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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

the canyon of bones

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Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Notice
Praise for Richard S. Wheeler
Author's Note
Copyright Page
For Win and Meredith Blevins
t 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 childbearing 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.
good day! Many Quill Woman loved to travel. Now she busied herself preparing to move out. Skye had brought in the horses from the herd and they stood quietly near the lodge.
She unpinned the lodge cover, which was held tight by willow sticks threaded through eyelets, and watched the lodge slowly slide to the ground until only the seven poles remained standing. This was a small lodge, truly a hunting lodge, and it grieved her to be so poor.
Her friends always took pity on her because Skye had no other wives and she was alone. It took more than one woman to erect or lower a lodge. Yellow Paint and Scolding Bird appeared at once, and helped her drag the heavy eight-hide lodge cover free, fold it, and stow it on a travois anchored to the packsaddle of one of the ponies.
“It's very sad,” said Yellow Paint
“Maybe someday he will bless you,” Scolding Bird added.
“Sonofabitch,” said Many Quill Woman, her favorite English expression she had learned long ago from the days when
Skye was with the trappers. The other women had heard this phrase many times, always expressed tartly when she was feeling testy, and laughed. They drifted back to their own lodges, for there was much work to do and the Absaroka women did almost all of it. Men hunted and made war and played games and made love and smoked and listened to elders and sought spirit helpers. Women worked.
Many Quill Woman, whom Skye called Victoria after the great woman chief of his English people, lifted three lodgepoles from the skeleton, set them on earth, and then toppled the four-pole pyramid that formed the core structure of the lodge. It was her lodge, not Skye's. Women owned the lodges. She unwound the thong that bound the four poles, stored it in a parfleche, and then anchored the long, slim lodgepoles to the packsaddle of another pony, a yawning mare that wasn't good for much else.
Skye wasn't very ambitious, she thought She heaped their remaining robes and blankets and other possessions on the second travois. Some great men of the people required eight or ten travois and many wives to move. It was odd: the people respected Skye as a hunter and warrior, whose Hawken kept enemies at bay and brought meat to them all. But how could any Absaroka respect a man who had only one overworked wife? And hardly any horses? Something was wrong with him. She still loved him, and would always be beside him, but something was plainly wrong with Skye. And not just Skye. All white men.
They all had just one wife except those ones who were heading for the big salty lake. One woman. It made no sense. How could they get along with only one woman? Many Quill Woman pitied those poor white women, living all alone, doing all the work. That was a great mystery. For years after she and Skye had become mates, she never saw a white woman
Where did the trappers hide them? Back East, they said, but why? Why were white women hidden back there?
Then finally she saw one or two who had come west with the missionaries, and knew immediately that white women were so frail and pale that they couldn't stand living away from special shelters the white men called houses. That was it. They were all so weak and sick that they couldn't function.
It certainly made no sense, but white people made no sense at all and she had given up trying to understand them. For years, he had tried to help her with her chores but she had always shooed him away. Nothing could be more shameful than having a man who did women's work. He kept trying to pack things in the parfleches, help lower the lodge cover, pack everything on travois, clean up after meals, while the whole band watched and shook their heads and women came privately to Many Quill Woman and expressed their pity, and hoped she could overcome the shame of it A man who did that wasn't a man.
So she had angrily chased Skye away and snapped at him whenever he tried to do woman things, such as gathering firewood.
“All I want to do is help you. Make your life easier,” he explained.
“Dammit all to hell, Skye, get out.”
So he did, greatly puzzled by it. She knew he was trying to be kind to her, loving to her, but he had no idea what a scandal it was among her people. It took a long time, many winters, before she cured him of such bad habits.
She saw him grooming Jawbone and admired him anyway even if she didn't understand him. He was combing the great blue roan medicine horse, while Jawbone snapped his teeth and switched his tail in warning. Never was an uglier
horse born; never was a more noble and fierce horse set upon the breast of the earth. Jawbone had narrow-set eyes, flopping ears, an overshot jaw that gave the beast his name, and a nose as formidable as Skye's own awesome beak, which rose from his skull like the prow of a ship, dominating his entire face. There was something strange and fearsome about it all; as if from the beginning of the world, Jawbone and Skye had been destined to come together.
