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Dannie Marsden's book Desert Heat

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Desert Heat

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The Bee Charmer Chapter 1

Chapter One

Lower Western Canadian Border 1867

 

Nat rode through the pouring rain toward the cave that she had been using for shelter for the past few weeks. The raindrops slid down the brim of her hat only to bounce off the leather of her saddle. Hardy, her buckskin stallion, exhaled sharply and shook violently to free his coat of the soaking raindrops. Each day he and his master grew more intolerant of the dreary weather, yearning for a less miserable climate.

 

They reached the clearing that opened to a large cave that she, Hardy, and Quincy her pack mule had called home for several weeks. The smoke of her smoldering campfire greeted her. Quincy, tethered at the rear of the cave, welcomed them home with a loud grunt. Hardy shook one last time in an attempt to rid his coat of the cold rain before stepping under the protective lip of the cave’s entrance.

 

Nat hung her full-length range coat on an oak limb that had conveniently grown into the mouth of the cave. She placed the pelts she had recovered that day beside her coat and began removing the saddle and tack from Hardy. Fully mature at four years old, Hardy had grown into quite a loyal companion who served her well. Stretching the tack out on the rocks near the fire pit to dry, she picked up an old blanket and wiped the soaking wetness from Hardy’s coat.

 

“Hello, Gyp.” Her faithful blue-coated companion trotted up to her master and licked her face while she bent down to dry Hardy’s legs. The dog provided protection for Quincy and Nat’s belongings while she was out during the day. Nat buried her hands in the deep blue fur of the animal as Gyp continued licking her face. She hung up the blanket to allow it to dry and then attached feed sacks to Hardy and Quincy.

 

“Ready for some left over stew?”

 

Gyp’s ears perked. The dog sat and watched with loving eyes as her master added dry wood to the fire. Nat settled the stew pot on the spit above the flames and sat back beside Gyp, waiting for their dinner to warm.

 

Nat reached inside a saddlebag and pulled out a chunk of dried jerky, tearing off a piece for Gyp and tossing it to the patiently waiting dog. “Good catch girl,” she praised her canine companion and then tore a piece of the dried meat off with her teeth. Nat chewed slowly allowing the saliva to mix with the morsel to soften the spicy meat.

 

She removed her hat and let her shoulder-length black hair tumble down her neck. She laid her head back against her bedroll, watching the flames dance to life in the fire pit. Shadows licked the walls of the cave as she slowly surveyed the culmination of her last month’s efforts. Mounds of pelts were stored near the rear of the cave to remain dry and secluded from anyone who might wander into the cave with thoughts of looting her bounty. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a fellow trapper took advantage of another to profit from their hard work.

 

After obtaining the final day’s trapping and retrieving the traps, Nat would break camp to head to Seattle to sell her pelts, restock her supplies, and choose her next destination. This site had been very profitable, but she was growing weary of the endless rainy days and cool temperatures. She smiled. Some time spent closer to the ocean will do us good.

 

She let the contents of the stew pot start to boil before scooping up a portion for her and Gyp. The dog waited patiently for her meal while Nat slowly stirred the thick stew, allowing it to cool. The action made her sigh as memories floated into her mind.

 

Nat had been born eighteen years earlier in British Columbia as Nathalie St. Croix, the sole child of Nathan St. Croix, a Canadian trapper, and his wife, Nanya, a full-blooded Mohican woman. The family traveled the Canadian and US border together, trapping, hunting, and trading until Nanya died during an outbreak of influenza six years earlier. Motherless at twelve years old, Nat clung more tightly to the father she adored who struggled to teach her the ways of the world. Trapping, hunting, and fishing came as easy as breathing to Nat, but teaching her to be a woman was an impossible task for Nathan. He had always treated Nat like a son. Her slim, six-foot tall frame and androgynous features allowed her to pass as a young man in most settings, and so far, that had proved a benefit to Nat during most of her young life.

 

For five years after her mother’s death Nat and her father trapped the Northern US and lower Western Canada. Nathan taught her everything he knew about fur trading and she was an adept student, learning quickly the skills she would need to survive in their rapidly changing world.

