May 12, 2016
@ CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD
Each home consists of two rooms in this adobe dwelling of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, built bewteen 1000 and 1450 by the Native American tribe of Puebloans
Sometimes Jim felt like a shadow, fuzzy; he felt like smoke, amorphous. But what to do to
become sharper? He did not know and it frustrated him that he did not. Like a bulwark, he
guarded his treasure chest of courage handed down to him by his mother, Winifred. It calmed
Oh, to live past his shadow in the flesh and heart and soul of him, in the bright light of day with
Truth shining through! Jim wanted more of the feeling of omnipotence that comes from
knowing that he could fight for survival and win even while inhaling the stench of death all
around him. He returned to journeying because of the feeling. He knew now that it did not
secure freedom, but it fostered the illusion. And sometimes that was enough.
Jim had flirted briefly with a stay in Florida where he carried dispatches for the United States
Army in the Seminole War. He had felt oppressed by the soldiers who mistook him for a
Seminole black, by the ethereal, swampy and unfamiliar terrain which hosted violent rains and
by the ignorance of a government which equated his knowledge of the Sparrowhawks with a
knowledge of the Seminoles. What did the leaders in Washington City know?
The war in Florida opened Jim’s eyes to the imminent end of an era in America. The rules were
falling away. The Seminole leader, Osceola, had been tricked into coming out of the everglades
under a United States flag of truce. Three months after his protested imprisonment, the
Seminoles had attacked Jim’s camp at Okeechobee on Christmas Day, 1837. They had hidden in
trees and bushes in contrast to the army’s exposed position. A thunderstorm on Christmas Eve
had softened the earth and rendered it difficult to negotiate. Although Jim counted ten dead
Seminoles and one hundred dead soldiers, ‘Old Rough and Ready’ Colonel Zachary Taylor
declared a victory after the four-hour battle. The Seminoles agreed to relocate east.
Jim’s memories of leaving Florida after ten months were of the sunstroke symptoms that he
suffered—the dizziness and exhilaration about his journey away from a wicked, torrid climate
that had tormented him like a bad dream.
The mountains and prairies of the open West had beckoned him back. He had become a trader, a
traveling barterer. He used his gifts for assessing strangers quickly and his talent for persuasion.
Also, the story of his kidnapping as a baby was a famous one. “He is the Sparrowhawk,”
potential customers would say about him.
The experienced mountain man focused on learning the Indian languages in which he did
business. He studied the land at the headwaters of the Arkansas and South Platte rivers around
the three forts he built for the Sioux, Arapahoes and Iatans. He studied the people. The Sioux
numbered more than the other tribes at eight thousand and five hundred souls. It was an
important tribe to the traders. Nomadic and strong warriors, these people struck handsome poses
with their oval facial structure, prominent cheekbones and long braided hair or, for the men,
shaven heads, except for a tuft on top of the head. The Arapahoes, at two thousand and five
hundred, lived as wanderers in tents. They often wore tattoos on their breasts over which long
hair, made even longer with false attachments, would tumble. The Iatans were a much smaller
lot about whom the traders knew little.
Jim was in the employ of Sublette and Vasquez when William Bent, one of the well-known
trading Bent brothers from St. Louis, visited one of Jim’s forts. Bent warned Jim that the
Cheyennes probably would resist trade. The serious man, who rarely smiled when he talked
business, explained that the Cheyennes had been a sedentary people in the northern lake country
a century ago. But the uprooted tribes of the eastern United States and Canada pushed them
southward away from their home. Eventually, they met the horse, became outstanding
equestrians and found their home in movement on the plains. The Cheyennes carried much
hostility toward the whites who were relocating them for their own convenience. Jim, however,
was able to befriend the Cheyennes. He established a fort for trading with them.
Much of Jim’s beaver fur and buffalo robe trading involved whiskey, thirty-gallon kegs of
whiskey. One pint of alcohol, selling for six cents, was made into five pints of whiskey and
traded for five dressed robes. Jim had prided himself on keeping the Sparrowhawks away from
liquor. As a trader, however, he sold it without compunction. He reasoned that these tribes
already had developed a craving for alcohol. If he refused to barter whiskey, someone else
One day, a village of outlaws issued an invitation to Jim. Chief Elk That Calls, a large, bulky
man with a thick, gruff voice, approached Jim. The chief had grown simple minded because of
his gross consumption of liquor. Even his walk was affected by his heavy drinking; he moved
slightly tilted to the left side.
