One cool morning as summer is turning the corner to autumn before Jonas’s eleventh winter, Standing Elk has a dream. When he wakes from it, he calls Ghost Horse and Burns Red to his tipi. Their talk is brief, but the old man is filled with an uncharacteristic agitation. He gathers a few things and leaves the camp alone. Before the sun is high on the sixth day, he returns, gaunt and visibly troubled.
Many gather about him, but he is not ready to talk. Food is offered, which he refuses. Crows Come Around brings him a bitter medicine tea and stands over him like a storm cloud until he drinks it down.
Still grimacing, he directs a handful of warriors to prepare an inipi and calls for Jonas Two Dogs to personally find and bring in thirty-seven stones for the fire. They are not to be gathered from the nearby stream.
It takes Jonas several hours to complete the task. Jumping Otter and several other friends attempt to help him, but when they carry in their stones, Standing Elk waves them off and their stones are discarded. When Jonas is finished, his grandfather offers tobacco into the fire pit and tells Jonas to build the fire.
Channels of dry wood are laid out in each of the four cardinal directions, filled with kindling material and a base is formed. Jonas stacks his thirty-seven stones upon it, singing a stone-honoring song as he does so. Lengths of heavier wood, gathered in quantity by the warriors, are stacked nearby and Jonas builds a cone of these, open at the top, enclosing the stones.
Jonas exchanges a few words with another boy whose recent name means Makes Noise Walking, and hands him a generous chunk of jerked meat. The other acknowledges, then joins others gathering with drums and songs. Standing Elk watches in silence for a time before turning away. Other preparations must be made.
A buffalo hide bundle is unrolled and Standing Elk prepares his alter atop a low mound between the fire pit and the doorflap of the lodge.
Two forked sticks, barked and polished, are set in the mound and a short, sturdy twig of the same type is set in place, bridging between them. A shard of obsidian is pressed into the soil beneath it.
Beside this pipe stand, a buffalo skull with horns painted red would have peered out through empty eye sockets, had they not been stuffed with sage. The old man’s staff is driven into the packed soil in the center of the mound. A small, forked horn fashioned to the end of the staff holds his eagle-wing fan looped onto it with a strand of sinew. It flutters on an evening breeze. Twilight has come.
Jonas strikes spark to the tinder of the fire’s east gate and nurtures it to life. In minutes, the cone is engulfed in flame. The spirit of the fire dances and it reaches out as he tends it, urging Jonas to dance with it.
More wood is added to maintain the chimney as the previous layers burn away. By the time the stones are glowing, the circle of singers around the sacred fire has, at his grandfather’s bidding, gone. Coals have been banked up against the stones and just enough additional wood laid over top to keep them roasting.
The night is cool and clear. The waning moon is barely more than a bright, razor-edged sliver in an ocean of stars when the five individuals Standing Elk has instructed to participate in this lodge are gathered.
Crows drums and the pipe filling song is sung as Standing Elk assembles his canunpa, fills the bowl with cansasa and prayers, and stands it upright, propping the stem on the small framework he built. He turns then and enters through the low doorway of the initi on hands and knees.
Jonas hands a set of antlers to his friend the noisy walker, and follows his grandfather into the initi. Burns Red and Crows Come Around follow next. After them come Burns Red’s hunka mother and father, Many Tears and Tajuska, the latter taking his place in the circle to the left of the door.
Standing Elk calls for nine stones. Makes Noise carries them to the doorflap one at a time using the antlers. Tajuska receives them with another set of antlers and arranges them in the central pit.
The first is placed in the center representing The Great Mystery. Many Tears brushes it with sweet grass and Crows lays a bead of pine resin upon it. Mellow, green-smelling smoke curls up.
The next four stones are set upon the cardinal points, sun-wise from the west. Two more, representing Father Sky and Mother Earth are set beside those in the east and west respectively, and the last two are place at points the wicasa wakan indicates for reasons only he knows, pointing with his rattle.
The doorflap is lowered and, in the resulting darkness, the glow from the stone people is all there is. The aromas of sweet grass and copal combine in the expanding warmth. A single hand drum reverberates and a song is sung to call in spirit guides and guardians. Heat rises.
Grandfather calls for nine more stones. Another song is sung as they are brought in and placed like the first. The doorflap is closed and another song is sung in the darkness, and still the old man says nothing of the purpose of this gathering. Nine more inyan find their place among the others and at last, as the doorflap closes, Grandfather splashes the water of life from a vessel beside him onto the hot stones. The breath of the Great Mother breaks upon the dome of the lodge and falls back down over the occupants like a hammer.
In the blackness, Burns Red is already lying flat against the cool, moist earth. Jonas has backed away from the heat of the pit, pressed against the framework of the lodge, hugging his knees. The tender flesh inside his nostrils feels as if it is on fire.
Standing Elk’s rattle breaks through the hissing of the stones as moisture fries from them. The rhythm is steady, not a beat at all, but a swishing, swirling sound. Spirits crowd around him and the old man begins to speak.
“My daughter has told us all the story from her long-ago people of how Raven stole the sun from the Sky Chief and carried it back to the world. That is a good story and brave Raven’s gift to the world was great. But Raven put the sun too close to the world and after a while, Grandmother began to suffer. Rivers and lakes began to dry up and the tall grass withered and the buffalo could find nothing to eat and there was no rain and there was no shade anywhere. The world was dying. Unless something was done, the People and all the creatures would die with her.