The Kicked-in-the-Bellies were soon ready. Children perched in baskets on travois along with the very old. A great mass of horses had been gathered and young herders were ready to drive them. Women had at last loaded their heavy lodges on groaning travois. Many were festively dressed in fine quilled doeskins, but a few had gotten themselves up in bright calicos from the trading posts. Even the young warriors had taken the time to put on their finery.
The great exodus began without a visible signal from anyone. It simply began its course along the north bank of the Yellowstone, called the Elk River by these bronzed people. Soon it was stretched out a vast distance, but carefully guarded by outriders flanking it on both sides. Many Quill Woman's heart lifted at the sight of the imposing column; the People of the Black Bird were a great people, strong enough to keep the more numerous Lakota and Siksika away.
Skye was among those who guarded this great procession. His favorite place was far forward, where he hunted for surprises and ambushes. That was a dangerous place but he preferred it, and the war chiefs of the Absaroka preferred to see him there. Victoria sometimes saw his shining black beaver hat far ahead. He was like the antennae of an insect, sweeping and feeling the country for danger.
Sometimes he left game in plain sight, a deer or elk he had
killed. These were immediately given to the poorest and weakest among the Absarokas. When that happened Many Quill Woman was very proud of her man. His presence was blessing the People.
At night they slept out; in these warm days of late summer, there was no need to erect a lodge unless bad weather threatened, which it never did. At that time Skye would settle beside her in the robes, never forgetting to catch her hand and hold it or to draw her tight for a little while, his love unspoken but profound. Jawbone stood over them like some demented sentinel, letting no one close, not even the People.
They crossed the mighty Yellowstone at a place where the water ripped over gravel, and even the channel was hardly more than ankle deep this time of year. The travois poles dug trenches in the river bottom, but the stream never reached up to the heavy loads securely tied to the poles with thong or braided elkhide ropes.
Skye rarely spoke to her in these times, when his duty was to protect the People day and night. Oddly, she missed his company even though she was surrounded by chattering friends, young mothers with children to look after, boys playing tricks or showing off writhing garter snakes. Secretly, she wished she could ride beside Skye in the vanguard far ahead, before the great caravan had sent every bird winging away, and every rabbit and fox diving for cover.
For three days they passed through starkly arid land, a small desert caught in the rain-shadow of the mighty Beartooth Range to the west, a part of the great Absaroka Mountains named after her own people, but then the majestic mountains seemed to pull back, and they descended into grasslands, and finally into the valley of the Shoshone River. This was still an arid country, but not far upstream the river tumbled out of the
noble mountains, and there, in a lush green valley surrounded by timbered slopes, the Absarokas and Shoshones would have their annual rendezvous.
It was easy to see from the marks of exodus that Chief Washakie's Shoshones had arrived ahead of the Absarokas. That only made the trip more exciting. It had been a safe and blessed journey; no child had drowned, no horse had fallen or broken a leg; no thieves had filtered through the night to steal the wealth of her people, whose abundant horse herds were legend among a dozen envious neighboring peoples.
Now she saw her spirit helper, the Magpie, dancing from limb to limb in the riverside cottonwoods. Many Quill Woman had long ago dreamed the vision dream and found this big, raucous, bold bird, white and iridescent black, her helper and guide. She always knew when she saw her friend the Magpie that times would be good or that help was present if times were not good. But now times were good, and here was a whole flock of her birds making loud protest against this invasion. The magpies were like her people, bold and noisy and sometimes reckless, just for the fun of living close to danger.
They paused close to the campground, taking time to don their headdresses, gaud themselves and their ponies with paint, and prepare for a grand entry, in which the Shoshones would howl their delight and cheer the People as they paraded home.
Only Skye did not get into finery. He always wore whatever finery he possessed, which was simply his black top hat and a handsome bear-claw necklace over his chest. And yet, for reasons Many Quill Woman could not fathom, whenever the Absarokas were all dressed in their best it was Skye, on his spirit horse, who always drew the most attention, and those
who admired him the most were the ladies. She sighed. Skye was unaware of what great waves and ripples he caused among the women of the northern plains. He only had eyes for her.
ith a whoop the Crows paraded onto the meadow, joyously greeted by the Shoshones. Skye enjoyed the parade. A great column of Victoria's people, all dressed in their finery, wended past the Shoshones. The women flaunted their beaded and quilled doeskin dresses and had gaudy ribbons tied in their braids. The warriors paraded their war honors, their rifles and bows, their colorful lances with a feather for each coup. The chiefs and headmen wore their bonnets, which glowed in the afternoon sun.