Outcasts of neighboring tribes had created their own principality of doom. The chief led these
criminals who lived in three hundred lodges. He could summon more than one thousand, maybe
as many as fifteen hundred warriors, onto the battlefield. His men had been banished from their
people because they had committed heinous crimes or because they showed no remorse for
wrongdoing by either flaunting it or repeating the offense. Here lived the ruffians who murdered
their own senselessly, the unclean who perpetuated incest, the bullies who broke the law of the
tribe and balked at its tradition. Jim’s fellow traders warned him against entering what they
called the City of Refuge. Atrocities prevailed in this village; cruelties abounded. People
tortured for sport; death wrought no mourning. They lived for themselves, not the tribe. They
thirsted for the titillation of spilt blood as long as it was not theirs. The more they murdered, the
more they craved murder. Yet, Jim insisted on accepting the invitation to trade with these tribal
pariahs. Why not trade with them? No one else was. They would make eager customers at the
makeshift store tepee made of Mackinaw blankets and situated at the edge of the village.
As a safety precaution, Jim made some demands of his new customers. The women must trade
first, then the men. As it turned out, the bulk of goods came with the men. No woman traded
more than two buffalo robes. The men bartered the balance for whiskey and ammunition. They
tipped their cups as soon as they were filled. Jim and the two traders who had reticently
accompanied him kept exchanging frightened glances about the volatile situation. They kept
doling out the liquor; their customers kept drinking. The women and children had sought
protection from their drunken husbands, fathers and sons inside their lodges.
Outside, the men stirred up a wild and frenetic scene. They began shouting to each other in
conversation. Some started moving to ritual music they had learned when they were young boys.
They danced to their own internal music and cried because no one else could hear it. And even
if others could, they would not have known its significance or derived profound pleasure from
memories it would not have conjured up. Their whiskey saddened them. It seeped into their
souls and burned them.
“There is no human dignity here,” Jim said.
“Sure isn’t,” said Miles, one of the two traders whose greed had gotten the better of his common
“These people don’t seem to follow anyone’s rules or formality,” Jim said. “Even mountain men
have a code, an unwritten one, but a code nonetheless. Now I can see what a difference it makes.
I don’t know which way to turn my head in this village.”
“Jim, you were the one who wanted to come here,” said Miles, a stout man who never refused a
“Yes, Jim,” said Jake, the other trader, a lanky man who found it hard to say no to people. “We
tried to tell you that the City of Refuge isn’t like any place you’ve ever been.”
“I know. I know,” Jim said. “But I still think this is a good opportunity to make some quick
“It’ll have to be quick,” Jake said, “Or else, we won’t live to spend it.”
As Jake spoke, the sky overhead blackened with vultures. The only sound was the furious
flapping of wings and the hungry whimpers of dogs. If any place ever portended evil, it was this
“The Cheyennes are the best warriors. We are the fiercest,” shouted Chief Elk That Calls’s voice
from inside the village.
“No! It’s the Arapahoes, my people, who fight the bravest,” yelled another coarse voice.
“I can name battles where we have stood up to enemies in number and won. We won! You—
you are a dog, a filthy dog! You and your people!”
“My people are not dogs! Your people are dogs! We are a proud people!”
The words of the shouting match between the men began to slur beyond recognition although the
volume kept escalating. Jim, Jake and Miles doubted that the argument could end without
something terrible happening. The three traders and two customers with robes to trade all froze
and waited for it to happen. Then, the shouting stopped. The five men rested their weight on
one leg and then the other, uncomfortable with not knowing what was going on. They stared
down at the dirt ground as if not looking up would shield them. Then the thud of heavy, running
steps reached their ears. The quick appearance of Chief Elk That Calls outside the shop did not
give them time to guess at the outcome of the quarrel.
“I just killed an Indian,” he babbled to the five men. “I killed an Indian, Thunderclap. I know
Thunderclap. He was my friend. We fought side by side many times. I don’t know why I killed
“We argued about our tribes. We cursed each other’s people.
“I dropped to my knees, and grabbed my battle ax,” Chief Elk That Calls said, as he re-enacted
the murder. “Then I swung it at Thunderclap’s neck and nearly chopped it off clean. For a
moment, he tottered on his legs, his head dangling to one side against his chest.”
Then Chief Elk That Calls threw himself on the ground and beat it with his fists until his hands
“Why, why, why,” he screamed, with each punch to the earth.
Miles forsook his greediness and Jake his habit of pleasing others. As soon as the word “killed”
rolled off the chief’s tongue, they dashed back to the fort with the speed of panthers.
Jim and the customers stayed. For the two men, there was no place left to go after the City of
Refuge. And Jim felt that he could handle whatever trouble was brewing. He trusted his
instincts. A crowd had chased the chief and formed a circle around him as he acted out the
After an initial hubbub over the shock of Thunderclap’s death, his body was dragged to one side,
carelessly covered with tree branches and forgotten by the outcasts. Chief Elk That Calls picked
himself up from the ground and turned his back on the murder and his few minutes of remorse.
