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"Three Fingers, Cheyenne" (1898) by Frank A. Rinehart

From the New York Public Library



Swift Fish, Lots of Trees and Red Cherry fretted for their husband who risked his life like a

daredevil on the battlefield. However, they carried their worry no further than that. They did not

expect Morning Star to change because he was a father of a son whom the boy’s godfather had

named Black Panther for one that had been spotted near the village at the time of his birth three

years ago.

Morning Star’s wives and dozens of other women and their children washed clothes at a wide

stream in the morning. They slapped clothes against the rocks and rinsed them in the cool water.

The three woman worked near enough each other to talk comfortably.

“Morning Star is away fighting all the time,” Swift Fish said. “He doesn’t have to go so much. He’s a

chief now and a member of the Dog Soldiers fraternity. Why does he fight like a maniac?”

“He loves it like most men and he needs a challenge,” said Red Cherry, who had survived her

scandalous entry into the family.

After Red Cherry’s third journey with Morning Star on an expedition and his third beating by her

former husband, the Dog Soldiers shamed Big Rain into letting Red Cherry follow her heart. Big

Rain succumbed to her choice in exchange for one horse, ten guns, ten chiefs’ robes, ten pairs of

leggings and moccasins, and a bolt of scarlet cloth.

“You don’t mind because there’s less work when he’s not around,” Lots of Trees teased Red Cherry.

Swift Fish laughed.

Red Cherry was lazy. She loved indulging in sleeping, eating, and dressing in fine clothes. Morning

Star often grew irritated with her. Not only did she expect people to do work for her, her vanity

was as great as his. He thought soon after he won her that that was all she was—a pretty prize to

gaze upon. Morning Star’s other wives, however, spent more time with Red Cherry. They

recognized her flaws but they also saw how caring she was for little Black Panther who filled her


As a baby, Black Panther was often cranky, crying for no obvious reason. Instead of the traditional

custom of holding his head back and dribbling water into his nose, Swift Fish would hand him to

Red Cherry who would sing him a lullaby about a baby eagle. Black Panther always would stop

crying and start gurgling as though he were trying to sing along. Today, at the stream, it was Black

Panther’s clothes that Red Cherry washed.

“You can laugh all you want, but you know that I do my share of the work,” Red Cherry said, in

mock defense.

Then she splashed water on Swift Fish and Lots of Trees. They splashed back, playing in the water

and laughing until their sides ached. Black Panther, who had been running with other children his

age, ran over to them. He held his arms out and started to whine.

“You want to join us,” Red Cherry asked, walking to him.

She picked him up and carried him to where his mother and Lots of Trees stood. Then she let him

down gently. The rushing water tickled his toes, making him smile, and then his calves and thighs.

“You spoil him, Red Cherry,” Lots of Trees said, pretending to scold her.

“I know,” Red Cherry said.

“Let’s get out. We’re done washing,” Swift Fish said, abruptly.

Red Cherry, Black Panther in her arms, followed Swift Fish who carried a woven basket filled with

wet clothes. Lots of Trees trailed them with another basket to a grassy spot where they began to

spread the clothes to dry in the summer sun.

“Are you angry at me for coddling Black Panther,” Red Cherry asked Swift Fish, after she put him

down and he ran off again.

“Angry,” Swift Fish repeated, in a surprised tone. “No. I wasn’t even thinking about that.”

“What is it then,” Red Cherry asked. “Something is bothering you.”

“Yes, but it’s not you. It’s Morning Star.”

“Morning Star,” Lots of Trees interjected, in astonishment.

“Something is bothering him,” Swift Fish said. “I think that he feels uneasy here. I think that he

wants to go.”

“Go,” Red Cherry asked. “Go where?”

“Back to the whites,” Swift Fish said, as she sat down after laying out the wash with Lots of Trees.

“Why do you say that,” Red Cherry asked, from a reclining position.

“I’ve felt something amiss for a long time—since before Black Panther was born. I didn’t know what

it was then but it’s clear to me now.”

“I’ve felt it, too,” Lots of Trees admitted, as she threw herself on the ground. She laid on her

stomach, propped up on her elbows. “He does go away more frequently and when he’s with me, I

can see in his eyes that he really isn’t. He is far away. I thought that I was either imagining it or that

it was me he didn’t want anymore. You may be right, Swift Fish. Morning Star was raised by the

whites. It’s only natural that he would miss those people. Do you think that he’ll go and not come

back, Swift Fish?”

“I don’t know. I would be sad if he left but, truthfully, that isn’t what concerns me most.”

“What is it then,” Red Cherry asked.

“It’s Black Panther,” Swift Fish said. “I’m afraid that he’ll take Black Panther with him.”

“What,” Red Cherry said, sitting up and folding her legs under her. Lots of Trees did the same. “No,

I won’t let him.”

“How will you stop him if he kidnaps Black Panther the way he was kidnapped,” Swift Fish asked. “I

hear stories—tragic stories about the children of traders—from women of other tribes.

“There was, I am told, an Omaha woman called Mitain whose big-time trader husband, Manuel

Lisa, took their daughter and then tried to take their youngest, a boy, back with him to St. Louis

where he lived part of the time with his white wife.

“Mitain actually gave him her daughter willingly. Can you imagine? He said the girl would be better

off living among his people. Of course, Mitain didn’t believe that. She hoped that their daughter

would tie him to her. It was silly and it didn’t work. I think she loved him more than she loved her

own child. There’s something eerie and unnatural about that.

“Anyway, when Manuel’s wife in St. Louis died, he married another white woman there. But this

time, he brought her back with him to the fort and sent word beforehand that Mitain should leave.