 

When war had broken out in the eastern half of the country, Nathan decided they would push farther west and away from the brewing turmoil that caused many families to head farther west as well. Often times in their travels Nat and her father had come upon a solitary wagon of greenhorns who had fled west to escape only to find themselves lost, starving, or besieged by illness. Other travelers had ravaged the supplies and possessions of the deceased leaving little evidence of those who had perished.

 

Her emotions grew hard in the vigorous environment where she was raised, but she could not hold back the tears which flowed freely down her cheeks after she and her father discovered a small group of wagons that had been razed. There were several burnt skeletons, mostly adults, but also several small children. They buried the remains to prevent further degradation by predators.

 

Nat, sitting on a rock next to Nathan and resting after burying the bodies, was listening to the whispering of the wind as a cool breeze picked up. A weak sound alerted her and she struggled to make out the source. Standing up and moving slowly through the debris, she kept changing direction with each new sound emitted. She knew that what she heard was the whimpering of a small animal and she soon traced the cries to a pile of discarded clothing. Nat crept closer and raised a partially burned shirt to find a tiny bundle of blue fur. She reasoned that in this harsh environment the mother must have abandoned her pup as the runt of the litter. It had been left to perish on its own while increasing the chance of survival for its stronger siblings.

 

The pup’s barely open eyes peered up at Nat seeming to plead for her help. She bent down, cradling the small creature in one of her large hands, and her fingers stroked the soft fur. She walked back to her father to show him her discovery.

 

Nathan looked at the small pup in his daughter’s hand and shook his head. “You know its chances for survival are very slim.”

 

Nat’s eyes glowed. “I’ll do everything I can to take care of her so she’ll live.”

 

“Looks like we have another mouth to feed.” He smiled. “Bundle her up and let’s see if we can teach her to eat.” He moved to set up camp away from the burnt-out wagons and started a fire.

 

Once the fire was roaring, Nat warmed some of the stew they had eaten the night before. She dipped her fingers in the rich gravy. Holding the pup in one hand, she smeared the gravy across its lips. “Try it,” she said softly, encouraging the tiny animal to eat. Slowly the pup began to lick its lips, tasting human food for the first time in its short life.

 

Nathan watched the glow on his daughter’s face and knew she felt encouraged that the pup would survive. Nathan, more of a pessimist than his daughter, worried that the pup would die. He helped her by dipping a small rag in cool water and pressing it to the pup’s mouth. The puppy instinctively chewed on the rag, forcing out the water as her small knobbed tail wagged in Nat’s hand.

 

Nathan finished setting up camp that night while he watched his daughter nurse the young pup. As he toiled, he offered a silent prayer for the pup to survive and become a much-needed companion for his daughter. Later he watched Nat and her small friend curl up next to the fire and drift off to sleep.

 

The next morning, Nat awoke to a soft warm tongue lapping at her chin and shiny brown eyes gazing up at her. She warmed up more gravy and a small chunk of otter meat that she mashed into tiny fragments and finger fed to the small pup.

 

After breaking camp, father and daughter mounted their horses and headed north to a cabin tucked away in the dense woods. During the ride, the pup snuggled under Nat’s coat, reveling in her warmth and protection. Near nightfall, they reached the cabin and cautiously entered it. Stray travelers or vagrant animals were known to take up residence in trappers’ cabins, so the first entry was always potentially dangerous.

 

They were fortunate to find that the last human inhabitant had left dry wood on the hearth and Nat quickly had a fire burning to light and warm the cabin. Nathan found several small lanterns and filled them with oil that they had obtained from the animals they trapped, and soon the cabin was ablaze with light.

 

Assured that the cabin was secure and safe, Nathan returned outside to begin to unload the packs and tend to the animals while Nat set up shop inside the cabin. She stored the pelts in a small room off the kitchen and unpacked their food and cooking supplies.

 

Nat portioned out flour and patted out biscuits to accompany the last of their trail stew. Tomorrow they would hunt, and with good fortune, they would have fresh meat for dinner. She hummed with excitement preparing their meal while the puppy bounced along behind her every step.