No one wanted to drown in a river of sorrow. They wanted to forget death. They lived as
though they would never die. Only the vultures and the dogs remembered. They ripped apart
Thunderclap’s remains with an expediency brought on by hunger gnawing at their insides.
The carousing continued. Jim’s whiskey keg was emptied. The chief, drunker than before,
ordered more libations. Jim sent a messenger to the fort with news that he was fine and needed
two more kegs.
Jim spent the night near the City of Refuge. He stayed awake most of the night at his camping
place. The revelry kept him alert. The hour did not matter. It could have been day or night.
The next morning when the whiskey arrived, the outcasts drank more. They were trapped in a
drunken state that cost them a wardrobe full of buffalo robes and eighteen horses. When the last
drop left the second keg, Jim bid his customers farewell with an unsettled feeling inside. He kept
remembering Mephisto disappearing into the night, free to roam the world, evil ever present in it.
Shortly after the disconcerting City of Refuge trade, Messrs. Sublet and Vasquez dissolved their
three-year partnership. Jim accepted an offer to work for Bent, St. Vrain & Company. He built
subposts and traded at Fort Bent situated five hundred and thirty miles west of Independence,
Missouri on the Santa Fe Trail. Traders constantly stopped at the fort, which was a busy
crossroads for traveling in any direction. Jim enjoyed the contact with visitors who brought
news of settled places. He thrived on the security of the fort where he felt protected from evil
and misfortune during the months he stayed there.
Jim had not changed. Always leaving, always searching. The thrill of new and mysterious
destinations tickled his insides as he said goodbye to William Bent and the others. This time,
Jim headed southwest.
The desert sand of northern New Mexico, the color of an old man’s eyes, astounded Jim. The
earth contrasted with the low hanging, azure sky and the squat purple, shadowy mountains.
Nature wrought a self-contained look. Jim felt encased as in a womb; he felt hallowed as in a
sanctuary. The haunting landscape cast its spell on Jim who decided to live here awhile.
Finding a place to unpack, however temporary it might be, gave him a comfortable feeling. It
had been years since he had called any one place home.
As Jim approached Taos, the colors blended with those of the desert. Adobe houses abounded,
molded in round, square and rectangular shapes with door frames painted bright blue, red and
yellow. Ladders propped up against the house led to a flat-topped patio where lovers sat at
twilight and looked out at the joining of purple land and sky.
Jim followed the well-worn trail and reached a large plaza edged with lighted bars and hotels.
He stopped at a tavern from which he heard laughter and loud talking. Inside, he was greeted
with the sight of a blonde woman dancing on stage to the song of a lone guitar. She wore a black
lace veil over her face—and nothing else. Her plump breasts jiggled as she cavorted in place to a
fandango, first languorously, then lively, then slowly again to the changing rhythm. Never had
Jim seen such a public exhibition. He clamped his eyes to her breasts.
He did not see the disinterest in her look. He did not see that the musician sat alone at a corner
table and looked at his guitar. He did not see that the others in the packed bar ordered whiskeys
from barmaids dressed in unbuttoned blouses and partly transparent skirts in bold reds and
purples. Most customers also ordered some time with them upstairs. The downstairs warm-up
act offstage of long, deep kisses, slapping of behinds, tweaking of breasts and belly rubbing
heated up the tavern. The solo dancer had only one other spectator besides Jim. He sat on a
chair pulled up to the stage where he rested his chin. Every few seconds, he pulled out a large
coin and laid it in front of his face. The dancer would lean over to pick it up, giving him a
Jim’s entrance, however, had not gone unnoticed. The women who worked there had never seen
him before. They deduced from his dusty clothes that he had been traveling and had been
without a woman for some time. They let him take in Carlota’s performance undisturbed before
pouncing on him. When the music stopped and Carlota exited backstage, Jim started to breathe
“Good evening,” said a woman, whose breasts seemed about to pop over her low-cut dress.
“Good evening,” Jim said, removing his hat which he had forgotten all about.
“You look tired and worn,” she said, and then gave him a warm, earthy smile.
“I am,” said Jim, who became aware of his condition as she mentioned it.
“Let me help you relax,” she offered, in her French accent. “I’ll get you a plate of food, a drink
to wash it down and a bed for your rest.”
“Thank you,” Jim said, getting her meaning. “That would be very nice.”
“Good,” she said. “My name is Michelle.”
Jim introduced himself and followed her to an out-of-the-way table for two where she served
him rice and pinto beans and stewed chicken. He drank only one whiskey as Michelle rubbed
her bare leg against his under the table, out of the other patrons’ sight. She drank several
whiskeys, which Jim bought, but they were watered down and had little effect on her. She
seemed to have the evening well planned.
“How long have you lived here,” Jim asked.
“Only a few months,” Michelle said.
“Where did you come from,” Jim asked.
