This is the sixteenth novel in Richard S. Wheeler's long-running series about Barnaby Skye, the British seaman who carves out an amazing life for himself in the North American Wilderness, along with his wives and his ugly, cantankerous horse, Jawbone.
In Virgin River, the famed mountain man and his two wives, Victoria of the Crows and Mary of the Shoshones, take a party of tubercular young people to the southwestern desert where they hope to be healed. Their destination is the Virgin River, where the mild, dry climate offers a cure. This time, Skye and his wives must cope with rival guides and cross Utah at the time of heightened tensions between the federal government and the Latter-Day Saints.
Skye soon discovers that other wagon companies on the trail fear the sick and blame them for every ill that overtakes their own companies. Taking a party of sick people along the California trail requires every bit of skill and courage that Skye and his wives can muster. And hovering over the trip is the looming catastrophe of war.
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About the Author
RICHARD S. WHEELER is the author of over fifty novels of the American West. He holds five Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to the literature of the West. He lives in Livingston, Montana, near Yellowstone Park, and is married to Sue Hart, an English professor at Montana State University in Billings.
Richard S. Wheeler has written over fifty novels and several short stories. He has won four Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement in the field of western literature.
He lives in the literary and film community of Livingston, Montana, and is married to Professor Sue Hart, of Montana State University-Billings. Before turning to fiction he was a newsman and book editor. He has raised horses and been a wrangler at an Arizona dude ranch.
Wheeler is the author of The Witness series, the Skye’s West series, and many other novels.
Read an Excerpt
A Barnaby Skye Novel
By Richard S. Wheeler
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 Richard S. Wheeler
All rights reserved.
Smoke hung in the air, and Barnaby Skye took it for a sign. Somewhere on this day of birth the mountaintops were burning. Freshets of chill air brought the scent to him, though he knew of no fire and the season was very late.
The Shoshone women had driven him off but he didn't mind. The birthing of a child was women's mystery and women's honor. They would not even let Mary endure her travail in Skye's own small lodge. Too small, they said. A woman needed space to bring a child into the world.
Skye's older wife, Victoria, of the Absaroka people, was with them. There was naught a man could do but wait, or walk restlessly, for the women didn't want him close to the place of Mary's ordeal for fear he would cast a dark spell over it.
Mary's labor had started in the night, and before dawn the women had taken Mary away from him and into a lodge prepared by Chief Washakie's women. And after that, no one came to him with news. The men left him alone with the dawn; the women pursued their mysteries.
Mary's people, the eastern Shoshones, were camped this gusty October on the Popo Agie River where it tumbled out of the Wind River Mountains, a place thick with elk and yellow grass and firewood and gossiping winds. It was a good place for a baby to be born.
Barnaby Skye went to greet the dawn, which was coloring the eastern horizon. He climbed a hillock and lifted his arms to the heavens and welcomed the newborn sun. It was something he had learned from the Indians, maybe a little like morning prayers in the Anglican world he had been torn from so long ago when he was a boy in London. Sometimes he thought that religions were not so far apart. Let the theologians worry about it. His own religion had come down to reverence for all the mysteries.
Jawbone, his ugly blue roan colt, found him there, the pair of them temporary outcasts until this birthing time passed. Jawbone lowered his ugly head and pushed it into Skye's belly, and Skye pushed back. It was a morning communion. Skye thought that the pair of them had more bone than brains in their skulls. It was a question which of them had the ugliest snout. Skye's vast and pulpy nose erupted between his eyes, tumbled downslope in a widening hogback, and dominated everything below, while Jawbone's massive jaw dwarfed the head above it, giving him a demented look.
Skye wondered what it would be like to raise this child; it was late in his life to be having children. He didn't wish for a boychild or a girl, for that was the road to disappointment. Instead, he prayed that he might welcome and nourish whoever and whatever became the flesh of his flesh.
He could barely manage the terror of fatherhood. Was he going to provide a safe haven for the girl, a dowry? Could he offer the boy an inheritance, a schooling, a chance to prosper?He could give the child none of those things. He was an empty-purse man of the wilderness, living with his two wives' tribes, making a thin and erratic living guiding Yanks in their endless westering. Who was Skye but an outcast, a bit of human flotsam?
