JOURNEY TO HONOR
Updated: Jul 8
James Pierson Beckwourth (1798-1866)
About 62 years old
JOURNEY TO HONOR is dedicated to my father’s parents, Joseph and Adina Kirkwood, for their
family’s story, which is a presence throughout the novel, and to my mother’s parents, Edgar Roberts and
Vilma Russell, for the heart to write it.
A willowy, small-waisted, high-breasted lady, Winifred Miskell Beckwourth carried herself like a
woman apart. Her delicate shoulders thrown back like a ballet dancer’s, Winnie glided along
Fredericksburg’s roads and, later, St. Louis’s wooden sidewalks, like a long-legged dream.
I idolized my mother. My child’s memory caught her perched in the second-floor window of her reading
room in Virginia. I would walk through cherry tree groves while she strummed a guitar to one of her
own bittersweet love songs. The late afternoon sun attended her, sometimes enveloping her lissome
body in its dying brilliance. Then its rays lingered on the Rappahannock before it dipped under, leaving
behind a sorrel shadow who had now opened her feline yellowish-green eyes. Winnie played until she
lost the light.
My father, Jennings Beckwourth, was a strapping man whose steel black eyes often grew moist when he
looked at Mother. He adored his Winifred. He, too, took in her evening serenades. The music filtered
through the cracks in the door to Winnie’s husband who either stood outside in the hall or in their
adjoining bedroom which had a separate entrance. Sometimes the family sat down to dinner an hour or
so late. My parents always came downstairs smiling, talking and touching. Mother smelled of freshly
Inside our stone gabled house, we were safe. A family. One. But once we passed through the portals,
we became divided and vulnerable.
My father was my master; my mother was his slave. I could do nothing about the circumstances of my
birth. I could not strengthen my tenuous relationship with my father who could sell me whenever he
decided to do so. I could not change the times. So, I worked hard to be good and make my father happy
and proud of me. It was more than a son simply trying to win his father’s love. It was a complicated
matter of trying to ensure my physical stability. And perhaps, my survival.
Father coddled his children with his wealth. We ate venison and fowl from our land, dressed in stylish,
sturdy clothing and got good schooling. He saw to it that we never wanted for anything material. But I
yearned for my freedom. He swore his devotion to us. I demanded my birthright as his son. He turned
his head, closed the door, shut me out when I pleaded my cause.
“No, Jim, no.” No. No. No. At those times, I hated him. I did not understand his need to own us.
Father’s proprietorship soothed his fear of losing Mother. She would never abandon him while he had
us. I doubt he talked about our human bondage with anyone but the woman he slept with for twenty-
He trusted Mother. We all did. She kept our confidences well. My tiny hand cupped inside hers, the
two of us walked along the river as I dreamt aloud of sailing away, crossing into the world of travel and
taking an outsider’s passage into the unknown. I saw a forging channel there. I saw a way to be free.
Mother understood. She intuitively knew that it’s a lone flight toward death. She loved Father; she
loved us. But she loved in a freeing way. She did not share my wanderlust. But she knew that I would
not tolerate any compromise in my station in life. How else could I take my manhood than in the whorl
of rivers and roads? Mother knew that travel was the way for me.
She also knew the futility of seeking self through love. After all, Father owned her body and sought to
possess her very core. But Mother needed her inner strength to ward off the rude stares, loud thoughts
and whispered jabs of passers-by. She died of a heavy, heavy heart that her love for Father should suffer
the scorn of most. Black and white.
Scorn forced our family to move thousands of miles from the very settled Virginia into the wilderness of
Missouri. With her courage, Mother persuaded us that the flight was not only an escape from the harsh
judgement of civilized citizens but also a compelling venture into a new and unfamiliar world. Our
family, then seven children – now there are thirteen of whom I am the third oldest – Mother and Father
and twenty-two slaves moved to land between the forks of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers outside of
St. Louis and twelve miles south of St. Charles. Beckwourth’s Settlement, it came to be called.
When we arrived in Missouri in 1806, St. Louis’ growth seemed stymied at forty-one. Once ruled by
Spain and France, the city of fewer than one thousand citizens took in a disappointing trickle of
immigrants after its cession to the United States on March 10, 1804. On that day, three flags fluttered
over St. Louis in ceremonial show. The three hundred families living there turned out in their usual
convivial spirits. It was the talk of the town, so well-known for its many church celebrations, for years
to come. St. Louis was a city of well-meaning people. Still a western fort, there were no jails and little
crime. Folks lived simply and honestly. No one family possessed great wealth. Neither was there
beggary. People took time to contemplate their good fortune and happiness. They thought on the small
things. They thanked God for the sweet aroma of bread baking in the early morning hours and for the
quiet hum of family members sleeping contentedly at night.