“Everywhere. I move around,” she said, leaning forward so that she could knead Jim’s thighs
with her strong hands. Her breasts rested on the small table, dominating it.
Jim had eaten his food ravenously; he still had some of his drink when the music started again.
This time, there were several guitars and several women dressed in high, leather boots and
beribboned corsets. They began toying with their undergarments and with each other’s. Then
they began undoing them. This performance received more attention than the first, perhaps
because most of the women had left the sides of men in the audience. There were catcalls that
encouraged the dancers to bare it all. Slowly, they did.
This second show paralyzed Jim. Michelle got up and stood behind him. She placed her hands
on his shoulders and let them drop lower on his chest where she circled his nipples and then
lower to fondle him below his navel. Then she nuzzled the hair at the back of his neck, her lush
dark hair caressing his.
Their mouths met; soon, his tongue touched and tantalized hers. She sucked on it greedily.
After what seemed like an eternity, she broke away, took his hand and led him upstairs to an
empty room and bed where they laid for hours.
Jim became a faithful patron of Michelle’s delights. They grew to be friends who never talked
about the past or the future, only the present.
Jim stayed in a hotel not far from the plaza. Many of his friends spent all their time and money
drinking. He did not imbibe frequently. Jim gambled casually at cards for excitement instead of
traipsing the Rockies. For work, he traded as a freelancer, buying goods in one town and selling
them in another. He learned the terrain around the western end of the Santa Fe Trail.
The man surrendered himself to the magic of New Mexico. While in Taos, he indulged in the
pleasures of the body. While in the desert, he feasted on the joy of the outdoors. In both places,
the oldness awed him. Churches two hundred years old, mountains thousands of years old. He
felt another presence, another life, everywhere.
The first time that he visited Santa Fe, sixty miles south of Taos, thunderbolts illuminated the sky
just before he reached it like an omen and majestic welcome. The town was sleepy and spacious.
It closed down at dinner time when everyone went home. Santa Fe was as calm as Taos was
wild. Jim found himself spending more and more time in the sedate town. After several
months, Michelle left Taos and Jim realized that he, too, had grown bored with it.
Jim opened a store in Santa Fe where he had befriended many families. The Sandovals were a
wealthy, prominent Mexican family with whom Jim spent many evenings. Jim talked business
with Luis Sandoval while his host’s wife, Consuela, attended to their drinking and eating needs.
They had one child, a daughter named Luisa.
“Senorita Luisa,” Jim would say, at the dinner table. “The color of your dress brings out the
enchanting green in your eyes,” or “Senorita Luisa, the luster of your dark hair is especially
These daring compliments made it clear that Jim had noticed Luisa as a potential wife. She
always thanked him, blushing. Then her father and Jim would resume their conversation. The
women would eat quietly at the same table. Not long after, Luisa ate quietly with Jim alone at
their dinner table.
Jim wanted to recapture the rootedness of his family, the Beckwourth family, in his marriage.
He was forty-four years old and he had lost his fear of legal matrimony after Eliza had rebuffed
him. Just as he lived his life in his own way, he thought he could be married in his own way.
One month after the wedding in the autumn of 1842, Jim told his wife that they were moving
north to Indian country where he could run a trading post around less competition. Luisa was
shocked. She had not expected to leave her family. She began packing like an obedient wife but
she cried secretly. When she and Jim visited her parents, she whispered her pain and loneliness
to her mother a room away from the men.
“He is your husband, hija,” Consuela said. The two of them looked like an older and younger
version of the same person. They sat like queens on thrones, backs straight, knees and feet
together. They both had tiny, doll-like bodies and delicate facial features. “You must do what
he says. Look at me, here in New Mexico far from my mother and sisters whom I miss so much.
You must go with your husband. Jim is a good man.”
“Yes, he is good,” Luisa said, with a sigh.
“What’s wrong? Do you regret marrying him?”
“We never talk,” Luisa said. “I don’t feel as though I know him any better now than I did on our
wedding day. He acts as though he still lives alone.”
“Be patient, hija. It will come.”
Luisa left with Jim for El Pueblo where they both erected and ran a trading post. Luisa never had
worked before. She liked it. It kept her busy and gave her character. Jim and Luisa lived
separate emotional lives with their business in common. In time, twenty-five trappers and their
families joined them in the town on the Arkansas River.
One year after the move, Jim grew antsy. His business was established; his home was alien.
One day, he told Luisa that he was leaving for California.
“I can handle things here,” she said. And then, almost as an afterthought, she asked, “What’s in
“I’ve never been there, and I’d like to see it,” Jim said. “I can get some exotic goods for the
store while I’m there.”
Jim and a man named Jack Hatten set out on the Spanish Trail heading West with a caravan of
forty horses and mules. The spring journey reminded Jim of his younger days in the wilderness
with other mountain men. He so enjoyed reliving the memory that he took his time reaching the
brown sands of the southern California desert dotted with yellow and purple flowers.
