- hold your left hand ahead of you, fingers together, right hand against your chest.
Strike your left palm with the edge of your right.
Christmas Eve, 1805
Sleet pierced the air like volleys of arrows. Having
already eaten their horses and with packs nearly slack, the party looked like Romani
in their rags as they stumbled up the crooked mountain trail. The little one,
strapped to his mother's back, nestled his head into the curve of her neck.
Needles of ice stung his cheeks, and the salty tang of the yet-unseen ocean
that his mother called Paakate tickled
But Baptiste was not to giggle or cry, his
mother, Sacagawea, whispered. He was to keep silent, be invisible - a
lucky, if forgettable, witness to the great expedition to the Pacific.
He squeezed his eyes shut to hold his tears. The
ground began to shake with the drum of approaching hooves. Suddenly his mother
stopped short, and Baptiste opened one eye to see Captain William Clark hold up
"Keep back," Clark ordered. "Leave this to me."
The explorers stood and watched a hunting party
of thirty Chinooks arrive. Their leader slid gracefully from his horse.
Baptiste could tell that the young numah
standing at the head of his men was a threat. With a deliberate grin the brave
displayed his teeth, carefully filed to resemble the bone points used to spear
salmon and hares.
Baptiste watched Clark's Adam's apple rise and
fall as he took a dry swallow and stepped toward his interlocutor.
Clutching his spyglass as if the lens could
still keep his guests at a distance, Meriwether Lewis slunk into the shadows
behind Clark and the interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau.
"I figure we can get away with half a dozen of
those gewgaws," Clark said and bit his bottom lip, as was his habit. From a
leather satchel his sergeant pulled six strands of the blown-glass Venetian
beads they'd been issued by the Department of War to dazzle the savages.
"Yes, sir," Sergeant Gass said. "That's a pretty
impressive knife he has."
It was a fishing knife, big enough to make short
work of a halibut.
Clark's lower lip was bright red now, an oddity,
in this thin air almost a sexual accoutrement.
"Watch his face, not his knife," Clark said.
But Sacagawea watched only Clark, with deep
admiration. Her husband, the drunken Charbonneau, waited with stark raving
disinterest. York, Clark's manservant, held his breath so his neck swelled like
a tree toad's. Lewis took a second imperceptible step backward.
"Don't anyone move," Clark said. "Just let him
walk around us for a while. He has to sniff us like a cur. See how his warriors
are tense but he is relaxed?"
The Chinook glided within three inches of the
six-foot, red-headed Clark. Though he stood half a foot shorter, the brave's
conical grass hat made him seem nearly as tall. The blue clay smudged on his
high cheekbones was much like the a vee
Sacagawea had seen her father and uncles wear. A silver British dragoon's
gorget swung from his neck on a strand of white shells. At the ready on his fur
vest was a string of large, bone fishhooks. In spite of the cold, he wore
nothing below his thigh.
"What could he want?" Captain Lewis, behind
Baptiste now, whispered.
"Tell him we have brought things of great value
for him," Clark said firmly, keeping an eye on the Chinook but nodding to
Private Labiche, who translated in French to Charbonneau. Receiving the message
in Hidatsa, Charbonneau's wife relayed it in Shoshone to the young brave, who
made her repeat it three times before he shook his head and spat.
"Just give him something, quick," said Lewis in
a bleating voice that did him and the party no credit.
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