People in St. Louis came from all over – most from small, century-old towns on the Illinois, some from
New Orleans and Canada and Spain. They were Creole. They were black slaves and free men and
women of color. They were European. They were European Americans whom the Sparrowhawks, the
Blackfeet, the Assinboines, the Minnetarees and the Mandans disapproved of. Adventurers, traders and
trappers frequently stopped in town on their way to and from the Far West. La Rue Royale – the only
street in town – promised an exotic parade. The city on the riverbank and under the hill delivered.
North of it, a gently rolling plateau called La Grande Prairie stretched under tall timber that splashed
gold, orange and deep red wine colors against the autumn sky. It is splendid, Mother would say when
we left town for home after monthly visits for provisions that time of year.
Mother exuded a self-knowledge and intuition that frightened Father. And Father was a frightened man
and painfully private though, in Virginia, he habitually extended himself as host to friends from his
Revolutionary War days whom he commanded as Major Beckwourth. The men stopped by one evening
a week to relive their past battles and rekindle their present camaraderie. The smell of cigar smoke
alerted me that he had company in the drawing room downstairs. Between sips of peach brandy, the
compatriots recounted their long nights of sleeping on damp, muddy ground up north and missing their
wives, sweethearts and the warm hearths of Virginian homes. They lamented in voices breaking, often
on their feet while delivering their stories to the intimate crowd, the same audience of seven who long
ago had memorized the words, pauses and movements. Barriers broke away when the old soldiers leapt
from their hand carved wooden chairs to hug their friend close and firm. It was a man’s ceremony.
Special. I was not yet seven and, so, felt honoured to be allowed to look on. Father customarily told the
story of recruiting troops to storm the British fort at Stony Point, New York on the Hudson River.
General Wayne led that attack which proved to be successful.
No. Talk of rearing his slave family would not fit in smoothly among recollections of his military
conquests. Though it stuck in the front of everyone’s mind, no one uttered a word about it. That was
Father’s business. The Beckwourth name was a respected one. The free and enslaved communities
disdained Father’s choice of a mulatto for marriage but they allowed for it by refusing to acknowledge it
Father’s order of silence on the subject of my freedom held until he decided to lift it. Last year on the
twenty-sixth of April, 1814 – my sixteenth birthday – Father promised to give me my papers when he
felt I was ready, perhaps when I reached my twenties. The major commanded that I prove my love for
him for another decade, at least.
As he and I and two of my brothers shouldered Mother’s weighty coffin, I thought about how she had
spent half of her forty-seven years proving her love for him.
We led the procession of fifty mourners – my ten brothers and sisters and the rest, mostly Father’s slaves
and hired employees. We walked from the clapboard church at Portage des Sioux near St. Louis to the
graveyard on Beckwourth’s Settlement.
We stopped at Mother’s marble tombstone, the marker of her final resting place six feet and two inches
below in a moist, dark spot. Suddenly, I knew death to be alone. I knew that Mother was dead alone. I
could never see her again, listen to her sing, take solace in her repeated assurances that it was going to
be all right. She was gone gone gone. I shuddered. I felt tears coming but cringed at the thought of
weeping in front of the others, most of whom were there not to mourn but to fulfil an obligation to
Father. I swallowed my salty tears. My father stood tall in front of me. So did I, stand tall. No tears.
No clinging to family members. No outward sign of despair.
The procession dispersed. People gathered into several knots that formed a half-arc around the burial
place. Overhead, clouds had swallowed the sun and marshalled the sky. A cold, September drizzle
began to fall. The Reverend Bayard Thompson wiped a drop from his forehead with the back of his
farmer’s son hands. Then he launched into a recital of appropriate passages from the Bible ending with
– “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The finality of the Episcopalian minister’s words churned my insides. I wanted to vomit the pain, the
agony, the loneliness. I wanted to expel my fear of living without my mother. I wanted to tear into the
cherry tree groves of Virginia, peek into her second-floor window, then slowly rock in enthrallment of
Father did not understand Mother’s aloofness. He took it for rejection. I hope that I have learned
enough from Mother to be happy.
James Pierson Beckwourth was a charmer who smiled expansively with full, moist lips and coal black
eyes. At nineteen years old, he was skittish. He was a young man with many questions whose answers
he would live out.
His father had sent him to Mr. Niel’s Academy for young gentlemen in St. Louis when he was ten.
Along with fifty other boys, also the sons of well-to-do merchants and large landowners, Jim studied
arithmetic, wrote compositions, and read Shakespeare and Milton. He was introduced to Bach, loved
Mozart, and he learned to dance the waltz.
