Read Crack in the Sky Online

Authors: Terry C. Johnston

Crack in the Sky (7 page)

When the hummingbird finally flickered out of sight, Titus waded another half-dozen steps and stopped there at the base of the long strip of creekside grass growing along the bank, reaching for the knife at his back. With it he plunged his arm under the water, clear up to the elbow, and began hacking away at the side of the bank until he had carved away a shelf big enough on which to set his trap. From beneath his arm he grabbed the bait stick: a section of peeled willow, one end sharpened for driving
into the bank just above the surface of the stream where he had hidden his trap at the end of the beaver slide.

Here the animals repeatedly entered the water, usually dragging their limbs and saplings they were using to slowly construct a rugged dam across the stream, or swim underwater with their provender, taking it to their beaver lodge to feed mate and kits. The slides ’were a good place to count on beaver coming close enough to that stick where the rodents would catch a whiff of the bait Scratch smeared on that portion of the limb suspended over the readied trap.

After driving the stick into the bank at the proper angle with the small head of the belt ax he carried, Scratch pulled the stopper from the wooden vial suspended from his belt. The sudden strong, pungent odor of the castoreum rose to his nostrils, making his eyes water as he smeared a little of the thick, creamy liquid on the exposed end of the bait stick, stuffed the vial away, then washed his fingertips there at the foot of the slide.

Two more traps still to set before sundown.

Looking over his shoulder at the falling sun, Bass reckoned it would be twilight before he made it back to camp, unsaddled, and picketed the horse on some good grass until it was time to curl up in the blankets for the night.

Despite the hightailing they had done to stay as far ahead of the Blackfeet as they could, they had nonetheless made a good spring of it for themselves—both before that first attack when they were burying Joseph Little, and after as Hatcher led them farther and farther north toward the southern reaches of that country the Blackfoot jealously guarded and protected as their own hallowed ground.

“Man’s a fool what’ll go where he’s bound to lose his hair over a little beaver fur,” Caleb Wood had grumbled the farther north they had gone.

“Man’s a fool if he don’t go to see for his own self if the plew is as prime as some say it is,” Jack retorted. “But don’t ye worry none. We’ll turn around and hightail it out if’n them pelts ain’t as big as blankets … or if Bug’s Boys turn out to be thicker’n summer wasps.”

Soon enough they found Hatcher right on both counts. No wonder the Blackfoot got so fractious with white American trappers slipping around the fringes of their country—the beaver up there grew bigger, their pelts more sleek, than anywhere else a man trapped in these mountains.

Moving on upstream, Titus kept his eyes moving, searching for another slide, perhaps the stumps of some young saplings the beaver had felled, any sign that an area was frequented by the big, flat-tailed rodents hunted by the Rocky Mountain fur trapper.

Decades before, the big companies had first enlisted men to come far up the Missouri River for the purpose of trading with the tribes to obtain their fine and coarse furs: not only the seal-sleek beaver and river otter, but mink and lynx, some buffalo and wolf at times too. The British pushed down from the north, and the Americans prodded farther west each year until men like Ashley and Henry decided they would do better hiring a hundred enterprising young men to catch the pelts themselves. The American fur trade was never the same after the Ashley men began to spread out across the far west—from the Milk and the Marias, the Judith and the Mussellshell on the north, to the Gila, the Rio Grande, and the Cimarron down south in Mexican Territory.

But beaver had already been feeding the economy of the New World for more than two hundred years by the time the Rocky Mountain fur trapper appeared on the scene. And beaver continued to turn the wheels of commerce as the big companies and the small bands of free trappers moved farther and farther into the wilderness, searching deeper and deeper for virgin country yet untrapped.

Scratch stopped there in the cold stream fed by last winter’s snows, far, far overhead among the high peaks, surveying the banks on both sides while he pushed some of the long brown curls out of his eyes. As a trapper grew in experience, he came to recognize just what the possibilities of finding beaver would be from the type and amount of vegetation sprouting along a certain stretch of a creek or
river. Down at lower elevations some of the animals would feed on young cottonwood and alder, while up here above the foothills beaver worked on aspen, willow, and birch.

