The Last Crossing

The Last Crossing

by Guy Vanderhaeghe


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The Last Crossing is a sweeping tale of breathtaking quests, adventurous detours, and hard-won redemption. Englishmen Charles and Addington Gaunt are ordered by their tyrannical industrialist father to find their brother Simon, who has gone missing in the wilds of the American West. Charles, a disillusioned artist, and Addington, a disgraced military captain, set off to remote Fort Benton on the edge of the Montana frontier. The brothers hire the enigmatic Jerry Potts, a half Blackfoot, half Scot guide, to lead them North, where Simon was last seen. Addington takes command of the mission, buying enough provisions to fill two wagons, and hires sycophantic journalist Caleb Ayto to record the journey for posterity. As the party heads out, it grows to include the fiery Lucy Stoveall, Civil War veteran Custis Straw, and saloonkeeper Aloysius Dooley. This unlikely posse becomes entangled in an unfolding drama that forces each one of them to confront personal demons. Told from alternating points of view with vivid flashbacks, The Last Crossing is a novel of ruggedness and salvation, an epic masterpiece set in a time when worlds collided, were destroyed, and were built anew.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802141750
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/15/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 221,006
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Last Crossing

A Novel
By Guy Vanderhaeghe

Grove Atlantic, Inc.

Copyright © 2002 G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8021-4175-7

Chapter One

CHARLES GAUNT I let myself into the house, stand looking up the stairs, turn, go into the study, pour a whisky and soda. Today's mail is waiting, envelopes on a salver. My man, Harding, has laid a fire, but I don't trouble to light it. I leave my ulster on, stand sipping from the tumbler with a gloved hand, staring at the day's letters.

I know what they are. Invitations. Invitations for a weekend in the country. Invitations to dine. More invitations than I am accustomed to receiving. Now people court me. Queer old Charlie Gaunt has become a minor, middle-aged bachelor celebrity. Even Richards and Merton, long-time acquaintances with whom I dined tonight in the Athenaeum, did not allow my new eminence to pass unremarked. For years, I was never anyone's first choice as a portrait painter, never admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, only very lately handed the privilege of sporting the initials a.r.a. after my name. Merely an Associate. Tardy laurels finally pressed upon an indifferent brow.

The highest praise ever bestowed by my fellow artists was to say I ought to have been a history painter, my rendering of marble in oil paint was as exquisite as Alma-Tadema's. Cosgrave, with a picturedealer's disdain for the truth, once described me to a dewlapped matron as a "court painter." By that he meant I had doodled up a portrait of a demented claimant to the throne of Spain (of which there are legion), a sallow-complexioned fellow who sat in my studio morosely munching walnuts and strewing the floor with their shells. I cannot recall his name, only that he wore a wig, but never the same wig twice. This led to an indistinct element to the portrayal of His Catholic Majesty's coiffure which mightily displeased him.

But now, the mountain comes to Mohammed. Artistic success won in an unexpected quarter. The dry old stick Charlie Gaunt publishes a volume of verse. Love poems, no less. For months, much of London society has been mildly engrossed in tea-time speculation about the identity of the lady of whom I wrote. A small assist to sales. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Times was laudatory and the Edinburgh Review kind in a niggling, parsimonious Scottish way.

Yesterday, I ran into Machar, the Glasgow refugee, outside Piccadilly Station. He was arch, and I was short with him.

"We hadn't guessed, Gaunt," he cooed. "I mean the book - that's a side of you we hadn't suspected."

I challenged him. "You've read it, have you?"

"Haven't had time to read it yet. But I bought it."

He was lying. If he had it at all, it was borrowed from a lending library. "Well," I said, brandishing my stick to hail a passing cab, "then you don't know what you're talking about, do you, Machar?" I showed him my coattails, spun off without another word.

One of the envelopes on the tray attracts my eye, addressed by an unfamiliar hand and bearing a Canadian stamp. Inside, I discover a newspaper clipping already a month old.

The Macleod Gazette July 17, 1896



Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. Jerry was a type, and a type that is fast disappearing. A half-breed, with all that name implies, he had the proud distinction of being a very potent factor in the discovery (if it might be so called) and settlement of the western part of the North West Territories. When Colonels French and Macleod left their worried, and almost helpless column at Sweet Grass in '74, after a march of 900 miles and a vain search for the much vaunted "Whoop-Up" it was the veriative accident of fortune that in Benton they found Jerry Potts ...