“The animal chiefs came together to figure out what to do. Each of them, in turn, tried to move the sun farther away. Each of them failed. Deer, Elk, Wolf, Fox, mighty Bear, even Cougar … none could jump high enough. So too, none of the wingeds could fly high enough either. Raven had reached her limit when she set the sun in its place. Finally, Coyote came to Heca, the vulture chief, who was busy preening his dazzling feathered raiment and asked him to help.
“‘Why don’t you ask Eagle?’ Heca said.
“‘Eagle is busy carrying the prayers of the People to Creator. You are the only one who can do this and your reward for saving us will be great,’ sly Coyote answered. ‘You will be able to eat anything you want. Imagine it. The world will be an endless feast for you.’
“So Heca spread his powerful wings and soared up to the sun. With his head, he pushed the sun away until the world was safe. The resplendent feathers of his wings and body were scorched black and the magnificent plumage on his head, once the envy of all the winged ones, was burned away by the sun until it was gone. Today the heads of all his descendants show the mark of Heca’s sacrifice.
“Heca’s reward was indeed great, but as is often the case with Coyote, not at all as Heca expected. He was able, as was promised, to eat anything he wanted… but only after death had taken it first.”
Standing Elk’s rattle continues to weave a hypnotic susurration around them all without variation. The ancient stones sizzle in the pit.
“Vulture is the purifier,” he says after a time. “He eats the things that would kill other creatures, helping Great Mother restore wholesomeness to the world. Those who do not know his story, or understand him, call him ‘ugly’ and turn away in disgust from the thankless work he does, his part in the Great Circle. On the ground, Vulture doesn’t look like much now, but in the sky, none but Eagle can match him.
“Vulture has come to me many times in my life. He has taught me stupendous lessons of healing and shared with me his gift of far vision. I tell you these things so you will understand that when Vulture came to me in a dream seven nights ago, his message carried iron.
“Vulture showed me a vision of terrible destruction in a place of great darkness, a world made of pieces, and another world in pieces. Unci Maka. This world.
“Vulture told me that he cannot stop this by himself, nor can any of the great animal chiefs help prevent this ruin. He told me that Bear, Horse, Wolf, Eagle, and Raven all believe the balance rests among the People and he now agrees with them.
“He lifted me up and showed me from a great height where I must go to find the answer to this mystery.
“When I awoke, I spoke only that I had dreamed, but left to go to the place I had been shown. Two day’s ride to the west is a place where old stone people stand up out of the ground like a hand. There I sat with my canunpa and waited for Goes In The Center, a distant grandfather who walks with me. He came to me in that place and I was shown what must be done.”
The spellbinding rattle ceases and grandfather calls for the door. Makes Noise is in place and the flap is drawn open without delay. The flow of cool air swirling into the lodge is a luxury and the starry night beyond seems bright to eyes grown large in darkness. Standing Elk calls for the remaining stones but one.
Jonas had not realized how much the previous sets of stones had cooled until the doorflap is back in place and the nine newest grandfathers stand upon the shoulders of those already in the pit, radiating the fire contained in their ancient hearts. Standing Elk splashes water over them.
Jonas is grateful that here, in the complete darkness of the lodge, no one can see him huddling away from the heat, low against the ground where he can draw cooler air from just above the damp earth.
His grandfather’s voice whispers beside his ear, “Sit up, Jonas Two Dogs, and be present. Now it is time for you to understand your path.” He says it in English.
Many Tears begins a gentle heartbeat on a hand drum and Grandfather’s rattle spins up to a sound like running water. Jonas straightens himself into a hot cloud. Standing Elk’s voice cuts through to the heart of the matter.
“The vision I have received and the path that leads through it is shrouded in mist. There is much I do not and cannot know. Goes In The Center has warned me also that much of what I have been shown cannot be told.
“The spirit guides have deep understanding and, in that world, there are no mistakes. Mistakes are something we humans must experience on our own. With luck, perhaps we will survive our mistakes long enough to learn the lessons that will carry us from the head to the heart.”
The sound of swirling water fades away.
“Tomorrow, Jonas Two Dogs will accompany me to the place of the stone circle where he will cry for his own vision. When we return, after he has feasted and rested, he and Burns Red must leave us.”
Jonas is sure he heard that wrong.
“If the breaking of the world into pieces and the end of the People is to be prevented, it is necessary that father and son return to the wasicu world as soon as possible and never return.”
The drumming stops half a heartbeat after the word and a heaviness falls in the darkness without a sound. Standing Elk splashes more water over the stones. The sputter and hiss of water boiling in the bottom of the pit only serves to amplify the hush filling the lodge.
No one speaks. Many Tears weeps.
Standing Elk calls for his canunpa. The doorflap is swept open. Makes Noise hands it in to Tajuska, who passes it to Many Tears, who passes it to Standing Elk. Behind it, a cupped stone. In it are coals from the fire.
Standing Elk cradles his canunpa, snatches up an ember between thumb and middle finger, lays it atop the mixture in the bowl and begins to draw from the stem until the cansasa catches. He plucks out the coal after it’s done its work and drops it without haste into the pit.
The pipe is passed sun-wise around the circle. Twice. Three times.
Jonas draws some of the aromatic smoke and lets it out again without a thought to the nature of the rituals that were old before there were horses on the plains. He doesn’t care. He is empty. A song of gratitude to the spirits for coming among them with their guidance and protection, releasing them again to go their mysterious ways, is sung without Jonas’s participation. He is distant from this place, numb and cold within, despite the enfolding heat.
