Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Wild Kind

Nights I lay under the wagon between Mary and Edith, listening to the fire crackle and the prairie grass rustle, the smell of earth all around me. Mary cried almost every night, and though she tried to be quiet, I could hear a whimper escape now and then until, sniffling, she drifted off to sleep. I would lie there listening, first to the breathing of my sisters growing slow and heavy, then to the sounds of the oxen snorting and shuffling their hooves within the ring of wagons. Edith had the tendency to grab hold of me and Mary throughout the night, so great was her fear that one of us might roll out from under the wagon and be trampled in our sleep. It was not an entirely unfounded fear as I was a wild sleeper, tossing and wriggling about as I dreamed, thus my sister’s had contrived to pin me betwixt the two of them so that I mightn’t flail away from them as they slept. Edith’s husband Morgan lay under the second wagon mumbling now and then in his sleep and beside him slept his younger brother Daniel and our father.

I listened to all of them drift one by one into slumber, the coughing of Mr. Beatie two wagons away quieting and turning eventually to snores. I’d lie there and wonder about the man on watch. I liked to scoot my head up for a view of the stars laid out over the velvety darkness like scattered diamonds, the white fullness of the moon filling me with such wonder. Edith complained of her weary feet and Mary tortured herself cruelly missing the fellow who would have been her sweet heart had we stayed in Missouri. I could never say to either of them what I felt as I lay there in an alien wilderness, enjoying the throbbing of my feet and the distance from those I had known.

There were three of them; Jerome Hill, Lee Tucker, and Casper Lassen, our guides. We met them at Fort John, a last outpost before the abyss of the American wilds would swallow us up in unknown terrain. We could know our route only via the vague suggestions of crude maps, and try as they might, those maps could never be the territory itself. My father learned from a conversation with Mr.Hill that he and his two compatriots had first hand knowledge of the trails that would lead us to and through the Sierra Nevada, and as luck would have it, they too were presently California bound.

Mr. Hill was most sociable and seemed to be the unifying factor in the trio of trappers. He had an Indian wife called Clementine whose eyes were the darkest I had ever seen. She kept her long black hair tucked up under a floppy wide brimmed hat. Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Mr. Tucker and Mr. Lassen  all slept outside of the ring of wagons, laying under the open sky unless the weather was wet, and then they pitched a pair of tents.
Most of all, as I lay there listening to the sounds of the night, I wondered about these four. I strained my ears to hear the murmur of words exchanged between them or the sighs of their slumber. Often I felt as though I almost could, as if the silence beyond all the other identifiable noises belonged all to them.

Morgan and Edith had a pair of ponies that my father had bestowed on them as a wedding gift before we left, but as Edith grew heavier with child she preferred to walk along side the wagon with the rest of us, the women and children.
The rhythmic creaking and jouncing of the wagons lulled me as we went and I’d wander further a field to stare at the endless sea of grass meeting the horizon. Young Bill Beatie was 8 years old and strode alongside the back wheel of his fathers wagon counting each revolution with his eye on a bit of yarn tied to one spoke. He’d cut a notch in a stick for every ten turns shouting at his younger sister Sofie not to wreck his count by distracting him with her antics. This shouting would go on until Edith might take charge of the spirited little girl, or one of the younger Parker boys would come to take Bills place.

We broke a wheel in the Humbolt, long after the prairie had given way to cracked earth and the sun had parched the wood of the wheels until they were treacherously brittle. Though there were no suitable trees within sight, Mr. Lassen assured us there were some to be had just a half day away and took Mr. Parker, and my father ahead to fell a tree and fashion a new wheel. The Birdwell family took this opportunity to re-shoe an ox and it was no small feat getting the great dull beast turned onto it’s side so that Mr. Birdwell could fit the two tiny shoes on each of the creatures cloven feet. Most of the women and the children rested in the shade of the wagons, but I wandered a bit towards the marshy tributary of the river along whose course Mr. Lassen had ventured with my father and Mr. Parker.

As I approached the tall yellow reeds, pressing some sage leaves between my fingers to release the pungent odor, I heard a sharp loud sound that startled me. I stopped and listened and heard it again, a sound like the quack of a duck, but deeper. I thought it must be the call of some bird and pushed my way through the reeds to see if I might catch a glimpse.

