"Mr. Keseberg, these robes are not yours to keep."
"Nonsense," he says.
Jim's color rises. "They have to be returned!"
With sudden gaiety that could be a form of mockery, Keseberg says, "My God, man! The sun is going down! The day is done! My dinner will be waiting!"
He gallops away toward the wagons, sitting tall, as if he is a show rider in a circus troupe.
By the time Jim catches up to him, Keseberg has dismounted and is holding high one of the long robes for his wife to see, speaking endearments in German as he presents her with this gift, for his sweet one, the companion of his heart, for his dearest Phillipine. In front of her he has turned boyish, a schoolboy bringing something home for his mother, and she is smoothing down her skirt with nervous hands, as if preparing to throw this robe around her shoulders. She wears a bonnet, though the sun has nearly set, and she wears a scarf wrapped around her neck, while above the scarf her cheeks are flushed with happiness.
Half a dozen emigrants from other wagons have stopped whatever they were doing to watch, and you might think a fiddler has just touched bow to string and these two are about to dance the prairie jig wrapped together in a buffalo robe. She is like a girl at a dance. He is laughing a wild, high, adolescent laugh, as Reed climbs off the mare.
"Keseberg, you idiot!"
Turning to the small circle of observers, with his hands thrown wide, Keseberg says, "Why is this man calling me a criminal?"
"You are a criminal! Dammit, man. If the Sioux come after us, you and I will be killed, our wives will be taken, our children too!"
He is shouting. His eyes are wide and fierce.
Someone calls out, "Hey Jim, what's got into you?"
"These are burial robes! But Keseberg thinks they belong to him!"
"Better him than the Indians," one fellow says.
"Haw haw," laughs another.
"I don't know," says a third. "Wouldn't mess with them Sioux."
"Me neither," says someone else. "Ain't worth no buffalo skins."
"I wouldn't mind pickin' off a brave or two," the first fellow says. "Whatta we got rifles for?"
"I think Jim is right. Maybe you'd pick off a few, but you wouldn't live to tell the story. Any way you look at it, we'd be outnumbered a hundred to one, and don't you think otherwise. It ain't worth it. I'd get rid a them hides right now."
A dozen more have joined the circle, and the commentary spreads into a noisy debate. Some envy Keseberg's trophies and are content to stand feasting their eyes on his handsome wife, imagining how she will look inside the wagon relaxing on these soft, seductive robes. Others grasp the full weight of this predicament, among them George Donner, an elder in the party, with the look of a patriarch, his face wide, his jaw firm, his hair silver. Though often regarded as a leader, he lacks Jim's eagerness to take command.
Donner listens a while, then looks at Keseberg. Quietly he says, "Jim is right. You ought to do what he says, Lewis, and the sooner the better."
Now Keseberg cannot look at his wife, who has been mystified by all the turmoil, her eyes darting wildly from voice to voice. She understands enough to fear that her new possession will soon be taken from her, and she clutches the robe to her chest. For the German this is very hard medicine, but he respects George Donner. "All right," he says. "All right. I will do it first thing in the morning."
Jim says, "We'd better do it now."
Keseberg puffs out his chest and begins to prance back and forth, slamming a fist into his palm, pop pop pop, as if he has been condemned to the firing squad and has now been denied his final request.
"And I'll go with you."
"I said I'd do it!" Keseberg cries. "My word is good!"
Jim says, "You'll need someone to hold your horse."
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.
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