By Oliver Shanks
The O'Halloran sisters were fat enough already ― that's what we tried to tell old George Donner.
After all, it wasn't like Mabel and Clarabell hadn't been plenty plump and juicy-looking when he picked them up outside Fort Laramie for a couple mules and a barrel of pickled eggs. That was in June. By the time October rolled around and our wagon train was crossing the first frost-covered dimples of the Sierra Nevada, those two were fatter than autumn Holsteins.
They weren't big enough for Donner, though. "Naw," he'd say, his index finger casually tracing the choice cuts he planned to extract from their ponderous, milky-white frames. "Not jest yet. These here girls need some more meat on their bones."
Donner was by all accounts a capable, thoughtful leader, but not where victuals were concerned. He should have salted or smoked the sisters immediately, maybe soaked them in brine. But no, he decided to keep the O'Hallorans trussed up in the back of his Prairie Schooner, gorging them on pies and maple syrup and thick slabs of glistening lard. And with every passing day, the Donner family wagon had sagged a little closer to the ground, creaking and groaning under the weight of its fleshy cargo.
It was pure foolishness, we told him, but Donner would have none of it. “Yessiree, boys," he would crow, "that'll be some fine eatin' there come December, shore enough."
Then one day, the rear axle of the Donner wagon finally broke as we made our way into the mountains. The sound of cracking, splintering wood echoed off the rocks like thunder, and the back of the wagon collapsed in a cloud of dust and pebbles. Out tumbled Mabel and Clarabell like a pair of enormous, soft-boiled eggs, the ropes that once held them in place now hanging loosely around their arms and legs. The sisters stood there for a moment, squinting mightily in the late afternoon sun, and then they hiked up their greasy flour-sack dresses and waddled away into a thick copse of Juniper pine, cursing Donner mightily as they went.
That was the last time we ever saw the O'Hallorans. Years later, those of us who survived that horrible winter of 1847 would hear stories about two mysterious women of remarkable kindness and girth, women who dwelt in the wild mountains, comforting weary travelers with hot coffee and homemade venison sausage. These stories would make us regret almost eating them.
Back on that cold and lonely trail, however, our stomachs were twisted in knots of hunger and despair as we watched the O'Hallorans flee. But not George Donner. No, his craggy old face betrayed not an ounce of concern as he calmed his bellowing team of oxen and then quietly went about surveying the dismal wreckage of his wagon.
A light snow began to fall, and an icy wind whistled through the trees. “Well,” Donner finally said, lighting up a fresh cheroot cigar and eying his fellow emigrants with renewed interest, “I reckon all we got is each other now.”
(Author Oliver Shanks is known as the "Louis L'Amour of Manitoba" in his native Alberta. This is his first story about anthropophagy.)
Friday, May 18, 2007
By Oliver Shanks