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  • @ CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD

JOURNEY TO HONOR (VII)


"Buffalo Chase in Winter, Indians on Snowshoes" by George Caitlin

(From the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.)

CHAPTER 13

Several snow showers had fallen in the last few weeks but the sugary flakes had dissolved as

they alighted the ground. Jim watched a moving cloud of dust approach at a steady rate from the

top of a hickory tree. He thought that it looked like a dust storm but it was the wrong season for

that. What was it?

“Buffalo, silly,” Ashley later teased Jim. “And you killed one. Good shot, Jim. What a prize it

is!”

“I’ve never seen one,” said Jim,” amazed by its massiveness. It was twice his size.

“This is an all-purpose animal, Jim,” Ashley instructed. “Kill one of them and you’ve got

enough meat to last a month, a handsome robe and blood to drink if you have no water.”

I’ll never get that thirsty, Jim thought. But he had been out there long enough to know that

anything can happen in the wild. They had almost killed a horse to eat back when they were

eating flour gruel. Then last week, a mount died of its own accord and found its way into the

grateful stomachs of the trappers.

Jim’s mind wandered as he accomplished the tedious task of dressing the dead buffalo. His

eldest sister, Matilda, would want to hear every detail about Jim’s first buffalo. She would want

to know its size, its weight and whether it charged or not. She wanted to write an adventure

novel like Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or Francois-Rene de Chauteaubriand’s Atala. The

Frenchman’s well received book was the story of a beautiful native American maiden who

poisons herself rather than break a vow of lifelong celibacy with the man she saved from a

burning death.

Jim thought that Matilda was commanding, a female version of their father. Yet, she also had

inherited their mother’s grace, intuition and drive. Educating herself on the sly was a challenge

she had met and won. She enjoyed history, contemporary literature, Latin and French. Mattie

carried the responsibility well of managing the manor of forty-five people although her stately

comportment did not mesh with her dreamy nature. She loved the poems she had read by an

Englishman her age named John Keats.

Matilda wanted to write. Very much. She had written many poems as a child. After their

mother died, she had less time to herself and more people constantly around her. It was

impossible for her to write. Matilda bided her time. Her moment would come. Meanwhile, she

gathered material and weaved stories inside her head. She would be thrilled to read about Jim’s

first buffalo.

Two hours passed before Jim finished dressing his kill and he washed his hands smeared with

blood and entrails. The cold temperature of the water shocked him. The inside of the buffalo’s

body had been so warm.

Trapping stopped for the freezing weather. It was January, Moon of Strong Cold. The men had

followed the North Platte River until they reached the fork fifty miles slightly southwest of

Grand Island. Their fingers and toes ached before they lost feeling in them several times. Jim’s

skin became ashy and dry in the cold. He kept his mouth closed to keep the misty gray out of his

blood. Freezing to death would be a horrendous way to die, he and his colleagues thought, as

death was on all their minds. Winter stripped them of their smiles. They bonded together in a

cheerless fight to live. Snow stopped them in their tracks. They waited out the impossible

weather in a series of sheltered caves. They managed to keep dry by keeping fires going. Jim

reminisced about sleeping with Aria under a diaphanous canopy. He wondered when he would

visit New Orleans again. The way life could be, he might very well never see her again. Jim

sighed over the disappointments of life.

When the party moved again, it would trap on the way to Pierre’s Hole in the mountains for a

rendezvous that summer. This annual trappers’ fair was a new ritual initiated by Ashley. It

broke the monotony of work and promised a good time of drinking, storytelling and making love

with strangers. But for now in the caves, the men waited out the blizzards and impassable trails.

“I like it here,” Baptiste told Jim. “It feels so safe.”

“You are a strange boy,” Jim said. “It’s boring here.”

“I’d rather be bored than in danger,” said the young man.

“Men weren’t meant to hibernate,” Jim said. “I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t sleep

through this.”

“No, but these caves are a blessing. Camping in the open would have been perilous.”

Such a storm swirled outside that all they could see was white.

“I can’t see a thing,” Jim grumbled.

“I know,” said Baptiste, enjoying the invisibility outside.