At fifteen, his formal education complete, Jim’s father arranged an apprenticeship for him to prominent
blacksmiths in the city named John L. Sutton and George Casner. Casner ran the shop.
Jim was on some days content as a blacksmith’s apprentice and on others resolved to leave it promptly
and explore other ways of life, other places. He was convinced of his uncertainty if of nothing else.
His well-toned body, strong and nut colored, turned heads as he passed by or walked into a room or
business. He wore his hair, black as the raven’s wing, a little longer than was fashionable over his ears.
His eyes gleamed with liveliness. His eyebrows grew thicker as they neared the bridge over his flared
nose. A tiny black mole lay hidden in the fold of skin between his left eye and his brow. Only when he
closed his eyes was it completely exposed. His lips were usually parted in a smile or a laugh. He wore a
meticulously trimmed moustache.
A tall man, his frame filled a doorway. There was something of the nobleman in him, not in a haughty
but in a dashing way, which made him appear more handsome than he really was. Perhaps it was the
way he held his head tilted slightly back as he carried on conversation in round, mellifluous tones.
Already as a young man, he had presence. He also had an actor’s instinct for entertaining people by
endearing himself to them, sometimes in a manipulative fashion. That, blended with his instinct for
survival, made Jim Beckwourth quite a character. He always left an impression.
But he made enemies too. He was bound to.
Some people found his comfortable manner offensive. They said he craved attention. They were blacks
and whites whom Jim spent time around because he was half white and half mulatto and moved in three
different worlds. He was attuned to each and responded accordingly. He knew how to read people.
And when he wanted, he could set them at ease.
But Jim was proud; he was confused. He did not kowtow to blacks or whites. Sometimes it seemed as
if he grasped at his sense of family for a racial identity. He tried to act as though race was unimportant.
He flinched at the mention of it. His uneasiness caused resentment. Jim seemed to think that he was
above racial distinctions, some thought.
He knew who his enemies were. Rarely was Jim caught off guard although he constantly surprised
people who had heard of him but never met him. They expected cunning and coarse. Instead, they met
a shrewd, cultivated man. That wayward expectancy would haunt Jim all his life that now met him at
the start of manhood.
He found that he was not unattractive to members of the opposite sex. As he made the acquaintance of
young women, he became smitten with one. Eliza was her name. Her beau visited her at her mother's
house nearly every evening after work.
“I can’t imagine not knowing you,” Jim gushed. “I can’t imagine not looking into your brown eyes.
They’re like a fawn’s. You are so very precious.”
“I feel safe with you,” the petite Eliza Shepheard cooed.
The two moved closer on the divan in the main room. Their bodies touched. Jim took Eliza’s child-
sized hands in both of his and squeezed them hard.
It was the spring of 1817, and they were each other’s first love.
Both sighed. They thought of a life together. She closed her eyes and saw their children playing. She
saw Jim coming home sweaty from his own blacksmith’s shop where he had been shodding horses,
turning grindstones and pumping furnace bellows. He closed his eyes and saw her. The rest was
cloudy. Jim knew he would not work the rest of his life as a blacksmith. Certainly not. Every day, the
same routine. Predictable. Dull. It was not because he disliked the trade. He enjoyed wielding its tools
and further defining his sinewy arms and shoulders. It was the steadiness of it that he disliked. He tried,
on numerous occasions, to talk with Eliza about it. But she seemed anxious for that way of life, anxious
to prove her upstanding ways and bear out her upbringing as a free mulatto girl. They fought frequently.
“You’ll own the biggest shop in town,” she said.
Jim said nothing. He released her hands. Inside, pieces of him thrashed about. She sensed it. It
irritated her that he did not share her dream.
“You have a good education. You come from a good family. We can make a solid life for ourselves
here in St. Louis.”
Again, Jim said nothing. Eliza bristled:
“More, more. You always want more.”
Her small voice began to fill the room. Still, Jim said nothing. A rage was building within him. He
stood up. She bolted:
“Jim, you’re a slave. What can you demand from life?”
He whirled around and shot back:
“I demand respect. From you. From my family. From the people I work with and live around. I
demand the freedom to choose my trade, to change my mind, to make mistakes. Eliza, I demand the
right to be human.”
He rushed out of the door and began walking to Mrs. Jacobo’s boardinghouse. His words loomed large
behind him. Eliza began to cry. Why must he be so stubborn? Jim thought, how can she be so
insensitive? And worse, how can she be so content? She infuriated him with her stodginess. He
pummelled the ground with angry, careless steps. His oldest sister, Matilda, had agreed that Eliza was a
smart, determined girl but she had also warned him about her. Unless they were determined to do the
same things, life with her would be an impossibility. Jim did not believe it. They loved each other. He
knew they could work out their differences. Even in his anger, he did not consider severing his
relationship with her. When he became restless at work, it was Eliza’s heart-shaped face he saw. When
he thought of his undecided future, it was Eliza he saw. When he drifted off to sleep at night, it was
Eliza he saw last and then woke up to the next day. He would go see her tomorrow evening, he
decided. He would apologize for storming out.