What happened then confused me. I thought that I had become over heated or tired and so disoriented. For a second I saw a goose sitting on the glimmering surface of the water. It’s long black neck curved gracefully, flowing into a tiny head that tapered off into a glossy black bill. There was a white band of feathers around it’s neck, more white feathers peaking out from under it’s folded wings like a bit of lace. It turned it’s head and looked at me with one glistening dark eye and then it dove as fowl do after a fish, it’s tail feathers tipped up to the sky before submerging entirely. A split second later it was not a goose that re-emerged but the dark head of Clementine breaking the surface of the water. I stared in disbelief as Clementine’s tanned naked form rose from the tributary and her dark eyes met mine. She made no move to cover her nakedness, her black hair hung long and dripping behind her back, her breasts and belly glistened with moisture, water fell in tiny droplets down her thighs.

I was overwhelmed by the sensation of having done something forbidden. My head swirled dizzily. I was, of course, familiar with the female anatomy, being one myself and having seen my own sisters changing and bathing, but perhaps I had never had such a complete and immodest view. This was not one of my white skinned sisters, but an Indian woman, both strangely familiar and startlingly different. Blushing I turned my head away.
“I- I apologize.” I stammered, “I heard a noise, I didn’t realize you were bathing here.” Clementine was silent, but that was not unusual.  I had never heard Clementine utter a word in any language and I didn’t know whether she could speak or understand English at all. In truth, I didn’t wait for an answer, rather I ran away, back to the familiarity of my kin resting in the shade of the wagons.

All through supper I was in a torment amid the scrip and scrape of silverware against tin. Edith couldn’t help saying over and over that she hoped that father was all right. Morgan soothed her by reminding her that Mr. Lassen supposed they might not be back until tomorrow night or the morning after that. I was incapable of looking at Clementine, but by the same token she was all that I wanted to look at. I turned my gaze instead upon Mr. Tucker in his old weather beaten blue officer’s jacket, whittling and spitting while leaning against the Parker wagon. Nearby, but slightly removed from Mr.Tucker sat Mr.Hill and Clementine. I watched Mr. Hill rise from his place and go to confer with Mr. Beatie and some of the other men by the fire and turned my gaze away when Clementine passed near me carrying dishes for washing.  Daniel came over to speak to Mary whose nightly crying had ceased in the wake of his attentions. I took advantage of my sisters distraction and joined Mr. Tucker in the shadows

He looked at me sideways as I sat down beside him then turned his attention back to whittling. The fire light flickered and danced casting shadows at our feet and the wind changed bathing us in the smoky smell of fire. Now that I was there I didn’t know what I intended to ask or say.  I only knew that my interest in the three trappers and Clementine had moved beyond idle curiosity.  I felt supremely awkward sitting there with my skirts tucked around my ankles and Mr. Tucker towering above me. I had never seen anyone outside of the group of trappers exchange more than two words with the man.

“Fine night.” I blurted out at last, and Mr.Tucker only glanced at me and gave his tobacco a slow chew.
“Were you in the military Mr.Tucker?” I tried again, and this time the man dropped his arms to his sides, ceased his whittling and sighed.
“Girl, is there no one else for you to trouble?”
I felt the indignity flash through my body and answered hotly,
“I much prefer to trouble you tonight Mr.Tucker. And you may call me Miss Miller.” Now he turned and glanced at me again and I took the opportunity to study his face. His eye brows were terrifically bushy, I had never seen the likes before, and his brown sideburns grew down over his jowls but stopped before reaching his chin. His eyes were round and seemed black in the shadows. They glittered and for a second something about them reminded me of Clementine’s. A growl rumbled from deep in his chest, or perhaps it was a groan. After a moment he said,
“Fine, Miss Miller.” He put all the emphasis on the “Miss.” “I was in the military.”
“Why aren’t you anymore?” I asked.
“Because they ordered me to fire on my own people and I wouldn’t do it.” He was silent. I listened to the fire pop and then ventured to ask,
“Your people?”
“Crow nation.” He said and spat,
“You don’t look Indian.” I said feeling my throat tighten.
“Don’t suppose I do. Sioux killed my folks when I was 9. The Crow come by me and raised me up till I was twelve. Then some traders offered to take me to find my kin in Wyoming.”
“Then you joined the military?”
“Eventually.” He said resuming his whittling “Goodnight Miss Miller.” His tone was rich with finality and his eyes remained trained on his hands. I sat a moment longer feeling strange with embarrassment and other emotions I couldn’t name.  He never looked up as I rose from the dusty earth brushing my skirts with my hands.
I glanced back hesitantly as I left him,
“Goodnight Mr.Tucker.”

That night I dreamed that a large animal passed near our wagon breathing loudly and making strange growling sounds. I lay still and saw its shaggy clawed feet pause near my head. I held tightly to Edith’s arm and tried to remember how to wake up.

