top of page


"Pawnee family", a woodgraving (circa 1899), in John Clark Ridpath's Universal History (From the New York Public Library)



In the twenty-first year of young Mr. Beckwourth’s life, he left St. Louis a second time for far

more distant memories. Most of the men on the Ashley expedition, one of his company’s first,

were in their teens and twenties. They could all take a stab at fame by discovering a heretofore

unknown mountain passage or river or by risking their lives in a flamboyant kind of way.

The call of the mountaineer’s life did not rouse many. Frequently, mountain men were asked to

accomplish what had never been thought of before much less done. They worked in unmapped,

often unknown, territory for the European American. They depended on themselves to get the

job done. They achieved the impossible in the course of a normal day’s work. Their heroic lives

weaved lines of majesty on their faces and palms.

From the beginning, mountain men fought for the destiny of native North Americans. They

worked with them, lived with them and loved them. They married and fathered children among

them. Their blood commingled; their fates were one. The mountain man’s profession was

shaped and paralleled by the status of Indians living in and near the swelling United States.

No nation, man nor woman, lover nor friend, could demand the obedience of mountain men.

They were outsiders who balked at authority. They spent much of their time alone and liked it.

They were rebels although they only opposed law and order when it infringed on their freedom.

They lived outside the sphere of the gavel.

Most saw no recourse but to flee a handcuffed set that had dealt them low cards. They were not

a passive lot. They were class outcasts by circumstance or by choice. Some had no money and

no home. They all held a tough allegiance to themselves. This was the bond shared by this

small group of skilled and knowledgeable men. Their courage to be themselves empowered

them. Many were tight-lipped about their past; they always had a past.

As for their future, some men, because of family connections or a head about money, completed

their self-imposed exile and returned to honourable lives as statesmen, lawyers and businessmen.

They accepted the disciplined rigors of European American life. They were not many because

mountain men were not a regimented lot. Through their fault or nature’s, they experienced

extremes much of the time. Either broke or rich, starving or satiated, these periods lasted

unpredictable lengths of time. These men were sensualists who, more than the metallic and used

smell of coins that had rested in the hands of many, savoured the aroma of coffee in the fresh

country air.

They also possessed the perceptive eye of an artist when appreciating the earthbound and sky-

high murals of nature. The night sky was spangled with thousands of stars big enough to be

plucked and huge constellations with stories to tell through their names. There was Cassiopeia’s

Chair and Cepheus, the husband of Cassiopeia, and Orion the Hunter and His Dogs. Those

jewelled tales shimmered above the camp and two bedrolls.

“When I look up into the sky, I feel as though there’s no separation between me and it. It’s like

I’m a part of it. It’s magnificent,” Jim said to Moses Harris, called Black Harris in parts where

he was known. He and Jim had left the beaver-trapping expedition at the Kansas River eighty-

one miles from Independence, Missouri on the Santa Fe Trail. The two were on a mission. Both

men lay on their backs.

“You can see the sky in St. Louis, can’t you,” Moses asked.

“Yes, but it isn’t as clear. And I don’t look up at it as much. I suppose it’s different because I

sleep outdoors here. I spend all of my time outdoors.”

“I see what you mean. I love it out here. I’ve been doing this for eleven, twelve years now. I

couldn’t imagine living another kind of life. I’d feel like I was in prison living in a city.”

As a boy, Moses had acquired a great love for walking. Endurance had come with it. In

mountain circles, he was called a man of great leg. He moved confidently in long, strong strides.

His legs were as firm as cottonwood trees and as hairy. Moses was a loner about ten years older

than Jim. So when Jim volunteered to accompany him on a horse gathering mission to a

Republican Pawnee village three hundred miles away, Moses agreed reluctantly to his presence.

Moses preferred moving alone. He knew that he could depend on himself and no one else

completely. A stranger was just that, a stranger. Unpredictable. Especially a young man who

could become dangerously overzealous. But Jim convinced him that he could hold his own, not

unlike the man who, as the story goes, was left for dead by a mountain man on a similar long trek

only to reappear at another juncture. Jim needed to earn a place for himself in the group, and he

wanted to be around this tall standing man. He felt vaguely competitive though he knew that he

was not in the same league as the experienced Moses.

“For a city boy with all the privileges and only one expedition to Illinois country, a short hike

from St. Louis, you’re not doing too badly,” Moses said to Jim.

“We put in about forty miles today,” he continued. “I’d say we’re halfway there and we’ve only

been out five days. We’re doing all right, not remarkably, but all right.”