Finally, they arrived at Pueblo de los Angeles, which gave Jim the feeling of a way station. It
was a town without definition but a good strategic place for business. Jim and Hatten bought,
sold and rounded up three times the number of horses they had brought out.
Their hearts open to adventure, the two men started back. Hatten vanished like a sprite with
more than his share of their horses and money. Jim was not surprised. The man’s eyes gave him
away. They were beady and set too close together. Jim was glad to be rid of him. Before he left
California, he got caught up in the Americans’ war for independence from Mexican control.
Time stood still for Jim when he fought; he felt omnipotent.
His wife, Luisa, worked long hours grateful for something to do. But work could not absorb the
emptiness of her marriage that she carried inside. Two months passed after Jim’s departure.
Then three, four. Twelve, thirteen. Nineteen, twenty. Luisa heard that Jim was fighting in
California. Then there was no word. She felt relief mixed with sadness. The young woman
closed the store in El Pueblo and moved back to her family in Santa Fe.
Three years after he left, Jim returned to El Pueblo, where he found no home or store. When
friends told him where Luisa had gone, he followed her to Santa Fe and found that he had no
Luisa had remarried happily. And Jim was glad to be released from a sham.
Albert Bierstadt's "Estes Park, Long Peak", in the Rocky Mountains near Denver (1877)
From the Denver Public Library
The wind sang shrill notes as it rushed through the tree branches overhead. There were no birds
and no sounds of animals. There was only the song of a September wind clearing a path for
itself in the tangled growth of the forest.
Jim traveled here to Absaroka once every year or two. The Sparrowhawks still loved and
admired their chief. Each of his wives, however, acted differently toward him. Red Cherry
separated herself from him and married someone else. Lots of Trees held onto memories of the
young, handsome stranger; her interest in men had waned. Swift Fish related to Morning Star as
the father of their son. The boy, now fifteen, plunged into deep, frightening moods after
Morning Star’s jolting appearances. He spoke sparingly and wore a scowl. After his father’s
departure, Black Panther returned to his bright, inquisitive self. But Morning Star saw only his
son’s sullen side and convinced himself that it was normal. Many times, Swift Fish said it would
be better for Black Panther if Morning Star stopped visiting altogether. Once again, Swift Fish
suggested that he not come back.
“What a cruel thing to say,” Morning Star shouted. “I thought we were finished with that. My
son loves me. He wants to see me.”
“How do you know? He rarely talks to you when you’re here. I’m telling you, Morning Star,
Black Panther doesn’t talk about you when you’re gone. He acts strangely when you’re here.
Something awful is going on in his heart about you.”
“You’re jealous, Swift Fish. I’m surprised. You should be happy. Even though my work takes
me away from my son, he wants to see me.”
“You’ve been around white people too long. No, I am not jealous and no, your work does not
take you away from him. You take yourself away from him. What are you running away from,
Morning Star? It must be terrible. Maybe it’s what Black Panther sees and hates in you!”
“Woman, I am tired of your accusations. My life is my own. I don’t need you to question how I
They heard footsteps that skulked away. For an instant, Morning Star thought he saw Black
Panther, who looked so much like himself, his face contorted with hate as he looked into his
father’s eyes. Morning Star’s mind flashed on the same look from Nathaniel, the slave playmate
he had had in his father’s house. Morning Star dismissed the vision of his son as a figment of his
imagination. His son loved him, he reassured himself, and when Black Panther got older, he
would understand his father better than Swift Fish and the other women in his life.
“They were young people looking for a place to be alone,” Swift Fish said, softly, as if she were
in another time. She had not seen her son. “It’s too bad our lives aren’t simpler. Sometimes I
think that if you had stayed, nothing would have changed within our family or outside of it. If
only we could have found a place to be alone.
“Morning Star, what will happen to us in this trouble with the whites?”
There was no answer to that question without many words about the spilling of blood. Absaroka,
trapped in the maw of the encroachment of another civilization, would not always be Absaroka,
home of the Sparrowhawks.
The white world intruded into Morning Star’s life here. Living in the Far West was no longer a
panacea for peace of mind. It was a maelstrom, an arena for embroiled emotions, a ground for
hate to be planted, grown and harvested like so many corpses of men, women and children.
Funerals in Indian country had become the most common ceremony. Bulging Mackinaw
blankets tied between two trees high up in the air dotted the forests. In this way, the dead
traveled to the other side on their journey to honor. The mourners hacked off their fingers in
sorrow and their sorrow hardened into a craze for vengeance. Treaties proposed and signed were
broken by the whites; treaties proposed and signed were broken by the Indians. There was no
trust and no compassion. The lust for quick profits and expansion won over the power of staid
ethics and reflection. There was no time for morality in this century of dishonour.
