Read an Excerpt
1 A Fish, at Dusk
2 A Block of Offspring
3 A Doe’s Liver, Quickly Eaten
4 The Swamp of the Swans
5 Rain Spittings and a Slap
6 The River Sticks
7 A Bad Hand in a Crowd
8 Three Wild Chieftains
9 Red Nations in Turmoil
10 The Captain Heaves a Sigh
11 A Squab and a Squash
12 Twenty-two Pigeons Raining Down
13 Call of the Tundra Swans
14 End of a Heavy Eater
15 The Only French
16 A Funeral in the Morning
17 Frailties of Artists
18 The Lost Stroke
19 The Maid Takes a Swim
20 An Eaglet Tamed
21 Difficulties with Scissors
22 A Modest Bosom, a Buffalo
23 Tongue, Liver, Sweetbreads, Haunch, and Saddle
24 The Swans Again
25 A Hunting Seat Abandoned
26 A Cellist Overboard
27 A Nip of Grog—Two Nips
28 A Proposal Considered
29 A Hitching Smoothly Accomplished
30 The North Star
31 A Flinch from Mademoiselle
32 A Meadowlark Speaks Out of Turn
33 The Doeskin Shirt
34 A Cold Night
35 A Black-Clad Figure
36 A Company of Fiends
37 A Master of His Trade
38 A Long Mane of Shining Hair
39 In the Skull Lodge
40 A Question of Sensibility
41 Fräulein Will Not Be Soothed
42 A Union Assailed
43 Parlous State of the Stores
44 An Accidental Élévation
45 A Stable Boy Flogged
46 Sinews for a Bow
47 A Burial
48 The Trader Is Late
49 In a Turmoil of Spirit
50 An Old Lord Undeterred
51 The World Disappeared
52 A Fading Light
53 Six Hundred Pounds of Wives
54 Rifle and Kit Abandoned
55 A Valet Missed
56 Frostbite and Its Cure
57 A Distressing Litter, Soon Removed
58 Wolf Tracks and a Buffalo
59 A Grave Not Needed
60 Conjugal Occupations
61 The Ice Is Unforgiving
62 A Dark Woman Visits the Sans Arc
Lord Albany Berrybender
Lady Constance Berrybender
Sister Ten (later, Kate)
Tintamarre, Tasmin’s staghound
Prince Talleyrand, parrot
Gladwyn, valet, gun bearer
Fräulein Pfretzskaner, tutor
Master Jeremy Thaw, tutor
Mademoiselle Pellenc, femme de chambre
Eliza, kitchen maid
Señor Yanez, gunsmith
Signor Claricia, carriage maker
Venetia Kennet, cellist
Old Gorska, hunter
Gorska Minor, his son
Piet Van Wely, naturalist
Holger Sten, painter
Tim, stable boy
Captain George Aitken
Charlie Hodges, boatman
George Catlin, American painter
Toussaint Charbonneau, interpreter-guide
Coal, Charbonneau’s Hidatsa wife
Jim Snow (The Raven Brave; Sin Killer)
Dan Drew, prairie hunter
Maelgwyn Evans, trapper, Knife River
Master Tobias Stiles, deceased
Father Geoffrin, Jesuit
Big White, Mandan
The Hairy Horn, Oglala Sioux
Blue Thunder, Piegan Blackfoot
Pit-ta-sa, Teton Sioux
Blue Blanket, Teton Sioux
Neighing Horses, Teton Sioux
White Hawk, Sans Arc
Three Geese, Sans Arc
Grasshopper, Sans Arc
Cat Head, Sans Arc
Big Stealer, Sans Arc
Little Stealer, Sans Arc
Step Toe, Mandan
Rabbit Skin, Mandan
The Bad Eye, Gros Ventre
Georges Guillaume, trader
Simon Le Page, Hudson’s Bay Company agent
Malboeuf, his assistant
John Skraeling, trader
In the darkness beyond the great Missouri’s shore . . .
In the darkness beyond the great Missouri’s shore at last lay the West, toward which Tasmin and her family, the numerous Berrybenders, had so long been tending. The Kaw, an unimpressive stream, had been passed that afternoon—Tasmin, Bobbety, Bess, and Mary had come ashore in the pirogue to see the prairies that were said to stretch west for a thousand miles; but in fact they could hardly see anything, having arrived just at dusk. The stars were coming out—bright, high stars that didn’t light the emptiness much, as a full moon might have done. Bess, called Buffum by the family, insisted that she had heard a buffalo cough, while Bobbety claimed to have seen a great fish leap at dusk, some great fish of the Missouri. The three older Berrybenders tramped for a time along the muddy shore, trailed, as usual, by the sinister and uncompromising Mary, aged twelve, whom none of them had invited on the tour. In the last light they all stared at the gray grass and the brown slosh of water; but the great fish of the Missouri did not leap again. Disappointed, the agile Bobbety at once caught a slimy green frog, which he foolishly tried to force down Mary’s dress, the predictable result of his actions being that the frog squirmed away while Mary, never one to be trifled with, bit Bobbety’s forefinger to the bone, causing him to blubber loudly, to Buffum’s great annoyance and Tasmin’s quiet contempt. Though Bobbety attempted to give his sister a sharp slap, Mary, like the frog, squirmed away and, for a time, was seen no more.
“It is said that there are no schools anywhere in the American West, in this year of our Lord 1832,” Bess declaimed, in her characteristically pompous way. The three of them were attempting to row the pirogue back to the big boat, but in fact their small craft was solidly grounded on the Missouri mud. Bobbety, muttering about lockjaw and gangrene, dropped the only paddle, which floated away.
“Do get it, Tasmin . . . I’m bleeding . . . I fear the piranhas will inevitably attack,” Bobbety whined; his knowledge of natural history was of the slightest. Tasmin might readily have given him a succinct lecture on the normally benign nature of the piranha, in any case a fish of the Amazon, not the Missouri, but she decided to postpone the lecture and catch the paddle, a thing soon accomplished, the Missouri being distressingly shallow at that point of its long drainage. Tasmin got wet only to her knees.
In her large family, the ancient, multifarious Berrybenders, Tasmin was invariably the one who recovered paddles, righted boats, posted letters, bound up wounds, corrected lessons, dried tears, cuffed the tardy, reproved the wicked, and lectured the ignorant, study having been her passion from her earliest days.
Far out in the center of the broad stream, the steamer Rocky Mount seemed to be as immovable as their humble pirogue—mired, perhaps, like themselves, in the clinging Missouri mud. Sounds of the evening’s carouse were just then wafting across the waves.
Occasionally she caught a note of Haydn . . .