Moses’s remarks angered Jim. He thought they were moving fast. Moses also believed that they

were but he deduced that Jim needed to be brought down a few notches.

“I bet if you had come out with any one of the others, you would still be within hollering

distance of Ashley’s party,” Jim retorted, after springing into a sitting position.

“Could be,” Moses said, the words taking their time coming out and his gaze set on the stars.

“But I didn’t leave with anyone else and I don’t take to betting, so what difference does it


He paused for effect before answering his own question.


Jim said nothing. Moses was a curious man. He said little and, when he did speak, it was always

in the same even tone. Maybe Moses was not given to flattery. Maybe being told that he was

keeping up was as much of a compliment as he would ever receive from him. Moses was not an

easy man to figure out.

“That sky above us,” Jim said, returning to a neutral subject and a reclining posture, “Is a

miraculous piece of art. I don’t miss anything about the city, except my fiancée, that is. Do you

have a wife or girlfriend, Moses?”

“No,” he answered, quickly.

“Sorry about that,” Jim said.

Now why is he apologizing to me, Moses thought. This boy is presumptuous. I’m living the

way I want. I’m not putting any woman through hell waiting for me. If he wants to apologize to

someone, it should be Elsa or Eliza or whatever her name is.

“Tell me about this Helen of St. Louis,” he said.

Jim laughed uneasily and sat up again. He wondered where Moses had learned Greek

mythology. It had not occurred to Jim that Moses might have had a similar formal education to

his own.

“She is lovely as this starry sky,” he answered.

“A fuller description, I couldn’t ask for,” Moses quipped.

Jim slumped his shoulders and surrendered to the quality in Moses’s personality that dimmed his

own presumed rising star. He reclaimed his supine position.

“Eliza has very fair skin, beautiful brown eyes and a small body,” Jim said. “She’s intelligent

and a good conversationalist.”

“Is one of her parents white,” Moses asked, matter-of-factly, not allowing Jim to skirt the issue

of race.

“Yes, her father was white,” he answered. “Her mother is black. She’s quite dark. Both her

parents were black.”

Moses said nothing. He stayed on his back and stared up at the sky. Jim continued talking now

as though he were talking out loud to himself.

“I don’t like black women,” he said, immediately regretting that he had said it.

“I mean I’m not attracted to them. I was hurt hard by one when I was very young,” he followed


Violet lived in the slave quarters on the third floor of the house. Both her parents were black and

born into United States slavery. She spoke no other language than English. She could read

none. Violet and Jim would sneak meetings in the woods. Oak boughs overhead and moss

under their bodies formed the cradle for the first sexual encounter of their lives.

Jim was emotionally cruel. He gave her none of himself. Violet was his servant. She was his

slave. She could never refuse him. Knowing that made him feel sexually potent. Violet liked

Jim; she liked having sex with him. For months, she hoped that he would like her. After each

meeting, she hoped that the next one would be different. She wished he would see her. Kiss her

once. That’s all. But she was less than a person to Jim. She was hardly a woman. To him, she

smelled rank. She was a powerless victim, and it excited him.

Violet was a wise girl with a weak heart. A year went by before she broke the shackles. She

grew angry and hateful. She began telling him after their meetings, “You will pay. One day,

you will pay.” Jim’s attitude became less magisterial. The sex changed; it lost its thrill. Finally,

he stopped taking her out. Violet had hurt his pride. She had made it clear that she despised


“I see,” Moses said. “What about black men, Jim? Can you trust them?”

“Yes,” Jim answered, immediately. “Men are different from women.”

“I’d say so. All men are the same,” Moses said roughly, while squeezing his eyes shut. “Same

way with women.”

Moses distrusted men. He presumed they mistreated women. The adventurer hid ugly memories

of his father beating his mother with a tree switch when his dinner was not hot enough or his

clothes clean enough or her lovemaking satisfying enough. These interpreted breaches of her

marriage vows scarred every day. The youngest son of the five boys witnessed his mother wizen

into an old woman fleeing from his father with her back hunched over, the back whose bruises

and cuts the abuser would anoint with medicinal oils and sometimes kisses. His father grew into

an elderly man loved by his friends and despised by his family who kept the secret of his other


Moses opened his eyes and, for the first time, looked at Jim.

“Have I offended you, Moses? I didn’t mean to.”

“My boy, you’ve offended yourself! You’ve offended that black woman who somewhere in

your lineage gave birth to your mother or grandmother or great grandmother! How can you be

so educated and so ignorant?”