Everyone took turns watching for friends and enemies and keeping the snow from piling up

outside the entrance to the caves. Their captivity fed the longevity of a poker game that lasted all

day and deep into the night. When a player abandoned his place, there was someone ready to

take it. They bet money which was not any good to any of them out there. Zachary and Moses

played energetically. They won repeatedly. Ashley and Appleton played bitterly in a frustrating

arena that would not allow either to win. Frequently, they accused each other of cheating. The

other would deny it and challenge his adversary to a fight. Their men would hold them back.

They would spit and kick and swear that they would get to the other’s throat. Their contained

living quarters exacerbated the tension. Everyone wondered how long they could keep the two

leaders from mauling each other. Their worry kept them from snowballing their own petty

disagreements into major arguments.

Ashley would not admit it but he carried a load of guilt about the assault on Maria. Over and

over, he thought that it would not have happened if those men had not gone out looking for the

settlement which he believed existed. Appleton also blamed him. Ashley questioned how

careful he had been when examining the character of the men he had hired. He did not expect

nor want saints but he hoped he had employed men of integrity who knew when to break the

rules. Ashley suspected that one of his men had murdered Ernesto. He was glad. Neither

Ernesto nor Mephisto deserved life. They had committed an unspeakable crime. Ashley felt

sorry for Maria, a young, beautiful, ruined woman. Who would want her now? She should have

had a man living with her. Hell, even if she had a man the same thing might have happened.

Ashley vowed that if he ever caught up with Mephisto, he would shoot him dead on the spot. It

would be his pleasure, his duty and his redemption.

Ashley also missed his wife in St. Louis. He longed to outline the shape of her soft face with his

hand again. He hoped she was all right. Her maiden name was Christy but she shared the same

first name, Eliza, with Jim’s betrothed. Jim thought about Eliza. She was safe. He was sure

about that. Eliza and her mother could take care of themselves. But what if Eliza were to forget

about him? Already this time out, he had been away eight months. Eliza was a pretty girl and

smart. One man, the right man, was all it would take for Jim to lose his sweetheart. Jim was

afraid of losing Eliza who had been in his life four years. Sweet, sweet, sweet Eliza! What

would he do if he were to lose her to time? He pulled out a pen and paper and began writing a

testament to his love for her.

The snow fell quietly. The wind had died. Nature was taking its course. Contrary to Jim’s

observation that hibernation was not meant for men, many of his fellow trappers lost themselves

in sleep.

Several weeks later, seven men of the Pawnee Loup band discovered the party’s refuge. They

invited the trappers to their village four miles distant. They were as happy to see the trappers as

the trappers were to meet settled people. The Pawnee Loup men brought the travelers horses to

replace the dead ones.

At the village, the trappers traded their manufactured goods for beans, pumpkins, corn, cured

meat and beaver skins. They prepared to leave when Chief Two Axe said that their departure

would scare off the buffalo four days before the Pawnee’s winter surround. He insisted that they

stay for it. The trappers accepted the honor with Ashley’s assent.

From the time Jim had seen and killed his first buffalo, he had been intrigued by them. He found

it hard to wait for the ritual hunt. Most of his colleagues accepted the invitation to join the

surround. The Pawnee Loups had planned this special event for months. They staged two grand

buffalo hunts each year, one in the winter and another in the summer. The outcome determined

the importance and stature of each man to the tribe. Jim wished that he could have participated

in the Sac summer hunt with Blue Corn Harvest and Spotted Calf. He did not know any of the

Pawnee Loups. The man who, on this hunt received the vision of leading the tribe on the

summer hunt as Fire Starter had, would be a stranger. The meaning of many gestures would be

lost on Jim. He would not even know what to look for. There would be no friend like Blue Corn

Harvest to explain. He missed the intimacy he had shared with the Sac chief’s son. He did not

share the same closeness of equality with Zachary, Moses or Baptiste. These men strived to take

care of him – Moses as his father, Zachary as an uncle and Baptiste as his boy.

Baptiste needed shelter from the barbs of the insensitive. The gentle boy recoiled from the

opportunity to engage in the hunt. Jim deflected the anticipated jeers by assuring Baptiste in a

very loud voice that his decision to stay would serve the trappers well. He could guard their

belongings.

