It’s the early nineteenth century, and the American West is still wild and untamed. Young William Wyeth is ready to throw caution to the wind and join a fur-trapping outfit, even though it means braving wild animals, sudden blizzards, and conflicts with hostile British trappers.
Still, nothing can compare to the elation William feels when he meets and falls in love with Alene, a proud widow who insists she will not wait more than a year. As William sets off on one last mission with a group of grizzled eccentrics and an enigmatic, hotheaded leader, it soon becomes clear that making it back to Alene might require more skill than any one man possesses.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
Shannon Burke is the author of the novels Safelight and Black Flies (a New York Times Notable Book). He has also worked on several film projects, including Syriana. He lives in Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
The Voyage Out
I was twenty-two years old and feverish with the exploits of Smith and Ashley. I followed their accounts in the Gazette and the Intelligencer and calculated their returns and dreamed of their expeditions. The fur trade was warring and commerce and exploration, and above all else in my mind, it was adventure. But the trade was also notoriously unprofitable, a fool’s errand—everyone knew that—and I’d resisted joining a brigade for more than a year.
St. Louis had five thousand inmates as I called them back then. The French lived on the north side, on the high ground. I was living on the south end at a boardinghouse—a withered old widow for a landlady. She made it hot for us, bawling at any racket or laughter and particularly at me for bringing bloody pelts back, which, it is true, she had reason to complain of.
On the morning this narration begins, June of 1826, an acquaintance named Blanchard appeared beneath my window, calling up to say he was off to visit a Canadian half-breed who brain-tanned hides. The Canadian, he said, would increase the value of pelts more than she charged to tan them, and wasn’t hard to look at, either.
“I’ll join you on such a worthy venture,” I called down, and a moment later was striding carelessly through the mud and muck of Market Street with Blanchard, hardly suspecting that little errand would change my life.
As we passed the Rocky Mountain House, a bellowing roar blasted from the doorway, and a French trapper named Goddard tottered out, waving a trade gun, breathing Taos Whiskey.
“Give an honest turn for the firearm, Blanchy?”
Blanchard needed a musket, and with Goddard falling down drunk, thought he’d get the better of him. Blanchard went into the alehouse and I went on to the half-breed’s alone, not displeased to cut out the competition.
I don’t know what I expected from Alene Chevalier—a feather in her hair and dancing around a bonfire or some nonsense like that. Not at all. She was foreign, to be sure, but French, with a quarter native blood that showed in her hair and eyes—a petite woman with olive skin and a long skirt and a shawl that she wore buttoned to her neck with a silver clip at the throat and her hair tied up with a wooden clamshell. All very proper and European in her manners and setting me in my place, though not uninviting, either. She trod that middle ground between warmth and propriety that the French have perfected and has never been replicated in our maidens, who seem to me to be either bawdy or puritanical.
“I’m Wyeth. A hunter,” I said. “I have deer and muskrat pelts.”
“Let me see,” she said.
She had a bit of a French accent. Enough so you knew she was foreign, though not so much that you couldn’t understand what she said. She ran her small hands along the first pelt slowly then flipped it over with an abrupt, practiced gesture. The administrators at the tannery were suspicious of native pelts and she wanted to maintain her reputation and did not take in furs that were old or poorly skinned or damaged.
“Twenty-five cents a pelt.”
“Done,” I said.
“Not much for bargaining, are you?”
“Not when I have a maiden to bargain with,” I said, trying to be gallant, though she smiled thinly at that bit of nonsense. She was calculating the profits in her mind and by not bargaining I’d lowered myself in her estimation.
I carried the pack of furs along a hardened dirt path to the back of her cottage. She had a workshop beneath a pine scaffolding with willow hoops stacked in a row and a heavy pole at hip height for the scraping. There was a tub of mashed brains that looked like pink paste and a wooden flask of oil with a cork stopper and a basin with ash and murky water and a compressor with a pulley system and weights. I noticed she used a dulled carving knife to flesh. Also, a buffalo rib, a stained pumice rock, and a beveled deer antler. I saw indications of additives to the paste like liver and bone marrow and fish oil and pine nuts and wild rhubarb. I took note of all these ingredients, though I did not know the quantities or the process used to mix them. By her reputation, and later by the quality of the furs, I knew she had refined the process.
I heaved the pelts into the hard-packed clearing and she lifted soaked pelts from a basin and hung them on a wooden beam and put the first of my pelts, hardened and stiff, into the basin. Then she took one of the soaked pelts and sat on a smoothed log and stretched the pelt onto a willow hoop, affixing it with deer sinew and a curved wooden hook. She saw me watching, and said, “My father was a voyageur for the Northwesters. I learned from him.”
“Is he with Hudson’s Bay now?” I asked, but she shook her head, and by the way she did it I knew he was not with that company, or any other.
“Consumption,” she said. “Two winters past. He battled the Ree with Ashley. Went on the winter march to the Medicine Bow. But it was the elements in St. Louis that took him.” She made a drinking motion.
“The same ailment’s taking my father,” I said. “A farmer and man of property in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Least it was two years ago when I last spoke with him.”
It was a maudlin way to put it, but I said it in a careless tone, as I wanted her to think I was rugged and indifferent to the gales of life, and that we were two of a kind. If she saw the connection, she did not remark on it.
She finished with that first fur and when she reached for the second I knew I was meant to leave. I started back around the cottage and when I did she set her pelt aside and went through the doorway and I saw her writing out a ticket on a little pink slip of parchment. There was no need to give a ticket and, later, I thought she went through that bit of theater because she’d heard the sound of education in my voice and wanted to show she could read and write as well as any college professor—that neat cursive hand, the polite, precise sound of her voice, that Frenchified way of hers. She mistook me for a gentleman and didn’t want me putting on airs, which, if she’d known me, she need not have worried about, as I worked as a laborer in a warehouse along the river.
I went on my way and seven days later I was back in front of her little cottage with my pink ticket. She met me at the door hauling a neatly bound pack of furs, rocking her slight body back and heaving the pack and carrying it, duckwalking, to the porch. I’d been thinking of conversation all week and come up with nothing but banalities. As I paid she said, “You won’t be long for St. Louis. Les vrais gentlemen ne restent jamais ici.”
“Où est le vrai gentleman?” I said, and she laughed, and said, “Ici même, j’espère. C’est bien ce que je crois, oui.”
“Not all would call me a gentleman,” I said. “Talk to Professor Stanton at Temple. I put a fish with a pickle in its mouth in his desk. I won’t be let back. So it’s into the savage country for me. My education will be in the notable wonders of the far west.”
“You’ll join a brigade to the fur country?”
“Up to the Green River,” I said boisterously. I did not believe I’d join a brigade at the time. I said it to be gallant, but I saw disappointment settle. She’d imagined I was a gentleman hunter with a carriage and a fortune, not some cast-off ne’er-do-well with no family or home to speak of. Something in her closed off to me.
“It’s a hard life,” she said.
“But an exciting one.”
“The excitement ends quickly. The difficulties don’t,” she said.
I considered countering with some saucy remark, but she had been born to the life and undoubtedly knew it better than I did.
“Thank you, ma’am,” I said, and slung the furs on my back and thought that was that. I was not a gentleman and she had decided against me in her mind.
I walked out the gate and when I looked back I saw that she’d gone through the cottage and was out behind collecting the willow hoops and stacking them with a clacking sound that followed me down her dusty street.
The memory of that short conversation stayed inside me all day.
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