These historical moments tortured the mountain men who had overcome the hardships and
dangers of their profession to live until this year, 1848. Their families often were tied up with
the conflict because their wives were Indians as were their children. The United States
government policy toward native Americans jerked their very lives. Sometimes it tore their love
The older people remembered the days when they invited the whites for feasts, the days when
there was no history. They hoped for the restoration of that peace; they believed that their way
of life could be spared; they yearned for reconciliation. However, their children knew nothing
but the present. They demanded their land and offered no compromise.
Morning Star thought of his friend, William Bent, and his four grown children. The trader had
sent the four to relatives in St. Louis when they were young so that they could know both ways
of life. Mary and Robert had thrived on both, but Charles and George rejected their father’s
people. Charles, especially, hated the whites. Back at Bent’s Fort, the alienated sons ran away
and joined the Cheyennes in their fight for honor against the whites. Both were branded as
outlaws with large sums of money offered for their heads. Late one night, Charles, named for his
father’s brother, stealthily returned to his father’s house to find only his sister.
When William returned from several days away, his daughter told him that he had missed a visit
from his son who had toted a gun with the intention of shooting him dead through the head.
William doubled over and cried like a baby. Mary went over to him and hugged him, their tears
falling on each other’s shoulders, their tears for Charlie and their loss. Their tears for the way
things were between Indians and whites. Then William straightened up and he forbade Charlie
to show his face at the house ever again. He swore that he never wanted to see his son alive.
All these thoughts flooded into Morning Star’s head after Swift Fish asked about the
Sparrowhawks’ future and “this trouble with the whites”. And what about his son? Black
Panther was an intelligent, spirited, angry young man. He hungered for an all-out war against
the whites who wanted his homeland and already had taken his father. Black Panther never
spoke rude words to Morning Star but he said as little as he could to him. Often, he looked away
from him. When he was a small boy, Morning Star reasoned that it was his shyness; now that
Black Panther was older, he thought that the boy was trying to become a man. The father never
asked the son why he was so distant. And the son never told him.
“Violence lies ahead,” Morning Star answered Swift Fish.
“But we don’t want war with the whites,” she said. “We never wanted war. We never attacked
“I know. But greed changes people. In this case, it’s dictating policy. I wish to God it wasn’t.”
Morning Star placed his left arm around Swift Fish’s shoulder. They had reconciled years ago as
friends. Now they walked silently to the song of the wind.
Swift Fish was a confidante, close enough to Morning Star to delve into areas that others would
skirt. When his parents, Noisy Owl and Big Bowl, died, Swift Fish comforted him. He had
respected his Sparrowhawk parents and when they died, he was reminded of his death. He was
fifty years old; many men died younger. Morning Star shuddered at the thought of it. He was
stepping into Big Bowl’s place as the old man. He and Swift Fish looked much as they had
when they were younger. They revealed their age in their inurement to life’s tumbles and falls.
But Morning Star still yearned for a mystical woman in his life, different from a friend, to ease
the pain of continual loss.
Before the celebrated man left Absaroka, the Sparrowhawks threw a traditional farewell feast,
organized by Laughing Coyote and Pine Leaf. The day after the banquet, Morning Star headed
out West where gold had been discovered in northern California. He had abandoned New
Mexico as his home although he often traveled through it on United States scouting and
After a month of riding alone, the mountain man ran into a train of ten wagons that had lost its
guide in a surprise meeting with a grizzly bear. Jim took on the dead man’s job of leading the
caravan of immigrants with all their worldly possessions on the Oregon Trail to a new world.
Gregarious as Jim was, he kept to himself on the westward journey. He found the settlers’
conversation to be oppressive. When they passed crude stone markers of those who had not
reached their destination, they talked about their concern with dying along the way. The rest of
the time, they talked about the hardship of traveling.
“Sweet dreams,” Jim would wish the families before arranging his bedroll by the campfire under
the starry sky. They would huddle in their covered wagons like scared jack rabbits. They
worried about Indian attacks which they had read about in newspapers. Jim would take his own
advice and dream the elation of crossing the majestic Rocky Mountains on sparkling, spring
days. The next morning, the settlers’ eyes would be red from little sleep or puffy from tears.
They would walk with more of a stoop while their guide would walk straighter and freer.
At the end of the journey, Jim congratulated himself for not losing anyone. Heartily, he wished
them well, sorry for their defeated spirits. He was relieved to leave them and go south to San
Francisco where he hoped to be around happy, carefree people.
