“Mr. Stuart, sir, them Nez Perce said…”
“And how would you know what they said, Will Barton?”
I didn’t mind Mr. Stuart’s sharp voice. Better his words than the glare I got from Jack Willets, Mr. Stuart’s second in command. Besides, I’d been listening careful-like to them natives and how our interpreter, ol’ Dupre’, worked his hands while he spoke.
“Sorry, sir. I know I presume beyond my station, but I been learnin’ their tongue, a piece here and there, with Arnie Dupre’s encouragement.”
Robert Stuart, Jacob Astor’s head man on the journey back to St. Louis, tilted back his fine beaver-felt hat, wide-brimmed and sturdy, and gauged me with one eye squeezed shut due to a drop of sweat having slid right into it.
“Well, then, Mr. Barton, pray-tell, what did those Nezzies tell you that you are so anxious to share?”
I grinned like a mule but then remembered that Mr. Stuart most definitively did not like seeing the dark shade of my teeth and so I hid them behind the brim of my hat. “They say that the compass point we been following will lead us straight to the highest set o’ mountains in this People’s land.”
Mr. Stuart removed a leather bill which contained the maps he and the Astorians were making and consulted the one that opened on top. I peeked to see the fine lines and writing. I looked so hard, maps had forever been a fondling thing for me, that he caught me staring.
“The highest of the mountains? Well, that won’t do.”
Robert Stuart adjusted his breeches, in the heat their weave gave us discomfort the likes to drive us crazy as a blowflied ferret.
He continued, “You prove to see the way of things, Mr. Barton, maybe you could assist in the navigation, were your information regarding our current heading to be ruled valid.”
He unfolded the set of map skins to their greatest extent and I could see, far to his left and a month of travel to the west, the heavy line that marked the sea. From there the crooked trace of the wide Fish-River and then onto the Mad-Snake we had left, just three days prior.
I picked up a twig and used it to identify a point south of our current route. “This here be, if my understanding of them Nez Perce tongue be true, the most passable route over the People’s mountains.”
Mr. Stuart studied the map and glanced up to look east as if he could see the peaks from where we stood. I could see his his mind go a-teeter on taking the risk I posed.
“I’ll consult with Dupre’, Mr. Barton, but your keen awareness of your surrounding and interest in the Nezzie language may have saved us weeks of lost time.”
I grinned again, this time with my hat ready. “I been like this most my days, Mr. Stuart, or so my Aunt Messy tol’ me before I left to join this here expedition.”
“Well, keep it up, Will. You could become an excellent cartographer, with a little practice. But, we’ll have to do something about those teeth.”