The rumble of his stomach reminded Josiah it was time to work on the sour-dough biscuits that would accompany his venison stew for dinner. Getting up out of his chair, he left the winter scene out the window and headed toward the kitchen area of the cabin. Earlier in the morning, when he’d finished his breakfast dishes, he’d taken the left over waffle batter and added flour, salt, lard, baking powder, baking soda and sugar and kneed it into a rough dough. Spreading some flour onto his work surface he now rolled it out and cut the biscuits out of the dough. Gently he laid them in the cast iron pan and then placed the pan on the back of his stove. The banked embers gave off just enough heat and he knew they’d soon rise into big puffy mounds. Lifting the lid of the Dutch oven, he noticed the stew it wasn’t bubbling the way he’d like, so he knew he’d better go outside and get a few more pieces of kindling to add to the stoves fire box. The aroma of the deer meat and seasonings followed him as he reached for his lamb sheered jacket hanging by the back door. Shrugging on the coat, he placed his felt hat on his head, wound the muffler around his neck and stepped outside.
The deep, still, snow-silence immediately enveloped him and he walked towards the wood pile. Reaching out his hand, he grabbed the canvas covering protecting the wood pile and pulled it back. This gesture exposed the hard work of the last two springs, as wood, neatly stacked from small fire starter kindling to large fire place logs marched down the wood pile. He grabbed a few limbs of dried pine, placed them in the crook of his arm, returned the protective covering and started back towards the cabin. He only had to crunch through 3 inches of snow and was thankful he didn’t live a little higher up near the now named Donner Pass, sight of the recent Donner Party Tragedy. It amazed him that although the gap was only 42 miles away, it was 3798 feet higher in elevation. Although snowfall as deep as 10 feet was normal, multiple storms following each other piled the snow as high as 18 to 22 feet and had trapped the unlucky travelers in October. The rescue parties hadn’t been able to reach them until February 19th, three and a half months after becoming stranded at Truckee Lake. Once again he thanked God that here it only snowed five or six times a year – usually never more than 3 to 5 inches.
Stopping just outside the back door he stomped his feet, releasing the snow from his boots and then ducked back into the warm and fragrant cabin. Dumping the wood into the log bin, he returned to the back door, removed his jacket, hung it up on the peg and then unwound the muffler and returned it to it’s proper place too. Striding back into the room and the stove he opened the door and gently laid 2 pieces of fuel on the glowing embers. Judging the time from the fading daylight he decided to go ahead and scrape the potatoes and carrots so he could chop them and add them to the stew. Walking back towards his sleeping quarters he stooped down and lifted the lid on his root cellar. The previous occupant had provided access beneath the floor boards to a small area which stayed cool and dry year round. This is where he stored his winter vegetables, tinned, and canned goods. Grabbing the burlap bag of produce, he selected three carrots and two potatoes, replaced the door and returned to his kitchen area.
As he prepared the vegetables he remembered how his father and younger brother had always teased him for hanging around his mother’s kitchen. Back then it was the budding engineer and chemist in him that prompted him to watch meal time preparations. Little did he know how his culinary curiosity would pay off later in his life. Many of the other single male employees chose to live in boarding houses where their dietary needs were looked after or they lived in squalor and off canned goods and the local restaurants. This bit of self-sufficiency fit his overall character. It was one more thing that allowed him to command his days and time as he saw fit. Not that he didn’t appreciate stopping in at a restaurant after a long day at the mine and letting someone else cook for him, but he liked the bit of hominess the simple acts of housekeeping provided him.
Scooping up the diced carrots, potatoes he added them to the stew which already contained the sautéed onions, floured and browned venison, and crushed tomatoes. It was near dusk now, by the time the vegetables became tender it would be dark. Just before they were ready he’d pop his biscuits into the oven. He could hardly wait to slather them with the newly churned butter and wildflower honey he’d picked up on his last trip into Nevada City. As he straightened up his tiny kitchen area, his eyes were drawn to the window above the sink. Out in the clearing he could see Zach T, his quarter horse, nosing through the snow trying to find the last of the fall grass. Better get him put up before dark, Josiah mused to himself.
