Two weeks passed. The rider was relaxing into a comfortable rhythm: he laid out traps every three or four days after retrieving their catch, he fished, gathered, cleaned and prepared what he found in the sprung traps by cooking or drying the meats, preparing and tanning the hides, and using all the remaining parts as possible. He was content with how many ways all the parts of an animal could be used. Other than the meat, of course, the sinews and intestines made for a fine replacement for rope; the bladder was useful for storing extra water; the scrapings of the hide, mixed with the brains and ash from the fire was essential for the hide tanning process. There was an old saying he had been told from one of the trappers he had met, back when he was initially inspired to follow that path: “every animal has just enough brains to tan its own hide.” The memory made him smile. It was funny to reflect on the path his life had taken since those days. Just like the wild, it was generally easier to see the path you left behind than the one you’d take, no matter how much you tried to cover it up.
The rider was just getting back into his original pattern. Three nights ago, he had caught a deer – just a young buck, a two-pointer. He had been kept so busy caring for it, cleaning it and preparing its parts that he’d stopped laying out extra traps. He didn’t want to tap the area out, as well-populated an area as it was. Also, the stack of furs on his mule would be impressive at this point and he didn’t want to make himself a target for any thieves on the road. Few traveled out this far what didn’t mean to live shoulder to heel with the wild, but as one approached “civilization”, the truly dangerous predators lay in wait. There were trading posts only a week or two behind him, though, so if he chose to stay out the winter, he could always sell out for a smaller percentage of the money he might make in town proper. Somewhere in the back of his mind, his father’s mercantile voice counted the numbers out.
It wasn’t about the money, he reminded himself, trying to sound convinced. Well…. It wasn’t only about the money. Not only.
He held an antler from the buck in his hand as he slowly sawed it into button-sized discs.
“Killed that yourself, did you?” the shadow asked him.
“I did. Bow and arrow, knife through the neck to make it peaceful. Dragged it back, treated it respectful. Just one buck, too. I won’t take any more deer this season, and the venison will last me well into the trip… well, to wherever I decide to go for the winter.”
“It’s not too long, now, is it? The winter.”
The rider shook his head. “I’ll need to be off within a pair of weeks, I suppose. I can feel the wind changing already. Bit of a chill in the morning that wasn’t there last time we spoke.”
“So, do you know what you’ll do this year? Back to town, or wintering in?”
Shrugging, the rider offered little confirmation. “There’s an encampment, mostly miners, about two days southwest of here. Like as not, I could probably trade my haul here for a pocket of nuggets, assuming their lots haven’t dried up. Either way, they’ve got a share of cabins built up just below the snowline, if I don’t mind bunking up. That way I could stay here til the first flakes drop, and really stack up for winter. Or I could head back sooner and strike for St Louis or one of the other border towns, maybe even a trader depot.”
“St Louis no longer your favored destination?”
The rider chuckled at that. “Getting a mite big, I think. There’s others like me now, running into town with their mangy scraps and undercutting the trade. Gonna price me out of a job if they’re not careful.”
“Times change,” the shadow whispered. “We either change with them, or we fade away.”
“Nothing wrong with fading away. If nothing goes away, it gets a bit…crowded.”
He could feel the shadow staring at him. “Was that directed at me, son?”
He considered in silence for a pair of minutes before answering. “Not completely, no.”
“I suppose I deserve that. Here you are, out in the wilderness alone, and I come along and haunt you.”
“I didn’t come out here just to be alone, pa.”
“It would be fair if you had.”
“But I didn’t.”
“So tell me, then.”
“Tell you what?”
The shadow was standing in front of him now, between the rider and the fire. The rider could see the subtle contours of his face, the buttons of his waistcoat, the callouses on his fingers. He could almost smell the ink on his fingertips as the shadow reached down to the rider’s bearded chin.
“Tell me why you left,” it said. “Why you really left.”
“Why’s it matter? Why should a…spirit of beyond the grave give one whit about my reasons? I left! Isn’t that enough?”
“It doesn’t sound like it’s enough to you.”
He nearly cut into his thumb before setting the blade a safe distance away. “To me? What in the hell are you even talking about?”
The shadow faded slightly, allowing for an unsettling translucence in the center of itself. The fire sputtered and sparked, echoing the rider’s nerves.
“If you answer this question,” the shadow said softly, “you’ll answer all your other questions.”
“What other questions?”
Rather than answer, the shadow moved away from the rider and hovered near the rack where the most recent skins were drying. “What was it like, the first time you skinned one of these?”
It took a moment for the rider to process the question. “It was….it was….” He laughed softly, a much-needed and unexpected release of the tension he felt. “It was a mess, to be honest. My hands were shaking, and I pretty much ruined the poor thing. Ended up as scraps.”
“Do you know why that was?”
The rider nodded. “I didn’t know it at the time, but it was because I set about to skinning too soon after I’d killed it. I was still shaking with nerves, and couldn’t keep my hands steady.”
“But you’re better now.” It was a statement rather than a question.
“Practice. Time. Age.”