Children raced on foot beside the column, the boys in breechclouts, if anything, and the girls in little skirts. The Shoshone hosts were just as brightly gauded for a celebration, all smiles as the allied peoples greeted one another. This would be a festive time, a time of horse races, contests of strength and skill at arms, the exchange of mighty gifts, and also a time when the headmen from both tribes would gather together, smoke, summon the spirits, and cement the old alliance.
Skye spotted the young and noted chief of the eastern
Shoshones, Washakie, standing before his great lodge awaiting the arrivals. His gaze was less festive; it was one that assessed the military strength of these allies, the coup sticks, the lances, the number of rifles or muskets, the number of youths who were ready to fight.
Skye had not met Washakie and was eager to do so. The man had grievances against the horde of Yanks flowing along the Oregon Road to the south, but so far had contained his restless people and had chosen diplomacy instead. But the whites neither heeded Washakie nor were his people compensated for the loss of game, grass, and firewood. Even less were they compensated for insults, wounds, shots fired at the Shoshones, and the fouling of watering holes. Skye thought he might add disease to that long, hard list; the Yanks brought all manner of plagues westward upon vulnerable native peoples.
The Shoshones had raised their lodges along the western edge of the verdant meadow here, close to firewood and out of the wind; they had left the center open, knowing the Absarokas would camp on the eastern side, also close to dense forest with an abundance of deadwood in it for fires. The open meadows in the middle would soon harbor dances and drumming, bonfires and feasts, games of skill, races, and a great marketplace where the women, in particular, traded with one another.
There were few Shoshone speakers among Victoria's people, and few Absaroka speakers among Washakie's, yet the peoples got along with a sort of lingua franca, some sign language, and some good guesswork.
Then Skye spotted something else: a white man's wall tent, a wagon, some draft horses, and several white men. Were they traders? Skye, instantly curious, could find no evidence of it; no array of gaudy goods laid out, no shining axes and
rifles, no virgin blankets or stacks of pots or cotton sacks filled with beans or coffee or sugar.
He would know soon enough. For now, there were formalities. The Absaroka headmen paused before Washakie, whose own headmen had clustered around them, and there were greetings. The Big Robber, chief of all the Kicked-in-the-Bellies, descended from his pony, embraced Washakie, and then greeted each of the Shoshone leaders. Skye dismounted and did the same, knowing they were as curious about him as he was about them.
For the time being the white men stood discreetly aside, aware that they needed to heed the protocols of this moment. Two appeared to be bearded teamsters or servants; the third, dressed in polished brown boots, a white shirt with a gaudy red silk scarf at the neck, a gray tweed jacket with leather arm patches, and a black, wide-brimmed felt hat, watched cheerfully.
The wagon intrigued Skye. It was well made, sturdy, and light. It was drawn, apparently, by the two homely Belgians, Skye thought, grazing quietly close to the wall tent.
Red Turkey Wattle always selected the exact campsite because his visions offered protection against disease and disaster. Now the old shaman led the parade to a sheltered strand, slightly higher than the rest of the meadow, where the soil was sandy and a rain would vanish into the porous ground. Here he paused, nodded to the four winds, lifted his arms, and then the Crows swiftly erected their camp.
Skye let Victoria select the spot for his lodge. Whenever he interfered, she glared at him, as she was doing now. She would brook no meddling from a white man when it came to something so sacred as a campsite. He knew better than to help her, and indeed her fierce glances were intended to ward
him off. Sometimes when they were off alone, she welcomed his help; they would share the toil of making camp, cooking, keeping warm. But when they were among her people, everything was different.
He slid off Jawbone, feeling the ache in his legs as he landed on the meadow. He wasn't so young now that he could leap on and off horses without pain. Jawbone would graze here; the village herders were afraid of him because he'd whirl and kick at them if they approached, so the ugly horse was given leave to wander the village, poke his snout into lodges, and generally offend as many ancients as he could. Sometimes an old warrior, wizened and angry, would threaten to slash Jawbone's throat, but the whole band knew the horse had great medicine, and the old shaman, Red Turkey Wattle, had said that this was the greatest of all horses and must be honored. And no one ever disputed the wisdom of the grand old man.