 

Nat was cleaning up the sleeping areas and preparing the rustic cots for slumber when Nathan brought in fresh water. She returned to the hearth smiling at him and found the biscuits browning nicely. She dipped out a small bowl of gravy and another small chunk of the meat and prepared it for the puppy. Meanwhile, Nathan dished up stew for them and added biscuits to each of their plates. Nat placed the bowl in front of the puppy before sitting down with her father to begin her meal.

 

“Have you given thought to a name?” Nathan asked.

 

“I was thinking Gyp, short for Gypsy.”

 

“Well we are a group of nomads, so Gyp would fit right in.”

 

“Do you really think she is going to make it?”

 

“From the way she is attacking that food bowl I would say ‘yes’. I think I may have finally found someone who appreciates my cooking.”

 

Gyp growled her appreciation of the meal and then drank fresh water from the bowl Nathan had placed by her food.

 

“Instinct is kicking in.” He watched the puppy lap at the water.

 

Nat watched with pride as Gyp finished her meal. She broke off a portion of biscuit and dipped it into the gravy on her plate before dropping it in the pup’s bowl.

 

“I want you to go hunting for some fresh meat in the morning, while I start setting the traps. I don’t know about you but I am sick of otter stew.” Nathan grinned.

 

“I could devour a thick T-bone myself.”

 

“When we head in to trade next month, I promise you will have the biggest steak you can eat.”

 

“That’s something to look forward to then.” Nat cleared the dishes and walked Gyp to the door. “We’ll check on the animals and be right back.”

 

Nathan smiled. “I’m lucky to have such a strong young woman for a daughter.” Sure, he had always longed for a son when he was younger, but now he doubted that he could be prouder of anyone than he was with Nat. He waited for them to return and then he doused the lights before both of them retired for the evening to rest up for the big day ahead.

 

Nat woke first and put fresh wood on the fire before taking Gyp outside. She watched the puppy pounce on leaves that blew on the ground in front of her. Nat’s laughter broke the silence of the deep woods. The seasons were beginning to change. She knew that the brilliant color of the leaves rapidly falling from the trees and the brisk chill in the air would soon give way to snowflakes and long winter nights. Nat would be glad to make it through the passes to Seattle ahead of the winter storms and take shelter somewhere less desolate. For the past few years, she and her father had spent the winter in a small rented cabin in south Seattle. There they would plan for the coming year and catch up with fellow trappers, sharing trends in the trading market and news of the bloody war.

 

Nat returned to the cabin and set the coffee kettle on the fire. She cleaned her rifle and loaded it while she waited for her father to stir. He walked into the kitchen just as she was pouring the strong steaming liquid into their mugs.

 

“Morning.”

 

“Good morning. Did you have trouble not sleeping on the ground last night?” Nat teased.

 

“When you get my age, it takes a while to adjust.” Her dad picked up his mug.

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Nat continued packing her bag for the morning’s hunt.

 

They made small talk while they drank their coffee and then Nat stood and stretched one last time. “I better get moving if I am going to get any meat today. See you when you get back tonight.” She picked up Gyp. “Sorry, my friend, but today you will have to stay inside.” She placed the pup inside the woodbin on a warm blanket.

 

She kissed her dad on the forehead and picked up her bag and rifle.

 

“Good luck today.” He watched her go out the door.

 

Nat laced her arms through the straps of her pack and shouldered her rifle. She walked through the woods with a stealthy silence looking for signs of wildlife. She had walked for nearly half an hour when she heard a buzzing sound echoing through the cool morning air. Her keen ears led her to the trunk of an old tree that was now home to a swarm of honeybees.

 

Approaching carefully, Nat caught a glimpse of a large comb overflowing with honey. Honey for biscuits would be a pleasant change for both herself and her father, so Nat propped her rifle next to the tree and lowered her pack. She took out a small strip of worn cloth and wrapped it around a long stick. She would have to work quickly to harvest the honey without getting stung, but the sweetness was just too promising to pass up. Nat removed a jar from her pack, and slowly spun the lid from its lips. She took one of her remaining few matches and struck it, careful not to waste the precious fire. She lit the rag, which burned slowly, fueled by the animal fat and oils, and created a plume of smoke which Nat placed into the hive. The bees buzzed angrily but fled the hive just as Nathan had taught her they would.