“Peeling back the layers takes practice,” the shadow whispered. “In all things. Even looking into your own mind. The first times are hard, but it gets better as you go.”
“Looking into my own mind? What are you talking about?”
“Why did you leave home?”
The rider’s mouth dropped and he felt the usual rage rising in his throat, but this time, he caught it there and kept his words back until the anger faded.
“See?” the shadow said, its voice calm and gentle. “You were right. All things should fade.”
And like that, the shadow vanished again.
Every night, the rider peered past his campfire for the shadow’s return, but it was not until nearly a month later when it appeared again. The rider had stayed past his initial timeline, and he had already seen one gentle flurry and felt the first tentative bite of the winter. St Louis was no longer a realistic option. It was either east to a trading post, south to the mining camp, or struggle here in the valley. He could see real issues with any of the choices, however, and was still unresolved when he felt the shadow resume its conversational vigil at his campfire.
“You’re packed,” it said.
“Mostly. Just have to wrap up the rest of my tools and saddle up the horse and mule for the ride.”
“You’ve decided, then?”
“Not yet,” the rider said honestly. “I was kind of hoping you’d show up to discuss it with me.”
The shadow did not seem to have expected his answer, and was silent for several minutes before speaking again.
With a shrug, the rider tended to the fire. “All my years out here, I don’t usually have guests. I suppose now that I’ve had one, I’ve kind of took to it.”
“You’ve spoken to others, though? The natives? Other trappers?”
“Other trappers like as to be left alone as much as me. And no native’s been my guest. If anything, I’m theirs. They put up with us trappers, but I expect they’d just as soon we did our business and left them alone.”
“I see. Well, then, I am glad if I have added something to your time here.”
The two remained silent again for several more minutes, until the rider thought the shadow might have left. But when he looked up, it was still there.
“I didn’t leave home to get away from you,” he said softly.
Taking a slow breath, the rider gave his father the answer. “You made your life on your own, you know? You always told us kids that. You brought us here with nothing to your name but your name, and you worked until you had a business. And you built that business until you had a home for us and then some. But you always told us it was what you did – what a father did for his family. I probably never said thank you for that, I suppose. I was a shit son and never told you a thing about how much it meant to me. I just ran off because of a fight or something, and I can’t even remember what it was about.”
“It didn’t matter.”
“No,” the rider agreed. “But every year I’d think I should go back and apologize, and every year it got harder to think about it. Every year, the fight seemed further away, and the mountain of excuses just got higher and higher, and every year Boston got further and further, and suddenly I wasn’t a boy anymore.”
“And then I died.”
“And then you died.” The rider felt the words catch in his throat, as he realized it was the first time in more than twenty years that he’d said aloud the fact of his father’s passing. Had he even said it? He couldn’t remember.
“Too late to go back now and apologize,” the rider added, idly wondering why it was suddenly so hard to focus on the fire. “Too late for anything now.”
“It doesn’t matter, son.”
“Of course it does. You taught us that. Words matter. Truth matters. Your word matters.”
“Words aren’t the only thing that matters.”
The rider shook his head slowly. “No, they aren’t. Actions matter.”
Silently agreeing, the shadow stepped closer.
“Why are you here, son?”
A sharpness splintered across the rider’s chest, and a breath filled his lungs with a pleasantly flowing lightness. “To be a good son,” he said, his words coming out like a gust of wind. “To make you proud.”
The words bounced from the fire to the wall of stone that surrounded him, and spiraled up until they were lost in the night sky. His hands followed the drops of water he mistook for rain up, to the tips of his beard and to his cheeks, and then looked out to the empty air around him.
“I was always proud,” the voice whispered from the treeline. “You were a good son. And you would have made a fine father, as well.”
Wiping his nose on the edge of his sleeve, the rider chuckled softly. “We’ll never know if you were right.”
“We always know from our choices,” the voice echoed faintly. “The ones we make and the ones we don’t. It’s not just in the path we take,” it said, “but the reasons why we take it.”
And with that, he was alone – again – but somehow he didn’t feel the distance of life to his own. It felt to him as if he still shared the fire with others. Loved ones. Family. The familiar sounds of the wild returned as if they had never been silent, singing to him in a melody only those who left the bustling jostle of the towns behind them. A lightness came over him, and the coming winter’s chill fled away. The cold would return, but not tonight. Tonight, the world watched over him as one of its own.
As the sun was still making its leisurely way up and over the eastern ridges of the mountains behind him, the rider had his horse and mule saddled and packed, with only the packed ground and a scattered, cold campfire left in his wake. To his right was a still darkened horizon, and ahead of him awaited his next destination. He remembered talk of new townships being developed on the near coast, along the pacific ocean. He’d never seen the pacific ocean, and it sounded like something he’d like to see before he made the ultimate decision to settle down and enjoy the fruits of his labors.
Behind him, he knew he was no longer pursued by the shadows of lives lost, of family. The shadows and spirits of the departed now traveled by his side. No longer predators, they now accompanied him as his companions.
And together, they moved forward. Away from their memories, towards tomorrow.