Barnaby Skye did not have a care in the world, except perhaps for those big doings yonder in the shade of a brush arbor. He took his ease on a buffalo robe before his small lodge, watching puffball clouds spin out of the mountains and the gents in the brush arbor divide up the world. The wild times, when every trapper in the beaver country quenched a mighty, yearlong drought, had died, and now in the somnolent mid-July heat, rough trappers played cutthroat games, spun yarns, snored, or flirted with enterprising red hoydens.
His Crow wife, Victoria, had abandoned him to his trapping cronies and gone to drink spirits and tell bawdy jokes with the Flatheads, allies of her people, who were present in force to trade at the Rocky Mountain Fur Company store and sponge up the bacchanal. She had female friends and even distant relatives among the Salish.
The Flatheads and other tribes had swarmed to the great 1832 summer fair, this time in Pierre's Hole, the navel in Mother Earth just west of the Great Breasts, or Grand Tetons, which Barnaby Skye thought was plumb center, the best of all places for the great annual gathering of trappers.
Pierre's Hole offered a mild climate, vast stretches of lushgrazing ground for all the ponies, icy creeks tumbling from the mountains, abundant firewood, plentiful game--though not any buffalo--and saucy breezes eddying out of the Tetons to freshen the spirit as well as body. What better place to bake the year's aches out of the body, swill the Sublettes' firewater with new and old rivals, and engage in nefarious sins that ruined body and soul?
This year, the frosty waters of the Tetons had been mixed with pure grain spirits carried in great casks from St. Louis, and seasoned with some ancient plugs of tobacco and cayenne pepper to produce trade whiskey, the alchemist's potion that set trappers and redskins to baying at the moon and marking trees. Skye had finally had his fill of that, and of the nausea that dogged each binge, and had sunk into a summer of indolence, his mind meandering and untethered and his keen eye observing the daily passage of dusky and predatory females.
These were some doings, all right. For the first time, the American Fur Company had shown up, a big brigade of trappers led by William H. Vanderburgh and Andrew Drips, and they planned to set up a store of their own just as soon as Lucien Fontenelle arrived with that company's trade goods, which were being shipped up the Missouri and then carried by packhorse to the rendezvous. That was the big doings. They were late, which gave the Rocky Mountain Fur Company an edge for the moment. But from a longer perspective, the well-funded opposition probably signaled the end of the outfit.
Nor was that all of it. This year an American army officer named Bonneville, fat with East Coast capital, had ventured west with his own expedition. And an odd Bostonian ice merchant named Nathaniel Wyeth had marched out with a whole troop of idiot mangeurs du lard in uniforms. And in addition to that, there was a big party of free trappers in camp, all of them ruthless rivals of the men Skye had allied with for years: Bridger, Fraeb, Gervais, Fitzpatrick, and Sublette.
The new competition troubled Skye. The mountains werehis mother and father. He wasn't a Yank, but a pressed seaman who had jumped his Royal Navy frigate at Fort Vancouver in 1826 and ended up in the Rocky Mountains, a man without a country. He had never eyed the settled United States, and had no great wish to.
England was a closed chapter in his young life. He had Victoria, and if he belonged to anything other than the Trappers Nation now, it was the Crow Nation, into which he had married. He could scarcely imagine his slim Crow consort padding the lanes of London in her moccasins. But sometimes, in the still of the night, he wondered how his family fared, and how the streets of his own city would appeal to him now. And he missed those things.
Of his family he knew little. He had been a merchant's son, destined to take over the family export business, when a press gang snatched him from the cobbled streets hard by the London Dock at East End. He never saw his family again. They surely did not know his whereabouts or even whether he was alive. And would never know.
Black Harris folded his lengthy frame beside Skye.
"What's the word?" he asked, nodding in the general direction of that willow-covered brush arbor where the brigade leaders from several outfits dickered with each other.
Skye squinted through the heat, and shrugged. "They'll make my fate, or I'll make my fate," he said.
"Nothing'll change. American Fur will gouge us just as mighty as our outfit for possibles. We'll still fork out mountain prices for every blanket and trap and jug of lightning, and they'll still offer mountain prices for every plew, take it or leave it," Harris said. "Everything changes except prices."
"It reminds me of my first rendezvous, when I walked in from the sea. That's when Ashley sold out to Smith, Jackson, and Sublette. Now we're seeing big doings again."
Rendezvous was the time to reoutfit, buy some white men's marvels such as calico, knives, ribbons, copper kettles, and thick blankets for his Crow woman. And of course, takethe edge off his thirst. Each spring his thirst built up in his parched body like a plugged volcano. And the day the supply caravan rolled in, Barnaby Skye could be found near the head of the line leading toward the kettles of mountain whiskey, ready to pickle his brains for a week.