Can you imagine? He takes her baby and then tells her to find another home. The sadder thing is

that Mitain obeyed him, taking their little son with her. But she couldn’t stand being shut out of his

life for long. Out of stupidity, she sent her boy to see his father. Don’t you know that Manuel told

Mitain that he had decided to take the boy back to St. Louis to live with the whites.

“Mitain showed some sense by grabbing her baby and rowing him across a stream where she

roamed the night in anguish. I don’t know why, but that fool woman returned to the fort the next

day begging Manuel to take both of them and to allow her to see her children now and then. Manuel

refused. He didn’t want her in St. Louis. She accused him of deserting her. He said the marriage was

long over. She sobbed for mercy, clutching her son, who also started crying. Manuel wrenched him

from her arms. He would have taken him if a United States agent monitoring trade hadn’t stepped

in and forbade Manuel from taking the boy from his mother.”

“What happened to the daughter,” Lots of Trees asked.

“I don’t know,” Swift Fish said, “Nor do I know what happened to the little boy. But I am going to

take care of what happens to Black Panther.”

“Morning Star wouldn’t be so cruel,” Red Cherry said. She had not noticed anything strange about

him, but she also realized that she was barely observant of him.

“Not knowingly,” Swift Fish said. “But he would do what he thinks best for his son. And I think he’s

confused about what the best is.”

Red Cherry and Lots of Trees said nothing. Their hearts beat hard and with fear, the way that Swift

Fish’s heart had beat for years as she watched Morning Star with Black Panther.

Morning Star liked to have his son around, especially after the baby began walking. Swift Fish and

Black Panther often accompanied him on journeys to the trading post. Strangers adored Black

Panther and he loved an audience. He would utter a few English expressions that his father had

taught him, and then he would clap his hands in delight.

“What a showman,” the traders would say.

“Who is your father,” the same men would ask.

The cheerful Black Panther, who was rarely grumpy around Morning Star, would run to him.

Morning Star would scoop him up in his arms, beaming with pride.

“He is my son,” he would say. “He is Little Jim.”

And Swift Fish’s heart would start beating like a fast-paced, loud drum, the way it beat now at the

water’s edge.

“I can’t go on like this wondering what he plans to do, especially now that his most recent contract

with the American Fur Company is coming to an end,” Swift Fish said. “I’m going to ask him.”

“He’ll tell you the truth,” Lots of Trees said.

“I know,” Swift Fish said.

“Morning Star is my husband but Black Panther belongs here. I’ll do whatever I can to keep him

here,” Lots of Trees said.

“Me, too,” Red Cherry said.


"Double Runner's Son, Blackfoot, Montana" (1900) by Edward S. Curtis

From the New York Public Library


That same morning thirty miles away, Morning Star and his warriors moved like one person

although they numbered one hundred. They were confident that they would win their battle

against the Cheyennes tomorrow. Morning Star walked on familiar ground and he harboured no

doubt about his fighting ability. He needed to feel that confidence and be around what he knew.

There was a woman named Pine Leaf who fought with the men as a fine warrior. Her twin brother

had lost his life in a battle against the Blackfeet when he was twelve ten years ago. A brave who had

watched him die told Pine Leaf who ran off, got a knife and hacked off a joint from the pinkie of her

left hand. She mourned her brother in this traditional way, and she vowed to avenge his death by

killing one hundred Blackfeet warriors. Until she accomplished her pledge, she refused to accept

any marriage proposals. Although Pine Leaf had long ago killed her quota of Blackfeet as well as

many warriors of other tribes, she fought and lived as though she had a long way to go. Many a

man, beside whom Pine Leaf fought shoulder to shoulder, was disappointed by her stand.

Pine Leaf’s strong body, fast movements and quick wit exuded a sensuality that attracted men. It

was rare for a woman to choose war and Pine Leaf’s prowess at it gave her prestige. Men fantasized

about loving a woman who also had tasted the eroticism of war. She would be the closest ideal to

loving themselves.

Morning Star was one of those men. He had proposed to Pine Leaf shortly after she became a

warrior. She had answered: ‘I’ll marry you when you show me a red-haired Indian.’ Not long after,

he asked her again and she had answered with the old saying: ‘When the pine needles turn yellow, I


That night under a crescent moon that lounged low in the sky and stars that showered the ground

with light, Morning Star thought he would try again. It had become a game of words between

them and an opening to conversation between friends who had saved each other’s lives. Morning

Star fell back in the march, ordering another warrior to replace him in the lead. He placed himself

behind Pine Leaf so that he could admire her sure-footed walk. Then he eased up on her and said


“I think that you are one of the most pretty, the most intelligent and, certainly, the most

courageous woman among the Sparrowhawks. You and I together would make a fierce couple.”

“Morning Star, your persistence amazes me,” Pine Leaf said, while suppressing a smile. “When it

snows in Green Grass, I’ll become your wife.”

“Your rejections will chase me away, send me back to St. Louis,” Morning Star said, playfully.

“Whatever for,” Pine Leaf asked. “What is there for you in St. Louis?”

“A woman, perhaps,” Morning Star said, half-teasingly.

“You have three wives. Why would you be wanting another? And one who’s so far away?”

The repartee lost its light-hearted quality as Morning Star began to talk again.

“I wish that you would have taken my advice and stayed at home this time.”

“How could I have received your proposal of marriage at home?”

“I’m not joking, Pine Leaf. You’ve been going out too much. You don’t give yourself a rest between


“And you do,” she asked, rhetorically.