On the day of the hunt, the number of buffalo lolling about eating a sparse spread of grass

stupefied Jim. Sixteen hundred of them, at least! Jim’s heart skipped beats. He was awed. The

game stretched out in a pastoral scene that Jim could not see the end of. The warriors encircled

the animals in a ten-mile boundary. Many wore buffalo skins; all wore resplendent paints. The

chief tugged at his festooned headdress so that it rested on the back of his head. It was the signal

to attack. Everyone charged to the center. The buffalo barely noticed the army of men until they

got within smelling range. Then the frenzy began.

For three hours, the men sank lances into the buffalo who ran madly in every direction from their

slaughter. A shroud of dust hanged over the bloody landscape. The buffalo bellowed in pain.

The smell of their sweat and that of the hunters stank but the thrill of conquering perfumed the

odor. Out of nowhere, vultures greedily circled above the spectacle of lust. Buffalo dropped

dead with a regularity that ensured the men of a successful surround. Most of the carcasses filled

the center of the circle. Not many animals covered much ground before being plunged with a

lance, fatally pierced with arrows or gunpowder, or trampled by another frightened buffalo. The

hunter staved off a full-scale stampede by taking steady stabs at the underbellies of the dun

bodies because the tender heart section was the buffalo’s most vulnerable. An attack anywhere

else meant danger to the hunter whom the buffalo would charge in anger. Skillfully, all of the

Pawnee Loup men survived the surround. The trappers, expert at saving their own skins, had

paid close attention to the chief’s instructions and also escaped alive.

The carnage that the accomplished men left on the field monopolized their vision. They left the

field heroes. The village women visited the aftermath so that they could dress the buffalo. Their

job consumed several days of basic work on the field followed by several weeks of sophisticated

drying and preserving at home.

Ashley’s impatience waxed at the surround’s end. Winter’s most serious snowstorms were done

for the season, he concluded. Why, the ground was absolutely dry! The fur company president

wanted to get on with the expedition. His men could traverse the trail on the way to Pierre’s

Hole and trap, too. Appleton did not share Ashley’s enthusiasm for resuming their journey so

soon. However, the head man was firm.

“I’ve got seventy-five thousand dollars in debt, Appleton. This expedition can either ruin me or

make me a fortune. I’m going to do everything in my power to make it make me rich. I can’t

afford to sit around and learn Pawnee Loup ceremonial customs. We’ve spent enough time

being gracious. We stayed for the surround. That’s all Chief Two Axe asked. Now, it’s time to

go.”

“The men could use more time being around other people and eating well,” Appleton argued.

“They’ve been deprived for some time.”

“We’ve all been deprived,” Ashley said. “But it’s almost done now. A few more months and

we’ll be in the mountains celebrating a good year of hard work. We can’t waste time. We can’t

wait out the whole winter.”

They reached a compromise unsatisfactory to them both. The party waited until the women

returned. Then the trappers moved out with a lighter step than the one they had come in on.

Appleton hoped that the bad snows truly had ended. Otherwise, they risked their lives for some

beaver skins.

They made their way back to the Platte River two miles away and travelled west again. Jim,

somehow, felt solace at the river’s side. When they reached the river fork again, they headed

south. Some time after they started out again, Ashley rode with Jim.

“The expedition’s going well, don’t you think,” its leader asked.

“Yes, I think so,” Jim answered, in an excited voice. After all, the general wanted his opinion.

“I want things to continue to go well,” Ashley said.

“I hope they do too, sir,” Jim said.

“You know, your father is very proud of you. He thinks that you’re a good, honourable man. I

trust that you are and that you will act as such on this journey.”

“Why, yes sir. Of course I will. I have,” Jim said agitatedly, in his defense.

“More or less,” Ashley said. “We may experience more occasions of scarce food. If and when

we do, we’ve got to work together as a team. Do you know what I mean, Jim?”

“Yes sir,” he said. Was he sorry that he had confessed his teal duck meal! Ashley would never

forget it. He rode off leaving Jim deflated.

“The general doesn’t like me,” Jim later told Moses.

“Jim, I don’t want to insult you, but what makes you think that he’s singled you out?”

