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Authors: Win Blevins

Beauty for Ashes

BOOK: Beauty for Ashes
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This book is for Meredith—
wife, partner, friend, all.

The spirit of the Lord…hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted…to comfort all that mourn…to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.

—Isaiah 61:1–3

 

Part
One
Stalking Love
Chapter
One

S
AM PICTURED HIMSELF
as a hollow bone, stripped of the marrow that made him alive.

A hollow man notices little. He barely registered his fellow passengers, the captain, and crew. He barely knew the name of the steamboat, or the ports they stopped in, Cincinnati, Louisville, Evansville…

He did feel the force of the current, the urge of the river, westward, westward, down the Ohio River. As much as he could experience any emotion, he was glad.

At night he dreamt of emptiness. He slept outside on the bow of the steamer, wrapped in the moon's misty light and curled up with his pet coyote. Sometimes he dreamt that he was a feather, drifting on the wind alone. He had heard Crow men, his friends, make a piping music with the hollow bone from the wing of an eagle. But Sam's flight made no music. The air passed through him, sterile, and no song filled his emptiness.

For the past two years he had wandered as a beaver hunter through the Rocky Mountains and the huge plains that stretched from them to the Missouri River. Two weeks ago he had started home, drawn by a force he could not name. After traveling a thousand miles he found a world and a family he no longer knew. He felled his older brother with a fist. He said a hurried goodbye to his mother and his sisters, a last goodbye. In effect, he had tipped his life upside down and poured out his past, his family, his home.

Now he was empty.

It was Sam's nature to be curious, especially curious about people. Yet these days he wanted to talk only to his coyote, Coy. Why? He didn't know. He didn't always know himself.

He paid attention mostly to the motion of the currents, downriver. He didn't see the passing woodlands of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, though he knew they were beautiful. He used mostly his mind's eye. He saw stretches of plain so vast they must embrace the whole world. He saw mountains rolling sensuously against a lilac sky. He tasted the water in clear mountain creeks, so cold it hurt the gullet. He saw huge herds of buffalo running across the grasslands, so thick a man could dance across an entire herd and never touch the ground. He saw friends, both trappers and Indians. He saw his best friend, Blue Medicine Horse, and the woman he loved, Meadowlark.

When he looked at his fellow passengers, and only then, he thought of what was behind him. Home, yes, maybe that was the word for it, which was closed to him now. He said the word in his mind only—homeless.

He set his feet on the bow of the steamboat, which now rode the turbulent waters of the Ohio and would soon churn up the great Mississippi to St. Louis, the river town. There he would set off for the Rocky Mountains, alone. Home? He didn't know. He only wanted to be there, now.

Sometimes, wrapped in his blankets on the bow, he had another dream. In this dream he was not a hollow feather floating on the wind. He was a buffalo, a buffalo not of the earthly world, but of another dimension, maybe the spirit world. There something happened to him and the buffalo, something that could not happen in the ordinary world.

This realm seemed to him more real than the ordinary world, and more alive. In his dream he held his arms out toward the Spirit Buffalo, but it was always too far away, elusive, and mysterious. In the West, when he got there, he would feel the buffalo close again, and vital.

He was aware that his companions on the boat had no thought of buffalo, and certainly not Spirit Buffalo. They cared nothing about the tow-headed youth who was obviously the expedition's poorest, least-educated, least-decorous passenger. They showed distaste for the dog that hung near him. (Sam had been obliged to lie to the captain that his coyote was a common dog.) Sam overheard the captain dismissing him curtly to Mrs. Goodwill as “a backwoodsman of the roughest sort.” He noticed how they avoided him.

They felt equally alien to him. He rolled into the rhythm of the waters.

 

A
FTER THE BOAT
turned up the Mississippi, closer to buffalo country, Sam saw the Spirit Buffalo more often, saw it with his inner eyes.

The Spirit Buffalo taunted him every night. Sometimes he pictured it exactly as it first came to him. On these nights he once again performed the miracle. He entered into the body of the Spirit Buffalo, knitted himself into it, mingled his blood with its blood, its heart with his own, and they breathed with one breath. Then he and the Buffalo rose as one man-beast, surveyed all, and set forth.

“Samalo.” That one word sounded, though he didn't know who spoke it. It was his own name and the name Buffalo joined. One creature—Samalo.

Some nights he got just pieces of the dream, and some nights the pieces were mad, like a painting on glass—but the glass had been dropped, the paintings turned to shards, glinting hints of a beauty that once had been, and might or might not be again.

Sam would put the painting back together—once he was in the West, once he got up the Missouri River to the country where the buffalo lived, the buffalo that were physical and fed the belly, and the Buffalo that fed the spirit.

And once he was in the West, he would make his way to the Wind River Mountains, where her village lived, and seek out Meadowlark.

Passengers embarked, passengers disembarked, and Sam spoke to few. Port after port passed. Sam learned the rhythm of his travel.

In St. Louis the clerk asked his name. Sam nearly said “Samalo,” but managed to announce clearly, “Sam Morgan.” The clerk informed him that General Ashley expected him to join the outfit at Fort Atkinson. Four hundred miles of country to ride alone, but that didn't bother Sam—it was to the west.