Pine Leaf had not known how to take Morning Star’s advice. She knew that it was sincere but she

wondered whether she was being singled out because she was a woman.

“All right, so maybe I’m doing the same thing,” Morning Star said.

“I have to go out,” Pine Leaf said. “I have no choice. You understand.”

“Yes,” he said. “I understand.”

For another day, the warriors walked to the scene of their next encounter. The hot, July air stifled

them. The smell of sweat mixed with leather filled their nostrils. They moved slowly and rested

often. They meant to save their strength for the fight to come. The day was hazy but their mission

was not.

The Sparrowhawks arrived at the Cheyenne camping ground during early morning when it was still

dark. They stormed into battle.

“Go on, Morning Star,” Pine Leaf yelled, as she plunged into battle.

But it would take more than a fellow warrior’s cheers to make the Sparrowhawks win this one. They

were only one hundred; the other side had double that number. They fought valiantly, but the heat

and long march had sapped them of a crucial amount of stamina.

Pine Leaf’s voice was drowned in the cacophony of sure-fired bullets and bloodcurdling screams.

She was shooting calculatedly, but quickly, and in a circular fashion. She and Morning Star had

been covering each other until it got so manic that it was all they could do to protect themselves.

Morning Star had been brought to the ground by a Cheyenne who wielded a knife whose edge

stared lustfully at Morning Star’s neck. The two men were ensnarled like two strands of rope. Then

Pine Leaf’s screams pierced through the din of death. Morning Star wrenched the knife from his

opponent’s hand and sank it into its owner’s back. The man died with Morning Star inside his arms.

The Sparrowhawk chief barely noticed as he broke out of the embrace to follow Pine Leaf’s call.

Morning Star’s head swirled. He tore through the battlefield, stumbling over bodies, bumping into

fighting. He went straight to Pine Leaf who lay with an arrow near her heart. Conflict raged around

her. He kneeled down, picked her up and carried her to the edge of the massacre where he lay her


Morning Star leaned over and placed his ear near her mouth. She struggled to say, “I am not

afraid.” Then he tried to clear his head of thought because he wanted to stay clear of death. He

knew he could hasten her death by thinking about it. Instead, he stroked her hair and soothed her

with words about the feast they would savor when they returned home. Then he pulled the arrow

out whole and bound her chest tightly with scarlet cloth he wore around his forehead. Pine Leaf

spurted blood. The tourniquet turned a deeper shade of red and Pine Leaf lost consciousness.

Morning Star prayed to God that she would live.

The fighting lasted four hours. The Cheyennes dashed away as the victors. The Sparrowhawks,

devastated, attended to the wounded, who called out in pain, and they cried over the dead who had

lost their voices. The air smelled like blood. Metallic. Although it was morning, it seemed as though

there was red in the sky. The mountains encircling the valley battlefield were tinged with a purplish

red cast. There was red everywhere.

The survivors who would work, thirty or so, constructed litters for carrying the casualties. Four,

even five, dead bodies were placed on one stretcher because of the scarcity of bearers.

One warrior, who knew herbs, found a clump of a plant whose leaves help clot blood. He

distributed it to men caring for the wounded. Morning Star applied them to Pine Leaf’s chest. He

and another man carried her back to the village. Morning Star kept removing the cloth and

replacing soggy, red leaves with fresh, green ones.

Please don’t die, he prayed. Please don’t die. He wanted her to live because she was his friend. He

liked his wives but did not talk deeply with them. Laughing Coyote and Pine Leaf were his only

friends among the Sparrowhawks. He did not want to lose Pine Leaf.

As the band approached the village three days later, a little Sparrowhawk boy playing alone

spotted it. He ran home to shout the news of the battered war party’s arrival. The village waited

paralyzed with horror, not wanting to hasten the meeting, not wanting to know the truth.

Slowly, the party straggled into the motherly arms of home. Most everyone limped either from

sustained wounds or from the sheer exhaustion of defeat. Many of the pallets had fallen apart

under the weight. Some of the injured had not survived the entire march. Along the way, a number

of dead cadre had been left under blankets of tree limbs until more people could return for them.

Morning Star carried Pine Leaf in his arms.

The waiting looked for husbands, fathers and sons; most found a dead body or promise of one not

far away. They elicited screams of terror and cut off their fingers in grief. The scene looked almost

as bloody as the battlefield. Morning Star retched. As he walked toward Pine Leaf’s family lodge,

his wives caught up with him.

“You’re alive,” Lots of Trees said. “Oh, but what happened to Pine Leaf?”

“Poor Pine Leaf,” Swift Fish said.

“What happened,” Red Cherry asked.

They all kept walking as Morning Star explained in a weary voice. After he finished, Red Cherry


“She’s strong. She will recover.”

No one from Pine Leaf’s family had come looking for the warrior. Her mother greeted them at the

entrance to the lodge. She pointed to a lair of skins along the far side of the house. Morning Star

carried Pine Leaf to it and lay her down. The other people there were Pine Leaf’s father, an older

sister and her husband, and a woman famous for her knowledge of healing herbs. The family must

have sensed that something was wrong, Morning Star thought.

“We didn’t get a chance to try to save her brother’s life,” her mother said, stoically. “We have that

chance with Pine Leaf. It seems like not so long ago that Pine Leaf took up fighting. She still is

mourning her brother. We are, too. That is why we can’t mourn her, also.”

The herbalist examined Pine Leaf. The unconscious woman’s family knelt beside her except for her

mother who stood and talked in shock to Morning Star and his wives. After a few minutes, they left

and she fainted in the same spot.