Skye unsaddled Jawbone and curried him with a bristle brush, while Jawbone shivered and snapped his big yellow teeth and threatened murder.
“Cut it out,” Skye muttered.
Jawbone responded by plowing his snout into Skye's belly, a moment of bonding, and then trotted off, snatching at green grass whenever his hunger overcame his curiosity. The blue roan never drifted more than a hundred yards or so from Skye.
Even as Skye busied himself, Victoria wrapped four lodgepoles with thong and erected a pyramid with great skill. Then she laid the remaining poles into the niches, and spread robes over the floor of the lodge. Later, she and the neighboring ladies would help each other to draw the lodge covers upward and pin them in place with green willow sticks poked through eyelets, like buttons.
Skye stretched. This was a glorious late-summer afternoon, not too hot, and the nights promised to be deliciously cool. He lifted the old top hat to let the zephyrs flow through his graying hair, and then began a cheerful tour of the camp. It wasn't that he was looking for another wife, exactly, but somehow his prospects were bleak. Not Missus Crow Dog, no, married and fat and happy. No, not Missus Black Bear, skinny and nervous and unhappy and hard on her little boys. No, not lithe Beaver Nose, youngest child of old Walks to the Sun; too young, too giggly, too … Skye suddenly felt he was not decorous, and recovered his dignity and paced on.
This marriage proposition was not easy. You didn't just up and marry the first nubile lady you saw. At least not if you were a born and bred Londoner. You needed to be a little choosy.
He meandered past Missus Sheep Horns, who was pulling up the lodge cover, along with her friend Missus Black Wolf. Skye knew all about Missus Sheep Horns, who was not satisfied with her husband and was a great flirt. Once, during a war season when the village needed constant protection from the Sioux, Skye was doing picket duty, mostly by watching the countryside from a sun-warmed ridge, when she appeared, smiled, sat down beside him, and made her intentions clear at once. He demurred, having only eyes for Victoria, but not without a struggle. She was a most attractive lady. “Missus Sheep Horns,” he had said. “I must keep an eye out for the Sioux.”
She had taken offense, got her revenge by telling every woman in sight that Skye wasn't much of a man. That got back to Victoria, who reported it to Skye, who tried to ignore it but couldn't, and never quite lived it down.
That was Crow sport. Trysts were as common as eating a supper. Divorces were the daily entertainment. Which, come
to think of it, was reason enough not to marry a Crow woman. He laughed at himself: all he needed to do was join the fun and quit worrying, and everything would be quite fine, and he might have twenty wives, severally and serially, before he departed from this world. Why was he so reluctant?
Romantic, that's what he was. Damned romantic.
Still, the notion that he might find a Shoshone woman swelled up in his head, though he hadn't considered it because he couldn't talk their tongue. But love has its own language and maybe they didn't need to talk. A few smiles would do.
Yonder, across the meadow, there might be a hundred eligible ladies of the Shoshone persuasion. And what better time to go courting than during this great summer festival, this moment of amity between tribes, this period of fun and races and contests?
He saw The Big Robber's women erecting the chief's lodge, but the chief was already padding across the meadow to pay his respects to Washakie. Fires were blooming, pine smoke drifted on the breeze. Tonight there would be the first of many feasts, and maybe some dancing and drumming too. Who knows? These things happened almost unplanned, in some mysterious fashion that Skye never understood.
Then he found himself drifting toward the wagon and the white men. Curiosity drove him; that, more than wife-hunting, was much on his mind. These gents were a long way from anywhere; far from the road to Oregon; far from the river road along the Missouri. Far from any known wagon trail.
He headed that way, at once discovering that they kept an orderly camp. The light wagon was obviously in good repair even though they had crossed rivers and gulches with it, roped it down steep slopes, cleared trails for it through brush and
trees. For no ordinary wagon could get here; Skye could scarcely imagine how they managed it, or to what purpose.
The gents were lounging in canvas camp chairs. One stood when Skye arrived, the obvious owner of this outfit, nattily dressed, his face chiseled, his blue eyes bright, his smile genuine.
“Ah, you're Mister Skye,” the man said.
It no longer surprised Skye that his name was known even in remote corners. The man continued. “It's a pleasure, sir. I'm Graves Duplessis Mercer, at your service.”
A three-piece name. A rich man. But why?
nd some familiar tones in the man's voice.
