BY: Tom Keith
In 1882, Daniel McHarg travels up the Missouri River aboard a steamboat bound for Montana. On the trip upriver, he meets Nellie Sage, a woman who will change his life. But they are separated after arriving and face an uncertain future. With few prospects, Daniel struggles to find his way on the frontier, nearly losing his life in the process.
After a few false starts, Daniel and Nellie settle on the Teton River and build a ranch. It’s a time of rapid change and they witness the passing of a way of life, including the slaughter of the buffalo and the winter of starvation for the Blackfoot. In their struggle to build Raven Ranch, Daniel and Nellie endure wolf attacks, cattle thieves, and droughts. Nothing prepares them, however, for the severe winter of 1886-87, an event known as the “Great Die Up.”
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Beneath a Towering Sky by Tom Keith, Daniel McHarg is traveling up the Missouri River on a steamboat in 1882 when he meets Nellie Sage. But Nellie belongs to an upper-middle-class family and Daniel is down on his luck. Still, they are determined to be together, even over the objections of Nellie’s father. Daniel homesteads land in Montana and struggles to build the Raven Ranch. He faces Indian attacks, hard winters, and summer droughts, and nearly loses his life trying to do a favor for a friend. Nellie and Daniel eventually marry and settle on the ranch, but life is hard, and they have no one to rely on except themselves and an occasional close friend.
The story is a well-written account of what life was like in the Montana Territory in the 1880s and has a ring of truth that is rare in historical fiction today. A thoroughly enjoyable read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Beneath a Towering Sky by Tom Keith is the story of Daniel McHarg and Nellie Sage who meet on the Red Cloud steamboat in 1882. Nellie is from a wealthy family and is traveling with her mother and sister to Helena, Montana. Daniel has little money and even fewer prospects, but he is traveling west to find his fortune. The attraction between Nellie and Daniel is strong and immediate, but Nellie’s father whisks the family away soon after the boat docks in Fort Benton. Daniel takes up with a prospector and heads into the badlands searching for gold. When his friend takes ill, he asks Daniel to collect a package he left with a friend. Daniel agrees and his friend dies, but Daniel is attacked by Indians trying to carry out his friend’s last request and he nearly dies too. Daniel and Nellie eventually marry and settle on the Teton River where Daniel has homesteaded a ranch. They struggle to protect their meager herd of cattle from drought, winter starvation, wolves, and cattle rustlers, but nothing prepares them for the devastating winter of 1886.
Beneath a Towering Sky is a moving and poignant tale of one man’s courage and determination to make a better life for himself and the woman he loves. Well written, fast paced, and authentic, it is one that historical fiction fans should love.
What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow which runs across the grass
and loses itself in the sunset.
~ Crowfoot, Blackfoot chief, ca 1830-1890
In the early summer of 1882, the steamboat Red Cloud slowly beat its way up the Missouri River, nearly two months into a journey that had begun in St. Louis. On a flawless day full of the promise of June, Daniel McHarg stood on a deck piled high with wood and other clutter, idly leaning against the rail, mesmerized by the play of water against the hull. Where Daniel stood, the only sound was the steady slapping of the paddle wheel, a sound that had faded into the background after several weeks of travel.
In his relaxed state, Daniel was startled when a few buffalo appeared, swimming toward the boat, their great collective bulk appearing like a small moving island. As the distance between the buffalo and the boat closed, a rifle shot, followed by several more, rang out from the deck above.
Daniel was shaken and instinctively turned and yelled in the direction of the shots. “You son of a bitch, there’s people down here!” Though he felt his anger rising, Daniel kept his attention on the buffalo. One of the shooter’s targets was a cow that swam with her two calves. The shots seemed to have no effect initially, but as the boat approached the beast stopped lateral movement and began a slow drift downriver. She passed close to where Daniel stood, her life reduced to a few last twitches, the blood flowing through her nostrils adding its color to the already dark water.
Daniel watched the carcass drift for a moment until a scuffle on the upper deck grabbed his attention. The Red Cloud’s captain, a thick man with brawny hands, had one of the passengers in his grip. After several weeks of travel on the confined spaces of the boat, the captain had shown himself to be a calm man, but now his blood was up. He jerked the rifle from the shooter and hurled it into the river, his powerful voice carrying to where Daniel stood well below:
“By God, if another fool tries this, I’ll throw his ass overboard and keep the rifle!”
The captain immediately apologized for his language to the several women standing nearby but continued to handle the shooter roughly. Only with difficulty was he able to restrain himself from seriously hurting the man. The captain didn’t give a damn about the buffalo; his concern was the safety of his passengers. He had decreed to all onboard that shooting would be allowed only from the lower deck, a commitment he had made after a similar incident had maimed a child on one of his trips downriver. He had vowed to never let it happen again. The shooter, whose clothes marked him as a city man, walked away shakily, showing the good sense not to make a fuss about his rough treatment or the loss of his rifle.