Jim rounded the last corner of the familiar mile-long route home. He opened the door to the house,
climbed up one flight of stairs and entered his sparsely furnished bachelor’s room. He lit a candle nearly
melted down to its ornate, black wrought iron holder and placed it next to an opened copy of the
Missouri Gazette on an oak bureau alongside his bed. Jim undressed quickly, climbed under the quilt
Matilda had sewn for him and reached for the newspaper.
“TO ENTERPRISING YOUNG MEN,” an advertisement blared, “SEE THE OPEN WEST.
ADVENTURE AWAITS YOU.”
Advertisements frequented the pages of St. Louis’ newspapers more and more for beaver trappers,
hunters and explorers, blacksmiths, carpenters and boat builders, packers, teamsters and camp followers.
Jim’s mind lingered on how much he wanted to travel. His desire was fanned by conversation of some
of Casner’s customers who walked with the swagger of having been somewhere others had only heard
of. They had just returned from the Far West and dressed like it, functionally and colourfully.
This man wore a light blue shirt made of coarse cloth, and over his breeches, long deerskin leggings
which left uncovered his hips and thighs. A hunting shirt, opened in the front with a generous amount of
material against his chest used as a pocket, hung almost to his knees. The shirt also had a cape and
billowy sleeves that gave it a romantic look. His moccasins were made of one piece of buckskin and
sewn together from the heel to the ankle with deer sinew or buckskin. Its upper part was gathered from
the top to the instep.
From shirt to shoes – embroidery, leather fringe, fancy beading, hair and feathers decorated each piece
of clothing. Often he still wore a handkerchief, turban style, on his head when he stopped at Casner’s to
get his horse shod or a gun made on the gunsmith side of the shop. When a man of his ilk made an
appearance, Jim found excuses to loiter nearby, listening to his loud talk and taking in his rough
mannerisms. He was from another world. Sometimes his eyes spoke of his homesickness, his sighs of
his frustration with the artificial glamor of the city. At times, Jim would quiz him on his adventures.
“Get back to work. Get back to work,” Casner, a short, stocky, balding man of forty-five, would bark in
his gruff, repetitious way of talking.
Stung, Jim would stop talking, apologize to his boss and rein in the words he really wanted to say.
Casner was becoming overbearing, he would think. Then the image of Eliza would eclipse that of
Newspaper in hand, Jim drifted to sleep carried on a dream of galloping under a big sky on a wide, wide
expanse of country toward that elusive place over the next hill, and the next, and the next. Forever, the
openness seemed to go on. The color and contour of the terrain changed along with the foliage but the
openness went on. Jim let out an impulsive, whooping cry of joy.
He rode as his own man. His concerns were dictated by genuine, physical needs – food to eat, a place to
camp -- not by society’s contrived conventions founded on class and custom. In the Far West, a man
was rewarded with respect for his courage, his skill and his common sense.
A knock at the door startled the dreamer.
“Jim, Jim. It’s seven o’clock. Are you ill? Are you going to work today?”
He popped up, pulled on his breeches and doused his face with water from the washbowl on a stand at
the foot of the bed. He was supposed to start work at quarter past seven.
“Yes, yes, Mrs. Jacobo,” he answered. “Thank you for checking. I don’t know what happened. I guess
“You’ve got too much on your mind, Jim. Now hurry up and get downstairs. I’ve made some biscuits.
You don’t have time to sit and eat a full breakfast, I know. But at least you can swallow a few mouthfuls
of coffee and take some biscuits to eat on the way to Mr. Casner’s. See you downstairs.”
“Yes, Mrs. Jacobo. Thank you.”
Casner. Wasn’t he going to relish reprimanding Jim for being late. Jim had been late twice in the last
month. Maybe Mrs. Jacobo was right. Maybe he did have too much on his mind. If Eliza found out,
she would have something to say especially after their fight last night. She knew that Casner was a
stickler for promptness. She did not want Jim to jeopardize his chance of staying on so that he could,
eventually, leave Casner with the experience and good reference to start his own business.
Jim thought these things as he alternated walking and running, while eating, on his way to work. Why
today, of all days, did he have to oversleep. Nothing was going right.
When he approached the doorway to the shop twenty minutes late, Casner rushed out to castigate him.
“Late, late. Again late, Jim.”
