild animals on our homestead. Bears, cougars, and wolves. Isaac chases them away with a blast from the rifle. We’ve heard there are Shoshone and Blackfoot here, too. So far, there have been no encounters in the seven years we’ve lived on our land. They must know we’re here, but choose to avoid us.
Isaac is stern with his warnings. “Marnie, don’t go outside when I’m gone. Not even to feed the animals. I’ll always be home in time for those chores. I don’t want you going into the barn alone. Stay away from the lake, too.”
I smile, knowing that he loves and protects us. We usually heed his warnings and stay inside when he’s gone. However, from time to time Josie and I come to the water’s edge and enjoy the outdoors.
Yesterday morning Isaac took the wagon to Jackson for supplies. He left at dawn, a lantern swinging from the buckboard as the horses navigated a rough-hewn trail in the early light. Isaac won’t tarry in town. He’ll get our supplies and hurry back, the team eager for their supper as he slaps the reins against their haunches. Even so, it will be late evening before I hear the creak of the wagon as it jolts down the path.
Morning rose above the mountains and swept a layer of fog over the lake. Crisp October sunshine warmed the surface of the water, now busy with gnats. The sky was clear, and the last of the Queen Anne’s Lace danced in the breeze along the shore.
I took Josie out for a while to bask in the autumn warmth. Already the brisk wind caressed and flushed her cheeks. I pulled a warm fur cap on her head and covered my own with an old straw bonnet.
Sitting on a rock by the water, I glanced at the cabin behind us and noticed how dark and foreboding it looked in the shadow of the lodgepole pines. It’s cold in the summer, colder in the winter. Without Isaac in bed to warm the covers, it would be unbearable.
I’d left a pot of stew dangling over the fire in the cabin. The aromatic scent of deer meat and the last of the summer vegetables wafted up through the chimney, as the smoke curled in wispy arcs. Soon we’d go back inside and warm ourselves by the hearth. Josie might play with her dolls while I bake a pie from the apples in the orchard. I’d taken butter out of the larder earlier, to soften in the light from the window.
I thought I saw movement out of the corner of my eye along the bank, and then it stilled. Craning my neck, I glance over at Josie. She saw it too. I could tell. Our eyes followed the same line to the rocky shore. Then, from behind me, there was a rustling. A soft sound, like a footfall or a breath.
I spun around, heart racing. There was nothing to see but the Queen Anne’s Lace, swaying in a light wind. My eyes searched for Rupert, our dog. Then I remembered he died last year. Rupert knew when to bark with alarm, or when to be silent and stalk. We miss him. Isaac said he’d look for a puppy in Jackson, as we need a dog in this wilderness.
The wind picked up, blustery as it rustled through the trees. The straw bonnet did nothing to shield me from the cold. It’s time we went inside. I turned towards Josie to call her in.
She was gone.
“Josie?” I called, hitching my skirts and slipping along the banks to where she last stood.
There was nothing. Just the empty jar and a stick on the ground. There was no sound, no crying, no hissing of autumn grass as it parts in the wake of a predator. Only the silence one hears when one is completely alone.
I called her name, running first in one direction, then the other. My cries grew louder, more strident. Breathless, I peered into the depths of the lake, dreading what might be there. Then I stopped calling and listened for animals. There were no snorts or howls, just the echo of my voice ringing against the hills.
Desperate, I raced back to the cabin and grabbed the rifle Isaac left inside the door. With the bravery of a frantic mother, I thundered through the trees and ran along the shore, calling her name.
Josie knows not to stray far from us. She knows to answer if we call her name, or to stay silent if we don’t. She understands to call out if she sees an animal, then waits for us to tell her what to do next; whether to run, stand her ground, or holler.
But she doesn’t know how to disappear…
The woods loomed dark beneath a leafy canopy. We told her never to go into the forest alone, but she’s a child. Maybe she saw a fawn and followed it. I stopped and listened for anything – footsteps, animal sounds, the rustling of leaves. There was nothing. Climbing to the top of a hill, our cabin and the lake came into view. All was quiet below. My heart beat heavy in my chest. Panic set in.