Moses thought that men always had a reason for abusing women rooted in their perceptions of

the distaff side’s inadequacies. For Jim, it was a woman’s blackness. Ironic. What did he think?

That his rich, white father could buy him his own race?

“I’m not ignorant,” Jim said, feeling insulted and guilty.

Moses did not understand, Jim brooded, what it’s like to be half and half. He would be more

compassionate if he knew the feeling of not belonging.

Jim did not want to talk anymore. Neither did Moses. The deserted night had opened them up.

The boy was intelligent, Moses decided, but pathetic in his attitude about people’s skin color.

He felt sorry for Jim. Maybe he would change. Jim was young and, besides, there is always

time for change. Granted, it would take work.

Racism filled the minds and souls of men and women who breathed it in and out like a poisonous

gas in the air. It was so pervasive that people grew accustomed to its stench. They thought it as

natural as breathing and dying. Sometimes they thought they smelled it on others when it was

not even there. Racism was consuming this boy, Moses thought. The older man had suffered

great pain when growing up. It gave him a kind heart. When a troubled person crossed his path,

he tried to help them. But Moses did not want to create conflict, perhaps insurmountable,

between himself and Jim because they had to work together to reach their destination.

“Think about it,” Moses said, soothingly. “That’s all I’m saying.”

Jim was surprised by his companion’s smooth tone. Now he could feel the warmth emanate

from Moses’s scolding. Moses had extended an invitation to him. Most people regarded him as

an outcast. Most were like Nathaniel, a servant his age whom he had tried to befriend soon after

the family moved to Missouri. Crushing insults had erupted during a fight over who would hide

first in a hide-and-seek game.

“My mother says that you’re a mongrel! You aren’t anything! You don’t belong to any one!

You aren’t white! You aren’t colored! You aren’t anything!”

Wiry Nat flashed a twisted expression at Jim that made him look wholly and truly evil. His

eyebrows sank an inch lower forming crinkles around his red, squinty eyes. He stuck his mouth

out in a constricted pucker. Jim thought that he could never pierce through that mask of hate.

He felt dejected. But then, why should he want to get through to Nat? Nat was a slave. Nat was

his slave. He did not need nor want to play with him.

Jim reported the incident to his father who verbally reprimanded Nat and the boy’s mother. He

lowered her slave status and then rescinded the demotion when he calmed down a week later.

The talk among the slaves was that Nat was Jennings’ child. The word was that little Nat had

told Jim that they were half-brothers and that that had infuriated Jennings. The gossip was not

true but Jennings’s servants were convinced that he was keeping company with a woman other

than his wife.

After Nat’s insults, Jennings forbade his children to play with any of the servants’ children.

Violet was the first slave Jim had had anything to do with since Nat.

Moses looked up at the sky again. Jim gathered the courage to speak. Finally, he promised


“I will think about it.”

And he would. But tonight was not the night to dwell on unsettling matters. The stars hung

temptingly around the younger man’s head like grapes above Tantalus’s head. The waning half-

moon lit up the heavily wooded camping ground. The sweet, residual scent of burning cedar

from the outed fire clung to his clothes. Autumn’s cold fingers curled round Jim’s nose. He

burrowed his entire body in his bedroll, his Mackinaw blanket wrapped securely around him.

Then he slipped into a sound and quiet sleep.

Their work days lengthened as their loads grew lighter. They were eating through their twenty-

five pounds of provisions and depending more and more on scarce wild turkey and moose-like

elk for food. Their appetites craved hearty meals because they walked hard and, on their sixth

day together, fall turned suddenly to winter. The wind tore the last leaves from the trees. The

temperature plummeted thirty degrees from sixty degrees Fahrenheit to thirty.

Moses and Jim struggled to make thirty miles a day. Many times, Jim thought that he could not

go on. The allure of food and warmth pushed his forward. Also, the fear of being deserted by

Moses spurred him on. Moses knew that country as intimately as he knew the lines on his own

face. Jim drew on all his strength to keep up with him, never complaining about the steadfast

pace, the persistent cold or his gnawing hunger. Moses was obsessed with his destination. He

moved with certainty that he would walk into the Republican Pawnee village on two strong legs.

On the ninth day at camp, Moses talked magnanimously like a man about to accomplish a feat.

“We should get there tomorrow,” he said, “Without too much effort.”

“Tomorrow,” Jim exclaimed.

“Yes. Tomorrow! We did fine, you and I! You’re going to be all right, Jim. You’re going to

make a fine mountain man.”