“Yes, Mr. Casner. And I apologize. I don’t know what happened. I slept late.”
“I know what happened. I know what happened. You were out courting that Shepheard girl again until
a late hour. You had silk and perfume on your mind instead of iron and cinders. I’ve told you over and
over that you must keep your mind on your work. It’s your whole reason for being in St. Louis and my
reason for sponsoring you. Your father seems to think he can make you into a responsible young man.
All I see is an ungrateful boy, an ungrateful boy.”
“I am not a boy, Mr. Casner. I am not ungrateful.”
“You’re irresponsible. You don’t care about anyone but your selfish self. I don’t have to sponsor you. I
don’t have to keep you as an apprentice. I could let you go this minute.”
“That would suit me fine.”
“Why you…,” said Casner.
Enraged at Jim’s retort, he reached for a hammer on the ground and flung it at him. Jim dodged the
missile. He retrieved it. Then he laughed as if to say he was much younger, quicker and stronger than
his opponent. Jim hurled the tool but missed his mark. Consumed with anger, Casner lunged for his
legs and toppled him over. They tangled on the ground in a passion that caused most of their punches to
connect with the air.
Their clothes dusty brown, their muscles tight and their skin glistening with sweat, they postured their
bodies for more of a fight. It came, however, in words between short breaths.
“You son of a bitch mongrel son of a slave,” Casner yelled. “You get off my property, do you hear me?
Get off. And don’t ever come back. Don’t ever come back.”
“Goddamn you,” Jim said. “Why would I want to come back after being granted my fondest wish. You
sad, pathetic man. It’s a good thing you were born white. You’d never survive otherwise.”
“You’re through as a blacksmith. Through as a blacksmith. I wouldn’t recommend you to the devil, to
the devil. You’re –
“Mr. Chaperone. Good day,” Casner addressed a regular customer who approached the business with
alarm on his face.
The blacksmith chose not to explain the reason behind his sullied appearance and harsh words and those
of his employee. He beckoned Chaperone into his shop, turning once to tell Jim, “See to it you attend to
Jim pounded the ground in a fury on his way home to Mrs. Jacobo’s. His mind raced in several
directions at once. Late three times in a month and he loses an apprenticeship after four years. It was
more than that, Jim thought. Casner had become stricter as Jim neared the end of his training. He
seemed to be longing for a way to end their relationship. Oh, to hell with Casner, Jim thought. Casner
did him a favor. He did not want to be a blacksmith anyway. Now he no longer had a commitment to be
one. He could do what he wanted to do. He could travel. There was nothing holding him in St. Louis
now. Eliza. What would he do about Eliza? She would be crushed by the news. She hung their lives
together on blacksmithing. And his father? His father would understand.
“Jim, what are you doing back home? What happened,” Mrs. Jacobo asked. She was in the downstairs
parlor enjoying a cup of tea and sweet cakes, a solitary pleasure that was a morning ritual.
Estelle Jacobo was more than surprised to see Jim. She was excited at the chance to be alone with him.
She lusted for him.
Estelle was a confident woman with thick, blonde hair pulled back softly in a bun. Her body was round,
full and firm. At forty-two, she had the comely look of a mature woman. She had moved alone to St.
Louis years ago from a small town in southern Missouri. She told people that her husband, a farmer,
had died of consumption. He had left her no children. She had no other family.
She had lied.
Estelle had never married. There was no farmer husband. Yet, the “widow” Estelle enjoyed the pleasure
of running a business not ordinarily granted to a single woman. She got a job serving food and drink in
a saloon soon after she got into town. After a few years, she had saved money and befriended enough
potential investors, including Jim’s father, to open her boardinghouse.
She thwarted offers of evening companionship from men who would want to marry her so she could stay
at home and from men who thought she had no scruples because she did not stay at home. Estelle had
no husband, no suitors and no prospects.
Jim was young. He was vibrant. Estelle did not look upon him as a suitor, a lover or a friend. She only
knew that when he entered a room, she could smell sex. He made her heart beat harder and faster.
“I won’t be working for Mr. Casner any longer,” Jim explained. “My patron – my former patron has
decided that I am not worthy of his continued support. He told me to leave and never come back.”
“Jim, did you and he fight? Are you all right,” Estelle asked, her eyes finally seeing the man.
She went over to him and tenderly touched the bruise forming on his left cheek.
“Poor thing,” she said, her breaths quickening as she examined the uncovered parts of his body for more
bruises, cuts and scratches.
“I’m fine, Mrs. Jacobo, but I appreciate your concern,” Jim said, not realizing how concerned she was
about the condition of his body. “You’ve been very kind to me. Really, I look worse than I am. Casner
and I did begin to fight but we didn’t finish. Neither of us was seriously hurt.