“What do you mean, Moses? He’s noticed me. My father and he are friends. They drink

together and talk about the good old days in Old Dominion. I’ve known Mr. Ashley more than

ten years.”

“But not as an employer, Jim. You haven’t known him as your leader into the wild environs of

the Rocky Mountains. I really think that you are oversensitive about him.”

“I don’t think so, Moses. I think that he watches me closely. He’s just waiting for me to do

something wrong.”

Then Jim related the conversation with Ashley which he construed as a warning.

“Maybe you’re right, Jim. I don’t know. But we’ve got several months left on this expedition,

and the last person you want to have friction with is the leader of it. We’ve all been out a long

time and we’ve been working real hard. We’ve had some rough times. After going through all

we’ve gone through, things often get blown out of proportion. I’m not saying that’s what

happened between you and the general ‘cause I don’t know. But I suggest you give him the

benefit of the doubt.”

Moses certainly was. He still saw Jim as a spoiled, rich boy who kicked and screamed when life

was not going the way he wanted. Moses did not know how accurately Jim had recounted

Ashley’s chiding, if that is what it was. Anyway, even if it was accurate, his advice still held.

They were seven hundred miles from St. Louis and one thousand miles from Pierre’s Hole. Add

onto that the return distance and it made good sense to get along. But Jim felt slighted by

Ashley. He felt he was being put to a tougher test than the rest perhaps because Ashley was his

father’s friend, perhaps because he was black. He did not know why. He had given his all to the

expedition. He had been a tremendous hunter. When they needed him most, he had come

through with game for the starving party. The duck was a mistake. Heavens, what could he do

to live it down! Maybe some mistakes are never lived down. In every look from Ashley, Jim

saw a scowl. Jim ignored it at first. Then he could not restrain himself. He initiated several

glowers at Ashley. However, the tension did not mount between them. It stewed.

Men and horses trudged along the South Platte five miles a day, most of the time through snow,

weighted down with provisions. For several weeks after leaving the village, they shot and ate

buffalo of which there were herds. The snow fell dispassionately; eventually, the party moved

accordingly. Then, the buffalo disappeared. Ashley appeared pleased with his men’s progress;

Appleton predicted a momentous snowstorm. The snow was already knee-high on the ground.

For days, they did not see so much as a rabbit to eat. Ashley ordered daily rations of one-quarter

of a pint of beans and about as much corn for each man. Their horses ate the bark of cottonwood

the trees. They were deep in February and one hundred miles southwest of the Pawnee Loup

village.

They were surviving, even trapping well, but some of them were getting tired of just surviving.

When would winter and hardship end? Even Jim found it impossible to reap the heroic element

from their recent travails.

They had camped several days in a cleared spot because the snow had deepened to waist level.

Ashley and a few other men approached Jim to have their horses shod. Jim gladly agreed. It

would help pass the time though he thought that he might as well be in St. Louis at Casner’s. He

was bored with the expedition. And he could not stand the sight of Ashley.

Reluctantly, he promised to do the general’s horse, Cimarron, first. The animal kicked and

brayed. Jim exercised enormous restraint while shodding three hooves. He figured any horse of

Ashley’s would be ill-tempered and soured by his master. Cimarron kept on fussing. Finally,

Jim slapped his hammer once against the belly of the uncooperative animal, a common

measure practiced by blacksmiths. Cimarron backed away. Jim struck him again with the mind

that the horse was its owner. And then he freely delivered a soliloquy in the isolated area,

rapping his hammer for emphasis.

“You stupid animal! You don’t know what’s good for you. I’m helping you. I’m not going to

hurt you. I’m helping you. You’re no different than the others. Damn Ashley! I wish I could

knock some sense into your ignorant head!”

“You do, do you,” bellowed a voice from behind.

It was Ashley! He had heard everything. Well, no matter. It was about time they had it out.

“Yes, that’s right,” Jim said, indignantly.

“Why you bastard! I’m the head of this expedition. I hired you. Don’t you have any respect for

that,” Ashley yelled.

“I have respect for those who respect me. And you don’t, General,” Jim sneered, “Respect me.

So to hell with you!”

“You watch your mouth, young Mr. Beckwourth. You’re acting like you were reared without

any manners. Your father would be embarrassed by you.”

