The First Dance

A Barnaby Skye Novel

Skye's West (Volume 19)

Richard S. Wheeler

Forge Books

one
 
The vows came next. Dirk Skye had asked Father LeBoeuf to employ both his Shoshone and British names when the moment came to recite the vows.
“North Star, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others keep thee only unto her as long as ye both shall live?”
“I will,” the young man said.
“Therese, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband? Wilt thou obey him and serve him, love, honor and keep him in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him for as long as ye both shall live?”
“Oui,” Therese said.
Dirk gazed happily toward her. She was small, glowing, and dark, and her eyes were only for him. A bit of moisture on her brow caught a few strands of her chestnut hair. She stood across from him, lit by the lamps of the saloon, wearing a simple gown of white muslin, which had cost her family all the cash it possessed, and it possessed very little indeed.
She was a refugee from Canada, where her people had been dispossessed in the great Red River upheaval of the 1860s. Like Dirk, she carried two bloods, hers French and Cree, his British and Shoshone.
The Red River Métis had flooded into the States in the 1870s, but they remained dispossessed, often unable to take up land and renew their farming life. Therese was very thin.
Father LeBoeuf hurried on.
“I pronounce that they are man and wife,” the priest said.
Dirk had not caught what had been said before that. He only knew he was now married. And this wisp of a woman facing him was his forever, and he was hers forever. And they would live together, rear a family together, and someday die in the midst of love.
He gazed at her through the consecration of their marriage and the benediction. She gazed back at him, something wild flaring in her eyes, as though this marriage would burn itself out on this altar, leaving only a pile of ash.
They held hands. Her left-hand ring finger now was encased by a small band of silver which shone brightly, reflecting the lamps of the saloon. There was no church in Miles City, and no meeting hall, and only an itinerant priest drifting through the Yellowstone Valley, offering the sacraments to whoever sought them. A priest with a French name was good enough for her people. Nothing else would do.
“Amen,” the priest said, and smiled at them. Dirk remembered to smile back. All his smiles were for Therese. She was not smiling, and seemed to stare at the saloon lanterns above.
Dirk was alone. She had a dozen relatives there, and fifty more Métis friends. He lacked so much as a brother to stand with him; she had sisters and aunts and nieces and childhood friends to stand with her. His family was dead.
He wanted to kiss her, but didn’t know if that was proper. She smiled slightly, as if to say yes, kiss me now. But somehow he didn’t. There were parents and grandparents and siblings and nephews and brothers watching. He took both her hands in his own, and she squeezed his, and then the Métis swarmed them, shaking hands, hugging both, laughter lighting their faces.
There were so many of them, some with liquid brown eyes, others as pale as Europeans, others burnt chestnut, most of them the color of gold. One thing about the Métis: they didn’t breed true to any form or color. Their clothing was as diverse as their flesh. The women wore neck-to-ankle velvet in subdued colors, with moccasins underneath. The men mostly wore brown corduroy pants, gaudy beaded moccasins, and Hudson’s Bay Company wool shirts. And many wore the florid red and blue and white sashes of their people, two or three yards of bright-colored webbing that held their pants up and wrapped around their necks and served as a badge.
Now they crowded close, a babble of oddly guttural French laced with Cree words, filling the gloomy tavern with its smoking lamps. He slid an arm about her thin shoulder and shook the hands of her people as they clustered close. Her father, Montclair Trouville, offered Dirk a bear hug; his wife, Helene, offered a soft brown hand. Her brother, Francois, shook hands heartily and combed his black beard with his fingers. Her cousins—the Desportes—were lined up to embrace the bride and groom. Their friends, the Lesages, were waiting patiently, and so were others Dirk didn’t know. Ah! They were a bubbling lot. Their lovely Therese had taken the vow of matrimony, and with a fine fellow, himself two-blooded, even if one blood was Anglo. But some things could be forgiven, if just barely.
The gloomy tavern absorbed the joy, which seemed to cast light into its bleak corners. It was one of many thrown up in the settlement to cater to the rough blue-clad soldiers at Fort Keogh just to the west, along the Yellowstone River.
“Marie fait la soupe.”
“Voici le pain.”
Dirk Skye listened to the Métis version of French. The saloon’s proprietor, Billy Stiles, hovered behind the bar, disapproving of everything about the goddamned foreigners except the occasional brandy he poured. Therese’s people had stocked the bar with les baigne, or fried bread; la rubaboo, or soup; les boulettes,meatballs; soupe au pois, bean soup; and le flaon, custard, and some cracked bowls and wooden spoons for all this.
There were no English-speaking people other than Stiles, the priest, and himself, but the Métis knew a little of it, and Dirk knew enough French and some Cree. He had needed it to win the heart of Therese, whose English was small and tentative. None of the soldiers from the fort were present, and by design, because there were walls of silence and moats of trouble between the soldiers and the French-Cree people who called themselves Métis.
Dirk Skye was employed by the United States Army as a civilian translator, and in fact he was an intermediary between the officers and the various tribes around the post, including the Crows, the Sioux, and the Cheyenne. It was not the best of jobs, but it was employment, and many a day he could operate on his own, far from the stern command. He knew half a dozen Indian tongues, as well as French and some Spanish he’d picked up. Enough to make him valuable to the army.
It had been his bleak task to inform the French-Crees who were drifting into the United States in the wake of the troubles in Canada, which drove them from their ancestral holdings, that they had no status here, were not citizens, could not take up land, and had to move on.