To escape the display of sorrow, Morning Star and his wives slipped into Swift Fish’s lodge. Black

Panther ran to his weak father and smothered his legs with kisses. Morning Star sat down and

solemnly caressed his son. The women looked nervously at each other. They did not know what he

was thinking. They did not know that he was thinking nothing and feeling dead.

“I hope that Pine Leaf gets better,” Lots of Trees said.

Morning Star stayed silent. The other women agreed with her. They admired Pine Leaf’s toughness

to fight with the men despite the braves’ comments about her soft beauty not qualifying as the

makings of a warrior. Pine Leaf had responded to their quips with barbs pinpointing their

weaknesses. The men had stopped teasing her.

Swift Fish, Lots of Trees and Red Cherry knew of their husband’s marriage proposals to Pine Leaf.

They believed that having Pine Leaf in the family would be a tremendous honor. They also thought

that she would retain her hard-won prestige outside the sphere of marriage.

Morning Star fell asleep. Lots of Trees and Red Cherry left for their lodges.

The next day, Laughing Coyote returned from a solitary hunt and came to see Morning Star,

hoping that he had survived the massacre.

“So many died,” Laughing Coyote said. They were alone, sitting. “I didn’t know you were alive until

I got here to the lodge.”

“Yes, I’m alive,” Morning Star said, without a smile, without relief, without life. Why do we do it?

Why do we go into battle?”

“What a question, Morning Star. We have to do it. Everyone does it.”

“It was horrible out there,” Morning Star said. Laughing Coyote was a warrior who could

understand better than his wives. “We were outnumbered two to one. We didn’t have a chance. I

don’t know why I’m not dead. Pine Leaf took an arrow near her heart. She’s been unconscious for


“Oh no!”

“Yes, our famed warrior is fighting for her life. She shouldn’t have to be! Why do we go into battle,

Laughing Coyote? Tell me why.”

Laughing Coyote did not answer. He had never seen Morning Star so distraught.

“It’s a fatal sport we play,” Morning Star continued. “I don’t understand it anymore. I’m not going

back out until Pine Leaf gets well and, then again, maybe I never will.”

“Never,” Laughing Coyote repeated.

“Never,” Morning Star said. “I’m feeling estranged here after the battle where I watched so many

grasp for their last breath. And the scene here when we got back was all red and screaming.

“I hate it, Laughing Coyote,” Morning Star shouted. “I hate the way we fight and mourn. We’re

hurting ourselves.”

"We're making ourselves stronger," Laughing Coyote shouted back.

“What are you getting at, Morning Star,” Laughing Coyote asked, staring into his brother’s eyes.

Morning Star paused and then said:

“You know me well. I didn’t even know I was getting at something but I guess I was.”

“What is it,” Laughing Coyote said, comfortingly.

“I’ve been here so long that I’d forgotten there was any other way to live.”

“We are your people, Morning Star. This is the way you should live.”

No, you’re not my people, Morning Star thought. I’m a fake. I’ve been living a lie for ten years. I

am James Pierson Beckwourth.

“I didn’t grow up like this,” Morning Star said.

“It’s in your blood. You can’t deny it.”

“I’m not sure how much that counts.”

“What a thing to say! You are in a strange mood. The battle against the Cheyennes must have been


“It was. Something’s happening. I feel isolated.”

“Isolated,” Laughing Coyote repeated. Sadly, he stared down at the ground.

“I’ve got to leave,” Morning Star said. “I’ve got to go back.”

“So, the time has come.”



“When Pine Leaf gets better.”

“And what if she doesn’t?”

“I can’t stay here.”

Laughing Coyote stood up and started to pace. He talked as he walked.

“You sound so self-righteous,” he said. “What do you think? That the whites don’t fight? That they

don’t kill? Do you think that they are somehow better than us? Is that it?”

Morning Star started to speak but Laughing Coyote cut him off.

“You think only of yourself. What about your family? What about your wives? What about your


“What about me,” Laughing Coyote screamed. He stopped pacing and swung around to look

at Morning Star. “You’re my link to the tribe, to family, to being a part of the world. You’re my

brother. You changed my life by becoming my brother. You can’t just walk away.”

Morning Star got to his feet. He went over to Laughing Coyote and took his hands.

“We’re brothers always. But we’re both outsiders. It’s a strong bond between us. And just as I gave

you acceptance into the tribe, you’ve got to give me my freedom. You’ve got to let me go.”

Laughing Coyote pulled his hands away.

“You don’t make the rules for everyone,” he said, and then walked out.

Why had he even bothered to try to talk with him, Morning Star thought. Because they had vowed

themselves brothers; because they had promised to tell each other secrets.

“He makes me so damn angry with his selfishness,” Morning Star said, aloud.

“Who does,” asked Swift Fish, who had come in at that moment.

“My brother,” Morning Star said, flippantly.

“Laughing Coyote passed me on his way out, but he was so intent that he didn’t see me. What were

you two talking about? Wasn’t he glad to see you alive?”

“Laughing Coyote is naïve. He doesn’t think things can change. He expected me to be alive and here

waiting for his morning call.”

“Well, that’s hardly reason for anger. Was he upset about Pine Leaf?”

“No, he didn’t have much to say about her. That’s why I’m angry.”

“Laughing Coyote is not as close to Pine Leaf as you are. He’s a loner. You are the friend he cares

about most.”

“That’s becoming clearer to me.”

Morning Star lied to his wife because he did not know what else to do. Swift Fish heard the

hollowness in his story, but she did not dispute him because she was afraid to know the truth. She

could sense change in the air.

“Where’s Black Panther? Where’s my Little Jim,” Morning Star asked.