After the captain returned to the pilothouse, most of the passengers resumed their routines, but Daniel remained distracted. Shortly after boarding at Sioux City, he had noticed a young woman traveling with her mother and younger sister. Though he didn’t know it during those first weeks, he later found out that her name was Nellie Sage. Nellie was a bit too sturdy to fit the prevailing Victorian ideal, but even from afar she had a beauty and a glow that drew him in. She always dressed elegantly. The broad-brimmed hats she often wore didn’t fully conceal her long hair, which she wore loose, allowing the sun to bring out the reddish highlights Daniel found so appealing. Despite his interest in this woman and the weeks that had passed since they’d left Iowa, Daniel and Nellie hadn’t met or exchanged any words. Daniel’s ticket bought him little more than a space to sleep on the deck, while Nellie was a cabin passenger, which meant a private cabin and meals in a dining room with white linen and waiters. The two groups didn’t easily mix, especially when a group of unaccompanied women was involved.
So, when Daniel looked up to see who had fired the shots, he was astonished to see Nellie looking in his direction, showing no interest in the unfolding events. She simply smiled and held her gaze long enough to convey that it wasn’t accidental.
Nellie had also taken note of Daniel early on the voyage. She’d found him handsome enough. His even features and bright blue eyes caught her attention first, but they weren’t what had drawn her to him. It was the laughter. On the lower deck that had become Daniel’s world, he could usually be found amid a little knot of men he had only come to know since Sioux City. Often, when Nellie allowed herself to look down, Daniel had captured the group’s interest. The laughter was never far behind.
Their silent encounter was broken when Nellie’s mother approached and looked down toward Daniel. She took little note of him but made clear her intention of taking Nellie to the other side of the deck.
Daniel reluctantly returned his attention to the river. To no one in particular he recited a few lines from Robert Burns, a poet his father had regularly recited, especially when the whiskey was flowing:
“‘’Twas na her bonnie blue e’e was my ruin;
Fair tho’ she be, that ne’er my undoin’;
’Twas the dear smile when naebody did mind us,
’Twas the bewitching, sweet, stown glance o’ kindness.’”
Daniel’s little performance was noted by one of his traveling companions, John Campbell, a bear of a man who had befriended Daniel almost immediately.
“That’s a fine one you’ve got there,” John yelled toward Daniel. “And what’s she doing making eyes at the likes of you!”
“I don’t know.” Daniel said with a look of bemusement, “but I do aim to find out.”
Daniel had begun his journey in New Brunswick, a stingy place where the little wealth that could be scraped from the land had been taken decades ago when the last of the big trees had been felled. Daniel left Canada in 1879, briefly stopping in western Minnesota, where the black prairie soils produced fat yields and new towns were prospering. Like so many before him, Daniel headed west not just to seek what was new, but also to leave a part of his life behind. When asked, he’d say it was a letter from a cousin that had put him on this path. But it went deeper than that. New Brunswick had become too painful a place. The previous year he had lost his wife, a sweet woman named Katie, who died in childbirth. He lost them both. Despite the passage of more than a year, the pain seemed inescapable, often arising in unpredictable ways, triggered by random events woven into daily life. After a day of intense grief, this time brought on by the fragrance of newly cut hay and memories of working their small fields together, Daniel knew he had to leave.
The letter from Daniel’s cousin was filled with references to cheap land and good wages, and they were all true. Though the money was good in Montevideo, a town platted on the Minnesota prairie just a few years before Daniel’s arrival, he soon realized that these flatlands offered just another version of an ordinary life filled with hard work—something he had vowed to leave behind. More than that, though, were the stories. Farther west, in the mountains and prairies of Montana, the frontier persisted and fortunes were being built on the minerals and other resources that awaited discovery. Those who had been there said the opportunity to be a part of it wouldn’t last much longer.
A heavily laden steamboat forcing its way upriver consumed an immense amount of wood, requiring regular stops to load a resource that had become increasingly scarce with the increase in river traffic. As she approached a little island where the valley widened, the Red Cloud stopped to take on wood. It was an opportunity for the passengers to get off and walk on solid ground. Daniel joined the small procession, which consisted mostly of deck passengers who were expected to assist in loading the wood on board. Daniel went to it, returning with armloads of cottonwood and pine scraped from the surrounding breaks.
