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It was time to take another wife. Barnaby Skye had been thinking about it for a long time, and knew he could not put it off. White streaked his hair and the trimmed beard he wore these days. His youth was gone.
He wanted a child, a boy if God would give him one. All these years he had hoped. But Victoria was barren or maybe he was, who could say? He had no child and thus was the poorest of men.
A man without a child does not see far into the future or care about it; he can live only in the past or present, as Skye was doing more and more. It was as if life had become sunsets rather than sunrises, memories rather than dreams.
He loved to awaken early, even before first light, and slip outside his lodge into the sweet morning air. Then he would stretch, enjoy his own well-rested body, and walk to a nearby hill to greet the day and to pray in his own way.
Now he stood on a ridge, the Absaroka village still slumbering in half-light below him, while he absorbed the blue dawn and the quickening light that began to give color to a gray world. On clear days, such as this one, dawns started out blue, a thin line of blue across the eastern horizon, promising the return of the sun and the stirring of life.
Those were the best moments. Victoria would still be asleep, warm under the thick buffalo robes in winter or a light two-point Hudson’s Bay blanket in softer seasons. All the years of their marriage she had been his companion, adventuring where he did, sharing his joys and perils. He loved her.
And now he was aware of the passage of time. The life he had chosen had taken its toll on his body. One could not live as the nomadic Absarokas did without experiencing bitter cold and torpid heat, starvation, poor diet, thirst, and always the danger of war or pestilence. Ancient injuries, some of them going back to the days of his youth when he was a British seaman, would lurk in his body, awaiting the chance to hurt again. And his long thick nose, battered and broken by brawls, was as sensitive to hurt as baby’s flesh.
The Crows, as they were called by white trappers, were blessed with a land that usually offered abundant food and hides from the thick herds of buffalo roaming the prairies; that offered strong wiry ponies descended from Spanish Barb stock released by the conquistadors. There were cool mountain valleys to comfort them in summers, sun-warmed river flats to pull the sting out of winter, alpine meadows rioting with spring wildflowers, tumbling mountain waterfalls, and bald eagles riding updrafts, to make a poet of each Crow.
It was a good land if the Crow people could keep it. When Skye thought of the changes that were disrupting the world just over the horizons, he wondered what the future would bring for these cheerful people. Off to the south a vast migration of Yanks heading for the Oregon country and California had decimated grass and wildlife and woodlands for miles to either side of the trail. Riverboats plied their way up the treacherous Missouri, discharging adventurers as well as goods deep in this land where the tribes had been sovereign for as long as their memory knew.
But so far, the life of the Absarokas hadn’t changed much. It followed the stately passage of the seasons, and Victoria’s people were just as they always were. Her band, the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, drifted from cool mountain valleys in summer to hunting on the plains in the fall to protected river flats in the winter. Its hunters had little trouble making meat; its gatherers had little trouble harvesting buffalo berries, chokecherries, wild onions, various roots and vegetables.
This late summer day, the Crow people would begin their trek southward for their annual encampment with the Shoshones to trade and gossip, and to cement the alliance that helped both peoples to resist the dangerous Sioux and Blackfeet and their allies, the Cheyenne and Gros Ventres or Atsina, and sometimes the Arapaho.
These were festive days. The band would load its possessions on travois, and then meander south past the Pryor Mountains, south past the Big Horn Mountains, then through an arid land along the great river called the Big Horn, to rendezvous with the Shoshones. There they would make sweet the days of late summer, enjoy the cool eves, flirt, smoke the red-stone pipes, and dream. This year the place would be on the extreme west edge of the Big Horn Valley, where pine forests guarded the land of geysers far above. It was a good place.
It would take Victoria only a little while to load the two travois. He and Victoria had a small buffalo-hide lodge and few possessions. He might be a headman, a war leader for her people, but he was not rich the way most Crow chiefs and chieftains were. They had many wives to make them wealthy. A good hunter could keep a dozen women busy cooking meat, making pemmican for winter, and scraping and tanning hides that could be traded at the various posts for all sorts of treasures, such as guns and powder and lead, beads, knives, awls, calico, and great kettles. Some headmen had hundreds of horses that could be traded for valuable things. Skye had only a few horses. Jawbone, his strange, ugly blue roan medicine horse, was chief among them. There were a few more, two riding horses and two travois horses, and a few half-broken mustang colts for the future.