No schools at all, how liberating!” Bess repeated in her exasperating way; she seemed not to have considered that even if Oxford itself had been transported to the banks of the Kaw, their father, Lord Albany Berrybender, would never have spent a cent to educate any of his girls.
“Yes, that is why it has been necessary to bring Fräulein Pfretzskaner and Master Jeremy Thaw, to tutor you and Bobbety and Mary and, of course, our brother Seven and our sister Ten,” Tasmin said.
There were, in the Berrybenders’ great house in Northamptonshire, a block of offspring known collectively as the Ten, all born during a period when Lord Berrybender decided he preferred numbering to naming—the latter required a degree of attention he was ever more reluctant to grant, where his offspring were concerned. Only two of the Ten had been allowed to come to America: the boy Seven, possessed of a cleft palate but otherwise physically unobjectionable, and the girl Ten, a wild brat so clever at hiding herself under tables and in closets that she could seldom be easily located—not that anyone had reason to seek her with any frequency.
Mary Berrybender, born just before the onslaught of the Ten, remained, as she had begun, sui generis, neither one of the older children nor one of the Ten. No less an expert than Piet Van Wely, the Dutch botanist, whose duties, never well defined, required him to deal with whatever flora or fauna the company might encounter, had been the first to remark on the fact that Mary fit no system and conformed to no category, being quite clearly in possession of special powers.
“She can sniff out roots, edible roots, Jerusalem artichokes, tubers, onions,” Piet confided to Tasmin, not long after they left Saint Louis. “She has already sniffed out a small edible potato quite unknown to science. Should we find ourselves in a famine the little one can be quite useful, if she cares to be.”
That, in Tasmin’s view, was a considerable “if,” Mary having so far not evinced even a trace of sentiment for any member of the household, though, to be fair, she was rather fond of Tintamarre, Tasmin’s great red staghound, who had bounded off a bit earlier and now came splashing back to the pirogue, where the affectionate beast proceeded to lick Tasmin’s face.
Fräulein Pfretzskaner and Master Jeremy Thaw (the tutors), Señor Yanez (the gunsmith), Signor Claricia (the carriage maker), Holger Sten (the painter, a dank Dane), the aforementioned Piet Van Wely (the botanist), Old Gorska (their hunter, assisted by Gorska Minor, his son), Mademoiselle Pellenc (the femme de chambre), Miss Venetia Kennet (singer, cellist, and, at present, Lord Berrybender’s acknowledged mistress), Gladwyn (the Welsh valet, butler, and gun bearer), Tim (the stable boy), and, of course, Cook and her two helpers, Millicent (the laundress) and Eliza (the kitchen girl), comprised only a small part of the eventual Berrybender entourage; it was, though, the part with whom the Berrybenders sailed from Portsmouth to Baltimore, where, after a rather lengthy stay on what had once been Lord Baltimore’s plantation, they made their way by wagon and carriage over the deplorably ill-kept roads to Pittsburgh, where they acquired their various boats and set forth down the placid Ohio.
At Saint Louis the famous Captain William Clark himself, then commissioner of Indian Affairs, lent them his interpreter, Monsieur Toussaint Charbonneau, a man said to be fluent in the languages of the many native tribes they expected to meet. Captain Clark also helped them secure the services of a dozen or so engagés, small, smelly Frenchmen from the northlands, who were to help with the boats. But even Captain Clark’s vigilance on their behalf could not prevent the last-minute arrival of the painter George Catlin, a balding, finical man of—in Tasmin’s opinion—a decidedly cranky nature; Mr. Catlin leapt aboard just as the steamer, virtually surrounded by the Berrybenders’ flotilla of pirogues and keelboats, set forth from the village of Saint Charles, a small community but a few miles from the confluence of the Missouri with the Mississippi.
Mr. Catlin, who could hardly be called reticent, at once made plain his feeling about the Missouri, the river that was to carry them some two thousand miles into the mysterious reaches of the West.
“I call it the river Sticks,” he said, emitting his characteristic dry, nervous cackle, “for as you will soon learn it is filled along much of its length with dead trees, many of them hidden just beneath the surface.
“I’m punning on ‘Styx’,” he added, assuming, incorrectly, that none of the Berrybenders would know their Homer. “That’s the river the dead must cross to get to Hades . . . and many of us will be dead, unless we’re exceptionally lucky.”
“Oh, do hush about the dead, sir!” Lady Constance Berrybender pleaded—she had turned quite white beneath her copious rouge. Lady Constance had never been fond of the subject of death. Fortunately her husband, Lord Albany Berrybender, was just sober enough to draw Mr. Catlin off the unwelcome problem of mortality by a timely mention of Mr. John James Audubon, the bird painter, whom the Berrybenders had recently encountered in Baltimore.
“Why, Lord Berrybender, I’ve seen my share of birds and they do not look like that man’s birds,” Mr. Catlin protested, at once forgetting his bias against the Missouri River. “I fear the fellow’s altogether a humbug—I believe he’s a Creole of some kind—don’t know what the fellow’s thinking, drawing birds that don’t look at all like the birds I see—and I do see birds.”
John James Audubon, in Tasmin’s view, had seemed queerly birdlike himself, a reflection that did not help her much as she caught the floating paddle and returned to the pirogue, in hope of rowing it out to the steamer Rocky Mount. The pirogue was still quite firmly settled into the Missouri mud, though in fact it was no worse off than the steamer, grounded for the night on what the river men called a riffle, or sandbar. Mr. Catlin, though mildly ridiculous, had not been wrong to call the Missouri a plain of mud. The Berrybender family, with all its get and chattels, was, for the moment, stalled.
“What shall we do, Tasmin?” Bobbety asked, as usual referring all questions of procedure to his older sister.
“Let’s examine the matter from the point of view of logic,” Tasmin said. Her beloved mama and papa—Lord and Lady Berrybender, that is to say—were, of all the great race of human beings, the least likely to accept the severities of logic. Whim alone was their lodestar and their guide—whim it was that caused them to pack up and leave their great house in Northamptonshire; whim had brought them through America to their present resting place on a sandbar in the Missouri River—and only so that Lord Berrybender could shoot different animals from those he shot at home.
“This pirogue won’t move, but our legs will,” Tasmin pointed out.
She was going to suggest that they wade back to the ship and join the evening’s carouse when little Mary walked out of the dusk holding an immense, vicious turtle above her head, a creature half at least her own weight, which she promptly flung amidst them, into the pirogue—no boat was ever emptied of its human occupants more quickly. Tintamarre, Tasmin’s gallant hound, set up a violent braying and attempted a lunge or two at the turtle, of course to little avail. The Berrybenders were in the water, and the turtle was in the boat.
