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Jim and Estelle breathed in unison as they slept. They were tender like the wispy morning and

unafraid like the dawn that always comes after night. They could afford to be brave because they

had no different future together than what they had in the present. Neither wanted to change the

other or the other’s life because they would not share it. They would only know of it.

They talked openly and honestly with each other, more so than with any other person. But when

Jim talked about getting his papers from his father, Estelle shivered. She believed that Jim’s

insistence could throw a wedge between the two men and that Jim might never return to St.

Louis. Estelle abhorred slavery but not enough to speak out against it. Before she and Jim began

spending time together, she had not thought about it at all. Slavery was a part of life in St. Louis.

Now that she was intimate with a man who brought talk of it into her bed, she readily grasped its

cruelty. More than anything, Estelle valued her own freedom. It was why she had not married.

She had met no man who would respect it. Men thought that she wanted them to take it from her

and save her, the helpless woman, from herself. They also talked of African slaves as though

they were children, too. In that way, they characterized slavery as benevolent. Estelle hated the

institution of bondage and the twisted mentality that condoned it but she did not want to

jeopardize her time with Jim. About this, she was neither honest nor brave.

“Jim, your father is a stubborn man. He doesn’t even talk about slavery much less freeing you.

He likes to pretend that there is no difference between serving as a son and as a slave,” Estelle

said, her head on Jim’s stomach.

The white organza curtains at the window beside the bed fluttered in the spring breeze. The sun

streamed through the thin, gauzy material illuminating tiny particles of dust and bathing the

entire bed in light. Jim gazed out the window as he stroked Estelle’s thick mane of hair that

appeared nearly white in the sun.

“I am also stubborn,” he said, “And I am right. I should be free.”

Jim was so obsessed with securing his own freedom that he did not concern himself with the

plight of other slaves. He was not interested in everyone’s freedom or righting the wrongs of the

world. He cared about himself. It angered him that he should be demeaned to the lowly position

of less than a whole person in the legal regard. After all, he was his father’s son.

“I deserve better,” he said.

“Of course you do,” Estelle said. “How do you plan to approach your father?”

“Slowly but repeatedly,” Jim answered. “He can’t close his ears every time I mention the word

‘slave’. At some point, he’s got to talk with me about it.”

“If you can get him to do that, you--,” Estelle said.

“I know. I know. I will have won,” Jim interrupted. “The problem with Father has always been

that he refuses to acknowledge slavery in the family and his legal role as master of his children.”

Estelle sat up with her back against the wooden backboard. Jim did too and put his arms around

her. He felt that she was his fondest confidante aside from Matilda and because Estelle was not

family, he could tell her things that he could not tell Mattie.

“Thank you for listening to all this,” he said, and then kissed her on the cheek. “I don’t know

what it must sound like to you. It helps for me to be able to talk about it. There really is no one

else I can do that with but Mattie. And she is in the same situation. It helps that you’re on the

outside. You can see things clearer than I can. And I can feel free to tell you how I sometimes

wish that Father were my slave. Sometimes I really hate him!”

“It’s going to take time, Jim,” Estelle said, turning her face to his. “You have to be patient.”

“Patient,” Jim repeated, with a “humph”.

Estelle imagined her lover disappearing from her bed. She felt that he would banish himself

from town if his father refused him. Before Jim left that morning, they touched each other again

with the intention of lengthening their time together. Jim still left the house early enough to give

Estelle time to prepare breakfast for her boarders. He walked to a stable and hired a horse for the

ride to Beckwourth’s Settlement.

Jim surprised his family. He had not been able to get a letter out to anyone before leaving

Chouteau’s fort. He was the first person leaving for St. Louis and brought letters with him from

other men at the fort for their relatives and friends.

“My God, Jim. You’re home,” Mattie shouted, as she ran out of the front door to hug him. “We

didn’t expect you. The last we heard, you were at Ely’s fort. We didn’t know what happened to

you. We hoped it wasn’t the worst. Thank God it wasn’t. You look much healthier than the last

time you came back.”

“Thank you, m’dear,” he said, jovially.

“When did you get back, Jim? I didn’t know a boat was scheduled to come in this morning.”

“I came in yesterday evening,” he said. “But I was too tired to ride home and it was already

getting dark so I spent the night at Estelle’s boardinghouse.”

“Your old home then?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Leave your horse here. Someone’s coming to take care of it now. You got it in St. Louis, I

suppose. A servant will return it. Let’s go inside and tell everyone that you’re here.”

The family rushed downstairs to the drawing room to embrace the returned adventurer. His

brothers and sisters bubbled over with questions about his expedition, everyone talking at the

same time. They all sat spellbound, however, when he acted out his account of hiking with

Moses nearly seven hundred miles in the winter woods almost starving to death.

“Did you ever see Black Sky and Brown Tailed Rabbit again,” Jennings asked when Jim was

done. “They saved your lives!”

“No, Father. We didn’t. That’s the way it is out there. You never know when you’ll see people

again or if you will.”

“That’s no different than it is for the rest of us, Jim,” Jennings said, in an effort to encourage his

son to see the commonality of human life.

“Yes, Jim. We all miss people whom we no longer see,” Randolph said, in a harsh tone that

accused Jim of self-centeredness. Jim heard it in his older brother’s voice.