A group of wood cutters, who were known as woodhawks along the upper Missouri, slouched in the shade and watched, enjoying a chance to see others work and perhaps to catch a glimpse of a woman. They were rough-looking men, hardened by years of difficult and dangerous work. Yet they weren’t unlike other men Daniel had known in the woods of New Brunswick, a place where the thirty cords a day needed to keep a river boat running could be readily found. Here, Daniel thought, the work required to gather that much wood for the several boats plying the Upper Missouri was unimaginable.
Daniel paused between loads to talk with the woodhawks. “I hope you fellows are paid well. A lumberman could find himself a hell of a better place to work than this.” The woodhawks ignored him at first, conveying the mild contempt they held for anyone who had just entered the territory. Eager to talk with someone new, Daniel persisted. “Maybe, then, you’ve forgotten the mother tongue way out here. Or is it that your throats are too dry to get the words out?”
Daniel offered up a small flask of whiskey, which the men quickly drained. The oldest of them, a man who was missing two fingers, responded while the others continued to gaze toward the boat. “A pilgrim like you wouldn’t know it, but one of them scrawny yellow pines is as valuable here as oak wood in Boston, or whatever Yankee place you come from.”
“Ah, you’re confused about that, my friend,” chided Daniel. “I’m not an American Yankee. That’s Canada you hear, maybe with a bit of my family’s beginnings in Scotland mixed in.”
One of the men recalled his own Scottish ancestry and softened a little. “There used to be more trees down here by the river,” he said. “Now we spend more time haulin’ ’em down here than we do cutting trees. If it weren’t decent money, we’d be damned fools. Look at me. How old do you think I am?”
Before Daniel could respond, the woodhawk declared that he was only twenty-two.
The others roared at this obvious falsehood, and one of them added, “Caleb was twenty-two before the war for southern independence. It’s not just the hard work. Fear of the Blackfoot will age a man. Many of us have died along this river, and many have taken their last breath with the burn of a Blackfoot arrow lodged in his guts.”
Another woodhawk joked that they were getting kind of lonely now that the Blackfoot usually stayed north of the Missouri. In the early 1880s, the vast Blackfoot lands stretched most of the way from the Missouri north to Canada. A few more years of pressure and clamoring by the politicians of Montana Territory would shrink it to a mere fragment before the decade was over.
Daniel bantered with the group for a few more minutes before one of them waved his hand toward the Red Cloud and urged Daniel to make haste. ”Unless you want to walk from here to Fort Benton, you’d better get your ass back on the boat.”
Daniel shrugged and urged the woodhawks to watch their backs before hustling back to the Red Cloud. The crew was already making ready to push off; clouds of thick black smoke filled the air as the boilers built up a head of steam.
The Red Cloud continued upriver for the remainder of the day, until it finally reached a suitable bank to tie up for the night. Daniel and the rest of the passengers hoped this would be one of their last nights on the river. On most nights, if the weather was clear, Daniel preferred to sleep on land. He held no affection for the crowded boat and was glad he’d soon be done with her. He was rolling out his bedding and intently kicking away a few prickly pears when he looked up.
“I didn’t want to leave this boat without knowing your name. I’m Nellie Sage.” The young woman smiled awkwardly, trying to cover her embarrassment about having approached him.
Daniel was jolted by the recognition that she was the woman he’d been admiring from afar since boarding the Red Cloud. He knew it could be dangerous to fully acknowledge the attraction he felt for a young woman he’d likely never meet, but here was his chance. “And I’m Daniel McHarg,” was all he could manage initially. He doffed his hat and nodded toward Nellie, all the while thinking that he had to do better than that. A brief silence ensued. Neither knew what to say next—especially Daniel, who normally had an ability to find the right words for any occasion.
“What will you do in Montana?” Nellie asked after an awkward pause. Before Daniel could answer, she added, “My father sent for us from Helena. He owns one of the mines in the area. We’ll be in Fort Benton only a short while. Once we get settled in Helena, I’ll probably help my sister with the school.”
“Well, that’s more of a plan than I have.” Daniel thought further. “They say this land isn’t all used up yet. I’m planning to look for some gold. Or maybe something else, something I haven’t even thought of yet.” He smiled broadly before adding, “If nothing else turns up, I can always get by banging on some nails. But I didn’t come all this way for that.”
Nellie glanced back at the boat. Her mother and sister would be looking for her soon. “Well, I’ve done what I can do. I hope you prosper in this new land of yours, Mr. McHarg.” She turned and began walking briskly to the boat.
Daniel savored the sight of her movement before adding, “I hope to prosper, Miss Nellie Sage, but I’ll settle for a chance to see you again.”
Nellie paused to look back at Daniel, and that look changed Daniel’s world.
© 2019 by Tom Keith