“What I need to do now is go upstairs and wash up,” he said, moving away from his landlady’s
exploring eyes and hands.
“Oh, no. What you need to do now is sit down, take a shot of whiskey and tell me everything that went
on at work.”
Suddenly, Jim was exhausted. Estelle’s thinly veiled order enticed him. He plopped down on a chair
like a child taking a break from roughhousing to quench his thirst. He gagged on his drink and
immediately felt heady.
Estelle stood and ministered to Jim’s wounds with water and whiskey while he sat and spoke of his
eventful morning. She started with his left arm; he started with Casner’s curses in their original volume
and answered them in like voice. After he recreated the confrontation, he began musing on what he was
going to do in a more subdued tone. Estelle was a good listener and an attentive nurse. When he
mentioned Eliza, however, she hushed him on the pretence of tending to his left cheek. The silence, the
whiskey and the nearness of Estelle’s body took him to the place she had been since he stepped inside
the house. She leaned over slowly and softly kissed his bruise. Then her lips slipped downward and
found his and ravenously tasted his mouth. Jim stood up, their mouths stilled joined, his arms encircling
her waist, then grazing her hips.
“Now I think it’s time to go upstairs,” she whispered, when their mouths parted for a moment.
They held hands and ran upstairs to Estelle’s bedroom. Once inside, they tore each other’s clothes off.
For a second, they visually ravished the other’s body. Estelle’s roundness made Jim hot. Her legs,
stomach, arms strained toward him. Her hair rearranged itself around her heavy breasts, whose roseate
nipples seemed to perk up.
Jim’s naked body was taut all over. He looked like an animal in the wild. He looked natural. Estelle
was already wet with desire.
They fell on the large brass bed covered with white linen that smelled of spring breezes and the sun.
The hair on Jim’s skin felt like velvet to the touch. Exquisite. Jim caressed every curve of Estelle, first
teasingly with one finger, then assuredly with both strong hands. She nearly fainted and then crawled on
top of him. They sank their faces, hands, all of themselves into each other. Over and over again. At its
climax, they shivered together.
“Mrs. Jacobo,” a voice called from below.
It was Casner. They both recognized him. Without a word, they got up and dressed as quickly as they
had undressed. Their hearts beat as quickly but for far different reasons.
“Mrs. Jacobo,” Casner shouted again.
Dressed, Estelle swiftly pecked Jim on his left cheek. She started downstairs.
“Mr. Casner,” she said, as she descended. “What a surprise. What can I do for you this morning?”
“I’d like to talk with you about your boarder, my apprentice, Jim Beckwourth,” he said.
“Let’s go into the parlor,” Estelle said.
She cleared the teapot, cup and empty whiskey glass. Casner refused an offer of refreshment. He said
he had to hurry back to work.
“I have fired Jim, Mrs. Jacobo.”
“Fired,” she said, in feigned astonishment. “When? Why?”
“This morning when he came in late again. His mind hasn’t been on his work for some time. When I
tell him that, he responds politely in words, but his attitude is audacious. I’ve come to tell you that I will
no longer be paying his bill here for room and board. I don’t know what he plans to do.”
“I plan to continue living here,” Jim said, standing in the doorway. I don’t need your money. I’ve got
plenty of my own.”
“You rude brat. How dare you eavesdrop and intrude on our conversation.”
“It seems it’s a conversation that rightfully should include me, doesn’t it? You came here to have me
thrown into the street.”
“I’m sure a Beckwourth would never find himself in the street. I came here to rid myself of you.”
“Fine, fine. I don’t want anything from you.”
“Why, you,” Casner said, now on his feet. “All the time I’ve spent teaching you.”
“All the time I’ve spent sweating for you,” Jim said. “I gave you hard labor for that time you spent.”
“I should have given your apprenticeship to some deserving boy who would have been appreciative of
“You should have given it to a black lackey. That’s what you thought you did, isn’t it? You thought you
hired someone to cater to you. Someone to say yes sir, yes sir, yes sir. Well, I came to learn a trade, not
to belittle myself.”
Estelle screamed at them to stop but the built-up tension could only vent itself in blows. The more they
fought, the uglier it got. No longer anger. It turned to hate, unmitigated. Their bodies became entangled
in a life-threatening snarl. Neither man knew where he was anymore. Blood splattered the floral area
rug that had been moved and crumpled in another corner of the room. After delivering a punch to
Casner’s stomach that knocked the wind in a loud gasp from him, Estelle’s screams broke through the
madness to Jim’s ears. He realized that death lurked in the doorway. The older, less spry man could
only win by chance. As Casner drew himself up, Jim apologized to Estelle while catching his breath.