“You’re right,” the explorer said.

“We all went to see Mama’s grave on her birthday last month,” said little Louise, the twelve-

year-old, in an innocent attempt to join in the conversation.

“Did you bring flowers,” Jim asked.

“Father brought red roses and purple violets,” Mattie said.

Everyone became agitated. Winifred’s children sorely missed her. They felt robbed of her

constant maternal presence and warmth. Matilda loved and emulated her mother but she fought

a strong resentment toward her. Mattie would not have chosen to inherit Winnie’s

responsibilities and position. They crowded her own life which she waited to begin.

“We remembered you, Jim, at the grave site,” Mattie continued. “We explained that you would

have been there but that you were exploring the West. Mother would have been so proud!”

“Congratulations, son,” Jennings said.

Jim remembered Moses who frequently called him ‘son’.

“We’ll have to have a dinner party,” Jennings said, “Two days after tomorrow on Wednesday.

Can we do it in that length of time, Matilda?”

“Yes, Father,” she said. “I can arrange it but it will take fast work starting now. I’ll go begin.”

“Save your stories for later, Jim,” she said, as she left the room.

“Jim, you should relax and get settled,” Jennings said. “Why don’t you go upstairs. I’ll have

someone carry your bedroll up for you.”

“Yes, Father,” he said.

Everyone in the room dispersed, returning to their ordinary lives. They thought of Jim as the

outlandish member of the family who introduced the unexpected to the family’s realm of


Jim was tired. The night at Estelle’s was hardly restful. He decided to sleep, then chitchat with

his family and compose himself to see Eliza.

When Jim was away, he had held Eliza up as his idol who beckoned him home. Now that he was

home, he did not harbor a driving force to see her, to rush to her house and take her into his

arms. Instead, he found it natural to prepare himself for a formal visit with her. Young love was

turning stale without the intense involvement of both lovers in each other’s life.

It was the spring of 1820 and they were holding onto the idea of being in love.

Jim rode to St. Louis the following morning to Eliza’s house. School was in session in the large

parlor downstairs that had been remodelled into a school room. Eliza answered the door. At the

sight of Jim, her jaw dropped and she wrapped her arms around her fiance’s neck.

“Jim, you’re home! You’re all right! Thank God,” she said. “Come in. Please.”

Eliza took his hand and led him upstairs into the substitute parlor. Her insides quivered, she was

so excited. She thought that she could begin her life now. As Jim climbed the stairs behind her,

he admired her dollish body and her hair that was loose and thick and red. He did not know how

he felt about her. He thought that he had another more important decision to make and that was

whether to pursue Western exploration.

“Would you like something to drink? A cup of tea,” Eliza offered.

“A glass of water would be refreshing,” Jim said.

Dutifully, Eliza went downstairs for Jim’s water. When she returned, he had slipped into a

comfortable state of passivity.

“Tell me everything at once,” Eliza said.

Jim sensed that her inquisitiveness was feigned and that she was anxious to talk about their

future. However, he complied with her wish, speaking less animatedly than he had with his

family the day before. For more than an hour, she let Jim talk, pumping him with questions

about the expedition. Then she shrewdly sneaked in a question about Moses’s wife and family.

It backfired on her dream.

“Moses isn’t married,” Jim said. “He doesn’t have a girlfriend either. He’s never told me why

but I think he would feel guilty leaving her alone. I admire Moses. He respects women.”

“You think he respects women because he won’t have anything to do with them,” Eliza asked.

“No, it’s not that. Ely made a comment about Moses at his fort. He said that Moses does not

philander. I believe it. He would not get involved with a woman unless he had serious


As Jim talked about Moses, Estelle’s hands roamed all over his body. He was unable to sit still.

He kept leaving his chair, then pacing and then returning to his seat only to change position

in it every few seconds.

“Jim, is something wrong,” Eliza asked.

“I’ve been living out in the open for so long that I feel caged inside a house,” he lied. He had

gone so long without a woman that he had an intense need to see Estelle again. No matter his

confused feelings for Eliza, she was his fiancée. Propriety barred him from approaching her

sexually. Indeed, it did not occur to him. He was a gentleman, after all. Estelle was a good

friend and a widow.

Eliza was upset.

“Jim, what do you expect to do? Sleep under the stars the rest of your life like a savage?”

“Eliza, you are still the sweet girl I left behind, aren’t you,” Jim said, with more than a tinge of

sarcasm. “I am going to leave you now for a walk in town. Surely, you won’t deny me that. I

haven’t seen St. Louis for seven months. I’m sure that there have been some changes.”

Eliza did not argue with him. She tempered her anger.

“Of course, darling. What if I come with you? It’s a lovely day for a walk.”

“No. I’d rather walk alone. It’s not that I don’t want your company. It’s just that sometimes I

prefer being alone. We’re having a dinner day after tomorrow for my homecoming. Of course,

you must come. I’ll have someone come and carry you and your mother.”

Eliza was hurt but acquiesced. They kissed goodbye. She walked him downstairs to the front

door and outside to the porch. Then she waved goodbye as he walked away.