 

Nat worked quickly to cut off a large section of comb and slid it into the jar, and then she dipped the jar into the honey until it filled to the rim. She wiped the excess from the outer rim of the jar with her finger and then raised it to her lips. The sugary taste locked her jaws as she adjusted to the taste. She quickly replaced the lid and tucked her prize into her pack.

 

She extinguished the cloth with damp leaves from the ground and picked up her rifle to move on before the angry bees returned. With a huge smile gracing her face, Nat continued in the woods, making a mental note of where the honey tree was located for future visits.

 

Another mile into the forest, Nat came across fresh tracks where a deer had passed earlier. She hoped he would be heading down to the small river that was a short walk farther into the woods. She crept quietly down to the river’s edge and waited in frozen silence for her prey. Nat watched several rabbits hop to the river’s edge for a quick drink and then dart back into the undergrowth when they heard a larger animal approach.

 

Nat watched a huge buck step confidently from the concealment of the forest to the river’s edge. She calmly raised the rifle and put the buck square in her sights. A fine specimen indeed and one that would provide meat for them for many days she thought. Nat waited until the buck lowered his head to drink and then squeezed the trigger firmly. The shot rang true striking the buck in the heart and dropping him immediately.

 

Nat took the rope from her pack and walked to where the buck lay dead. She laid her hand on his neck and she could feel the warmth leaving his body in the cool morning. “Thank you for your sacrifice,” she whispered to the animal, and then she tied the rope around his back hooves. Nat carried the animal to the nearest tree and, using the rope, hoisted him upward until he was off the ground entirely.

 

Nat despised the next part of the ritual, but she took the knife from her belt and slowly drew a line across the buck’s stretched throat to bleed him and then made the deep incision down his belly to disembowel the beast and prepare his carcass for transport. This unpleasant task done, Nat walked to the riverbank to wash her knife and hands before making her way back to the cabin where she would get Quincy to carry the buck home. The coppery smell of blood filled the air and she prayed she could return before the scent reached another predator.

 

She gathered her goods and made her way back to the cabin. She left her pack on the porch and peeked inside the door to find Gyp soundly asleep in the woodbin and she quietly closed the door. Removing the tether from Quincy’s back legs, Nat led the mule back to the river’s edge to retrieve the buck. Quincy allowed Nat to strap the buck across his back and they returned to the cabin.

 

Nat strung the buck up into a tree once again when they reached the cabin and she began the task of skinning the buck with her sharp knife. She carefully placed the hide on the tanning wall on the end of the cabin and then began to carve the buck. She cut a large roast from the hindquarter and carried it into the cabin where she skewered it onto the spit and placed it over the flames for roasting.

 

Gyp watched her from the woodbin with sleepy eyes and then wiggled her whole body when Nat reached down to pick her up and carry her outside. Gyp trotted along beside Nat and sat watching her carve the rest of the meat before carrying it into a small smoke house to prepare for curing. Gyp watched her intently as Nat coated the meat with salt, rubbing it deeply into the tender meat before hanging it from the rafters by string and lighting the fire in the smoke house. The process would take days so Nat scoured the woods surrounding the cabin for firewood to keep the fire stoked.

 

As the afternoon sun faded, Nat finished her chores and cleaned up at the river’s edge before she walked back into the cabin. She pulled the jar of honey from her pack and placed it on the table. The roast in the fire smelled heavenly while she rolled out fresh biscuits and placed them on the hearth. Nat checked the fire in the smokehouse, and she was playing with Gyp when she heard her father ride into the yard.

 

“What is that most heavenly smell?” He dismounted and walked toward her.

 

“I was lucky this morning and got a nice buck.” She walked her dad around to the tanning wall and then led him into the smoke house.

 

Nathan was very impressed with his daughter’s success. “I would say you were lucky,” he agreed, placing his arm around her shoulder.