“You leave my father out of this,” Jim shouted.

“Your father is a friend of mine. I can mention his name without your permission.”

“I thought you were my father’s friend, but I don’t think so anymore. Otherwise, why would you

treat me so badly.”

“Treat you so badly! What are you talking about, Jim?”

“You know what I’m saying. You’ve been hounding me for the last few months. You’ve been

scrutinizing my movements. And I tell you, sir,” he sarcastically slurred the term of address, “I

am sick of it.”

“Hold on, Jim,” Ashley ordered. “Hold your tongue!”

“I will not. You owe me an apology for your harsh words moments ago and your unfair attitude

toward me.”

“I owe you no such thing. Listen, young man. I’m the boss here. And if you don’t like it, you

can gather your belongings and leave.”

“Fine. That’s what I’ll do. Here, you finish shoeing your damn horse,” said Jim, throwing the

hammer at Ashley’s feet.

Jim felt purged; he had told Ashley off and was free to do what he wanted. Whatever he

decided, he would not be in Ashley’s accusatory eyes. He could either continue to the Rockies

alone or retrace his steps back to St. Louis. The expedition was dull anyway. He kicked the

snow on his way back to the camp.

Ashley, in the meantime, spat fire. Jennings was a good man and he had asked him to keep an

eye out for Jim. Ashley thought Jim impetuous and cocky, qualities characteristic of youth. Jim

should be grateful for his opportunities, he thought. He was being treated like a white man and

he took it for granted. That galled Ashley. Who did this young mulatto think he was? What had

Jennings created? One thing was for sure, if Jim did not come to terms with who he was, he was

headed for nothing but trouble in his life. The only blacks Ashley knew either worked for him or

his friends as slaves. Jennings’s family was a strange anomaly. His children were his slaves, but

not really. Heck, they acted like free men and women with money, property and their noses

stuck up in the air. How could you know how to treat them?

Ashley thought that Jennings was raising very unhappy people if he let them believe that they

could be afforded the same privileges as whites. But Jennings seemed so resistant to talking

about his children. Hadn’t anyone let the Beckwourths in on the way things were? Blacks were

inferior to whites, especially morally. The Beckwourth children could be expected to inherit

some attributes of their white father but because they were half breeds, their mother’s blood

coursing through their veins would show itself in delinquent actions like Jim sneaking that duck

meal in the bushes. Ashley thought that he was obligated to scrutinize Jim because Jennings’s

son could not overcome himself. Actually, it was Ashley who could not overcome himself.

Jim knew that his father would not accept his friend’s racist posture toward his son. Jennings

would say that Jim’s sensitivity about being his mother’s son caused him to miss a chance to

explore the Rockies. Yet, Jim knew that if he were unduly sensitive, he would probably be

working and living at Beckwourth’s Settlement insulated with familial love and trained servants,

afraid to leave home.

Jim wished more than anything that his father would listen to his ordeals of living in a society

crippled by prejudice. He sugarcoated painful incidents because Jennings refused to believe that

people wielded racism against his family. Or more frequently, the young man did not tell him

anything. Jennings’s denial scared Jim. Its meaning scared him. He knew that deep down in his

heart, his father had not accepted him. But father and son did not talk about it.

If Jim were to go home, his father would not understand.

Jennings would say that Jim imagined Ashley’s rotten behaviour. He would say that Ashley

liked him, that he had always liked him. What could Jim say to that? It was not a question of

Ashley liking him. It was a matter of Ashley treating him as though he were different from the

other men because he was black. Sometimes Jim grew very tired of struggling for acceptance

from people like Ashley. The boys at Mr. Niel’s Academy were different. Once they realized

that he was not going to disappear, they made room for him in their minds by designing their

own prejudiced frame of acceptance which was that Jim was different from other blacks. They

thought that they were incredibly open-minded. Sometimes even Jim thought the way they

thought. Jennings thought that his children were different from the others. They were, after all,

his children. They were Beckwourths.

James Pierson Beckwourth, the third eldest, walked back to camp mad at Ashley, mad at his

father, mad at the country for thrusting him into this frustrating mess. Damn it! Why wouldn’t

his father at least legally emancipate him? Appleton sensed something was wrong when he

spotted Jim coming toward him.