Jim could not walk fast enough to Estelle, he was so excited and in pain. He hoped that he had

chosen an opportune time. It was still morning and not yet lunch time. He prayed that she

would be alone in the house. By the time he arrived there in the town of only five streets, he was

ready to burst.

Estelle answered his knock at the door in her scanty, white nightgown. She took him in by the

arm. They failed to make it upstairs. While they covered each other’s face and head and neck

with passionate kisses, Estelle drew Jim into the downstairs parlor and closed the door. They fell

to the floor right behind the door onto a floral decorated rug. They were on fire for each other.

Because they were out of their heads with desire, their lovemaking was quick but incredibly

heightened by anticipation.

“I can’t seem to get enough of you,” Jim said, after they finished and were tidying their clothes.

“Good,” Estelle said, a sly smile on her face.

They went up to her bedroom and sipped tea. Jim complained about Eliza’s lack of

understanding of him. Estelle listened like a mother, which is what Jim wanted her to do. He

was not so disenchanted with Eliza that he considered ending their engagement. Time would

work it out, he thought. Jim invited Estelle to his dinner on Wednesday and promised to visit

again tomorrow morning.

Jim left Estelle feeling light and happy. He bounced down her street toward Eliza’s house to get

his horse. He planned on passing by John’s house at lunch. Who should he meet at the end of

Estelle’s street but General William Ashley!

“Jim, I can’t believe my eyes! You’re back in St. Louis,” said the ruddy faced general, who

turned even redder on sight of Jim.

“And you, too, general!”

“Yes, yes. I heard that you and Moses made it to Ely’s fort. What happened? There’s so much

for us to tell. Let’s go to Le Barras’s hotel for a drink.”

“Good then,” Jim said.

The two men escorted each other to the hotel, Jim moving even sprightlier than before. Ashley

was a much smaller man who kept pace by sheer determination. They entered a darkened, half

empty bar downstairs and pulled up chairs at a table. Jim was heartened by the appearance of

Ashley. Everything was going right for him! He recounted his experience with Moses and at

Ely’s and Chouteau’s fort. Ashley told him that the party had broken up after Jim and Moses left

it. The general had realized that the two men were not coming back. Many of Ashley’s men had

returned to St. Louis. Jim was happy to hear that no one had died or been injured. By no means,

however, did he expect Ashley’s next words which the general had been cagily planning from

the moment he spotted Jim.

“I organized another party, a larger one of one hundred and twenty men, to trap beaver and otter

out West. The men just left early this morning which makes me so surprised to see you today. I

want you, Jim, to catch up with them and work as a scout! I’ll pay you twice as much as I did

last time! After all, you’ve gained one hell of a lot of experience! How about it, Jim? You’ll

have to leave today.”

“Today! I can’t leave today! I just got here. I’m not even sure I want to go back out. I’d like to

help you out, General, but I can’t.”

“I understand, Jim. You feel rushed. I wish I could give you more time. Wait. I can do that

much. All right, Jim. You can leave tomorrow at the same pay raise. Please, Jim. I need you

out there. A man like you can make the difference between failure and success. I would very

much value your help.”

“General Ashley, I’m flattered,” Jim said. “But I don’t know what to say.”

“Say yes,” Ashley prompted.

Jim wanted time when he made no decisions. He wanted to relax and see friends without any

cares of his own. However, Ashley’s offer was an excellent one. The challenge and the money

were compelling. Maybe it was true that living in the wild was his calling. He always knew that

it was but he wanted a break from it. If only Ashley could approach him a month from now.

“Do you have any other expeditions planned,” Jim asked.

“No. In fact, this one will determine whether the Rocky Mountain Fur Company ever sends out

another expedition. It could be the last. I need you to deliver eight hundred dollars to Thomas

Fitzpatrick, head of the party.”

Jim wanted to go. He was excited about heading out again. It was soon but he would be back.

“All right, General Ashley,” Jim said. “I’m with you. I’ll leave tomorrow morning. Tuesday is

a fine day to start on a journey, nowhere near unlucky Friday.”

“That’s how I feel. Welcome back, Jim,” he said, extending his thick, right hand for a firm


The two men walked out together into the bright sun of high noon. They said goodby though

Ashley said that he would join the party in a week after he took care of some business. Jim

walked to Eliza’s house. He accepted her invitation to lunch. Over coffee at the end of the meal,

he broke the news of his sudden departure to her and her mother.

“I don’t believe that you’re leaving again, Jim,” Portia said. “When will you stay?”

“It’s as unexpected to me as it is to you, ma’am,” Jim said, respectfully. “But I can’t turn down

this opportunity. Eliza and I can use the money.”

“Do you care about my daughter, Mr. Beckwourth,” Portia asked.

“I love your daughter, Mrs. Shepheard. I promise I will return and marry her.”

Eliza whimpered like a neglected puppy. She excused herself from the table and ran from the

room. Jim thought how much better he liked her when he was away from her. He took his leave

after she did. Eliza would wait, he thought.

Jim rode to Beckwourth’s Settlement to spend the rest of his day with the family. He felt that he

had to get out of St. Louis fast before something else befell him. Estelle would hear about his

decision from his father soon enough. She would understand.

