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The moment had come. For this moment the jack-tar Barnaby Skye had waited seven brutal years. For this moment he would risk being hanged from the nearest yardarm or being hauled back to London in irons to a life in a cage.
All that had kept him alive was the dream of this moment. Night and day, on the high seas, or anchored near a shore, he had nurtured this dream until it roared in his head. The Royal Navy knew it and had set a watch over him whenever His Majesty's Ship Jaguar raised land. It was so this time. They had thwarted him in the past; this time they would not.
The Royal Navy had been his warden ever since a press-gang had "recruited" him at the age of fourteen, not far from the Thames and his father's redbrick warehouse. They had snatched a lad off the cobbles of London and stuffed him into a frigate of war. They had made him a powder monkey, his task to haul casks of gunpowder from the powder safe deep in the bowels of the warship to the gunners on the decks above. And they had turned him into a bloody slave of the Crown, howling curses at his powdered and periwigged captors.
He never saw his parents or his brother or sisters again. Neither did the Royal Navy admit to his existence, or grant him a seaman's rights, or give him a hearing. He became a whisper, a rumor, an amusing secret as the lordly captains rotated command, one after another. He also became a legend, a storied villain who schemed, who defied, who spent much of his short miserable life locked in irons, who scarcely ever set foot on land-the one exception being the Kaffir wars in Africa-and would never again set foot on land if the admiralty had its say.
Now the moment had come. He needed a moonless night or deep fog and had neither, but he would take his chances. The torrents of yearning, the need for freedom overwhelmed him but did not this time erode his caution. The Jaguar lay alongside Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River of the Oregon country, at the farthest reach of Empire. This was simply a courtesy call, a visit to the newest outpost of the Hudson's Bay Company, and another proof of British domination of Oregon. Even now, late in the evening, the commodore and most of his officers were feasting at the board of the hospitable Dr. John McLoughlin, the post's factor, no doubt toasting not one, but two empires, one of them mercantile, both of them predatory.
The watch had been doubled and Skye had been confined to the fo'c'sle as usual. Two sharp-eyed men roamed the deck of the frigate, waiting for such as Barnaby Skye to alter the light and shadow on the moon-washed teak. They patrolled the midships, rounded the taffrail, expecting a deserter to go over the side or off the stern. But that was not where Skye waited on this moon-clad night. He lay on the bowsprit, wrapped in canvas, looking like a fat sail. Just under him, suspended from the bowsprit, was his kit, his few possessions stuffed in a waterproofed bag.
The watch circled close-this time the bloody bosun McGivers-his gaze raking everything that was in or out of order. But it wasn't his fate to see anything unusual about the bowsprit, and he passed by with a weary clop of his clogs.
The gates of the distant fort opened, spilling yellow light. The commodore was returning. Skye judged this to be the moment, now or never-go now or lie in seagoing hulks another lifetime. The watch stood fore and aft, observing the oncoming shore party, McGivers not far away. Skye edged out from under canvas, dropped onto the rigging under the bowsprit, untied his kit, and stared at the inky water that gurgled past in the night, glinting moon back at him. He heard clipped English voices. The shore party was clambering into the jolly boat.
A beautiful spirit flooded through him, something akin to ecstasy. He eased into the furious cold of the river, his bare feet first, and felt the icy blast crawl up his legs and belly and thick chest. The shock stunned him. He let himself drift downstream, treading just enough to keep his head above the surface, feeling the cold suck the strength out of him. He knew he must not swim until he was lost in the night, a hundred yards at least from those watching eyes and keen ears. His young body could barely endure the murderous cold but his spirit soared like a soul rising to heaven. He could see the officers settle in the jolly boat, see oars probe the glinting water, and then he could neither see nor hear them. He dog-paddled urgently toward the bank until he could stand, and then staggered up a mucky grade, his body numb and his soul afire, water sluicing out of his heavy winter blouse and trousers. He shook violently, unable to stay the convulsions of his body. But that was God's good earth under his naked feet, clay and grass in his toes.
