The first person who spotted a bear was six-year-old Harry Partridge. Winter had still not fully arrived, yet there was already snow on the ground. They had been living like gypsies as the men tried their best to build a real shelter. Harry shouted for them to leave their work on the rickety log house and had them run down to the meadow to see. The men laughed when they spied a leafy squirrel’s nest up in the tree, which might have easily looked like a vicious beast to a boy from Boston.
From then on, that spot was known as Harry’s Bear.
Go right past Harry’s Bear and you’ll find the stack of wood, they would say to each other after that. Make a left at Harry’s Bear and head for the creek.
Such unconscionable teasing always made Harry’s face flush. But he was not the only one who feared bears. The women—Rachel Mott, Elizabeth Starr, and Susanna Partridge, Harry’s mother—were nervous when darkness fell. Food had been stolen from the wooden storehouse. They’d heard things rustling in the woods when they went to collect chokeberries, the last of the season’s, barely enough to keep them alive. They saw footprints that were monstrously large in the muck near the river. No wonder they had trouble sleeping at night, even after they moved into the poorly built shelter where they could never stay warm. An ashy fire was kept burning day and night, airing through a hole in the roof. Smoke turned their faces and feet black, and several times they almost froze to death. They woke in the mornings with crusts of ice in their hair and on their clothes. They might have starved as well, despairing over everything that had happened in their lives since they’d had the misfortune to meet William Brady, if Hallie hadn’t made her way down to the river one day, driven by hunger and fury. She could not believe how helpless her stranded group was. None of the men were skilled hunters. They knew little about survival. She felt they had all been bewitched by the mountain, ready to lie down on their straw pallets, close their eyes, and give up the one life on earth they’d been granted.
Hallie went out on her own. She tramped over the frozen marshes, ignoring the patches of briars. When she got to the riverside, she took a rock and smashed through the skim of ice over the water. Then with her bare hands she reached into the blackness and collected a potful of eels for a stew. They wriggled and fought, the way eels do, but because of the cold they were in a half sleep and Hallie easily won the fight. She had come all the way from England and she didn’t intend to die her first winter out, not on the western side of this high dark mountain. After that, she built traps out of twigs and rope and, with Harry beside her, began to catch rabbits in the meadow. It was November by then, and above the mountain the sky turned a luminous blue late in the day, like ink spilling out on a page. Hallie and Harry could see their breath puffing into the air as they traipsed through the woods. They could hear the rabbits scrambling underneath the traps when they were caught. It was true; rabbits cried. They sounded like children, shivering and lost.
Harry felt sorry for the rabbits and wanted to keep them as pets, but Hallie patiently explained that a pet was of no use to a dead person. Without food, they would all be lost. She made her point when she firmly broke the rabbits’ necks. She next concocted a net out of a satin skirt she’d bought in Birmingham, an article of clothing she had done terrible things in order to afford. That was the way she had earned her fare to Boston as well. That man who had lingered beside her had been willing to pay just to touch her. When he had, she would think about the world she was about to find, a wilderness where tall trees sheltered you, where heaven was so close by you could see its vast reaches.
William Brady laughed at her when she set off. He said women weren’t hunters and that she’d freeze her fingers off in the cold, but she went out into the snow, the poorly made door wobbling on its nailed hinges as it slammed shut behind her. She was patient enough to catch trout in the creek that she had decided to call Dead Husband’s Creek. It was just a wishful thought on Hallie’s part, and it always made her and Harry laugh as they fished together. How many dead husbands could you fit in the river? Oh, one would be just enough. When the trout were fried in a black cast-iron pan they were delicious, even though there was no salt or rosemary to use for flavoring.
At night Hallie slept next to Harry. She suggested that the child might need the heat of her body to warm him or he would freeze to death. That was most likely true—Harry was a somewhat delicate child—but this excuse was a way to avoid her husband, and it did the trick. William Brady was so exhausted from the never-ending work in their settlement he didn’t bother to argue and claim his wife for himself.