His family was too small. Victoria was forced to do everything, and had no one to share the heavy load of daily toil. Neither did she have any children or sisters or grandmothers in her household to share the day with, to gossip with, to talk about herbs and medicines with, to discuss ailments with, to sew with, to make moccasins with, to dig roots with, to pound berries into fat and shredded meat with. It grieved her, having no other wife to share the toil of this household. It wore her down. Other senior wives among her people were luckier. There were younger wives to share the work. They were like servants, responding to the bid and call of the older or first wife, the sits-beside-him wife. It was a matter of status. It was the right of the first wife to have the company and service of young wives.
Which is why Victoria, as much as she loved Skye, was often moody and even angry, and spent much of her time away from his small and sterile lodge, preferring the society of other women.
But there was something else. No self-respecting headman among the Absaroka people would think of having just one wife. A man’s authority was measured by his wives. His wealth was measured in wives. His status as an important man among the people was metered by wives. Even a young and modest youth who had counted coup once or twice, and dreamed of being a great leader of his people, managed a couple of wives. And a chief often had six or eight, and sometimes even more, and had fat lodges, with extra poles to hold up all that buffalo hide, to house his menagerie. And those fat lodges teemed with children too. A chief might have half a dozen, plus two or three pregnant wives to increase his family.
It had taken Skye a long time to realize that Victoria was ashamed of him, for he had but one wife, a small lodge, no children, and few horses. Yes, he was esteemed as a hunter and his Hawken had contributed much meat to the band as well as defending it against horse thieves, Blackfeet raiders, and the ominous and ever-present Sioux.
How often Victoria had hinted, and finally begged for a larger lodge. Far from dreading the presence of another wife or considering one a potential rival, she had pleaded for one or two or a dozen. And there it had stopped. Something in Barnaby Skye had faithfully adhered to the European way of looking at marriage: one man and one woman, bound sacredly together always. He had her and he loved her; why seek anyone else?
He had always been hesitant. How could he split love in two? How could he bring another woman into his lodge and love and nurture her as he had tried to love and nurture Victoria? How could he divide himself in such fashion? How could he spend his nights in the arms of one and not the other? How could he even embrace one while the other lay inert in her robes, well aware of those intimacies that would fill the lodge with soft noises? How did the Absaroka people manage such things, except by indifference, and a sense of wedlock that had more to do with convenience and child-bearing than love? In this tribe the women formed their own nation and society; the men formed another, and little did the separate nations care about one another. Find a gathering, a party, a smoke, a feast, and it would usually be all women or all men.
He had not sought anyone else. At least until now. This dawn he was afflicted with two desolating thoughts. One was that he had wounded Victoria, not heeding her wishes and hopes and dreams. And yet she had faithfully abided in his lodge all these years, even as his own hair was graying and his life was beginning to enter its last chapters. The other, felt just as keenly, was a sense of loss. He would leave no child behind him. He would be a dead end. With him, the race of Skyes would stop. He was a sole son and if he brought no child into the world, the sun would set.
It was an odd and sad moment. Had he grown up in London, secure in its ways, he would have an English wife and family now. But his life had taken a hard and in some ways cruel turn long ago, and here he was, swiftly becoming too old to rear a child, teach a boy how to read and think and reason, how to shoot and live in nature, how to respect women and elders and all helpless things. How to give a boy a name, or a girl a name, and make that name a part of his past and a part of the child’s inheritance.
Now he stood on the brow of the hill watching the skyline turn gold, watching the earth turn into the sun, watching the smoke of cook fires rise from the fifty lodges below him. He scarcely knew who or what he prayed to; the old Anglican God he had always known, or some other great spirit, maybe the same great spirit, but one he saw simply as a Father of all things. He lifted his arms to the bright heaven.
A wife, a child, a gift not just to himself but to Victoria. If it was not too late.
The Canyon of Bones copyright © 2007 by Richard S. Wheeler
North Star copyright © 2009 by Richard S. Wheeler