He lifted the battered top hat that had been with him most of the years of his exile from England, and settled it over his roughly shorn graying hair. The rest of him was adorned in soft golden leathers, quilled and beaded by his wives, but the top hat was England; the top hat separated him from chiefs and Yanks and Spaniards. The top hat told the world he was Mister Skye, a man who had made the western reaches of North America his home ever since he jumped ship at Fort Vancouver. He had come to cherish his life in the New World, but sometimes the pangs of loss caught him as he remembered his mother and father and sister snug in London's bosom. He wondered if they lived. He wondered if this child being born would ever see those English grandparents or aunt or maybe unknown cousins. He wondered whose nation this child would claim, if any, for Skye was a man without a country.
The strengthening sun caught the snow-tipped peaks south and west of him, each peak blazing as if a silver coin had been embedded at its peak to dazzle the eye. Was there ever a range so noble as the Wind River Mountains? Some infinitude above, the dark-timbered slopes gave way to gray rock and ice fields with mysterious footprints caught in glacial hollows and beaded totems hanging from timberline sentinels. Now the waking sun probed the canyons and valleys, casting vast blue shadows where night still lay. But the day was beginning, the day when Skye's life would grow by one and a newcomer would fill his lodge.
Jawbone whuffed, and Skye turned to see Victoria toil up the path above the Shoshone village. Her people were Crows and she was known to them as Many Quill Woman. He had married her long ago when he was a trapper and given her a name fitting a queen of England. She looked cross, but she often did when she was her gayest.
"Dammit, Skye, what are you doing up here? You have a child."
He caught her hands. "A child? And Mary is all right?"
"A man-child, and she is weary. It went hard, and she is worn."
"A boy! A son! Is she resting?"
Victoria slid arms about him and they embraced. He felt the churn of her feelings, for she had always wanted a child, but no child had ever come to them. Now he felt the joy permeating her; it might be Mary's birth-child, but Victoria would be no less a mother.
"Am I permitted?" he said at last.
"They sent me for you."
"Is there anything, any custom, I should know about?"
"Hell no, Skye. But you could pay the town crier to announce it."
"I will do it!"
They descended into the silent village, where life was stirring and wood smoke layered the air. The generous birthing lodge stood apart, across a small brookside meadow. Victoria led Skye there. He felt increasing alarm but could not fathom why. He discovered beads of moisture on his brow, and couldn't imagine how it had rained on a clear day.
She paused, smiled, and scratched on the lodge door, this ritual politeness an affirmation of the sanctuary within.
"Come," said a voice Skye did not know. There weregrandmothers here, and medicine keepers, and midwives. Skye suspected that most of the women in the Shoshone village had a role in every birthing.
He doffed his hat and entered into the dim light, the only illumination from the smoke hole, and found Mary lying on softest robes, bare-breasted, the little thing at her brown nipple, her thighs covered with a soft blue and white Hudson's Bay blanket.
Skye hadn't the faintest idea what to do. He knelt. Mary gazed up at him, her face worn, the flesh of her eyes dark, her hair damp. Yet she smiled. He turned to the little one, small as a mouse, its flesh copper in the dimness, its sparse hair jet. He could not see the eyes. It was swaddled in a soft doeskin receiving blanket. His little arms lay upon her breast.
"My son," he said. "I have a son." Then, "Are you all right?"
She nodded. He thought she was so weary that even a nod was a reached-for exertion.
He found Mary's hand and pressed it in his own. It was damp and limp. Truly, this woman had suffered and was worn down to nothing. Around the lodge, other women knelt or sat, mute and observant. He feared he was not doing what was required. He feared they disapproved.
"Have you a name for this boy?" he asked Mary.
"Yes," she said. "A name that came to me, a mystery. And have you a name for him?"
"Me? A name?" Skye was momentarily taken aback. Was he to give a name to this infant?
"A name from your people, a name from my people," Mary said.
The infant stirred. He looked like a wrinkled gnome. Skye wondered if this misshapen little thing could be a man. Could ever be anything but some stunted little wretch.
