Authors: Betty McMahon
After months of practicing and planning, it was finally going to
happen. I had anticipated every possible problem and then eliminated
them one by one. All I had to do was keep my cool. The rest would
take care of itself.
I had already scoped out the sweat lodge, after he suggested it as
our meeting place. Now, I was arriving plenty early, so I could do
the necessary schmoozing. It was all part of my plan—as was
carrying the only weapon I’d need. A trained warrior knows how to
travel light and still get the job done. I smiled when I thought of
how I’d do it. Thinking this one up was nothing short of brilliant.
The weapon I’d leave behind would baffle the cops more than help
He made it so easy for me. “I’ve got that information you’ve
been looking for,” was all I needed to say, if I said anything at
all. He’d kill for that information, but we’d see who kills for
I checked out the lodge and its surrounds one more time. He thought
it was so clever to meet in this particular place. He liked the irony
of it, he said. But I couldn’t have chosen a better location
myself. It was isolated and the line of sight was just right for my
purpose. Even the weather was cooperating. It was the land of
mosquitoes, but not a single one was in evidence. All it would take
is one mosquito slap to give away my position. I couldn’t have
asked for a sweeter setup.
I blew the air from my lungs through pursed lips. This was one
venture I couldn’t wait to pay off. I hadn’t sat in all those
god-awful city and county meetings for nothing, listening, always
listening, while I collected the information I needed to formulate my
plan. My plan was perfect. I knew my schedule right down to the last
minute. I’d have a window of at least an hour where we’d be
alone. Not that I needed an hour, but a good soldier always builds in
enough room to maneuver, just in case.
I shook my hands in front of me to dispel the jitters and cursed the
beads of sweat forming on my brow. I had nothing to be nervous about.
All those hours of practice, practice, practice would pay off. It
would be different for each one of them, but if they were all as easy
as this one to set up, it wouldn’t be long before my job was done.
Now, I just had to wait and watch the little rat take the bait. I had
no doubts he’d take it, either. Not for a minute.
What’s that sound?
Good, he’s right on time.
Focus, focus, focus.
Finally, the last piece of the puzzle is about to be put in place. I
have him exactly where I want him. He is in my power now and he
doesn’t have a clue, the little moron. We are connected, occupying
a small part of the universe together. I’m the only one who can
break the connection.
Look at him. The fool. Swinging up the path, thinking he doesn’t
have a care in the world; but, he’s feeling the last breeze he’ll
ever feel on his face in this lifetime. He’s probably dreaming
about how he’ll spend the cash he figures he’ll get out of this
I need to stop daydreaming.
He’s coming closer. He’s in the clearing now. Wait until he’s
absolutely in place before you do anything. There. He’s kneeling.
Getting ready to peer inside, just as I knew he would do. Does he
really think he’ll find me in there?
Stand still. Don’t move a muscle. You’ve got time.
His eyes are still adjusting to the light. Now he’s standing.
Probably wondering where I am.
Now . . . before he turns around! Ready. Aim. FIRE!
Ah . . . perfect.
Not that I ever doubted it would be anything less.
One down. Four to go.
It’s mind-boggling how a day
that starts so beautifully can end up so disastrously. The beautiful
part started when I stowed my camera gear into the back of my Jeep
and climbed into the driver’s seat. It was barely dawn on a lovely
Minnesota June Sunday. The disastrous part started not long after I
entered the grounds of the Prairie River Trappers’ Rendezvous.
I take pictures to pay the rent,
but when I’m fed up to my f-stops with wedding gigs, I look for
opportunities to indulge my passion for “real photography.”
That’s what I was doing as I headed north on the almost deserted
The idea of grown men and women
reenacting an 1830s gathering site of fur traders and Indians
fascinated me, and my friend Anna Sanders had been adamant about my
taking in the event. “Cassandra Cassidy, you absolutely
go to the Rendezvous,” she had said. “You’ll get some great
pictures of black powder shooting, tomahawk throwing, and
blacksmithing. Sunday is the last day, so don’t dawdle in making
your decision to attend.”
I figured I’d burn through a
few megs on my digital cameras and fill up some rolls of film on my
good old 35-mm.
I’d also be able to add to my personal
collection of Indian photographs, as some members of the Prairie
River Band had a couple of sweat lodges and some teepees on the
grounds. I’ve been interested in Indians ever since reading about
them in the third grade. Then, after attending a powwow with a school
group my junior year with camera in hand, I had become hooked.
the Rendezvous, the Indians would be “trading” with people
masquerading as trappers, military men, and buckskinners.
Buckskinners! I pushed my vehicle up to seventy-five, anticipating
the day’s possibilities. Weather reports promised a warm, sunny
I pulled into the parking lot
about seven. Early for me. The Rendezvous covered a generous eleven
acres, with more than a hundred encampments. I threw my camera bag
over my shoulder and set out to find the nineteenth-century
equivalent of a Starbucks.
A ten-foot tall palisade-type
fence flanked the entrance to the trading post. A gate was open to
allow the paying public to enter. I produced my photographer’s
press pass and slipped in, immediately noticing several permanent
buildings within the palisade walls. A clerk’s quarters and company
store were made out of hewed logs and had twin fireplaces bookending
Like an early-day multipurpose
room, a couple of sleeping bunks were attached to a far wall. The
storekeeper had to simply tumble out of bed and walk the few feet to
his “store”—a super-sized log slab balanced across two huge
upended logs. From shelves in back of him, he could pull off goods,
such as tomahawks, knives, knit hats, gourd dippers, animal skins,
blankets, buckskin shirts and dresses . . . whatever anyone wanted to
buy or trade.
At a blacksmith shop, the ’smith
stirred up embers, preparing to fire up his forge for the day. I made
a note to stop by on the way out.
In a corner, I saw long-skirted
women pulling wonderful-smelling bread loaves out of a clay oven.
With my nose pointed in the bread-bakers’ direction, I almost
tripped over an Indian, squatting with a knife in his hand in front
of a half-finished birch-bark canoe. “Oops, sorry,” I muttered,
as he threw out his arms to keep me from plunging headlong into his
lap. I pushed myself up, dusted off my jeans, and peered around to
see who had witnessed my less-than-elegant spill. Then, as composed
as I could manage, I flashed a smile at the guy and proceeded on my
Event participants were beginning
to stir from a motley assortment of wall tents, teepees, and lean-tos
that had been erected beyond the palisades, forming “streets”
throughout the encampment. The acrid smell of wood fires mingled with
the pungent smells of frying bacon and fresh-brewing coffee. Tin cups
rattled to the accompaniment of pots being taken on and off the spits
erected over small cook fires.
As a photographer, I could
usually walk through a crowd as an almost-invisible observer,
snapping pictures and chatting up the people I photographed. But in
this crowd, dressed in twenty-first century clothing, I was as
conspicuous as a stockbroker at a jugglers’ convention.
A trio of mountain men passed by,
yakking and spitting. They wore pants made of the hide of some kind
of animal, cotton shirts, leggings, and moccasins. They nodded to me
and, when one peeled off from the trio, I snapped a few pictures of
him. “Who are you?” I asked.
Name’s Ground Kisser,” he
said. “Got the name twenty years ago when I kept fallin’ down
after a particularly unrestrained night of imbibin’.”
I photographed him as he turned
to spew a stream of tobacco juice on the ground and then swipe his
mouth with the back of a hand. I resisted the urge to say “Yuck,”
and asked, “And, what’s that?” I pointed at a rawhide bag
hanging around his neck.
My ‘possibles’ bag,” he
said, opening his mouth to reveal a few gaps where his teeth should
have been. “Got a knife, some powder and shot, some fire-startin’
stuff, and a little tobaccy in it.”
Ah, yes, “tobaccy,” the cause
of the little wet brown spots I kept trying to avoid as I wandered
the grounds. To complete the man’s frontier ensemble, a small ax
dangled from a leather string around his waist. “What do you use
that for?” I nodded toward it.
My tomahawk?” He patted it.
“Come ‘round to the ’hawk games, and you’ll see what we do
I zeroed in for a close-up of the
dangerous-looking implement. “So, you compete with it?” I wanted
to keep him talking. “Is it made especially for competition? Is it
The tail of some kind of animal
that was attached to his furry hat wiggled as he shook his head.
“Nah, my ’hawk’s not too different from everyone else’s
‘round here. ‘cept for Tomahawk Pete’s. He takes ’hawk-throwin’
pretty serious. Has his made special. Might be somethin’ to it,
too, ‘cause he usually wins.”
Walking on, I noticed a wildly
bearded man in a flashy outfit—headband, loose-fitting shirt, vest,
trousers with a bright red waist sash, and moccasins—perched in
front of a teepee, smoking a hand-rolled cigar. Eager to talk, he
told me he was a
courier de bois
. “I was reared up with the
Ojibwe,” he said, in what was becoming an irritating accent most of
the reenactors seemed to have adopted. “Got plumb tired a givin’
up ever’thin’ to the French fur companies, so’s now I’m a
free trapper. Some a them folks say I’m a outlaw and they put a
bounty on my head. I hafta keep a lot a light between me ‘n them.”
He winked at me, while chuckling, then spat a ubiquitous stream of
tobacco juice off to the side, missing my right boot by a hair. I
jumped back a couple steps.
The trapper was drinking
something from a tin cup and it reminded me that I hadn’t eaten
breakfast yet. “Do you know where I could buy a cup of coffee?” I
Wal,” he said, lifting his
cup. “Made this coffee from some green coffee beans I traded with a
fella’, oh, ‘bout six month ago. Jest roasted a coupl’a
handfuls in the fire last night so’s I could throw them into coffee
water this mornin’. I’ll pour ya a cup.” He reached for a
smoke-blackened coffee pot. Seeing my look of distress, he grinned.
“Or I could rassle up a cuppa coffee from this Maxwell House pouch,
if ya like.” He poured some water into a paper cup he had stashed
behind his antique utensils and then tapped a couple spoonfuls of
instant coffee into it. “Enjoy,” he said.
Grateful and about to be fortified with a shot of caffeine, I sipped
the tepid brew and waded out into the city of tents again. As I
photographed a wiry little guy—also missing his front teeth—he
held forth about his life as a Long Hunter. He pivoted to display all
his worldly possessions, while he launched into his memorized lingo.
“It’s all here, on muh back. A tarp, ground cloth, foldin’
skillet, tent stakes, rope, tin pots and cup, wooden bowl, horn
spoon, fork, squirrel cooker, a pouch for my fire kit, muh possibles
bag, haversack, ‘hawk and two knives, a camp hatchet, salt and
pepper horns, jerky, parched corn, cornmeal, coffee, dried fruits and
veggies, powder horn, priming horn, smooth bore gun, two blankets,
and a spare shirt or two.”
I laughed. “And I thought
lugging my cameras was a challenge. Why are you here, Long Hunter?
What draws you to participating in these weekend events where you
leave the comforts of the twenty-first century behind?”
He squinted at me. “What you
talkin’ about, ma’am? We always come to Ronnyvous. How else you
think we’re gonna peddle our hides?” He turned away, shaking his
head, his persona still intact.
I strolled through the
encampment, marveling at the sounds and sights that were missing. No
blaring rock music. No buzzing cell phones. No sign of soft-drink
cans or Styrofoam fast-food containers, candy wrappers, or cigarette
butts. The transformation to the 1830s was almost complete. About
midmorning, I was kneeling before a little girl swathed in a coat
fashioned from a red-and-white-striped Hudson Bay blanket. Her
mother, in a long cotton calico chemise, was leaning over her with a
corncob, preparing to scrub off a morning’s indulgence in sticky
candy. As I clicked the shutter, someone called my name.