“Thank you, Moses,” Jim said. “I appreciate that. I really admire you.”

“Now I want to thank you, Jim, for those complimentary words,” he said. “I don’t figure we

have more than twenty miles to make tomorrow before we reach the village. The Republicans

are a very cordial band of the Pawnees, not that the others aren’t. I know the head chief. He’s a

good man. I’ll be glad to see him. It’s been three years or so, the last time I saw him. I know

Ashley wants us to get back with the horses and pack mules as quickly as we can but I think we

ought to rest in the village for two nights before starting back. We won’t be getting there until

late tomorrow afternoon. A good rest will freshen us up. We’ll move faster, and we’ll be on


“Sounds good to me,” Jim said.

“All right. Now you get a good night’s sleep. We don’t want to be looking too straggly when

we get there.”

“All right, Moses. Good night to you.”

“Good night son.”

Jim snuggled deep into his bedroll. His breath and his mind’s picture of the Indian village

warmed him. He slept calmly.

The next day, Moses and Jim started out excitedly. They walked with a spring in their step.

There would be no hunting today. They would focus all their energy on getting there and eat

after they arrived.

Morning passed quickly, and early afternoon. Jim kept looking for the sight of curling smoke

from fires cooking food. He saw nothing but the waning light of day. The sun kept sinking and

so did Moses’s spirits.

Jim’s neck developed a kink from his smoke scanning before they finally arrived at the village

site. Lo and behold, the village of tepees in which the Republican Pawnees lived when hunting

had disappeared! The low growth indicated that the spot had been vacated about two weeks ago

for a warmer, winter home. Unlike most of the Plains Indians, the Pawnees were semi-nomadic

hunters and farmers. Most of the year, they lived in earthen lodges.

Moses’s confidence wavered for a moment.

“I was afraid of this,” Moses said. “They must have read the signs and anticipated a sudden,

early winter like we’ve got. They’re gone now. We can track them down. Start tomorrow.

Can’t do too much now as far as that goes. They should have left caches of stashed provisions.

Let’s see if we can find any. We may eat yet today.”

They decided to look together so that it would take half as much effort to dig a few feet down.

Moses banked on finding a sloppily hidden cache that would be easy to spot. If it were

camouflaged well, he would walk right over it and not realize that patch of ground had been

disturbed. He and Jim walked slowly and stooped over for nearly an hour. Finally, he thought

he found a spot where there was something buried. No grass grew there and although the topsoil

was hard, Moses figured it was due to the freezing weather.

“I think we may have found something,” Moses said.

“We did,” Jim asked, hopefully.

“Yup,” Moses said, in an uncharacteristic light way.

They unpacked small shovels. For another hour, they dug in a steady rhythm one after the other.

They stopped only a few times when either man thought they had struck edible treasure. But

there was no treasure.

“Looks like I was wrong, Jim. I’m sorry, for you and me.”

“Well, Moses, we got this far. We’ll find the Republicans and eat a fine meal again. I know we


“Yes, son. We will,” Moses said. He thought to himself that one of the advantages of traveling

with an inexperienced man was his naïve optimism. Moses sure needed that now.

The sun was about to disappear. They built a fire and prepared for dinner. All they had left was

a little coffee and sugar. They boiled coffee.

“This sure tastes good,” Jim said, sipping his black soup, as the Indians called it, slowly. He

partook of his one tin cup of coffee as though it were a leisurely five-course dinner.

“It sure does,” Moses agreed. “It’s nice and hot. Each sip feels like it’s traveling through my

entire body, warming it up. We should try and hold onto that warmth. Why don’t we sleep

together under all our blankets. We’ll also share our body heat. What do you say?”

“Makes sense to me,” Jim said. He wanted to stay warm and he wanted to feel safe.

Night descended without the moon’s light. Moses and Jim huddled to ward off the wind that

could rip their skins off. They smelled each other’s musk and felt alive for it. Moses felt

protective of young Jim Beckwourth who had so much to learn about life. Jim remembered

taking naps with his father when he was a small boy. Jennings’s large, strong body had aroused

Jim’s sense of honor, security and sexuality. He had felt secure when his father wrapped his

muscular arms around his body.

Moses and Jim slept in fits and starts over the abandoned village. Tomorrow, they would have to

trudge on.


1924 painting by Walter Ufer, which is displayed at the Missouri State Capitol



The winter sun brought up no respite. It was no warmer that morning than it had been the night

before although the wind had died down. The cold air jolted Jim and Moses when they stuck

their heads out of their comfortably heated bedrolls to take in the sight of icy tree branches.

