Authors: Win Blevins
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To the memory of James Crawford, master woodsman,
who went to the wilderness always as a pilgrim
Old men should be explorers?
Ill be an Indian …
All that is known about the historical Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau could be printed in a few pages: That he was born to Sacajawea and Toussaint Charbonneau and was carried as an infant across the continent with the Lewis and Clark expedition; that William Clark brought him to St. Louis as a child and arranged his education by a Baptist preacher and possibly a Catholic priest; that at eighteen the youth met Prince Paul of Württemberg by chance; that he then went to Europe with the Prince, traveled extensively, was further educated, and returned to St. Louis after six years; that he became a mountain man and rode with such trappers as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger; that he guided the Mormon Battalion to California in 1846; that he was one of the first to join the California gold rush. From there the historical evidence stipulates that he spent his remaining years with his mother and her Shoshone people.
But this is a novel, not a rendering of history. And from the first I saw the material as redolent of a larger theme: Charbonneau was by blood and by breeding fully a member of two cultures that were in conflict. Almost alone of both the Indians and the whites, he might have been able to choose freely between the life-styles and the values of his two peoples. I wrote
to discover what his choice would be, and why he made it.
So I have played free with history where it suited my dramatic and thematic purposes. Much of the material here is authenticthe material, for instance, from the journals of Lewis and Clark, Clark’s letter, the visit of the Flathead chiefs to St. Louis, certain episodes in the mountains, Washakie’s speeches in my Prologue, and so on. Likewise most of the principal characters are historical. But I have invented, elaborated, and even made small changes in history, changes that scholars will recognize. The happenstance of life sometimes does not meet the needs of art.
One liberty is large: I have devised a conclusion to Charbonneau’s life-long conflict that fits neither of the two historical versions. Probably I have also made the character more sophisticated and more cultured than the historical personage.
For both liberties, and all the smaller ones, I plead Henry James’s celebrated edict that a novel can be held to no rule except onethat it be interesting.
AUGUST, 1876: The old man awoke in the pre-dawn light. He felt it, sometimes, like this; he could sense that in a few moments the sun, like a bubble of air that has risen from the bottom of a lake, would burst silently over the ridge to the east. He got up quietly from his buffalo robe, not disturbing the two squaws who slept nearby, and walked to the flap that always faced the rising sun and looked out at the eastern sky. His sense had been right, as it had been right on most mornings since he had come to live here in this wide grove beside the Salmon River. He looked at the distant ridge across the river where the sun would appear this time of year to the right of three juniper pines just below its flat top. The sky was not yellow or red—the sun had been above the earth’s horizon for more than an hour already; it was instead the crystalline, cornflower blue of mornings in the mountains. The spot where the sun was aiming turned a brilliant white, and then the first edge of the yellow globule flickered above the ridge.
The old man stood facing it, as he did every morning, naked in the cool air. His body was slender and hard. If he showed the effects of seventy-one years on the earth, it was in his stringiness. His arms, his trunk, and legs were unwrinkled; the skin looked weathered from exposure to sun and wind. His face was crinkled, particularly around the narrowed eyes, and his neck looked like creased paper that has been wadded up and pulled flat again. It was a dark face, as dark as any Indian’s, but the body was noticeably lighter.
He did not pray on this August morning. It would have been good Shoshone custom to utter a small prayer to the sun, the giver of life, but he did not even remember the prayers clearly. He observed the event each morning simply by standing there, naked, and looking.
The older of the two squaws joined him—she was as ancient as he—and made the soft sound of a song in half-voice. Always she rose a little after he did and took part in his salute; always the young squaw—young enough still to be handsome—slept on in the sleep that the young are granted. The old man liked them both. The older one had lived alone with him for thirty years, the younger he had bought ten years ago, mainly for more company. His two children had for ten years been living with the tribe, many sleeps to the south in the Wind River Mountains. The squaw made a ritualistic gesture to the medicine bundle hung from a tripod in front of the tent, and another to the painting on the lodge.
He walked to the river and dashed cold water into his face. A little way upstream a tiny creek flowed into the river; it was smoking. Further from the bank a pool steamed more heavily, and the cool breeze carried the familiar sulphur smell to his nostrils. He went to the pool, stepped in, and let his body sink into the hot water. For several minutes he lolled and luxuriated there.