It was getting dark. The sun sets early behind the Tetons. I needed to fetch a lantern to continue searching, and prayed Isaac would come home soon.
Crossing the meadow, I saw movement under a Cottonwood tree at the far end of our garden. A ripple of grass. “Josie?” I called, shading my eyes from the last of the sun. She sat up, then stood, running towards me. Clasping her to my breast, my legs buckled beneath me and I sat down with a thud.
“Where were you?” I gritted my teeth, fear replaced by anger. “I told you never to run away from me!”
Her cornflower blue eyes were misty. “I know, Momma, but I got scared. I thought I saw a bear down at the lake and I ran to the barn, but Daddy said not to go in there alone. Then I heard a noise in the cabin, so I hid in the grass under the tree and fell asleep.”
I brushed the hair from her forehead. “That was me you heard in the cabin. I came back for the rifle. You know better than to run away like that! I guess you didn’t hear me calling if you were asleep. But Lord knows, I hollered enough to wake the dead.” I shuddered at those words. When would Isaac come home? We needed him.
Josie bowed her head and sobbed. Her hair was filthy. The gingham dress I made for her last year was torn at the hem. She looked so tiny. I drew her back in my arms and held her while she cried.
Together we walked to the cabin, the rifle over my shoulder. I barred the door, then ladled up a bowl of stew and set it on the table. Josie tucked into it, her feet drumming the legs of the chair as she hummed a little tune. Later, we rocked in a chair by the fire until she fell asleep, then I carried her to bed. She sank into the mattress, limp and dreamy. I bundled several quilts around her, then blew out the candle by the bedside.
It was getting darker. Isaac still wasn’t back. He was later than he’d ever been. Frightened, I paced the floor, reminding myself that my nerves were taut from the day. I remembered the sound behind me at the lake. Had someone been there? Were they hiding now, watching the cabin? Maybe Isaac stayed in town, although he had never done that before. Perhaps he had trouble with the wagon. He mentioned last week one wheel looked a bit wobbly. I stepped out on the porch several times, holding the lantern high as the hours went by. There was no sign of him.
Night had nestled in. It was black as pitch, the wind sloughing through the trees, the cabin creaking with noises that made me jumpy.
I had barred the door for the night when a horse nickered from across the yard. Picking up the rifle, I opened the window and stuck the barrel out, aiming towards the trail.
“Don’t shoot, Marnie!” A voice drifted through the darkness. “It’s me, John.”
I lowered the rifle, relieved. John Kraus was a friend of ours. He lived in Jackson and rode out to visit us often. Isaac and I have known him for years. He was part of our wagon train from St. Louis, and we forged a bond on our trek to Wyoming.
John reined in at the front porch and doffed his hat. His eyes gleamed in the lantern’s light. “How are you?” he asked in his deep German accent, dismounting and tossing the reins around the porch post.
I glanced past him into the darkness. “Isaac went to Jackson today and hasn’t returned yet. Did you see him on the trail? Is he behind you?”
John shook his head. He pulled a sack from the saddlebag and handed it to me. “No, Marnie, he ain’t. He’s somewhere safe tonight. You know that. Don’t fret. I brought you a slab of deer meat and a tin of flour.”
He jutted his chin towards the door. “Been a long day. Do you mind if I beg a bit of the floor from you tonight to sleep on? I’ve been ridin’ the hills, hunting elk, but they’ve gone over to the south slope. I’ll have to get an early start and ride after ’em in the morning. It’s too dark to keep going tonight. Would that be okay?”
I nodded and handed him the lantern. “Put your horse in the barn. There’s a bit of hay in there, if the cow didn’t eat it. I’ll make you supper.”
Sometime later, he knocked and entered. I’d forgotten how big he was, his head almost brushing against the top of the door. Ebony hair grazed his neck, reflecting the light of the lantern. His green eyes took in the cabin, then his gaze swept along my face and body. Flushing, I set a plate of food on the table. He barred the door and leaned his rifle against it. Then he took a seat, long legs splayed under the table.
We talked while he ate. He told me all the news from Jackson. I told him about the day, how Josie had vanished, and how frightened I was. His brow furrowed as he sopped up the last of the stew and leaned back in the chair.