“It’s entirely your fault, Bobbety,” Buffum said. “Why will boys attempt to thrust frogs down little girls’ dresses?”
Bobbety made no reply—he was sucking his bitten finger, so that no drop of his noble blood would drip into the Missouri to tempt the piranhas from their watery homes.
There seemed nothing for it but to swim back to the steamer, leaving the outraged turtle in possession of the pirogue. The water proved so shallow that no swimming was required, though Mary, perhaps amphibian by nature, dove and bobbed like a dolphin. Tintamarre floundered off after a mud hen, which eluded him.
The fact that the four of them, muddy as muskrats, arrived in the midst of dinner and rushed to their seats at the great groaning table aroused no comment at all; the group, as usual, was going at one another hammer and tongs: Lord Berrybender was profane with Gladwyn, who had dribbled the claret; Master Jeremy Thaw, entirely overcome with drink, was slumped amid the salads, snoring loudly; Mr. George Catlin was attempting to make it up with Lady Constance by explaining the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation. The fat Fräulein Pfretzskaner and the skinny Mademoiselle Pellenc were shrieking at each other: the two despised everything that their respective nations stood for. The dank Dane, Holger Sten, annoyed to find that another painter had presented himself on board, was staring daggers at Mr. Catlin, while the two Mediterraneans, Señor Yanez and Signor Claricia, having drunk far too much of Lord Berrybender’s excellent claret, were directing looks of frank concupiscence at Miss Venetia Kennet, who sat with her cello at the ready, waiting for the din to subside before favoring the group with a little Haydn. Piet Van Wely, aroused by Mademoiselle Pellenc’s fiery rages, puffed rapidly at his foul pipe; and of course, there was Lady Berrybender’s ancient, raggedy parrot, Prince Talleyrand, who was allowed the freedom of the table and was liable to pluck tidbits virtually off the tongues of inattentive diners.
Lady Berrybender’s brow was furrowed, always a sign of intense and unaccustomed mental effort.
“I don’t think I should wish to come back as an eel, if I must come back at all,” she was saying, rather querulously. Late in the day Lady Constance was apt to grow careless with her dress; one of her great dugs was at the moment almost fully exposed, a fact not lost on the Mediterraneans, or even the normally monkish Holger Sten.
“Madam, the eel is only one of many possibilities reincarnation offers,” Mr. Catlin said, rather stiffly.
“I will endeavor to come back as a mosquito and bite Mary and give her malaria and cause her to foam at the mouth,” Bobbety announced, failing, as he often did, to correctly match his symptoms with his disease.
Tasmin had never lacked appetite. The goose was excellent—Cook had even been rather clever with some sweetbreads. Delicacy was the last thing wanted at the Berrybender table; Tasmin shoved, grabbed, elbowed, ate her fill, and then got up and left. A restlessness seized her—though she had nothing much against Venetia Kennet, she felt like avoiding Haydn for once and so went out on the upper deck, to take the rather humid air.
Below her on the underdeck was the rabble who would be expected to do most of the work on the Berrybenders’ grand expedition: the smelly engagés in their greasy pants; Tim, the randy stable boy; Old Gorska and Gorska Minor, the former quite drunk; the shambling Monsieur Charbonneau, taller than the engagés but no less smelly; and a few scowling boatmen, all of them swabbing up pork gravy and hominy, belching, expectorating, breaking wind.
Though Tasmin had been raised amid a mob, and was now traveling with a mob, her nature, her spirit, was solitary. She possessed, of course, a level of social assurance appropriate to a young woman of her station, but she had always liked her own company best. Walking out after dinner, she was seized by such a powerful inclination to be alone that she was at once over the side, wading back through the sluggish, coolish waters toward the unseen Missouri shore. By the time she found the pirogue the turtle had fortunately gone its way. The pirogue was, of course, a little muddy, but Tasmin had never been finical about such trifles: in most respects the small boat made a perfect bed, a bed in which she was soon happily stretched out. Occasionally she caught a note of Haydn; occasionally the wild coyotes yipped. Happy in her solitude, Tasmin yawned, she sighed, she slept.
. . . wafted, though she didn’t know it, on the gentle current of a summer river . . .
Tasmin slept deeply, wafted, though she didn’t know it, on the gentle current of a summer river: the Missouri rose during the night, just enough to ease the pirogue off its muddy base and send it a mile or two downstream, where it gently deposited the little craft against a weedy bank. Tasmin opened her eyes to a dawn of such brilliance that it seemed the planet itself was being reborn. She was a young woman very seldom awed, experience having already shown her the shallowness of most sensation; but when the great molten sun swelled up from the horizon and cast its first light over the vastness of the prairies, Tasmin felt a joy stronger and more pure than any she had yet known. With the huge sky drawing her eyes upward toward infinity, she felt at one with an earthly magnificence that her tidy island upbringing had left her unprepared to imagine.
In that single moment of waking on the prairie’s edge, with the sun not yet even fully broken free from the eastern horizon, Tasmin felt that she had at last shed all bonds: she was done with Englishness, done with family; she cast off, quite literally, her muddy clothes and waded out, drenched and shivering, into the waters of the New World, determined to make her life, somehow, on the vast prairies of America, where she would never again be without the purities of that great embracing light.
No purer bolt of joy had ever hit her, and yet—Tasmin being a girl who liked a hearty breakfast—she had to face the fact that she was hungry. The very clarity of the air seemed to sharpen her appetite: thus, she reflected, does the practical ever follow sharp upon the poetical.
Of the steamer Rocky Mount there was no trace, anywhere on the wide brown flood. Somewhere upriver the engagés were no doubt hard at their ropes, straining to pull the steamer off the sandbar; perhaps by now they had succeeded and were proceeding upriver without her. Whatever she might find to breakfast on, it was not likely to be poached eggs and kidneys, her customary fare.
Not far down the bank a cheeky raccoon was washing a mussel of some sort; Tasmin would cheerfully have eaten the coon, had there been any way to kill him and cook him—but she had no weapon and no cook fire.
It was while she stood, clean but naked, in water up to her thighs that Tasmin realized she might not be the only early bather on this stretch of the river. Below her some thirty yards, beyond a little point that was especially thick with reeds and rushes and, perhaps, a few plum bushes, she distinctly heard a rustling. Fright, for a moment, threatened to overcome her. The rustling continued, but the weeds and rushes completely blocked her view. Captain Clark had warned them of the unequaled ferocity of the great bears of the West, the white bear or grizzly; he had warned them, also, of the troublesome ways of several of the savage tribes. What if a bear was producing that rustling? What if an Indian had come to the river? Either might be seeking the succulent plums, just then at an apogee of ripeness: only the day before, Cook had rendered some of them into a fine tart jam.