Later, in his turn, Jonas crawls out of the lodge, stumbles to the creek, and lays in a shallow pool below a riffle. It cradles him in cool oblivion, soothing his reddened skin, washing away tears no one will ever see.
A meal has been prepared when he returns to his parent’s tipi. He wants nothing more than to hold to his mother and comfort her as she comforts him. Instead, Tajuska and Many Tears are there as well. Burns Red is lying on a robe near the guests and both he and Crows are busy with practical matters.
His grandfather, too, is there and, in that moment, Jonas’s stomach is a knot of grief and anger. He pushes away the offered food, even though it smells good. His agitation at the presence of this man who has called down the end of his life among the People is intolerable. He makes to leave and manages only one step in that direction before Standing Elk is between him and his exit.
For a moment, the challenge in Jonas’s green eyes is lightning between them. Standing Elk’s voice is not unkind.
“Stop acting the fool, takoje, as though only your feelings have value. I told you already you must understand your path. You have no choice. Do not let your emotion cloud your judgment. Sit down and eat, Jonas Two Dogs. You will need all your strength in the days to come. We both will.”
Jonas swallows the bitter words in his throat and does as he is told.
His grandfather sits with him, sharing their food, and Jonas sees something in the old man’s eyes as he looks at Crows. It occurs to him that his grandfather feels as deeply as any of them the finality of the separation to come and Jonas understands something he did not know before. His anger has nothing to anchor it and it melts away.
His sleep that night is fitful, visited by worrisome spirits and unnamed fears.
Miss Schultz is standing alone on the prairie. Miles of grass in every direction. She’s decked out in a calico work shirt, heavy trousers and boots, and her hair’s swept back, as always, in a bun as cruel as a hangman’s noose. She’s packing a big Sharps fifty with a cartridge bandolier across her mighty Teutonic bosom.
‘Alone’ may have been the wrong word. She is confronted by a thousand buffalo.
With a feral snarl curling her moustache, she shoulders the plains cannon and takes dead aim at the biggest tatanka in the herd. The hammer falls on the chambered round with a disappointing ‘click’.
Great horned heads turn toward her as one and two thousand dark eyes look into her soul. She shouts at them in a voice shrill as it is proud, “I will not tolerate such impudence from a little animal!” The greatest tatanka of them all exchanges a brief perplexed look with his neighbor, then both lower their horns and lead the charge in. Miss Schultz drops her gun and fouls her drawers.
The image conjures an involuntary laugh that escapes as a sort of bark and snort. Jonas slaps hand over mouth too late to stifle the sound.
This amuses several students nearby and a ripple of laughter quickly develops into a classroom disturbance. Emily Bench, however, is not so easily amused and peers over the top of her spectacles with what she knows to be a stern countenance.
“Jonas, did you have something to add to the lesson?”
“No, ma’am. I’m sorry.”
“Something humorous perhaps about England’s colonization of India?”
A tenuous silence is underscored by an exchange of snickering whispers.
“Dickie! Morgan! Would you two like to sit in front for a while?”
Mumbles of ‘no, ma’am’ from the back of the room.
“Then be still, please.”
Mumbles of ‘yes, ma’am’ from the back of the room.
“No, ma’am,” Jonas says. “There was nothin’ funny goin’ on there.”
“No? Perhaps, then, you would like to share the humorous non-sequitur that caused you to disrupt my lesson.”
That seems like a bad idea. Pretty Mary’s watching him with an unreadable expression, aware that he’s aware of her, daring him, perhaps, to make them all laugh. He gives Missus Bench a sheepish smile.
“No, ma’am. I ‘pologize for the outburst. Won’t happen again.”
Later that afternoon, as books and materials are being put away in preparation for dismissal, Missus Bench wanders among the desks. She stops next to Jonas’s seat and asks him to please stay afterward for a few minutes.
Little escapes notice in this environment. Dickie Barnhart, on his way out with his sidekick in tow, shoulders into Jonas and offers to have “a talk wit ya too when yer doan.”
Jonas shrugs him off and the two toughs exit laughing into the afternoon together, no doubt with mischievous intent. Mary blows him a kiss over her shoulder and skips down the steps, giggling with three of her friends.
With the classroom cleared, Jonas approaches the teacher’s oak desk at the front of the room without apprehension. He can read Missus Bench easily. There’s nothing in her but a kindly woman’s genuine concern. He takes a seat beside her desk and she sets her paperwork aside.
“How is your father?” she inquires without apparent preamble.
“Well as can be. Do you know my father?”
“Yes. I’ve met and spoken with him twice. The first when I was interviewed for this job after your previous teacher vacated precipitously, and again shortly after the New Year. He was inquiring about your progress once I had moved you to the sixth grade level.”
“An’ how am I doin’.”
“I believe you know the answer to that as well as I do, young man. For one thing, I can’t help but notice your speech has acquired even less sophisticated mannerisms, peppered with colloquialisms and frequent grammatical irregularities. I know you know how to speak English better than that. You don’t appear to associate with the young hooligans under my temporary care. I suspect this tendency is rubbing off from those with whom you work after school.”
“I guess I don’t give much thought to how my words come out of late. Hadn’t even noticed I was doin’ it.”
“‘Doin’ it’, Jonas?”
He laughs. “Fellows I work with don’t much speak the English language formal like you or my father do. Given my appearance, they don’t much favor me anyhow. If I come off all high ‘n’ mighty proper with them, it’s asking fer a whoopin’.
“Honestly, Jonas, that sounds like an excuse, not a reason.”
