Drawn to the life of a fur trapper at an early age, scarcely knowing what the life entailed, Pierre Duchenne sailed for the shores of the United States in a majestic clipper, its sails white as snow, its sails billowing like clouds, in the summer of 1817, when he was just eighteen. While most of his fellow travelers, nearly a hundred in all, gravitated toward the Eastern Seaboard, he hewed to a Western Star, not stopping for good until he was well west of Yellowstone. There were more practical reasons. Already trapped out, the eastern shores were well settled by farmers, the Wilderness well-shorn.
Falling in with three fellow Frenchmen in Saint Louis, he secured an Appaloosa colt, buckskin pants, two scratchy wool shirts, a thick elk skin coat, and a smooth-bore musket and a flintlock pistol, a twelve inch knife, as well as a two dozen footlock traps. There were other items the four of them hoped to trade with the Indians they met along the way for pelts and food. Across the plains the western Nebraska plains, they ran into the Arapaho, camped along the banks of the South Platte River. The Native Americans greeted them with curiosity and disdain, and friendship from the call of bondage of common existence. Lacking common language, they spoke through exaggerated and comical gestures that they both eventually understood. Spring had not yet come to the mountains. Not quite a hundred yards upstream from the Indians, they set up camp where they stayed the better part of a month, trading frying pans, dry goods, pistols and muskets that two spare horses carried with the Arapahoes, for pelts of lynx, deer, elk, bear, and the dearest to the wealthy in the East, the beaver. From them, they learned of dealing with the wiles of the wilderness, especially when it was at its most vicious.
When the sun began to rise earlier and the westerly winds were less chilling, the Arapahos broke camp, heading out towards the west, as implacable and as industrious as ants. The Frenchmen followed closely on the traces of their tribe, as a shadow on a massive, lonesome Cottonwood on the oxbow of the engorged waters as they gradually rose to the purple placard mountains towering above them weeks away.
Every day of their exodus, Pierre noted a young squaw about his age that hung behind who’d look back at him, as they marched along. Though quickly averting her eyes during the first days of their exodus, she came to giggle when Pierre’s eyes locked on to hers before she turned away. Not wanting to destroy a fresh relationship before it took hold, he rode just a hair closer to her every day. She let him.
Continuing on for another three-and-a-half weeks, the mountains and the snowfields where they were cradled, closing over them more and more every day, the Arapaho and Frenchmen arrived at a high valley walled off by limestone cliffs on the west. There, the chief of the tribe indicated they would camp for the duration of the summer, into the early fall.
It was here that Pierre took Jacques aside, and told him of his desire to marry the Arapaho maiden if she would have him. Counting on Jacques’s wisdom, all he received was the man’s scorn.
“You want to get us all killed?”
“I’m serious,” he beseeched the older man who had spent time in the wilderness.
“These people have treated us as friends. What makes you think she wants you?”
“My heart tells me she does. Please Jacques. I am serious.”
Jacques nodded his head.
The next night, Jacques pulled Pierre aside after they finished their dinner, three fine buck elk which they shot with their muskets that afternoon, and shared with the tribe. Telling Pierre that he had to go to the maiden’s father with firearms, knives, and other highly-prized gifts, he might have a chance, Pierre listened attentively.
“In the morning, go to him. Do whatever he says. If he tells you to go, we all must go.”
Not long after the sun rose, Pierre drifted over to where the squaw’s father tended to the family’s horses. Proffering a couple of flintlock muskets to the man, and then pointing at his daughter, her father was not surprised. It was then that Pierre realized how this romance of glances had been going between him and the man’s daughter had been so obvious to the others. At first, he looked at Pierre with disgust, but as Pierre presented him with pistols, frying pans, and an elk skin great coat, his demeanor slowly changed. The father waved for his daughter to come over. He joined their hands together, said a few words that Pierre could not understand, and pointed for them to go off and live with the Frenchmen. Nothing further was there to the marriage ceremony. Not able to pronounce her Arapaho name, Pierre called his wife Rose.
Month followed month, autumn displaced summer. This time when the Arapaho retraced their trek, the Frenchmen stayed, having made simple cabins out of the lodgepole pine and the blue spruce. In May, when the snows were melting, she blessed him with a boy. Christened Jacques, his maternal family greeted him heartedly when they arrived within the next month. The next months fell in one upon another with the quiet rapture and swift alacrity of cliff swallows. Again summer was autumn, autumn was winter, spring was summer. This went on for four years in the valley. Life was good. Pierre and Rose were happy. He had all the pelts he could possibly sell or trade. But it was during the fourth winter, when the winds blew and the snow stacked outside the cabin, that Rose developed a cough, shortly thereafter pursued by a fever and chest pain and prostration. The third day, death came. Not knowing how the Arapaho buried their dead, the Frenchmen, prepared her in Christian fashion. Suffering as he had never thought possible, Pierre continued on. In the summer, when her people came, they saw the sorrow in Pierre’s eyes. They took Jacques back with them, realizing a trapper had no way of raising the infant.
The years passed. Nature receded. The wildlife died off. The four Frenchmen headed northwest where they heard the animals were still plentiful. After four weeks of travel, they encountered the fast flowing waters of the Snake River. Bearing east along its course, they entered the valley of the Teton Mountains. Here, on a hastily strung together log raft, where the logs were bound by rawhide, they forded the river across the divide, headed north and settled in the valley that led to the caldera of the ten thousand smokes. There they divided, each venturing a day or two in a cardinal direction of the small hamlet that they found there. Pierre headed west and then north as the valleys directed him.
There, in a glen of lodgepole pines, he built a simple cabin. Each season, he ventured forth, checking his footlock traplines, seeing if they had successfully snared beaver, lynx, fox or other valuable creatures. Often he found them still alive trying to gnaw off the trapped appendage to get out of the trap. These he quickly dispatched with his pistol. Each spring, he would take his pelts to the valley of the three Tetons for the fur trader’s rendezvous, attended by trappers, Native Americans, scouts and pioneers alike, where for the better part of a week they contested anything from their shooting ability to their capacity to consume alcoholic spirits as they traded pelts for food, firearms, ammunition and what they needed for daily life. Though the rendezvous swelled during the years that Pierre attended it, he was wise enough to be cognizant he was of a dying breed. Civilization would make it so.
After a decade, he took a Gros Ventre bride, that he won in a contest with a chief. He surrendered a hundred pelts for her. Naming her Nora, she was a good decade or so younger than he; she proved no less a reliable a good companion for the wilderness than Rose, even though he failed to love her as much. Whereas Rose had beautiful mica-colored hair, and her complexion was without blemish, Nora had hair that was as matted as a mare’s mane, and skin scarified by pox.
Just two years after he took up with Nora, he was checking a trap on the periphery of his line. His horse startled a trap jumper who was removing a beaver carcass from Pierre’s foottrap. The man reached for his pistol, but mired there in the mud, his shot went wide: Pierre’s did not. He gut shot the man, who was a fellow countryman.
“You know why.”
Burying him on the banks of the river, he told no one.
He died of a belly infection a year later.
By Joseph Dylan
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