Pierre’s Hole (present-day Idaho), 1840
She watches the men from the shadow of the lodge as they play for silver coins. They play not with sticks but with little pictures—throwing them down, then scooping them up again, roaring with joy or fury. One with sunflower hair fakes a cough and slips another picture from beneath his shirt. The other soyapo trapper sees it too and shouts and tries to stand, but he’s too full of drink and cannot balance. Grunts fly from his lips as he falls back; a man from her own village slaps his chest and falls down laughing.
Catherine Baptiste laughs too, quietly to herself, at their stupidity. She grabs her little brother and moves, weaving through the tumult of the trading rendezvous. She can’t see the sky for the smoke from all the campfires. The fires are fewer than the stars but still lie thick upon the ground, stretching up the night-time valley. Tipis and trappers’ tents rise to the pines that edge the hills; the smells of baking dough and roasting meat bring juices to her mouth. Alexander drags behind her, he too licking his small lips.
They look for their father from camp to camp, stopping to watch a chained wolf on its hind legs straining for a lump of heart, and then a round of stamping dancers in their feather anklets. Each group claims a section of the valley: their father’s Company in the middle on the river; the Bostons to the south; their mother’s people to the north beside the willow cover of the feeder streams. She expects to find Baptiste, her father, upright and prancing, recounting his tales to the rest of the half-starved men like him who’ve dropped out of the mountains, desperate to see another living soul. But he’s not with the whitemen. Here he squats in a nimíipuu camp, a battered stump of a man much shorter than the others. Even so he’s always moving, grinning, showing his bad teeth, his right hand wiggling like a snake. Catherine’s cousin Eagle from the Light is here too, acting big, although he isn’t that much older: hollowing his cheeks and trying to impress the whitemen hunkered in the firelit ring.
She knows better than to interrupt her father in the middle of a story. Suddenly Baptiste leaps. “Ai-yah!” He mimes the mountain lion, brown eyes shining in his rough chapped face. For all the lankness of his long dark hair, the scar along his jaw, she thinks him handsome. He’s Iroquois and French and can sniff scat at half a mile. “I seen it sur montagne, this big!” His muscled arms fly out. His daughter glances at the men who watch, whitemen from his Company: one old, one young, both hairy as the beaver. She gauges coolly how they see him. His speech is comical, a hash of French and Mohawk, Chinook-wawa. They call him “Coquin” — rascal. But they are riveted, it seems, and she feels pride that he can hold their gaze so tightly.
She needs to ride up to the Salish camp. Baptiste won’t mind, so long as he knows where she goes. Soon everyone will leave this place—each group upon its different path. Her stomach tightens then, with eagerness and fear. For the first time she’ll ride with her father to trap, and not with her mother to the plains. It’s nearly time to say farewell. But this is not the only reason she wants to go. The truth is she has never seen a Black Robe.
None of them have—which is why the Bitterroot Salish and Q’lispé have come in such great numbers to the rendezvous this year. They’ll take these new priests from the sunrise to their homes. It’s said they’ll bring the white god’s power to their people. Catherine wants to see if they look powerful—if the strong medicine the Black Robes’ god possesses can be seen on their faces, or touched, or felt. If she doesn’t get up there soon, she’ll miss it all.
“When—” She finally darts in, pulling at her father’s sleeve. “When do we leave?”
Baptiste blinks at his daughter. She is sixteen summers old, born in spring like a foal, and like a foal for many years all limbs and awkward speed. Now, suddenly, she looks much older. “Après demain,” he says, pulling her into the circle, Alexander dragging behind. “You know my girl,” he says to Eagle from the Light, who tilts his head and steps toward her.
“I see Lam’tama teeth and eyes,” her cousin says, approval in his voice. He names their grandmother’s band, nimíipuu of the Salmon River canyon. Despite herself Catherine stands taller, although she doesn’t see much resemblance: her cousin’s eyes are gray; his face is long, while hers is rounder. Still they share the same square jaw and long clean bones, and kinship with a chief is a great honor. She nods and glances sidelong at Baptiste. Now can she go?
But he has turned to the whitemen, hand still clamped upon her arm. “Gentlemen,” he says. “My children.” The old one is covered in gray fur like moss; the younger one tries to stand, lips red as a boil erupting from a nest of shaggy hair, his whole face covered but the nose and eyes, the brown hairs twitching as he pushes out some words—nimíipuu words. All she can think is that it’s like watching a dog talk, or a fox. She covers her own mouth to hide her laughter.
T’ac haláxp, he’s saying, and the man beside her cousin points up at the crust of moon and grins.
T’ac kuéewit, her cousin responds gravely. “Kuéewit is evening, haláxp afternoon.”