This hot-spring bath was also part of his morning ritual, and this morning it felt especially good. His legs and arms were not any suffer than usual, though during the last ten years they seemed to loosen more slowly. No, it felt especially good because he would not be able to lie in this hot, spring-fed pool again until the aspen had begun to turn gold and the chill of autumn was in the air. Last night, in the tipi around the stew pot, he said to the squaws, “We have not tasted the meat of the buffalo in too many seasons. Far too many seasons. Tomorrow we start to cross the mountains and go down into the land of the buffalo.”
He lived in a good place—it had good water, good wood, good meat. He pitched his lodge most of the time here on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, not far above its mouth, in a wide, tree-studded meadow. In the winter the deep gorge made its own climate, so that while the mountains all around were deep in drifts, the snow never stayed on the ground at the floor of the canyon. In the summer he moved upstream into the high mountains to avoid the heat. No area he knew had more meat—grouse, deer, elk, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and bear, the river provided plenty of trout and salmon, when he wanted them. All winter, the snow kept the animals penned up deep in the gorge, so that hunting was easy. In the summer he followed them to the high peaks, the stony ridges, the alpine meadows, the tiny, swift-rushing mountain streams. His territory was a Garden of Eden of a place, and he loved it. It had everything he wanted, except buffalo. They stayed on the eastern side of the Continental Divide in Montana. So once in several years he would journey across the mountains to kill one.
Lying back in the hot water, he could see smoke wafting out of the top of the lodge and knew that his young squaw would soon have the meat hot. The old squaw was packing what they would need for the trip onto a travois. The dog, having noticed, was stirring, curious to see where they would go. The old man decided to relax where he was a while longer.
Friedrich thought he had a fever. In fact he was sure of it. He had been trying for two days to reconcile himself to dying in this awful, awful country—Godforsaken was truly the word for it—but now that he felt the fever he was angry and dyspeptic, unwilling to be taken away ignominiously.
“Gottes Wille wird vollführt werden,”
Jurgen said to him again, making a point of sounding sympathetic.
Friedrich supposed that was true. He could feel an edge in himself, though, an edge ready to be angry at God as well.
They were riding down the South Fork of the Clearwater River—Friedrich, Jurgen, Kurt, and the boy, Willy—and they were lost. They had left Salt Lake with a guide, a scurrilous-looking fellow named Elkanah, to ride north, strike the Salmon River, cross over to the Clearwater, and follow it to the Snake and the settlement of Walla Walla. That way they could have preceded the rest of their party, all German, which was hauling wagons bought from the Mormons over the Oregon Trail toward the settlement, and they could have gotten the work started. But Elkanah, as unreliable as he looked, had been seized with a fever and died abruptly two days before. Which left them, as Jurgen insisted, to rely on God’s will.
Friedrich didn’t like the look of it. The country was not merely wild, it was savage. The earth was hard, dry, and rocky. It rose into spiny ridges fit for nothing but an unfamiliar tree or two, trees shaped by a hostile wind and parched by a merciless sun. Friedrich could barely imagine game living here, and could not imagine man inhabiting the place at all. Not only its stubborn dryness, hardness, and stoniness, but its sheer size militated against man. The scope of it alone seemed anti-human to him.
As solid family men with a major stake in the outcome, Friedrich and Jurgen were the leaders. Willy was just a boy, and Kurt—well, what could Friedrich say about Kurt? He was a young no-good. Jurgen had spoken for going on and trusting to God. Kurt had said they couldn’t find the way back, and would probably kill themselves anyway, so they might as well try to go on. Friedrich had consented to try to get down the Clearwater less out of Jurgen’s faith than out of fear Kurt was right. How could a man trust to the will of God in a country that God so clearly had cursed? They did not even know for a fact that they were on the Clearwater River. The wrong river might take them, as far as they knew, straight into hell.
Friedrich sagged in the saddle, let his horse meander along, and strayed in his thoughts. He checked his forehead again for the fever, and found it hot. At least today was an improvement on yesterday. All afternoon Kurt had chosen to be contentious and answer disrespectfully, so that the three adults disputed while they rode. Friedrich hated disputation, especially when he stooped to it himself.
“Pay attention,” said Kurt. He had stopped his horse a few yards back. Friedrich heard before he saw—a wheezy music floating on the hot, motionless air, the strangest music he had ever heard. A few phrases sounded like something familiar, something he might have heard in Swabia; another bit sounded like the rhythmic, chanted Indian music they had heard after they got off the train at Salt Lake; and another part of it might have been a jig tune. An unholy alliance, an impossibility, perhaps a tease of the devil’s.