I confess that I went back to the still waters at the head of that tributary the following day. Clementine was not there, I had seen her at the camp stitching together a small pair of leather booties. The sky was starkly blue and reflected off the surface of the water. There were no geese floating on the surface. I stared at the place where Clementine had stood and inched closer to the water until I could see my own pale freckled cheeks and green eyes in the water. I pushed back my bonnet and let down my wavy red mane. I listened carefully for the sound of approaching foot fall and when there were none, I stripped out of my blouse and skirt and drawers and stared with a heaving chest at the full measure of my 18 years reflected on the ponds wavering surface. There was a new chill in the air and my flesh puckered against it.

All in all we lost three days repairing the wagon’s wheel. When we resumed our course, Mr. Hill leading us Northward along the Truckee River, it was clear that the weather had taken a turn for the colder. The animals’ breath could be seen as puffs of steam expelled into the cold air. They resembled a train of dragons lurching along the rocky path.  It was late morning when we spied a lone traveler approaching us on the trail. He was a black man, the first that I had ever seen, exceptionally tall, leading a mule heavy with beaver pelts. He introduced himself as Leland Smith.
“There was a bit of snow on the summit day before yesterday.” Mr. Smith informed us, “And there looks to be more, though its come early.” The men gathered together and Mr. Hill proposed that a small party set out upon a Southern course along the Truckee.
“Wagons can’t go that way, but a party on ponies will have no trouble, they’ll get through to the fort twice as quick as the main party going over the mountains. Provisions are low and the snows coming, there’s no doubt. Those on the ponies can meet the wagons at the peak with fresh animals and supplies from the Fort.”

After some discussion it was decided that the three trappers and Clementine should go as all of their ponies were Indian ponies whose sure feet had picked the way over those trails before. Mr. Smith agreed to lead our wagons back to the summit. Morgan volunteered to go as well, to ensure that the trappers would not forget us and the provisions would be sent. Edith sobbed loudly she was so afraid to see Morgan go alone with those peculiar mountain men and the silent Clementine. Suddenly I heard my own voice leap unbidden from my throat,
“I’ll go with Morgan on Edith’s pony. I’m a fine rider.”
If that had been the last word said I’m sure my father might have protested, but as fate would have it the eldest of the Parker boys, Keaton, chimed in.
“I’ll go too. Seven’s a lucky number.” I suppose it was the number that sealed the deal, no one dared bust up the luck, so by noon I was promising my teary eyed sisters that all would be well and I’d see them at the summit.

The snow fell in a fine powder dusting the hat and overcoat of Mr. Lassen ahead of me.  It drifted lightly down like confectioner’s sugar, twirling gracefully before coating the deep green pine boughs that overhung the trail. The cold stung my nose and cheeks and made my hands ache. Clementine had let her hair down from under the hat and it cascaded over her shoulders, glossy and black against the bright patchwork of her coat. There was a hush that accompanied the snowfall, the only other sounds being that of our horses hooves picking their way through the rocky pass and the ragged sighs of their labored breathing. The trail was jagged and steep and Edith’s pony nearly lost it’s footing once or twice. I clung close to the creature’s neck, my eyes squeezed shut as I winced through those moments of near catastrophe.

At dusk we pitched two tents on a smooth patch of earth near an outcropping of rock that overlooked a precipice. There was nowhere else to go as the other side of the trail was flanked at this point by a wall of rock. A single pine leaned in from the edge, as if  it had been blown back by a giant but refused to relinquish its place, holding tight with stalwart root. It was this tree that sheltered us somewhat from the wind and what seemed to me like the edge of the world. The snow had stopped and left only an icy slush for us to crunch under our boots. We tethered the horses to the tree and sheltered them with blankets. A small fire restored our spirits and we supped on hard tack and hot coffee. I clenched the tin cup in my hands drinking its warmth through my frozen fingertips and letting the familiar aroma sooth my haggard nerves.

Between Morgan and Keat I lay awake, feeling the chill down to my bones. Already Morgan was murmuring bits of conversation from some dream. Fragments of,
“Get...” And “Whoa” and “Ma’am” and “…no I didn’t.” and “Much obliged.” Emerged fuzzily from his lips. On the other side of me Keat had shivered himself to sleep and I listened to the soft rasping of his breathing, filled with a deep awe of the gentleness and softness of that sound coming from a man that I normally saw from a distance. His gravely voice and wild impishness had melted into a puppy like softness as he slept, and I suddenly felt very tenderly towards Keat. I was grateful he had come with us. My ears were reaching farther though, out to catch the sound of the trappers and Clementine in the other tent. Without the 11 wagons and 8 families about, I felt I was closer to them than had ever been possible before. The proximity to them excited me so that I thought I could never sleep.