“I need to collect my things. I’m leaving this party,” Jim told him.

“Leaving! Why,” Appleton asked.

“I don’t want to go into it. I’ve notified Ashley. I’m no longer working for him.”

“Where are you going, Jim?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m thinking that I might be going back.”

“Alone, Jim? You’ll either freeze or starve to death.”

“I’ll be going back the way we came. I know the way. It might be safer than continuing with

you.”

“But Jim, you’ll miss seeing the Rockies in the spring. The mountains are sublime then. The

flowers are blooming; the grass is bright green in patches. The snow is melting and the streams

are gushing full. The skies are the bluest you’ve ever seen anywhere. The mountains rise

majestically and almost touch them. Jim, it’s a wonderful sight! Don’t deny yourself. We’re so

close. A few weeks and we’ll be there. Believe me, your first look at all that and all these hard

times will be forgotten. I know that General Ashley can be difficult. Why, he gets my craw too.

But I’m not going to let him stop me from finishing this expedition and reaping its rewards.”

Appleton lowered his voice as if to imply that he was about to impart a confidence.

“Ashley has some definite ideas about what people should be, think and how they should act.

Take me, for example. Because I’m not willing to take foolish risks for the sake of some extra

skins, he thinks I’m less of a man. But I want to keep my men alive and healthy so that they can

enjoy their profit from trapping. So what if Ashley doesn’t approve of my ways? We have it out

when we disagree, and then we get on our way again. I’m not going to turn my back and walk

out because he opposes me sometimes. And Ashley’s not a dumb man. He knows he needs my

cautiousness to balance his ofttimes rash decisions, and he needs my experience out here. Same

with you, Jim. He knows that you’re a fine hunter and scout. Your skills helped save us all from

starvation. Ashley remembers that.

“Look, we all want to get home. And we can get there, richer and happier, if we stick together.

Jim, if you set out alone, you’ve got less than a fifty-fifty chance of making it. But it’s your

decision to make. Your belongings are tied up and hard to get to. Tell you what. If you still

want to leave tomorrow, I’ll get them for you.”

Appleton had talked long enough to give Jim time to think.

“What! Still here. Why, I thought you’d be ten miles gone by now. Decided to stay,” Ashley

asked, on returning to camp.

“I haven’t decided anything,” Jim answered stoically.

“I can’t get to his things until tomorrow. They’re packed away,” Appleton interjected.

“Oh, I see,” Ashley said. He had hoped that Jim had decided to stay. He did not think Jim had a

chance of making it alive. Mad as he was, he did not wish death on the boy. And he did not

want Jim’s blood stained on his conscience.

Jim left his father’s friend standing there with Appleton. He poured himself a mug of black

coffee. He had to make his plans. Appleton seemed a fair man. He had not lived in the States

for some years. Jim wanted Appleton to lead the expedition but there was no sense in wishing

that. Those odds of fifty-fifty sounded better than what he thought he had. What would he do

when he got back to St. Louis? Ashley had enemies. He could hire out on their expeditions.

When he arrived in Missouri, he would be praised for being alive. Then people would ask about

the mountains and he would have no answer for them. He would have to say that he turned

around a few weeks before reaching the Rockies. Well. Maybe the Pawnee Loups would let

him stay with them until the weather warmed up. The mountaineer’s life was not the way he had

envisioned it. Jim did not feel free; he felt restrained as though Ashley held the end of a rope

tied around his neck. Apparently, Ashley was not willing to let go so easily. Throughout the

evening, as Jim sipped coffee and mulled over his situation, he received several visitations from

his colleagues. It was obvious that a few had been sent by Ashley. They were men with whom

Jim rarely spoke. Jim’s friends, however, came on their own. Moses and Zachary tried to

convince Jim to stay by describing all the terrible, fatal incidents that had struck down lonesome

travelers.

Baptiste presented the most touching case with his heartbroken carriage and expression. He

loved Jim and he had seen Ashley’s distrust of him. He had felt his friend’s pain and

empathized. Jim’s pride had been handled carelessly but Baptiste pleaded sensibly with Jim to

see the folly of a solo journey.