“Ah. Many thanks.” The trader takes a paper from his vest, then a stick, and scratches for a moment. She stares while his face is turned down; never has she seen such fur upon men’s faces. This is the same one who watched them racing earlier, she on her roan against her cousin’s buckskin and the Bostons’ stocky horses. He yelled as they barreled past. Afterward she noticed how he looked at her. This is the first summer that men have looked at her like that.
“Papa,” she says, turning and shaking his hand from her arm. If Alexander falls asleep, she’ll have to tie him to her horse.
“Kitalah wants her mother,” her cousin says mockingly, as if she were a child. Catherine cuts him with her eyes. She’s as powerful as he, more powerful perhaps. She has two names, two sides, two pieces to her being, while he has only one. She’s Catherine from her father and the Black Robes in the eastern lands from which he comes, and she’s Tipyelenah Kitalah from the Clearwater village of the nimíipuu, whom the French call Nez Percé, though none have ever pierced their noses. She doesn’t know what Catherine means, but in her mother’s tongue she is the Eagle Rising Up.
Baptiste lets her go, and she can breathe, shaking the whitemen’s odor from her skin and nose.
The three peaks they call the Three Teats rise to the east; even in the dark she sees them glowing. It gives her a strange feeling—to see them for the first time, and think that it might also be the last. Danger will be everywhere along their journey, her father has warned. They’ve been feasting and racing for half a moon, but she’s impatient now: she’s old enough to help him trap the fat old beaver. The way will be slow and hot, all down the Colorado. A long time ago, beaver plugged up every stream here, Baptiste says, but now their mountains are trapped out. The Company will trap a long way to the south, maybe even to the sea. Catherine cannot picture what this means, the sea.
There are crowds and crowds around the little man who wears the Black Robe to his toes. He’s a most ugly man: short and with a mean face like the sparrow hawk. His long nose hooks, his mouth draws down. He brings them Jesus, Son of God, he calls to them in French. The people cluster toward him, pushing, trying to touch his robe. “The Lord Jesus died for you,” he calls.
It makes no sense. God is not dead. Catherine feels the breath snort from her nose. The Father Spirit made this earth, and this earth listens to him still. She need not listen to this Black Robe, she decides. Kicking the roan, she turns to find her mother and sister.
Angus McDonald barely slept the night before, afraid he’d packed the horses wrong or forgot to clean his gun or shine his boots: a thousand other ways he might have failed. But now, at last, he’s here. Two years—two years!—of drudgery before he wrangled free, escaped his uncle’s farm. And finally he’s trading with red Indians for fur. He squats among them, sucks their pipe and hands it round. He feels his face on fire and does his best to hold his joy in, to keep his eyes from shining. He knows he’s here to work: these are the men he’ll deal with. He’ll have to learn to bargain hard. But even so it’s hard to stay aloof, so brightly does this fire burn, and the brandy, and the song. And then it comes to him: why should I? For after everything that has gone wrong, this feels entirely right.
This afternoon when they arrived, like some medieval army—all banners and clatter and beasts—he and Captain Grant set out to meet the trappers who would swap their pelts for goods or scrip. A haze hung over the bowl of Pierre’s Hole, but even so Angus counted hundreds, thousands of people. And speckling the far hills nearly black, like oceans of ants, were the natives’ horse herds. He brushed his beard in the glass hung on a branch, and his new Chief Trader laughed, though not unkindly.
“They’ll not be looking at your teeth, lad, I assure you.” Grant raised one hoary eyebrow. It wouldn’t be young Angus McDonald they saw—eager, untested, brave, a trifle vain—but a representative of the Company of Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay. Angus thinks now it was that one word—adventurers—that cinched it, when in panic his father and brother cast about for a way to save his hide. He resisted, of course—he was no poacher, though the laird would see the thing that way. But they bundled him onto a ship, and he clung to that word through the Atlantic gales, the northern ice, the months of loneliness. As if he were only hibernating all that time, like the massive gray-backed bear he saw in that first long winter. Now adventure is at hand; he too wears the trader’s bright red waistband. As soon as Captain Grant spied their flag, a roar went up among the men who waited, all of them trappers for the Hudson’s Bay.
“Well, fellows,” Grant hollered, “I’ve seen perkier mules, and that’s the truth. It looks to me like you could use some sousing.”
Amid the cheers Angus eyed the height and breadth of each of them: some tall, some squat, most dark with long black hair, part Indian at least, all wearing stained fringed buckskin, shirts that hadn’t seen a piece of soap in years. He thought of Big Michel, the tall French Cree who’d steered his boat the whole way down the Columbia. Angus thought him magnificent, that mixed-blood voyageur: powerfully muscled, graceful, seemingly fearless. The entire summer it took to get from York Factory to his uncle’s place at Fort Colvile in the Oregon country, Angus was taken by the voyageurs’ songs, throats beating out the time to flashing paddles, stories they told in the night in their strange mix of tongues. They were as wild and beautiful as this continent itself, the vast overpowering spread of peaks and forests rushing past on either side. And here now he’s found the same strange crew, a riotous mix seemingly sprouted from the ground, only these are trappers and not steersmen. He ought to have seen it sooner, he thinks: this whole Company is French and Indian at its base, with just a thin white scrape of icing at the top, which is the Scots.