John reached out and picked up my hand. “I hate to see you so scared, Marnie. Out here all by yourself.” He traced my palm with his thumb and sighed. “I try to come here as often as I can. You know that. But winter’s coming. It’ll be tougher in the deep snow.”
John was good to us. Brought us meat and lard and sometimes a little jar of horehound candy from the dry goods store in town. He was a great help.
He let go of my hand and glanced at the hearth. “So, how are you doing for firewood?”
“Oh, Isaac cut several cords this summer. I think we’re good.”
His eyes slid away from me and he picked at the last crumbs on his plate. “I’ll look at your woodpile in the morning.” He noticed a bowl on the sideboard. “Did you eat already, Marnie?”
I smiled. “No, that was Josie’s supper. I was too upset to eat tonight.”
He sighed. “You shouldn’t let yourself get so upset. We’ve talked about this, remember? How things get under your skin and then you get jumpy and imagine things?”
I nodded, though I wasn’t sure what he meant.
He scraped the chair back, stood, and smiled down at me. “Thank you, honey. Mind if I turn in? It’s been a long day.”
I nodded and blew out the lantern. The light from the hearth flickered across the floor. John’s shadow loomed large against the wall as he added another log to the fire. He stretched and unbuttoned his shirt. I glanced away and walked into Josie’s room.
I changed into my nightgown in the darkness, wondering if Isaac would make it home tonight. Outside, the wind had picked up again. A stray branch scraped against the window. A wolf howled in the distance. I shivered. It was good fortune that John was here to protect us.
Isaac still wasn’t home the next morning. The day dawned clear and sunny. John was already out the door, saddling his pinto in the barn. I made a quick batch of biscuits, and had a cup of hot coffee waiting for him as he tied his horse to the porch rail.
“Looks like you have enough wood for a few weeks,” he said. “But I think I need to come back soon and cut more, before it snows. Maybe next week.”
I smiled. “That’s so kind, but Isaac will do it. I’ll tell him today when he comes home.” A shadow crossed my mind. My throat tightened, and I rubbed my forehead in agitation. I felt a headache coming on.
“Do you think he’s okay, John? He’s never been gone this long before. Will you set out on the trail instead of cutting through the woods on your way out, so you can look for him, make sure he’s alright? Maybe the wagon broke down.”
John hesitated. There was a flicker of sadness in his eyes.
“You know where Isaac is. Stop trying to deny it.”
“No, I don’t know!” I said, but there was a small prickling at the back of my scalp, like a ghost walked up from behind and sighed on my neck. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Marnie,” John said, “come with me.” His voice was patient and kind, but I shook my head. I didn’t want to go with him. My heart sped up. Sweat trickled along my ribs.
John reached out and took my hand, gently pulling me along. He held my arm as we walked through the back of the garden to the meadow. My steps slowed. He tightened his grip.
In front of us were three crosses on a mound of land beneath the Cottonwood tree. I don’t remember seeing them when I found Josie there yesterday. My mind clouded in confusion.
John brought me closer against his body. I heard his heart thud and felt the soft flannel of his shirt against my cheek. When he talked, the words rumbled in his chest. I didn’t want to hear what he said next.
“See, honey? There’s Josie, and Isaac, and Rupert. They’re here”. His hand swept in a wide arc, pointing out their names painted on the rough hewn wood. The names were not in my writing. They weren’t real. This was a trick.
“Don’t you remember?” He reminded me, then, eyes downcast as he scratched his chin, the rasp of whiskers against his hand. “Josie died at birth five years ago. Isaac rode all the way to Jackson to find the doctor, but by the time they returned, you’d given birth alone, and poor little Josie never breathed. Not even once.”
He hesitated a moment, then spoke, his voice so low I strained to hear it. “Isaac died last year, killed by that mother grizzly up on Stray Mountain. Rupert went down with him, too. Do you remember now?”
He lied. I watched as the lies trickled out of his mouth and landed at my feet in the dirt. He lies every time he comes to visit. He’s lying now. Isaac will be home soon. Isaac will be furious that John said those terrible things to confuse me. He won’t be welcome here anymore. Heat rose in my chest, my face, and I drew away from him, crying. He took my hand again and guided me back through the garden to the porch.
