On the Ranch...

On the Ranch
All Trappers' Eve
Story by Cris Paravicini

Mountain Men
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All Trappers' Eve
A story by Cris Paravicini

The ancient homestead cabin, no longer proud in its craftsmanship, clung tiredly to an undercut riverbank and waited as the hungry earth feasted upon its rotting logs. Each time young William returned to the cabin, he sadly watched the pieces of someone else's life slowly crack and crumble and begin to disappear.
Will pushed back a decaying flour sack curtain to let the fading evening light filter into one of the shadowy rooms. Drafts whispered beneath the doorway and seeped through the yawning cracks of the unchinked log walls.
The cabin sort of gave him the creeps, but he just had to take another look at that book, no matter what. Tonight was the eve of the second weekend in July, and maybe if he were lucky, it would happen again - just like last year, and the year before that. This time, though, things would be different. This year he would "borrow" his mom's camera, and capture the gathering on film. Then, he reckoned, he'd have his proof - that is, if he ever found anyone he could trust enough to share in his secret.

Sinking to his knees, Will thrust his suntanned arm into a hole in the floorboards behind the river-rock chimney, forcing his fingers to rake away the sticky cobwebs, then began to scratch around in the musty-smelling dirt.
Nothing. Will shook his head, disappointed, as he pushed his arm to his bare shoulder, encouraging his unsure fingertips to tickle the empty space at the end of his reach. Goosebumps rippled up his spine at the thought of irritating any critters hiding in this subterranean hovel.
Buddy, Will's little mongrel, lay down beside him; his bristly head cocked sideways and mouse-brown ears flopped forward. He panted faintly between whimpers as if to coax his companion to withdraw his arm from the hole.
"Dang it," Will muttered. He squinted his green eyes and stretched his arm even further, holding himself in place with the tips of his bare toes. Sweat soaked Will's toe-head and dripped from his wrinkled up, freckled nose. Mosquitoes swarmed, frantically spearing and sucking the warm blood from his neck and arms where his bib overalls didn't cover him, but Will ignored them.
"That book's just gotta be here, Buddy." At the sound of his name, Buddy jumped up and circled his boy, licking the sweat beads from Will's face. "I put it right back here last year. Lucky I even found it in the first place. Remember? Huh, boy? You remember, don'tcha? Wouldn't have ever found it, if we hadn't fell clean through this floor."
Will flinched, then shouted. "Aha! Gotcha!" He brushed the skunk scat from the book's cover with the side of his hand as he dragged it out of the hole, then sat in a cross-legged Indian-style and blew the dirt from the surface of his treasure. Slowly, carefully, he cracked open the journal's weathered cover and leafed through the notes and jargon of long-ago medical procedures.
Wait! There it is! Dead center in the moth-chewed pages-tucked between Brain Aneurysms and Gout - was Will's message from the past, especially scribed to him, he was certain.







Will had been quiet, all right. This would be his third year to visit the cave on the eve of the Rendezvous, and the trappers still hadn't noticed Buddy or him hiding in the nearby bushes. Will had known about the cave for a couple of years. He'd seen its gaping maw from the meadow-his meadow; that peaceful meadow where he'd "staked his claim" one fine day as he sat smelling the blooming willows and listening to the frogs' song-sitting there dreaming and wondering about things. It was in this meadow that he'd begun to understand the meaning of life-and other things.

Before heading upriver, Will grabbed his denim jacket and the old, octagon-shaped gun barrel he'd found in the meadow and now used as a walking stick and brush beater. While poking around the countryside he'd found old handmade mule shoes and hand-hewed nails, buffalo skulls and wagon hubs. Pieces of old Army boots and rusted chain links, burned fortress logs, too. All of it, Will was sure, had been left behind by trappers and soldiers and Indians! But, he was most proud of that gun barrel; he'd used steel wool to carefully scrape the rust from the spot that was inscribed: WINCHESTER, October 10, 1860. Will wondered who might've used such a gun, and if it had killed anything-or anyone!

