Hyacinth Zephyr Peachtree didn’t like what he was hearing. The Army was saying no. Professor Peachtree had started life as a child prodigy, and hadn’t altered a bit since then except that his voice had baritoned. Prodigies do not listen to naysayers. Not even to Captain Dionysus Dillon, the be-whiskered, saturnine officer of the day at Fort Laramie.
The captain was upsetting Peachtree’s plans. Being unavoidably detained in the Nauvoo hoosegow for a month was bad enough. And now it looked like he would not get to the California gold fields at all this year. It appalled him. All that gold, there for the plucking, and he could not get to it.
He had been skeptical at first. The Forty-Niners had roared hellbent across the unknown continent, and he had supposed they were chasing a chimera. But they weren’t. There was gold in the Sierras. Giant nuggets could be pried out of gravel; placer gold could fill pouches in a few hours. Hundreds of men were returning to the States rich. Professor Peachtree wished to make amends for his skepticism.
“Look, Mister Peachtree. It’s late August. It’ll be December by the time you get to the Sierra Nevada. I promise you that if you attempt a crossing, you’ll perish—you and your party and livestock. Then where’ll you be?”
“Oh, the weather might hold. I’m uncommonly lucky.”
“The Donner party. Ever heard of them?”
“We all have, Captain.”
“That’s right. We all have. They ended up snowbound, starving, and eating each other for supper,” Dillon said.
“Well, we might try it. There’s a woman in the party whose flesh is delectable. Carlotta Krafft-Ebing. Otherwise known as the Potawatomi Princess. A little roast thigh…”
Dillon looked offended. “Sir, your jest offends the ear of an officer and gentleman. I can’t stop you. The Army can only advise. You are perfectly free to commit suicide; to lead others to their doom; to end up in one of the thousands of graves along this trail. If you wish to donate yourself to history, that’s your business. Your options are to turn back and try again next year; winter at Salt Lake with the Mormons—which would get you to California in June or July of next year—or go via one of the southern routes—which would get you there in a few months.”
“The Mormons, you say?”
“There are eleven or twelve thousand Saints in the great basin around Salt Lake. You might get permission from Brigham Young to winter there—if you have money enough. They’ll fleece you in ways you can’t imagine. They tend to let people stay who are willing to convert—but only those—”
“No, no, no. That’s like vacationing in Bedlam,” said Peachtree.
“Well then, go back and try again next year.” The captain surveyed Peachtree. “You’re ill dressed for bad weather, sir.”
Hyacinth Z. Peachtree smiled. Sooner or later they all got around to his black clawhammer coat, his white shirt with the floppy polka-dot bow tie, and his black silk stovepipe hat. “If a man dresses as befits his high station in life, that doesn’t mean he can’t negotiate the wilderness, my friend. Now tell me, how does one get to the southern route?”
“One goes back east and then takes the Santa Fe Trail and then the California Trail or the Gila River Route. There are several that stay clement during the cold months.”
“All the way back to Missouri?”
“That’s right, sir. You couldn’t manage a trip directly south from here. There’s no road for your wagons. Nothing but horse and lodgetrails. There’s constant danger from Arapaho, Utes, Cheyenne, Comanches, and Apaches. And even more danger once you hit the Santa Fe Trail.”
“But you say those southern routes stay open?”
“Where does one get a guide, Captain?”
“Why, sir, talk to the post sutler, Colonel Bullock. There’s one named Skye who’s unemployed just now.”
“A wastrel no doubt.”
Dillon wheezed like a folding accordion. “Hardly. He’s the best man in the West. A Napoleon of the wilds. He and his wives and a brute horse named Jawbone.”
“Wives, you say? Is he of the Mormon persuasion?”
“Indian wives, Crow and Shoshone. They make an army, sir, along with that nag, which is an army in itself. They’d get you there—but they’d cost you a pretty penny.”
“The sutler, you say? I’ll go there.”
“Good luck, Peachtree. Just take my advice and don’t maroon yourself in the Sierras. It’s too late.”
Professor Peachtree abandoned the captain and pierced into the sunbaked parade and located the sutler’s store at the far corner. His wagons and his troupe waited beside the Laramie River. Even at that distance he could see the ribs corrugating the sides of his mules. There had been almost no grass on the trail; it had all been nipped off by the livestock of the earlier travelers, miles to either side of the road.