I kept wondering if they were awake. If I were to slip out of the tent who would I find? I felt certain somehow that they were out there, at least one or two of them, Mr. Hill and Mr. Tucker perhaps, having a conversation under their breath by the fire, or Clementine staring alone at the moon from a shadowy place. At some point I realized that I had been asleep after all and I tried to stay that way. I found myself drifting near the surface of consciousness, rolling closer to my bed mates seeking warmth, hiding my face under the scratchy fibers of the shared blanket.

I came to full consciousness hearing that strange sound, the honking of a goose. I lay awake waiting to hear it again, asking myself whether it might have been part of a dream. Just as I began to believe that I had imagined it, it came again, the rolling bark of some bird. Carefully I crawled out from under the blanket and out of the tent, my hand brushing the canvass material as I passed out of its opening. I could see the tiny flames of a fire in the old pit, and beside it a crouched figure nurturing the new flames with a small square bit of wood. I couldn’t tell which of the trappers it was and knew I would have to approach the fire if ever I was to learn the identity.  I went round to the other side of the tent to relieve my aching bladder. My nose, my fingertips were painfully cold, my body and mind felt numbed in the aftermath of sleep. I gazed up at the night sky, utterly clear now and filled with stars that glittered and shone over a back drop of deep dark blue. The moon was round and full, its whiteness gleaming bright in the icy air.

As I neared the fire the features of Mr.Lassen emerged framed in the orange glow of the flames. Our eyes locked as I neared and crouched by the fire too, outstretching my hands to the meager warmth.
“Thought you might come.” He said and I felt a chill run up my spine as the honk sounded out and I turned my face up to see the shape of a goose pass over the moon. Something else passed close behind me brushing against my shawl, the sound of earth under paw setting my hair on end. I felt frozen to the spot, too terrified to turn, but I hear the loud puff of breath and felt it against the back of my head. Slowly I turned by head around and found myself face to face with a shaggy bear, the firelight sparkling against its familiar dark eyes.
“Mr.Lassen…” I gasped, near hysteria, But still crouched near me he whispered,
“Shhhh. You’ll wake the others.”
The bear sniffed my hair and face before lumbering away into the shadows. I sighed with relief and turned back to find Mr. Lassen smiling at me, the creases of it at the corner of his pale blue eyes.
“Don’t worry bout’ him.” He said, “He likes you all right.” And then he repeated, “We thought you might come.” His words were softened by his Danish accent. As he spoke a small grayish hare loped up around him and paused for a moment rising up on its hind quarters and turning one glistening eye in my direction. My eyes widened and the bubbling voice of the goose broke the quiet again for a moment.
“We all lived with Crow nation for a while, at one time or another. Did Lee tell you that?”
I shook my head. I looked up from the hare to Mr. Lassen in his coat lined with silver fur, his weather torn hat hanging floppy over his ears.
“Your name is Mady right?” Mr. Lassen asked and I could only nod. He reached a hand out and fingered one of the red curls that lay tangled upon my cheek.
“Do you like the moon Mady? Would you like to run wild under the moon with us? Is that why you came out?”

He gazed into my panic stricken eyes for a moment longer and let go of my curl. I stood up abruptly and backed away, tripping a little on a pebble.
When I looked back up Mr.Lassen was gone. Where he had been crouched an enormous timber wolf now stood, silver coat shinning under the moonlight. I gave a little startled cry and clapped my hand over my mouth. The wolf stared at me, firelight dancing on its coat, blue eyes locked with mine. An eternity lapsed in which neither of us moved. I could go neither forward nor backward. It was as if my feet were stuck in tar. Then the wolf turned away from me with one quick graceful movement and faded into the night. Regaining mobility I fled back to the sanctuary of the tent.

We made the journey in six and a half days. Mr. Sutter gave us a hearty welcome to his fort, granted us the required provisions and sent two men along with the men from our party to give relief to our wagons. There had been a miraculous reprieve from the snow for three days.  We prayed it would hold until all of the party I’d left behind made it to the fort. I begged Morgan to leave me behind with Mr. Sutter. I could no longer bear to be near to the trappers and Clementine. Mr. Lassen locked eyes with me as they left with the rescue party and that was the last that I saw of their group, until 49.

By then  Keat and I were married and panning in the American river like most other folks at the time. We ran into Mr. Tucker in Nevada city. He was as short tempered and tight lipped in his conversation with us as I had remembered of him from those years before. After we said goodbye he whispered to me as I passed, “Why did you come outside Miss Miller?” but he wasn’t waiting for an answer. I turned and watched him stride away down the dusty main road, spitting as he went.

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