“It’s deuced cold,” Moses swore, as he and Jim got up. “Temperature’s only going to sink from

now on out.”

“Oh, no,” Jim said, depressed at the thought.

“It’s unfortunate but true. We’ve got to change our plan. But first, let’s see what we can do

about building some heat.”

With difficulty, they found dry twigs and built a splendid fire. They boiled enough coffee for

two cups each. The men wrapped their hands around the hot cups and held them under their

chins when not drinking.

“So, what do you mean about changing our plan,” Jim asked.

“I mean that we can’t go chasing the Republican Pawnees because we don’t have any idea which

way they headed and no way of finding out. They left too long ago for us to track them down.

We’ve got to forget about seeing them and their horses and pack mules. Putting it to you simply,

our mission now is to save our own skins.”

“Where are we going to go? What are we going to do,” Jim asked, in a high-pitched, panicky


“Just calm down,” Moses said. “We could be in worse straits. It just so happens that Peter Ely’s

trading post is coming up in our direction. It’s the nearest settled spot. By that, I mean that it’s

sure to be there. It doesn’t move for the winter.”

“That sounds like a good plan, Moses. How far away is it?”

“Five hundred miles,” he answered.

“Five hundred miles! We just finished traveling three hundred miles! Now we’re supposed to

travel that distance again and two hundred more?”

“Moses,” Jim said, as he slowed down to catch his breath. “Can we-“

“Of course we can,” Moses answered before Jim finished asking whether they could make it.

“We’re a good team. It’s because we made the first part of the journey that we’ll be able to

make the second part. Don’t you worry.”

Then Moses tore into the frozen ground with a stick and drew a crude map of their proposed

travel. While he explained the route, Jim got tired hearing and looking at it. He wondered what

hardships lay ahead of him. He wondered if he would make it to Ely’s alive. He asked himself

what he was doing here.

Jim thought that he should be at home in St. Louis still asleep in his large bed in his own room at

Estelle’s. She should be downstairs preparing breakfast for him so he could put in a solid day’s

work at Casner’s shop. What he wouldn’t give to hear Casner’s yells now! How wonderful to

make love with Estelle again. He had said goodbye to her in this way not so long ago in St.

Louis. Jim and Estelle had been together many times during his visit home. He imagined the

sizzling heat of touching her generous body.

Moses, however, took the change in plan in stride. He had escaped death more than once. Death

was not even near him though he knew it was a possible visitor at any time. During the night,

Moses had prayed to God for strength. This morning he refused to invite failure by letting his

spirits fall.

“Cheer up, Jim. We’re going to make it,” he said.

“I know,” Jim lied, in a small voice.

They set out with their two cups of coffee sloshing about in their otherwise empty stomachs.

They had little hope of hunting down any food so near a former Pawnee settlement. But each

step brought them closer to food. Food. Food. Food. Food. Maybe after a day’s travel, they

would come across an animal that they could eat. Maybe tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and went. Their gait slackened. Three…four…five…six. Nine days passed

before they reached their halfway point, the Grand Ne-mah-haw River. Patches of ice flowed

down the river. Good it was not completely frozen. They could wash with its water. An old elk

presented himself as a first meal but his meat was so tough, like leather, that Jim thought they

might choke on it, making it their last meal.

They started on the hike along the river the next morning. Tears of exhaustion welled up in

Jim’s eyes. His body did not belong to him anymore. He could not feel it. The creak in his

lower back melted into nothingness. He and Moses discarded their blankets so that they could

travel unencumbered. Neither could determine which need was strongest, the need for food, rest

or warmth. Their stomach rumblings fooled them more than once into wasting their gunpowder

on invisible prey.

On the fourth night by the river’s side, they built a respectable fire and sipped brown colored

water. The tin weighed more than the coffee they carried in it.

“Moses, what are we doing here,” Jim asked, exasperated.

“What do you mean, son? We’re on our way to Ely’s. Don’t worry.”

“How can I not worry? We finished that tough, old elk. We’ve seen nothing else to kill and eat.

I can’t believe that today I think we were lucky to find that awful elk.”

“That awful elk is allowing you to say it,” Moses said, softly. “It kept us alive ‘til today.”