Crossing the stream to the far bank, Scratch bent and scooped up a handful of the wood shavings thickly scattered at the base of a stump within reach from the water. Rolling the chips in his fingertips to check for moistness, then bringing them to his nose to smell—the more fragrant, the fresher they were—Bass calculated it was a recent cutting. No man had ever taught him this: not Bud, nor Billy, nor even the savvy Silas Cooper—none of the three who had gathered him under their wings and taught him not only what it would take to make a living as a trapper, but how to keep hold of his hair in Indian country.

No, seasons ago Scratch had learned this trick on his own hook. The fresher the shavings, the more recent the activity in that section of a stream, and consequently the greater the possibility of a concentration of flat-tails consumed with building dams, flooding meadows, and constructing lodges for their families.

A trapper counted on the probability that any beaver curious enough to be lured to the bait stick would put a foot in the steel trap waiting for it at the bottom of a slide or near the entrance to its domed lodge. Unable to free itself from the weight of the trap, the beaver would drown quickly, leaving its pelt unmarred, ready for a careful skinning.

After being stretched, fleshed, and dried on round hoops of willow, the hides were bundled in packs for eventual transport to the summer rendezvous. This annual gathering, another invention of General William H. Ashley, was conceived as a means of resupplying his brigades who spread out through the mountains from late summer until the following spring when they would begin their trek down from the high country to a prearranged valley, there to meet with the caravan come all the way out from St. Louis laden with powder and lead, sugar and coffee, beads and trinkets, calico and wool stroud—everything a man would need to live for another year in the mountains,
even what that man might employ to entice an Indian squaw back among the brush for an all-too-brief and heated coupling.

No money ever changed hands between trader and trapper, white man or Indian. None was needed. Beaver was the only currency in the mountains. With it a man would eventually buy himself a head-splitting drunk, a raucous series of couplings with a string of agreeable Indian maidens, and he might possibly have enough left over to outfit himself for another year in the high lonesome without going into debt to the company.

No matter that most men had little to show for their years and their miles and their wrinkles. To search out the wily Rocky Mountain beaver, a man might willingly risk his hair, his hide, and perhaps his very soul.

After braving months upon months of bone-numbing streams both fall and spring, after enduring a long, spirit-sapping winter in some isolated, snowbound camp, the trapper would eagerly look forward to summer when he could trade off his packs of beaver for another year’s gamble in the wilderness. When the last man had turned in the last of his beaver, when the whiskey kegs had run dry, the traders threw their bundles onto the backs of the very same mules that had hauled the trade goods out from St. Louis, that caravan now to spend the next ten weeks making its return trip to the Missouri settlements. There, or farther east in Philadelphia or even New York, the pelts would be sorted further. While those of average grade would eventually be used for the tall-crowned gentleman’s hats so fashionable not only back east but especially in Europe, the finest furs would be sold to brokers who exported them to frigid countries the likes of Imperial Russia and feudal China.

A single pelt of Rocky Mountain beaver might weigh between a pound and a half to two pounds when dried and fleshed of excess fat. The skin of a kit might weigh only half that. Over that brief, meteoric period of the American fur trade, the going rate for plew went anywhere from three to six dollars a pound back in the St. Louis market. So what eventually made Ashley his fortune was not his
initially organizing fur brigades to operate in the mountains, but his newest venture: supplying those fur trappers with goods brought out to rendezvous planned for a prearranged site. There the reveling, raucous trappers overly eager to celebrate would be content to receive half the value of their beaver in St. Louis prices, while they wouldn’t mind paying many times the “settlement” price of those staples and supplies transported from Missouri.

After holding his first rendezvous three years earlier in 1825, General Ashley continued to refine his rendezvous system until the price of beaver would eventually become standardized at somewhere around three dollars a pound—a figure that earned a trapper some five to six dollars a plew. It was hard, cold, lonely, and ultimately dangerous work for the few hundred men who chose to make their livelihood here in the wilderness, and perhaps on the edge of eternity.