He went about his business, tied up loose ends. He visited with dear friends from his first trip to St. Louis, Abby and Grumble, and said goodbye to them with indecent haste. “When I get to the West,” he kept saying to himself, “I will come alive.”

Chapter
Two

F
ORT
A
TKINSON WAS
a damned funny place to feel like home. It was home to the U.S. Army, an organization no mountain man wanted much to do with. On the other hand, right now it was full of Sam's mountain man friends. And this spot, not far upstream from where the Platte River flowed into the Missouri, was the beginning of the West. Here was the demarcation between the upper and lower Missouri Rivers, and between the prairies to the east and the arid plains of the West. It was also, effectively, the last bit of the U.S. The wilds beyond were marked
unknown
on the maps. Sam couldn't wait to get there.

He clucked his problematic mare up to the fort. She'd been problematic, and he was tired of her, tired of pushing hard, ready to rest, and ready for some company. This wasn't a bit like when he got to Fort Atkinson a couple of months ago. Then he'd walked, come all the way from the Rocky Mountains on foot and alone, half-starved to death. Then Fort Atkinson felt like survival. Now it felt like a beginning.

Out of a sense of propriety, he checked in first with the man who owned and ran the company, General William Ashley. But Ashley gave Coy a wary look. “I have to talk to this man about horses,” he said. “I'll see you later.”

A cold greeting, it seemed to Sam, when you've ridden more than four hundred miles alone through dangerous country to catch up with a man at his request.

Later, though, turned out to be a very good time. Supper. Sam was chewing and jawing around a fire with his old partner Gideon Poor Boy, a French-Canadian whose father was a French Jew and mother a Cree. Chesty as a bear and friendly as a St. Bernard, Gideon was relating his adventures. He'd gone back up the Platte to raise a cache of peltries and brought them to Fort Atkinson, all to earn a few dollars for their employer the general.

“Hey, Sam.”

Sam was so glad to hear this voice he jumped up and clapped Tom Fitzpatrick on the shoulder. He shook hands with another old friend behind Fitzpatrick, James Clyman.

“See your brother didn't take your scalp,” said Clyman.

Sam smiled wryly. Most of the fur men probably thought it was funny to take some weeks off to go home. Probably most of them didn't have homes, or weren't welcome there.
Now I don't have a home either
. That picture jumped into his mind—his older brother Owen, head of the Morgan clan, on the end of Sam's fist.

“How you doing, Towhead?”

“Don't call me Towhead.” Fitz was always joshing Sam about his white hair. “Sit down and have some coffee.”

They did, and traded news of the day. New men sidled by too, green hands, some even younger than Sam. They wanted to become mountain men—Sam wondered if he looked as green a year and a half ago.

One new man sat, Jim Beckwourth he called himself. He was black. “I'm a mulatto,” Beckwourth explained. “You might say I'm a confusion of black and white.” He grinned ironically. “What else could I be, mother a slave, father
Sir
Jennings Beckwourth?”

That grin was fine, but Sam knew a brag when he heard one.

“Who's your friend?” asked Jim, nodding his head at Coy.

“Coyote pup. Found him when I walked down the Platte last summer. That's a big story, I'll tell you some time.”

“Sam is greatly attached to his canine companion,” said Clyman.

“Oh,
mi coyote
.” This was Fitz. He pronounced it the Spanish way,
koy-oh-tay
.

Ashley stepped up, and the men fell quiet. The general stayed a few minutes but stood the whole time and spoke of nothing but business. “Can't get enough horses,” he said. “We're leaving in a few days, with or without them.”

The old hands—Sam was an old hand, though not quite twenty—eyed each other. They knew how bad it was, traveling and trapping without enough mounts. Ashley had been told, but he didn't
know
.

Later, in the full dark, when the group was down to Sam, Gideon, Beckwourth, Clyman, and Fitzpatrick, the Irishman said, “Sam, you went off quick in September. Did you hear the big story about Glass?”

Sam gave him a quizzical look. “I remember Hugh Glass from the fight at the Arickaree villages, but…”

“Didn't think so.”

“You know you're a story yourself,” said Gideon. “Walking down the Platte maybe seven hundred miles alone, coming in half-starved.”

“Gideon and I are stories too,” said Fitzpatrick. They'd done almost the same thing, arriving a little later. “But Glass is a story unto himself.”

Several men reached for their white clay pipes, looking forward to the tale.

Stories were getting to be a big part of this Rocky Mountain fur trade, new as it was. John Colter, for example—men still told about how he ran from the Blackfeet naked, escaped from them, and made his way back to the fort. Of the men now in the mountains, Sam's captain of last year, Jedediah Smith, was a story: Diah traveled alone down the Missouri River from Henry's Fort to below the Arickaree villages, where he delivered an urgent message to General Ashley, who was coming up the river—“Bring horses, lots of them. Trapping doesn't work without horses.” Then, more daringly, Diah found a land route back to Henry with an express pleading for help. This was not to mention the time he got mauled by a grizzly, was sewn up by Clyman, yet stayed cool enough to give instructions about his care.