 

“I have a roast cooking and there is plenty of back strap to make jerky, and yes before you asked I saved the heart and liver too,” Nat replied.

 

She knew that Nathan enjoyed making stew from the deer’s heart, and if they could find some wild onions or potatoes, he would fry the liver as a special treat. Nathan taught her how to use every part of an animal so nothing would go to waste.

 

Nat helped her father care for his horse and together they walked into the cabin, Gyp bouncing merrily along behind them.

 

“I swear she has grown since this morning.” He scooped Gyp up in his rough hands.

 

“She slept most of the morning so she’s been full of herself this afternoon,” she told him, scratching behind the pup’s ears.

 

They walked into the house together and Nat started setting the table while Nathan checked the roast on the spit. “This looks fantastic.” He took his knife, and sliced off several pieces of the fragrant roasted meat and carried them to the table.

 

Nathan sat down at the table and spied the jar of honey sitting next to the biscuits. “My, my, you did have a good day’s hunt.” He lifted the jar holding the golden honey, spinning the lid off and pouring a small amount onto his plate.

 

“I thought we could use a treat.” Her glowing smile lit up the room.

 

“Indeed, you have prepared us a feast.” He praised her efforts.

 

During their meal, they discussed plans for spending a couple of weeks in the cabin before moving on toward Seattle to do their trading and settle down for the winter. Both Nathan and his daughter were eager to make the trip and return to civilization, if even for a brief respite.

 

Later that evening, Nat dreamed of soaking in a hot bath and buying a new pair of dungarees and work shirt to replace her buckskins that were in dire need of a good airing out.

 

In the cave, Nat sat back against the wall and closed her eyes her hand instinctively going to her neck. She located a leather thong and traced it until she touched the large bear claw nestled under her shirt as the memory continued.

 

The days had passed quickly at the cabin, and two days before they intended to pack and hit the trail, Nathan went out ahead of her to check traps. Nat saddled Hardy an hour later, and followed her father’s trail into the woods. Today’s catch would be the last, and then they would pack to head out at first light for the long ride into Seattle.

 

Hardy’s nostrils flared as they rode deeper into the woods and his muscles twitched with every sound. Every one of Hardy’s nerves seemed to be on edge and his anxiety was slowly transferring to Nat. She patted his neck in an effort to calm him but even her reassuring words could not prevent the lather of sweat breaking out across his shoulders.

 

A rifle shot rang out in the woods from the direction where her father would be trapping, and suddenly, the relatively calm forest broke out in a riot of sounds. Nat drove her heels into Hardy’s flanks spurring him to a full gallop as she recognized the bellow of a bear and heard her father shouting. Nat reached a clearing and could only watch as Nathan got off another rifle shot, striking the bear squarely in the chest as he charged, but not slowing the animal’s advance. Nathan fumbled to reload as the bear, a full-grown grizzly, only three feet away from him, reared onto his hind legs.

 

Nat watched in horror as the bear advanced on her father, sharp claws striking out at him while rabid foam flew through the air. The beast roared, his anger echoing throughout the forest. She raised her rifle to take aim as the bear raked a large paw across Nathan’s face and neck slicing through his skin like a knife through warm butter. Nat squeezed the trigger and her shot hit the bear behind its left ear driving the bullet deep into his brain. The bear did not fall. She ejected the shell and reloaded, preparing for another shot when she saw Nathan fall to the ground. Her next shot struck the bear straight in the heart and the bear finally faltered and fell beside Nathan.

 

Hardy galloped across the clearing and slid to a stop ten feet away from Nathan. Nat jumped off his back, still carefully eyeing the bear as she rushed to her father’s side. The bear twitched and Nat shot him once again, then knelt down next to her father.

 

Blood gushed from her father’s face and neck, his jugular severed, and the realization struck Nat with a crushing blow—there was nothing she could do to prevent her father’s death. Nat sat beside him on the blood soaked ground and held his hand while she watched his life slip away. “I love you, Father.” Nat watched him close his pain-filled eyes and pass into the next world.