The blacksmith, relieved, joined in and reminded her of the original purpose of his visit. He left in a
Jim and Estelle clutched each other.
“No telling what Casner’ll do,” she said. “You’ve got to leave.”
“I know,” Jim said.
“Where will you go? To your father’s house?”
“No. That’s not getting away, now is it? I’ll go to a friend’s house. Think things out.”
“I’m not sure. I haven’t decided. I’d better get upstairs, clean up and pack.”
“Do you need help, Jim? Is there anything I can help you with?”
“No, Estelle. You’re a help just for asking.”
Jim left Estelle worrying. The fury that she had felt and seen would not dissipate on its own. Casner
would seek revenge. She began to pick up in the parlor, then sat down in a thud, her shoulders slumped.
So much had happened in the last few hours. She needed time to take it in. She and Jim had made
love. She thought it might be their last chance to have each other. She thought it would be safe with Jim
going away. Now that they had had sex, she felt sorry that they had not before. Jim was a sensual
lover. Then she slapped herself back to reality. It would be difficult for them to carry on a secret affair.
She would not have much of a business if people suspected she had a mulatto half her age as her lover.
St. Louis would find the image preposterous. But what a lover he was; what a man he would be. Good
he was going. She might be tempted to follow her passion.
Jim climbed upstairs thinking that Estelle was a sweet lady with a lust for life he was happy she had
shared with him that morning. He had felt her attraction to him grow, but he was not attracted to her
sexually. That they had had sex was a matter of circumstance.
He thought somehow he had to get to Eliza and explain his dismissal to her. But he could not stay with
Eliza. John Hierophant. He and John had attended Mr. Niel’s Academy together. John was his closest
friend. His father owned and managed the bank downtown.
Jim threw enough clothes for a few days into a leather valise. He tossed the Missouri Gazette
on top and closed it. Then he started to wash and examine himself for wounds. Jim moved quickly.
He expected more trouble.
Three strong raps at the door downstairs startled both Estelle and Jim.
“It’s the authorities come for James Pierson Beckwourth. Open up.”
Jim stood along the balustrade. Estelle was outside the parlor near the foot of the stairs. Her eyes said,
“What can I do?” As she opened the door, Jim ducked into his room to get his loaded pistol from the top
drawer of the bureau. He ran to the top of the stairs in time to meet with the constable who was about to
“I advise you not to proceed,” Jim ordered, pointing the gun at the one-armed officer.
“James Pierson Beckwourth. I’ve come to take you into custody for questioning.”
“Don’t come any nearer. I’ll shoot if you do.”
“Jim, I’m only doing my job. Mr. Casner filed a complaint of assault against you. We need to ask you
some questions and find out what really happened.”
“No. I’m not going.”
“Jim, I’m met your father. He would want you to do the right thing. He would want you to come
peaceably with me.”
“I’m not going. I’ll shoot you if you come any nearer,” Jim warned again.
“All right. Then I’ll be going,” the constable said, backing out of the house so that he could keep his
sight on Jim.
Estelle stood immobile through this latest episode. When he left, she said:
“Jim, what are you doing? You threatened a man of law. My God, Jim.”
She went on in this way but Jim was not listening. He hastened preparation for his departure. It was
likely that more than one constable would return for his capture.
Valise in hand, he slipped downstairs and outside through a back door without being seen by or talking
with Estelle. He slinked through back alleys and the quieter, less frequented streets on his way to
John’s. He did not run so as not to attract attention. When he got to his friend’s house at the edge of
town – outside of town not so long ago – he climbed a sycamore tree whose branches reached John’s
room window. They sneaked in and out this way when they were boys. Jim thought the fewer people
who knew his whereabouts the better. John’s door was closed but Jim hid in the armoire anyway. For
several hours, he alternately crouched over or squatted among the trousers, shirts, jackets, boots and
shoes in the clothespress. During those hours whose minutes made themselves felt on his back, Jim
worked on his plan of escape and his goodby speeches if he dared tarry to make them.
He heard a commotion downstairs, muffled voices. John and his father had probably come home from
the first and only bank in town where Jim’s friend, an only child, was being spoonfed the business.
Jim heard the front door open. He saw the closet door swing open and John’s hand reach in. He grabbed
“What…,” gasped John.
“Shh…It’s me,” he said, slowly unkinking his body as he stepped out of the armoire.
“What’s going on? The authorities are looking for you. They say you tried to kill Casner and a
“Does the whole town know about this?”
“No, not the whole town. They came to my father, as they usually do, to let him know what was
happening. Is it true, Jim?”
