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CHAPTER 18

 

 

SOUTH PASS AND BACK ...............................................WINTER 1823. -FALL 1824

None of Jedediah Smith's trappers would ever forget wintering with the Crow nation in the Wind River Valley into the spring of 1824.

At first James Clyman regarded the Crows as elegant enemies. Most were tall, powerful, handsome people. Warrior and squaw showed infinite care in the braiding of colorful ornaments into their long hair. Their buckskins were often white with embroidered quills as comely as any art Clyman had ever seen. He envied their physical perfection and ornamental clothes. They walked erect and looked directly into his eyes like no others ever had.

But Clyman despised guarding his belongings every second to keep them from being thieved by the Crows, or Absaroka, as they styled themselves. Clyman wore his Green River butcher knife in the back of his belt to keep it clear of his rifle loading. One foggy December morning, he walked between the lodges, straining to see if visibility was good enough up on the crags to hunt mountain sheep. A subtle tug at the back of his belt brought his nimble hand clamping about a small wrist.

Clyman turned, expecting to see terror in the handsome Crow face that went with the wrist, but saw resignation instead. He stripped his butcher knife from the squaw's mitten. He wanted her told never to steal from him again. Since Edward Rose was a Chief and virtual god to the Absaroka, he hauled her by the arm to Rose's lodge. Rose bade them enter and Clyman explained why they were there.

Edward Rose commanded the Crow woman to remove her fur robe and sit. Clyman had never seen a more beautiful person. Chee-ho-carte growled at her, freezing her smile to shame. She peeped a few words then stared at Rose's floor embellished by elaborate white mountain sheep skins. Rose barked at her again, and she squeaked her replies.

Rose turned to Clyman, "She is Bright Elk. You have your knife, so what is it you want of me?"

"Tell her not to steal again."

Rose sneered, "Tell the wind not to blow. Tell the moon not to rise. Tell a Crow not to steal! Are you mad? Robbery is their life. Their most ancient Absaroka motto is 'Rob, but never kill, for if you kill a man, he cannot return to be robbed again'."

"She should be punished for stealing," Clyman argued.

"Should I beat her -- what?"

The lodge was hot. Clyman shed his buffalo coat. Bright Elk pressed her hand over her nose, then jabbered to Rose.

Edward Rose seldom laughed for it was not kinglike, but he could not choke back his squeals of glee. "She says you stink and your clothes died long before you were born."

"Good, she can make me some new clothes. That'll be her punishment!"

Rose relayed the punishment and Bright Elk hissed a flurry of Crow curses.

"Bright Elk says she should have stolen something far more important to you than a knife for such a bad-tempered punishment."

"She did. Tell her she's stolen my heart."

"She stole what?

"Just tell her."

Rose shook his head, then uttered Clyman's message.

Bright Elk's glowering faded to puzzlement then bloomed into a beauty Clyman had never imagined -- not even in one of these handsome people. She dropped her eyes and spoke quietly to Rose while Clyman cursed for ever exposing himself to such embarrassing rejection.

Rose peered at the floor. "She does not like your idea. Making all your clothes cannot be justified for stealing a mere knife. As to theft of your heart -- she says if she can wash you -- she has a way of making you want her to keep it -- so there will be no punishment at all."

****

Cut Face Sublette was not used to Jedediah Smith losing control of himself. Jedediah's hands shook as he grated, "I know the weather's too bad to leave, but if I stay here one more day, I'll kill Ed Rose!"

"Why?" Sublette asked, amazed at this death sentence from a man who read the Bible mornin' and night.

"Life's not easy for a man like me, Sublette. When you shoot another man, it's because you had to. You make peace with yourself and go on. I'm smothered by Exodus, Chapter 20, Verse 13 or Deuteronomy, Chapter 5, Verse 17."

"I ain't quick ta shoot nobody. Bothers me plenty, and I ain't that good at scriptures."

"I'm too good at them! Both verses say Thou shalt not kill."

"Why you wanna kill Ed Rose?"

