For All Nails #262: The Law of Nations

By Johnny Pez

"Benedict had been with Doheny when he had marched from Mexico City to Arizona in 1850, while Kramer had been a major in Hernandez' California brigades."
--Robert Sobel, For Want of a Nail ..., p. 171.

Williams Pass, California, USM
26 February 1851

Bernhard Kramer, onetime President of United Dry Goods of San Francisco, onetime major in the California brigades of the Army of the United States of Mexico, lay motionless on a rock shelf with a dirty rag tied across his eyes. The rag was there, not to conceal blindness, but to prevent it. Kramer had spent enough time in the mountains back in the old country to know the perils of snow blindness, and he knew how to take precautions. Anyway, he'd be relying on senses other than sight to tell him when his prey was present.

Kramer had once been a member of General Hernandez' army. He had fought at the Battle of San Fernando, defending his adopted hometown of San Francisco from General Homer's North Americans. After the battle the defeated Tories had retreated up into the Sierra Nevadas, while the brigades had fallen back to San Francisco to regroup. Then the order had come from Mexico City in September to advance and engage the enemy, to keep Homer's men too busy to defend themselves against a second Mexican army closing on them from the east side of the pass. That second army had never appeared, so far as anyone in Hernandez' force could tell, and the Californians had still been grappling with the Tories when the snows came howling down upon them, turning the pass into a frozen wasteland, and trapping them all, Mexican and North American alike.

That had been in November. By December, the last of their hardtack and bully beef had run out. By January, the last of their horses and mules had done the same. Now Kramer was no longer a part of any organized force, simply a man lying in wait for the only source of food left in Williams Pass.

Beside him on the rock shelf lay his sword. It wasn't much good for close-in fighting, but that was what the boone knife in his belt was for. The sword gave him the advantage of reach, assuming his prey didn't have a sword of its own. Kramer's rifle and pistol had been abandoned long ago -- the powder had run out before the mules had. Now he relied on sharp steel, and sharper senses, to survive.

The familiar train of thought was derailed by distant sounds of movement. Kramer listened intently while his right hand, bound in more rags against the cold, closed silently over the hilt of his sword. A cliff-edged trail ran past, ten feet below his rock shelf. Every so often a traveler would pass by along it, and Kramer would pounce. From the sounds it was clear that more than one man was passing by. Kramer remained still as they trudged through the knee-deep snow that covered the trail, oblivious to the peril mere inches above them. Some of the men in Williams Pass still clung together in groups; men who had known each other before the war, Kramer supposed, all from the same town or village who had all joined up together. Kramer himself had been close to none of the men in his own unit, and after the food gave out they had all gone off under their own Captains. There was safety in numbers, Kramer knew, but the more numerous a group was, the more food it needed, and the more time it had to spend out hunting. A man alone, like Kramer himself, could afford to conceal himself, as Kramer was doing, and wait for the prey to come to him.

The last of the group had gone past, and Kramer had begun settling down to wait again, when a new sound made him tense up. Was it? Yes! A straggler, perhaps, trailing the group, or perhaps a lone hunter like himself, following behind in the hope that a member of the group would perish and be left behind. Kramer pushed the rag up from his eyes, letting him see the bright sun glaring down out of the hard blue sky, and began flexing his muscles to warm them up for the imminent action.

The lone figure trudged up the path, then passed below him, and Kramer leapt over the snow-lined edge of the shelf. The figure was slow to react, perhaps weakened by hunger, and Kramer was able to fell it with a swift blow of his sword to the neck. Bright blood splashed across a swath of churned snow, steaming in the cold, and Kramer paused a moment to let the flow run down. Then another well-aimed cut took the head off. Kramer sent it over the cliff edge, thinking briefly that there must by quite a collection down there by now. More cuts took off limbs, to be heaved up onto the shelf, followed by the torso. Then he pushed some of the snow around to cover the red stains, and climbed back up to the shelf.

He paid no attention to the tattered bits of uniform that he stripped from his prey -- Mexican or North American, such distinctions meant nothing to him now. Scattered among the drifts around him, Kramer knew, were the remains of at least a dozen other men. Plenty to see him through to the spring thaw, of course, but it was always better to have more. As he busied himself dressing the meat with his boone knife, Kramer reflected that this, ultimately, was the law of nature, and of nations. The weak succumbed to the strong, and paid the price for their weakness. The strong survived, and grew stronger.

The knife flashing in the bright winter sun, Bernhard Kramer continued his work.

Proceed to FAN #263: Lost in Space.

Proceed to 22 February 1898: North to Alaska.

Return to For All Nails.

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