“You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. The only thing that matters is that you know who

you are. That’s what my mother used to tell me. But if you still want to go, you will not leave

alone,” said the well-meaning boy. “We will be stronger if we stay together.”

“Baptiste,” Jim said, “I don’t want you to risk your life for me.”

“Then why do you think about risking your own,” he asked.

“I was fed up, Baptiste. I could think of nothing but getting away from Ashley and his

monotonous caravan. I can’t tell you how much I despise him!”

“I know, Jim.”

“But I will think about what you said. Why should I risk death to flee from an ignorant fool?”

Jim decided to stay.

Alfred Jacob Miller's "Cavalcade" (1858-1860) Entrance of Shosone warriors to the rendezvous

(From the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland)

CHAPTER 14

Jim’s winter missive of love to Eliza became a succinct travel journal. He dedicated himself to it

on slow days. He wrote about the foliage, the sky, the good hunts and the progress of their

beaver trapping. The boredom dissipated as Jim retold events in his imaginative rendition. And

when nothing seemed worth mentioning, he wrote of his love for her. “Undying love,” he called

it. “Forever,” he termed it. “In his heart of hearts,” he placed it. Eliza’s beauty infused him

with the strength and resilience to pursue his calling and the power to resist hers. Again, Eliza’s

love fortified him.

The pall of winter slowly lifted. In the mornings, the birds began to sing in concert and the sun

shined brighter. A tingle rippled through Jim’s supple body. The newness of spring and the

prospect of the glorious Rocky Mountains excited him. The days grew warmer faster as time

flowed by. The beaver skins were more lush than during the winter and game was easier to hunt.

But still, the trappers experienced hunger spells when chance of nature deprived them of prey. It

was during one of those times that General Ashley fell ill. His complexion yellowed; his

appetite shrank; and his voice shrivelled to the strained whisper of a dying man. The general’s

manner softened. He no longer cowed people with his authority. Sickness brought out the best

in the man. His undiagnosed illness engendered a harmony that the group had never known

before. He still commanded but he channelled orders through Appleton who wielded more

power than before. The two leaders stopped bickering. Instead, they complimented each other

on how they had handled various situations. Appleton worried about Ashley. Ashley’s men

looked out for the unfortunate man. They helped him on his horse, visited when they camped

and told him stories about other mountaineers.

Everyone was hungry. But caring for a sick man lightened the burden of their own suffering.

They thanked God for their health and continued to hunt. As for Jim, Ashley barely glanced at

him anymore. In response, Jim did not preoccupy himself with Ashley. However, he did

wonder whether the man would live.

The trail was becoming steeper and rockier. It was more difficult to travel. They abandoned the

South Platte when it started flowing south toward New Mexico. They marched west. The waters

they trapped in were creeks and streams.

One morning as the men collected beavers from their traps, they saw a beautiful, wild white

mustang that looked a ghostly, pale blue in the dawn. He was a rare animal. The stallion

splashed in the shallow water, sometimes submerging his regal body and then, with a flourish,

shaking himself dry. Jim wanted him. He reached for the coiled rope that he carried.

“No,” Moses said. There were echoes of agreement and mutters of disagreement. “Let him be.”

The mustang frolicked undisturbed, the only creature, it seemed, out there. The men watched in

admiration. They buried their covetous natures in deference to the beauty’s freedom. And Jim

was confused by his acquiescence to Moses in keeping his rope by his side. The mustang kept

them spellbound as he galloped along the creek’s edge away from them. They gasped in unison

at his exit.

“What a fantastic sight,” said Zachary, in a soft, reverential voice.

“Oh, yes,” Baptiste whispered, released from the charm.

“I could have had him,” Jim moaned.

“But it would not have been the same,” Moses said.

“I don’t know about that,” Jim said.

“I do,” said the older man, who started walking back to camp. The others followed. They

named the stream after their shared vision. They called it Horse Creek.

Ashley’s health continued to deteriorate; his men continued to trap at Horse Creek. They hunted,

killed and ate rabbits for the most part. Two weeks passed. Nothing had changed. They craved

larger meals.

The men started moving again and reached a large body of water. Jim climbed a tree to see what

he could see. To his delight, a herd of buffalo roamed on the other side. They would cross,

Appleton decided. But Ashley could not ride any longer. He was too weak. The general told his

men to leave him and return for him when they had restored their own strength. His men looked

at each other in uncertainty.

