SPELL OF THE YUKON
THE SUMMER—NO SWEETER THAN EVER;
THE SUNSHINY WOODS ALL ATRILL;
THE GRAYLING ALEAP IN THE RIVER;
THE BIGHORN SHEEP ON THE HILL.
THE STRONG LIFE THAT NEVER KNOWS HARNESS;
THE WILDS WHERE THE CARIBOU CALL;
THE FRESHNESS, THE FREEDOM, THE FARNESS—
OH GOD! HOW I’M STUCK ON IT ALL.
After breakfast, the boys headed south on Route 1, leading into the Chugach Mountain Range. They followed a winding tree-lined road with mountains in the distance. A clear, slow gliding river followed alongside the highway. Late in the afternoon, they saw a sign along the highway that read "Mountain Man Rendezvous."
Off in the bush, two men walked down a dirt road. Dan waved his brother to the roadside.
"You see those two guys wearing buckskin leathers walking into the woods?" he asked. “They’re headed for a string of horses.”
"Dan, let's go back and see what's going on," Trevor said. "What's a 'rendezvous' anyway?"
"It's French for ‘a meeting place for people,’" Dan said. "Whatever it is, it could be interesting. Those guys are wearing leathers just like us, but you’re right, I only see horses in their camp.”
The riders drove back to the dirt road that led off the highway and into the woods. They reached a clearing where a group of bearded men stood around a fire pit. Stew simmered in a large black kettle that hung from a tripod over the flames. Coffee steamed from a dented pot near the coals. Around the camp, Indian teepees stood among the trees. Flintlock rifles, knives and tomahawks lay near each shelter. The boys parked near the men standing around the fire.
"Can a couple of hombres get a pan of grub?" Trevor asked with a drawl.
"Grab yerselves a plate o' vittles," one of them replied.
"Don't mind if'n I do," Trevor said, unpacking his mess kit.
"Hep yerselves," the man said. "Don't be bashful."
Trevor spooned the hot stew onto his plate and walked
over to the men, "My name is Trevor and this is my brother Daniel, like Daniel Boone."
Several bearded men named Curly, Gonzo, Hondo, and Yukon Jack stepped up to shake hands with the boys. Each man wore early frontier clothing.
"You two must be a couple of skinners," Hondo said.
"We are?" Trevor said, puzzled.
"Shor', why not?" one of the men said, as they all laughed.
"Anyone wearing leathers like you boys gots to be buck skinners," he said.
"Yeah, why not?' Dan said, not sure of himself.
Trevor walked around shaking hands with all the mountain men. The burly characters smiled at the teenager.
"S'cuse me there, pardner," Hondo said, placing his hand on Dan’s shoulder.
"Yes?" the older boy said, hesitantly.
"Yer a couple of good sized boys," Hondo said. "How'd you like to stay and compete in some mountain man contests?"
Trevor overheard Hondo and jumped in, "Sure! We'd love to, wouldn't we, Dan?"
"Yeah, why not?"
"Good," said Hondo. "Why don't you boys pitch yer tent over there in that clearing."
After the invitation, the boys dragged their gear past another group of buckskinners who were standing around talking. All the men had animal headpieces. A fox fur cap sat one man's head. Others wore coonskin caps and necklaces made of grizzly bear claws. Beads and feathers stuck out of felt hats, and everyone walked around in boots or moccasins.
Yukon Jack led the boys over to a sign that read, "ALL DOGS ON A LEASH OR THEY'LL BE EATEN ALIVE!"
"You guys eat dogs, alive?" Trevor asked.
"Just kiddin'," the mountain man replied. "Say, you boys got a mighty fine tent with netting to keep out the skeeters."
"With the size of these blood suckers, we need all the protection we can get," Trevor replied, pounding in a stake. "We heard they grow so big in this state, they'll quench their thirst on a caribou and carry off humans for dessert."
"That's not too far from the truth," Yukon said. "Last week, one of our skinners named Bushwhacker, fell asleep in his tent without a shirt on. As you can imagine, half the skeeter population in the world lives in Alaska. That night, they zoomed into his tent and made refueling runs on his body. He almost died from losing so much blood."