Will crouched on his haunches at the river's edge. The murky water swirled and licked impatiently at his bare feet, but after surveying the tide, he scooped Buddy into his arms and forded on a shallow sandbar and a scattering of large boulders. It wasn't long till he was safely on the other side.
"Whew, I'm glad the cool weather slowed up the ol' river, or we might've been washed away," Will said, reassuring the worried dog as he set him gently on the grassy bank.
"Dang it, Buddy, I forgot Mom's camera!" Will threw up his hands in disgust. "Well, we can't go back now, there's no time, and we can't risk her catchin' us, or we'd be skinned."
The land lay in blind darkness by the time they reached the mouth of the cave, and a cool, misty rain had begun to fall. Will settled himself and Buddy beneath the canopy of a fully leafed Cottonwood and waited for the campfire to be lit. He'd never seen the trappers enter the cave, nor had he ever stuck around to see them leave. Will knew only that it was the same four men each year, and they always told the same stories as they huddled around the warmth of their sagebrush fire.
When Will heard the first sounds of laughter echoing from the cave's rock walls, he tapped Buddy on the head with his fingertips and whispered, "S-hhh. Quiet now, boy. No whining or barking, okay?"

". . . But the best one I ever did hear was when that cocky, young fella-can't come up with his name-tied onto that old granddad beaver. I swear he was the size of a grizzly bear cub when I saw him trolling upstream late in April. That young buck had put out a drownin' set and baited it with scent, but the water was too shallow. I tried to tell him some things, but, no sir, he wouldn't listen to me. Next day, sure enough, he had caught hisself a beaver by half a front foot and a couple of toenails. I was mighty surprised that beaver hadn't chewed off his own foot or twisted out of the trap..."
The old trapper, Darnell, paused and combed at his silver-tipped beard with snaggly, arthritic fingers, then slapped his knee. "Yep, there sits this big-as-hell beaver propped on his tail, just staring that boy down. And here stands this kid trying to 'Shoo, shoo' that beaver back into the river. Guess he wanted the big rodent to volunteer to drown his self. And git this, that dumb kid left his gun and his bowie back at camp.
"Well, he sees me come over the rise and he hollers and asks me what to do about this situation that he's gone and got his self into. I just shrugged my shoulders like I always do and kept on my way, minding my own business. Last time I saw young cocky, he was heading back to camp trying to break Grandpa beaver to lead. I couldn't bear to tell him that beaver was outta prime and starting to rub. Hell, his guard hairs were all broken and his fur was slippin' like moccasins in buffalo dung."
Will heard the trappers' howls of laughter and their mumbling something about "momma's boy" and this country being "no place for civilized knotheads." Will dragged himself to the edge of the darkness to hear and see better.

One man with high-set, raw cheekbones that cast shadows across his hollow eyes stirred in the fire, setting sparks dancing toward the cave roof. A deep scar cut across one eye. Colt was blind in that eye, Will was certain. That good smell of burning sage drifted past Will's nose, and he breathed deeply to capture the scent.
"That's Colt, Buddy," Will whispered, kind of raspy-like. "Don't let his blind eye scare ya none. It don't scare me. Least not too much." Will squeezed Buddy closer.
Colt began, "I did feel sorry for that painter fellow, though. You remember that guy with them small spectacles? He wanted to tag along with a few of us one year, "to experience the big Rendezvous," he'd said.
"We'd just made camp a couple miles upwind from the main encampment and were sittin' down to fry up some fresh buffalo steak the Bannocks had give us. They'd jumped a little bunch of cows and calves off that bluff over there." Colt gestured with his bear paw-sized hand. "What a stink was boiling off that river bottom. I figured it'd be bringing in all sorts of varmints, which it did. That poor fella never had a chance.
"Well, there came a strange, mournful howl just before it attacked. The thing leapt straight through the night; right at the fire it came and grabbed that dude's pouch of possibles and then sunk its teeth and tore a little deeper. He screamed in pain and terror as the mad wolf ripped out a length of his guts-just like I've seen 'em do to a deer. I shot from the hip and hit him in the hind leg. Then that crazed thing turned on my best mule. But old Moose fixed him good. I'd just had the smithy at the fort outpost put shoes on him. So when the wolf got into range, Moose stuck it to him. I gotta tell you, it happened slicker than moss on river rock. That long-eared, old cuss kicked in that devil dog's skull, and that was that.
"I guess the dude was in shock, 'cause when I looked around, he was dragging himself and his guts through the dirt toward the river. He started splashing water on 'em, tryin' to clean 'em up. Poor man. I knew if the attack didn't kill him, the hydrophobie surely would. By dawn next day, he'd died a terrible death. If I wasn't a civilized man, I'd a shot him then and there, and put him out of his misery."