The Skyes had done well with the old firm.
But Barnaby Skye wasn't sure about the future. Which of these outfits, wrestling with each other under that brush arbor, would survive and which would go under? How would things line up? Suddenly life in the mountains wasn't a sure bet. Maybe he'd be out of salaried work as a camp tender or brigade leader or hunter, his occupations these several years. It nagged him. He didn't like trapping. Trappers lived hard and dangerous lives, wading in icy streams, always in danger of freezing, drowning, starving, and from arrows and scalp knives.
He was the stray dog without a country. A man ought to have a home, a nation, a people, but all his allegiances were nothing more than transitory alliances formed at summer rendezvous like this one. He knew he was set apart in their minds. He spoke the polite English he was born with, and not the bizarre vernacular of the Yanks.
"I think I'm about to become a free trapper again, Black."
"No man'd do better at it. You know which way the stick floats."
"I never much cared for it. But I could make a warm camp and keep men healthy. I can hunt, make meat."
"That's plumb center, Skye."
"Mister Skye, mate."
Harris was grinning.
For six years, they had called him Skye and for six years he had told them to preface it with a mister. That's what the Royal Navy did to him, all those gentlemen officers calling each other mister, but addressing enlisted men by their last names.
It was the joke of the camps. Call Barnaby Skye anything but mister and watch the response. Trappers would sendgreenhorns, mangeurs du lard, or "pork-eaters," as they were called, over to Skye just to watch him fume at the way they addressed him. That was all right with Skye.
Barnaby Skye had filled out in the mountains until he became a barrel of a man. He still walked with a rolling sailor's gait, as if the mountains were the pitching decks of men-o'-war. He squinted out at the wilderness from deep-set blue eyes, set apart by a formidable ridge his friends swore was the king of all noses, long, thick, mountainous, dominant, and overmastering the rest of his jowly red face.
They made sport of his nose, betting that no one at any rendezvous would ever match it, and he let them. His nose was the fleshly evidence of a thousand sailor brawls, a nose that had been erected by fistic abuse into the lord and viceroy of all mortal noses. The mountaineers treasured his nose even more than they treasured Skye.
His other hallmark was his splendid beaver top hat, black and silky, climbing up from his skull like a cannon's barrel. It was the hat gentlemen habitually wore, and that is why he wore it. In England, and in the Royal Navy, he could not be a true gentleman. In this, the New World, he could be what he chose. And so they called him Mister Skye, and he wore his top hat, much battered now and bearing evidence of the uninvited passage of two arrows, and the whole of this, the royal nose, the top hat, and the way he required others to address him, they saw as crown and scepter and purple and ermine.
"Skye, I'd pass the jug with you tonight, but your nose would get in the way," Harris said. "It wouldn't be fair to the rest. You can snort a whole snifter of firewater and hold it in your nostrils."
"It is a rare English talent, Black," said Skye. "I accept. I will drink your party dry."
Black Harris yawned and headed to his robes for a nap.
Skye thought he'd sleep to dusk, carve some meat off the hanging elk haunch, and then buy another jug of mountainwhiskey. The supply had declined alarmingly, and Skye wanted one last celebration before the casks went dry, or the firm began watering the last of its stock, reducing woeful trappers to sniffing a cork and sighing.
Thus passed a July afternoon, while the adventurers who ran the business, took the risks, carted supplies a thousand miles from St. Louis and a fortune in furs back to that gateway of the West, haggled through the day.
Skye snored, until late in the day when a shadow darkened his leisure. In any place other than rendezvous, that shadow would have evoked a lifesaving bolt upward and twist to one side. But here, the one place in the wilderness where it was safe, he contented himself merely to open his eyes and squint upward, past the ridgeback of his nose, to the young man above.
"Mister Skye," said Ogden.
"You're the only gent in six years who's addressed me as I wish. For that I am tentatively in your debt."
Skye sat up. Ogden was grinning. They had not seen each other for six years. When Skye was fleeing pell-mell from the Royal Navy, he ran smack into Peter Skene Ogden and his brigade of Hudson's Bay trappers in the Oregon country. He expected to be captured and hauled back to Fort Vancouver and sent in chains to London and a life in durance vile. But this Canadian was no ordinary man, and actually listened to Skye's story rather than scoffing and threatening. In the end, he helped a desperate and hungry seaman escape into the wilderness of North America.
And here was his benefactor, wanting to talk. Ogden was seven hundred miles away from Vancouver. Barnaby Skye sensed that there was portent in all this.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard S. Wheeler