 

Nat sat for hours, with her father’s head in her lap in the death-filled meadow, until Hardy’s soft lips brushed her neck bringing her out of her stupor. She managed to find her father’s horse and struggled until she managed to drape his lifeless body across his saddle and then mounted Hardy for the ride back to the cabin.

 

She carried Nathan onto the cabin porch and bathed the drying blood from his body. She searched through their packs until she found a shovel and began preparing a grave for her beloved father. Shock overcame her while moving mechanically, carrying her father and placing him in the ground before slowly covering him with the freshly dug earth.

 

Nat made several trips down to the river’s edge to collect rocks to prepare a mound over her father’s grave and, as the sun slowly sank into the horizon, she placed the last rock upon the growing pile. She sat beside the mound and Gyp, who had traced her every step, crawled up into her lap providing comfort to her mourning master. The chill of the oncoming night forced Nat into the cabin and she sat before the fireplace, alone for the first time in her life.

 

Sometime during the night, Nat curled up in a ball in front of the hearth and awoke the next morning with Gyp cuddled in her arms. She walked outside to where she had buried her father to confirm that she was indeed awake and not living some horrible dream. Reality struck her like a brick as she looked down on the mound of stones that covered the last of her family. Tears slid down her cheeks and she wondered what would become of her now. Nathan had prepared her well for trapping and trading, but she never dreamed she would be all alone at such a young age.

 

Nat saddled Hardy and with Gyp trotting beside her, she rode to the clearing where the bear lay motionless. Hardy shied away from the smell of fresh blood and remained a distance from the prostrate bear, refusing to approach closer.

 

She dismounted and began the tedious work of skinning the large bear, removing the large claws, and tucking them away in a leather pouch. Grizzly claws were prized trading items as well as the bear’s pelt, but Nat was certain she would never part with the hide of the animal that killed her father. Nat hated to waste any animal but she would be damned if she would taste the flesh of this beast, and once she finished her work, she set the carcass ablaze, purifying the ground where her father had died.

 

Hardy shied away from the bear’s pelt when Nat approached so she rode back to the cabin to retrieve Quincy who would carry the pelt on his back. Once they returned to the cabin, Nat removed the deer hide that had finished drying and replaced it with the bear’s hide. Nat cut a long strip of the hide and used it to bind the two pieces of wood together that she had fashioned as a cross to mark her father’s passing. She had carved her father’s name into the crosspiece with the year of his death and used a large stone to drive it into the ground at the head of his grave.

 

Nat spent the next two days packing her supplies and preparing for the journey to Seattle, carefully storing dried meat and other food supplies for the weeks of travel ahead. She made one more trip to the honey tree to salvage one final jar of honey for her trip, and that evening she used the last of her flour to make a batch of biscuits.

 

Sitting in front of the fire, Nat chose one of the bear claws and, using a tiny awl, bored a hole through the claw. Using a thin strip of the deer hide, she fashioned a necklace with the bear claw and slipped it over her head to rest just above her heart. In the days and years to come, Nat would caress the bear claw when thinking of her father and take comfort in this token of his life.

 

The next morning, Nat packed the animals before going to her father’s grave. After a final goodbye, she turned to take the first step to her future.

 

She rode for three days, the journey taking her through the mountain pass just as the first snow began to fall and Nat was relieved to reach flat ground. When she encountered the dreary rains that plagued the area, sometimes for days on end, Nat knew she was close to her destination. She found the large cave, planning to rest there before the last leg into Seattle. After a few days, Nat would ride for two days into Seattle where she would have to make decisions on what path her life would lead.

 

The final days passed quickly, and soon Nat was facing the last night in the protection of the cave. Nat slept curled around Gyp that night, and the following morning she began arranging her packs for the last leg of her journey. Unsure of what she would do once she traded out her pelts, Nat was sure of only one thing. She would stick to the plan that she and her father had made to rent a small cabin and spend the winter months restocking and planning for their next journey.

 

Nat and her companions spent one last cold and damp night in the woods, and by noon the next day, she crested a hill overlooking the bustling town of Seattle. Nat sat for a moment and watched the people scurrying through the crowded streets, and with a final look over her shoulder back into the forest, she urged Hardy to move forward.

 

 

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