On his way there, Jim met hundreds of gold prospectors beside whom he also panned. The glint
of desperation shined in their eyes, the same wild look that Jim had seen in the settlers. But Jim
never stayed longer than a day in each place. He had not been stricken with gold fever. He did
not believe in striking it rich with luck; he did not believe in luck. Jim was a self-made man and
proud of it. He had earned his money and his reputation by taking risks and working hard. Luck
had no place in it. More and more, the West seemed to be full of people with whom Jim shared
When Jim arrived in San Francisco, his rheumatism also paid a visit. Both his legs and arms
swelled, making it difficult for him to move. He hated to be laid up but he realized that he had to
be. His pain was so excruciating that he did not see the growth of Yerba Buena, a town whose
population of eight hundred had exploded to twenty-five thousand because of the gold boom.
Ship after ship pulled into its harbor, packed with dream seekers.
Jim sought out a posh hotel which he knew. The fireplace in his room locked out the moisture in
the summer air. Jim stayed inside, mostly in bed, for seven days. He memorized a hasty paint
stroke in the ceiling directly over his head. Jim felt imprisoned and bored.
On the eighth day, his rheumatism had abated to where he could stroll about the city by the bay.
People pushed pass his ambling in their eagerness to get to places first and fast. Jim was
astounded by the dramatic rise in pace and numbers. San Francisco was incomparable to
anywhere he had been.
The mountain man stopped at the New West Saloon for a whiskey and conversation. He
recognized a woman who worked at the hotel, sitting at a table with an ancient woman whose
long hair was dulled and whitened. Jim greeted his acquaintance, Mary Ann, a plain woman
with a coarse voice, and he introduced himself to Sweet Water who piqued his interest. The
three drank together. They swapped stories about their past but Sweet Water’s life seemed so
intriguing that even Jim, the famed storyteller, eventually deferred to her.
“I have had several lives,” she began, timidly. She paused for a reaction and when Jim and Mary
Ann leaned forward with anticipation, she resumed in her tired voice.
“I was kidnapped by the Foxes from my people in the Illinois when I was a young woman. My
husband was away trapping. I was picking berries to make dye when two strangers appeared. I
froze. The two men uttered words to each other that I did not understand. One of them
approached me. He picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. I did not kick. I did not
scream. What could I do against them?
They took me to their village. I missed my husband as I reared another man’s children. I had
been alone in the world except for my husband. I had no other family but him. I was barely
accepted as a member of the tribe. But among the Foxes, I had become the enemy’s mother and
daughter. The Illinois woman, they called me, with scorn. Years went by in this wretched way
until one day when white traders from the East stopped in the village. They said they needed a
cook to go with them to the west coast. The man to whom I had been given as a wife
volunteered me. I did not resist. I wanted to go. Why not? I was leaving nothing behind.
“I took my Creole husband’s stories about New Orleans and St. Louis with me. I treasured them.
He had described cities full of strange noises and people dressed in exotic clothes speaking many
languages. I couldn’t even imagine these places until I came here.
“My work for the traders ended in San Francisco. I drifted from job to job, cooking and
cleaning, until I found steady work and comfort here. I drink too much, some people say. They
don’t know what I’m living with. The life I lost. The memories of a few years of happiness with
my husband, Pierre Charbonneau.”
Jim squirted out his drink.
“What is it? What’s wrong,” Mary Ann asked.
“Nothing,” Jim said, despondently, because it was so much.
He felt hurt, then shock, then anger about his friend, Pierre, who had kept a whole part of his life
from him. Quickly, Jim passed through these emotions, and then he felt all three together, and
they collided into each other. As Sweet Water recalled the light in her life, Jim broke into the
“I knew your husband. He was a good friend of mine when we worked in the lead mines in Sac
“What,” Sweet Water said.
“Yes. He was a good man,” Jim agreed. “He was kind. I was very young then and had never
left home or school. I didn’t know anything about the Sacs but I was very curious. Pierre took
me under his wing. He taught me their language and he taught me their ways. He gave me a
respect for the sacred that I’ve always held dear.”
Tears slid down Sweet Water’s puffy face into her half-empty glass.
“I wondered how he had become so wise when he was still so young,” Jim said.
“I did well then,” she said, her voice cracking.
“You did well,” Jim affirmed. “He missed you, too. His brown eyes were sad with you hidden
inside them. Sometimes, he cried at night but he never told me why.”
“Where is he now,” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jim, who thought he probably was dead. “I haven’t heard anything about
his whereabouts in years. Last I heard, he was up in Coeur d’Alene at the silver mines. But that
was ten years ago.”
“Did he get married again? Did he have children,” she asked.
“Not that I know of,” Jim answered, honestly.
Perhaps Red Moon’s relatives had sensed something unspoken in Pierre’s life. Perhaps it was
their distrust of his silences that had persuaded them not to consent to the marriage. Whatever it
was, Pierre’s courtship of Red Moon had ended when he left Galena thirty-one years ago in
1818, his eyes sad again and without hope. At that time, Sweet Water was as melancholy and
out of his reach. And now, she was a melancholy drunk.
