1894, Ottertail County, Minnesota
Two teenaged brothers hunting rabbits found his body. Frisking ahead of them, their dog dropped to his belly in the snow and whined in confusion.
“What is it, Jake?” asked the oldest brother. His longer legs carried him to the dog and his discovery first.
“Hold up, Josh,” the youngest pleaded, wading through thigh-high snow to catch up.
Curiosity turned to shock as both boys stared at the ravaged remains before them.
“Go get Pa,” Josh commanded. “He’ll know what to do. Here, Sam, I’ll keep your rifle. Hurry ”
Without a word, the younger of the two scurried back over the path they had forged through the snow. Finding a comfortable place beside their dog, Josh cradled both rifles in his arms and waited.
Josh and Sam watched their father kneel to examine the body. Minutes passed before he stood.
“He was holding a letter,” he told the boys. Shaking his head and staring at the body, he muttered, “Poor fool.”
“What does it say, Pa?” Sam asked.
Clearing his throat, their father began to read.
If you are reading this, I must be dead. Please bury me in a Christian manner.
Do not look for my kinfolk; there are none. All died in the fire that destroyed Fargo last June. I am alone but for my Maker. In His Presence I will soon be.
My cabin is on a hill near the biggest peak in Leaf Mountain township. You should be able to find it easy enough. I cut down most of the trees on that hill save one lone white pine. I could not bear to touch that giant that had existed for so long in God’s sunshine and grace.
I used most of the wood for that cabin and thought I had a fine supply of firewood to keep warm. I kept to myself except for an occasional trip to Effington for food and other such stuff. I did not make friends.
I needed no one, you understand? My wife and children had died and if I let anyone into my life I would be inviting more pain.
“Didn’t he know that no one can live alone forever?” asked Josh in his teenage wisdom.
His father shook his head and continued.
When winter came, the snows piled up so deep that movement anywhere became difficult. Then bitter cold descended and imprisoned me in my own cabin.
I burned most of my supply of firewood just trying to stay warm. Most of the wood was green. I had forgotten that green wood produces more smoke than heat. Many a time I was forced into the snow and deadly cold to get fresh air into my choking lungs.
One day I went to the woodpile only to return to the cabin empty-handed. I had used up my supply and would have to spend time finding more.
“But, Pa,” Sam said, frowning. “Didn’t he say that there was a big white pine close to his place?”
“Yes, he did, son,” his father answered. “Listen.”
I know what you’re thinking. That giant white pine was there for the taking. Why didn’t I cut it down?
That tree had been there on that hill longer than I had. I figured it would be a crime against God if I were to chop it down. I had been headstrong and foolish. Right then, looking into the heights of that pine, I promised God that I would go to Effington and find someone to take me in until spring. Looks like I won’t be seeing my cabin or that pine ever again. If you care to try to locate that area, you can keep whatever you find useful.
I am weary and getting colder. The snow is so deep that I can barely make a path through it. Sweat is soaking my clothing and encasing me in an icy layer. In the past few hours I remembered a Bible passage my wife Signe used to quote. I tried to say it over and over again to encourage myself. It goes something like this: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul . . . ”
The lips of the two boys moved in unison as their father read aloud the last of the stranger’s written prayer.
“Poor fool,” he repeated softly.
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