By Barbara Bloom
Illustrated by Donald Carrick
The sun was just beginning to set over the Montana mountains that September day in 1849. Its rays were still warm, yet Janette Riker shivered and drew her homespun shawl tighter around her shoulders. Eagerly, fearfully, she looked from one snowcapped peak to another. Except for the green grasses bending gently in the breeze, there was no movement.
“Oh, where are you?” she whispered anxiously. “Papa, why don’t you and the boys come back? What’s happened to you?”
Janette and her father and two brothers had stopped their Conestoga wagon in this lovely mountain valley to rest the oxen and hunt fresh game. They knew they couldn’t stay long—the season was late, and they were in a hurry to reach Oregon. So yesterday, while Janette washed their clothes in the small gurgling stream, her father and the boys went hunting. They promised to bring home meat in time for dinner.
Late that afternoon Janette started a campfire, her mouth watering for the taste of fresh, roasted meat. But evening came without any sign of the three men, and before long Janette was surrounded by the vast, dark silence. Fearing the wild animals she knew roamed the hills, she climbed into the wagon, snatched the rifle from its rack, and sat with her back pressed against the wooden backboard.
All night she crouched like that, listening for the return of her family, but she heard only the howling of wolves and the wailing of the night winds. When the sun first showed above the jagged mountains, she jumped from the wagon.
At first it was easy to follow the tracks left by her father and brothers the day before. But after a few miles the trail disappeared in the powdery sands of a dry riverbed. Janette ran along the banks in both directions crying, “Papa! Tom! Billy!”
At the foot of the mountains she shouted, but only her own voice echoed back from the overhanging rocks. Hour after hour she wandered among the hills around the valley, calling. But there was no answer.
In the late afternoon she returned to camp, finding nothing. Knowing nothing.
Now, standing utterly alone in the wilderness, she trembled with fear. Their two oxen were grazing peacefully nearby, and Janette threw her arms around one of them. “Surely they’ll come back soon,” she said. Then she set about preparing for another long, sleepless night in the wagon—alone.
The days that followed became a blur in Janette’s memory. Every morning she set out in a new direction, calling and searching for her father and brothers. At night she returned, exhausted, to the empty meadow and the patient oxen. She grew accustomed to sleeping alone in the wagon, and even to the howling of the wolves, but her dreams were filled with visions of her father and brothers, lost and perhaps hurt somewhere in the wilderness around her. Once she thought she heard Tom’s voice calling to her from the darkness, but it was only the wind sighing in the pine trees.
Finally one morning, Janette just stood and stared at the tall mountains rising all around her. She did not know where else to look for her family. Hours later, when the sun began to set, she forced herself to admit the horrible truth. Her father and brothers were not coming back. She was alone in the middle of a vast, fierce wilderness. Turning to the oxen she cried, “What’s to become of me? I can’t drive the wagon through those passes!”
Her only answer was the rustle of the wind in the trees and the contented munching of the animals.
It was too much for Janette. She sank to the ground and sobbed. Her wails and moans echoed through the valley, but she knew that no one could hear her. There would be no wagon along the trail until spring.
Janette cried until she could cry no more. Then at last she tried to shake off her grief. She drew a deep breath and smelled the sweet, fresh earth. She knew that she couldn’t take the wagon over the mountains by herself and that she would have to stay in this valley until help came. But to survive the winter, she would need a shelter.
Janette got up and wiped her eyes. She went to the wagon, found the ax, and walked to the woods. There she began chopping down trees. She worked until her arms ached, but by sundown she had felled only two birch saplings. The next day she cut down two more trees, and the day after, three.
Finally, after a week’s hard work, she had fifteen saplings of about the same length. With the spade she dug holes side by side in the earth until they formed a small circle fifteen steps around. Into each hole Janette set a tree. Then she dragged the butter churn to the center of the circle and climbed up on it to lash the saplings together. When she finished, her shelter looked like a tepee. The next day she pulled up clumps of prairie grass and stuffed them between the cracks, so the wind could not get in. And she stretched the white canvas cover from the Conestoga wagon over her shelter, so the rain could not fall through the top. She hammered the canvas firmly into the ground with the stakes her father had brought to mark off their new land in Oregon. Janette left one flap open to use as a door.
“Look at that!” She proudly showed her oxen the odd little shelter, which had taken her over two weeks to build. Her shoulders hurt, and she had blisters on her hands, but still she laughed.
Then she blinked hard to stop her tears, for no one was there to laugh with her.
After a while Janette pulled the half-empty bags of coffee, rice, sugar, salt, flour, beans, and corn meal down from the wagon and into her house. She pushed the small iron stove over the side of the wagon and dragged it in, too, along with all the wool blankets and buffalo robes. On top of the stack of blankets she gently laid the patchwork quilt her mother had sewn before she died. This would be her bed.
That night it rained, and in the morning there was frost on the ground. Once again Janette shouldered her ax and made for the forest, this time to chop the wood she would need to keep her stove burning throughout the winter.
The nights were growing colder and the hours of sunlight fewer, and finally the day came when she had to break through the ice of the small stream so the oxen could drink. All day she thought of the animals. They were the only companions she had, and she loved their dear, familiar faces, but she would need their meat more than their company if she were to last the winter.
The next morning Janette took up the rifle and stood before the fatter ox. Trembling, she aimed at its broad forehead, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger. The gun kicked her shoulder and knocked her onto the ground, but the huge beast fell dead.
Slowly Janette rose and brought out the butcher knife. She cut into the hind flesh and carved pieces larger than her hand. Each one she covered with salt and stacked in a barrel. Though she had never done it by herself before, she had watched her father pack away meat every fall since she was a small child.
