SAM MORGAN HEARD his partner, Hannibal, get up and step to the dead fire. Morning by morning, they took turns rising first, using cold fingers to get a little flame going and start some coffee.
First light would come along within a few minutes. They both had an instinct for first light, and it would arrive with the first sip of coffee.
Sam savored the warmth of his buffalo robes and the pad of his folded blanket coat under his head. In the aspens the mare Paladin and the other horses chuffed from time to time, clomped, and dreamed of a country free of horse flies.
Sam inventoried these familiar camp sounds. He could tell his mare from Hannibal’s gelding Brownie and from the packhorses by her step alone. In the other direction he heard the Henry’s Fork River. He listened to the pouring of the coffee water and the ping of the pot hung on the rod above the flames. He reached out and touched the cold barrel of the Celt, the flintlock rifle he inherited from his father.
One familiar part of Sam’s world was missing. This past winter his pet coyote, Coy, aged sixteen, walked out in the snows and never came back. Walking was difficult for the old coyote, and Sam was sure that he had gone deliberately, knowing that his time had come.
Sam missed him. As a pup Coy saved Sam from a prairie fire, and they had been together day and night for a coyote lifetime.
Making the coffee, Hannibal MacKye chuckled at himself. He and Sam had traded for a few beans before they left Fort Hall on this hunt, but they’d been making brew from the same grounds for two weeks now.
Toasty in his bedroll, Sam waited for the first two words of every morning, "Coffee’s hot." Then the men would squat across the fire from each other and sip the flavored water without a word. Since they had ridden together for nearly two decades—trapped beaver, lived with Indians, rambled from the plains to the peaks to the Pacific—they had their routines. Their way was a little silence on waking, a span of time untouched by talk.
Suddenly Sam knew something. It just popped up, like a bubble from the mud bottom of a pool. He wiggled his back and bottom against the ground, and the thought was still there.
"Coffee’s hot," said Hannibal.
Sam shifted around, scrambled to the fire, and held his cup out for the pale brew. The silence was amiable, as always, but Sam was holding back.
He waited until they’d finished the first cup of coffee, his tongue dissatisfied with the taste, his belly grateful for the warmth. He looked at his partner and had thoughts that hadn’t occurred to him in years. They were a truly strange pair, an Indian and a white man partnered. Who would guess, looking at them, that Sam, the white man with white hair and blue eyes, had been taught to read by the Indian? And that Hannibal, half Delaware and educated by his classics professor father, was fluent in Greek, Latin, and the philosophies of the world? Who would guess, really, what they had in common?
Sam couldn’t have named it, himself, and Hannibal wouldn’t. They loved the myriad and intricate ways of these mountains, here a spring, lower down a beaver pond, beyond that a wide meadow with a solitary bull elk feeding at its edge. Above the meadow a green reach of lodgepole pine, leading to a low divide, which framed the intense blue unique to the mountain West. From there a sighting of a hundred miles of lava plains, ending in a horizon of sawtooth peaks. They also loved the exhilaration of running buffalo and the heart-in-throat glimpse of a huge salmon leaping up a waterfall.
They were intrigued by Indian people and all the subtle byways of meeting them with proper ceremony, trading with them, being guests in their villages for days or weeks. Avoiding another tribe, even fighting against some. Sam had married into the Crow tribe and lived the tangle of having a red family.
Maybe the biggest attraction, the single, great, mind-blinding opiate, was the way that beauty and danger teeter-tottered. Every mile ridden, every trap set, every buffalo hunted, every stretch of desert crossed, every river forded was a dazzling diamond—and the facets of these jewels were wonder, hazard, miracle, excitement, and death. However hot, cold, or tired a mountain man felt, no matter how full-bellied, well-loved, or ready to hoot and holler, no matter how hungry, thirsty, or bowel-running scared, he always felt alive.
As Sam and Hannibal sipped their coffee, they knew such stuff, but they didn’t talk about it. They were too busy living it.
Sam looked at his friend and his mount—his hunting trail family. He pushed his eyes over to the single pack of beaver they had, a pitiful taking for their entire spring hunt. Up and down the west side of the Yellowstone Mountains they’d trekked, up and down the valley of the Henry’s Fork. Other trappers stayed away from this country, because of the danger of coming face-to-face with Blackfeet. After so many years Sam and Hannibal would have missed the danger if they didn’t smell it, and they were glad to have this country to trap alone. Once it was prime. Now it was paltry, but the best of what was left.
The irony was that the scarcity of beaver didn’t matter. They started hunting the creature for its fur, which made the best hats. Except that over the last few years, silk hats became the style. A way of life done in by a whim of fashion.
Sam swallowed the dregs and chewed the grounds. Even that way, the coffee had no taste.
The way Hannibal was grinning at him, Sam knew his friend had the same experience.
It was time. "I got a thought," said Sam.
This thought of his would change their plans. Last night they’d agreed that today was the time to start downriver toward Fort Hall.
"I want to go to the Smokes," he said.
They went to the Smokes each year, but at the end of the fall hunt, not the spring hunt.
Hannibal said, "Why not?"
So the Smokes it was. Just that easy.
Excerpted from Dreams Beneath Your Feet by Win Blevins.
Copyright © 2008 by Win Blevins.
Published in December 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.