“Are you British?” Skye asked.
“My father was a captain in the Royal Marines; my mother a Frenchwoman. I grew up in Paris and know France better than my home country. I live in London.
And you, Mister Skye, are a Londoner, I've heard.”
“Long ago,” Skye said. He wondered for a moment whether to reveal more to this son of a naval officer. And decided to put it all before them: “I was a pressed seaman and jumped ship at Fort Vancouver in 1826.”
Mercer laughed heartily. “I would have too. Having volunteered for His Majesty's service by press gang, you decided to volunteer your resignation!”
Skye smiled. Maybe the bloke wasn't going to be a pain in the butt after all.
“I've heard a little about you; in fact, Mister Skye, I've been making inquiries. Now, take that Mister that prefixes your name. The story I have is that you require it. Is that the case?”
“It is, sir.”
“And why is that?”
“In England, a man without a Mister before his name is a man beneath notice. I ask to be addressed as Mister here in North America, where a man can advance on his merits.”
“A capital answer, Mister Skye. I should introduce you to my assistants, Mister Corporal, and Mister Winding. Floyd Corporal and Silas Winding. They're teamsters and hunters from Missouri and both have guided wagon trains out to Oregon, and know the ropes.”
Skye shook hands with both. Winding, in particular, interested him. Beneath that gray slouch hat was a pair of wary hazel eyes set in a face weathered to the color of a roasted chestnut. The man looked entirely capable of dealing with wilderness, and indeed, this pair had somehow gotten a wagon and its gold-colored horses through streams, across gulches, over boulders, up precipices, around brush and cactus and forest, to this remote Eden.
“Never been called a Mister before,” Winding said.
“Well, Mister Skye here has set a good precedent,” Mercer replied. “I'll follow suit! From now on, you're Mister Winding, if you can stand it.”
Winding spat, pulled some tobacco from his pocket, and placed a pinch under his tongue. Then he smiled. “It don't rightly fit but I'll weather it,” he said.
Around them, the Crows and Shoshones were swiftly erecting their encampment while children gathered into flocks and raced like starlings hither and yon. The Big Robber and Washakie had settled on some thick robes to enjoy a diplomatic smoke, each of them flanked by headmen and shamans.
Skye itched to learn the nature of Mercer's business but constrained his impulses. If the Briton wanted to talk of it, he would.
But Mercer had a disconcerting way of plunging into the middle of things. “You're wondering why I'm here, Mister Skye. Now, I'm quite happy to tell you. I'm an adventurer. I make my living at it. All of Europe starves for knowledge of the far corners of this great world. A man who can feed them stories about Madagascar or Timbuktu or Pitcairn Island or Antarctica is able to make a pretty penny, nay a pretty pound, by scribbling away.”
“You're a writer, then?”
“Oh, you might call me that. I fancy myself a good and exact chronicler, recording the world with a steady scientific eye. But I'm really a rambler. I go where no one else has gone and write about it. I examine strange people, exotic tribes, bizarre practices, and write of them. I keep a detailed journal, a daily log, in duplicate and in weatherproof containers, in which I record everything. I explore not just the terrain, describing what has never been witnessed by white men, but also the natives. That's why I'm here. These two tribes are unknown in Europe, and here I am to tell the readers of the
London Times
or the
what I witness. And the darker and more fantastic, the better. But I also organize my journals into book form. What I see is not for all eyes, of course, and these volumes have an eager readership; people can't get enough of them. I do have a bit of trouble with censors but that only increases the sales. If I didn't have a spot of trouble, the books would hardly fly out of the stalls the way they do.”
“A journalist, then,” Skye said.
“Ah, you might say it. But it's the least of my vocations.”
“What are your larger ones?”
“Explorer, cartographer, ethnologist, geographer, biologist, zoologist, artist, linguist—I have several European tongues, French, Flemish, Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and a
reading knowledge of several others, and by the time I'm done here, I'll have a few thousand words of Shoshone and Absaroka in my notes, and I'll be able to speak to any of these people. Now what I don't have, Mister Skye, is their finger language, sign-talk, and I shall be approaching you for lessons, and especially the nuances.”
Skye found himself studying this wunderkind, curious about the rest: Did he live alone? Alienated from his roots? What of his family? Was he a perpetual boy, living each day for its excitement? Was there a woman anywhere in this life or did he live entirely in this male world he created? How were these exotic articles and books received on the continent? But Skye chose not to be nosy and simply welcomed this remarkable man.