Jennings and Matilda were astounded. They wanted more time with Jim but they admired his

acceptance of yet another challenge. Randolph was happy to be rid of him. The other children

were not surprised. Leaving was what their older brother always did. They expected it. Jim

regretted that he did not have the opportunity to convince his father to free him. He hoped that

his continued exploration would persuade his father for him.

The next morning, Jim veered further away from home. Once he started out, he plunged into the

unknown because he had a sense of it now. He was not afraid.

Six days later found Jim with his party. Everyone was fresh that evening. Excitement charged

the camp. Conversations competed for attention. Laughter hung in the air. Many of the men

had never been out so that even learning how to choose a campsite delighted them. Though it

was late spring and temperate, a strong enough wind blew at night to coax them to search for

rocks to block it. This barrier could possibly save them from freezing to death in the harsher

months. They found boulders at Elm Grove, about thirty-three miles north of Independence,

Missouri. They nestled there under the thick, outstretched boughs of an elm hundreds of years

old that towered above the other trees.

Beneath its encompassing limbs, Jim held court with anyone who paid heed. He pulled in a few

at a time. He recounted advice he had been given on his two previous expeditions. He told the

young ones to stay alert. They would learn the signs of danger, hostility, safety and kindness.

Jim did not like to sit and do nothing. So he cleaned his new gun as he talked. Fancy Free was

Jim’s name for his Hawken rifle, a gift from his father. Jacob Hawken had just set up shop in St.

Louis. His rifles were sought after. Jim loved his present. His father always knew the

appropriate gift and time to give it. Jim’s Kentucky rifle was a fine weapon. It lay there by his

side. But it was time it shared duty with another piece.

Jim felt his old strength as surely as the potential force of the rifle whose thirty-six-inch barrel he

handled. Jim was robust; he was experienced; and he was courageous. What adventures would

he entertain this time out?

“Tell the story of you and Black Harris nearly dying in the woods,” said one boy, whose

knowledge of the West was rooted in newspaper advertisements.

Jim was only too happy to oblige him. He was honing the art of storytelling, a popular pastime

at campfires where mountaineers determined to best each other. As Jim rounded every corner of

the tale, he embroidered it in a new way. His story grew with each telling. He added dangerous

characters and triumphant fights, lengthened the misadventure and made Moses more dependent

on him, Moses being so much older and all. He kept, however, the factual seed of starving in the


Jim created this role larger than life because he felt confined by his youth. He would grow into

it, he told himself. He would become a mighty man. More, more, he would always need more.

Eventually, the teller of the story became the story, the winner, the person who saved the lesser

characters from starvation, floods and ferocious animals. Because of Jim’s tremendous need for

recognition, he stepped into the pillar role that much sooner. He became the one the others could

not do without. He became irreplaceable. And with every rendition, Jim strayed further away

from his original perception of what happened. He was convincing because he believed his own

stories. He made himself up. But Jim was not alone in this. Mountain men thrived on making

myth, the legend of the West, casting themselves as its rightful heroes/villains.

Jim delivered the eight hundred dollars to Thomas Fitzpatrick whom the Indians called Bad

Hand. Relieved to receive the money which sealed the business deal, Fitzpatrick announced to

his men that they would wait for the general.

“Where is the general,” asked one curly haired young man.

“He’s with his new wife,” shouted a voice.

“Oh, the joys of nuptials,” shouted someone else in a falsetto.

The men laughed. They were happy to have escaped St. Louis for a variety of reasons, nuptials

for some.

The days shimmered brightly. Resplendent hues of vital green filled the eye with the wonder of

spring. Thrushes sang sweetly. The camping site vibrated with life. When the general arrived, a

happy group of men waited to see him. Ashley was as dependent on them for survival as they

were on him for a livelihood. He had only gone out a few times. He was, by no means, an

expert adventurer. Ashley had cultivated an instinct for making money and a passion for power.

St. Louis was grooming more men like him, men who were bored with the city’s sedate, small

town personality. Like Ashley, most were immigrants from back East or Canada or Europe.

They ached for competition, challenge and new endeavors. “Progress,” they heralded.

“Progress,” they craved.

The expedition pushed along the snaking Missouri westward and then northward to Council

Bluffs. Then miles added up westward again, two hundred and eighty-three from Elm’s Grove to

the low hills of drifted sand approaching the Platte River. Pleasant weather, high spirits and easy

traveling seduced them into slacking security. They became careless and assuming. At the river

camp, such restful slumber did they know that the canter of the horses did not wake them. They

woke up later to find that their animals had been stolen! All two hundred of them! The

expedition sprang into action hours too late. The men discovered moccasin prints leading hoof

prints several hundred yards away from the camp. They could not ascertain who had taken the

horses. Angrily, they dogged the trail for five hours. Then Ashley accepted the loss. Chances

were nil that, on foot, they would overtake the horses’ new owners riding on the backs of their

swift acquisitions. The general ordered half the party to return to the Missouri River where they

could purchase fresh horses. The other men would remain on the Platte and trap beaver. He

would return to St. Louis to take care of business which everyone suspected was his new wife.

The group split into two, all the while the men cursed emphatically for bringing misfortune on

themselves. Jim stayed with the sixty trappers.