“Moses,” Jim asked, in a frightened voice. “Do you know where we are and where we’re


“Jim, listen here and listen good,” Moses began, sternly. “We’re in a bad way. No doubt about

it. You don’t need me to tell you that when your own stomach constantly cries out for food. But

the most important things that we need in a situation like this are faith in each other and God and

we need hope. I would never lie to you. So in answer to your question, yes, I know where we

are and where we’re going.”

“How far away are we,” Jim asked.

“We’ve got a few more days,” Moses said.

“All right,” Jim said, trying to fortify himself. “All right, a few more days then. Why don’t you

sleep first. I’ll keep watch for awhile.”

“All right, Jim,” Moses agreed, as he propped his back against a tree, drew his knees in close to

his body and wrapped his arms around his bent legs. He and Jim took turns standing sentry now

that they were in territory where they might be attacked by Indian bands whose head chiefs

Moses did not know.

As Jim scanned the woods behind him and the land across the river, he prayed fervently that he

and Moses would make it to safety.

The next day, they spotted a fresh human trail. Could it be the Pawnees they originally travelled

to meet? That time seemed so long ago. They responded to a rustle among the twigs on the

ground with a ready aim. But the sound, thank God, was made by two Osages of the Kansas

band on foot who quickly summed up their destitute state. Moses and Jim looked like the

walking dead. They were almost dead. Moses talked to Black Sky and Brown Tailed Rabbit in

their language. The Osages said that they would catch up with their hunting party and return

with food and help. The hunters instructed the starving men not to move. Jim and Moses could

not, even if they wanted to. They knew that they would surely die if those men did not come

back. They had placed all their hope in them and with it oozed away their last ounce of strength.

The sun had been climbing high in the sky when they all met. Now it was descending. Jim

surmised that he would not live through another night. He needed the sun to keep on. He

needed the sun to stay awake. If he fell asleep, he would never wake up again. This is what Jim

truly believed, he was in such an irrational state. In delirium, he 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.

Moses fought to hold onto consciousness. He wanted to remain aware of what transpired. If he

was to be saved, he wanted to see it. He had spent his life meeting challenges. It had been a

good life. He had no family of his own or sweetheart to whom his death would bring grief. That

was good. It was final consolation for the regret he sometimes felt when he refused to give in to

a woman.

In this way, the two men prepared for the walk through the darkened tunnel to the stark, white

light at the other end. A lapis lazuli blue awaited them on the other side. The blue, at once

soothing and breath quickening, would entice them. Irresistible. They would lose themselves in

it. They would become one with the blue, one with the all, and they would remember nothing of

this temporary life.

Their thoughts were premature. The thunderous signal of galloping horse hooves sounded in

Jim’s dream and Moses’s ears. It was still light, about two hours before sunset. The rescuers

slowly fed the men small spoonfuls of cornmeal gruel before leaving for the trading post. Then

they mounted Jim and Moses on horses with other riders that moved at top speed. At camp that

night, they continued to spoon-feed the thin, grain mixture to the weak survivors. After every

few mouthfuls, they helped the two onto their feet. A man on each side, they broke into a small

run until Jim and Moses clung to their helpmate exhausted and unable to go on. After several

short runs, their deliverers served them a huge dish of venison, bear and turkey. Jim and Moses

ate with a gusto that the younger had never experienced and the older fully appreciated and

rightfully treasured.

The ride on to Ely’s post was one more day long. Moses and Jim steered their own horses. They

were getting their strength back. They had pulled through a scary time. Their shrunken bodies

reminded them of it.

Ely’s wooden fort rose eighteen feet above the ground. The party did not see it until everyone

was nearly there. It looked like heaven’s spires to the two rescued scouts. Shouts rang out from

inside the fortress. Sentinels walking the plank secured to the pickets inside the post kept watch

on the surrounding area. As the party drew nearer, one could make out the name of Black Harris

rolling off the tongue of one man after the other. News traveled like a goodwill contagion

among the thirty men inside the fort. Some knew Moses because they had worked with him.

The others, at the least, had heard tell of him. By the time the group reached the huge,

cottonwood door, the isolated fort was infused with the excitement of receiving visitors and,

among them, such a prominent man. He would have some stories to tell. That was for certain.

The doorkeeper slid open the wicket as large as his head and confirmed that all of the party was

peaceful. He swung open the heavy door with difficulty. Black Harris’s entourage entered.

They rode past Peter Ely’s house, the blacksmith shop and the general store into the corral where

they left their horses in safety for other men to rub down. Moses and Jim readily accepted an

offer of a good brandy from Ely in the comfort of his home. They were so worn that a whiff of

the liquor made them heady.