“Actually, Mister Skye, I've been hearing of you for weeks. We came out the Oregon Road, of course, but turned off and headed north, roughly paralleling the Big Horn Mountains. A grand continent, sir. A vast, mysterious land, utterly beyond the grasp of Europeans, who live in little pockets across the Atlantic.”
Skye was aware of the sheer energy radiating from this man; it was as if Mercer were a live volcano, brimming with unfathomable powers and exuding energies that would shape not only his own destiny, but those of everyone he touched. It almost made Skye weary just to be in the presence of such force.
The meadow was now lined with colorful lodges, buffalo-hide cones with smoke-blackened tops. Some of their owners had rolled up the lower skirts, letting the playful zephyrs flow freely through their homes, rather like a housewife opening a casement window to air a room.
“See how they make a village out of a meadow, Mister Skye. And in the space of an hour too.”
“I've always marveled at it, sir.”
“That's why I'm here! I will catch every detail! And after this, we'll head for the geysers bubbling up on that plateau in the mountains I've been hearing about. The headwaters of the Missouri, I believe.”
“Not exactly, sir. The Indians call it the roof of the world. Some of its waters flow to the Pacific; some of the waters drain into the Yellowstone River and then the Missouri. Some of the waters drain into the Madison River, which forms one of the three branches that form the Missouri. But the true headwaters, the farthest reaches of that river, are up the Jefferson, far to the west.”
“Ah! You have set me straight. We shall go there. Maybe after we explore the Crows and Shoshones and the geysers, we'll tilt west to the Jefferson, named by the Yankees Lewis and Clark, I remember. Yes, go right on up to the last valley, the final creek, that dumps its waters into the tributaries that carry it to the Missouri, the Mississippi, and at last to New Orleans.”
“You have a good grasp of the continent, Mister Mercer.”
“How could I write if I didn't, eh? Well, I'll put it on my list.”
“Things to do. I've a list. It must run to fifty items now. And I'm pleased to have made your acquaintance, Mister Skye. I was hoping to meet you. I need your assistance on a variety of matters, and thought we might work out some sort of accommodation.”
Skye was never averse to earning a little cash, so he nodded.
“Ethnography is what absorbs me just now. The Absarokas, the Shoshones, most interesting tribes. Religion and all
that. I am thinking that you might enlighten me about the Absaroka. I believe you're married into the tribe and know its ways?”
“I am.”
“Well, I want to blot it all up, see it, experience it. The shamans, they interest me. I would like to sit in, if I might.”
“It isn't something to sit in on, Mister Mercer. The seers have opened themselves to their spirit guides and listen in their own way, and offer thanksgivings. They may or may not share these insights with anyone else. Sometimes a gift is required.”
“Yes, yes, of course. But surely there are things about these people to explore. Things you might be willing to share; anecdotes, things you've seen, all that.”
Skye sensed that Mercer was driving toward some goal but so far, it wasn't very plain. “I imagine you'll find plenty of material, sir, just by observation.”
Mercer leaned forward. “What especially interests me, Mister Skye, is the secret rituals, the nighttime cults, the things that would affront European sensibilities. It's time for Europe to see how the rest of the world lives and thinks. Why, some of the things I witnessed on previous trips to Africa I was forced to describe in Latin in order to pass muster with the royal censors. You get the idea, eh?”
Skye nodded, wondering about the man.
“Actually, I would like to invite you over for some gin and bitters when the sun is over the yardarm. I always carry plenty on my expeditions to ward off the malaria. I've a few canvas camp chairs, and then, over a tonic or two, we can see how this rustic world works.
“I do my research, Mister Skye. In St. Louis I talked to several men of the mountains, inquiring what to look for. To a
man, they told me that the Crows are the most lascivious of all the tribes. So I came here! Where better to get a great story?”
Skye listened, startled.
“Why, fidelity is unheard of,” Mercer continued. “And a maiden can scarcely get firewood in the forest without being waylaid by half a dozen swains. And even grandmothers tell stories that would make a sailor blush. It's true, isn't it? I want to see it firsthand, record it, lock it in my journal for future use. That's what I'm after. And that's where you come in. You know these people. You can introduce me. You can take me to their rituals, help me befriend them. Tell me where these bacchanals take place. That's where you can earn a pretty penny, eh?”