It had never been a pleasant task. They were hungry, these people. They wanted only a little land for their farms, or a corner or two in towns to set up shops. They wanted only to practice their faith. They wanted only to settle peaceably, speak their odd tongue, and offer their devotions to the Virgin. And that was how he had met Therese, thin to gauntness, with eyes bitter-bright and alive with both joy and bleakness—and beautiful beyond anything Dirk had ever known.
She had delft-blue French eyes and strong Cree cheeks. She had a voice with an edge, a voice that carried, so that if she said she loved him, everyone in the country heard it. If he had been smitten in one blow, so had she. He had come, actually, to inform her parents that they could not settle in the Yellowstone Valley above the fort, on land claimed by a rancher who wanted the good hay land for himself. He had come to tell them that they must move on, orders of Major Bullfinch, and they must abandon their gardens, pile their goods into their creaking Red River carts, and be on their way.
And had fallen in love.
Father LeBoeuf devoured la véyant, meat; la gallet, bannock; aeñ paták, potatoes; and a little brandy. Stiles eyed the Métis through hooded eyes. Dirk knew what the man was thinking, and it didn’t matter. Let him think what he would. Dirk had paid him out of his small wage and spent the rest on a silver ring.
He heard the fiddles. This time there would be two, one played by Pierre Duplessis and the other by Jacques Langlois. The Métis had migrated far from the Red River, but the fiddles came with them. They were homemade, wrought from maple and birch. He heard the fiddlers tighten the strings, until they were more or less in tune, and then there was a sudden burst of scraping fiddle music, a lively jig, almost without rhythm as the crowd quieted and sipped and waited to dance with the bride, which they all would. Every male Métis would jig her once, twice, thrice, and kiss her for good measure, and secretly ache inside.
It was an ideal place for a dance. Plank floors worn smooth by army boots stretched across the room. A few homemade tables, hewn from local wood, mostly miserable cottonwoods, lined the walls. A wagon wheel chandelier, with three smoky lamps, tossed wan light into the evening shadows. Stiles propped the front door open, letting in a welcome evening breeze.
And then they waited.
Dirk finally realized they were waiting for him. The first dance. He slid a hand into Therese’s and guided her to the floor and the fiddles exploded, almost a screech of noise scraped out of catgut. Dirk didn’t know a waltz from a quadrille, but he swept Therese around, and the Métis howled.
She smiled up at him.
“You are beautiful,” he said.
“You are plain,” she replied. “And non, you can’t dance.”
There was absolute truth in it. He had broken mirrors simply by staring into them. Babies howled when they saw him. He could no more do the jig, or the step dance these people performed, than he could bay at the moon.
The close air drew moisture to her face until it glowed in the yellow lamplight, and her hair clung to her forehead.
“You will be even more beautiful later,” he said.
Mon Dieu! A barbarian,” she replied. “Do you think I will surrender?”
“No,” he said, “you’ll resist to the last.”
She dug her fingernails into his arms. “The better to annoy you.”
He rattled her around the plank floor, and she bore it for a while.
“Métis, they can jig,” she said. “But you are British.”
“Shoshone,” he said.
“My papa, he is drunk,” she said. “It’s your sin, getting married in a saloon.”
She forgave him his British heritage, or at least she endured it.
The fiddles whined and chattered, and one of her brothers, Pierre, cut in. Dirk knew he’d not hold his bride close again until every Métis male in the smoky saloon had stomped away the eve with her. The raw spirits parleyed by Billy Stiles were inflaming the evening. He was selling the Métis his absolute worst. It didn’t matter whether it lit lamps or went down throats. The fiddles sawed away, the messieurs and mesdames whirled, a fine aura of lust and piety settled over the celebrants, the priest vanished, and the evening settled into merriment.
Now Francois was dancing with her, then Pierre again, then Boniface, then Alexandre, then a stranger. Moisture rose on their faces, making them glow in the lamplight. The fiddlers never stopped. While one rested, the other sawed out new melodies, more and more of them sad or sorrowful. It was as if the fiddler were directing the evening, setting its mood, and now the mood was that the Métis had lost their jewel to an outsider, and the wedding was sung as loss and the breaking of a dozen hearts.
But of that Dirk Skye had only the faintest understanding. He watched them whirl his bride. He watched their big male hands slide up and down her shoulders, their fingers yearning. He watched the Métis women in velvet watch the men in corduroy. He sipped Billy Stiles’s rotgut and waited. At some future moment he would cut in, reclaim Therese, and hustle her into the night, and the celebration would swiftly wind down.
He would take her to the flatboat at the riverbank, pole her across the lazy Yellowstone, and walk with her a mile or so up Sunday Creek to a comfortable cabin with a fine fireplace and a great mound of buffalo robes and bearskins, which would be their heaven for a few days until his leave from the post came to an end.
When he judged that the time was right, and the Métis celebration was withering, he went to claim his bride. But she wasn’t there. Well, then she was changing her clothes somewhere. But he didn’t know where. No doubt in a room nearby. But she didn’t appear. He headed toward the foul outhouse behind the saloon and knocked. But she wasn’t there. He looked for her among the departing Métis, but she was not among them. He tried the raw streets of Miles City, but she was not there. He called to her in the shadows, but she didn’t respond. He stopped knots of Métis, but she was not among them. He returned to the saloon to await her return, but she didn’t return. Billy Stiles was blowing out lamps and eyeing him without curiosity.
He walked the rutted streets of Miles City, calling to her. “Therese, Therese,” but she did not answer him. He tried the riverbank; she might be waiting for him there. But she was not there. Her lovely white muslin gown did not catch the moonlight. He hiked this way and that, in ever wider circles, but she was gone.


 
Copyright © 2011 by Richard S. Wheeler