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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.
"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."
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.
Where do they come from? Where are they going?
From the Hardcover edition.