On the ride out, Keseberg refuses to speak. The sun is setting as they come upon the scaffold, about a mile from the wagons and near the bank of a small creek winding toward the Platte. There are other signs of recent encampment, ashes, close-cropped grass. The scaffold is made of four slender poles stuck into the earth, supporting a platform of woven branches lashed with thong. Laid out upon the platform are the remains of a chief. Feathers fall against his black hair. His shield and lance are with him. On the bare soil beneath the scaffold, bleached buffalo skulls are arranged in a circle.
As the two men sit on horseback regarding the corpse, the wind around them gradually falls off. Across the prairie Jim can see wind moving, but right here the nearest grass is still. The surface of the creek is slick and motionless. The sky is suddenly sprayed with crimson, while underneath its gaudy panorama, the space in front of them seems lit by some separate and brighter column of afterglow. On his arms the hairs rise. Under him he feels the mare tremble.
He instructs Keseberg to wrap the robes across the corpse exactly as he found them, to duplicate the look as closely as he can. As he watches, holding both sets of reins, the horses begin to twitch and rear, as if another animal is nearby. Jim squints toward a grove downstream, sees nothing.
All four are eager to get away from there, the men and the horses. As they lope toward the wagons, Keseberg still won't speak. At last Jim says, "Before we set out tomorrow I'll call a meeting of the council. I'm going to propose that you be expelled from the party."
He waits. When he hears no reply he turns and sees the blue eyes inspecting him with scorn.
"You have put the lives of everyone at risk. But we may be less at risk if you fall back. Do you understand my meaning?"
Keseberg's voice is low and harsh. "I have never been spoken to like this."
"Well, I am speaking to you like this. I know George Donner will support me. You can resist, if you choose, but I assure you that others on the council will agree. In this wagon party you are no longer welcome."
"You are going too far," says Keseberg.
"Maybe you'd rather leave tonight and avoid an embarrassment. It's your choice."
"I believe in discipline, Mr. Reed. But you have gone too far."
In a dramatic burst of horsemanship, Keseberg spurs ahead, kicking up a long plume of dust. Jim gives him plenty of room, lingering in the twilight, to let the dust plume settle, and let his own blood cool down.
a few more minutes pass. From the deep grass beyond the clearing, a Sioux brave sits up on his haunches and watches them ride away. He wears a buckskin tunic, arrows in a quiver. He creeps close enough to touch the robes and sniff around the edges. There is a faint white smell. Nothing has been cut or marked. He has never seen such a thing. If the Pawnee had stolen these robes, they would never bring them back. They steal for the insult. They scatter the skulls and throw the body down and defile it.
Who are these men? He could have killed them both and taken their scalps, first the one who held the horses, then the bright-haired one whose scalp would be highly prized. He could have gone back with the scalps and reported that he had found the thieves. But now they have returned the robes. Why? It is very strange. What kind of people would do this, take away the buffalo skins, then bring them back?
When he can no longer see the men, he stands for a long time listening. Voices come toward him on the wind, distant sounds of women and children. In the near-dark their fires light the sky. It is a village. A village of tents that move. All day he watched them passing along in their white tents. Between one rising and setting of the sun he has seen four villages of white tents, and many horses and many animals like the buffalo, with sharp horns, and men who drive the animals but do not shoot them, though some carry rifles. Are they warriors? They do not have the look of warriors.
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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