Captain Grant is a Highlander too, from Argyll, though he isn’t captain of anything as far as Angus can see. It’s simply a mark of honor. Grant is also a widower, a gray-haired veteran of more winters than Angus cares to imagine in the howling frozen north, before this posting to the arid southern desert of Fort Hall. Shipped to the very edge of Hell, the Chief Trader observed dryly when they met on the boat from Fort Colvile to Fort Boisé. Their job, apparently, was to hold the Company’s southeastern flank against the damned Yankee trappers—not just the Missouri firms but the lousy freemen who had no allegiance to a body but themselves. These were the vermin they’d find at the rendezvous, competing for the diminishing beaver with their own men, the Chief Trader added when, not a week later, he gave the order to set out.
Now, at the fire, Angus drifts. He hears distant drumming and thinks hazily that he should have brought his bagpipes. They’d match these reedy flutes, the rising, falling voices. If only Duncan and Maggie could see him now, and Father and Mother. What letters he will write, to light their Dingwall nights. He watches the faces and hands, the lean handsome bodies, shining in the heat of summer and the fire. He’ll note their gestures, their habits, practice the words he’s already learned. The little trapper called Baptiste barks and leaps.
Buffalo steaks sizzle, and Angus wolfs the steaming meat. His body and mind are still stunned by the wonder of it all. Such a country they traversed to get here, how these peaks soar, jagged, scraping at the sky, their sharp tips glistening like fangs. The hills of Ross-shire can’t hold a candle to these mountains. His heart hasn’t stopped hammering for the whole three days—and not just because they ran into Shoshone the first day out. He still smells the scorching needled understory where they waited to be murdered, hands slick on their pistols—only to marvel at how smoothly Captain Grant turned those warriors into docile buyers, eagerly fingering the knives and awls and copper pots, as if it took only one swoop of his magic cloak. Angus McDonald got a bona fide lesson in the fur business right there, in a wide spot on the Snake River trail, the way he sees it.
Grant made a beeline for a Nez Perce camp, though, on this first night. These Indians are even greater hunters, he said, furnishers of the most valuable pelts: lynx and mink and cougar and elk. And buffalo. Angus has yet to chase that mighty beast, but he too is a hunter, and his fingers itch to try.
Baptiste cavorts like a Hogmanay acrobat until he stops abruptly, as though his spring’s wound down. Two youngsters hang at the edge of the light, and he plucks at the older one, a girl. “My children,” he says proudly. They shrink—both dark but fine-featured, nothing like their cussed-looking father. Something in the way the girl twists reminds Angus of his sister, and it pierces him: how terribly he misses his gaggle of brothers and sisters, cousins, racing up the creeks and braes. Perhaps this is partly why he’s swelled all day with happiness, he thinks. The place is heaving with families. The gimlet-eyed trappers and mountain men don’t attract him half as much as the natives in their clans, their bands: the grannies, babes, and mothers, and the throngs of children screeching as they run around. He watched them gamble, wrestle, race their horses—hanging onto one another, laughing, tossing what were surely insults, in the teasing way that families do. The only kin he’s seen in two whole years are Uncle Archibald and Aunt Jenny’s little brood. Instinctively he bends forward, searching for words. Archibald said he needed only a few phrases, but Angus, as always, begged to differ. He applied himself all last winter to the Salish tongue and the Sahaptin spoken by the Nez Perce and the other plateau tribes.
When he forms the words, he hears one laugh. If at first you don’t succeed, his gram always said, try, try, try again. The young Nez Perce who corrects him is courteous, at least. Captain Grant rouses himself and says he’ll roll up now, though Angus ought to stick around. A fur-trading rendezvous is a young man’s business.
Proof comes a short while later, when three Yankee trappers stumble in, hollering hello at Baptiste. They’re drunk as all hell, but one with a bullet for a head, big pouched eyes, and a flaming red beard manages to plant his bowlegs and slur, “Well, here’s a new pup.” He seizes Angus’s hand in a crunching grip.
“Jesus, can’t they think of anything but Mac?” The fellow grins, hoping for applause, but the others have already cozied up to Baptiste’s jug. “Joe Meek, free trapper,” he goes on. “Care to join us in our great debauch?”
Debauch! The word alone brings a grin to Angus’s lips. “Who could resist so elegant an invitation?” This mountain man may look thick but is clearly not. Over the next few hours Angus hears such a fountain of ha’penny locutions that he feels compelled to ask: “Where on earth did you learn all that?”