“I began to learn the language of the People before I was introduced to English. Not only are the words different, but the ideas behind the words are different. Father started early teaching me to speak his language, but I don’t…”
Emily watches Jonas search for the right words, content to wait for him to find them.
“I don’t think in English. I can, but most often I don’t. To be truthsome, the—I think the word is ‘vulgar’—language of the common folk seems more natural on my tongue an’ doesn’t tangle up my thoughts in the way ‘proper English’ does with its endless rules an’…” Jonas seems to be searching for an elusive word. “Conturdfictions? No, that ain’t right.”
Nodding, he echoes the word, “Contradictions.” He finds her eyes, holds them for just a moment, and says with a good-natured grin, “Precisely.”
“I suppose I can see your point,” Emily says, “although I cannot wholly endorse it. You made it well, however.”
“I like words. I respect what can be done with ’em. My father is a fine example of what a sharp instrument the language can be.”
“Your father is an articulate gentleman possessing a unique perception.”
“That’s kind of you to say, ma’am, an’ I suppose he’s almost despaired of trying to correct me these days. Guess he’s just happy I don’t speak Lakota in polite comp’ny anymore.”
“I think I can understand that, too,” she says. “However, we have digressed.
“The point I wanted to make was that you are a good student, Jonas. I see you as a well-mannered, perceptive, reasoning young man.” She looks at him straight on now with a serious expression. “These are qualities of someone who can make a difference in our world. I believe you could make such a difference if you continue to pursue your education, despite your…” It’s Missus Bench’s turn to search for words.
Jonas finds them for her. “Inconvenient heritage?”
She turns a wince into a wan smile. “You carry yourself well and that is very much in your favor, but I can see it is an occasional obstacle for you, nonetheless. And for others. How does that make you feel?”
“Wish it weren’t that way. Mind you, I don’t mean that I wish I weren’t who I am, but that it didn’t matter to folk so. Way I figure it, the measure of a man’s not about where he comes from any more’n a cat born in an old oven’s a biscuit.”
Emily Bench’s smile softens her squarish face. It’s a face often considered somewhat masculine that makes her appear a harder, more formidable presence than the gentle soul revealed in moments like this. It’s the face of a mother, if only the temporary mother of other people’s children and, behind her large spectacles, her eyes are kindly, looking always for the best in everyone.
“What do you want to be, Jonas?”
“If by that you mean, do I want to become a man of letters, it seems my path’s leadin’ me elsewhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“You asked about my father. One day it’ll be up to me to keep roof overhead an’ food on the table for us, ‘stead of him. That’s why I work after school now, to put some aside for the day, but I ‘spect it won’t be long before I hafta take on a regular job to make ends meet.”
She’s not ready to give up yet. “You know, even though it doesn’t pay him monetarily, your father has been active in this community. He has a strong sense of civic responsibility and his greatest commitment has been to education. I know he would want you to stay in school as long as you can.”
“I believe you could accomplish great things if you finish your education.”
“Maybe. Maybe great things don’t necessarily wait for paper sayin’ yer ready to take ’em on. Whatever happens, I can only go where spirit leads me.”
Emily opens her mouth, then closes it. She looks at the paperwork shuffled on her desk, sweeps her gaze around the empty classroom, and returns her attention to the young man sitting patiently, waiting for her to remount her argument, but she cannot. Her position is well-intentioned and she knows she’s right, yet she heard his words with clarity. There is nothing in them to refute.
Jonas’s career as a mail rider with William Russell’s glamorous sounding, but often life-threatening enterprise comes to an abrupt end as the Pony Express folds after only eighteen months in operation. Its closure is brought about, in part, by fiscal problems that might have been surmountable, and with unarguable finality by the completion of the continent-spanning telegraph network. Fifty thousand miles of wire connecting points across the nation makes the dangerous ten-day, cross-country journey unnecessary. Meanwhile, conventional mail delivery continues by way of previously established overland and sea routes.
Civil war comes, as his father predicted, leaving Jonas uneasy, weighing his dwindling options. His father’s increasing disability stays him from lighting out as he had intended, distancing himself from a fight in which he has no stake. He feels conspicuous and vulnerable. A growing atmosphere of terror, fueled by credible reports of indiscriminate violence against civilian populations by both sides in the conflict, suggest that an able-bodied young man not in uniform may well be shot on sight out of hand as a suspected guerilla fighter, spy, or deserter.
Some work on a Wells Fargo stage route keeps him mobile for a time at least.
For many years, St. Joseph has been a favorite jumping-off point for pioneers setting out to make new homes in the West. As the war ushers in an era of bitter violence, some folk are prompted to cast their hopes for survival and a brighter future toward the Northwest Territory. Jonas’s father introduces him to Calvin Mortimer, who’s outfitting a party for just such a journey and Jonas signs on as the man’s second assistant and outrider.
Mortimer’s seasoned first goes only by the name Grainger. He’s a knowledgeable, capable hand, but withdrawn and unfriendly. Jonas negotiates a satisfactory pay advance with Mortimer, which he gives to his father to offset living expenses until his return, and sets out in a cold rain one morning in March with twelve families bound for Oregon.
The way has been made perhaps less perilous over twenty years of use, but is nonetheless an arduous six-month journey at best. The terrain is often difficult and the weather uncooperative. Cutoff routes and ferries make navigating the many river crossings far less dangerous than in earlier years and the infrequent Indian encounters, while tense, have been known, upon occasion, to end without hostilities.