“You remember, Glass went with Major Henry after the Arickaree fight.”

“And that was fine wit' us,” put in Gideon. Everyone chuckled. Glass was an ornery fellow.

“Undisciplined as always, he was going through a thicket along a creek by himself, out in front, when he ran into a grizzly. The brigade came fast when they heard Glass screaming, and a dozen rifles did away with Old Ephraim. Well, anyone could see, Glass, he was a goner. The brigade waited to give him a decent burial.

“A few minutes, then a few hours—amazing, Glass was still holding on. Every man admired his grit.”

“Wagh!” exclaimed Gideon.

“Henry, though, was worried. The Arickarees were still around somewhere. The major had an obligation to keep the whole brigade safe. So he asked for volunteers to stay with Glass until he died and then bury him. Henry offered a reward for taking this risk.

“Do you remember Jim Bridger?”

“No.”

“New to the mountains, young, practically a boy, like you.”

“I'm not any newer than you,” Sam reminded Fitz. Though Fitz was five years older, they'd come to the mountains the same year.

“True enough. Bridger, anyway, he volunteered. So did an older man named John Fitzgerald. They stayed while Henry took the trail.

“That cursed Glass, though, he just kept breathing. Bridger and Fitzgerald watched and fidgeted. One day, two, three. Why didn't Glass get down to business and die?

“Now Fitzgerald began to work on Bridger's mind, how the money wasn't enough, the risk bigger than the major figured, how they were going to die out here.

“On the fifth day Bridger caved in.

“Fitzgerald made Bridger take Glass's possibles—his rifle, his knife, his shot pouch, his flint and steel for making fire—everything needed to survive out here in this blasted wilderness. Otherwise, argued Fitzgerald, everyone would know. Know, that is, what Bridger was so ashamed to do, abandon Glass while he lived.

“Bridger hated it, but he was rattled. They took all, and away they went.”

“Bastards,” murmured Sam.

“But boyo, when Glass came to, he remembered. ‘Henry paid Bridger and Fitzgerald to stay with me. They abandoned me. And robbed me.'

“This lit the fire in Glass's belly. Soon he was inching over to the little creek to drink, and nibbling on the chokecherries hanging nearby.

“When he felt strong enough to go after his betrayers, he headed back to Fort Kiowa, where they'd started out. But Hugh Glass couldn't walk.” Fitz made a dramatic pause. “So he crawled.”

“That child is some!” said Gideon.

Fitz plunged on. “He crawled down White River, his wounds bleeding every time he moved. He ate roots, berries, and the like. Once, it's told, he came on a buffalo felled by wolves, chased them off and fed on the raw meat.”

“Wagh!” grunted Gideon.

“At Kiowa, instead of recuperating, he insisted on going after Fitzgerald and Bridger. He started upriver with a boat of a half-dozen men. The trip went bad. His companions got killed by Arickarees, but Hugh survived. Lads, he had grit, but he also had luck, mountain luck. And he must have been hell bent on revenge. On upriver he went, alone.

“On the last day of 1823, Hugh found the new fort on the Yellowstone. Right while the crew was celebrating drunkenly, a ghost appeared. A battered, scarred, emaciated figure. No one could believe it was Hugh Glass, believed dead for three months.”

“Wagh!”

“The man most shocked by the appearance of this ghost was Jim Bridger.

“Glass went straight at his betrayer. But the fire in his belly, maybe after several months the coals had begun to cool.

“Anyhow, face to face with Bridger at last, Glass says, ‘Yes, it is Glass that is before you, the man who gives you nightmares. The man you left to a cruel death on the prairie. And worse, you robbed me when I was helpless. You took my rifle, my knife, everything I might use to save myself. I swore I'd take revenge on you, and that other ass, Fitzgerald. I crawled back to the Missouri, and came this long way upriver, aiming to drink your blood.'”

Fitz's listeners held their breath.

“Glass glared at Bridger now, but his eyes lost their flame. ‘I can't do it. You have nothing to fear from me. You're free. On account of your youth, I forgive you.'”

Whew! Sam felt damn glad he wasn't Jim Bridger. Bridger was trapping with Captain Weber now, somewhere in the Siskadee country. And every man he traveled with, or ever would, knew he was a fellow who'd walk out on you when things got rough.

“Still, there was that damned Fitzgerald, plenty old enough to know better. Fitzgerald had quit and had gone down to Fort Atkinson, and took Glass's rifle with him. Quick as it began to thaw, Glass headed out. When he got to the fort, he found Fitzgerald had become a soldier, and the commander told him shooting up U.S. soldiers wasn't permitted. Glass got his rifle back, turned Fitzgerald over to God and his own conscience, and headed for Santa Fe.

“Now, lads, what do you think of that?”

“Grit,” said Gideon.

“Will to survive,” said Sam.

“Mountain luck,” said Clyman.

They regarded each other. The Irishman who left County Cavan to get away from the priests. The Virginian, the group's elder. The French-Canadian, who knew death companionably. The mulatto, young and vigorously alive.

The white-haired young man from Pennsylvania, far from home, was constantly learning, and it wasn't comfortable.

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