“Yes. I know that there might be a corpse waiting for you,” muttered the sick man. “But

gentlemen, one dead man is preferable to an army of them. Now go.”

Sad murmurs filled the emptiness. One voice dared raise itself in disobedience.

“No, General,” Jim said. “You must come with us. You can’t protect yourself here. We’ll make

a litter and carry you across. I’ll carry you.”

The men shouted happily. They were glad that someone else had volunteered. Baptiste said that

he would help Jim. Ashley thanked Jim in a barely audible voice.

Jim and Baptiste wattled twigs and branches and tied the ends of the stretcher with leather. They

undertook their task with the utmost care. When they helped Ashley into the chair and lifted the

litter onto their shoulders, they got goose bumps. They were saving this man’s life and they

were proud of it. Ashley handed himself over to them. As he sat propped up in his patient’s

throne, he fell forward in an unconscious state when they walked halfway across the breadth of

the stream. Baptiste reached up and braced him. He called out to Jim to slow down. They

moved carefully, lovingly. The hate that Jim had bottled up toward Ashley poured itself into the

brownish green of the river. Ashley needed him now. That changed everything. In Jim’s mind,

he had traded strategic places with his bigoted superior. He could extend more compassion

because now he held the position of stature.

Baptiste presented his pliant nature, already unveiled, to the world. He surrendered himself to

the needs of Ashley. When they reached the other side of the river, Baptiste reshaped his days to

accommodate Ashley’s necessities and his whims. He was such a giving man: domination of

Ashley did not occur to him. He acquired a reputation for nursing. Ashley recovered slowly but

steadily. The aroma of roasting buffalo stimulated his appetite. Baptiste was devoted to

Ashley’s recuperation. Jim guarded them both.

The days brought consistently milder weather. The sun sparked life. It was April, Moon When

the Geese Lay Eggs, when Ashley walked again. Jim spent his twenty-fourth birthday happily

and uneventfully.

“I am glad that I stayed on and didn’t go back to St. Louis,” Jim told Baptiste early one morning

as they gathered the beaver traps.

“Yes, Jim. God knows where we would be now,” said the green-eyed man.

“Probably dead and unburied, our remains exposed and rotting in the open air. That’s no way for

a man to die. He should have a decent burial. People should pay their respects.”

“Does it matter, Jim, how a man dies?”

“Yes. Yes, I think it does. I don’t want to die in the wilderness alone with no one to cry over

me. I don’t want to die a forgotten man. To depart from this world as an obscurity would be a

travesty. A wasted effort.”

“If there is any way you can be at your own funeral, Jim, you will be. You’ll mourn yourself.”

“If I could, I would. But let’s stop talking about this. It’s morbid and not anything that’s going

to happen any time soon.”

They tossed about the two-sided coin of obscurity and fame to mask their fear of mortality.

Death was, after all, everyone’s last earthly visitor. Every man and woman would encounter that

stalker. And Baptiste and Jim had smelled the intruder hovering near Ashley’s lips for weeks

until very recently.

Jim wrote to Eliza about forever. Her love comforted him. As for physical reaffirmation, the

mountains crept up around him with wonder. Waterfalls tumbled down hundreds of feet over

huge boulders. Smoke issued from the pools below like fog obscuring the rush of cascading

falls. It painted a dreamy picture of perfect and always. For thousands of years, the waters had

flowed in the same direction over the same rocks. It was easy for Jim to convince himself of

permanence in this ancient setting.

When Ashley took a shot at a buffalo that merely wounded and angered the animal, it tore at the

general in a rage. So when Jim dropped him dead in his mad run, it was easy for him to believe

in permanence.

When the men built boats of buffalo hides to carry them down the river, the boat that Ashley

tested overturned. The general, who could not swim, panicked and screamed for help. Jim

shouted to him, threw off his leggings and dove in swimming underwater until he reached the

drowning man. He instructed Ashley to grab onto his shoulders and kick. Ashley did as he was

told and Jim saved both their lives. Again, the thought of permanence sealed his efforts. He

wrote the following letter: