It had never occurred to Barnaby Skye that domestic discord could ruin a rendezvous or even threaten his future as a mountaineer. Even less had he imagined that it would transform his life. But his young Crow wife, Victoria, was unhappy and on the brink of leaving him, and that was how the trouble began.
He was summering on the Popo Agie near its confluence with the Wind River that summer of 1830, enjoying the great annual gathering of his trapping friends, the thing they all had ached for during the long bitter year. This was the long-awaited shining time. During all those wintry months he had dreamed of these sweet and carefree days when there was nothing to do but soak up sun, eat good buffler hump, play euchre or monte for wild stakes, tell impossible yarns to greenhorns, buy beads, bells, ribbons, and mirrors for the glowing Indian maids, get the sad news about all the coons who went under or quit the mountains, load up with shining new traps, good center-shooting rifles, thick blankets, calico shirts, keen knives--and a few good jugs of whiskey to lubricate it all.
Paradise, at least at first. Never in Skye's memory had there been such a summer. The playful zephyrs cooled him, while occasional thundershowers kept the grassy river bottoms green. The arid benchlands to the north had browned under the hotsun, and now they shimmered in the rising heat. But beyond, tantalizing like an eager lover, rose the mountains, blue and cool and sweet, where a man could suck air into his lungs and rejoice just to be alive and free, without civilization or law or politics or masters to rein him in.
But Victoria was unhappy.
During each of the previous rendezvous, she had borne his little communions with the whiskey jug without complaint. But not this time. Like most of his trapping brethren, he had stocked up on trade whiskey at the canvas emporium of Smith, Jackson, . and Sublette and gone on a bender for several days--three, to be precise. Vile stuff, that trade whiskey--grain alcohol, river water, some pepper and tobacco for taste. Worse than monkey spit. When he finally recovered his wits, he felt nauseous and the sunlight intimidated him.
That's when Victoria squinted at him, pursed her lips, and plunged into a hostile silence. He ignored her. If she wanted him to quit the jug, she might as well forget it. He was himself, and couldn't change.
"I want to go visit my mother and father. I haven't been with the People for four winters," she said, looking up from her cook pot one July morning.
"We could do that. Stay a few days right after this breaks up."
"No, I want to be with the People again. Many moons. Maybe always. I am one of the Kicked-in-the-Bellies. Arapooish is my chief. So I will go back--until the next rendezvous, anyway."
He surveyed her, worry coiling through him. He didn't want her to leave. He was hitched to the fur company for a living, and wherever they sent him, that's where he would go. He'd been a camp tender, and had done so well that they had finally made him second in command, the camp clerk and assistant to the partisan, or bourgeois, as the Creoles called the brigade leaders. That was something, rising like that. His pay had gone from two hundred to three hundred a year, too.
Skye sulked. Women! How could any man get along with one?
He eyed her furtively, admiring her lithe, compact figure and her dusky flesh and her taut, clean-boned face and the jet hair she wore in long braids. She was his miracle, and every trapper in camp envied him. From the moment he had fallen for her, while yet a bumbling British seaman who had just fled the Royal Navy, she had worked magic in him. She had given more than love: fierce loyalty, an education in the ways of the Plains tribes, tenderness, his first experience of a shared life, and more. She had lightened his chores as camp tender, brain-tanned every buffalo and elk and deer and moose hide the meat hunters had brought in, which eventually added a hundred dollars to their annual income when they traded the peltries at rendezvous, and had sewn handsome, comfortable skin clothes and fur-lined moccasins for him, year by year.
But now she was threatening to leave him. Well, not that exactly. She wanted him to live in her village for a time. He couldn't imagine what to do about it or how he'd make a living there. She said they didn't need to make a living if they lived with her people. The Absaroka had more than enough of everything. But he said he needed to buy powder and lead, flannels, good four-point blankets, knives, skillets, tin cups, coffee, beans, sugar, flour, and salt. And besides, he owed the company a hundred and fifty dollars and that sum was expanding by the jugful.
She glared at him as if he were crazy.
He should have been happy. That's what rendezvous were for. Six or seven weeks of pure, unbridled fun with the wildmen of the mountains, along with assorted Indians from all the surrounding areas. All except Blackfeet, the ever-present menace to them all. But here, on the Popo Agie, were Nez Perce, Shoshones, and plenty of Crows, though not most of Victoria's village, which was hunting buffalo after a hard and hungry winter.
He glowered at the world, oblivious of the breezes toying with his long hair, his stocky body alive to the delicious warmth of the early summer, even if he was hungover. The sprawlingcamp lay quiet in the morning light, smoke drifting lazily from a few cookfires, most of the mountaineers still on their buffalo robes after another night's debauch that usually ended around dawn. Skye saw no guards. Did all these veterans of the mountains trust the world that much? Would no Indian venture to steal a horse or a hundred horses? Did all catastrophe cease when these knights gathered?