The pirogue seemed Tasmin’s best hope of escape, so to the pirogue she crept, taking care not to splash or otherwise announce her presence; but then, when she was only a few feet from the boat, a young man naked as Adam walked into the water just beyond the reeds. Tasmin saw him, and at almost the same moment, he saw her: shock quite froze them both. The young man was bearded; his hair was as long and light as Tasmin’s was long and dark. Their mutual surprise was so extreme that a long moment passed while they merely gaped at each other; then the claims of modesty asserted themselves. Tasmin reached to cover her privates—the young man did the same, before he recovered his power of movement and fairly skipped back to the shelter of the reeds.
Once the young man disappeared Tasmin shot to the pirogue as if released by a spring—in a trice she had donned her muddy shift. A hectic rustling resumed beyond the weeds—she expected that at any moment the young man would come forth, clad, perhaps, in the homespun of the pioneer, to mumble apologies for the accident of their mutual exposure, which, after all, had done neither of them any harm. The Berrybenders, at least, had never placed modesty very high among the virtues; Lord and Lady Berrybender’s lives had been little more than a riot of procreation. There were fourteen children, after all, and that handsome tally failed to include Lord Berrybender’s bastards, said to number at least thirty, whose importuning had played its part in the lord’s decision to leave green Albion’s shores.
Tasmin herself could hardly claim to be ignorant of the rank inclinations of men, having, from her sixteenth year, been taken often and lustily by the head groom, Master Tobias Stiles, in the stall of Lord B.’s great stud Charlemagne, a dalliance that ended only when Master Stiles was killed at a jump; she had thus been led early to appreciate the energies of the well-formed male, though in fact none had appeared to tempt her since the death of Master Stiles.
What led her to hope for the prompt reappearance of the young man she had surprised at his bathing was not lust but hunger. Perhaps he possessed a biscuit or two, or even a piece of bacon.
But to her growing vexation, no young man appeared. The prairies had assumed an almost eerie quiet, broken only by the skipping notes of a plover. Patience, like modesty, was not a virtue much prized by Berrybenders. Where was the shaggy fellow? Having inadvertently shown himself naked, why wouldn’t he show himself clothed? Had the mere sight of her nakedness perhaps put him to flight—the hairy prospect and all that? Could timorousness have overcome him? Tasmin had to know—she tramped straight through the weeds and quickly burst upon the fellow, clad now in ragged buckskins, sitting on a log with his hands clasped in prayer. A long rifle lay beside him; also a bow and a quiver of arrows.
“Do pardon me, I did not mean to interrupt you at prayer,” Tasmin said at once, whereupon the young man glanced briefly at the heavens, unclasped his hands, and stood up.
“Hello, then . . . ,” he said, but could get no further.
Tasmin waited with what she hoped was a modest grace; but the prairie youth she had stumbled on was evidently quite lacking in talk, leaving her little choice but to direct whatever proceedings they might manage.
“I am Lady Tasmin de Bury,” she said—some flash of instinct led her to give this diffident young stranger the name she had long believed to be rightfully hers. The Berrybenders were all notably blonde, whereas Tasmin, like Lord de Bury himself, had hair of a raven blackness, and Lady B., when in her cups, had been known to be careless with more than her attire. Tasmin, her firstborn, had been conceived just before Lady Constance yielded to Lord Albany and became a Berrybender—and yet the fact that she had said such a thing shocked Tasmin more than the sight of any man’s nakedness. She, who had been brought up to regard with indifference, if not disdain, the opinions of the lower classes, had just exhibited a most shockingly low-bred desire to please: she had taken for herself, rightly or wrongly, a name far more ancient than that of the parvenu Berrybenders; and yet she was not at some great aristocratic soiree, where the name de Bury would have elevated her at once to the highest consideration. She was standing, instead, in a muddy shift by an American river whose banks smelled of slime and frogs and fish, speaking to a lanky son of the frontier who could hardly have known anything of English class or privilege. She might as well have claimed to be Ethelred or Athelstan—what difference could it have made to the young man who stood looking at her with mild brown eyes?
“I expect you’re from that steamboat,” the young man at last managed to say.
“Yes—but it seems to have left me,” Tasmin said. “Might I just ask your name, sir?”
The question seemed to stump him for a moment. Tasmin waited with growing impatience—she was feeling hungrier by the moment.
“I must confess to you that I am at the moment very hungry,” Tasmin said—impatience often got the better of curiosity, particularly if she happened to be hungry. “Do you know of anything that we might eat for breakfast?”
This question, delivered with more than a touch of adamancy, produced an unexpectedly winning smile.
“Know how to make a fire?” the young man asked.
He must have seen, from the expression on her face, that she was not in the habit of making fires, because he smiled again, pitched a small, soft pouch at her feet, and left, taking only his bow and quiver of arrows.
Tasmin was, as she had often asserted, the one competent Berrybender; even if she now disclaimed the family connection, she hoped to retain the competence. She had never made a fire, but she had read several of Mr. Cooper’s novels, and supposed that, with application, she could soon master the essentials of flint and steel, the very objects contained in the young frontiersman’s small deerskin pouch.
Remembering, as best she could, her Cooper, Tasmin assembled a sizable pyramid of grass and twigs, whacked away with the flint and steel, and was rewarded, after only a few minutes, with a respectable column of smoke. She was down on her knees, puffing at the pyramid, encouraged now and then by a tiny tongue of flame, when the young man came back with a dead doe over his shoulders, the arrow that had killed her still wagging from her side.
No sooner had he dropped the doe behind the log where he had been praying than he bent and with a flick or two reduced her grassy pyramid to one half its size, after which, immediately, a sturdy flame shot up.
“Too much grass,” he explained. In only a few minutes he had the liver out of the deer, seared it over the blazing fire, and offered it to Tasmin on the point of his knife. A lifetime of eating amid the violent contention of the Berrybender table had long since rid her of any pretentions to ladylike etiquette when it came to food. Well used to fighting off her siblings with elbow and fist, Tasmin seized the dripping liver and ate it avidly; no meat had ever tasted better.
Her host and victualler watched in silence, then quickly butchered the little deer, which was already beginning to attract a green buzz of flies.
“Do you know that girl that sniffs out roots?” he asked, watching Tasmin closely.
“Yes, that’s my sister Mary—she seems to have an unusually keen smeller,” Tasmin said. “How did you know she could sniff out roots?”
“I seen her last night—she was talking to a snake,” he said. “The snake led her to that turtle. A turtle that size could have bitten her arm off, but it didn’t.”