Why couldn’t they have found each other thirty, twenty years ago? Why couldn’t they have
stayed together? Why couldn’t they have been happy for the rest of their lives?
Then Jim remembered Eliza thirty, twenty years ago when they were so much in love. Why
couldn’t they have gone on? Here he was, at fifty-one, a man without a rock against which he
could brace himself.
How does life become so complicated that lovers cannot embrace each other? Sweet Water had
spent a lifetime waiting for Pierre. Jim thought that she was fortunate to need one particular
person that much. He had no one like that. No one about whom he dreamt and for whom he
ached and loved. Whatever pangs he felt for Eliza, he knew were only sentimental longings for
his first love, always perfect, always intense because both people are naïve and trusting.
Jim left the New West Saloon feeling lost. He promised Sweet Water that he would tell Pierre
about her if he met up with him, although he did not expect to see either person again.
On the walk back to the hotel, the city strangled Jim with a claustrophobia that exhausted him in
his fight to keep breathing. In a few days, he accepted an assignment to deliver dispatches at
Monterey, south of San Francisco. After that expedition, he turned again to running a trading
post, this time, in southern California south of Los Angeles.
One year later, Jim left the business and traveled north. He rode through Los Angeles, Santa
Barbara, Monterey, San Francisco. Then he went east to Sacramento where he began
prospecting for gold with another man, Doug Whitcomb, who had been lured West by the rush.
The two of them were at work one morning when they received unexpected visitors.
“Indians,” yelled Doug, a brawny man with the look of a fighter.
Both men reached for their guns on the ground near the stream. Jim hailed the group of six men
walking toward him. They returned his greeting.
“Don’t take the offensive, but don’t take unnecessary risks either,” Jim told Doug. “Don’t trust
Jim’s advice was right on target. The men approached the prospectors and made conversation in
English about the gold, about the stream, about the weather. They did not mention their tribe.
Suddenly, the strangers reached for Jim and Doug’s rifles. A short struggle ensued. When the
Indians did not get the weapons, they acted friendly again and asked for ammunition.
“Let’s go,” Jim said quietly to Doug. “Keep walking backwards. Keep your eyes on them.
Unhitch your horse and hold his rein in your hand.”
Then Jim said to the Indians with a smile of hospitality: “We don’t have the ammunition to
The two kept walking. The Indians did not chase them.
“That was close,” Doug said, when they lost sight of the men. “We were lucky.”
“We were smart,” Jim said. He thought that if he had not been there, Doug would have been
killed. Doug did not know these people or this country.
And so, when they began climbing higher ground, Doug did not take special notice of
geographic features. He did not know what stood out as unusual. It was on this expedition in the
Sierra Nevada that Jim thought he saw a valley in the distance and, perhaps, a pass to reach it.
Jim said nothing to Doug. After they separated near Mount Shasta, Jim returned with three
mountain men to the same spot to check whether his eyes had deceived him. They had not.
Jim and the others looked down on a secluded valley from a vantage point from which no settler
had seen it. He had discovered a pass from which they descended into the sublime beauty of the
sight of hot sulphur springs, the call of wild animals and the scent of spring blossoms.
“Oh, breathtaking country,” said the men, surrounded by what looked like paradise to Jim.
He felt the same way he had when he was a boy and his family arrived at Beckwourth’s
Settlement. He was proud of himself and the land as though they were joined as one. He was
He had discovered Beckwourth’s Pass and Beckwourth Valley.
Joyfully, the mountain man camped a few nights in the bountiful valley before leaving for a
nearby town. They lived graciously, dining on antelope and geese and rabbits from meadows
and forests, and on trout from the Feather and Truchy rivers. They moved about as though they
were enchanted. They thought intimate, intense thoughts that had been buried deep under
On the first morning, Jim sat and gazed into the hazy smoke of a large sulphur spring. He
slipped into a dream of galloping under a big sky on a wide, wide expanse of country toward
that elusive place over the next hill, and the next, and the next. Forever, the openness seemed to
go on. The color and contour of the terrain changed along with the foliage but the openness went
on. Jim let out an impulsive, whooping cry of joy.
He knew that he should live here.
But first, he fought a feverish bout with erysipelas which inflamed his skin so severely, and at a
time when he was engrossed with aging, that he thought he was going to die. Then, he grieved,
after his own recovery, over the burning destruction of the town, Marysville, to where he had
deduced immigrants would use Beckwourth’s Pass. Finally, in 1852, he settled in Beckwourth
Valley as a gentleman rancher with a kind heart. He opened his home as an inn for the comfort
of weary travelers, never turning away anyone because they had no money.
For six years, Jim was suffused with the balm of the valley. This country revived him. Not once
did he suffer from rheumatism or any other ailment; no longer was he obsessed with growing
older and losing another chance at life.