The Hunger

The Hunger by Alma Katsu


April 1847

Everyone agreed it had been a bad winter, one of the worst in recollection. Bad enough to force some of the Indian tribes, Paiute and Miwok, down from the mountain. There was no game to be had, and a restless hunger rippled through their movements, left barren camps full of black, scentless fire marks behind them like dark eyes in the earth.

A couple of Paiutes even said they’d seen a crazy white man who had managed to survive through this god-awful winter, skimming over the frozen lake like a ghost.

That had to be their man: a fellow named Lewis Keseberg. The last known survivor of the Donner Party tragedy. The salvage group had been sent out to find Keseberg and bring him back alive, if at all possible.

Mid-April and the snow was chest-deep on the horses; the team had to abandon them at a local ranch and go the rest of the way on foot.

It was three days down to the lake after they reached the summit—cold and airy and desolate. Spring meant mud and lots of it, but at the higher elevations, it was still winter and the ground was a blanket of thick white. It was untrustworthy, that snow: It hid crevices, steep drop-offs. Snow kept secrets. You’d think you were on solid ground, but it was just a matter of time before the ledge beneath you crumbled.

The descent was much tougher even than expected, the snow giving underfoot, sodden and slippery, full of some unearthly desire to pull the whole team under.

The closer the team got to the lake, the darker it became, the trees so tall that they obscured the mountaintops and blocked out the sun. You could tell it had snowed an ungodly amount by the damage to the trees: branches broken and bark scraped going up thirty, forty feet. It was eerily quiet by the lake, too. There were no sounds at all, no birdsong, no splash of waterfowl landing on the lake. Nothing but the tramp of their feet and labored breathing, the occasional crackle of melting snow.

The first thing they noticed when mist from the lake rose into their sights was the stink; the entire site smelled of carrion. The rich stench of decaying flesh mingled with the piney air, making it heavy as the group approached the shore. The smell of blood, with its tang of iron, seemed to spring from everywhere, from the ground and the water and the sky.

They’d been told that the survivors had been living in an abandoned cabin and two lean-tos, one built against a large boulder. They found the cabin quickly enough, skirting the banks of the lake, which rippled under a lazy fog. The cabin stood by itself in a small clearing. It was unmistakably deserted and yet they couldn’t shake the feeling that they weren’t alone, that someone was waiting for them inside, like something from a fairy story.

The bad feeling seemed to have wormed its way through the whole team, that unnatural scent in the air causing everyone to fidget with nerves. They approached the cabin slowly, rifles raised.

Several unexpected items lay discarded in the snow: a pocket prayer book, a ribbon bookmark fluttering in the breeze.

A scattering of teeth.

What looked like a human vertebra, cleaned of skin.

Now the bad feeling was in their throats and at the backs of their eyes. A few of them refused to go any farther. The door to the cabin was directly in front of them now, an ax leaning against the outer wall beside it.

The door opened on its own.

JUNE 1846


To Charles Stanton, there was nothing like a good, close shave.

He stood that morning in front of the big mirror strapped to the side of James Reed’s wagon. In every direction, the prairie unfurled like a blanket, occasionally rippled by wind: mile after uninterrupted mile of buffalo grass, disrupted only by the red spire of Chimney Rock, standing like a sentry in the distance. If he squinted, the wagon train looked like children’s toys scattered in the vast, unending brush—flimsy, meaningless, inconsequential.

He turned to the mirror and steadied the blade under his jaw, remembering one of his grandfather’s favorite expressions: A wicked man hides behind a beard, like Lucifer. Stanton knew plenty of men who were happy enough with a well-honed knife, even some who used a hatchet, but for him nothing would do but a straight razor. He didn’t shrink from the feel of cold metal against his throat. In fact, he kind of liked it.

“I didn’t think you were a vain man, Charles Stanton”—a voice came from behind him—“but if I didn’t know any better, I might wonder if you weren’t admiring yourself.” Edwin Bryant came toward him with a tin cup of coffee in his hand. The smile faded quickly. “You’re bleeding.”

Stanton looked down at the razor. It was streaked with red. In the mirror he saw a line of crimson at his throat, a gaping three-inch slash where the tip of his blade had been. The razor was so sharp that he hadn’t felt a thing. Stanton jerked the towel from his shoulder and pressed it to the wound. “My hand must have slipped,” he said.

“Sit down,” Bryant said. “Let me take a look at it. I have a little medical training, you know.”

Stanton sidestepped Bryant’s outstretched hand. “I’m fine. It’s nothing. A mishap.” That was this damnable journey, in a nutshell. One unexpected “mishap” after another.

Bryant shrugged. “If you say so. Wolves can smell blood from two miles away.”

“What can I do for you?” Stanton asked. He knew that Bryant hadn’t come down the wagon train just to talk, not when they were supposed to be yoking up. Around them, the regular morning chaos whirled. Teamsters herded the oxen, the ground rumbling beneath the animals’ weight. Men dismantled their tents and loaded them into their wagons, or smothered out fires beneath sand. The air was filled with the sound of children shouting as they carried buckets of water for the day’s drinking and washing.

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