Like the gray cloud of sagebrush smoke, grim silence hung in the limestone cave; then the one called Buck spoke.
"So, are any of you lazy bards gonna work this summer? Or are ya just gonna sit in this here hole and recollect our history till the furs git prime again?"
"Now, Buck, don't go makin' fun of us," Colt said, chuckling, and shoving his elbow into Buck's ribs. "You know you like these brush burners same as the rest of us."
"Yeah, but every time we git together, you old horned toads change yer stories." Buck swung his finger wildly through the air, pointing at each trapper, then continued his lively banter.
"There ain't no such thing as true historic recollection. The way I look at it, it's kinda like throwin' all your favorite food in a pile on this here dirty, old cave floor. Then you grab that old cookin' pot over there and throw in a little bit of this good thing and a little bit of that tasty tidbit. And all the while you know there's some bat dung went in the pot, too, but you don't care 'cause you're hungry for it and cravin' it real bad, so you stir it all up and let it simmer a spell, anyways. After a while you cain't tell what's been put in that pot, but it's sure enough plumb good chewin' and worth sharin' with yer friends."

Darnell spat on the fire and the fire hissed back as he laid his hand on the shoulder of a stone-faced man who had not yet spoken. "Let's let the "fur"eigner talk," Darnell ordered. "Tell us yer story, Angus, and tell it like you want. Don't pay no thoughts to Buck. He's as windy as a bucket of beans, and, I figure, plumb full of green gooseberries 'bout now."

Angus straightened his shoulders, fingered at a ragged, plaid beret, and then shifted his buckskin britches into a more comfortable position on a beaver-chewed, cottonwood log.
Will always loved his story, so he put his arm around Buddy's neck and hugged him tight, whispering, "You gotta hear this story, boy! You'll love it, but we can't cry. It's real sad." Buddy licked Will's face, wagged his tail, then laid his chin on his paws and closed his eyes.
Angus cleared his throat and spoke in his distinct Highland brogue. "Ah, she was a bonnie lass, she was. From the first time I feasted these green eyes upon her, me old fool heart was swept downstream. Her hair and eyes were as black and shiny as obsidian, and she moved like a graceful deer.
"It's been nigh five years since she shared me buffalo robe, and I miss her to this day. How I remember that cold fall day, when I topped a ridge near Whiskey Creek. I spied something moving in the brush below me, then heard frantic screams for help. A young lassie was cowering beneath a sagebrush as her Indian mate beat upon her mercilessly with the end of an aspen huntin' spear. The burning fire came into me, here."
Angus made a fist and pounded twice on his broad chest. "I rode hard down the hillside and forced me horse over the top of this crazy man. Then thinking I'd kilt the bloody son-of-an-unmarried woman, I plucked this beautiful flower from her desperation and rode quickly away.
"For a time she was frightened of me, dirty and bearded, I was; and when she thought me not watching her, she'd backwards glance with fear and sadness in her raven eyes. I spake to her in her tongue saying 'In the nearby land where the earth spits fire and makes water shoot into the sky, I will walk through it and back again for ye, lassie, if ye'll only be me bride.'
"'Twas soon she trusted me, and the look she had in her eyes for me was like sunshine on a rainbow. Ah, and strong I had that look for her me self, laddies. As I held her in me arms one night, I promised her, 'I'll keep ye from all worldly harm.' And she believed me."
Angus looked away from the fire and from his friends, straight into the lonely night beyond the mouth of the cave-straight into the eyes of Will. But, far away, Angus saw only his lover.
He cleared his throat once more. "She was dead when I returned from running me two-day trap line. I discovered I had not kilt her crazed young warrior, after all. This hated devil had tracked us down to save honor with his people.
"Me lassie's spirit was already with the angels when I found her broken body lying in the stained snow near me cabin. She loved me and trusted me to keep her from danger. Now each night, forever, I will hear her crying out me damned fool name."

It was well past midnight when Will headed for home through the thick, moist night. He couldn't shake the feeling he had as he thought of the stories the trappers had shared once again. Tonight their tales were the best ever - funnier and sadder, too. The same stories as last year, Will thought, but with a little added here and some taken away there - kind of like Buck had said about the stew pot.
"You know, Buddy," Will said aloud, tapping the little dog's head with his fingertips. "We better not tell anyone about this till next year. No one's going to believe a word of it!"

The Pearson Angus Ranch is located approximately 2 miles northwest of Daniel, and 11 miles west of Pinedale, Wyoming. Cris can be reached by e-mail at: cowgirl@wyoming.com.

Copyrights: Photos and page text content copyrighted, Cris Paravicini, 2001. No part may be reproduced without permission of the author/photographer. Page graphics copyrighted, Pinedale Online, 2001.

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