Of the fifty-three individuals that left St. Joe in early March with eighteen wagons, forty-two souls arrive at their destination in Oregon City late August.
The return trip with Mortimer and Grainger takes almost seven weeks. Mortimer is pleasant enough company, but Grainger has been barely civil throughout and Jonas gives him little reason to interact.
It is a still, cool, late afternoon on the last leg of their trek through Kansas when they are set upon by a rough and tumble band of seven Confederate raiders.
The first gunfight of Jonas’s life is preceded by an intense visceral thrill as he ‘sees’ the image of the cadre approaching and experiences a kind of heat he will later associate with violent nature and intent. Precious little cover is to be found, a few skinny trees and some low rocks, but nothing substantial.
He knows already the two men with him will not understand or heed his warning, but warn them he does before spurring his mount in a wide, flanking maneuver. When the riders see and advance on them, there is no parley, no truce, and no quarter, only a furious exchange of gunfire.
Jonas is treated to a rigorous, adrenaline-charged education in the art of riding the currents of his Sight when death is riding alongside. Fluid possibilities race behind his eyes, a cascade of images like he’s never imagined. On the one hand, the certainty of a bullet speeding toward his flesh. On the other, choices.
He guides his roan with his knees, shifting out of the path of unforgiving lead and shoulders his Henry rifle. Without even the appearance of attempting to aim, he sends a bullet of his own in reply. One of the attackers is lifted from his saddle and hurled to the ground.
Jonas can hear his companions returning fire, but it seems distant, inconsequential. He is in the calm center of the storm. Conviction and choice blend in an effortless, inevitable flow. More slugs whine past him in slow motion as he weaves the roan through them. Three more times his rifle thunders and four more spirits cross over unprepared to seek their maker even as their bodies tumble into the dry grass.
Mortimer is unhurt, but Grainger is down. Both their horses are down too. Jonas sets out to round up the raiders’ horses while Mortimer dispatches the soldiers he and Grainger brought to the ground before binding Grainger’s wounds.
Later, as he walks among the dead, his dead, Jonas is surprised to find that he feels none of the remorse he thought he might, only an unemotional acceptance of the fact. He feels more regret as he ends the suffering of the wounded animals.
With Mortimer’s help he gathers the bodies into a circle, propped upright with backs together. Fallen weapons are laid in their laps. The remaining horses are relieved of their easily identifiable burdens and tack. Two are resaddled for his companions to ride and the rest are turned out to run where they will. Lastly, as twilight approaches, Jonas withdraws a handful of tobacco from the leather pouch at his belt and casts it to the seven directions. It’s not a blessing to the departed, but gratitude for the Gift that runs in him like a river.
. . .
The following spring, as the Conscription Act is signed into law by President Lincoln, Jonas takes one more trek with Mortimer who agrees to pay all in advance to Jonas’s father before they leave St. Joe. It’s an unconventional arrangement, but Mortimer considers himself to be Daniel’s friend and understands Jonas’s concern for his father’s health and upkeep. Besides, the Wagon Master entertains no doubts about Jonas’s loyalty, his value as a second, or his aim.
Grainger will not be joining them on this trip, having lost an arm to the injuries he sustained.
The fellow hired on in his stead is young, strong, and in a hurry to depart. A months ago, he’d been a foot soldier in the Confederate Army defending the rebel-held city of Independence. A skirmish there, one of many, he says, left him helpless to staunch the wounds of his best friend who died sobbing in his arms. Jonas recognizes Morgan O’Brien immediately, of course, but the sneer and the aggressive schoolboy posturing have long since been wiped away.
Morgan will drive a mule team pulling a smaller supply wagon. It’s Mortimer’s innovation, outfitted mostly with materials for wagon repair, tools, some general-use items and four outboard water barrels.
Only eight families and twelve wagons have converged in train this time and the way is beset with difficulties, both natural and mechanical.
Experiences of many previous parties has shown that drinking the water along the Platte River section of the Trail is almost guaranteed to visit a deadly outbreak of cholera on the travelers and Mortimer has taken adequate precautions. Consequently, there are no losses to disease, instead the unforeseen becomes the leading cause of attrition. Misadventure and acts of God take the fore. The party is plagued with breakdowns and accidents.
Jonas will ponder many times upon the unfortunate fact that he’s not always permitted to see what’s about to happen to someone else. This small detail is illustrated vividly as the party’s making what would seem to be an unremarkable river crossing on the Lander Road through the mountains of Wyoming. Mortimer’s decision to take the shorter route to meet the main Trail at Soda Springs in Idaho also means negotiating a rugged series of passes and fording the Smith Fork of the Bear River before making the final ascent through the Salt River Range.
The watercourse appears swift, but suitably shallow and seven of the nine wagons remaining of the original dozen make the crossing without incident. Following them is an ox-drawn prairie schooner with a grim-faced Quaker named Jeremiah, crusty patriarch of the Buckmaster clan, perched high on the seat urging his four reluctant beasts into the rushing water. Jonas is helping two small girls across to join their parents when the realization comes and he knows it’s already too late for him to influence the outcome.
The wagon has strayed, for whatever reason, from the line taken by those that went before. The oxen plunge into an unseen drop-off and, trapped in their harnesses, flounder wildly for footing.
Buckmaster is scared, flailing the traces, and hollering unintelligibly.
Mortimer, on the farther shore, wheels his horse and dashes forward to assist.