All the ship's bells were clanging in Skye's head.
lmost before Skye could respond to Mercer's probing, the man was off in a new direction.
“Mister Skye, they told me that the Yellowstone tumbles over two great waterfalls up there; magnificent falls, scarcely seen by white men. Show me a falls like that, let me measure it and sketch it and I'll have a story. Take me where white men have not been. Take me into that forbidding land of shadows and forests and monster bears where no European has ever set foot, and I'll turn it into something. I'm told there's a geyser up there that blows a hundred feet into the air, and goes off once an hour, and a man could set a clock by it. That and the falls and grizzlies ten feet tall and hot springs where a man can take the best bath he's ever had.”
“That can all be done on horseback. It's not wagon country.”
“Of course not! I'm sure I could scarcely get a pack mule in there. This wagon, sir, is simply a home base, a portable station where we might resupply. It's been keenly outfitted. I took
counsel from a dozen men in St. Louis, friends of yours such as Davey Mitchell, Broken-Hand Fitzpatrick, the Chouteau family, eh? Preparation, that's the key to everything. They all advised me.”
“You were in good hands, then.”
“Ah, Mister Skye. My list! You should see my list. There's a medicine wheel in the mountains north of here. Very mysterious. I must see it. I hear it's the work of ancient ones and has something to do with astronomy. Maybe like Stonehenge, fitted out to reveal the equinoxes or the solstices. The newspapers love items like that. I can sell it to the
for a pretty penny. And I'm told there's a shy tribe called Sheepeaters up there, now you see them, now you don't. Like the African pygmies or bushmen. They're watching you even if you're not watching them. There's a few stories I'm after. Interview a Sheepeater and I'll sell to half the papers in Europe.”
“I've never met one and I'm not sure they exist, Mister Mercer.”
“Ah, hoodoo! Vanishing tribes! That's all the better. Well, we'll just look into it. Especially the hoodoo. Find me a tribe with some hoodoo, and I can make a book out of it. Did you know there's some tribes off to the south that make a religion out of the visions they get from eating a certain bean called peyote? Takes a bean-eater right into a different world. The very thought of it would give bishops and archbishops dyspepsia. Yes, sir, I've researched it. Too far south for this trip, but on my list. I should like to sample this bean and see for myself whether I see God, or a reasonable facsimile.”
Skye nodded. He was growing dizzy from this man's waltz of mind. He glanced around him, seeing only the peaceful progress the Shoshones and Crows were making toward a festive summer encampment on a cool meadow.
“Yes, Navajos,” Skye said. “Some others too.”
“Mister Skye, I could sell a dozen stories about polygamy. It's rife here on this continent. The Mormons are on my list. We might just slip down there when the season is colder, and I'll record my impressions, talk to the wives. I'm told that each wife has a separate house, so the husband has separate families. That's how they do it. But in your tribe and other tribes, the chiefs and headmen have several wives and they all live in one lodge. Now that's a cozy affair I want to explore. Suppose one night the chief chooses one wife for his nuptial pleasures. What then? Does he send the others out in the cold, and summon them when he's done? I'm going to find the answer to it. It might ruffle a few peacock feathers along the Thames, but I'll weather it. Answers, sir. I'll get answers to everything. Maybe someday I'll do a paper for the Royal Society.”
“Yes, well, you have a world to explore,” Skye said, hoping to escape. The idea of escorting this man was growing less and less attractive.
“And that reminds me, Mister Skye, that exploring is at the heart of it. It's all science. All fact. All recording what I find and publishing it for the benefit of the civilized world. You know, Mister Skye, that I am going to be nominated for fellowship in the Royal Society? The greatest honor of all, its fellows selected so carefully that each of them is at the forefront of the frontiers of knowledge. They are the princes of science.”
“An honor when it comes, sir.”
“Ah, I'll elucidate for you. The Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge is the most prestigious of its kind on earth. Think of it, Mister Skye. Francis Bacon! Christopher Wren! Edmond Halley! Isaac Newton! Being published in the
, or better still,
The papers I write pay the freight, but the goal in this bosom, sir, is to put the whole world, as observed by me, between the covers of those journals.”
