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.
© 2004 Larry McMurtry