“No. I fought Casner to protect myself. He attacked me first. Then I warned an officer not to attempt to
take me in lest he lose his life. Yes, that is true. I’m scared, John. Really scared. I didn’t know what to
do. I knew Casner would make it sound like I was out to get him so I ran away.”
Jim related the day’s occurrences in detail with the exception of making love with Estelle. It would
enrage John that he had touched a white woman.
“What a mess,” John said. “What are you going to do now?”
Jim opened his valise. He took out the newspaper and spread the advertisement for adventurous young
men on the bare wood floor.
“This is what we’ve talked about for years, John. Traveling. Exploring. Discovering new places and
people. Colonel Hiram Johnson needs men now for an expedition up the Fever River. He’s going to try
to get the consent of the Sac Indians to work the lead mines. What do you say, John?”
John Hierophant and Jim Beckwourth had met at Mr. Niel’s Academy. From the first, schoolmates
lauded John because he was the son of a powerful man, because he was an affable, outgoing boy, and
because he was a strong lad with an athletic body and swarthy looks. He was everything a boy could
want to be. The world could not have been promised to a nicer person.
John was an honest boy who befriended Jim because he liked his spunk. He detected in Jim a courage
that he was not sure he had. He never had cause to call on it.
As John sat on the floor staring at the ad, he remembered how the other boys taunted Jim when he first
came to school. Jim was the only boy of color in attendance.
“Nigger,” snarled one of the first boys Jim met outside in the schoolyard. “What makes you think you
Jim’s face grew hot. He started to sweat. He was embarrassed, angry and confused. He had never been
called that name. He called on his father’s outward control to hold himself back. The taunter stopped
speaking. He and the others wore the same ignorant, contorted look of hate. They left an empty circle
around Jim. John escaped the tyranny unobtrusively by going inside to speak with the schoolmaster
about another matter.
For weeks, Jim’s classmates called him names, talked about his mother or else, ignored him completely.
Mostly, they pretended he was not there. But it soon became apparent that Jim was bright. In class,
teachers singled him out to answer the key questions, the hard ones. Encouraged by the respect Jim was
earning for his intellect, John offered his friendship. And the others, finally, accepted Jim. Under the
umbrage of the academy, he was practically accorded equal status as one of the boys. Race rarely
entered into polite conversation. Jim became popular.
As graduation neared and the boys looked for employment – usually to their fathers – they celebrated
Jim’s blacksmith’s apprenticeship. They knew that Jim’s intellect was capable of more than the
respectable trade of blacksmithing, but his brawn was well suited to it. His school chums silently agreed
that Jim could not expect to rise to an intellectual place of distinction in the world as he had in school. It
was rare enough that he was a black man who would be working for pay. Jim had to remember his
John, on the other hand, had inherited an enviable position. He had no intention of traipsing off to the
Far West. In the few years he had been a banker, he had become ensconced in a position of power and
“So, what do you say, John,” Jim asked again.
“What will your father say? And what about Eliza? Aren’t you two going to get married?”
“Yes, we’re going to get married. Eliza will see the sense of this after a lot of kicking and screaming.
And Father will agree with my plan. I’m sure I can depend on him. My chance of getting a fair shake
here is nil. Casner has it out for me. He will be believed. I won’t. And even if I am believed, I will go
to jail. He won’t. I cannot stay. And you, my friend?”
“I don’t know, Jim.”
There was silence.
“I’m my parents’ only child. They have no one else to take care of them. I wish I could go with you,
but there’s no chance my father is going to fire me.”
There was a perturbed quiet. They both knew that John was afraid to sacrifice an assured life and
embrace the unknown, but neither would say it. John was ashamed. Jim was disappointed. However,
he loved his friend like a brother. He respected their friendship. He extended his right hand for a
handshake, placed his left hand on John’s shoulder and said, “I understand.” They hugged hard and
talked deeply with each other.
“I’m going to miss you,” Jim said.
“Me, too,” his friend echoed. “I will always be your friend. I will always be here for you.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
They squeezed even closer, then broke away feeling glorified, feeling wistful.
“I think you should stay here a few days before setting out. Hopefully, the chase will let up. Does
anyone know you’re here?”
“We’ll keep it that way. No one else in the house will know either. I’ll take care of the servants. I’ll
nose around and find out about Colonel Johnson’s expedition and its date of departure. I must know
someone in a hiring capacity. Don’t worry, Jim. We’ll work this out. Are you hungry? It’s about time
for dinner. I’ll smuggle food upstairs for you.”
Jim spent the next three days there. His escape depended entirely on John’s talent for furtiveness.
Saying goodby to anyone else was too risky. Jim and John spoke of memories and dreams long into the
night with the intensity of parting in the air. In those moments, the lightness of youth evaporated.
And then he left.