“No doubt she took it unawares,” Tasmin said, a little puzzled by the drift the conversation had taken.
“A child that talks with serpents has a powerful sin in her,” the young man said. His brown eyes had suddenly turned to flint. The look was so hard that Tasmin, of a sudden, got goose bumps. Who was this young fellow, who looked at her so?
“I still don’t know your name, sir,” she pointed out, meekly, hoping that such a normal inquiry would make him mild again.
The young man shrugged, as if to suggest that a name was of little importance.
“Depends on where I am,” he said. “Round here I’m mostly just Jim—Jim Snow.”
Intrigued, Tasmin ventured another question.
“But Mr. Snow, who are you when you’re somewhere else?” she asked, coquettishly.
“The Assiniboines call me the Raven Brave,” he said—“they’re way north of here. Some of the boys just call me Sin Killer. I’m hard when it comes to sin.”
Tasmin could see that, just from the change in his eyes when the subject of sin came up, a subject Tasmin had never given even a moment’s thought to, though growing up in a family of flagrant sinners had given her plenty of opportunity to observe the phenomenon at first hand.
“You’ve got no kit,” Jim Snow pointed out, more mildly. “I expect you could use some help, getting back to the boat.”
“Why, yes . . . if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Tasmin said, but Jim Snow was already shifting some of the more edible portions of the butchered deer into the pirogue. His rifle, bow, and knife seemed to be his only possessions. In a moment he had settled Tasmin in the front of the pirogue and quickly moved the small craft toward the middle of the river: they were on their way to catch up with Tasmin’s wandering kin.
As there was only one paddle, and Mr. Snow had it . . .
As there was only one paddle, and Mr. Snow had it, Tasmin could be of little assistance—she sat idly in the front of the pirogue, in a mood of indecision. Her oarsman soon demonstrated a keen eye, easily anticipating sandbars and hidden trees, obstacles he skirted with a few flicks of the paddle.
The fact was that Tasmin didn’t much want to return to the steamer Rocky Mount, and yet, when she considered the matter from the point of view of logic, it became readily evident that she had little choice. Only two hours earlier, a naked Amazon exalted by the prairie dawn, she had resolved to cut all ties, to accept such fugitive company as the prairies might offer, to roam free and roam forever. She liked it that the country was so unsettled; on her native isle quite the reverse applied. Everything was settled, including the matrimonial futures of herself and all her sisters, all sure to be married off to such pasty lords as could afford their dowries. Lord Berrybender regarded his daughters as being little more than two-legged cattle—they were taught the little that they were taught so that they could more swiftly marry and mate.
Cleansed by the Missouri’s water, thrilled by Western sunlight, Tasmin had for a moment supposed herself deliciously free, a notion of which Jim Snow quickly disabused her. The fact was she had no kit, not even shoes. Though she had scarcely covered fifty yards on shore her feet had already been stuck with burrs and stickers, her ankles scratched by stiff prairie weeds, and her calves attacked by an invisible burrowing mite which produced a most aggravating itch. The mite, Mr. Snow informed her, was called a chigger—he advised her to apply mud poultices to her itching legs, a remedy Tasmin adopted with some reluctance, since it rather cut against her vanity.
Tasmin had never before had to consider what a difference shoes made. Barefoot, she could have walked across half of England; in the rough Missouri country the same two feet would barely have taken her a mile.
Of course, with a little effort she could easily acquire kit: shoes, blankets, skillets, guns. Various servants would be only too happy to escape Lord Berrybender’s incessant demands. Tim, the stable boy, whose crude embraces her sister Bess was occasionally disposed to accept, could be stolen in an instant. Vanity led Tasmin to suppose that she could easily tempt half the party; but the fact was, she didn’t want any of the party. She wanted this New World to herself, and yet the morning’s mild exercise had demonstrated only too forcefully that she lacked not merely the equipment but also the skills to master it. Though she had seen foals birthed and cattle butchered she could not easily have extracted that delicious liver from the doe; though she did believe she could have eventually made a fire, by working along Cooperish lines.
Her companion, Jim Snow—Sin Killer, or the Raven Brave, depending on his location or his mood—was not an easy man to make conversation with. He rowed; he didn’t talk. The long silence, broken only by the occasional slap of a wave or call of a bird to break it, contributed to Tasmin’s low mood. For a time she thought seriously of jumping out and swimming away: better to drown than to go back; and yet, with the water so shallow, she would probably merely have bogged, a ridiculous comeuppance to one so wedded to extremes. And thanks to the chiggers, she had quite enough mud on her legs anyway.
“How long will it take us to catch up with that wretched steamer?” she asked, finally. Jim Snow had rowed steadily, and yet the river ahead was empty as far as the eye could see.
“If they slip through the riffles we won’t catch ’em today,” he said. “If they stick we might.”
Tasmin had not considered that their pursuit of the lost steamer might mean a night spent on the river, or the prairie, with her rescuer, Mr. Snow. That prospect did not worry her particularly; she was mainly desirous of securing a less muddy dress.
“Once they figure out you’re missing I expect they’ll send a boat back for you,” he said. “Some of them Frenchies are pretty good boatmen. They might show up and get you home for supper.”
Tasmin doubted that any such expedient would occur. Lord Berrybender considered his oldest daughter such a marvel of self-reliance that he might consider a rescue attempt superfluous, presumptuous even.
“What, Tasmin missing? . . . Why, I expect she’s only picnicking . . . Might take offense if we harass her . . . bound to show up in a day or two . . . No need to worry about Tasmin . . .”
Some such, she felt sure, would be her father’s response, if the fact of her absence was conclusively determined—after which His Lordship would take a little snuff; Lady B., meanwhile, would tuck into a great beefsteak, washed down by a bottle or two of claret. The wine would soon numb whatever anxiety she might feel about Tasmin, which was not likely to be excessive, anyway: after all, Master Stiles had been hers until Tasmin grew up and caught his eye; the years had not yet much abated the bitterness of Lady Berrybender’s jealousy.
Danger Tasmin didn’t much mind—it was ennui she despised. Mr. Snow’s long silences left her increasingly bored, a condition she could endure only so long without protest.
“Look here, Mr. Snow,” she said, when she had had good and enough. “I fear I am taking you a dreadful distance off our route. I am quite a competent rower, when it comes to that. Why don’t we put into shore? You can go your way and I’ll just row along until I come up with the boat.”
Tasmin’s frank speech startled Jim Snow greatly. He looked at her briefly, and then turned and gave close inspection to the western shore of the river. Then, rather to Tasmin’s mystification, he pointed to the sky, empty except for a great flock of birds, winging so high above them that Tasmin could but faintly hear their call—rather an odd, whistling call it was.
