The Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1846
All he could think about was food. Every fiber of his being thrummed with the thought of it. Every agonizing moment was consumed with contemplating how he could find it, when he would feel it between his teeth, how it would fill up his anguished stomach. At night he dreamed of food: beefsteak; hot stew with potatoes and carrots; warm buttery biscuits; fresh roasted corn and fried chicken. He would start awake sometimes just as he sat down to a feast in his dreams, and he would scream in the darkness, hot tears streaking his face at the loss of even an imagined morsel of food. In the night, he would shove fistful after fistful of snow into his mouth, trying to bury the terrible hunger. In the last few weeks he had eaten bark and lichen and an old pair of leather boots that had given out. He’d devoured part of a boiled wool blanket, eaten tree sap, and sucked on sticks, wishing they were chicken bones he could break apart and suck the marrow out of. With a euphoric longing he thought of fragrant liver and onions, of pork chops smothered in apple sauce, of freshly made bread lathered with honey butter. Then he would weep, the hunger no longer solely in his stomach but infused throughout his entire being, in his bones, in his aching skin, inside his fevered brain.
He had to have food. He had to have meat. His small group had snowshoed away from the Donner Party camp twenty- four days ago. Their goal was to reach Bear Valley, beyond the treacherous mountains, and bring back rescuers and supplies. They had brought along meat from the camp, a few scraps from butchered pack animals, but that food was all gone now. They had hoped to find rabbits and deer along the way, but hadn’t found much. It was as if the entire forest had rebelled against the terrible winter and the animals had fled.
Months ago, before the snows fell, their guide Charles Stanton had trekked out to the great valley of California and returned with supplies, mules, and two Miwok guides. He’d distributed the supplies among the emigrants, and then urged everyone to hike out immediately. But they had been too tired. Then the snows came and they were all trapped.
Now Stanton was of no use to anyone. He’d originally led the snowshoe group, which they had named the Forlorn Hope. But a few weeks ago he’d sat down in the snow and lit up a pipe. He puffed away on it, then encouraged the others to go on ahead. He said he’d catch up that night, but no one really thought he would, even Stanton. He’d gone snow-blind, his body starved beyond endurance. No one said anything when he didn’t join them at camp that night. Everyone knew he was dead.
Now it was just the Miwok guides leading them through the endless pine forests and exhaustingly deep snow drifts. Foster couldn’t stand another day of hearing the Forlorn Hope’s snowshoes crunching in the ice-crusted snow. He couldn’t bear the thought of another pitiful night clustered around a fire, no one talking, and everyone staring ahead with hollow, grey eyes.
He didn’t believe the Miwoks actually knew the way anymore, either. Where was the game? They were supposed to be experts in this forest, but they hadn’t found any meat in days. Foster had already been snowbound near a lake with his family, starving, for more than two months prior to this.
Now the Forlorn Hope sat around a meager fire, the sun already set beyond the mountains. Cold seeped into Foster’s bones. He watched the Miwoks sitting together on the opposite side of the fire, talking softly in a language he didn’t understand. They’d been with the emigrants since October in Nevada, but they weren’t really part of the group. And now they were lost. Foster knew it. His stomach groaned and rumbled, protesting against the torture his body had endured since they’d gotten snowbound. Was he just supposed to keep following them around aimlessly? They could be going in circles for all he knew.
Foster watched the Miwoks, talking and pointing into the forest, deciding the next stage of the route. They didn’t know. They were lost. Or maybe they did know, and just wanted to lead the emigrants to their deaths. Maybe it was all a plot.
Foster placed a hand on his aching stomach. A few weeks ago they had talked about sacrificing members of the group to save the others. They suggested dueling, or a lottery system for food. They would kill and eat whoever “won” the lottery. Then the animal handler Antonio had died, and next Franklin Graves, who had made the snowshoes for everyone in the Forlorn Hope. Then Patrick Dolan went crazy, running off into the cold and stripping all his clothes off. He’d come back later and died, too. Foster had carved off chunks of the man’s side, tearing into the warm meat with a savage desperation. Twelve-year-old Lemuel Murphy succumbed next; they dried some of the meat and continued on.
Now it had been days since their food supply ran out. They sat around the fire, no one saying anything. Some started to eat the oxhide bindings of their snowshoes. Foster wondered if they’d hold the lottery, or if some accident would befall one of the members: a fall off a cliff, or a plunge into an icy river. Or maybe certain people could die for the group without them even holding a lottery. People who didn’t really count as people anyway.
As they had a hundred times before over the last few weeks, Foster’s eyes narrowed on the Miwoks. He stood up, slinging his rifle over his shoulder, and stared at them. Immediately they noticed his movement. They’d been keeping an eye on him lately, watching him warily. Foster suspected that one of the party had warned the two guides that they might be butchered. If so, then they probably intended them harm. He should get to them first. They weren’t really human anyway, were they? Not like the whites of his party. They were no more than savages. Not civilized men like him. Their sacrifice so that he could eat would be of little consequence.
One of the Miwoks, Luis, nudged his friend and pointed at Foster. The other one (Foster didn’t know his name, Salvador?)—it’s not like they were real people with meaningful names, anyway, they were really only one step away from animals—turned in alarm. Cautiously the Miwoks rose to their feet. They didn’t carry guns, just knives. They were starving, too, and had walked until their moccasins wore through, exposing their bloody, bare feet.
It made them easier to track in the snow, bloody footprints wherever they walked, even when they wrapped their feet in wool. Foster unslung the rifle from his shoulder and pointed it at them. The Miwoks ran. The rest of the Forlorn Hope looked on with disinterest, too exhausted to take any notice.
Foster trailed the Miwok guides through the trees, following the blotches of red in their wake. They were far more starved and weaker than he was. They’d refused to eat human flesh, instead foraging in the bitterly cold forest for plants. Their acorns were no match for the meat Foster had eaten. He knew he’d catch up to them eventually.
Days later, in a small clearing, he caught up to one, fired the rifle, and killed him. Then it was just the other one. Foster could already taste the delicious warm meat in his mouth. He imagined it slithering down his throat, filling his belly. He caught sight of the other Miwok, who ran on in terror at the far end of the clearing. Foster shot him in the back. The fallen guide sprawled in the snow, blood seeping out and staining the virgin snow. Foster screamed a barbaric, gargled cry into the quiet forest, startling a bird.
Tonight, he would eat.