A name! Why hadn't he thought of a name? Never was a male so unready for fatherhood as Barnaby Skye. Junior? God forbid. No, there was a name, his father's name, his father who would never see this grandson, yet whose name the child would bear. Skye's father had been a London import and export merchant, buying tea and silk from the Indies, and his name was Dirk Skye. The child would be Dirk. It was a name little known to the Yanks, a name not even common in London, but Barnaby Skye, son of Dirk, suddenly felt the hunger to honor his father.
"Dirk," he muttered. "Dirk?"
"Dirk? What does it mean?"
"Ah, it's a short sword carried by British naval officers. But that ... I think there might be other ..."
"A short sword. That is a good meaning," she whispered. "Dirk, Dirk."
She gazed at the suckling infant, fashioning this odd name and blessing him with it.
"And have you chosen a name?" he asked.
"The name was given to me," she said.
He waited, not inquiring in what manner this name was given. Had some shaman given it? Had someone in her family named this infant?
"My people call the Star That Never Moves the Star of the North. This boy will be the Star of the North in my tongue. North Star. For the North Star is always there and all the people of the earth know where they are because of the star that never moves."
"North Star? His Shoshone name is North Star?"
She nodded and closed her eyes. Plainly, she needed rest. This firstborn had come into the world amid pain.
"Sleep then, Mary. I will go tell the world that we have afine son, and this is a moment of joy for all the people, and for you and me and Victoria."
With one last glance at the little suckling thing on his younger wife's bosom, he retreated into the soft autumnal morning and found the village crier.CHAPTER 2
With the arrival of a son everything changed. Something new was burning in Skye's bosom. He wanted to give this boy every chance to make his life whatever he wanted it to be. Skye knew, in his very marrow, that soon the tribes he lived among would be facing a strange new life, probably as farmers or ranchers, and that this flesh of his flesh would need to find a path of his own, a path that might not be the path of his parents.
This son of Barnaby Skye would learn to read and write and do his numbers. This boy would master a vocation. This lad would be schooled in a college. This youth would have every advantage that life had stolen from Skye long before, when a press gang on the cobbled streets of East London had plucked him at age thirteen from his family and stuffed him aboard one of His Majesty's warships where he was a powder monkey and a surgeon's assistant when he wasn't in the ship's brig for insubordination.
This boy would know comforts and a home with a roof. This boy would not be condemned to a desperate life as an exile. This boy ... this Dirk, this North Star, the Star That Never Moves ... this firstborn son who arrived so late in Skye's life, would carry Skye's blood and vision into the future.
So this birth clawed at Skye. He needed money. He didn't know how long the roving life of the tribes would last, but he knew that each spring, thousands of wagons rolled west from the frontier settlements, Yankees plunging into the new lands across the continent, heading for gold out in California or rich, moist farmland in Oregon where a man scarcely needed to scratch the soil to bring up a bumper crop of anything a man chose to raise.
They were coming. They would forever alter the life he had known. He wondered how much Mary and Victoria fathomed all that. Victoria, at least, had been East with him once and had seen a world she had scarcely imagined and it had darkened her. She clung fiercely to the old and hallowed ways of her people and studied the Yankees coldly.
He knew the West. He couldn't stop the Yankees but he could be a guide, and maybe keep peace between Indians and whites. He could earn good money, and maybe do some good for his wives' people.
The next May, when the baby was strong and prospering, he took Mary and Victoria and Dirk to Fort Laramie, there to await the great annual migration, and there to offer his services to those Yanks plunging into the unknown West. Mary was reluctant to leave her village close to the mighty Wind River Mountains. Washakie's people had been generous with her, and North Star rode in a handsome cradleboard, quilled with bright images that would bring him luck and fortune. He was a placid boy, and Mary was a strong mother who shouldered the board or held it across her lap as Skye and his wives migrated eastward, their world compressed by snowtopped mountains, while tender shoots of new grass carpeted the valleys.
They traveled alone, a man and two women on horseback, along with three packhorses and an Appaloosa pony that pulled a travois with the lodge cover anchored to it. Skye wasn't really expecting trouble, but he rode with his old Hawken across his lap. Now he had a son to protect as well as his wives.