My eyes skim the remainder of the obituary, settle on the last paragraph.

Jerry Potts is dead, but his name lives, and will live. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and "faithful and true" is the character he leaves behind him - the best monument of a valuable life.

The indestructible Potts dead. The news excites a pang of melancholy despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him for a quarter-century. Yes, faithful and true he certainly was. And now, apparently famous too, after a fashion. Jerry Potts, how unlikely a candidate for renown.

Wondering who could have sent me such a notice, I peek into the envelope and dislodge a small piece of notepaper, a few words scrawled on it in pencil. There is something you must know. I can only tell it to you in person. I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw.

The shock of the name turns me to the window. In the square below, street lamps are shedding an eerie jade light which trembles in the weft of the fog.

It seems I am asked to perform at another's bidding, just as I did more than two decades ago when my father set my feet on the Pasha, 1,790 tons of iron steamship breaching the Irish Sea, bound for New York.

Twilight, the ship trailing scarves of mist, the air wet on my face. Standing at the stern, damp railing gripped in my gloves, sniffing the fishy salt of the ocean, gazing back to the blurred lights of the river traffic plying the mouth of the Mersey.

The land slowly vanishing from sight, retiring at ten knots per hour, as the screw boiled water and I stood, one hand clamped to my top hat to hold it in place, and peered down. Alone. The other passengers had gone to dress for dinner. The propeller frothed the water, beat it white, the ship's wake a metalled road pointing back to England. The breeze freshened, the skirts of my frock coat fluttered. Sailors cried out, preparing to raise auxiliary sail. Chop clapped the sides of the vessel, pale veins of turbulence in the dark granite sea. A first glimpse of stars, their salmon-pink coronas.

Deferential footsteps behind me, a smiling steward had come to announce dinner was served. I shook my head, "Thank you, I shall not dine tonight." The puzzled steward's face. Thirty guineas passage, meals, wine included, and the gentleman does not wish to dine tonight?

Not when I preferred to gaze upon what I was leaving, to recall those figures in the Ford Madox Brown painting, The Last of England. A young couple in the stern of a boat, holding hands, faces sombre, the white cliffs of Dover sentimental in the distance, the ties of the woman's bonnet whipping in the wind. A lady flying from England just as Simon, my twin brother, had fled it.

Beneath my feet, the deck of the Pasha lurched, grew more and more tipsy with every minute that passed. Yet that unsteadiness was nothing to how unbalanced I feel now, staring down into Grosvenor Square, wondering what has prompted Custis Straw's blunt and peremptory summons, what it means.

Chapter Two

Out of the black inkwell of the night sky, incongruously, a white flood poured. Fat flakes of lazy snow eddying, sticking like wet feathers to whatever they touched. Simon Gaunt, waking with a start, discovered himself seated on an inert horse, becalmed in a storm. For the briefest of moments, mind a blur of white, he searched for a name. Seized it. "Reverend Witherspoon!" he shouted. "Reverend!"

Nothing answered, nothing moved except for the palsied snow.

Since dawn, Witherspoon had been driving them to the brink of collapse. In London, Simon Gaunt had not recognized the danger of that side of Witherspoon, the reliance on iron rules. Cited like Holy Scripture. When journeying one must never halt until wood and shelter are obtained.

But here, on a barren tabletop plain, wood and shelter were a figment of the imagination.

Press on, my boy.

As the October dusk drew down, Simon had argued desperately for making camp. But Witherspoon would not hear of it; the imposing face that ecstatic love could render soft as soap in London was now cast as hard as an Old Testament prophet's certainty. We shall not yield to adversity.

So on they went, deeper and deeper into bewildering nightfall, Witherspoon flogging his mare until he opened a safe ten yards, a cordon sanitaire between himself and the weak-kneed naysayer. Ten yards to symbolize the moral gulf separating master and disciple.

The last thing Simon could remember before falling asleep was the Reverend's broad shoulders rocking side to side like a wagging forefinger, reproving his feebleness, admonishing his sloth.

How long had he slept?

"Reverend Witherspoon! Reverend Witherspoon!" The snow drowned his cry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Witherspoon had ridden on and Simon was alone. A cold clinker of fear settled in the grate of his belly. Lost. He lashed his horse into a trot; the gelding submitted for a hundred reluctant yards, then faltered, came to a complete standstill.

How dreadfully cold it was. A breeze sprang to sudden life and his cheeks, wet with melting snow, stiffened at the icy touch. The wind panted, flakes swirled, thickened. Twisting in his saddle, Simon strained for a glimpse of Witherspoon hastening to gather the lost lamb, some darker blot in the darkness of night. The blizzard was strengthening, slapping at horse and rider; he could feel the gelding's mane fluttering against his hands clamped to the reins.

Bouncing his heels on the gelding's ribs, he urged it to resume an unwilling shamble. The gusts were growing fiercer, snow was biting at his face like flying sand. He ducked his head and watched the drifts unroll beneath him, a white scroll of vellum, luminous in the dim light.

The scroll stopped. His hat sailed off. Dismounting, Simon rifled the saddlebag, found his old Oxford scarf, bandaged his burning ears with it, knotted it under his chin. Wind keened through the weave of the wool. Never had he known such cold; it drew heat out of the body like a leech draws blood. Forehead, eyes, cheeks ached from the frigid, sucking mouth.

Weariness overwhelmed him, dropped his forehead heavily against the horse's flank. He let it rest there. Just a minute. Only a minute. Then he would move. Go on. The gelding's rump was crusted with ice and snow, so was Simon's beard. Raking his fingers through it, he plucked away clots of ice, trying to pray. "Lord God of Hosts," he began, but his thoughts were lost in the roar of the storm, brain nothing but a puddle of numb slush. Falling back on memory, he recited from the Book of Common Prayer. "'O most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below,'" he mumbled. "'Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring ...'" His voice ebbed away.

It was no good. He dove back into the saddlebag, fingers turned to pincers by the cold, and grappled a tin, pried away the top. The wind caught the lid, tore it from his hand, kited it off into the howling night. He patted, crooned and clucked, feeding the exhausted horse his shortbread, trying to kindle in it a little strength to continue on.

The gelding shied when he tried to remount. Somehow Simon snagged the stirrup with his boot and clambered aboard, weeping when the horse once more stubbornly stalled, beating its neck with a fist. But then it swung its head, put the wind to their backs, moved off hesitantly. With the blizzard whipping its hindquarters, the gelding broke into a lope, then a wild staggering gallop, heaving like a storm-driven ship. Simon tasted long white streaks of snow, smears on the chalkboard of night, as his brain jerked from spot to spot on his body, probing. Face dead, a slab of wood. Fingers dead. Twigs.

Latimer, bound to the stake, had said to the chained and sobbing Nicholas Ridley beside him, "Play the man, master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."

He would have welcomed to burn like Latimer now.

The horse gave a grunt, stumbled, fell in slow, dreamy increments. Simon became a boy again. His father had bought him a ticket at the London zoo for a ride on the camel. The dromedary was lowering itself to earth, in stages, a complicated, groaning piece of machinery, settling to its knees, sinking.

Pitched headlong, Simon lay in a pillow of snow, listening to Ridley screaming in the flames.

No, not Ridley screaming, the horse. He staggered to the fallen gelding. It was trying to rise on three legs, the fourth was horribly broken. Lurching up and falling back, lurching up and falling back. Simon caught the head stall, pulled the beast down and squatted on its neck, bringing to an end the terrible struggle. The horse stared up at him. Its eye a coal-yoked egg.

He placed his hand over the eye. His brother Addington had smashed a lot of hunters' legs. Addington, merciless rider. Long ago, a boy of ten, he'd seen one of the victims of Addington's recklessness destroyed. The gamekeeper delivered the coup de grace while Addington and his fox-hunting friends drank whisky in the house. The callous cruelty of it had made him sob miserably, displeasing his father. "Buck up," Father had commanded him.

Left hand blinkering the eye of the horse, Simon reached for the knife sheathed on his belt. Less a knife than a small, bone-handled sword bought in Fort Benton, a bowie knife the Americans called it.

He told himself, "The Holy Ghost reads hearts."

When he sliced the throat, a tremor ran down the horse's neck, hot blood scalded his hand. The weary horse did not take long to die.