From the northern rivers bordering the Canadian provinces all the way south into territory claimed by Mexico, at any one time less than four hundred Americans scattered their moccasin prints across a trackless wilderness, migrating seasonally across a mapless terrain, confronting a bewildering array of climatic conditions, geography, and native inhabitants. Here in these early years of the nineteenth century, in these opening days of the far west, for a special class of man there simply was no other life imaginable.

To take your life into your own hands, not beholden to any other man, to test your own resolve and mettle against all the elements God or the devil himself could hurl at a puny, insignificantly few bold men … ah, but that was the heady stuff of living!

True freedom: to live or die by one’s own savvy and pluck.

Such was the nectar that lured these bees to the hive. Freedom was the sirens’ song that enticed this reckless breed of men to hurl their fates against the high and terrible places.

Despite the cold and the Blackfoot—despite the odds of sudden death.

After constructing two travois for Kinkead and Bass, the other seven trappers had reloaded their pack animals and pointed their noses south for the Owl Creek Mountains, driving the extra Blackfoot ponies along behind them. Scratch was the first to knit up after their ordeal.

Twice a day one of Hatcher’s men would make a poultice of beaver castoreum mixed with the pulverized roots or pulp of one plant or another, smearing the smelly concoction into the wounds troubling both men. It wasn’t long before Bass could move about camp without tiring out too quickly. But for the better part of two weeks he contented himself by remaining in camp with Kinkead when the others went out to trap—staying busy by fleshing the beaver hides, then stretching them on willow hoops, or untying the packs to dust the plews and check for infestation before rebundling them in their rawhide cords. Eventually the raw, red flesh around his wounds became new, pink skin that he could gently stretch more each day. Inside, however, he was knitting together much slower.

Nowhere near as slow as Kinkead.

For the longest time Matthew continued to cough up bright-red blood, later on bringing up dark, half-congealed phlegm. With as little as the man ate, over the following weeks the others began to notice the gradual change in their friend as his huge face thinned, accentuating the dark, liver-colored bags beneath his eyes.

“I wanna see Rosa,” Kinkead declared quietly one night as the rest joked and laughed around their nighttime fire, that simple plea coming right out of the blue.

The others fell silent immediately, some choosing to stare at their feet or the ground or the fire. Only Hatcher and Bass could look at the man still imprisoned on his travois.

“Natural for a man to wanna see his wife,” Jack consoled as he knelt beside Kinkead.

“W-wife?” Titus asked, surprised. “You married?”

Hatcher explained, “She’s a good woman.”

“She back east?”

Kinkead shook his head. “Taos. She’s a Mexican gal.”

“I’ll be go to hell,” Bass exclaimed. “What the devil
you doing trapping beaver up here in the mountains when you got a wife waiting for you down in the Mexico settlements?”

“Don’t make sense no more, does it?” Matthew declared. “One time it did. Now—it don’t make sense to me no more. God, I ache in my bones I wanna see Rosa so bad.”

Scratch did not know what to say—struck dumb just watching the way Kinkead’s eyes filled with tears. “Man has him someone who loves him, someone he loves … I’d sure as hell feel same as you, Matthew—wanting my woman with me if I was healing up.”

Dragging a hand under his nose, Matthew’s voice cracked as he said, “I decided today …”

Hatcher asked, “Decided what?”

Kinkead couldn’t look at any of them. “Figger to quit the mountains.”

“Qu-quit the mountains?” bawled John Rowland.

Hatcher asked, “What ye gonna do if ye plan on staying back in Taos?”

“Rosa and me, we’ll be fine,” Kinkead protested. “I figger I’ll find something.”

“Where you gonna live?” Solomon inquired. “Where the two of you set up home?”

With a shrug Kinkead responded, “I stay with her at her papa’s house when I’m back in Taos. S’pose that’s what we’ll do till we find us some li’l place of our own.”

“Damn,” Caleb Wood sighed. “If that don’t take the circle! I can’t believe you’re quitting the mountains.”

“I’d do it this minute if I could get back down there,” Kinkead complained.

Hatcher explained, “We ain’t tramping that far south till fall hunt’s over.”

“All the way to Taos?” Bass inquired.

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