“It’s the swans—they’re coming in,” he said.
“So they may be, but I don’t see that it affects our situation,” Tasmin told him. “You need go no farther out of your way. I’m quite sure I can get back to the steamer on my own.”
“No,” he said, and went on rowing, as if his mere denial was all the explanation needed, in which regard he reckoned without the notable obstinacy of the de Burys—obstinacy enough to have carried them through three Crusades.
“Explain,” Tasmin demanded, speaking quite sharply.
Jim Snow frowned.
“Explain!” she repeated, even more fiercely this time.
“We’re close by the Swamp of the Swans,” he said, with another gesture toward the high whistling birds, whose long necks were outstretched. “When the swans come the Osage come too, and there’s plenty of Osage in these parts even when the swans ain’t nesting. If the Osage get you, you’d be in for worse than chiggers, I guess. They’d sell you to some slaver who’d haul you off to Mexico, if you lasted that long.”
The steamer Rocky Mount was rife with just such rumors of rapine and kidnap. The only common ground Fräulein Pfretzskaner and Mademoiselle Pellenc had been able to find was a shared fear of abduction by red Indians. Even the haughty Venetia Kennet could be reduced to a jelly of apprehension by the mere suggestion of the ravishment she could expect to suffer should her fair form ever fall into savage hands. Lord Berrybender, though hardly wishing his daughters to adorn the harems of Comanche or Kickapoo, nonetheless saw the matter mainly in practical terms: that is, the prospect of greatly reduced dowries should rumors of these ravishments follow them all back to England.
Having come so recently to the country, Tasmin hardly knew how to assess this threat—it was a fair summer day, and except for the gliding swans, not a creature was visible on the whole huge plain to the west. Having spent one of the most restful nights of her life sleeping alone in the pirogue, she could not persuade herself that any such woeful captivity was imminent; and yet she knew that she had much to learn about this New World. Mr. Cooper’s books had said nothing about grass burrs, scratchy weeds, or chiggers.
The Raven Brave, as Tasmin now liked to think of him, was clearly knowledgeable. It had taken him only a few minutes to find a deer and kill it. Now he seemed to consider it his duty to protect her, an attitude she would have been happier to accept if she could have detected in it some tendril of fondness, of liking, of hot lust, even. She was, after all, a woman whose nakedness he had glimpsed. If he was only going to think of her as a duty, she felt she might prefer to take her chances with the Osage. A duty—a mere duty—she did not care to be.
“I don’t fear the Indians, Mr. Snow,” she said. “I’d prefer to put you ashore now—I’ve wasted enough of your time.”
Jim Snow looked at her as if she had gone daft.
“You ain’t got good sense—just hush about it,” he said.
Tasmin found the remark peculiarly irritating, since among her own family she had long been applauded for the very quality Mr. Snow claimed she lacked: good sense.
“You are entirely wrong, sir!” Tasmin retorted hotly; but before she could refute his silly assertion a wild yodeling commenced on the near shore and a bullet whacked into the side of the pirogue, just above the waterline. The plain that only a moment before had seemed so empty now sported a host of more or less naked, vividly painted savages, all of them screaming and shrieking in their fury. Several of them rushed into the water, brandishing hatchets and knives, a development that prompted the Raven Brave to at once turn the pirogue and row as rapidly as possible toward the opposite shore. A second bullet skipped off the water just beside the boat, but was the last. Distance rapidly grew between themselves and their attackers. Several savages on horses had arrived at the western shore, but they didn’t enter the water.
Mr. Snow seemed no more concerned by this little attack than if it had been a sudden gusty wind or squall of rain. Though his comment about Tasmin’s lack of good sense had been immediately driven home, he himself seemed to have forgotten it. Tasmin felt, for the oddest moment, that she had stepped off the steamer Rocky Mount right into a Cooper novel, with Mr. Snow as Hawkeye, a man well equipped to protect her from the harsh inconveniences she would be sure to suffer if captured by the red men. He now seemed to be making for a low bluff on the eastern bank of the river; the Osage, if such they were, were now mere dots on the western shore.
“Bravo! I do believe we’ve eluded them,” Tasmin said, when the boat reached the shallows.
“Not yet . . . there’s plenty of them on this side too,” Mr. Snow said. He hastily pulled the pirogue out of the water, took his rifle, bow, and haunch of deer meat, grabbed Tasmin’s hand, and urged her to a breakneck run along the muddy shore, their goal, it seemed, being the little bluff she had noticed as they crossed the river.
Tasmin thought such haste to be unnecessary until she heard a babel of shrieks just behind them and looked around to see four more savages, painted in yellows and blues, giving hot chase, hatchets in their hands.
The Raven Brave was confident of his tactics, though. They raced to the little bluff, where, quickly cupping his hands and indicating that Tasmin was to step in them, he hoisted her atop an immense boulder at the foot of the bluff, after which he turned and faced the Osage, then some hundred yards away. Tasmin expected him to shoot them, or at least loose an arrow or two, but instead, mildly amused, he pointed at the cliff above them, whereupon the Indians stopped as abruptly as if they had run into a wall. The painted faces that, a moment before, had been contorted with fury now wore looks of uncertainty, or even dejection. From being wild killers they became, in an instant, stumpy Pierrots, clowns in a show that had somehow gone wrong.
When they stopped, the Sin Killer’s eyes became flint again and he hurled a great cry at his pursuers, a violent ululating cry in a language Tasmin knew not. The Osage quickly passed from dejection to terror—they immediately ran away, disappearing into the underbrush where they had been hiding before the attack began.
Tasmin made no attempt to conceal her astonishment: they had been surprised, they had been chased, and now they had been saved—she felt extreme excitement but not much fear. Her companion of the day, the Sin Killer, was evidently more than a match for the painted Osage. On this occasion he had been content to frighten the Indians away, but had it been necessary to kill one or all of them, she had no doubt he would have done just that.
His face still reflected the violence of his expression; but, once the Osage were clearly gone, his face cleared, his eyes softened, he became mild Mr. Jim Snow again—he pointed above her at a kind of drawing on a rock that extruded from the little bluff. Tasmin could just see that some crude figures had been traced on the rock face, stick men of the sort that a child might draw, except that these stick men sprouted antlers or horns from their heads. There was also a sketch of a shadowy four-legged beast of some kind, perhaps a mammoth or great mastodon—one such, Mr. Catlin claimed, had been excavated from a bed of loam not far down the river.
“The Osage won’t come here—not close, anyway,” Jim Snow said. “They think devils live on this hill.”
