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
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
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
"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.
THERE'S A CAVERN IN THE BANKS OF THE RIVER GREEN
WHERE THE WATERS RUN WILD AND SWIFT AND MEAN
I'VE BEEN THERE AND WITNESSED THE PAST UNFOLD. . .
TO THE COURAGEOUS OF SPIRIT AND ADVENTURESOME WIT
I TELL ONLY THE MEN OF TRUTH AND GRIT
FOR THE MEEK MUSTN'T TREK WHERE HISTORY'S RETOLD. . .
GO QUIET UPON THE RESTLESS NIGHT
TO THE HIDDEN CAVE AND ITS CAMPFIRE LIGHT
'TIS ON 'ALL TRAPPERS' EVE'-THE DARK BE YOUR ONLY FRIEND TO HOLD.
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
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
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,"
"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
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
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
"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!"