Peter Ely entertained them in the main room of his modest home. His face looked like a goat’s.

Perhaps he had lived in the wilderness for so long that he had begun to resemble one of its

inhabitants. He hugged Moses whom he knew well and shook hands with Jim, a stranger. What

experiences these two men shared Jim could only guess. But not for long. As they ate and

sipped brandy, the two friends came to life in another place. They asked after mutual friends,

other trappers. As Jim listened to the travails of fellow adventurers, his own recent triumph over

death did not seem as gripping. He thought, though, that he was alive and that was the most

important thing. Maybe chiselling a name for himself in the annals of Western adventure was

too overwhelming a goal. Maybe this was not the way to do it. He might die doing it or die

trying. He could always go home. Yes. Maybe he should get out while he could. This was a

crazy, uncertain life. The fort seemed glorious only because it was a refuge. Jim missed

Beckwourth’s Settlement. He missed his father. He missed his inherited opulent way of life.

But the trappers at the fort intrigued him just as they had at Casner’s shop two years ago. The

difference was that now he saw them in their natural surroundings. Wistfulness lifted from their

eyes and a magic emanated from them. They were special. Jim felt honoured to be counted one

among them.

“Let’s see,” he told himself.

“I’m happy to have you two stay here,” Ely said. “You’ve been through a harrowing adventure

and you triumphed. Congratulations! Have some more brandy. It’s good for you.”

Ely poured them all a thumb’s length of it.

“You don’t look familiar, Jim,” he said, after making a toast to their health and taking his first

sip. “Have you been out before?”

“I was a hunter with Colonel Johnson’s expedition to Galena,” Jim answered. He was proud of it

but he had been through enough now to know that a stay in Galena did not make him a great


“Colonel Johnson’s expedition,” Ely mused. “Say, do you know Pierre Charbonneau?”

“Know him,” Jim shouted, enthusiastically. “He’s a good friend of mine. He taught me a lot. I

miss him. Why do you ask? Is he here? Have you seen him?”

“Hold on. Hold on,” Ely said. “He has been through here. Late last summer it was. Believe he

said he was doing some freelancing beaver trapping. I told him to keep us in mind when it came

to selling the skins. Haven’t seen him since then. I’ve got no idea where he’s spending his

winter. Can’t do trapping worth a deuce in this kind of weather. Even if you could, those beaver

pelts sure look sad in the winter.”

“Pierre was courting a woman in Galena. A Sac woman named Red Moon,” Jim said. “Maybe

he’s gone back there.”

“Could be,” Ely said. Then he laughed and said, “Everyone’s got a woman in Galena and

everywhere else they’ve ever spent some time. Right, Moses?”

Moses said nothing and kept a poker face.

“All except Moses,” Ely continued, “Who’s picky and doesn’t believe in that kind of

philandering. Moses, you are indeed the upright father of a sinful people. Wonder why you

didn’t become a man of the cloth instead of tramping through the mountains.”

“I knew you’d need me, Ely,” Moses said, with a good-natured smile on his face.

“Guess so, Moses. Jim, have you been to the Rockies yet? Guess not. Galena is the furthest you

say you’ve gotten.”

“No, sir. I haven’t seen the Rockies.”

“You can drop the sir and look ahead to a fantastic experience,” Ely said. “You’re a mountain

man now. You’ve seen death. You’re a changed man whether you realize it or not. No need to

call me sir. We’ve all seen it. But when you see those mountains! Jim, at the foot of them

looking up, you’ll feel small and insignificant but as you scale them, you’ll feel like a god, like-“

“Zeus on Mount Olympus,” Moses interjected.

“Zeu who,” Ely asked.

“Zeus, the head god in ancient Greek myth who lived on Mount Olympus with all the other

gods,” Moses answered. “It’s just a story, make believe. The Rocky Mountains are so

magnificent that they seem like a fairy tale, don’t they, Ely?”

“Sure do,” he said. “They sure do.”

As the day passed, the fort became a Camelot to Jim. He ate regular meals. He slept on a bed.

He felt safe. These luxuries came to him. He did not have to seek them. Jim forgot the fear he

had known when starving in the woods. His young memory washed over it. He led a bourgeois

woodsman’s life with no responsibilities.

“We deserve the rest,” Moses told Jim, repeatedly.

However, Jim knew that it would come to an end soon. They were both strong men who were

recovering quickly from the trauma of confronting death. Where would they go now?