Soldiers stared at him. He always made an impression, and that always helped sales. The sun cooked him so he hastened to the sutler’s emporium and plunged into a brown gloom. At the rear, in a pool of light, was a railed-off office, so he headed in that direction, past bolts of pungent canvas and calico, sacks of coffee beans and rice, tinware, stove fittings, and a rack of percussion-lock rifles and revolvers.
“Suh?” said a furrowed man from behind a Vandyke beard. The graying gentleman rose from his swivel chair.
“You’re Bullock, I presume. I’m H.Z. Peachtree, Professor Peachtree. Looking for a guide. They tell me you—”
“I’m Colonel Augustus Bullock, Retired. You speak of Skye, suh. I’m his agent.”
“Well, yes. This Skye. I’m looking for a good man. I suppose you’ll tell me he’s good no matter what he really is.”
Bullock looked him up and down until his sharp glances settled on the professor’s stovepipe hat and funereal attire. “Maybe Skye’s not for you, suh. He chooses his clients carefully. Out here, fools might get him scalped. I don’t think you’re the sort that’d fill the bill.”
“He turns down clients, Bullock?”
“Most of them. It’s not just his life at risk; it’s the lives of his wives, Victoria of the Crows, and Mary of the Shoshones—and now they’ve a new son tucked into Mary’s cradleboard. Frankly, suh, your arrivel here at this late date speaks against you.”
“I was unavoidably detained.”
“Where do you wish to go?”
“Santa Fe. The captain says it’s too late to assault the Sierras; I want to be taken to the southern route to the California gold fields.”
“And who are you, suh? What is your party?”
“I’m a doctor of natural science, Heidelberg, of course, and I purvey remedies for those who suffer. The Peachtree remedies are based on years of study of—”
“A medicine man.”
“A vulgar term, sir. I am a man with a sacred mission. I’ve discovered the means to cure many diseases and relieve the pain and suffering of all of them. I employ the most modern formulae to be found in Europe as well as ancient Potawatomi remedies, herbs and roots and spiritual disciplines unknown to white men. I’m as different from a common medicine huckster as a hawk is from a dove.”
“That’s entertaining. What’s your party, suh?”
“Two wagons drawn by Missouri mules; five persons, one of them female, another elderly. They are gifted musicians. They do a little fandango to draw citizens to our wagon, so that I may bring my blessings to them. Of course they also tend the mules and drive the wagons.”
“A medicine show. Out to mine the miners.”
“A vulgar expression, sir. We bring blossoming health and scientific comfort and release from torment to the toilers in the gold fields. We bring entertainment, succor, and enlightenment, which is worth more than all the gold in the world.”
“Hucksters,” muttered Colonel Bullock. “Well, suh, much as I’d like to recommend your sterling entourage to Skye, I don’t think you’d be a suitable party. He lacked a client this year, but I just don’t think—”
“I pay well. The laborer is worthy of the hire.”
“Well that’s a novelty. No—”
“Colonel Bullock, you’ve interviewed me; I’d like to interview him. I don’t want to employ some worthless border brigand. I have valuable properties to protect. I’ve made a considerable investment; I even have a portable laboratory with which to decoct new elixirs. No sir, I wouldn’t want to entrust our lives and fortunes to some wastrel who couldn’t survive in civilization, some fool who’d get us shot by the savages—”
Bullock was laughing politely. It puzzled Peachtree. “You wouldn’t know of Barnaby Skye, suh. Few people from the East do. But in this country, the name excites attention. Skye is a former mountain man, as wily as any who walked the wilderness. For years, since the beaver trade died, he’s been a guide. He was guiding from this fort when it was a fur post and people were flooding out to Oregon. Let me tell you, he always gets through. He’s known among all the northern tribes. They say he has big medicine—power. His horse, his wives, why, suh—”
“Let me interview him. Then I’ll decide.”
Colonel Bullock peered out the grimy window into the bright August heat. “Very well, Peachtree. I’ll send for him. He can decide and you can decide. Bring your whole entourage here in a couple of hours. Everyone. Suh, if he spots one bad apple he’ll turn you down.”
“Is there another guide here?”
“You could hire any of a dozen border men, suh, and perhaps make it. But there’s only one Skye.”
“There’s only one of me, too,” said Hyacinth Zephyr Peachtree.
Copyright © 1994 by Richard S. Wheeler