They tarried now and then, never according to a schedule or white-man's clock, sometimes to permit Mary to clean away the urine-soaked moss in the cradleboard and pack fresh moss around the little boy's bottom. The nights remained chill and sometimes mean, but the land reveled in the warmth of the new summer, and erupted in pasqueflowers and wood lilies and gentian, and evening stars, lady's slipper, columbine, cinquefoil, and pestemon, pink and yellow and white and purple and blue, which embroidered wide slopes and made the whole world a receiving blanket for his boy.
They descended arid stepped canyons until they reached the mighty North Platte, where the well-worn trail would take them straight into Fort Laramie. But no one was traveling it this early, and they let their ponies fatten on the tender spring grasses at every wayside. Even Jawbone, whose energies outran his appetite, steadily put on weight, which only made him all the uglier.
One day they ran into a blue-bloused patrol from the fort, and Skye visited with the commanding lieutenant, a man he knew slightly.
"We're hearing there'll be record numbers passing through," the lieutenant said. "Some have already checked through Fort Kearney."
"That's good news for me. I'm a guide," Skye said.
"You're Skye. Hardly an officer in the corps doesn't know you by reputation. It's that hat, Skye."
"Mister Skye, sir."
"That too. You're the man to get your clients where they're going."
"I've been lucky, sir," Skye said.
"There's trouble brewing this year, Mister Skye. If Mister Buchanan gives the word, the army's marching for Great Salt Lake City. He's fed up with the Saints. They're, what's the word? In breach of law. They're cooking up some insurrection. That's the word coming out of the telegraph wires. A little homegrown rebellion. Polygamy and all that."
"How might that affect me?" Skye asked.
"There'll be a lot of California trains passing through Utah Territory, sir. And there may be trouble. The Saints are not in a peaceful mood."
"I'll watch out for it, then, Lieutenant. But I'd be more concerned about keeping oxen away from loco weed, or making sure water's good."
The cavalryman eyed Skye speculatively. "This year may be different," he said. "It's been my pleasure."
He raised an arm. The troopers spurred their mounts and trotted upriver in the benign spring sun, a platoon of blue-bellies who eyed Victoria and Mary with hooded thoughts.
Skye didn't much care for the Yankee cavalry and had an Indian's wariness of them. And yet he lived with them, and they left each other alone. He watched them trot west, the hooves of their well-shod mounts leaving prints in the soft spring soil.
Already some Yank wagon trains were at Fort Kearney. It wouldn't be long, then, unless rain mired them. And there would be ample hire for Skye. The westering Yanks wanted experienced men to lead them. He usually needed only one fee to see him through the year, but this year he wanted two or three hires if he could get them. He had a son to think about. He wanted to put money aside with Colonel Bullock, the sutler at the post, who kept Skye's accounts. This year, Skye intended to work until the snows stopped him. This year he would begin to build whatever was needed to educate his boy. This year ...
"Why do they all wear the same color?" Victoria asked.
"Why does each tribe have its own way of making moccasins?" Skye replied.
It was the response of a man without a country. He remembered his days and months and years in the Royal Navy, where there was a uniform of sorts, but a seaman could virtually create his own uniform out of what was at hand, including ship's sailcloth. Only the officers were dressed like copycats.
The uniforms made a cohort, a small nation of brothers aboard the warships floating slowly over the lonely seas. But here he was, traversing a two-rut artery across a wild continent, belonging to no cohort other than his own family.
They rode through increasingly rough country as the North Platte sliced through pine-darkened slopes, and finally raised Fort Laramie in the middle of a cloudy spring afternoon. It lay sleepily in a vise of piney hills, not yet disturbed by the deluge of settlers heading west. Smoke drifted from a few chimneys. Outbuildings spread from the original fortified adobe post. Skye and his family paused. This was the only presence of Yank power for hundreds of miles, and manned by only a handful of troops, many of them raw recruits, some of them straight off immigrant ships.
Excerpted from Virgin River by Richard S. Wheeler. Copyright © 2008 Richard S. Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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