"Major Henry warned me Rose'd swindle us. None of us speak Crow. We're Rose's prisoners! Rose is their graven idol! When I talk with Rose, he lords it over me that he must be consulted on all things and that his word is law. Price for his approval goes higher each time. He's robbing us of trade goods and supplies. Next he'll take the plews. What happens when we have nothing left?"

"Take the word of St. Charles' ex-Constable. You kill Ed Rose now an' the Crows solve that crime -- they'll be nothin' left o' us but our tracks!"

Jedediah's fist smashed his palm in an unbiblical manner.

"I ain't sayin' we oughta stay, Jedediah. I jist say we use our heads 'stead o' leavin' our scalps on a Crow lodge pole."

Jedediah laid his hand on William's shoulder. "Sublette, just do whatever it takes. Let me add one more burden. General Ashley's orders were to find a pass through the Rockies -- a pass that will open the way west -- the way the Cumberland Gap opened the Appalachians. When we leave here, we should head in the right direction to find that."

Sublette chuckled, "You want me to jump Rose fer stealin', then quiz him bout some empire-openin' mountain pass fore we sneak off? You forgettin' it tuck 15 men to hold Rose down when Manuel Lisa fired him fer this same thing?"

"You'll find a way, Sublette. You're a man who sees what needs to be done -- then does it -- like you shot the Grizzly!"

"All right, Jedediah. You ain't gonna shoot Rose. If it comes to that, I'll shoot Rose. They ain't no verse numbers on my boot pistols."

Next morning Sublette met Clyman in a snowy pine grove. They watched their breaths collide as they whispered in the chill mountain air.

"I can't go, Sublette. I've spent my life alone as a solitary farmer, a backwoods soldier and a lonesome surveyor. I read about love in Shakespeare, but till now, I was never spiritually intimate with another soul. To me love was a myth -- a single night's snow sculpture that melted at sight of the sun. Bright Elk's mine every day. I can't leave her."

"We don't git outa here, Jedediah's gonna kill Ed Rose. He does zat, them Crow're gonna kill you an' Bright Elk if she squawks while they're takin' yer ha'r. Ask her about a pass through the Rockies."

Tear-shine brightened Clyman's eyes. "I knew we'd have to leave here someday. You know we'll freeze. Too early to grope for some pass in 20 foot snow drifts. Don't speak enough Crow to ask where this mountain pass is or understand if she tells me."

"You know Bright Elk's lingo er ya wouldn't be standin' inna best lookin' white buckskins ever wore by a unemployed surveyor. We leave friendly-like, nothin' says you cain't come back, Jim."

"You just put me in mind how I got topographical information out of Indians when I was surveying! Took 'em to the sand pile!"

As Sublette and Clyman plotted, Bright Elk waded snow with 20 bullets from the pouch of her man to Keeps-the-Pipe-of-the-Thunder-Spirit. She'd asked him to cast a spell on Always Smiles, so he could never leave her. The seer said Always Smiles must soon go to the mountains with the beaver-killers but would come back to her lodge for the birth of their son -- if she did not tell him the boy was on the way now. She cried for joy.

Bright Elk knew the prophet had spoken truly when she arrived at her lodge. Always Smiles had made many mountains on a buffalo robe with the white sand from the quiet waters.

After bringing both her cousins to move the mountains for Always Smiles, she knew he would be back as the prophet promised. Her cousins showed Always Smiles how to circle the south end of the mountains and cross to the Seeds-kee-dee-Agie River. When they left, Bright Elk cast her own sensual spell over Always Smiles. Their son would be called Mountains of Sand.

William Sublette asked Edward Rose to meet him at Mountain Sheep Point at noon the following day to discuss a way to make both their lives better. When Edward Rose arrived at the snowy precipice, he discovered a worn possibles bag under a rock ledge and opened it, finding a handwritten note:

"Dear Ed -- Enjoyed riding & hunting with you this year. If you take yer sweet time gitting back to yer lodge, we will all be gone & you & me will be hunting together next year. You come back to quick, one of us is going to be real lonsome on the hunt next year.

Cut Face"

****

After carefully following Clyman's directions, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Thomas Fitzpatrick and James Clyman gathered on the wind whipped hills of the 8,000 foot South Pass.

Jedediah Smith yelled a prayer into the gale winds, "Thank you, Lord for helping us find the place for wagons of our brethren to pass west over these grand mountains of Yours in days to come. Amen."

And in almost the same breath Jedediah added to Clyman, "I'll need your help with the map of this pass to include with my letter about South Pass to General Ashley."

Jedediah Smith led them through the pass where the wind driven snow howled in swirling fury. Treeless South Pass afforded them no shelter amid snow drifted higher than their horses. Their puny sage brush fires blew away in sweeping red arcs that quickly went black in the arctic blasts.

As they shivered around their empty fire pits, Clyman longed for the warm glow of Bright Elk's lodge. Icy as he was outside, he was far colder inside. Love's insidious flaw was the greater your joy together, the worse your pain apart.

Sublette loaded and fired faster than the others with fine accuracy up to 100 yards. Clyman was their master marksman at 200 yards with his long rifle. Jedediah sent them hunting, but winds howling off the mountain glaciers drove the game animals to ground before them. Even when they shot a snow-stranded buffalo the men couldn't keep their fires from blowing away. They devoured the meat raw before it froze too hard to chew. They ate snow for water and so did their horses, but it didn't slake their thirst. Clyman discovered that if he tomahawked a shallow depression in creek ice to channel his bullet's force, he could bring up fresh water for man and horse.

They reached the Big Sandy River, then followed it to the Green River where they cut dead willows and feasted on cooked buffalo for the first time in a month. Jedediah licked his fingers and checked his small force over. Most appeared gaunt but fit. "It's mid April. If we split up here, we can scout twice as much territory and still trap plenty of beaver when the streams flow again. I'll take Sublette and five men. Fitz, you take Clyman and the other three. We'll trap out these streams then all rendezvous on the Sweetwater at the end of June."

As the snow receded, Clyman's group trapped many fat beaver and shared their carcasses with a family of Digger Shoshone. But when the Shoshone left one night, the trappers' horses left with them. Undaunted, they trapped through the first week of June, dug a hole, cached furs and traps, hung their saddles in dense trees and left to rendezvous with Smith's men.

About noon the hiking trappers came face to face with six mounted Shoshone on a gentle ridge. "Fitz, those thieving Diggers are riding our horses!" Clyman yelled.

"And what would ye be doin' about it?" Fitzpatrick asked, his own anger rising.

"Aim your rifles, charged or not," Clyman replied, watching four rifles come to bear on the startled Shoshones. "Fitz, sign to 'em to get off our horses or die on top of them." Reading four rifle muzzles, the Shoshones slid off the horses even before Fitz signed Clyman's message to them.

Once remounted, the trappers found it easy to control their horses with Shoshone war bridles, amounting to a long rein with the middle tie-looped around the horse's lower jaw. They herded the Diggers to their nearby camp and repatriated the rest of their horses from 18 surprised horse thieves.

Driving their horses, Fitzpatrick's men returned to their cache, unearthed their furs and rescued their saddles and bridles from the trees. But some kept using the Shoshone war bridles. By mid June they rode east along the Sweetwater River toward the Platte with no sign of Smith's party.

They stopped for a meal of jerked buffalo meat. Fitzpatrick grumbled, "Never seen so much shallow water in me life! Jim, head east till you reach water deep enough to float these furs in bull boats, but don't stray past the North Platte. Stop soon's ya find deep water and we'll catch up. Jedediah'll be with us by then. We'll shoot buffalo to make the boats."

Jim cautioned, "Fitz, watch out for grizzlies flushing moose calves from willow thickets. I'm plenty low on thread!"

Clyman shadowed the shallow Sweetwater for three days till it flowed into the Platte. Picking a dense willow thicket, Clyman cut a lodge space, then gathered driftwood for a fire.

But before Clyman could strike flint, he heard voices. He struggled to the edge of the willows, then froze. A war party of 22 Indians milled about across the Sweetwater. He hoped they'd water their horses and ride on, but they started four fires.

In the twilight, Clyman couldn't be sure if the war party was Arapaho or Cheyenne, but with all their feathers, lances and paint, they were too riled to let them see him.

Around midnight two horses crashed through the puny Sweetwater. Many horses followed. In minutes all were back and the angry braves began to torture the fugitives with fiery embers. Clyman wanted to know if the martyrs were trappers, but couldn't see them among the yowling warriors.

Clyman palmed his ears, but the victims' screams forbade sleep. Suddenly he recalled how soft the moon-lit ground was around his thicket. It'd hold his tracks like snow. Taking only his rifle, bullet pouch and powder horn, Clyman backed out of the thicket till he reached rocky ground, then waded the Sweetwater and listened in horror to the shrieking till it ceased at false dawn.

Clyman laid low under a ledge for over a week, eating roots, a frog and nearly a dozen small bird eggs. Each time he tried to leave, he cut fresh Indian sign and went back to ground.

While Clyman hid, Jedediah Smith prowled the willow thicket and found Clyman's things. Jedediah prayed fervently, for he had no doubt Jim was dead at the hands of the Pawnee who'd camped there, leaving human finger bones strewn in two of their fire pits. Jedediah trotted into the sun along the Sweetwater to float the bull boats in waters swelling from melting snows.

After 12 days, Clyman figured his friends'd been butchered by what he now knew to be Pawnees. He'd wait no longer. Civilization lay to the east, but he didn't know how far.

Having lost his horse while in hiding, Clyman took only the gear he could carry. He had plenty of powder, but only 11 bullets in the pouch that swung from his neck when there should have been 20 more. He couldn't fathom what'd made 20 bullets vanish from a pouch drawn so tight.

Clyman trekked along the North Platte. To his surprise, Clyman found a slashed bull boat on a sand bar by a grove of trees. From the boat's construction and the tracks about it, he knew it'd been built and beached by trappers. But the sandy beach was also gouged by deep Arikara tracks, so Clyman, scared to death again, slipped by down the North Platte's bank.

Secreted from the Arikara in a hollow stump 20 feet from the bull boat the very moment Clyman sidled past, lay panting Hugh Glass. Hugh and three trappers landed their bull boat to find food, but found Arikara instead. Now two lay dismembered in the brush, while Hugh's eyes darted about for the missing boy. Hugh felt sure young Brian had been the one captured from the sound o' his screams for mercy.

The Virgin was testin' Hugh. Ever since he'd left new Fort Henry to give that black-hearted Fitzgerald his due, he'd been plagued by torment. This was the third time he'd been attacked by the Arikara in a single year. Wherever he tread, they lay in wait to take his life -- if not them, the grizzly.

Bereft of rifle and belongings, Hugh headed northeast for Fort Kiowa on the Missouri, the closest Army post. Fitzgerald might have stopped at Fort Kiowa, even if he gallivanted on to Fort Atkinson as he'd told young Bridger. If Fitzgerald tarried at Fort Kiowa, he might still be there!

Often driven across the prairies at a run by his zeal for revenge, Hugh devoured the 300 miles to Fort Kiowa in two weeks, foraging off the land like a varmint. But there was no John S. Fitzgerald at Fort Kiowa, so Hugh floated south with a party of traders down the Missouri to Fort Atkinson.

Crouched in the bow of the boat, Hugh Glass rejoiced at sight of the huge American Flag whipping in the morning sun over Fort Atkinson. It marked the end of his quest for the traitor Fitzgerald. The trader's boat still drafted three feet of water when Glass floundered ashore, dashing into Sixth Regiment Headquarters.

Bracing the stocky First Sergeant behind the scarred desk, Hugh blurted, "Have a message from Fort Henry for one John S. Fitzgerald who shoulda joined here last winter."

Without a word, the mustached Sergeant stalked from the Orderly Room. Soon a quiet, balding Captain with wire rimmed spectacles eyed Hugh, "I'm obliged to tell you that one Fitzgerald, John S. did join this Regiment December past and shipped out from here the instant April."

"Where'd he go?"

"Not obliged to say," the Captain said resolutely. "Mr. Glass, everybody on this frontier knows you're looking for the men who left you to die. Some even want you to find them. I don't. You've been through enough. Kill a soldier on a military post, and you will be shot by a firing squad. Though bullets will free you from the sentence of your own vengeance, I believe merciful words can do the same. If you look at my insignia, you will see I wear God's crosses, not crossed rifles or sabres. I release you from your mission of death and absolve you of your blood oath. Go home, Mr. Glass. Just go home!"

Hugh Glass stumbled from the stifling office. He settled on the split log bench outside it, put his mangled face into his hands, and wept. It was over.

****

Clyman beheld wild horses gliding through the wind, their manes and tails streaming out like wings that would soon let them fly. A bounding white stallion with a black blaze flaming the length of his face whinnied fiercely, halting the heaving horses to steam in the cold air.

Clyman thought if he could graze the stallion's head with a bullet, he could stun it enough to loop the strap of his possibles bag around its lower jaw as a war bridle. He aimed his revered rifle with great care and fired. The stallion's head whipped, and he collapsed with the bullet in his brain. Clyman wanted to mourn this classic beast with its nostrils oozing blood, but he was too swamped with sorrows, so he simply walked on.

Husbanding his bullets, he shot buffalo, then cut out his lead and reshaped it with his teeth for another shot.

Two months later, on plains devoid of buffalo Clyman spied a Pawnee village. His mind said not to approach it, but his growling stomach won the argument. Four gleeful Pawnees used him for sport, knocking his fragile body about with the shoulders of their ponies until he fell unconscious under their hooves.

When Clyman awoke, he found they'd taken his heirloom rifle, blankets, ammunition, firesteel and flint and haggled for the privilege of taking Clyman's scalp. He hadn't had a haircut since he'd left St. Louis. He'd lost his hat in the first battle with the Arikara, so his dark hair'd grown long and wild. He signed to them to take his hair instead of his scalp.

The Pawnees took turns hacking off handfuls of Clyman's hair with a dull butcher knife. His agonized thoughts toyed with Shakespeare's Brutus plotting the death of Julius Caesar: To cut the head off and then hack the limbs ... Let's carve him as a dish fit for the Gods, not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds. Finally, only patches of hair like pinfeathers on a chicken adorned his head.

The fun-loving Pawnees paid him two handfuls of corn for his hair and kicked him repeatedly until he staggered east across the prairie. He was thankful Bright Elk had not witnessed his disintegration as a human. He couldn't believe he'd ever even known her. Not any more. She must have been a dream.

A horse's bleached thigh bone became Clyman's weapon. He bashed the skulls of two brawling badgers, and ate their maggoty carcasses as he wandered eastward along the Platte.

One bright dawn, James Clyman saw the Stars and Stripes being raised above Fort Atkinson. Dry, soundless sobs rasped in his throat. His 600 mile, 80 day odyssey ended when a scouting detail hauled his limp body to Fort Atkinson's Infirmary and left him to die.

But two days later James Clyman sat up on his cot as another detail brought in two pitiful creatures once known to Clyman as Fitzpatrick and Branch. Fitzpatrick could only croak through cracked lips, so he pointed to his possibles bag. Clyman opened it and found a letter addressed to General William Ashley in the fine hand of Jedediah Smith. Realizing, they'd likely all die soon anyway, Clyman opened the letter.

Jedediah's letter was too long to be read aloud by a man near death to other men barely breathing, so Clyman just recited its last eloquent sentence. "The Upper Green streams are rich in fine quality beaver, and through South Pass, found once more, the gateway to the West lies open so that one day wagonloads of our families and friends may join us here among the snow capped towers of God.

Your Obedient Servant,

Jedediah Strong Smith"

Clyman's ragged voice dropped to a whisper," I didn't realize what South Pass was till I read this letter. Jedediah sees bigger than most men."

Fitzpatrick gasped, "The man's an explorer."

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