Whimpering, Simon huddled against its belly, cringing from the wind. His hands were alive with needles of agony; when he slipped them down the front of his pants to warm them, he felt the gluey blood on his privates.

There was a hymn - it skipped about his brain before he heard himself singing. "'How mighty is the Blood that ran for sinful nature's needs! It broke the ban, it rescued man; it lives, and speaks, and pleads!'" Blood running for sinful nature's needs. Living, speaking, pleading. To rescue man.

Simon scrambled to his knees, knife upraised. Drove the sixteen-inch blade into the horse's chest, sawed the belly down to the legs. Guts spilling, a thin steam sifting out of the lips of the incision. Plunged his hands into the mess of entrails. Tore away, scooping offal behind him, hacking with the knife at whatever resisted, whatever clung. Moaning, hunching his shoulders, drawing his knees up to his chest, wriggling away at the mouth of the wound, he burrowed into the balmy pocket.

O precious Side-hole's cavity I want to spend my life in thee ...


Excerpted from The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe Copyright © 2002 by G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Last Crossing 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Last Crossing is one of the most beautiful, moving books I have read this year. The action centers around a series of inter-related quests - for a missing brother, for love, for revenge, and for reclaimed dignity. Each of the major & minor characters in the book is drawn with such precision and feeling that the action often seems foreordained or a by-product of their natures. The language and tone of the book recapture the feel of a stately turn-of-the century novel. The exposition is told from the perspectives of each of the characters in turn - a device that might seem to be confusing but in Vandehaeghe's hands is marvelously compelling and right. ----The main plot of the book centers around Englishmen Addington & Charles Gaunt seeking their lost brother on the northern plains in the late 19th century. Their entourage picks up various others on the way, each of whom is seeking their own release on the journey. The ending is a shocking, yet fitting, climax to these various strands. --- This book is beautifully written and packs a powerful punch. The book is not yet available in the States but is well worth seeking out from Canada.
mapconsultant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very good book! Plenty of interesting characters, all well developed. A fast paced adventure story set in the old west.A lot of interesting historical information including a real life chacacter named Jerry Potts whom you can read about on Wikipedia.
dougwood57 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Young Englishman Simon Gaunt, religious zealot, has gone missing in the Old American West (specifically Canada). Dear old dad Henry, the overbearing so-and-so, sends older brother Addington and Simon's twin Charles in search. These folks put the `dis' in a dysfunctional family. Addington, a self-centered martinet, loves only himself and his pleasures and timid Charles, an aspiring artist, seems not to know what he wants. They hire Jerry Potts, a real-life Canadian frontiersman (Vanderhaeghe is Canadian) to help find Simon and meet up with a collection of society's castoffs and loose ends and form an odd posse. To some readers, calling this book Western literature might be a put off or a putdown - I happen to love Western writing (A.B. Guthrie and Larry McMurtry to name two) - so let's just call it literature set in the Old West. Vanderhaeghe is a tremendously talented writer. Highly recommended for fans of Western literature or just fine writing of any kind.
davidabrams on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While reading Guy Vanderhaeghe's novel of the Old West, The Last Crossing, you might want to slip a little mood music into your CD player: a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, perhaps¿something with a lonely harmonica, a chorus of whistles that sound like coyotes, or a rousing crescendo that climaxes with the crack of a bullwhip. The Last Crossing is a widescreen, big-landscape novel populated with rough, grimy characters who'd feel right at home in a western movie¿with or without spaghetti. Yet, Vanderhaeghe's novel is more than a sage-and-saddle yarn filled with cowboys and Indians; it's a saga about family ties, class prejudice, and failed ambition. On some levels, it's Middlemarch with chewing tobacco. Originally published in Canada two years ago, it's only just now making its way south of the border after garnering awards, hitting the bestseller list and being picked as the "Canada Reads" book. Though parts of the novel are set in Saskatchewan, The Last Crossing is an American tale through and through. Thirty years ago, Hollywood might have turned it into a John Wayne movie¿the eyepatched, cynical Wayne of the Rooster Cogburn era, that is. The tale opens in 1871 as English aristocrats Charles and Addington Gaunt are sent by their father to find Simon, another brother (and Charles's twin) who has gone missing somewhere in Montana territory. Simon, always the odd sheep of the family, has come to America on the coattails of a religious fanatic who hopes his missionary zeal will bring light unto the dark-hearted Indian