The beaver had little chance of escaping the expensive, two dollar traps that the men placed

underwater, deep enough so that the three- to four-foot-long animal would drown before

breaking the surface. When the trap was set too near the surface, the beaver would swim ashore

and gnaw its paw off. The instinct to survive was that strong. Trappers learned not to give it that

last chance.

The beaver helped give rise to an entire profession. Mountain men trapped and scouted. The

beaver lived as it always had. It was an odd creature whose tail served as a rudder and whose

teeth and digestive system hankered for it to dine well on quaking aspen shavings and

cottonwood bark. While chewing and eating, it sat upright on its hind legs and tail. While

working, it chiseled all the way around thick tree trunks with sharp incisors and powerful jaws.

The trees grew on an incline toward the river and fell over into the water. The beaver, a natural

builder, worked furiously to prepare its winter home constructed of twigs and branches and

fortified with sediment and mud. It designed simple dams and homes which lasted a long time.

Being out in the beaver’s sylvan home left a man on his own to be himself. He got to know and

express himself well, the many sides of himself, and, more times than he cared to admit, the

uglier and duller sides. It was wide, open country ready to receive anyone’s enactment of

themselves. It was the early West, wild only in people’s show of their true selves. The West

differed from the United States in that there were many groups of people who lived there and

wanted different things in life. The land was vast enough in the West to accommodate everyone

as it was in the South. But greed had already raised its voice down there.

The United States militia had conducted many fighting campaigns against the followers of the

Indian visionary, Tecumseh. This man and his brother, Tenskwatawa, also called the Prophet,

had built Prophet’s Town for their converts twelve years ago in Indiana. They believed that all

the land belonged to all the Indians; they advocated fidelity to their cultures; and they preached

peace with the white man. That peace fell apart when the United States army attacked them in


The British had a longstanding goal of creating a buffer Indian state that would block American

expansion and build up control of its fur trade headquartered in Montreal. This goal, and

Napoleon’s Continental Blockade of British goods in Europe, encouraged the War of 1812

between the United Kingdom and the United States.

During peace negotiations in the neutral city of Ghent in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the

United Kingdom proposed the Indian buffer state concept, which the United States rejected. The United

States did not present President James Madison’s proposition that the United Kingdom turn Canada

over to the United States.

The War of 1812 ended in 1815. The Treaty of Ghent began two centuries of peaceful relations between

the British and American governments.

After the war, Andrew Jackson negotiated treaties with enemy and allied tribes of the

British and Americans. These agreements corralled several tribes into Arkansas and drastically

reduced the tribes’ Southern land holdings.

The United States cleared territory of Indians before admitting states to the Union: Louisiana in

1812, Mississippi in 1817 and Alabama in 1819. The gruesome policy of Indian removal had

been ushered into being.

Now in 1820, conflict bubbled in the blood of the veins of men and women everywhere as it had

one hundred years earlier and would one hundred years later. Thinking creates conflict; human

compassion softens its resolution, self-centeredness ensures its harshness and, perhaps, its


Yet, the world would be dull and lifeless without conflict. It would be perfect and what could be

more deadening than that. There would be nothing to work out, to strive for, to focus on. Jim

did not believe this. He wanted to exorcise conflict out of his mind, soul and life. Jim tried to

capture freedom by emulating his father. Jennings had fought spiritedly against the King of

England in the American Revolutionary War. He was an English baron turned major in the

rebellion. Jim, on the other hand, scouted and trapped beaver with his father’s permission and

blessing. The two men respected each other’s independence in their own ways. Jim thought his

father dashing, clever and worthy of his reverence although he also felt his father’s cruelty

strangling him around his neck.

“That’s a fine looking rifle,” Zachary Latham said to Jim about Fancy Free one morning when he

and some others headed out to hunt. “I hate to see it go to waste.”

“What do you mean by that,” said Jim, who drew his body up in preparation for some heated

words and a fight.

“Just what I said. You’re Jennings Beckwourth’s boy, aren’t you?”

“Yes. What of it?”

“You’re just as hotheaded as you were when I taught you how to break in horses. So impatient.

And you only came up to my waist then.”

“Zachary,” shouted Jim, hugging the man he thought he would be knocking over.

Zachary once worked for Jennings at Beckwourth’s Settlement. It was shortly after the family

moved West. Zachary presented himself on the doorstep one day looking for work. His

credentials were an honest, square jaw, strong, fleshy hands and eyes that looked straight into his

listener’s. He gave names of former employers but they were all more than two hundred miles

away. Jennings trusted the man who said that he was passing through. Zachary stayed at

Beckwourth’s Settlement one year.

“Tell you the truth, Jim, I didn’t recognize you. One of the men mentioned your surname. Then

I saw the resemblance. Why am I finding you out here on a beaver trapping expedition? I

figured you’d be working at your father’s place. God knows it’s large enough.”

“I didn’t want that,” said Jim. “I wanted to make it on my own.”

“Well, I’ve got to respect you for that. How are your parents? And your brothers and sisters?

There were so many of you. I could never remember all your names.”

“There are six more of us now. Thirteen all together. Everyone’s doing fine. They’re all living

on the settlement. Father is well. He’s been making investments in businesses. We lost Mother

a few years ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Zachary said. “She was a lovely woman.”

“Yes, she was,” Jim said.