Jonas is too far away to do other than shout a warning to Mortimer and give his mount heels, provoking the gelding to greater speed toward the shore where he literally drops the children in the arms of their mother. He spins the roan and kicks it roughly toward the commotion.
Mortimer is just coming alongside the wagon from the rear as the oxen thrash in panic against the current in the hole. Jonas lets out a piercing whoop in an attempt to catch Mortimer’s attention, wave him off, or at least slow him down, but his warning is lost in the rush of the water and the shouts of fear and alarm from both shores. One of the oxen in the rear of the team’s already drowned, but two in front gain sudden purchase and heave in a new direction, jerking the wagon abruptly to the side and into the deeper water.
The sharp snapping sound of a wheel breaking apart seems to arrow through the commotion. The current does the rest. The wagon slews crazily and pitches over onto its side taking Mortimer and his horse down underneath. Only the old Quaker bobs to the surface at last, slapping the water wildly, unable to swim. Jonas plucks him up and hauls him to the shore where he stands gasping, looking dumbly at the deadly wreckage.
It takes Jonas, Morgan, and several other men the remainder of the afternoon and into the night, working in the frigid, swift-running water by the light of kerosene lanterns, to extract the wagon and replace the wheel with one from the supply buck. Numbed with more than the cold, Jonas receives, by virtue of his prior experience on the trail, the responsibility as Wagon Master.
Mortimer’s body is buried the following day in a stony cairn overlooking the ford that took his life.
The party plods on toward their destination in a series of what seem painstakingly slow, but otherwise uneventful steps. Mortimer’s maps and the rambling directions of an old-timer at Soda Springs bring them eventually to the Applegate Trail and at last into southern Oregon.
The terminus of the journey is the thriving little hillside township of Ashland Mills, maybe a day’s hard ride from a placer mining community called Jacksonville. Jonas collects the Wagon Master’s salary, pays Morgan double what was agreed and wires the rest to his father in St. Joe.
By first light the next morning, he’s gone without any polite God-be-withyas, pressing his roan to a brisk pace northward. Elder spirits are calling him to the ancestral home and he must answer.
General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox marks the end of the Confederacy. A few weeks later, President Jefferson Davis is apprehended by Union troops in Irwinville, Georgia. It’s probably no coincidence that barely six months after the curtailment of hostilities, Jonas is seated in a cane-back rocker on the porch of his father’s modest home in St. Joseph, sipping lemonade from a tall, sweaty glass.
Although Daniel is now wheelchair bound and his health failing, his demeanor remains unfailingly affable. His delight in his son’s return and welcome company is immeasurable and, for one timeless afternoon, he is able to glimpse through his son’s eyes a land of unsurpassed, haunting beauty he has dreamt of, longed to see, and never will.
With deliberate care, Jonas’s account is framed in the most evocative language he knows, paced with the same measured cadence his grandfather used when storytelling. That familiar rhythm, almost forgotten across intervening years, is not lost on Daniel and for a time, carried along on Jonas’s narrative, he is completely immersed in another world.
Jonas tells him of rugged hills and wide valleys blanketed in forest, skirting mountains swathed in mist. In them are trees older than the People, standing in silent groves, solemn observers to the passage of seasons uncounted. They reach so far into the sky that clouds hang in their branches.
Woodlands give on to crystalline pools and surprise lakes, some of them so broad they might be inland seas, and none of them more unexpected or wondrous than the one cradled in the caldera of a primordial volcano, miles across, unfathomable, impossibly blue.
Wild rivers gouge out deep defiles on their way to meet the cold Pacific Ocean. Within these raging courses, salmon the size of ponies leap and surge against the currents to fulfill a compulsion only slightly newer than the stones that define the riverbanks.
From the high desert to meadows bursting with riotous colors to secret shaded bowers festooned with moss, laced with ferns, and guarded by granite sentinels, the terrain is so exquisitely alive, teeming with four-leggeds of every size and kind, birds of every description and color, and the whispers of the old ones in the wind; there are barely words in any language to convey the wonder and complexity of it.
Jonas recounts every remembered detail, transporting Daniel to the world of his beloved wife’s lost people. In the end, tears stream down Daniel’s face. It is drawn and pinched by persistent pain, but they are not the tears of his physical torment.
They fall from great dark curtains hanging heavy over wooded mountainsides.
They splash from rock face, leaf and twig, and percolate through the accumulated carpeting at the feet of ancient Standing People.
Trickles, minute rivulets, congregate and confer, bubbling and tumbling into streams, filling pools so deep and pellucid they seem to be still…
Until, having rested, they spill over and come rumbling down through natural flumes cut from native stone, racing, thundering in brilliant turquoise churns and through canyons carved with their irresistible force.
Quickening to meet others like themselves, their singular might multiplies, widening across verdant valleys, no longer rushing, but pressing onward.
Seeking always that one indisputable finality, Daniel’s tears merge with the endless sea.
It is a gift no one else could have given him.
The day his body is laid in the ground in St. Joseph, Missouri, a small ceremony is attended by a solemn, square-jawed woman of middlin’ years, and a long-haired, hard-faced cowboy with green eyes. Danny’s personal journals will be bound in an oilcloth, packed away in the cowboy’s saddlebags. Nothing much will remain to mark Danny’s passage, other than an intricate quillwork medallion woven with careful, calloused hands onto the modest stone cross above his grave.
Jonas is the last to arrive for supper at the Wright House dining room.
