THE TOWN OF BLACKWELL, MASSACHUSETTS, changed its name in 1786. It had been called Bearsville when it was founded in 1750, but it quickly became apparent that a name such as that did little to encourage new settlers. True, there were nearly as many black bears in the woods then as there were pine trees, but there were also more eel in the river than there were ferns sprouting on the banks. You could stick your hand into the murky green shallows and catch half a dozen of the creatures without using bait. If you ventured in waist-high you’d be surrounded in moments. Yet no one considered calling the village Eelsville, even though people ate eel pie on a regular basis and many of the men in town wore eelskin belts and boots. They said wearing eel made them lucky at cards, but when it came to the rest of life, love for instance, or business acumen, they had no luck at all.
The town’s original name was always discussed and remembered in August, a dry yellow month when the grass was tall and bears ate their fill of blueberries on Hightop Mountain, a craggy Berkshire County landmark that separated Blackwell from the rest of the world. August was the time when the festival to commemorate Hallie Brady was held, but those who thought she’d been born in that month were mistaken. In fact, she had been born in Birmingham, England, on the sixteenth of March into unhappy circumstances. An orphan, long on her own, she’d been forced to find employment at a hatmaker’s at the age of eleven. It was an unsavory situation that included more than merely fashioning hatbands out of black ribbon. The factory owner lurked close by, running his hands over Hallie’s pale, freckled skin as though he owned her. She bided her time. She was the sort of person ready to face the wilderness, a young woman certain she had nothing more to lose. When compared to her childhood, all the hardships of the Berkshires added up to heaven, despite the deep, nearly endless winters.
Even in the heat of summer, when there were mosquitoes skimming over the surface of the river and bees bumped against windowpanes, people looked out at Hightop and shivered. Not everyone was as brave as Hallie Brady, and the local people who followed the founders knew how killing the darkest months in these parts could be. They wondered how the first settlers had managed to survive that initial winter, when there were bears in every tree and the snowdrifts were said to be as tall as a man. Before Hallie and the settlers arrived, the far side of Hightop was unpopulated. The native people who camped nearby vowed that no man would ever find happiness west of the mountain. Hunters never crossed into that territory even though the woods were filled with wolves and fox. There were red-tailed hawks, deer, squirrels, and more bears than anyone could count. Still they stayed away. They believed some places were forbidden, and that men were no more the kings of all things than the bees that swarmed over the mountain in midsummer.
William Brady headed the first expedition. He decided that he needed a wife before he set into the wild, western parts of Massachusetts, a ready partner to help carry the weight of the journey. He met Hallie in Boston a month after her arrival, and before another month had passed they said I do and started out west. Hallie had been fending for herself ever since leaving England. William was the first man to ask her for her hand, and she quickly agreed. She didn’t believe in romance, but she did have faith in her own future. He was forty, she was seventeen. He had already failed at everything he had tried; she hadn’t yet begun to live. Hallie had the impression that the marriage was a mistake on their wedding night, spent at a raucous inn near Boston harbor. William had done his husbandly business, then had dropped into a deep, twitchy sleep. He hadn’t uttered a single word during their lovemaking. Soon Hallie would realize she should have been grateful for that, but on that night she seemed absurdly alone, considering she was a newly married woman.
William had a single virtue. He was an excellent salesman. He had sold Hallie on the notion of their marriage, and soon afterward he managed to convince three other families to travel with them out west. There was safety in numbers, especially when heading across the mountains. The Motts and the Starrs signed on, along with the Partridges, who had a young son named Harry. Hallie quickly began to suspect she had married a confidence man. In fact, William Brady was running from debtor’s prison and a long list of failed projects that included bilking people of their earnings. He convinced the three other families to pay for everything they’d need to set out: the horses, the mules, the dried meat, the flour, the cornmeal. In exchange, William would lead the way. He said he had experience, but in fact he had never been farther west than Concord. He led them in circles for the full month of October, a foolish time to start out across uncharted land, fumbling through the wilderness until an early blinding snowstorm stopped their progress. They had just scrambled over Hightop Mountain when the bad weather overtook them. Where they hunkered down, in the valley below, marked the beginning of Bearsville.