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Gloom hung over the rendezvous on the Popo Agie River. Evil rumors wormed through the gathering, furrowing brows. They were saying this would be the last gathering of the mountain men. The American Fur Company wouldn't buy a beaver plew at all, or if it did, it would pay so little that the mountaineers would starve. A man couldn't keep body and soul together in the mountains anymore. There were whispers that the company's tent store would have fewer items and these would be more costly than ever.
It had reached Barnaby Skye's ears that the trapping brigades would be pared down and free trappers released from contracts; that long-term company men would be let go and that it didn't matter how good a job a man had done. He heard that the engages would find themselves as useless as a lame horse. He had heard that prime beaver pelts wouldn't bring fifty cents, and an entire year's hard work wouldn't keep a man in gunpowder. Those bleak rumors had built up an awful thirst in Barnaby Skye. A jug usually solved his problems, at least until the fat moon turned skinny.
Just so long as they brought spirits, everything would be all right. Whiskey fueled each rendezvous. Without it, the trappers might as well go back to loading cotton or blacksmithing or plowing prairie soil or tallying waybills in a warehouse. But not one man among them believed that the year's supplies, now being packed in from Fort Union, would not include the pure grain alcohol that would be mixed with PopoAgie River water, a plug of tobacco or two, and some Cayenne pepper, that set the old coons to baying.
One thing wasn't a rumor: fashion had shifted. In 1833, John Jacob Astor himself had discovered that silk top hats were the vogue; that hats made from beaver felt had vanished from the shops of Europe. In 1834 he had sold out his American Fur Company, and now the Upper Missouri Outfit was really Pratte, Chouteau and Company, though no one called it that. It was said that Astor, the great fur magnate, had known exactly what he was up to, and had gotten out of the fur business in the nick of time, richer than Midas and safer than Gibraltar.
That was the dark talk those June days beside the Popo Agie, where it met the Wind River, among dour trappers waiting for the fun to begin and the trade whiskey to flow. The rest of the bad tidings wasn't rumor at all. No one had done well this year. Beaver were just about trapped out, except maybe on the streams controlled by the dangerous Blackfeet, and the competition of small outfits and free trappers had made life in the wilderness tougher than ever. No one had many plews to trade, and those few wouldn't bring much more than a few grains of DuPont powder and a bar of lead. There were men in camp who had put in a hard year's work and wouldn't get fifty dollars for it.
And so, that June of 1838, Barnaby Skye waited for what life would bring, but without much hope. Maybe this would be the last rendezvous. He would have to find some other way to survive, and so would all the rest of the mountain men gathered together for the customary trade festival and summer fun that year. What would he do? What would he become? Who would he be in the hazy future? Was this the end of his sojourn in the wilds? Would he return to the sea, from whence he came?
At least the American Fur Company had sent an outfit upriver, and it was due at any time now. The trappers could buy the traps and gunpowder and flannels and blankets they needed, and keep on going for another year if they had a fewpacks of skins to peddle. Maybe there was hope in that. Maybe things would get better.
The trappers knew that much, because an express rider from Fort Union, located at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri, had told them the Otter was thrashing its way upstream with an outfit, a cargo of trade goods. But no one knew what bleak news would accompany the outfit, and not a man in that camp believed that the news would be very good. The St. Louis owners of the company had made it clear a year earlier they were losing money on the beaver business. Silk was in; beaver felt was out.
Skye had been a brigade leader, a salaried man, one of only five in camp, so he had weathered the bad times a bit better than some of the trappers. They had numbed their legs for long hours in freezing water while baiting traps with castoreum and collecting beaver, found small comfort in winter's darkness, fought their way into obscure corners of the Rockies, only to find that other, equally determined trappers had cleaned out the streams. And now the beaver had all but vanished.
Lucien Fontenelle, the veteran fur man in charge of field operations for the American Fur Company, was more optimistic.
"Beaver may be trapped out, but the company's not just in the beaver business," he confided to Skye as they lounged under a cottonwood, staring at snow-burdened peaks. "It can sell any pelt or hide we can ship."
"For less plunder," Skye said.
Fontenelle nodded. "Hard doings now," he said. "But we'll keep on going. That's what Pierre Chouteau himself told me; they'd keep on going. There's fur here and markets there. Maybe it'll be ermine or mink, deer and elk hides, weasel or otter, maybe even buffalo hides, but there's a market in the States."
Skye was not a gloomy man, nor a pessimist, but all the bad talk was eroding his joy. For a dozen years he had been in the mountains, and was considered a veteran and even an oldman by the trapping fraternity, though he wasn't far into his thirties, and just beginning life.
They considered him an odd duck, perhaps because of his British ways and his peculiar looks. He had been a pressed seaman, dragooned into the Royal Navy when he was a boy in London. He hadn't escaped the iron claw of His Majesty's Navy until he jumped ship at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia River, seven years later, and made his way into the interior, with little more than his wits and a knife and belaying pin to keep him alive.