“I’ve got to say it’s a pleasure to be working with you now. I’d be more than happy to help you

out. I’d like to trap with you. Your father extended his hand to me once. I want to return the


“Thank you,” Jim said.

Jim and Zachary were reassured by their meeting with each other again. It showed them that

sometimes life does make full circles. Comforted by the illusion of continuum, they turned to

their future.

It was such a big country, an expanse of land that stretched toward a far away horizon.

Sometimes at night, Jim lay on his back and looked up at the immense, peaceful shroud of sky.

It was so beautifully simple out there, so dangerously natural. Jim loved it. This was his

happiness and peace of mind on cold, summer nights. Jim was a mountain man, not a family

man like his father. He was a natural traveler with an adventurous spirit and a brave outlook.

The beaver supplied superficial reasons for taking risks. If it were not for the beaver, it would

have been some other rodent or animal or tree or bird that would have pushed explorers into the

mountains. That there was a there would have been enough. The beaver served a convenient

purpose. City folks wanted to dress fashionably and warmly in hats and coats made of beaver

fur. Mountain men needed to live in the mountains. They wore leather in the winter

waterproofed with fowl grease that darkened it. Their jackets were trimmed with leather fringe

from whose strands raindrops would slide. The trappers never wore those stylish beaver coats

whose individual pelts they sold at the dear price of two to four dollars.

“Hey, boy,” one of the men called to Baptiste La Jeunesse in camp. “You look way too young to

be out here. Why, you look like you ought to be at home with your mother. You look as young

as the baby birds in that tree over there only they’ve got more feathers.”

Several men broke into laughter. They slapped their knees with glee. Baptiste, a delicate,

ethereal boy, grew still. He slumped his narrow shoulders and looked down at the ground. His

dreamy green eyes glossed over with tears. A lock of his chestnut hair fell on his forehead. He

responded like a sensitive child taunted by bullies.

“Baptiste and I worked together before,” Jim lied. “But he insists on sleeping the right amount

of hours each night to keep his youthful looks. Don’t you wish you looked as young, you old

craggy faced bastard?

“How old can you be now,” Jim teased good-naturedly. “Fifty, sixty?”

“Old enough to be weaned,” someone else shouted.

The crowd laughed. The teaser went back to repairing a trap that a beaver had gotten loose from.

Jim welcomed Baptiste to the expedition. The two had never spoken. They now formally

introduced themselves. Baptiste was an indentured servant from French Canada. He planned to

put in seven years with the company before he could call his life his own. Then he hoped to live

in the States. A gentle boy, he trusted people and could not understand why they would strike

out at him. He liked to be alone. He loved the water. As his eyes followed the meandering of

the river, its slowness and its green color, his mind wandered too. Many times, he sneaked to the

water's edge. Trapping kept him around the water, but he hated doing it. What was the point of

killing those helpless beavers? When he arrived at the traps first, he secretly freed animals that

he thought had a chance to live. Not even his friends, Jim and Zachary, knew.

Jim’s first season of trapping passed pleasantly. He spent most of his time in the water setting

five-pound traps in the twilight and retrieving his catch the next morning. Spring and fall

produced beavers with more lustrous coats but trapping now was opportune. It was a summer

full of dank wadings and warm fires on prairie nights. The days were torrid.

Baptiste, Zachary and Jim banded together when they trapped. They guarded each other from

danger, from attacks by natives and wild animals, and from loneliness.


(From the New York Public Library)


These days Jim’s heart floated like a yellow butterfly on the wing. He was happy in his world of

three good friends and God’s nature. His sleep came easily and passed without bad dreams.

General Ashley returned to a fortunate party. Everyone had come back. The group of men

designated to buy horses had returned with their purchases. The men on the Platte had trapped a

handsome show of beaver and otter and they had enjoyed a satisfying summer hunting season.

It was September, Dying Grass Moon, and nearly one year since Ashley left the party with which

Jim and Moses had been associated. Ashley ordered Fitzpatrick and Robert Campbell, a

Scotsman who had taken to the mountains for his health, to head north along the Missouri with

all but eight men. The remaining group would ascend the Platte to meet with the members of

last year’s party who had stayed out. Ashley wanted Zachary and Jim to accompany him.

Baptiste went with his friends.

Ashley and his smaller party came upon the remains of a campfire on the second morning. They

had no idea of whom left it behind. They feared that it might mean trouble.

Later that same day, they overtook the fire’s builder. As luck would have it, the person was

Moses Harris. He had scouted briefly for another party after leaving Ely’s post. Now he was

working alone happily, but glad to see Jim and Ashley and company. He joined then in their


Several days later, they came upon the party. It was twenty-six in number and in a despondent

state. The men had done well trapping, but they had not fared as well hunting. Their provisions,

all except flour, had long since dwindled and finished. The appearance of the Ashley party

plunged the bereft party under Horace Appleton into an even deeper depression. Appleton, a

lanky, bucktoothed man, looked like the beaver he trapped although he moved listlessly. And his

words were far from inspirational when he spoke at all. All this time, Appleton’s men thought a

larger party would catch up with them bringing mounds of food. Instead, Ashley brought nine

men with large appetites and no supplies. The waiting party wished that Ashley had never

shown up. The men were immobilized, before he arrived, with hunger and heaviness. They

were in the state Jim and Moses had been when they first separated from the party. Looking at

them and smelling their fear, Jim vividly recalled the feeling of deprivation. After staying three

days without food, Jim did not have to remember. He was starving again. So was Moses. And