Swift Fish’s heart tightened. Blood stopped flowing. Her hands grew cold, her face white. Was she

right? Did he plan to take Black Panther away? Was that the change that upset Laughing Coyote?

“He’s with Red Cherry,” she said, and then she asked cagily, “Morning Star, do you know whether

your contract with the American Fur Company is going to be renewed again?”

She wanted to talk, Morning Star thought. She watched him to know what was going on in his mind.

“No, I haven’t asked about the company’s intention,” he said. “But I don’t know if I want to

continue working for it. I think that it’s been too many years. It isn’t satisfying anymore. I want to

do something else.”

“What, Morning Star?”

“I don’t know. But I think I have to go back to St. Louis to find it.”

“When do you leave,” she asked, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought and speech.

“In a few weeks,” he said, caught in the flow of truth.

“Will you go alone,” she asked.

She had to know, she thought. She had no choice.

Morning Star did not know what to say. Swift Fish had stayed so close to him since Black Panther

was born, Morning Star thought that she wanted to go with him.

“He ha,” Morning Star said, placing his hands on her shoulders. “You have been a good wife, a very

good wife. I would like to take you with me but the way is long and dangerous. I will miss you but I

cannot in good conscience take you.”

“Are you taking Red Cherry or Lots of Trees?”

“It would not be any less dangerous for them than for you.”

“You are taking Pine Leaf then?”

“How can you even say that,” Morning Star said, dropping his hands, “When she may be dying as

we speak?”

Swift Fish could see that her direct questions were starting to anger her husband. She hoped it was

not too late.

“Black Panther will be disappointed,” she said, and she waited, praying for a confirmation.

Finally, after a long pause, he said, wistfully:

“I know he will be.”

Swift Fish wanted to shout out her joy. She wanted to run into Morning Star’s arms and hug him.

She wanted to tell the world that she had been wrong. Instead, she said nothing and kept a numb

expression on her face as Morning Star assumed a stern look and said, seriously.

“Swift Fish, experienced mountain men lose their lives on this trail. I cannot take anyone with me.

That’s all there is to it. I’m not going to say another word about it.”

Morning Star turned and barrelled his way out of the lodge on his way to see Pine Leaf. He felt

fenced in by his life. His decisions affected many other people. When did that start to happen? It

was not always like that. When he was younger, he had the sense of living for himself. Is it just a

matter of time before responsibilities glue themselves to everyone? Does one commitment

proliferate into many?

It was not easy to consider leaving Absaroka, the homeland that had embraced him and made him

over. The Sparrowhawks honored him but he needed to make a name for himself among his

people. He loved his family, but he could not live there any longer. He promised himself that he

would visit; he would see the changes in Black Panther as his son got older.

Swift Fish had not asked her husband whether he planned to return. It was not as important to her

as finding out about her son. She had not thought about the effect of not being touched by a man.

She had not thought that she would become brittle around the edges as though the fires of passion

had dimmed inside. She had not thought that she would forget the healing powers of sex.

Black Panther’s mother dashed away to Red Cherry’s lodge to give her friend the good news and to

hold her son. Later, when Swift Fish heard that Morning Star would visit regularly, she was pleased;

Lots of Trees felt abandoned and unsure about her future; Red Cherry prepared to look for

another husband.

Morning Star spent the next seven days faithfully sitting with Pine Leaf. On the eighth day, she

opened her dark eyes. He trembled with happiness.

“Pine Leaf, you’re going to be all right,” he said.

Morning Star,” she said, with difficulty. “What happened?”

“We were fighting the Cheyennes. Remember?”

“No, I don’t…Yes, I do,” she said, shakily before closing her eyes again.

Morning Star excitedly called her relatives who were moving about the lodge. They hugged and

squeezed each other and then laughed for the first time since Pine Leaf had come back from the

war. They knew that she had crossed the major hurdle although she was not able to stay awake for


Morning Star kept up his daily vigil for two months, all the time knowing that his departure was

drawing nearer. He hoped to obtain another position with the fur company in St. Louis. He wanted

to ease back into the life of the city.

Laughing Coyote brooded over his brother’s impending journey. He avoided him and Morning Star

did not pursue him. When Pine Leaf found out that her friend planned to leave, she tried to

persuade him against it.

“Are there buffalo hunts in St. Louis,” she asked.

“No,” Morning Star said.

“Are there handsome women warriors,” Pine Leaf asked.

“No,” he said.

“Is the art of archery displayed in battle?”

“No,” he said.

But in his mind, Morning Star said yes to theatre, yes to paved streets and yes--oh yes—to Eliza. He

had sent another letter to her a month ago in August by the Express, the canoed mail passage

between Western trading posts and St. Louis. He wanted to marry Eliza as soon as he got back. He

daydreamed about a whole new life for himself on the early morning walks he began taking alone.

He watched the day break when everyone else slept.

One warm afternoon in Dying Grass Moon, September, the sun struck the stream with a white light

that made it spangle like a serpentine jewel. Black Panther and other children chased yellow

butterflies beside it. Swift Fish watched them as she beaded a bag with forked figures. There was a

calm that sparked peaceful memories.

That evening in Swift Fish’s lodge, Morning Star said goodby. Black Panther started crying; Swift

Fish wished him a safe journey. His other relatives and admirers sanctioned his decision by not

saying much. Morning Star was sad about leaving, but he pushed sadness aside to make room for



A scene by Swiss lithographer John Caspar Wild of the St. Louis riverfront in 1844 with the old St. Louis Courthouse dome and church steeples, including the old Cathedral on the far left




James Pierson Beckwourth cringed when he took to the streets of St. Louis—the many streets. The

town looked so much larger than he had remembered it. Had he guided himself two thousand seven

hundred and fifty miles from the headwaters of the Yellowstone to the steamboat at Jefferson City

only to lose his way in the labyrinth of his hometown? Was it the town’s layout that had changed so

dramatically or was it his nervousness that had made him forget?