Meek pulls Angus to him by the scruff of the neck. “Same place you will, m’boy, marooned as we are, hurled by the icy hand of fate into our isolated caves.” He grins, looking pleased with himself. Trappers mostly work alone, or in pairs, he explains, and stash their books where they can, waterlogged and dog-eared in their winter shelters for the next poor slob to find. Not junk, you understand, but the great authors: Byron, Cooper, Scott.
“After my own heart,” says Angus, marveling. “If I should meet thee, after years…”
“Oh Lord.” Meek turns toward his fellows. “A regular minstrel we have here.” Only then does Angus notice that the fellow is missing his right ear, replaced by a bright ring of red scar like the wattle on a cock.
“No gawking now.” Meek whacks him gently. “You should have seen the bear.”
Thus, in the way of these things, they’re pledged to a shooting match before the night is out. The next morning, even with a wicked pain in his brain, Angus doesn’t regret it. He has no doubt that he can best him. Marksmanship, after all, is his great skill. Sardine tins on a distant stump are all he needs, and Hoolahan, his rifle, more precious even than his pipes: thirty-two inches of gleaming Baker barrel, accurate to three hundred yards.
Meek goes first and knocks the thing to kingdom come. A new tin is procured. Angus squeezes off the shot, hitting his target with such clean propulsion that the tin spins once and wobbles but stays standing. He re-primes the pan and puts the next bullet in the same splayed hole. Meek is staring down the distance, his thick lips pursed. He shakes his head and announces deadpan, holding up a hand: “Game’s over, fellas. There’s no contest here.” When he turns to Angus, he grips him hard by both biceps. “Before you know it, he’ll have us all in skirts.”
Angus laughs and slips from Meek’s grip; slick as an otter he twists and pins one beefy arm behind the trapper’s back. He hears the hiss of pain and eases off. “Ye needn’t fear it, Joe,” he breathes. “I much prefer them on a lass.” Not since he shot that stag up on Ben Wyvis has he felt this good.
The year is 1838. A young Scotsman driven from his homeland arrives on the lip of Hudson’s Bay. Angus McDonald is twenty-one, and his business is fur. But the life that awaits him in North America is beyond even a romantic Highlander’s wildest imaginings: raging rivers and buffalo hunts and the powerful daughter of an ancient and magnificent people. In Catherine Baptiste, kin to Nez Perce chiefs, Angus recognizes a kindred spirit—only to find the life they build together threatened by the violent thrust of American empire.
My novel is a family epic based on the true story of my Scottish ancestors, spanning the nearly half-century that forged the American West on the blood of native peoples. Simply put, it’s the portrait of a multicultural world—the world of the fur trade—that is largely forgotten, told through the eyes of one Scots-Indian family swept up in the violence of Manifest Destiny.
As a writer of historical fiction, I strive to capture readers’ minds and hearts by imagining the lives of the real people who came before us. In The Shining Mountains, I focus on a period of huge importance, described through the eyes of the real actors in the drama. The tale of Angus McDonald, his Nez Perce wife, Catherine, and their son, Duncan McDonald, illuminates a little-known but essential piece of the past, stretching from the Highland Clearances to the extraordinary lives of the mainly Scottish traders in the Hudson’s Bay Company who forged alliances with a new world’s indigenous tribes.
The story, told in alternating points of view, follows Angus from his arrival through his courtship of Catherine Baptiste, to their establishment of a home and trading post in Montana. Disaster arrives in the form of American settlers and the discovery of gold, igniting a land rush and a government policy of pushing Indians onto ever-shrinking reservations. The McDonalds, caught between two worlds, try to stave off war and dispossession, and ultimately hand the torch of resistance to the next generation. In the book’s final section, war comes to Catherine’s people as well—and their son, Duncan, figures largely in the effort to protect them. After a famous and bloody pursuit known as the Nez Perce War of 1877, Duncan travels to Canada to interview his surviving relatives, becoming the the first mixed-race person in American history to describe the Indian Wars from a native point of view.
I have worked closely with my McDonald relatives and native tribes to research and tell this story. I hope to spotlight a forgotten chapter in American history, and to make clear the precise steps by which the dispossession of native Americans came about. At the same time I see the novel as a great love story, a tale of a family’s struggle and survival against the odds. It is a family epic in the largest sense, carefully structured to bring readers deep into an unknown world.
Alix Christie currently lives in San Francisco, where she reviews arts and books for The Economist. This is her second novel; the first, Gutenberg’s Apprentice, told the story of the invention of printing and the making of the Gutenberg Bible and was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Prize and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and the Novella Award. She has been a newspaper reporter for most of her career, in the U.S. and abroad.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019