Baptiste and Zachary. Everyone reached the brink about the same time. Ashley tried to talk his

men up but they knew better than to store faith in the businessman from St. Louis. Ashley,

however, was not one to lay down and die. He ordered the camp to move upriver where there

might be more game. Three days passed without a shot being fired. They were on a death

march. Ashley chose a new campground. He singled out the men who wanted to prove

themselves the most and offered, not commanded, them the opportunity to hunt game. Moses

passed. He knew his limitations. He might drop dead on a hunting expedition. Jim, however,

jumped at the chance. Zachary thought he could shoot something and, besides, felt protective of

Jim Beckwourth. Baptiste accepted the challenge because he was grateful to Jim. He looked up

to and trusted him. There were other teams that accepted the general’s offer. The hunters would

bring their game back to the camp so that all the trappers could share the sustenance.

Against his friends’ advice, Jim separated from them and hunted on his own. It was good to

break away from fretting people, he thought. Granted, he worried too but working with people

in the same state of mind only exacerbated it. Alone, he could pretend he was not in as dire

straits. He could be out hunting with his father as an escape from mundane responsibility. He

imagined he was at Beckwourth’s Settlement when he saw two teal ducks lighting on tree

branches not far away. Fancy Free shot off the head of one of them. Umm. Jim fantasized a

meal of roast duck, succulent roast duck! How wonderful a feast it would be—for him. How

good it would be to enjoy a duck feast. What a pleasure to eat chewable food. How terrible if

anyone found out! The acrid smell of gunpowder permeated the air. Jim wished it would go

away. Guilt made him think that it would bring the others running. The sound of the shot alone

would alert them. Seconds later, Jim heard another shot. It allayed his nervousness about

getting caught in the dastardly act of eating while his colleagues starved. Perhaps the other shot

signaled the downing of a large deer. It could have been a shot that missed its mark. Whatever

it was, no one had the strength to run toward either shot. The small duck that Jim had killed

would amount to less than a mouthful split thirty-five ways, he figured. Jim reasoned that if he

ate the entire bird, it would restore his energy, making it possible to hunt better for the sake of

the others. Quickly, he made a fire and cooked his duck. The aroma of it made his mouth water

and his head spin. There was no wind. It was all for him and sinfully delicious. He

meticulously cleaned the bones of the meat leaving them dry. As he threw the last bone in the

bushes, he burped the floor goop on which they had all been subsisting.

What a despicable thing he had done! He had eaten while his messmates had not in days! The

taste of the substance mixed with guilt made Jim sick to his stomach. He leaned over and nearly

lost his solitary feast. Carefully, he pulled himself together and set out to kill some game for the

party. He searched desperately for game.

A mile away hidden among the rushes, Jim spotted a large buck. He broke his back with one

shot, partially dressed and hanged him on a tree. Not far on, a white wolf skulked in the bushes

before Jim killed it. Then he shot and bagged one elk, two elk, three. He would return victorious

but secretly ashamed.

“Good work,” Ashley complimented him when he walked into camp.

“Good work,” Horace Appleton praised him.

“Good work,” the other hunters said, who had also returned with game though not quite as much

as Jim.

Tonight they could all eat until satiated. The camp cook jumped about sawing, cutting and

slicing. For the first time since Jim had been with the party again, its members joked and jostled.

The smell of meat cooking shook them out of their doomed state.

“Have the first piece, won’t you, Jim. You fared the best,” Appleton said.

“No. That’s not necessary. You have it, Horace.”

Appleton was flustered by Jim’s refusal. Why, he must be starved after hunting all day without

any food for days beforehand. Because of his basic trust in people, he figured Jim was

incredibly gracious and gave the food to someone else. After a gregarious meal and those

famished days faded into long ago, the men lay on their backs and smiled at the sky. Everything

was right with the world. Then Jim confessed his teal duck meal to Zachary, Moses and Baptiste

who were within earshot. They laughed.

“You might have been building up your strength so you could come back here and bury us,”

Zachary said, laughing at his own morbid remark.

“I knew I was going to shoot more game,” Jim said. “But without eating, I don’t know if I

would have had the strength to hunt.”

“Sure Jim, sure. And that dead bird dangling from your belt would have drained your energy.

Poor Jim Beckwourth, falling down under the weight of a four-pound duck. Wonder if we’d be

hearing this story if you hadn’t done so well hunting?”

“I wouldn’t have come back without something,” Jim insisted.

“How magnanimous,” kidded the older man. “Lucky for your conscience things worked out the

way they did.”

“Guess so,” Jim said. “I really don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t shot anything else.

I feel terrible about eating that duck.”

“And well you should,” Zachary said. “But enough of the bellyaching. It’s over. We’re all

satisfied. You have atoned satisfactorily, Sir Beckwourth.”

“Yes,” said Moses, a few feet from Jim. “Now enjoy your full feeling and go to sleep. Thank

God we ate well today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.”

Zachary and Baptiste agreed. They wondered whether they would have owned up to the betrayal

had they been Jim.