He intended to penetrate deep into the interior of mysterious North America, into a wilderness scarcely known to white men, inhabited by wild savages, wild animals, and governed by wild weather. And after that, who could say? But now he walked north, because an eastbound vector would take him to the fort and under the surveillance of the watch. Shivering, he raced across croplands where the powerful Hudson's Bay Company grew its post provisions, stubbing his toes on stalks and weeds. He wanted a horse but saw none. Slowly he arced his way around the great fort, which now lay dark and silent in the night, a mausoleum of empire, and headed eastward well back from the river. After another mile or so, he paused to pull dry clothing from his kit, pleased that the oiled and waxed bag had turned the water. He wrung out his jack-tar woolens, donned his spares, and slid his wet feet into his boots. When he laced them up, he felt a surge of power: he was on land, he could walk, he was free. He pulled a sailcloth poncho over him, and trotted swiftly into the night, rejoicing, his heart tumultuous in his chest.
An odd feeling engulfed him. This was a sacred moment. Here in the deeps of a moonlit night, he tarried a moment to perform an act of emancipation. He tugged at some dead grasses, marveling at the feel of the brittle stems, and then he scooped up some of the soft soil and let it filter through his hands. This was the soil of a great continent: his soil, his grasses, his wilderness. He claimed the land, prayerfully and joyously. Henceforth he would be more than Skye, a last name spoken with contempt by the officers over him; he would be Mister Skye, a title the Yanks bestowed on any man here, even a commoner like himself, a mark of each person's innate dignity and worth. Mister Skye he would be ever more. This wilderness was his, he claimed it for the empire of his heart, and no force on earth would take it from him while he lived. The Royal Navy or Hudson's Bay might yet capture him but they would not take him alive.
They would come, of course. The Royal Navy would hunt him down, and soon. Hudson's Bay would come for him, too, and put word out among all its allied tribes. McLoughlin would hear of a wild man and felon, and not of a boy pressed off the banks of the Thames and treated as a slave. McLoughlin and all his traders would join the hunt and think of themselves as rendering a valuable service to the Crown. The prospect was daunting. So was the vast interior of this continent. So was the loneliness he faced.
Skye trotted eastward along a river road, hoping the dry clay would not record his passage. For now, distance was his sole objective. He wanted a dozen, nay a hundred, miles between himself and his pursuers. But he knew that ere long he would face new ordeals, feeding himself with nothing more than two hooks and a line, two ancient knives, and his hickory belaying pin. He had given much thought to his kit and now it would have to do: navy pea jacket and skullcap, raincoat-bedroll improvised from purloined sailcloth, a flint and striker pilfered from the galley, his razor and shaving mug, a large tin cup, some ship biscuits, tea, an awl, shoe leather, thong, fishing gear, and a small coil of manila. That was all. And even that had been hard to gather and hide in His Majesty's frigate.
He fled eastward, trotting, running, stumbling, barely pausing for breath. With the first gray of dawn he ascended massive bluffs until he was far back from the well-traveled river road, and continued onward, never stopping, his body responding to liberty even as his feet responded to the good earth. As the sun ascended on that April morning of 1826, he found himself in a vast land. An enormous snow-capped mountain vaulted upward from the south side of the river, and green slopes, mostly forested, rose from both sides of the river. He had scarcely remembered that land is rarely level. But again his limbs responded, as if they hadn't been punished by the hard night or the icy bath. Such was the rejoicing of his spirit that his stocky body knew no weariness. He danced on a ridge. He was free.
From time to time he eased back to some promontory where he could survey the shimmering river far below, and saw nothing on its banks. He was tempted to rest but refused to do so. He toiled eastward again, aware that his tortured passage along the bluffs would be much slower than passage along the river road below, and that his pursuers would gain on him this day. He wished he had stayed on the road, counting on speed to keep him hidden. But it was too late for that. He struggled through brush and forest, up and down giant shoulders, until at last he could go no further. He found a pine-clad promontory overlooking the Columbia and made a camp there where he could see for miles. He gnawed some ship biscuits and then he dozed.
They came in the afternoon, a well-armed party of seamen and officers along with some leather-clad men, no doubt Hudson's Bay guides and scouts. He couldn't make out which of the officers were commanding this little expedition or which of his shipmates were hunting him. But they marched by, pausing at every ravine to probe it. They were thorough and relentless, and no doubt cared little whether they brought Skye back alive or dead. Even from his aerie, he sensed their contempt for him, saw it in their thorough, studied manhunt. Then they passed upriver and vanished.
Something had altered. Now, once again, the Royal Navy stood between him and his liberty, and he didn't know which way to turn. His only weapons were his belaying pin and his wits.
Rendezvous copyright © 1997 by Richard S. Wheeler
Dark Passage copyright © 1998 by Richard S. Wheeler