“Moses, it’s getting on time to move on,” Jim said, one night in the room they shared. They laid

on their backs in their separate beds looking up at the wooden ceiling. “What do you think

you’ll do?”

“I’d like to see family again. I’ve got two of four brothers living in Natchez with their families.

I think I’ll visit them down there. It’ll be warmer there too. What about you? Do you know

what you’ll do? Of course, Ashley’s party is way too far afield for us to even think about

rejoining it.”

“Yes, I know,” said Jim, who had no intention of backtracking. “I wonder what happened to the

party. I hope everyone’s all right.”

“You see how we pulled out of a bad situation,” Moses said. “Same thing could have happened

with Ashley and company, I hope. You never can tell.”

“I think I’ll go home to St. Louis. See my father. Think things out.”

Regardless of what Jim decided to do with the rest of his life, he felt he needed to go home now.

He needed the security of a safe and familiar place. A visit home would lull him into believing

the lie that youth could outwit death. He would seek haven under his father’s wing.

“That’s going to be a rough journey,” Moses said. “You’ll have snow and ice and all kinds of

bad weather to overcome. You sure you want to do that.”

“I’m sure I want to but you’re right, I might wait until the spring. I might be able to get some

work here or at a trading post nearer St. Louis.”

“That’ll be good for you, Jim.”

“Moses,” Jim said.

“Yes, son.”

“I hope this doesn’t sound stupid to you but I miss those nights in our camps under the sky. I

guess I’m asking you about your plans because I care about you. I’ve grown attached to you and

I’m going to miss you a lot.”

“No, Jim, none of that sounds stupid. I miss those nights too. They were incomparable. We

became very close on our journey. We never let each other down. We knew when we could

afford to express our fears. I’ll miss you too, Jim. You were a great traveling partner.”

One month after Jim and Moses stumbled into the fort, Peter Ely bid farewell to them. Moses

opted to ride south. Jim chose to forge his way east toward St. Louis with a stop on the way at

Chouteau’s trading post.

Jean-Pierre Chouteau and his half-brother, Auguste Chouteau, were known as the “river barons”

because of their dominant fur trade with the Osage. As the U.S. Indian agent for affairs west of

the Mississippi River, Jean-Pierre had negotiated the Osage Treaty, also known as the Treaty of Fort

Clark, of 1808 by which the Indians agreed to sell large portions of their lands in exchange for federal

annuities. An early settler in St. Louis from New Orleans, he had lived among the Osage and learned

their language, culture and customs.

The evening before Jim and Moses left Ely’s fort, they made promises to each other during

dinner at Ely’s round table.

“We will see each other again, Jim,” Moses said. “You’re a part of the clan now. There aren’t

too many of us mountain men to go out on these expeditions.”

“I guess you’re right. We’re bound to work together again if I continue working out here.”

“What do you mean ‘if’,” Moses said. “You will. I’ve no doubt you will. You can’t leave this

life. There’s nothing like it. Anything else that you do will pale in comparison. You’ll come

back out, Jim. You’ll always miss the night sky.”

“The post will be here,” Ely said. “I’ll be here. Wish I had a job to offer you but you came too

late. Choteau could use you. St. Louis is going to going to bore you. It already has or you

wouldn’t have come out in the first place.”

When Jim left Ely’s for Choteau’s post several days away on horseback, he thought constantly of

that last dinner conversation. Moses’s words, ‘You’ll always miss the night sky,’ kept ringing in

his ears when he stopped for the day along the river, tied up his horse and set up camp. Moses

was right. He would always miss the stars but enough to come back to it, Jim did not know.

By the time Jim arrived at Chouteau’s, the river had frozen completely. He decided to stay on

through the winter packing peltries at twenty-five dollars per month. It was easy work. He had

been through worse times. Besides, his father would respect him for staying.

In May when the ice broke up and melted, Jim hopped a steamboat for St. Louis. On the fifth

evening, it pulled in safely. Unlike his previous arrival by steamer, no one met him although he

recognized several people in the dimming light of day. Tired and unsettled, wanting to feel the

hand of a woman along the length of his strong back, Jim strode over to Estelle’s house with

only his bedroll in hand. It was there in her bed that he thought about talking his father into

freeing him. He had earned the credentials for freedom. His brush with death had christened

everything as transitory. How much longer would his father live? What would happen if his

father died without releasing him?

“Estelle, I want to be free,” Jim said.

“But you are,” she said, and then kissed his right hand with more ardour than he had felt in the

months he had been away from home and her.


#Pawnee #MosesHarris #Osage #Chouteau

8 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page