"He almost died...." Trevor said, swallowing. "That's the worst story I ever heard about skeeters in my life."
"Yukon," Dan said. "How come you skinners come out here and hold this rendezvous?"
"We like bein' in the wilderness," Yukon Jack said. "The early rendezvous were based on a common need for frontier people to meet and exchange goods. In the pioneer days, they met several times a year to trade with Indians and each other. Modern skinners continue the custom today with beadwork, belts, guns and leather goods are a few of the items for barter. During the time we spend here, we have contests of woodsmanship, strength, hunting, tomahawk throwing and cooking."
Trevor hiked up his pants and puffed out his chest, "Whall naw pardoners," he said. "They calls me Buckskin Trev and this here feller's my fren'...eh, whall, this here's my fren' Dogface, thas' right, Dogface Dan. We aim ta' take this here camp by storm."
"Buckskin," Yukon said. "We got to enter you in the arm wrestling contest judgin' from the size of ya'."
"I'll take on the meanest, baddest, toughest hombre in the whole camp," Trevor boasted, walking around bowlegged.
"Don't get too excited," Dan warned. "These guys are pretty big."
"Don't be such a wussie...let's go over to that teepee and buy a couple of coonskin caps," Trevor said, swaggering up to the collection of hats.
"Shorty runs this business," Yukon said, following.
"Mr. Shorty," Trevor called into the tent opening. "Me and my pardner, here, wanna' buy a cap that...wha?"
Out of the teepee stepped a man standing six feet eight inches tall. Trevor swallowed in surprise.
"Sir," he spoke more quietly. "We'd consider it an honor if'n ya'd sell us a couple of yer coonskin hats."
"What kind of fur d'ya like?" the giant asked, in his deep voice.
"That deer skin one looks nice," Trevor said. "What d'ya think, Dogface?"
"I like the fox cap myself," Dan said.
"That's what we want," Trevor said, taking command. "Real good stitchin' Mr. Shorty...these'll do jist fine."
The young boys paid the man and shook hands. As they walked away, "Did you see how big that guy is? He buried my hand in his," Trevor said, gesturing to his brother.
"I wouldn't want to argue with 'em," Dan said. "He's a mountain of a mountain man."
The boys explored the rest of the camp until dusk. The smell of food attracted them to Flapjack Jones' grub tent.
"What kin' I do fer you boys?" he asked.
"We're a little hungry," Dan said.
"Grab yerselves a plate and dig into that pot of stew," Flapjack said. "But watch out for my wolf on that chain over there."
Dan looked at the animal sleeping near the stew kettle, "What's his name?"
"I'm glad you told me before I tried to pet him," Dan said, looking over at Buckskin and rolling his eyes.
Wary of the beast at the end of the leash, the boys spooned the stew onto their plates. After eating, they walked by Gonzo.
"How'd ya' like ta' try yer hand at somethin' that might save yer hides whilst them yahoos that carry rifles can't find any dry powder?" he asked.
Gonzo, clad in buckskin leathers, stood in front of his tent. In a wide belt, four tomahawks pressed into the mountain man's stomach. Buckskin Trevor turned toward him, "Sure would Gonzo. A man can't be too careful these days. What ya' got?"
In reply, the mountain man spun on his toes and a whirling sound filled the air. A tomahawk cut into a round slab of wood behind him. Trevor's eyes widened at the sights of the man's skill.
"Kin ya' teach us?" Buckskin asked.
The older man smiled, "Shor' can...by the time you finish my lessons, you kin give your friend a haircut at 30 feet."
The boys gathered around the man for the lesson.
"First, ya' get a firm grip on the handle here and ya' face that big ole slab o' wood and pretend it's a grizzly 'bout ta' charge. Then give a thought, real hard, of this here bein' the only thing betweenst you and that thar' bear. Then give yerself one last effort at livin'."
Another quick motion from Gonzo and a second blade thudded into the wood near the first.
"Now Buckskin," Gonzo said. "Ya' hold the handle here, and do what I tole' ya'."