tribes of the frontier. When the hapless Reverend Witherspoon is found dead after a blizzard and Simon is nowhere to be found, the worst is feared. Nevertheless, the two brothers continue their quest, which eventually brings them to Fort Benton in Montana Territory where they meet the rest of the book's large cast of characters: Lucy Stoveall, abandoned by her husband and vowing revenge on the men who raped and murdered her little sister; Custis Straw, a shell-shocked Civil War veteran who is hopelessly and foolishly in love with Lucy despite the fact that he's eighteen years her senior and she rarely turns an eye in his direction; Aloysius Dooley, saloonkeeper and Custis's faithful friend; Caleb Ayto, a journalist who's hired to turn Addington Gaunt's exploits into legend; and Jerry Potts, the half-Blackfoot, half-Scot guide who will lead them north toward Fort Whoop-Up in Alberta as the party searches for Simon. The Last Crossing is told in shifting perspective¿sometimes in first-person (Custis and Charles), sometimes in the third-person point-of-view. Most of the characters move through the story trying not to get swallowed up in the panorama of history. As it turns out, Potts is a real historical figure, a legend in the annals of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who still revere him for his tracking and diplomatic skills. Described on a RCMP website as "a short, bowlegged, oddly dressed man who rarely spoke more than two words together," Potts leaps off the pages as the novel's most interesting character. Less interesting are the Gaunt brothers, though Vanderhaeghe sets them up for some Shakespearean-level conflict. Addington is eight years older than Charles and Simon and has always treated them with a cavalier disregard. Their mother died giving birth to the twins, turning Addington's heart against them or, as his father remarks, "It must have put the worm in the apple." That worm continues to turn as Addington and Charles venture deeper into the American frontier. While Charles just wants to find his soul-mate twin, Addington has other ambitions. As Charles tells us: With every day that passes, it is brought home to me ever more clearly and discouragingly that my brother regards the search for his own brother as nothing more than an opportunity to exercise his taste for outdoor life and adventure. He is a character in a boy's book. Indeed, haughty Addington rides around with delusions of self-grandeur, drea
maneekuhi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Last Crossing by Vanderhagie is very good, 4 stars, maybe 4.5. It's the second in a trilogy recently completed, where much of the action takes place in the Canadian West, in the case of TLC, Alberta. It is long, has an epic feel to it, but comes in at "only" 400+ pages. The story begins and ends in England. A father sends his two sons to 1870's Montana to find the twin of the younger brother. Simon is discovering himself, led by ex-con Rev. Witherspoon. There are many excellent, lengthy passages which make this book a joy to read including a funeral, boxing match, a showdown in a cave while rescuing a damsel in distress, a Civil War battle, a grizzly attack, Indians fighting Indians (but not settlers ! - this is few years before Custer's Last Stand), finding the brother, discovering who killed Madge via the belt clue, and finally Charles's big surprises. My biggest negative is that there are times when the story drags a bit and gets a bit too British. I will probably read at least one more book in the trilogy (different characters in each book).Completed 10/23.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great "western" story set partially in England, but mostly in the American and Canadian West in the second half of 19th century. The characters range from English landed gentry to petty criminals roaming the West, and include farmers, Métis and Indians.Overall, a great unsentimental, but romantic and colourful picture of the times peppered with tales of love, great adventure, hardship and violence.
saskreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I appreciate Vanderhaeghe's talent and vision for this story, but I just didn't like it very much. I found it really tough to get past the first few chapters, and didn't particularly like any of the characters. Some books have really stayed with me over time, but this one was unfortunately largely forgettable.
KWR57 More than 1 year ago
excellent historical fiction. a great read. I highly recommend it to all readers of fiction, historical or other wise.
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Guy Vanderhaeghe is one more example of a hidden Canadian treasure. This highly evocative tale ended much too soon. This one goes on my short list of all-time favorites.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and their interaction with one another as told by this author. Unpredictable and compelling I looked forward to getting down to it and finding Simon. I read for entertainment and I was not disappointed. I particularly liked the characters speaking in first person, I felt I knew Lucy Stovell and understood her. What a woman!
Overby More than 1 year ago
The entire beginning is written in three and four word sentences. Over and over. And over and over. So boring, I only lasted a few pages and tossed the book, so I don't know (or care) what the rest of it was like.