The pace had quickened. People dashed down the wooden sidewalks pass shops of different kinds

—for dresses, provisions, animal feed. Horse-drawn carriages suffered a slow journey in the

congested streets. St. Louis looked like an old Eastern city must look, Jim thought, all built up with

nowhere to roam. He was so disheartened by St. Louis that when he passed Casner’s blacksmith

shop and saw that it was still there, he was relieved. Then he walked to a livery where he hired a

horse for two days.

No one anywhere looked twice at Jim. Not one person recognized him or, if they did, they were too busy to approach him. Jim looked

much the way he had when he left. His body still moved with the ease of a wild animal but his wavy hair, worn loose, reached the small

of his back. And his smile had vanished; his awareness of his mortality had drenched his face. Although dressed defiantly in the skins of

antelope, deer and mountain sheep decorated with elk’s teeth, he felt death breathing down his neck.

Jim found his way out of the maze of St. Louis. The miles between town and Beckwourth’s Settlement showed many more houses than

there once were but there were no changes in the road leading home.

On arrival at his family’s house, he stood outside a few minutes and looked up at its grandeur. Then he climbed the front steps and

swung the brass door knocker. When a young woman with an open face answered the door, nothing was said by either party for a spell.

Then Jim greeted his youngest sister in his old way:

“How do you do, Lou?”

“Jim,” she said, in utter amazement. “You are alive and well and back home.” One month ago, she had opened a letter from a trader

informing the family of Jim’s dead body being carried into Fort Cass.

They embraced and Jim walked over the threshold. He was happy to see Louise, but he felt estranged from her by the time he had spent

away. Surely, she must have been thinking the same thought. But no, she was not. Louise had heard all about Jim, the mountain man,

from fellow mountaineers who passed through the area. She was meeting the men in Jim’s stories. The hero was back home. He had

defied death again.

“Where is everyone,” he asked. “The house seems quiet.”

“Not all of us—, “she started to explain when Randolph entered the living room and interrupted her.

“Jim, Jim, Jim. My brother, Jim. Welcome home. Thank God you’re alive. We got word not so long ago that you were killed by a band

of Indians.”

They shook hands and hugged. Randolph’s graying hair shocked Jim.

“I don’t know how that rumor got started,” Jim said. “As you can see, I’m flesh and blood.”

“This calls for a celebration,” said the oldest of the Beckwourth clan. “Louise, can you plan a dinner for tomorrow evening. We can

invite Jim’s old friends.”

“Of course, Randolph. I’ll take care of it.”

“Where is Father? And where’s Mattie,” Jim asked.

“Oh my dear lost brother,” Randolph said. “You have much to catch up on. Sit down, please.”

Everyone sat. Randolph, however, dominated the conversation.

“Mattie lives in Paris now. She has her own family and a writing career. She’s been in France several years. I’ve got her first novel

upstairs. It was published in England under the masculine-sounding name, M. Clive Beckwourth, to avoid hurting sales. It’s a Western

adventure based on your stories and letters. You have to read it. Matilda’s writing is deeply felt like Mother’s guitar playing and her

songs. We’re very proud of Mattie.”

“How many children does she have? Who is her husband?”

“She has one child, four years old. She married a Haitian man, a doctor. I haven’t visited them but Mattie writes that they live in a

spacious house which is tastefully decorated. She says that she is happier than she has ever been. She writes early in the morning.

Someone comes in to take care of her daughter, Yvonne, while she works. Her husband, Marcel, keeps his office in the house. I have

met him. They came here shortly after they married. I wasn’t surprised by him. He’s charming, witty, several years older than Mattie

and seems to be very much in love with her.”

“If it can be said that dreams come true, they seem to have done just that for Mattie,” Jim said. “I can’t believe it. But then again, I can.

I found it impossible to imagine Mattie living in St. Louis.”

Jim regretted, however, that he would not be able to talk tonight with the sister dearest to him. He would miss Matilda fussing over him

and confiding her secrets.

“How is everyone else,” Jim asked.

Randolph took a deep breath and continued to fill in the twelve missing years of Beckwourth family history.

“Father finally decided to move back to Fredericksburg, Virginia. He said that he felt it was time for him to go back. He wrote that it

was as beautiful as he remembered it. Most of his friends were still back there; they had never moved.

“So Father did well. He was happy for ten months. And then, about five years ago, I’m sorry to have to tell you, he died with a bad

heart. He’s buried back East. We all went for the funeral. Virginia hadn’t changed a bit. It’s just as racist as it ever was.”

“Father is dead,” Jim asked, slowly, disbelievingly.

“Yes,” Randolph said.

The news sent a chill down Jim’s back which had stiffened instantly. He shivered noticeably. Death had occurred frequently in his

travels to people he knew but he had not expected it to happen to anyone at home. His father was gone forever. He did not want to

believe it, but the chill persisted.

“I don’t know what to say, Randolph,” he said.

“I understand, Jim. Perhaps I should have waited to tell you. I didn’t see any other way. I’m so used to his absence. Father left

Beckwourth’s Settlement so long ago. Maybe it was easier for me to accept his death because he wasn’t living here anymore. I’m sorry,


“I wish it weren’t true. I wish I could have seen him again,” Jim said. Then he stared at the floor for a few minutes, saying nothing.