“Please come to Jackson with me.” John stood next to the horse, hands clasped in front of him. His green eyes were stormy. His jaw tightened. “We can find somebody to help.”
“We don’t need any help.”
Suddenly I didn’t want him here. I didn’t want his deer meat or the tin of flour. It is tainted now by what we did. What John did to me. Isaac will not be happy that a man was here all night in the cabin. Lying to me. Stretching out his arms, rolling with me under the quilt, his hands touching my breasts as I moan, covering my throat with kisses and planting himself deep between my legs. I was furious with John. Furious with myself. The anger rose and sat cold on my heart.
John sighed, dropped his hands. “Okay, Marnie. I can’t make you. But I’ll come back next week, and maybe then you’ll come with me.” He turned towards the horse, tightened the cinch, picked up a hoof and examined it.
I talked then. Words bright as dawn, carefully aimed at his back to reassure him. I played his game. I can lie too, and said what he wanted to hear. With each word, his shoulders relaxed and softened. There was a tiny smile on his lips as he turned towards me. John mounted the horse, leaned down, clasped my chin between his fingers, and kissed my mouth.
“Please come with me today.” He begged. There were tears in his eyes.
I shook my head and gazed at the mountains above the lake, afraid to look at him with my deceitful words. “Maybe next time.”
“Yes, next time,” John said, then spurred the horse and disappeared down the same trail as Isaac did the day before.
I rushed back into the cabin. Sunshine was pouring through the window. I glanced at the bed and the tangled quilts, flushing with shame. The bed smelled like betrayal as I straightened it. Then I turned towards the room in the back. A wolf hide covered the door, and I brushed it aside.
Josie was sleeping under a mound of blankets. She clutched her straw doll in her hands. Daylight swept through the window and glimmered on her long blond hair. I wondered if she heard us in the night. If she will tell Isaac. I flared again with shame and anger.
Her lashes fluttered when I called her name. She stirred and peered into my eyes.
“Wake up, honey,” I said. “We’re going down to the lake this morning while we wait for Daddy. He’ll be home soon. But you have to promise to stay close. You cannot run away like you did yesterday or we won’t visit the lake anymore.”
She smiled and nodded. “I promise, Momma.”
I went into the kitchen to warm the last of the biscuits for our breakfast. After we ate, Josie sat in the rocking chair while I braided her hair.
“Momma, I thought I heard voices last night. Was I dreaming?”
I bit my lip, smoothed her dress and helped her with her shoes. “Nobody was here, Josie. You must have been dreaming. A branch scraped the window. A wolf called out for his family in the woods. Maybe that’s what you heard.”
I handed her a jar and wrapped her in a warm sweater, then added the thick coat she wears in the winter. It’s getting a little small. We giggle as I try to button it around her middle. Isaac will need to find another the next time he goes to Jackson. Or maybe we will all go into town. Make a day of it. Josie skipped off the porch and waited for me to follow.
It’s colder this morning. The wind is menacing. There are whitecaps on the lake, roiling waves that hit the shore and spit against the rocks. I’m glad I dressed Josie in her winter clothes. She hopes to find the last of the dragonflies of summer, the jar clutched in her hand. I take out my sketchbook and draw her as she stands by the water. There is a smile on her lips as she tosses pebbles into the water. She sings a silly song about a donkey and a goat, and we both laugh, savoring the moment.
I look back at the cabin. It seems dark and foreboding as it nestles among the lodgepole pines. I smell the stew that dangles over the fireplace, deer meat and the last of the summer vegetables as it wafts up the chimney in wispy arcs.
Out of the corner of my eye there is a movement, then a soft rustling from behind, like a footfall or a breath.
This time I have the rifle. I reach out and draw it into my lap. Gasping, I spin and look over my shoulder. There is nothing. Only the golden grass, burned by the last of the autumn sun, shimmering in the frigid breeze.
It’s time to go inside. I turn towards Josie.
She is gone.
“Josie!” I scream, and my voice echoes along the ridge.
There’s only silence. The silence one hears when one is completely alone.