“You seem to have addressed them quite positively,” Tasmin said. He reached up a hand to help her climb down.
“They were so hot to take our hair they forgot about the devils,” Jim said. “I reminded them.”
His comment was a little startling, but Tasmin slid down the big rock anyway and followed her companion back along the muddy shore toward the pirogue, wondering what new surprises the coming night might bring.
The swans were whistling, high overhead.
At sunset a rain squall struck—the river threw up a dense mist, the sun sank into it, and a little later, a glorious rainbow arched over the river. Jim Snow improvised a modest shelter by turning the pirogue over and propping one end of it against a rock. Rain blew spittings of water under the boat and into Tasmin’s face, but despite it, Jim Snow managed to bank a fire against the same useful rock. The raindrops fizzed into the fire, but the fire survived; the showers ceased in time for Tasmin to enjoy a long afterglow, as many-colored as the rainbow, lasting until the river was touched with starlight.
Jim Snow—or the Raven Brave—seemed completely indifferent to the weather. The rain did not dismay him nor the rainbow delight him. By the time the dripping pieces of venison had been cooked and eaten—and prairie frights had in no way diminished Tasmin’s appetite—Jim Snow busied himself by whittling a new plug for his powder horn. During the meal he completely eschewed speech, as if meals and talk could not possibly happen at the same time. He had a little salt in a pouch—Tasmin asked if she might share it—her request constituted the whole sum of their mealtime conversation. In the course of four months in America Tasmin had become fairly reconciled to American practicality, but she had never met as fine an example of the purely practical man as her companion, Jim Snow. Whatever was needed—of a physical nature—he did at once, with a certain grace and a fine economy of motion. He wasted no effort and contributed no words.
This young frontiersman Tasmin found herself traveling with was to her altogether a new species of male, quite unlike any she had ever known. Whether she proved to be Berrybender or de Bury, she was an English lady of noble lineage, a fact which had always produced a certain measure of diffidence in her suitors—social inferiors, many of them. Even Master Tobias Stiles, after tupping her vigorously in old Charlemagne’s stall, still addressed her as “my lady” when they were finished. Such contradiction as she occasionally met with in men was usually offered cautiously—her temper had made itself respected throughout the Berrybender household. Even Lord Berrybender himself seldom challenged his spirited eldest daughter.
In their long day on the river Tasmin had offered only one or two opinions, but Jim Snow had casually disregarded even those few. He clearly felt under no obligation to respect, or even listen to, her views. He said his “no” and that was that. Frustrated, Tasmin tried her best to come up with a question she might ask that he would not resent, and after due deliberation, thought that she might just risk an inquiry about the swans.
Tasmin sat under the uptilted pirogue, Jim Snow on the other side of the fire, his face now in shadow, now in light. He was concentrated so on his task—fitting the new plug into the powder horn—that he seemed almost to have forgotten Tasmin’s presence.
“Was it the swans that particularly aroused the Osage?” she ventured to ask. “I’m curious. Would they have let us pass, had there been no swans?”
Jim Snow looked up for a moment—the question, at least, seemed to interest him.
“It would depend on what band it was, and who was leading them,” he reflected, his face tilted slightly to one side. It was a handsome face too, though his long irregular hair and rather scraggly beard could both have done with a trimming, Tasmin felt.
“There’s a good market now for swan feathers—the white feathers, anyway,” he said. “The Osage trade ’em for guns—the beaver’s long been trapped out. They don’t want the same to happen to the swans.”
Even to Tasmin’s Old World brain that made sense. A tribe that had lost their profitable beaver might be expected to be violently protective of their profitable swans.
“Was that Osage you yelled at them, this afternoon?” Tasmin asked. “I confess I have never heard such a strange tongue spoken—though we are a regular tower of Babel on our boat.”
“That was the Word of Jehovah,” Jim Snow said.
“Goodness, are you a minister, then?” Tasmin asked, in genuine surprise. “Do you have a regular parish out here on the prairies?”
Jim Snow shook his head.
“The Word just comes out sometimes, when there’s heathens that need to hear it or sinners that need to be warned,” he said. “I don’t preach it in church.”
“Well, if that was the Word, it impressed me, I must say,” Tasmin said. “Where did you learn your theology, Mr. Snow?”
Now that the first faint traces of conversation had been produced she hoped to encourage it—blow on it, feed it grass, anything to keep her host from lapsing back into one of his long silences.
But the word stumped him—he had evidently never heard it before.
“My what?” he asked.
“It’s from the Greek theologos, one who studies the beliefs in the various gods,” Tasmin said, hoping she was not being too inaccurate. She thought a tiny display of learning might intrigue Mr. Snow, but in this her miscalculation proved severe. In a moment the young man’s face darkened, became the face of the Sin Killer, and he whipped his hand toward her and gave her such a ringing slap as she had never experienced before, at the hand of man or woman.
“You hush now—don’t be talking blasphemous lies!” he said sternly. “There’s only one God and Jehovah is his name.”
Tasmin was so startled by the sudden slap that she could only sit in astonishment, one hand raised to her burning cheek. The slap rocked her, and yet she had instinct enough to recognize that the slap was nothing to the violence the Sin Killer might unleash if he were really in a mood to punish. Despite the sting, and the surprise, Tasmin made a mighty effort to remain calm. Her bosom may have heaved, but she did not allow herself to speak until she had sufficiently mastered her emotions to be able to address the Sin Killer in level tones.
“But Mr. Snow, I was only defining a word,” she informed him. “In my country few preachers teach themselves. I only wanted to ask where you learned your doctrines.”
“From Preacher Cockerell—he and his wife bought me from the Osage,” Jim Snow said. “Preacher Cockerell needed someone to tend his stock.”
His face had cleared—he spoke mildly again, but he didn’t apologize to Tasmin for slapping her. Mention of a multiplicity of gods was evidently sufficient to merit a slap; and that was that. Now it had emerged that he had been practically raised by the Osage—how that came about Tasmin did not feel bold enough to inquire.
“We English are very forward,” she said lightly. “When I meet someone I like—and I do like you—I cannot help wanting to know a bit more about them.”
“Being nosy,” Jim Snow said, with a look of amusement. “That’s what I’d call it.”
“Yes, that’s fair, I suppose,” Tasmin said. “Being nosy. I take it that you can read the Bible, since you preach.”
At this he looked a trifle discomfited.
“Preacher Cockerell taught me my letters,” he said. “But then he got lightning-struck and killed before I could finish my learning. When it comes to the Bible I can mostly puzzle out the verses, but I get tangled up in some of the names.”