Randolph said: “We can talk again tomorrow if you like.”

“No, no,” said Jim, snapping out of his trance. “I want to know the rest. How is everyone else in the house?”

Jim set the announcement of his father’s death in a corner of his mind, but it kept moving to the front, washing over everything that

Jim heard.

“Not many of us in the house,” Randolph answered. “After Father gave us our freedom and we got older, many of our brothers and

sisters left Missouri. Most of us went to live in Northern cities where we could enjoy a sophisticated life without the fetters of prejudice.

“After Father’s funeral, Caswell, Benjamin and Jocelyn disappeared, we believe, up north. Where, we don’t know. No one seems to. I

don’t even know if they stayed together. That would have been the practical thing to do. But maybe not for those three. They wanted to

leave the family. They wanted to leave the past. They wanted to be white. If they stayed together, it would be more likely that their black

features would be recognized. Goodness knows, all three of them were light enough with straight enough hair to pass for white.”

Randolph paused and sighed deeply. Sadly. He continued:

“Theirs is the most tragic story of all of us. They might as well be dead,” said Randolph, in the voice of a judge pronouncing a sentence.

In a changed, softened tone, he said, “Not long after you left, Peter died in a riding accident. You remember he was always a daredevil

on a horse.

“Evangeline and Abigail married and live in Chicago with their families. They are in good health and doing well. Joshua and Edward

moved to New York City. They write every other year at Christmas. Amy lives in Philadelphia with her husband, a well-to-do lawyer.

She loves tending to her rose garden in good weather. She hasn’t had any children yet.

“And there we are. I’ve mentioned everyone, haven’t I? Remember how Mother would always leave one of us out when she was calling a

roll or accounting for all of us. She’d leave out someone different every time. At least she was fair about it.

Jim agreed. Randolph’s final comment added a lightheartedness to their heavy-hearted conversation.

“Yes, you’ve named everyone,” said Jim, overwhelmed by the changes to which he had returned.

The Beckwourth family, so permanent in the past, was now a fragmented and flimsy thing. Jim had paid rapt attention to Randolph’s

report though Jim had never been particularly close to his younger siblings; he had left home before they grew up. Jim thanked God

that he was also Morning Star. He thanked God that he had a son. However, a part of Jim was floating, unattached to anything. And it

made Jim feel lost.

Randolph also had news about some of Jim’s friends from Mr. Niel’s Academy. Many still lived either in St. Louis or nearby. Jim said

that he wanted to visit whomever he could. When he asked about Eliza, Randolph grew quiet.

“What’s wrong,” Jim asked. “Is she ill? Is she—“

“No, she’s not dead, Jim. So much has happened in her life. Two years ago, her mother died tragically. She poisoned herself. Eliza

found her on her bed dead one evening. It was horrible. Since then, Eliza’s been running the school and doing well with it.”

“I must see her,” said Jim, in a maniacal voice.

Everything depended on Eliza. Stability rested in Eliza.

“I’ve got to see her. But I’m going to wait until I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep and put on fresh clothing. Tomorrow morning, I’m going

to ask her to marry me now.”

“Jim, I’m not—, “Randolph began.

“I know that she’ll be angry with me at first. But she’ll forgive me. She always does. She loves me. And I love her.”

Jim ran upstairs without turning around. Otherwise, he would have seen Louise clutch Randolph’s arm and Randolph start to tell him


If it had not been for the physical exhaustion of traveling, Jim would not have been able to sleep. He dreamt about walking along the

Rappahonnock River, his mother’s hand holding his in a warm, safe cocoon. Then suddenly, his mother’s hand was gone and his was

so small and cold. In fear, he closed it into a fist. He woke up feeling abandoned. Quickly, he bathed and dressed in his mountain best.

He dashed out of the house before he saw Randolph and Louise that Saturday morning.

Jim rode tall into St. Louis. A thick, gold wedding band pressed against his heart. He carried it as proof to Eliza that, this time, he was

serious. The prospect of holding Eliza’s soft hands excited him. He arrived at Eliza’s house effortlessly, as if in a dream.

Eliza swung open the door quickly. Her wide smile vanished when she saw Jim standing there. She was shocked to see him there—and

to see him alive. Politely, she invited him into the house. As he walked in, he leaned over to kiss her cheek. She pulled away so that his

lips brushed strands of her fiery hair brushed back from her small face but let loose in the back. She has the profile of a lioness, Jim

thought, and a stance that connotes strength.

Eliza showed him to the downstairs parlor, her emerald green dress swishing. She cuts a figure of power, Jim thought, a different

woman than the one I remember. Eliza excused herself, returned with the tea set and sat opposite Jim—out of touching distance—and

then Jim was convinced that Eliza had changed.

“The years have made you surer of yourself,” he said.

“For a long time, I had only myself to be sure of,” she said, as she poured and served the tea.

“Yes. Randolph told me about your mother. I am sorry.”

“Thank you for your condolences—late as they are. And you, Jim, how have you been,” Eliza asked, in a disinterested tone. Jim believed

that she was pretending not to care and that he could conquer any challenge.

“I’ve missed you, Eliza,” he said. “My work has taken me away from you but I’ve saved seven thousand and eight hundred dollars. I’m

back now and I’m here to stay.”

Jim thought that confessing his assets would help him cross the deep ravine separating him from his love. But Eliza did not respond to

mention of his money.

“Back here to stay,” Eliza asked. “You were out there twelve years, Jim. Are you leaving someone else behind?”

Eliza merely was testing Jim but she stunned him with her realistic approach. He blurted out an answer:

“There were women who were sad to see me leave. After all, I lived with the Sparrowhawks for ten years. I became part of their tribe.

