Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Trapper

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress called An American History.

On a Tuesday evening, I stepped out for a stroll down Chapman Avenue.  Cars whirred by me as I slowly walked, a lonely pedestrian alone with my thoughts.  I tried to imagine what this landscape looked like 50, 100, 150, 200 years ago.  I no longer needed to imagine.  I had a time machine.

I wondered what it would be like to experience life unmediated by technology and advertisements, when my only cues for understanding the world were nature, other people, and my own mind.  For a 21st century American, It was hard to imagine.  Ironically, my portal to such worlds was a machine.  And not just any machine--an abandoned war machine.  I would use it for other purposes.

Since my first brief and reckless venture into the machine, I'd learned a few things.  First, dress appropriately.  It was quite a shock to my system to suddenly find myself in the Ice Age wearing a t-shirt.  Before each trip, I would need to conduct some series research, and dress accordingly.

For my next adventure through time, I decided to visit California of the mid-1800s, which is sometimes referred to as the "Mission Era" of California.  I'd visited Mission San Juan Capistrano (a popular tourist destination in Orange County) and the tour guide had given the impression that the early 1800s was the "Golden Age" of California, when kindly friars lived together with native Americans in a quaint, pastoral environment.  I'd seen the pictures in the museum gift shop.  After the harshness of the Ice Age, I wanted to visit a pleasant place and time, and so I decided to visit one of the old missions.

I researched clothing that an English-speaking white guy might wear in Mission Era California.  I learned that there weren't too many English-speaking white guys at this time.  California, at this time, was New Spain, and was therefore mostly populated by Spaniards and Native Americans.  The only English-speaking white guys were fur trappers, mountain men who wore mostly leather.

It took some serious thrift store hunting, but I finally managed to cobble together an outfit that looked sort of like how an early 19th century fur trapper might look.  I was too embarrassed to wear my leather outfit to the Cal State Fullerton library, where the time machine was.  I was trying to be incognito, and dressing like a 19th century fur trader is the opposite of incognito.  So, I dressed in normal clothes, and carried my mountain main gear in a duffel bag down to the basement of the library.  The door was, again, unlocked, so I walked in, put on my trapper outfit, strapped on the navigational wrist band (so I would not be stranded in the Mission Era), and walked bravely into the Golden Age of California.

The first thing I heard was a gunshot, and then I saw a man tumble onto the ground nearby, attempt to struggle to his feet, and fall back down, bleeding from his side.  The wounded man was a native American.  Who shot him? I wondered angrily.  Immediately behind me emerged a horse and rider.  The rider looked like a fur trapper.  For a moment, I forgot about the wounded Indian and compared my outfit to his.   Mine looked a little fake.  I hoped he wouldn't notice.

"Got you!  You Injun son of a bitch!" the fur trapper shouted at the wounded man laying on the ground.  Was he dying?

My thoughts were immediately ripped from the topic of clothing to the attempted murder I'd just witnessed.

The man on the ground rose to his knees and looked at the fur trapper on the horse.  There was  defiance in the Indian's eyes, and he said something in a language I did not understand that made me want to cry.

"Shut yer fuckin' mouth!" the trapper shouted back, and cracked the wounded Indian across the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking him out cold.  I'd never seen a man knocked out cold before, much less shot.  Let me tell you, it's not as cool as it looks in movies.  It's actually really horrifying.

I stood there a moment, awkwardly, in my ridiculous, fake-looking trapper outfit, unsure what to say to the violent man on the horse.  My fingers touched the navigational wrist band.  I wanted to zap back to the library.  Certainly, I had made a mistake in my assessment of the Golden Age of California.   But something, curiosity maybe, compelled me to stay.

"Who the hell are you?" the mountain man demanded, as he dismounted his horse.

I thought for a moment, afraid to speak.  I was sure my accent would sound as strange to him as his sounded to mine.  I tried to mimic the way he talked.

"Just a fellow fur trapper from them thar hills.  You seen any beaver around?"

The mountain man assessed me quizzically.

"Ain't no beaver to trap here, stranger," he replied, "Just Injuns."

"Why, may I ask, are you trapping Injuns?"

"Cus that's where the money's at.  Serra pays me good money to track and catch runaways, like this heathen dirt worshipper," the man said, nudging the unconscious Indian with the tip of his boot.

"I see.  And what did this Indian do?  Kill somebody?"

"Naw, he just ran away."

In that moment, I felt a heavy existential shock, and my view of the California Missions began to change.  Were the missions like slavery?

"Say," I asked, "Do you know the way to Mission San Juan Capistrano?"

"Of course, stranger.  That's where I'm headed now.  That's where I'll get paid for returning this Injun piece of shit."

"I wonder if I might come along?" I asked

"Don't see why not.  I could use the company of a fellow Christian man.  Help me tie the legs of this Injun.  I'm gonna drag him all the way back."

"You know, you could put him on your horse?"

"What?!  And let him bleed all over my good saddle?  No way, stranger."

"I'll carry him," I offered.

"it's at least ten miles to the Mission.  You can't carry him all that way.  And why bother?  He's just a fuckin' Indian."

"I don't mind."

"Suit yourself, stranger.  

I hoisted the wounded, unconscious Indian over my shoulders.

"What's your name?" I asked the trapper.

"Names Wolfskill," the man said, "William Wolfskill.  And you better keep up.  Nightfall's comin.  Don't wanna get stuck out here at night.

And thus it was that I entered the Golden Age of California.  Carrying a dying Indian on my back, following the trapper William Wolfskill toward Mission San Juan Capistrano.

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