The only wrinkle in an otherwise agreeable afternoon came as he was taking his leave of Miss Cordell’s establishment. He almost ran smack into that pipsqueak, Squirrel, coming in still on the prod and mean as a snake. The young man had words for him as he shouldered past into the parlor, though none of them nearly ruinatious of Jonas’s generous mood.
“Mind yer bits an’ pieces, Rubin,” he said. “There’s at least one in there plenty meaner than you think you are.”
Inside the restaurant, all but two members of the MacDee outfit are at hand and in high spirits. Several display recent familiarity with the barber’s craft and the scent of lilac water’s present among them as well. Mister Ashby suggests restraint of their boisterous inclinations while dining in this fine establishment, so’s not to embarrass themselves or Mister Kunkle directly, nor Mister MacDonough by association. Agreed and, aside from the occasional hoot and horse-laugh, the level of commotion from their table near the back of the dining room decreases appreciably.
The anticipation of revelry to come is a powerful appetizer, evidenced by the swift demolition of a platter of starters with nary a break in the jovial discourse. Jonas’s new shirt elicits comment, an equal number of compliments and barbs, as expected. Luis Montes is among the former, running the fabric of the bib, buttoned all the way up formal-like this evening, through his fingers and, in his fractured English, asks Jonas if “they es mas like these one”.
“Lo siento, Luis,” Jonas replies, “Ellos no tienen mas como este.”
“Ah,” Luis sighs with obvious disappointment. “Todo esta bien, hermano.”
Jonas catches Jubal’s eye across the table and asks, “Where’s George?”
“Wasn’t my turn ta watch ‘im.”
“He’s back at the camp with Foo Que an’ the dogs,” says Leland. “George says he didn’t have a good time in Topeka or Abilene and didn’t figure he’d have a good time here neither. Him an’ Foo ‘re keepin’ eyes on the wagons an’ remuda.”
Leland’s head swivels to follow a waiter delivering pie to a nearby table. “Me, though…” he says, “I am smack-dab where I b’long.”
Chap, giving Jonas a knowing wink and an elbow jab, says in an uncharacteristically low tone, “You are one lucky sonofabitch, ya know it? I knowed you was a chopper, but… Miss Faith Fine-as-cream-gravy Cordell?” He shakes his head as if clearing cobwebs and shoves thick fingers through the worn-out, wiry pot scrubber that passes for hair atop his freckled head. “How’djoo manage that?”
“Lucky. You said it.”
“Well…” The imp muses briefly whether or not ‘luck’ is an injin concept, decides he has no idea and, finally, inquires. “Well?”
Chap gives him a goggle-eyed look of anticipation. “Well?!”
“I got a hot bath and a shave.”
“Bullshit. I know I heard you whoop once.”
“She dropped the soap and had trouble findin’ it again, okay? Leave off it now.”
Mister Kunkle, resplendent in what appears to be an expensive tailored suit with a silk choke-strap, has taken over Budge’s father-figure role for the evening. He has something called an ‘aperitif’ brought in for everybody and Mister Ashby stands to offer a toast.
“Boys, I’ve worked in a lot of places and run more’n a few outfits in my day. This here’s the finest bunch of drovers I ever seen. I’m proud of every one of ya and here’s to ya – even if ya do smell like a field o’ damn petunias.” Glasses are raised all around amid murmurs of approval.
Each man around the table stands and takes a rough-hewn crack at finding some heart-felt consideration suitable to the moment before emptying his own glass.
Leland seems slightly embarrassed at finding himself next in rotation without a moment to summon something witty to say.
“I used ta know a clever toast that now I can’t recall. So raise yer glass ta anything… and, uh… let’s drink until we fall. Howzat? Cheers, boys!”
Shakespeare it isn’t, but glasses lift and a wave of nods and chuckles circles the table.
Stick’s moustache and beard have been trimmed and waxed in the style of a Southern gentleman, to the point that several of the men have taken to calling him “The Colonel”. He clears his throat and, contrary to his typical laconic style, he stuns his cohorts with an extemporaneous rhyme.
“We’re gathered here for supper. When we’re done we’ll have some pie. Then head on over to the Lone Star and drink that damn place dry.” Hoots go up, hushed as Stick raises a hand for silence. “You’ll choose the sweetest little thing to cut a caper, or you kin try. But I’m purty today. I’ll steal ‘er away. An’ while I do it, here’s mud in yer eye!”
His own glass lifts in salute to a chorus of approving laughter that appears to startle some of the more genteel diners nearby.
Budge says with a wide disfigured grin, “Damn, son. You know ya just strung together more words at one time than I’ve heard ya say in the last three weeks.”
“He’s a ding-danged poet lariat!” Leland proclaims, making both Jonas and Kunkle laugh out loud, each perhaps surprised that Leland was capable of conceiving the pun. Kunkle regards Jonas as if seeing him for the first time
The amusement subsides and Jubal’s voice rumbles up from the depths of his personal torment.
“Been thirteen year since the end of the war made me a free man. Free man…” He sighs with a kind of resignation. “There ain’t no ‘free man’ with skin like this. Free, mebbe, ta go from killing Rebs to killing them that’re worse. Savages what ain’t really even human beings… no offense to you, Jonas, or yourn.”
“… in hopes that I could trade their lives fer some respect. Never got me any, though, an’ lost all it for myself in the bargain. I got to be a good killer, but I weren’t ‘free’.”
Chaps voice fills Jubal’s pause with a stage whisper, “Free enough ta make the most de-pressin’ toast ever in the in-tire history o’ drinkin’.”
“Shut up, ol’ woman. I’m almose done.”
“Hurry up ‘fore I start bawlin’.”
Jubal gathers up the raveled thread of his earlier thought. “Fact is, I do know what a free man feels like. Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all’ve never treated me like anything other’n that, an’ I’m grateful for it. Might sound strange comin’ from me, but… God bless Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all for giving me a place to find what I needed the most.” He lifts his glass to the group with a bleak half-smile. “Guess I could’a jist said that at the git-go, huh?”
“Amen and hallelujah!” Chap sounds off in agreement. “Next!”
The Montes brothers stand together. “Es esta una fiesta, o un funeral? Nunga guardes nada para una ocasion especial. Estar vivo es la ocasion especial! Mucho gusto!” They drain their glasses in unison.
Voices keen to be out from under the tombstone of Jubal’s near-demoralizing offering, including Jubal himself, endorse the sentiment, echoing, “Mucho gusto!” and turning heads, once again, their way.
Newell has chosen to husband his money for a stake in a card game later on and his appearance, relative to his peers, is rough. “I ain’t much at speechifyin’,” he admits. “I jist came to eat. Thank ya, Mister Kunkle.” He empties his glass and waves off.
Jonas’s offering is simple enough. “I was taught that life’s a circle. It don’t often seem like it, but if it is, we’ll meet up again. An’ if it’s not… well, it’s been a good ride with you fellas anyhow. I’m grateful to know ya.”
Glasses raise around the table in what, for most of them, will be farewell. Seems someone told them he’d be gone tomorrow before any of them regained consciousness.
“Mitakuye oyas’in,” he says. Obligatory drink down the hatch and seat of his new britches in the chair, he bids the round continue.
Chap stands, all five foot two of him. He lifts his glass high and says in a fervent voice, “Gentlemen, here’s to the hole that never heals!”
Gathered together in this jovial company, it’s as if the long days, the punishing miles, the unforgiving weather, and Chap’s “breakfast sausage” count for nothing today weighed against this carefree time. Besides, Kunkle’s paying. Not to mention the hours of unrestrained debauchery to follow because, you know, there’s also that.
Before the wave of merriment dies down, Leland leans across the table and, with what might be a serious expression, confides, “I saw one all sorta scabbed over once.”
Chap leans Leland’s way with an equally solemn look, tufted eyebrows lowered, like a physician hearing a patient describe his symptoms. “Didja doink it anyway?”
Funny how abruptly silence can descend upon a group. Leland’s mouth opens and closes. His eyes drift away from Chap’s and begin to search the table to find everyone hanging expectantly on his reply. His cheeks flush and his lips move as though forming words, but no sounds come out. He gives Chap a little shrug and shakes his head. “‘Fraid to.”
Chap’s barking guffaw is joined in chorus by the majority of those assembled. Mister Wright, the proprietor, completes a dignified beeline across the dining room and politely requests a curb to this wild exuberance. Mister Kunkle placates him and he goes away.
Order restored, Kunkle pours another round, then stands and waxes poetic about how lucky they all are to be in cahoots with a fine man like Calum MacDonough, which they all know, and about the nobility of the hard-working cowboy, which they really don’t, although they are pretty clear about the ‘hard-working’ part. Bein’s as how he’s Mister MacDonough’s partner and everything, and it is his treat, after all, everyone at the table keeps a buttoned lip while he wanders off on a side trail after some maverick thought or another. Then the food arrives and his exposition tails off, replaced by a stirring chorus of knife, fork, and spoon music.
The waiters cart in platters of buffalo steaks the size of cow chips, mashed potatoes floundering in gravy, corn and peas, both of them tender and sweet, and biscuits so light they resemble nothing so much as hot, flakey little clouds, fluffy goodness crying out to be slathered in butter.
Stick holds one of them up real careful-like so’s he don’t crush the delicate little morsel and calls across the table, “Hey, Chap. These here’s differn’t from them lead sinkers you been servin’ up the last few weeks.”
Chap levels a baleful squint at the humorist. “They’s nothin’ to ’em. Got no substance. A man could starve plumb to death eatin’ ’em.”
Chuckles around the table.
“Anybody else care to make a bright comment ’bout my cookin’, you’ll all be eatin’ nothin’ but whistle berries an’ sonofabitch stew on the road back.”
Dining sounds resume and subsequent conversation turns to non-grub related topics. The meal is superb, but otherwise uneventful.
As the last of the plates are being cleared away, Mister Kunkle offers cigars around to those that care to partake. Most oblige. Jonas doesn’t smoke. Someone suggests that the party move on to Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, a fashionable saloon just down the boardwalk a piece. The ‘aye’s have it and the board is abandoned in favor of a more exuberant venue.
The Montes brothers take their leave, heading toward the somewhat less cultured pursuits of the south side and pass, henceforth, from our ken.
The evening sky is overcast, the air still and humid with the promise of another thunderbuster, a common enough occurrence in this country. The familiar bouquet of smoke, liquor, and dust mixes with the pervasive stench from the stockyards, almost obscuring the characteristic aroma of muggy air beginning to electrify.
Jonas feels the gradual charging of the atmosphere and observes the influence it has on the men around him. It manifests as a quickening of the step, a keen-edged, if unfocused excitement. He’s wary of this sort of enthusiasm. Mixed with a sufficient amount of alcohol, it can lead to all manner of disturbance of what some refer to as “The Peace”.
Such wariness has always served to keep him out of the kind of trouble that often leads to either incarceration or lead poisoning, either of which will spoil a perfectly good evening.
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