Once again he put on his coat, wrapped the muffler around his neck, jammed the felt hat on his head and drew his gloves on as he unlatched the back door. Stepping out he noticed the temperature had dropped since his last foray out to gather wood. Better bring in some more for the fireplace and stove, he reminded himself. Walking towards Zach T in the corral, he noticed his horse go from the lose relaxed lines of contentment into his “on alert” stance. His muscles tensed and twitched just under the bay hide. Softly he called to Zach T, but the horses attention wasn’t diverted from the Manzanita brush growing up just past the lodge pole coral fence. Nervously Zach T. wheeled and turned, ears pitched forward and nostrils flaring. Oh shit, I wonder if there’s a wild cat out there, thought Josiah. This early snow would cause most of them to leave the higher elevations and find easier living where there was less snow, like here. He quickly scanned the brush himself, but the dense branches and sliver-green quarter sized leaves weren’t yielding any cat shapes.
He looked back at the house, but knew if this was a hungry cat, Zach T. would be in trouble by the time Josiah got to the house, grabbed his gun and returned to the corral and barn. Hoping there was no cat – he opened the corral gate and whistled for Zach. The nervous horse skittishly approached him. As he reached out to catch the bridle Zach suddenly backed away and whirled taking off for the furthest corner of the pen. “Damned skittish, high stung, piece of horse flesh,” he called to Zach. Closing the gate behind him he walked towards the middle of the corral. Standing still he held out his gloved hand and uncurled his fingers. There sitting in his palm was a small juicy fall apple. Cat or no cat, Josiah knew his horse always demanded a bribe before consenting to be led into his stall. As the cold began to seep into through his jacket Josiah reminded himself to be patient. Like his owner Zach T. was independent and had a mind of his own.
Softly calling to his horse, he prayed there was no buff colored cat out there watching him through golden predator eyes. One slow step at a time Zach danced toward him. As he continued to call the horse and hold out his hand Josiah became more and more aware of the animals dainty dance. The powerful creature, lifting his feet in rapid succession – taking small forward steps, seemed just like ballet dancer going en pointe and moving across the stage toward her prince. Well, almost he thought, realizing ruefully his gelded horse wouldn’t take kindly to being compared to a female dancer. Lightly chuckling to himself he watched as Zach came close enough to stretch his neck out and his velvety lips nipped at the apple. Swiftly Josiah caught the bridle, turned his back to the scrub brush and began walking his horse towards the barn. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a sleek buff image. Quickly turning back around he was sure he saw the flick of a tail and the slight movement of Manzanita leaves on the far side of the enclosure. Satisfied the cat was more skittish than his horse he turned back towards the barn and led Zach into the dry straw filled stalled.
Settling the horse in with a measure of grain and some sweet alfalfa he carefully closed the doors and secured them against any outside predators. Next he walked to the hen house, threw in some cracked corn and shut the door, hoping they’d all roost quietly for the night and supply him with some fresh eggs for his breakfast in the morning. Walking back toward the house he scanned the immediate area one more time. Satisfied everything was in order he opened the back door of the house and made a mental note to make sure he carried some sort of firearm with himself when he went outdoors now that the high-country animals would be moving down before the long winters hibernation.
Immediately the venison stew assailed his nose. Even before he shucked his coat, or removed his gloves he popped his biscuits into the oven. With the biscuits in the oven he finishes removing his outdoor clothing and hangs coat, hat and muffler on the backdoor pegs. Pulling the kerosene lantern off the wall peg he sits it on the kitchen table. Checking the reservoir to make sure it was full, he trimmed the wick, and lit the latern. The warm, cozy glow warded off the impending night darkness, and brightened the tiny living space. With an economy of motion he quickly pulled out an enameled tin plate, fork, knife, and spoon and placed them on the table. Next in recognition of Saturday night he drew forth his small jug of scotch whiskey, shipped to him by his father in North Carolina, and poor a small amount in the bottom of his coffee mug. Bringing it to his lips he inhaled the memories of home, tobacco leaves and damp earth. Swallowing a small bit he made his customary scotch grimace and then looked around his place with pleasure. It might not be an exciting Saturday night by society standards, but it suited him just fine. He knew once he finished his dinner, he’d clean up, mix up some more sourdough starter for pancakes in the morning, then read a chapter or two from The Deerslayer. He’s immediately identified with the young Natty Bumppo. Feeling they are both working to prove themselves capable in the wilderness, appreciative of God’s wondrous works, and possessing the same Christian moral sense.