Skye eyed a knot of men under a nearby brush arbor, and knew they were deciding his fate and the fate of most of the mountaineers gathered at the rendezvous. There sat the owners of the fur company--William Sublette, Davey Jackson, and that legend, Jedediah Smith, back from his three-year adventure to California and the Oregon country, still alive although almost no one else on that expedition had made it. Skye shuddered. He had desperately wanted to go with Smith, but if he had done so he would be lying in a grave.
With the partisans sat some younger men: Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger, Milt Sublette, Henry Fraeb, and Jean Baptiste Gervais. Skye had an inkling what that was all about. The partners were selling out, just as Ashley, before them, had sold out, and the younger bunch was buying the company. He'd already heard enough to know that the outfit would be called the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Just what that boded for him, Skye couldn't imagine, but he knew his future was all tied up with their palaver.
"Well, dammit, Skye, you going to eat or do I throw this to the dogs?" Victoria asked.
Skye ate. She glared at him, registering every bite. He didn't thank her for heating up the buffalo stew. He ate lightly, his stomach roiling from the previous night's excesses.
"Can't eat? You were pretty goddamn drunk," she said maliciously. "Maybe you starve to death."
"What's in your craw?"
"I'll drink if I want. This is the only time all year I can."
"Except when you take jugs with you."
Skye ignored her, sipped some scalding coffee--itself a once-a-year luxury--and fled. If she was going to go back to her people, he wished she'd be off. He was tired of the nagging.
He didn't like this rendezvous anymore. The others had been the best moments of his life. He'd come to the mountains a refugee from the long arm of the Royal Navy, a man who'd grown up in a watery prison, but here in the mountains he'd become a new man, learning the craft of survival better than anyone else--because he had to. He had no place to run. This last year had been the best. Smith, back from his terrible trip to the coast, had met Jackson and Sublette in Pierre's Hole in August--they had been looking for him--and then set out on a hunt northward toward the Blackfoot country, up into the lush Judith Basin, south of the Missouri River. And Skye, along with Victoria, had been along, blotting up the art and genius of the one man who seemed immune to all the perils of the wilderness.
Skye knew that for as long as he lived, he would consider Jed Smith the finest mountaineer and explorer of the times. A season in Smith's brigade had taught Skye all the things he needed to know: how to make camp in a defensible place, how to listen to nature, how to find forage where there seemed to be none, how to conjure food from the naked earth, water from a desert, shelter in a barren plain. How to discern the presence of animals, birds, and Indians. All those things were what made the Bible-reading Smith a man apart. And the things that spelled the difference between life and death, comfort and misery, nourishment and starvation for man and beast. And there was Smith yonder, fixing to desert him, quit the mountains. That was the gossip, anyway.
It riled up Skye some. He itched to have a sweat. Victoria had introduced him to the sweat lodge, especially when Skye needed to boil the booze out of his pores and clean his body. Now he wanted one that would clean his spirit, too, of all its dreads and angers. He didn't know how to do that, especiallywith all those partisans throwing the dice of fate. His fate. Who would he work for and what would the wage be? And who would be his brigade companions? That mattered most of all.
Nothing much happened during the mornings at rendezvous, and this one was no exception. Victoria vanished with the packhorse on her diurnal woodcutting mission, which took her farther from camp each day. From the slope of the hill where Skye stood, he could see several hundred lodges, scores of brush arbors--structures resting on poles and covered with boughs to provide shade--and vast herds of horses dotting the browning grasslands. Every week or so the rendezvous moved a mile or two to provide the ponies with fresh pasture, so it was slowly crawling up the purling Popo Agie and toward the blue crests of the Wind River Mountains, which were not visible from where he stood, blocked from view by layer upon layer of brooding brown foothills that censored beauty as if it were sin. Not even the company store--or American Fur's rival outfit--was doing any trade, and its clerks lazed in the mellow sun of a July day. Skye watched a red-tailed hawk as it hunted along the brow of a hill, and emptied his mind of everything.
But at noon things changed. The partisans emerged from their shaded arena and headed for the stew pots. Sky intuited that the bargaining was over. It surprised him that Milt Sublette and Tom Fitzpatrick headed straight for him. They looked to be all business.
"Mister Skye," said Fitzpatrick, "you're speaking to the new owners of the company. We're calling it the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. It's no longer Smith, Jackson, and Sublette. Bill Sublette, anyway. Milt's joined us."
"Well, that's some doings." Skye lifted his top hat and screwed it down again. Ownership didn't much matter to him, as long as he had a living.
"Milt and Bridger and I are headed north with a strong party. Fraeb and Gervais are taking a brigade south. How'd you like to take out a smaller third brigade? We're making you a partisan, and we're offering five hundred for it."
"Five hundred? A partisan?"
"Mr. Skye, you've proven yourself for four years. You're a veteran. Smith recommended it, says there's no one better qualified or more likely to make a successful hunt. You're a team, you and your Victoria. Jed said he had the best outfit he'd ever had, never lacking for anything, including safety."
"She's sure some," said Milt Sublette. "A she-tiger."
"I, ah, I need to think it over, gents," Skye said. "Victoria--"
"Nothing much to think over, old coon. We'll put you on the roster as brigade leader."
Skye didn't answer. He didn't have an answer.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard S. Wheeler