One bitter dawn in 1870, Barnaby Skye realized he had not lived in a house for fifty-two years. He was thirteen years old when a press gang snatched him off the cobbled streets of East End, in London, and he found himself a powder monkey in the Royal Navy. For seven cruel years he had lived in the bowels of frigates, and after that, in the wilds of North America. But never again in a place with a kitchen and hearth and bedroom and parlor.
He wrapped his blanket tight about him against the brutal cold, crawled out the door of his buffalo-hide lodge, and slowly made his way over trampled snow to the red willow bushes, where he might find relief. More and more, as he aged, he needed to get up in the night. No matter that he was inured to discomfort after a lifetime spent out-of-doors. It was getting harder and harder to live in this fashion, among his wife Victoria’s Kicked-in-the-Bellies clan of the Absaroka People, drifting through the seasons to wherever the buffalo ran or the berries ripened. Twice a night now, sometimes more, he stepped into cold, or heat, or rain, or snow, or wind. He had no choice.
He stumbled once as his moccasin plunged into a soft patch, but finally reached the willow brush away from the lodges, where he waited and waited for the slow stream to begin and comfort to return to his belly. He was sixty-five, and feeling it. The changes in his body had come on cat feet, and he had missed or ignored them, until now. The cold stung his cheeks and bit his ears, no matter that a dense gray beard now covered his weathered face. By the time he was done, he was cold.
A deep silence pervaded the winter camp of the Crows on Sweet Grass Creek. Dawn was simply a rose streak to the southeast, the beginning of another brief day. No one stirred. A few frosted ponies stood desolately, tethered close to the lodges, their breaths cloudy. Most of the lodge fires had died, and in this last hour before the camp stirred, the people lay buried in buffalo robes in skin tents that did little to turn the hard fist of winter.
Skye headed back to his own lodge, one of twenty-three here, and to his women, Victoria of the Absarokas and Mary of the Shoshones, who were used to his night-stirring and ignored it. But as he returned to his home, which was nothing but a thin buffalo hide that walled the bitter cold from those who lived within, a long-suppressed idea arose in his mind.
He needed a home. A real white man’s home, with a hearth and stove, with beds and chairs and tables and windows and doors and escape from murderous winds and blistering heat and vicious deluges. He didn’t want to live Indian style anymore. Victoria’s people, the Absarokas, lived in lodges that they moved from time to time, and took their old and sick with them until the day came when the old and sick could be moved no more. And then the old ones were usually left to die, propped up under a tree with a little food and water. Sometimes they were left to die alone, in weakness and pain and a terrible cold infiltrating their bodies, because there was no other way.
Skye had watched the Crows leave old Indians behind. These were fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles and aunts. People he knew. Usually that was the choice of the old ones, who knew death was coming and accepted it. They asked to be taken apart and their wish was always granted. They wished to sing their death songs and be left behind, given to the sun and the wind and the spirits. It was something that the old themselves requested when the time was right and they were ready. Winter was more merciful to them than summer because they did not linger. Sometimes, though, when the village was in peril of death or disease or catastrophe, the old and sick were simply abandoned because there was no other way. There might not be horses or travois to carry them. So they were left on the spirit road, left to begin their long walk on the star-strewn trails of the heavens. Skye understood all of that, and yet he could not reconcile himself to it.
Now, in the middle of a bitter night, he hoped he might grow old and die in a house. As much as he had adapted to Victoria’s ways, there was still the Englishman in him. And now the Englishman was hurting.
He pulled aside the flap with fingers already numb and stepped into the thick gloom. Above, in the smoke hole, icechip stars still were visible. A layer of frost coated the inside of the lodge cover, as well as the liner. It had been formed from human breath. His wives didn’t stir. It was almost as bitter within as outside. He found his bed, two thick robes on the ground to protect against the terrible cold rising from it, and another he pulled over himself. But he scarcely warmed even after waiting for the thin heat to build in his bed.
He had ignored the rheumatism for years, but now he could not. Most of him hurt most of the time. He wasn’t sure that rheumatism was the proper word, but it was the only word he knew for pain that radiated across his back, pierced his arms and legs, annoyed his joints, and often made his wrists and hands hurt so much it was hard even to chop wood. Whatever it was, it had sneaked into his life almost without his knowing it, and now he could not ignore it anymore. He wasn’t so old, but his hard life had taken a toll. In the Royal Navy he had sometimes been colder and more miserable than he ever had been in North America. And here in the American West, he had waded icy rivers, been caught in blizzards, been soaked by cruel rains, and spent many a sleepless night shivering in wet clothes that could not be dried. And now he hurt night and day.
The heavy robes did little to comfort him. He lay impatiently, waiting for the day to begin. His wives would build up the fire and hope that the downdraft of wintry air wouldn’t dampen the flames and fill the lodge with acrid smoke. He looked about him, suddenly dissatisfied with this thin layer of buffalo hide keeping the elements at bay. He wanted a house. He had never had one of his own in all of his years, and now he wanted a comfortable, solid, safe, spacious home, ten times larger than the largest lodge of the Absarokas, planted firmly in his own soil, surrounded by gardens and livestock and fields of grain and pastures.