The odd thing was, Skye thought this bundle of energy would probably do just that if he survived. A man like that could walk into trouble faster than any ordinary mortal and scarcely know he was getting into danger.
“Now, Mister Skye, I do have one small favor to ask. Chief Washakie brought me, but I have yet to meet the headmen among the Crows, and I would take it kindly if you would introduce me.”
“I can do that, sir. And how shall I introduce you?”
“What do you mean?”
“How would you like to be known to them? They don't grasp the idea of explorers. This whole world is perfectly familiar to them and so are the customs of their own people and all the others with which they have contact. They can even tell you a great deal about the religions of their neighbors.”
“Well, that's a good question, Mister Skye. What would you advise?”
“I would suggest to them that you are a storyteller, sir. That you want to see everything so that you can tell true stories to your own people. That you keep a journal, just as they keep their histories painted onto a sacred buffalo robe. They call it the winter count, and each year is named and remembered. One year, when there was a great meteor shower that awed us all, they remember as the winter of the falling stars. That's what I propose.”
Mercer smiled, revealing even white teeth in the chiseled, lively face. “Good, sir. Maybe they'll put down this year as the winter of the storyteller.”
Skye smiled. The man was not without a certain conceit.
“Very well, then.” He eyed the teamsters. “By all means, join us,” he said.
Skye hiked across the meadow, feeling the thick grass tug at his steps. Or was it just a sudden weariness or reluctance? He wasn't sure he wanted to introduce this amazing man to anyone.
But the headmen saw Skye coming and waited in their circle to welcome him and the other Europeans. Skye paused. It was necessary that he be summoned or invited before he proceeded. The Big Robber examined Skye's entourage, and addressed Skye: “You have brought strangers to us?”
“I wish to make them known to you so that the People will know who is among us.”
“That is good. Bring them forth.”
Skye brought them to the edge of the circle of the elders and chiefs, and in the Absaroka tongue introduced each man.
“Mister Mercer comes from across the big water, where I come from, and is a storyteller. He makes it his business to see this world, which he has not seen, and meet your people, learn their ways, and then tell these stories to his people. He records what he learns. He is eager to learn of your people.”
“And we will be eager to hear his stories. Welcome them. Let them live among us. Tell them to come and tell us stories this night. We will listen. You will translate.”
Skye turned to Mercer and his teamsters. “They welcome you. They give you the freedom of the village. They ask that you come this evening and tell them stories.”
“I will do that. I will tell them about Africans, or Asians, or crossing the waters in a sailing ship, or a dozen other things. I take it you'll translate?”
“I will.”
“We're in your hands, Mister Skye.”
With the introductions concluded, Skye returned to Mercer's camp and then excused himself. The truth of it was that in the space of an hour, Mercer had worn him out. Skye could think only of a nap, a rest, an escape from that crackling energy that had engulfed him from the moment he approached the explorer.
He wandered across the meadow intent on rest. Jawbone spotted him, cantered up, and started to butt Skye.
Jawbone snorted. Someday this free-ranging horse would get himself into serious trouble with these people, Skye thought. But the animal simply would not stay in the herd.
Skye plodded to Victoria's lodge and stumbled inside. Jawbone poked his nose in, checked to see what was what, and retreated. Skye tumbled into the robes, utterly drained and not knowing why. It was not yet evening. Nothing had happened other than an encounter with a man who radiated energy, yet seemed to draw energy out of Skye. What was it about Graves Mercer? Skye couldn't say. Mercer was one of those men who walked along the knife edge of life and yet was rarely in trouble. But there was always a first time, and maybe Mercer's plunge into this world would be a first time.
Skye felt almost drugged, and lay gratefully on the robes until Victoria slipped in, squinted at him, knelt beside him, and pressed a hand to his forehead.
“Dammit, are you sick?”
“No, just worn-out.”
“That ain't like you.”
“I just am, that's all.”
“I saw you with those strangers.”
“An Englishman named Graves Mercer. He has two Missouri teamsters for his wagon.”
“And big horses. There's fifty Shoshone looking at them.”
“Draft horses. For hauling and plowing.”
She eyed Skye. “You better tell me what's wrong with you. What's wrong with them. It's them, isn't it. Something wore you out. Who are these men?”
“He's an explorer. He thinks no one's seen this world.”
“Typical white man,” she retorted. “You rest. I'll go tell him a few lies.”
Skye thought that maybe by God she would.