That night Janette was awakened from an exhausted sleep by fierce, savage growls outside her hut. The noise sounded like mad dogs, but she knew it must be wolves or mountain lions, attracted by the smell of the freshly slaughtered meat. They paced around Janette’s shelter, sniffing and clawing and scratching at the canvas. For a moment she could hardly breathe-what if they forced their way inside? Throwing off her quilt, Janette pushed several logs in front of the door flap and cocked her rifle.
“Don’t come in,” she prayed desperately. But the clawing and scratching became more violent, and Janette feared the worst-when suddenly she heard other noises farther away. A savage scream from an animal, galloping scrambles, commotion-then silence. Had they gone?
Janette relaxed her grip on the rifle. She began trembling violently, but she could not hear any more noises. The night seemed endless.
The next morning she saw many animal tracks in the soft earth around her shelter, but her one remaining ox was gone. She never found out if the creature had sought refuge in the woods-or if it had been killed by the hungry wolves. The next night the wild animals returned, and the next, and the next throughout the long autumn. Every night Janette sat up with her rifle, afraid to sleep. Every morning she was stiff and tired.
Then, one afternoon, the snow began to fall. Janette brought in an extra supply of logs, and that night she heard the wind blowing wildly outside as she snuggled under her warm quilt. In the morning she couldn’t crawl out of her hut, but she managed to cut a small hole in her canvas roof and dig away the snow to make a smoke hole for her stove. Shivering, she piled on fresh wood and waited out the storm.
When Janette finally tunneled her way outside two days later, snow lay deep in the valley, almost as high as her shelter. She caught her breath at the wild beauty of it all-and tried not to think how utterly alone she was.
Day after day Janette heard the howl of the wind as it drove the snows before it. Every morning she cleared the smoke hole in her roof and cooked beans and corn cakes. On clear days she trudged to the woods to chop more logs for her wood pile and kept a careful lookout for wild animals. But after the first heavy snowfall she was never again bothered by them.
Often during that long, cruel winter, Janette sat inside and thought of her family. She remembered the gentle sound of her father’s voice, Tom’s face with its broad smile, Billy’s deep laugh. More and more, she dreamed of the happy times they had spent together back home in Illinois. How she longed for the familiar white farmhouse with the blue flowers growing by the door and the people she loved safe inside its walls!
As the slow days passed into weeks and the weeks into months, Janette grew pale and thin. Her food supply grew dangerously low, and she began rationing her already skimpy meals.
Then one day the call of an eagle pierced her quiet. Janette crawled outside in time to see the huge bird flying lazily across the sky. She felt a mild wind brush her cheeks and saw that the snow was melting from the pine branches. It must be spring! Janette’s heart began to beat wildly. Perhaps now some other settlers would pass through her valley!
But the spring thaw brought new troubles for Janette. Within a week the warm sun had turned the snowdrifts into small, muddy rivers. Water covered the floor of her shelter, soaking her bed and flooding her stove.
Janette knew that she must leave her winter home. The wagon stood above the wet ground, its gray frame bare as a skeleton. Gathering the last of her strength, she pulled the shabby canvas from her shelter and draped it back over the wagon frame. She carried her mother’s quilt, the rifle, the almost empty bag of corn meal, and the last few pieces of salted meat back to the wagon bed.
All the rest of that day, Janette sat huddled in the wagon. With no way to build a fire, she ate her meat raw and her corn meat uncooked. At night she fell into an uneasy sleep, her dreams punctuated by the steady drip, drip of the melting snow. The days that followed turned into weeks as Janette, exhausted, kept her eyes on the distant mountain passes, hoping to see a wagon. She had done all she could to save herself. Now, with no fire and precious little food left, she simply waited—and hoped.
Then, one morning when patches of grass had begun appearing in the flooded valley, Janette heard hoof beats. She shook with excitement but was too weak to climb out of the wagon. The sound of horses came nearer, and her trembling grew worse. At last she struggled to the end of the wagon and threw open the flap.
There, arranged in a semicircle around her, was a small band of Indian braves mounted on pinto ponies. Janette knew the Indians in these parts did not take kindly to white settlers invading their land, but her relief at seeing other human faces overcame whatever fear she might have felt.
“Please,” she said, “help me. Papa—Tom—Billy—they’ve all gone.”
The hunting party stared at her, impassive, as their ponies snorted and pawed the ground.
Then Janette lost all the self-control that had kept her alive throughout her ordeal. She didn’t know whether the Indians could understand her language, but the words burst from her like the rushing waters of a spring stream. She told the Indians about arriving in the valley and losing her family. She told them about searching the surrounding mountains, about building her shelter and gathering fuel. She told them about killing her ox, about hearing the wolves, about eating raw meat and corn meal. But mostly she told them about living alone through the long, dark winter months.
As she spoke, the braves looked from Janette to her shelter, to the wagon, and back to Janette. She couldn’t seem to stop talking. They must understand—they must!
Slowly, the Indian who appeared to be their leader nodded his head. “Brave,” he said, gesturing to her makeshift camp. “Very brave.”
Janette drew a deep breath. Whether he had understood her words or just seen for himself what she had gone through, he had understood! She brushed away tears as the Indian slid off his pony.
“Come,” he commanded, holding out a hand to help her from the wagon. “We will go to your people.”
“People,” Janette whispered. And this time she didn’t try to stop the flow of tears.
In that spring, more than one hundred years ago, the Indians took Janette Riker across the mountains to the white settlement that is now Walla Walla, Washington. There she stayed for a time, questioning all the travelers who stopped by on their way West. But no one ever found any sign of her father and brothers. Janette later married a pioneer and lived to a very old age. And her daughters and granddaughters and even their daughters never tired of telling the story of how she had survived the winter of 1849-alone.