He felt guilty. For decades Skye’s home had been with Victoria’s people, and sometimes with Mary’s Shoshone people. Wherever they drifted, he drifted with them, as much at home on the plains or foothills or mountains as they were. Home was wherever they were, not just a white man’s building on white men’s land, surrounded by white men’s neighbors. For the Crows and Shoshones, home was where the land offered meat and roots, lodgepoles, handsome mountains, rushing creeks, soaring eagles, and safety. They had never divided up the land, surveyed it, sold off pieces. It was all one to them. And it had been all one to Skye, too, for all these seasons.
But this bitter January morning, he knew he needed a home. He wondered how Victoria would feel about it, and how Mary would. They were traditional Indians, and home was wherever they happened to be. If Skye were to settle somewhere, how would Victoria feel about leaving her people? Home, for her, was being among her people: her clan brothers and sisters, the women who shared her day scraping hides or gathering roots or making moccasins. Home for her was a migrating neighborhood, not a place.
He peered at her, resting still and quiet and oblivious. She had slowed too. He had caught her straightening up after scraping a hide, caught the stoic look on her face that told him she ached in her shoulders and her back. She worked ceaselessly, as did Mary; there was no surcease from toil for a tribal woman. Even the very old women sat quietly working with awls or needles, making what needed to be made. Maybe Victoria, Many Quill Woman to her own people, might welcome a comfortable log home, as long as it was close to her own band. He would ask her after the day opened.
Mary, twenty years younger, was by nature more accepting, and Skye sensed that she would slip into a new mode of life well enough. But a certain sadness clung to her, and she seemed to pass through her days without the fire and joy that had drawn Skye to her when she was a beautiful Shoshone girl called Blue Dawn, a granddaughter of Sacajawea. Ever since Skye had sent their son, Dirk, east to be schooled, Mary had settled deep inside of herself, living within her own private world. Skye had often agonized about it, but there was nothing he could do. His son was gone.
Skye lay in his robes, wondering how he might get a house. He had no money and none of the skills that might earn him some. He was the son of a London export merchant, and ill-equipped to plow and harrow and plant. The beaver were trapped out; game was steadily vanishing, killed by the white men. The buffalo were doomed, though Skye hoped the herds might prosper for another twenty or thirty years. But a man who hoped to build a home would need a way to sustain himself. Raise horses? They’d be stolen by the first raiding party. Raise cattle? Better, perhaps. Some cattle, horses, a garden, poultry, some grain fields, maybe these would support a man with a house.
Skye lay quietly, staring out the smoke hole, watching the gray light brighten. If he were young, he might manage. A young man full of energy could build his own house of log or rock or sawn wood, and mortar together a hearth and chimney. He could fell the logs and bark them and drag them to the house behind a stout horse, and notch them and jack them into place, one by one. He could split shakes and shingle the roof. He could raise the outbuildings, fence pastures and paddocks, sink a well, cobble together a homestead, plow the virgin earth and plant grain fields and gardens, scythe hay and fork it to a barn loft, feed it out to his horses and cattle in the winter, and somehow get along. But he was old now. Just when he needed a home, his strength had fled him.
Then he discovered Victoria, lying on her side, staring at him.
And as if by some mysterious communication, Mary yawned, sat up, and swiftly tugged a soft, thick robe about her, even over her jet hair. Their breaths steamed. Not even a lodge with an inner lining could stop the cold this morning.
"You have something to say," Victoria said.
She always read his mind. Skye sat up, clamped his ancient black top hat over his locks, and tried to warm himself.
"I do," he said. "After we are warm and have eaten."
"You are leaving us," Victoria persisted.
It had been her nightmare all these decades. Someday the white man would grow tired of living the way her people lived, and walk away. How many times, over four decades, had she leaped to that? How often had he tried to assure her, only to run into dark flowers of fear.
"No," he said. He would say more when he was ready.
She threw off her robe. She was already in her doeskin dress. She wore it all winter, but in the summer she dressed as brightly as a flock of butterflies.
This time he watched her closely, and saw that rising from the bed of robes took determination. Not that she was old or feeble. Not that he was old. But no mortal steps into subzero air without determination and courage. The very sight of her struggling to wrap a blanket around her, and make for the bushes, hardened his resolve.
Only Mary didn’t seem to mind the numbing cold. She slipped out of her robes, eyed him shyly—he always marveled at her shyness, even after many years of marriage—and plunged outside with little more than a thin summer blanket carelessly over her shoulders.
He thought to start a fire, even though Victoria would scold him. It was not men’s work, she would snap, but she would be secretly pleased that he was thinking of her comfort. He made himself collect some of the kindling outside of their lodge, and with his skinning knife shaved bits of it, and added a pinch of gunpowder from his horned flask. He would not wrestle with flint and steel this morning, not with some trading post lucifers at hand. He struck one, watched the powder flare, and watched the tiny flame lick the kindling and catch. By the time the women returned from the brush, there would be a thin warmth in Mister Skye’s lodge, and the nine-foot circle of his home would begin to welcome life.
Excerpted from North Star by Richard S. Wheeler.
Copyright 2009 by Richard S. Wheeler.
Published in 2009 by A Tom Doherty Associates Book.
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.