Then he saw his devil—an old Indian, dressed in buckskin, coming through the trees toward the river on a horse and leading two squaws, a packhorse, a broken-down horse dragging a travois, and a dog. He was riding toward them.
“I’m scared, Pa,” the boy said. Jurgen nodded. “Will he scalp us, Pa?”
“He’ll more likely beg from us,” said Kurt. “He looks pretty scruffy.”
“If he’s friendly,” Jurgen observed, “he could be our salvation.”
Jurgen switched to his broken English: “Good morning, friend. Where do you go?”
The old Indian moved his hands away from his mouth—Friedrich saw in some surprise that he had a mouth organ—and rode slowly up to them.
“Guten Tag, verehrte Herren,”
“Wo gehen Sie hin?”
“Im Gottes Willen!”
said Jurgen. Friedrich shivered with a terrible chill, despite his fever. His hands flinched on the reins, ready to flee the agent of Beelzebub.
The Indian asked, still in unaccented, rather formal and courtly German, “Are you lost? May I be of service to you?”
Friedrich spoke up and explained their dilemma.
The Indian considered. “You are white men.” He looked at them flatly, as though expecting them to acknowledge their fault. “You do not belong in this country. The Lehmi Shoshone have lived here for centuries. Also the Nez Percés. The Sheepeaters have made their abode here since time immemorial. This is their land. You are trespassers.”
Friedrich hurriedly explained that they wanted only to cross through to Walla Walla.
“All right. Pass through. Do not come back. Stay out. Tell your friends at the settlement to stay out, and that if they come, the Indians will drive them out. Tell them one old man will be happy to kill them.” Friedrich wondered what the old man had in store for the four of them right then. Kurt put his hand on his Colt .45, but Jurgen stopped him with a hand wave.
“What is the route, sir?” Jurgen asked.
“You are on the way. Go down the river. In three or four days you will see the forks of the Clearwater—you cannot miss it. Go on downriver about six more days to the mouth, where it comes into the Snake. Cross and follow the Snake eight or ten more days to the mouth, at the Columbia. There you will find the settlement and the mission.”
Friedrich was getting more scared. The man’s German was perfect, even elegant. He had not learned it from immigrants.
“I am willing to help you move through this country,” the old man said. “I would never help you if you wanted to stay here.” He looked at them directly.
“Where did you learn to speak such excellent German?” Friedrich spoke up.
The Indian grinned. “That is a long, long story for a better place than a dusty trail in the hot sun. By the way, how goes it in Württemberg? Is Paul, Duke of Württemberg, still at Karlsruhe?”
“Paul is dead fifteen years,” Jurgen stammered.
“I’m sorry to hear it.” He thought a moment and smiled a little. “Did you ever hear of Madame Sophie Hoffman, the novelist, of Stuttgart?” he asked. “Is she well?”
She was a scandalous figure. “She achieved a fame of a kind,” Friedrich said, “and is Baroness von Webern.”
“I’m pleased for her,” the Indian said.
“By the way,” Friedrich dared, “what was the music you were playing?”
“A composition of my own,” said the Indian. His face turned serious. “Be on your way now. Travel fast. No one will be pleased to see you here.” He started to kick his horse on. “Do you have enough food? You will see very little game at this elevation.”
“Enough for perhaps four weeks,” said Friedrich.
“Good. I must go.” He smiled. “I have an assignation with a buffalo.” And he spurred his horse upriver, his squaws following in silence.
“Papa, what was he? Was he a spirit? Papa, I’m scared.”
“He may have lied to us,” said Friedrich. “I don’t believe a word of what he said.”
“Nonsense,” Jurgen exclaimed. They rode forward and he thought a while. “It is the clearest indication of God’s providence I have ever experienced. It is a miracle.” No one spoke for a little. “We must tell everyone,” Jurgen said. “I do not understand the miracle. Perhaps he spoke in his native tongue and God led us to hear in German. Perhaps he was an angel. No mere man can explain this. But God has sent us a message, even as Paul received the message on the road to Damascus.”
No one dared disagree. “Willy,” said Jurgen after a little, “you will learn to believe now, and to trust. You have seen with your own eyes and heard with your own ears.”
“Yes, Papa,” the boy said solemnly, and full of wonderment.
Even Kurt kept his mouth shut.