Maybe that's why he was a more serious and somber man than most of the mountain fraternity; why he was more diligent and careful and willing to learn anything of value; why he treasured his liberty so much that he would die rather than surrender it. He had spent seven years in bondage, subservient to the whim of assorted boatswains, midshipmen, masters, captains, and lords of the admiralty, and freedom meant more to him than it did to anyone in the mountains.
Maybe he seemed odd to the fraternity because he insisted on being called Mister, or maybe it was because of his burly barrel-shaped body, or the seaman's roll in his gait. Maybe it was because of his giant misshapen nose, which had suffered much pulping and pounding in innumerable brawls, a hogback that now dominated his face so that his small blue eyes and thin lips shrank to nothing in comparison. Or maybe it was his battered black top hat, pierced by arrow and shot, which he wore with determined dignity in all seasons, perched on a full mane of ragged brown hair that reached his shoulders.
Or maybe they found him odd simply because he wasn't an American, and didn't speak the trapper lingo, and addressed others with politeness and civility, which were things he was born to and couldn't help. He was a man without a country; not able to return to England, yet not a westering man out of the States, so he lived in some sort of limbo, hisonly nation the trapping fraternity of the mountains--and his wife Victoria's people, the Crows.
But he didn't mind. What counted was their respect as well as his own respect for himself, and what else they thought of him didn't matter. He had mastered the wilderness arts in a hurry. And never stopped learning how to subsist himself in a world where there was nary a shop on any corner to sell him beef or pork or bread or greens, and nary a tailor to sew him a suit of clothes, nary a smith to fashion a weapon, and nary a doctor to tend to his ills and aches and broken bones. He had mastered the Arkansas toothpick, the Green River knife, the Hawken percussion rifle, the war axe and throwing hatchet, the savage's bow and arrow, war club and lance because there were no constables in the wilds to protect him. He knew how to build a smokeless fire, how to read the behavior of crows and magpies, how to sense an ambush around a bend. He had graduated summa cum laude from the Rocky Mountain College, where one either won a baccalaureate or died in some obscure gulch, his fate unknown.
So he, along with two hundred others, lingered in the verdant meadows where the Popo joined the Wind, awaiting whatever the lords of their fate in distant St. Louis had to offer. It was a sweet land, at least in summer, with cool evenings, and vast panoramas in which grassy benchlands surrendered to dark-timbered slopes, which in turn stretched upward in bright blue distances to snow-capped peaks that fairly cried "Freedom!"
The blue haze of campfires lay in the air, and the pungent aroma of wood smoke. In addition to the trappers, the dusky tribesmen had gathered once again to trade their pelts for all those treasures brought from afar by the white men: powder and lead, blankets, hooks, traps, mirrors, beads, and especially, the trade whiskey the wily traders concocted and sold by the cup or jug for furs.
Skye could see the tawny buffalo-hide lodges of the Crowsarrayed in a circle, and those of the Shoshones and Nez Perce, and some plenty of other tribes as well, dotting the verdant meadows. Here, on neutral trading ground, even hereditary enemies enjoyed a momentary peace, though they were all fair game for one another once they departed from the legendary trapper's fair.
Skye waited restlessly, his eyes on the low divide that would someday soon reveal a string of heavily burdened pack horses and mules, and some gaudily bedizened mountaineers driving them into the rendezvous.
He did not know what he would do if the news was bad, which is what he fully expected. There weren't enough beaver pelts in camp to pay for the enormous expense of shipping all those goods from St. Louis, much less earn anyone a profit. He had two skills: he was an able seaman, and could always ship out on any merchant vessel, and he was also an able mountaineer. He suspected he might just need to learn another trade, and he wasn't sure what it might be.
His wife Victoria was visiting with all her friends and relatives, some of whom she saw only at these annual fairs. At rendezvous time, he often went for hours, even a day, without seeing her. But whenever they were together on the trail, leading a brigade, she and he scrubbed and cooked and hunted together, lived and loved together with a unity of purpose and spirit that transcended their radically different upbringings. They were friends and lovers, hunters and warriors, and boon companions upon life's sweet walk. Except when he was enjoying his annual binge. The thought made him thirsty.
He was still young. He'd suffered hardship in the mountains, but his body was strong, and hardship had annealed the steel in him and wrought a man of rare courage and intelligence and something else: honor.
Ten days passed, then eleven, and finally on the twelfth, Joe Meek, who had been scouting up the trail for news, returned with news: The American Fur Company pack train would arrivethe next day. From the crest of the ridge where he had observed the distant train, he could see it was a small one, poor doings compared to the outfits the company brought in during the heyday of the beaver trade. But an outfit, anyway, and maybe there would be a few casks of spirits on the backs of those mules to gladden the hearts and bodies of the trappers.
So the next day, that June, Skye might learn his fate.
Copyright © 2001 by Richard S. Wheeler