I can only remember one Christmas when I was a kid without snow. No, we didn’t live in the Yukon but in the “lee of the lake”. In December the air is cold and when it sweeps across the shallow warmer waters of Lake Erie it pockets the moisture, freezes it, and dumps it on the first land it comes across. It was not unusual to have snow for Halloween or even Mother’s day. Certainly for Christmas. And not just that “thin coating” they talk about now down here south of Blue Mountain, but thick, accumulating, blowing, drifting heaps of it. Often feet not inches.
Fourteen year-old Thomas rides west toward Fort LeBoeuf in December, 1753 with his Captain, Ben Deland, and Bear, the massive black Susquehannock, on a secret mission into French and Seneca territory. The weather has turned cold and snowy in the rolling hills as they near the fort. Here, fact and fiction combine in our story. The path our travelers take crosses familiar ground to their author. My grandfather’s small farm on the site of what was the first mill on Oil Creek and then northwest to pass my mother’s family farm just below Canadohta Lake. Cold, snow, and more snow but despite that Thomas’ crew has to find a young Virginia militia major who is a “guest” of the French and their Indian allies at LeBoeuf.
From my historical novel, CAPTAIN’S CROSS:
Ben had found no meat and had not taken the time to hunt so they made biscuits and ate elk strips. When Bear pulled out his pipe, Ben leaned into them and said in French, “We are not alone now. The snow betrayed our watchers’ footprints to me. Probably Huron but I am not sure. The Ottawa signs are not familiar to me. I have never dealt with them.”
Thomas looked over at his rifle lying on the elk cover of his saddle just behind him. Ben said, “They are not sure about us yet. If they were we would have been in a fight with them by now. We will play their game, for a while longer.” It began to snow again. Big fat flakes that came plopping down around them.
Thomas said, “Goodness, I declare I have in all my fourteen years never seen so much snow. It just does not stop. How can people live here?” That drew a bit of a laugh from Bear as he puffed away.
They found the forked creek the next afternoon and camped in the pines on a rise just up on the western bank. Ben circled the camp and returned to tell them the watchers were farther north up the branch waiting for them and daylight.
“This is nice country. Plenty of flats between the hills for planting and plenty of timber for building. The soil is a bit rocky but not nearly as bad as Massachusetts,” Ben grinned at Thomas, who shot him a frown that then turned into a chuckle.
“Only if the farmers figure out what kind of crops they could grow in snow,” Thomas said and wrapped himself tighter.
Thomas looked out over the two branches of the creek blending below them and flowing down to the Allegheny. “Where does it go?” he asked, “The water, where does it all go?” He knew about the Hudson going down to New York but on this journey they had crossed dozens and dozens of rivers, streams and trickles.
Bear answered, “Before we crossed over the mountains, to the Chesapeake. Here it goes to New Orleans and then into a great gulf west of the islands we visited last summer. That is why the Virginians, the Pennsylvanians and the French want to master it,” Thomas saw movement along the opposite bank and could just make out a red fox sniffing at the bank as it moved silently along looking for dinner. Thomas watched the fox until the thickening snowfall and darkness swallowed the sight.
They were up early and moving north along the creek through the thick trees. Ben stayed closer in and knew that the Indian watchers, on foot, were having a hard time keeping up with them in the deep snow. The bitter cold made the snow loose and the horses cut through it behind a path cut by the mare. At mid-day Ben let Thomas cut the path with the big yellow horse and they made the lake before dark. They moved around the west side of the lake and started northwest before finding a spot under the trees where the snow wasn’t too deep to camp. They were getting close to Le Boeuf now and the air snapped with the tension they all felt.
Thomas woke first, unsure why. It was almost daylight and they usually all roused at the same time. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. Not a pine needle was moving, the wind had not come to them yet. He slid from under the elk robe and rose to stretch and unwind. The fire glowed from embers and Thomas pulled some small wood from under the cover Bear had put over it and made the fire come alive again.
Both Bear and Ben seemed to be shifting under their warm covers and left the fire and tea to Thomas. Draco was not in the camp, off doing what wolf dogs do in the night. Thomas put the water on to heat and stepped out of the camp to relieve himself. Thomas smelled him before he saw him. The Ottawa warrior was only twenty feet away, just visible behind an oak. The odor of sweat and bear grease mixed with rum and tobacco had drifted in the still air.