They headed out of the Sangre de Cristos in mid-May, sleeting snow at their backs. They walked, all of them except the boy, and led the mules, packsaddles heavy with beaver plew. They were eight in all, counting the boy. They’d found him beside the smoking remains of a mountain cabin, the only survivor of an Indian raid. How he’d kept his scalp was a mystery to the trappers, but they shrugged at each other and agreed when Dutch George proposed that the kid come along as cook and general camp follower.
The men consisted of three Americans, two Mexicans, a half-Ute guide, and an uncommunicative grizzled-haired Black man who, when they’d run across him on the Rio Colorado, had asked if they minded if he threw in with them.
The trappers had looked at each other. In fur country, a man’s skin color wasn’t much of an issue, and he looked honest enough, but he wasn’t forthcoming about where he’d been or where he was headed, either. They’d all shrugged and he’d fallen in behind, but there was a certain amount of unease and the orphan boy was more skittish than usual, shoulders jerking at the croak of every raven overhead.
On the stranger’s third night, Dutch George crouched on the opposite side of the fire and studied him for a long stretch before asking abruptly, “Ain’t a runaway, are ya?”
The man was sitting on a large flat piece of sandstone, warming his hands. He looked across the flames at the German and shook his head with a small smile.
“Talkative, ain’t ya?”
The man chuckled and nodded slightly.
“You been trappin’ long?” Little Bill asked as he settled beside Dutch George. He was the tallest and broadest among them, though so young he didn’t yet have his full beard.
The black man shrugged and stared quietly into the flames. The orphan boy came alongside him and held out a tin plate of dutch oven cornbread and stewed jerky, his twitching shoulders sloshing the food dangerously.
“Thankee,” the man said, taking it. He looked at the plate thoughtfully, then began eating.
“Ya don’t chow like ya been starved,” George observed.
“It’s good,” the stranger said.
At the edge of the firelight, Webster had been trying to mend a trap. “Shit!” he said. “The dad blasted thing’s completely haywire. What’d that beaver do to this thing, anyhow?”
Archuleta took the trap from Webster’s hands and turned it over. “That beaver, he tried to eat him,” he said. “He chew the trap jaw instead of his own leg.”
“He done more to it than that,” Webster said. “He twisted it a good quarter turn. I ain’t never seen anything like it. And damn it to hell, that’s the second one that’s been shot all to pieces this trip. These contraptions’ll cost me twelve dollars in Taos!”
The Black man put his plate on the ground and stretched his hand toward the Mexican. Archuleta gave him the mangled trap. The stranger leaned into the firelight and examined the metal contraption carefully, then pulled a sturdy ten-inch knife from the scabbard at his waist. He used the blunt side of the blade to wedge one end of the jaw out of its stabilizing base, then began maneuvering it away from the encircling springs at either end, working the damaged bar free of the trap.
“Careful there,” Dutch George said, but the black man only grunted and continued to manipulate the metal pieces.
They all watched silently as he slipped the twisted two-legged curved jaw out of the trap, then nodded to the boy. “Add some o’ that fatty pine to the fire, son.”
When the flames flared hot in response to the pine pitch, the stranger pulled a wad of rags from his possibles bag, wrapped it around one end of the curved metal bar, and held the skewed portion over the hottest part of the fire. For a long while, nothing happened, then the metal began to darken, redden, and finally glow white as the boy added more wood to the flames.
When the bar was hot enough, the man edged off the piece of sandstone he’d been sitting on and gingerly placed the glowing metal on it. He crouched, picked up a nearby fist-size black rock, and began tapping it against the jaw, carefully working the metal straight. “Got water?” he asked over his shoulder. The boy brought a full bucket and the man plunged the hot metal in, leaning back to avoid the hissing steam.
When the trap jaw had turned dark again, the stranger took it from the pail, returned it to the sandstone, and bent for his plate. Little Bill edged toward the rock.
“Not cool yet,” the Black man warned.
Hands behind his back, Bill leaned to examine the repair. “Wagh!” he said. “That should do the trick.” He straightened and looked at the stranger. “Maybe you can look at the other one after you’ve chowed.” He grinned. “Guess we can just call ya Smith.”
A shadow of a smile crossed the Black man’s face and he nodded in agreement. From the edge of the firelight, the Indian-raid orphan boy studied him silently, shoulders still for the first time.[i]
from Old One Eye Pete
[i] References to black or ‘mulatto’ mountain men are scattered throughout the accounts of the Americans in the Rocky Mountains. Perhaps the most famous of these men was James Beckworth, who became, like so many of the mountain men, famous both for his exploits and his capacity to stretch those experiences into memorable stories.