He reached into a small pouch that hung from his belt and pulled out a much-tattered and clearly incomplete Bible, bound in flaking sheepskin, which he handed to Tasmin. It seemed to please him that she took an interest in his religious calling.
“Had to tear out a few pages, when I didn’t have nothing else to start a fire with,” he said, evidently embarrassed by the rather riddled appearance of his book. Tasmin was moved that he would care to show her this humble article—it went some way toward making up for the slap.
“Well, there’s Genesis, at least . . . and you’ve still got the Psalmist . . . and here’s Solomon’s songs,” she said. Jim Snow was watching her closely; she did not want to give the impression that she scorned his one treasured book.
“I don’t preach out of the book—I just preach the Word that’s in me,” the young man said, with some intensity. “Preacher Cockerell was a fornicator—when the Lord called down the lightning bolt that killed him I was standing close enough that the bolt knocked me nearly thirty feet. I didn’t wake up for three days, but when I did wake up the Word was in me. It’s been in me ever since.”
“What an astonishing story!” Tasmin said, and she meant it. Being riven by a lightning bolt might make a preacher of many a man.
“I mean to get a whole Bible, someday, when I’ve got the money,” he said.
“My goodness, we have many Bibles with us,” Tasmin said. “If we ever catch up with the boat I’d be happy to give you one, as a small token of gratitude for all the trouble you’ve taken on my behalf.”
She meant it too—nothing could be easier than to make him a present of a Bible. And yet when she said it the Raven Brave drew back, as if she had made an immodest suggestion. The swans were whistling, high overhead. Without another word this strange young man whose motives so perplexed her stood up, took his rifle, and prepared to leave the camp, actions that quite distressed her.
“Oh, Mr. Snow, don’t leave—it was just a thought,” Tasmin said. “Am I to be allowed no generosity, where you are concerned?”
“You’re too much of a talker—get some sleep,” he said, before being swallowed up by the humid darkness. Tasmin was left alone, in her muddy dress, with a sputtering fire and the call of swans from the high heavens. The Raven Brave’s departure was so sudden that she felt like crying—indeed, a few tears of frustration did fall. Tasmin, who had long been cosseted by myriad English softnesses, was now in a country where nothing was soft except the mud of the damnable river; and the least soft thing in the whole country, it seemed to her, was the young man who had just slapped her face. There were several lustful gentlemen of her acquaintance whom she could have probably driven to cuff her, had she been disposed to test their mettle; but Jim Snow’s slap bespoke a hardness of an entirely different order, one so decisive that she felt quite sure she would never be moved to utter the word “theology” in his company again.
Sitting under the boat in the darkness, hearing the crackle of the fire, Tasmin felt quite alone. Her brain was racing so that she could not sleep. The night before, stretched out in the pirogue, she had been quite settled in her emotions and had slept deeply; but now her feeling surged this way and that, erratic as the Missouri’s waves. Once or twice she had thought Mr. Snow was coming almost to like her, but then her tumbling speech, which she seemed unable to control, spilled out in some comment that turned his liking to distaste, if not worse.
Tasmin had rarely experienced a frustration equal to what she felt on that muddy prairie beach, and the worst of it was that this exasperating man had done the most aggravating thing that a man could do: he simply left. He was gone: she had no one to plead with, rail against, slap, kiss, anything. He was gone. Tasmin stared into the darkness; she listened to the whistle of the swans, to the yipping of coyotes, and to what may or may not have been the cough of a buffalo. There were rustlings in the underbrush that might have been made by snakes or raccoons, by deer or antelope, by Osage or Kickapoo—she was certainly no scholar of the sounds of a prairie night. She turned, she squirmed, she stretched, but she did not get any sleep.
There she sat—muddy, barefoot, with no kit . . .
It was pitch-dark, the only light being the faint glow of a few dying coals, when Tasmin gave a start and opened her eyes. The space above her had changed—where the pirogue had been was only high starlight. Mr. Snow was carrying the pirogue to the river. Tasmin’s limbs were just then feeling intolerably heavy with sleep—she wanted to sleep so badly that she was almost hoping Mr. Snow would just leave her, but he didn’t.
“Let’s go,” he said, and he led her by her hand down the slimy, slippery slope to the river. The pirogue he pushed well out into the stream before slipping into it himself and taking the oar. Tasmin yawned; now that her protector was back she felt deeply sleepy.
When she woke again the morning mist was so dense that she could only just see Mr. Snow, a ghostly form plying his paddle from the rear of the pirogue. Tasmin could gain no idea of where they stood in relation to the river’s shores. Except for the very slight suck of Mr. Snow’s paddle, she heard no sounds at all. No birds called, no fish leapt, no wolves howled, no buffaloes coughed. Mr. Snow somehow apprehended the angular limbs of a dead tree just ahead of them and managed to turn the pirogue so as to slip past it. Tasmin recalled Mr. Catlin’s pun about the river Sticks and had to admit that it was rather apt. So indistinct were their surroundings that they might indeed be rowing to Hades, a thought she decided not to express to the Sin Killer, who might think it punishingly pagan.
They proceeded thus—silent and invisible—for perhaps an hour when the mist began to glow above them—soon sunlight filtered through, and the blue sky appeared, though colonies of mist still ranged along the distant riverbanks.
“I reckon yonder’s your steamer,” Jim Snow said.
He pointed, but a last line of mist drifted above the water—even when it cleared, Tasmin could not, at first, see the steamer Rocky Mount, at this point still several miles ahead; the best she could produce was a kind of dancing dot, far north on the water. Her blindness seemed to amuse Mr. Snow; or it may have been that the prospect of getting rid of such a talkative person had put him in a good humor—he even smiled at Tasmin.
“I guess you’ve just come out of the woods,” he said. “Takes a while for woods folks to get to where they can see sharp on the prairies.”
“There might be another reason why I refuse to see that boat—a reason that has nothing to do with eyesight,” Tasmin said.
Jim Snow merely looked at her—he did not inquire about what the other reason might be. The wind had come up; it sighed across the prairie grasses, and the very sighing seemed to push Tasmin’s spirits down. There she sat—muddy, barefoot, with no kit—and yet the downcast feeling that filled her breast had only one cause: she did not want to go back aboard the steamer Rocky Mount, to the idle frivolity of the Berrybender ménage, to the vast meals, to Mr. Catlin’s dry cackle, to her mother’s drunkenness, or Bobbety’s whining, or Buffum’s gross amour with Tim, the stable boy. Every day Mademoiselle Pellenc would call Fräulein Pfretzskaner a German slut; Fräulein, in turn, would call Mademoiselle a French whore. The tutors, the gunsmith, the botan