Trevor took his place alongside Gonzo, facing the target. The mountain man showed them how to stand. He gave a step by step lesson in the throwing motion and style that would stick the blade into the target every throw. The boys were told the slab of wood was really teeth and claws of a charging grizzly. The mountain man finished the lesson and placed the tomahawk into Trevor's hand.
"Okay," Gonzo said. "It's you who's got to stop that ole bear or he's a-goin to make a meal of ya'. Let fly like I tole ya'...think it in boy."
Trevor threw the ancient weapon. The whirling blade struck its mark alongside the other tomahawks.
"He did it!" Dan yelled when the tomahawk cut into the target.
"Geez, oh Pete!" Gonzo said, surprised. "Would ya' look at that! Ya' got strong shoulders Buckskin."
"Way to go," Dan said.
Gonzo slapped Trevor on the back, "Yer jist the kind of man I been lookin' fer. That was a mighty fine throw. By gum, you practice with Dogface and you'll be mountain men in good time."
Buckskin Trevor swelled with pride and Dogface Dan grinned. For two hours, the boys shared the tomahawk with the mountain men. The young buckskinners practiced their new skills--laughing at each other's hits and misses. A weariness in their arms stopped the practice.
The boys thanked Gonzo before walking back to camp. He listened to their talk and excitement over the lessons. Trevor proudly displayed a new tomahawk that was a gift from the mountain men.
"Can you believe this day?" Trevor asked.
"Pretty amazing all right," Dan said.
"I'll never forget it, ever," Trevor said. "Jist calls me ‘Buckskin tomahawk throwin' Trev', 'cuz I'll shave the whiskers off'n a bear at thirty feet...we sure did learn a lot today. How about that? What d'ya' think Dogface?"
The nonstop talk from Trevor did not allow Dan to answer, but the older boy walked into camp a little taller.
"This shor' 'nuff has been some kind of day," Dan drawled.
That night around the council campfire, buckskinners shared songs and stories. Sourdough bread with beef jerky tasted better than anything the boys could remember. They finished singing, "Home On The Range," when a skinner named Buffalo jumped to his feet, bellowing, "LISTEN UP SKINNERS!"
Everyone stopped talking and turned toward the man.
"I'm the meanest mountain man in Alaska," he said. "I kin fight a grizzly single handed, run down a lightning bolt with one leg tied up, and I kin climb a mountain in one day, and I can spit chewin' tobacco a half mile into a stiff wind...I'm so bad...."
Before everyone's eyes, Buffalo pulled a fresh trout out of his pocket and chomped it down in three bites. As the mountain man finished, Trevor jumped up wild-eyed and hiked up his pants while striding over to the buckskinner.
"Naw, jist a cotton pickin' minute Mr. Buffalo," Trevor drawled, swaggering up to the mountain man. "Ain't no skinner tough as Buckskin Trev, don't cha' know?"
Trevor stood toe to toe with Buffalo, who was six feet five inches tall and 230 pounds. Surprised, the big man looked down at the teenager.
The buckskinner growled into Buckskin Trevor's face.
"You ain't so big," Trevor roared in a raspy voice. "I'm the toughest of the tough, meanest of the mean, and the baddest of the bad. I track polar bears for breakfast, turn grizzlies into pets, and if'n ya' got another fish, I'll show ya' the meanin' of what BAD really is!"
The young pioneer stood his ground with Buffalo. The crowd murmured. Dan stood still, waiting for his brother to make the next move.
"I shor' do, Buckskin," Buffalo snorted, pulling out another trout from his leather jacket.
Buckskin grabbed it by the tail and tilted his head back. He dropped the fish into his mouth. But somewhere between his mouth and stomach, Trevor gagged on the trout. The youngest buckskinner threw up his dinner and the fish all over the ground.
Buffalo roared with laughter along with the rest of the mountain men.
At first, only one mountain man applauded Trevor's efforts, but slowly, they began clapping for the young boy. Dan yelled out, "Way to go Buckskin."
Trevor cleared his mouth with a canteen of water handed him by another mountain man. The boy looked up at all the men and grinned.
"Guess that thar' fish was tougher'n me," Trevor said, smiling.
"That's a skinner if I ever seen one," one of the mountain men called out. "Yes siree, he's a real buckskinner."
To be continued part 2: