Excerpt of Snow Mountain Passage by James Houston
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Somewhere in Nebraska
They have been following the sandy borders of the Platte through level country that changes little from day to day, an undulating sea of grasses broken here and there by clumps of trees along the river. Jim Reed likes it best in late afternoon, the low sun giving texture to the land, giving each hump and ripple its shadow and its shape, while the river turns to gold, a broad molten corridor.
He likes being alone at this time of day, with the mare under him. He wears a wide-brim hat, a loose shirt of brown muslin, a kerchief knotted around his neck. His trousers are stuffed into high leather boots, and his rifle lies across the saddle. He has been scouting ahead, in search of game, and now, as he takes his time returning, his reverie is interrupted by the sight of another rider heading toward the wagons. As the man and horse draw nearer, Reed recognizes him and calls out.
The German is not going to stop, so Jim overtakes him.
"Keseberg, hold on! What are you carrying there?"
"Something for my wife, to help her sleep a little easier."
Jim rides in closer. Two shaggy hides are heaped across the pommel. "Looks like buffalo."
"Indeed it is."
Jim has not seen a buffalo for several days. Keseberg isn't much of a shot, in any event, nor could he have skinned a creature for its hide, even had he somehow brought one down.
"May I ask where it comes from?"
"This was a gift."
"From a dead Indian. The best Indian is a dead Indian. Isn't that what you Americans say?"
Keseberg seems to think this is funny. His mouth spreads in a boastful grin.
"Some say that. I do not."
"But surely you will agree that these are fine specimens."
Keseberg is a handsome fellow, with penetrating blue eyes and a full head of blond hair that hangs to his collar. Knowing that he crossed the ocean less than two years ago, Jim is willing to make allowances. He wants to get along with this man, though he does not like him much. They will all need one another sooner or later.
"Have you had much experience with Indians, Keseberg?"
"As little as possible."
"If these robes come from a funeral scaffold, you'd better put them back."
His smile turns insolent. "So you can ride out later and take them for yourself?"
"When I want a buffalo robe I will trade for it, not steal it."
"And in the meantime you would leave these out here to rot in the sun and in the rain."
This remark seems to please Keseberg. His face is set, as if all his honor is at stake and he has just made a telling point. Clearly he has no idea what he has done, nor does he care.
Jim looks off toward the circle of wagons, which are drawn up for the night about a quarter mile away. He does not see himself as a superstitious man. He sees himself as a practical man. Stealing robes from a funeral scaffold is simply foolish for anyone to try, given all they've heard about the Sioux. It nettles him; it riles him. He does not like being snared in another man's foolishness.
Near the wagons he sees animals grazing, children running loose, burning off the day's stored restlessness. Women hunker at the cooking fires. His wife will soon be laying out a tablecloth wherever she can find a patch of grass. "We're going to stay civilized," she will say to someone, once or twice a day, "no matter how far into the wilderness we may wander."
Such a poignant scene it is, and all endangered now by the thoughtless greed of this fellow who pulled up to the rear of the party on just such an evening and asked if he could travel with them. George Donner had met the man briefly in St. Louis before they crossed the Mississippi. At the time Jim had no reason to protest. Keseberg is young and fit, somewhere in his early thirties, and he is not a drifter or a desperado as some of the younger, single riders have turned out to be. He looks prosperous enough. He has two full wagons, one driven by a hired man. He has six yoke of oxen, two children, a pretty wife. She can barely speak English, but Keseberg speaks quite well for one so recently arrived. He is something of a scholar, too, knows four languages in all, or so he claims. The other German travelers have welcomed him, and so has Donner, whose parents come from Germany. Jim has never had any trouble with Germans. But he sees now that he is going to have trouble being civil to Keseberg. Rumors have been circulating that he beats his wife. This is why she wears so many scarves and bonnets, Margaret whispers, even on the warmest days. Jim shrugged this off at first. Now he wonders. Into Keseberg's eyes has come a look that seems to say he is capable of such things. Defiant. Selfish.
Excerpted from Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston Copyright 3/27/01 by James D. Houston. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.