“Tomorrow will bring more good fortune for us. We’ve ended that run of bad luck,” Ashley

chimed in, in his typical, unthinking, overoptimistic way.

“With God’s mercy,” Moses said.

“Eh, what is this, “With God’s mercy’ prayer,” Ashley asked. “We have God’s mercy. There’s

nothing stopping us now. We’re on top again.”

Ashley continued like this putting most to sleep and forcing others to block out the sound of his

booming voice. Then in the same loud tone, he added:

“And Jim, don’t pull that stunt again.”

The personalized order stunned Jim who was, himself, dozing off.

“No, sir. I wouldn’t think of it,” he said. Jim was surprised that Ashley had heard his confession

and he regretted his honesty.

The party kept moving; the hunting was good though not as much of a bonanza as on that first

day. The camp was livelier but not thriving.

One gloomy, overcast day brought with it twinges of inexplicable sadness. A fine rain had

already fallen early that morning. The clouds billowed with moisture. As the day grew older,

the sky changed from ominous gray to a murky green. Cypresses, cottonwood and oak branches

tossed about in the wind. Their shadows looked like bodies swaying from trees. The few, sturdy

leaves that they still had blew away. Unfamiliar birds squawked crazily as they darted from one

tree to another before taking a long flight away from the strange, stormy place.

“It’s looking bad,” said Baptiste, who was afraid.

“Someone is going to die tonight,” Moses said, with a certainty.

“What are you talking about,” Ashley interjected. “No one’s going to die. We’re going to find a

safe place to protect us from the wind and rain and camp there. It won’t be long now.”

A bolt of lightning bathed the trail in an eerie green light. The clouds scudded by. Thunder

blasted their eardrums twice.

“Look,” someone shouted, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. “A settlement.”

“A mirage,” said the sober Appleton. “It must be a mirage.”

Appleton saw, through Ashley’s spy glass, a rippling of the dozen houses and smoke piping out

of their chimneys.

“Boys,” he addressed the men. “Don’t get excited. It’s not real. And the closer we get, the

farther away it will move. We’ll never reach this imaginary oasis.”

“Hold on, Appleton,” Ashley said. “Those houses look real to me. Besides, I thought that

mirages occurred when the beholder was starving and desperate. We are neither.”

“That’s true. But neither have most of us seen a town in two, going on three years.”

“But mirages are common on the open plains, aren’t they,” Ashley agreed. “This is hardly open

land. There are enough trees and bushes to keep us rooted in reality.”

“Again, you are right, General,” Appleton answered. “But mirages aren’t confined to the plains.

Why, I’ve heard of a man who, shortly after returning to St. Louis from the mountains, chased a

Pawnee settlement through the middle of town. No one could tell him any different. He’d left a

wife and family with the Republican Pawnees. He was missing them. In town, he caused a

commotion knocking people out of his way and sideswiping horse-drawn carts. He screamed the

name of his wife as he tore through the streets. ‘Marissa,’ he yelled frantically as she backed

away from him. Such a sad scene!”

“Was that a mirage, Appleton, or had this man lost his mind,” Ashley said and then snickered.

“General, that is what a mirage is,” Appleton countered dourly. “A temporary loss of sanity.

That is what you are now experiencing.”

“Well, what looks like a settlement lies in the direction we’re headed anyway. Time will tell.”

Appleton shrugged his shoulders. He did not want his men to sink into grave disappointment

after tasting the elation of anticipation. Lightning struck again; the men’s faces glowed

iridescently. Their pallor and lean bodies gave them the appearance of ghouls. Jim and

Baptists shivered with fright and the late October cold harsher than winter’s because they had

known such mild days not so far back. Jim covered up his fear with braggadocio.

“I’ve seen worse storms,” he said, loudly. “This one will pass over quickly.”

Jim shut up when no one joined in. The men inched closer together on their horses. When one

man stopped, they all stopped. The silent riders searched for shelter. It began to drizzle lightly

for ten long minutes, giving the party time to find a safe spot near a huge rock. They made camp

with the speed of beavers. They set stones on leather pieces to build shelters and managed to

scour some dry wood for three fires. Then the rain fell in a torrent; the thunder kept crashing; the

lightning made them jumpy. It was difficult to believe that it was early afternoon. It looked like

a time meant to sleep through.

“I’m going to see if that settlement is there or not, if that’s all right with you, sir,” Moses said to

Ashley. Moses had not unsaddled his horse.

“Of course, Moses,” said a happy man, who thought that he would soon be proved right.

“Maybe some others would like to go with you.”

Ashley spoke loudly enough for the entire camp to hear. Jim volunteered. Baptiste volunteered.

Zachary and the two other men said that they would accompany Moses. Why not? They would

get as drenched in camp as on the trail.

“All right, men,” Appleton said. “But turn around and come back in an hour if you haven’t

gotten there.”

“We will,” Moses said.

Appleton did not want to lose anyone stupidly. Losing a man to oblivion would be an

inexcusable waste. He exchanged no more words with Ashley and returned to his charges.

Appleton supervised the distribution of dried beef called pemmican that he had held onto without

anyone’s knowledge.

“What were you hiding this for,” Ashley asked.

“For now,” Appleton said.