And I dissolved any doubts about my allegiance by taking wives. I took three. It secured my social standing and it assured my trading


It was Eliza’s turn to be stunned. Three wives! But she hid her shock and kept talking.

“Do you have children,” she asked.

“I have one child, a son named Black Panther,” Jim said, ignorant of the reaction that he was sowing. “But his mother, Swift Fish, and

my other wives, Lots of Trees and Red Cherry, knew I was leaving. I came home to begin a new life.

“I’ve always loved you, Eliza. My relationship with those women had nothing to do with us or my feelings for you. Our love is still the

most important thing in the world to me. I worship you. I adore you. I love you first and always. Eliza, I want to marry you today—no

later than tomorrow. Will you do me the honor of marrying me now?”

Eliza trembled with anger. She knew that Jim was egotistical but she could not believe his audacity. Did he expect her to believe him?

Why couldn’t he be honest? But if he were honest, what difference would it make? She had waited many years—faithfully—for this man

to come home to her and marry her and live with her and give her children. And now, here he sat before her calming saying that he had

gone and done all that with someone else who did not matter as much to him as she did.

Eliza was heartbroken. What she thought she had with Jim never was. She shrieked:

“Love, love. What good is this love you talk of? What does it mean, what, when it can’t keep you home? When you give yourself to other

women? When you take them? What is this love when you try to own me like a painting or a piece of sculpture? Love what? Love

whom? Our love! I don’t know who we are anymore. I only know that I cannot see the end of the pain. Do you hear me, Jim


“Darling Eliza, what are you saying? I only did what I had to do out there for our sake. For our love. For our life together!”

“Jim, please, please, please shut up,” she said, her eyes squeezing shut by the last word and popping open wide again. “They’re lies.

You never went out West, from the start, for our sake. It was for you. You wanted to leave St. Louis. You wanted to explore. You did what

you wanted to do for your sake. It had nothing to do with us. You’re a skunk, Jim. A selfish skunk.”

Jim froze. How dare she call him names! There was no reason for that. He had not expected this outburst. Why was she so upset?

Eliza continued talking in a lowered voice as though she were thinking aloud:

“If only my confusion, my whirligig thoughts, could have been about someone who was worth it. All those sleepless nights. All those

prayers. All that worrying.”

She turned back to addressing Jim directly in a strong voice:

“You weren’t worth it, Jim. And I hate you for it.”

“Eliza, you’re blowing everything out of proportion,” Jim shouted. “Why can’t you just accept me as I am?”

“Because I’ve accepted someone else. On two occasions, we’d gotten word of your death. This last time, you may as well have been dead

as far as I’m concerned. How were we to know otherwise? You didn’t go out of your way to communicate. Now I know why. You didn’t

have much free time what with three wives to satisfy, a tribe to lead and a son to raise! Busy man!”


“For a long time, I felt unfaithful to you even feeling something for another man. But then I asked myself, ‘To whom do I owe my loyalty

—to a man whose face I can barely remember or to the man who is here needing me and taking care of me?

“A year ago, I accepted a marriage proposal from an honest, decent abolitionist from back East. I wanted to wait until you got back to

tell you but then we heard about your early demise. I have been married one month, James Beckwourth. I am now Eliza Whitmore.

Mrs. Frank Whitmore. Here is my ring.”

She extended her left hand to display a floral engraved gold wedding band. Jim had not noticed it before.

“Why, Eliza,” he asked rhetorically, in a broken voice. “Why? Why? Why?”

The dejected suitor stumbled out of his sweetheart’s house. It was over. Everything was over. What had made him think that he could

come back to St. Louis? There was nothing here for him. What life did he have? Eliza had betrayed him! He never thought that she

would do this to him. He thought that she loved him. He loved her. No matter what he had done when he was away, always he had

remembered her. He had returned to her. What did she want? Did she want him to marry her before he was ready? Did she want a boy

for a husband? Who did she marry, Jim wondered. The man she described did not resemble anyone that he knew. He was probably an

intellectual; he probably never traveled West; he probably doesn’t take chances. Well, good luck to him. Eliza could be ornery and

domineering. She always insisted that she was right.

While Jim derided Mr. and Mrs. Whitmore and bemoaned his own fate in love, he rode his horse to Estelle Jacobo’s boardinghouse.

Perhaps he could…oh, really, he did not know what he could get anymore. He had not seen Estelle since that night when he caught his

father in her bed. Jim remembered how comforting she could be. Comfort was what he craved more than anything. He was losing his

footing—falling, falling. Losing his dreams. He needed arms around him. He needed to be wanted. He hoped that Estelle still had a

place for him.

The boardinghouse stood in the same spot. Jim dismounted, tied up his horse and climbed the front steps with his heart in his mouth.

He had no idea what he would say. Before he could compose an introduction, Estelle answered the door. She was completely gray; she

was carrying many more pounds on her short body and lines under her eyes on her still pretty face.

“Jim Beckwourth, I never thought I’d see your face at my door again! Did you just get back to town? My, you’re looking fine! Looking

for a room? Come on in.”

They moved into the parlor. Estelle excused herself for a moment. She came back, not long after, wearing red lip color and a bit of

rouge. The make-up became her. She offered Jim chocolates from a box on the table. He took one. She offered him a sherry. He asked if

she had any whiskey. She did. She poured him a drink which he downed quickly. She made him another and sucked on a chocolate. In

the haze of the liquor, which Jim rarely drank, Estelle’s essence shined. She was a delightful woman who loved laughter. She was the