Smoke hung in the air, and Barnaby Skye took it for a sign. Somewhere on this day of birth the mountaintops were burning. Freshets of chill air brought the scent to him, though he knew of no fire and the season was very late.
The Shoshone women had driven him off but he didn’t mind. The birthing of a child was women’s mystery and women’s honor. They would not even let Mary endure her travail in Skye’s own small lodge. Too small, they said. A woman needed space to bring a child into the world.
Skye’s older wife, Victoria, of the Absaroka people, was with them. There was naught a man could do but wait, or walk restlessly, for the women didn’t want him close to the place of Mary’s ordeal for fear he would cast a dark spell over it.
Mary’s labor had started in the night, and before dawn the women had taken Mary away from him and into a lodge prepared by Chief Washakie’s women. And after that, no one came to him with news. The men left him alone with the dawn; the women pursued their mysteries.
Mary’s people, the eastern Shoshones, were camped this gusty October on the Popo Agie River where it tumbled out of the Wind River Mountains, a place thick with elk and yellow grass and firewood and gossiping winds. It was a good place for a baby to be born.
Barnaby Skye went to greet the dawn, which was coloring the eastern horizon. He climbed a hillock and lifted his arms to the heavens and welcomed the newborn sun. It was something he had learned from the Indians, maybe a little like morning prayers in the Anglican world he had been torn from so long ago when he was a boy in London. Sometimes he thought that religions were not so far apart. Let the theologians worry about it. His own religion had come down to reverence for all the mysteries.
Jawbone, his ugly blue roan colt, found him there, the pair of them temporary outcasts until this birthing time passed. Jawbone lowered his ugly head and pushed it into Skye’s belly, and Skye pushed back. It was a morning communion. Skye thought that the pair of them had more bone than brains in their skulls. It was a question which of them had the ugliest snout. Skye’s vast and pulpy nose erupted between his eyes, tumbled downslope in a widening hogback, and dominated everything below, while Jawbone’s massive jaw dwarfed the head above it, giving him a demented look.
Skye wondered what it would be like to raise this child; it was late in his life to be having children. He didn’t wish for a boy-child or a girl, for that was the road to disappointment. Instead, he prayed that he might welcome and nourish whoever and whatever became the flesh of his flesh.
He could barely manage the terror of fatherhood. Was he going to provide a safe haven for the girl, a dowry? Could he offer the boy an inheritance, a schooling, a chance to prosper? He could give the child none of those things. He was an empty-purse man of the wilderness, living with his two wives’ tribes, making a thin and erratic living guiding Yanks in their endless westering. Who was Skye but an outcast, a bit of human flotsam?
He lifted the battered top hat that had been with him most of the years of his exile from England, and settled it over his roughly shorn graying hair. The rest of him was adorned in soft golden leathers, quilled and beaded by his wives, but the top hat was England; the top hat separated him from chiefs and Yanks and Spaniards. The top hat told the world he was Mister Skye, a man who had made the western reaches of North America his home ever since he jumped ship at Fort Vancouver. He had come to cherish his life in the New World, but sometimes the pangs of loss caught him as he remembered his mother and father and sister snug in London’s bosom. He wondered if they lived. He wondered if this child being born would ever see those English grandparents or aunt or maybe unknown cousins. He wondered whose nation this child would claim, if any, for Skye was a man without a country.
The strengthening sun caught the snow-tipped peaks south and west of him, each peak blazing as if a silver coin had been embedded at its peak to dazzle the eye. Was there ever a range so noble as the Wind River Mountains? Some infinitude above, the dark-timbered slopes gave way to gray rock and ice fields with mysterious footprints caught in glacial hollows and beaded totems hanging from timberline sentinels. Now the waking sun probed the canyons and valleys, casting vast blue shadows where night still lay. But the day was beginning, the day when Skye’s life would grow by one and a newcomer would fill his lodge.
Jawbone whuffed, and Skye turned to see Victoria toil up the path above the Shoshone village. Her people were Crows and she was known to them as Many Quill Woman. He had married her long ago when he was a trapper and given her a name fitting a queen of England. She looked cross, but she often did when she was her gayest.
“Dammit, Skye, what are you doing up here? You have a child.”
He caught her hands. “A child? And Mary is all right?”
“A man-child, and she is weary. It went hard, and she is worn.”
“A boy! A son! Is she resting?”
Victoria slid arms about him and they embraced. He felt the churn of her feelings, for she had always wanted a child, but no child had ever come to them. Now he felt the joy permeating her; it might be Mary’s birth-child, but Victoria would be no less a mother.
“Am I permitted?” he said at last.
“They sent me for you.”
“Is there anything, any custom, I should know about?”
“Hell no, Skye. But you could pay the town crier to announce it.”
“I will do it!”
They descended into the silent village, where life was stirring and wood smoke layered the air. The generous birthing lodge stood apart, across a small brookside meadow. Victoria led Skye there. He felt increasing alarm but could not fathom why. He discovered beads of moisture on his brow, and couldn’t imagine how it had rained on a clear day.
She paused, smiled, and scratched on the lodge door, this ritual politeness an affirmation of the sanctuary within.
“Come,” said a voice Skye did not know. There were grandmothers here, and medicine keepers, and midwives. Skye suspected that most of the women in the Shoshone village had a role in every birthing.
He doffed his hat and entered into the dim light, the only illumination from the smoke hole, and found Mary lying on softest robes, bare-breasted, the little thing at her brown nipple, her thighs covered with a soft blue and white Hudson’s Bay blanket.
Skye hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. He knelt. Mary gazed up at him, her face worn, the flesh of her eyes dark, her hair damp. Yet she smiled. He turned to the little one, small as a mouse, its flesh copper in the dimness, its sparse hair jet. He could not see the eyes. It was swaddled in a soft doeskin receiving blanket. His little arms lay upon her breast.
“My son,” he said. “I have a son.” Then, “Are you all right?”
She nodded. He thought she was so weary that even a nod was a reached-for exertion.
He found Mary’s hand and pressed it in his own. It was damp and limp. Truly, this woman had suffered and was worn down to nothing. Around the lodge, other women knelt or sat, mute and observant. He feared he was not doing what was required. He feared they disapproved.
“Have you a name for this boy?” he asked Mary.
“Yes,” she said. “A name that came to me, a mystery. And have you a name for him?”
“Me? A name?” Skye was momentarily taken aback. Was he to give a name to this infant?
“A name from your people, a name from my people,” Mary said.
The infant stirred. He looked like a wrinkled gnome. Skye wondered if this misshapen little thing could be a man. Could ever be anything but some stunted little wretch.
A name! Why hadn’t he thought of a name? Never was a male so unready for fatherhood as Barnaby Skye. Junior? God forbid. No, there was a name, his father’s name, his father who would never see this grandson, yet whose name the child would bear. Skye’s father had been a London import and export merchant, buying tea and silk from the Indies, and his name was Dirk Skye. The child would be Dirk. It was a name little known to the Yanks, a name not even common in London, but Barnaby Skye, son of Dirk, suddenly felt the hunger to honor his father.
“Dirk,” he muttered. “Dirk?”
“Dirk? What does it mean?”
“Ah, it’s a short sword carried by British naval officers. But that . . . I think there might be other . . .”
“A short sword. That is a good meaning,” she whispered. “Dirk, Dirk.”
She gazed at the suckling infant, fashioning this odd name and blessing him with it.
“And have you chosen a name?” he asked.
“The name was given to me,” she said.
He waited, not inquiring in what manner this name was given. Had some shaman given it? Had someone in her family named this infant?
“My people call the Star That Never Moves the Star of the North. This boy will be the Star of the North in my tongue. North Star. For the North Star is always there and all the people of the earth know where they are because of the star that never moves.”
“North Star? His Shoshone name is North Star?”
She nodded and closed her eyes. Plainly, she needed rest. This firstborn had come into the world amid pain.
“Sleep then, Mary. I will go tell the world that we have a fine son, and this is a moment of joy for all the people, and for you and me and Victoria.”
With one last glance at the little suckling thing on his younger wife’s bosom, he retreated into the soft autumnal morning and found the village crier.
Copyright © 2008 by Richard S. Wheeler. All rights reserved.
RICHARD S. WHEELER is the author of over fifty novels of the American West. He holds five Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to the literature of the West. He lives in Livingston, Montana, near Yellowstone Park, and is married to Sue Hart, an English professor at Montana State University in Billings.