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by Richard S. Wheeler

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In this powerful biographical novel, Richard Wheeler—winner of the Owen Wister Lifetime Achievement Award and five Spur Awards—tells the amazing tale of the American explorer and hero, John Fremont, and his attempt to find a railway route to the west along the 38th parallel.

Trapped in the snowbound Colorado mountains, Fremont must fight his way out.


In this powerful biographical novel, Richard Wheeler—winner of the Owen Wister Lifetime Achievement Award and five Spur Awards—tells the amazing tale of the American explorer and hero, John Fremont, and his attempt to find a railway route to the west along the 38th parallel.

Trapped in the snowbound Colorado mountains, Fremont must fight his way out. He battles the frigid elements in a harrowing journey over the backbone of the continent. In this tale of desperate danger and fierce courage, Wheeler presents the reader with a survival saga par excellence—a struggle of man against man, man against nature, man against himself—and a novel you will never forget.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A haunting novel about hubris and its consequences.” —Larry McMurty, Pullitzer Prize winning author of Lonesome Dove, on Snowbound

“One of the greatest Western writers around today.” —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
Six-time Spur Award–winner Wheeler takes on the charismatic, unpredictable, and enigmatic 19th-century explorer John Frémont in this rich if overstuffed survival tale. The story begins in 1847 with Frémont losing a court-martial for mutiny and disobedience, but Frémont isn't down for long: his senator father-in-law gets Frémont set up to conduct a survey for a proposed railroad line connecting St. Louis and San Francisco. A revolving cast of narrators—Frémont, other historical figures, and fictional characters—chronicle the expedition into the Colorado mountains as winter begins, and it becomes apparent that they are falling behind schedule and are ever closer to starvation or freezing to death. Wheeler skillfully depicts the extreme conditions (“King was gaunt and drawn, the flesh gone from his face, his eyes sunk in pits.... Williams had crawled inside himself. There were great icicles hanging from his beard”), though the attentions of many narrators can tend toward the redundant and slow down what is otherwise a dramatic and colorful epic that should hook even those who already know how everything turns out. (Mar.)

Product Details

Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
4.00(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)

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By Richard S. Wheeler

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2010 Richard S. Wheeler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4509-7


John Charles Frémont

General Kearny killed the baby. I would never say it publicly, but I knew right down to my bones that it was true. Jessie would come to it also; she thought that Benton was sickly because of the court-martial.

Ten weeks was all the life allotted my firstborn, named after Jessie's family. The ordeal in Washington City was more than Jessie could endure, and it afflicted the child she was carry ing, and now the bell tolls.

Stephen Watts Kearny and his cronies brought the charge, mutiny and disobedience in California; put me and my family through the ordeal; and triumphed. He who was a friend of the Bentons, supped at their table, could not contain a raging envy of me, and now the bell tolls.

Benton was a sickly infant, delivered by a worn woman, though Jessie was but twenty-four. Even Kit Carson, almost a stranger to children, said as much. He had visited Jessie in Washington only a few weeks ago, having completed his courier duty for the army, and thought that Benton would not live long.

I watched the pewter river slide past in the dawn. We were aboard the Martha, plying its slow way to Westport from Saint Louis. Most of my men were there, awaiting me, receiving and guarding the expedition's materiel and mules. I didn't much care to go on this expedition. It would not be the same. A great weariness has afflicted me ever since the verdict — no, ever since General Kearny marched me to the States as the rear of his column, in disgrace.

I had read in the press that I have changed: "Colonel Frémont looks weary and gray since his ordeal," according to all reports. I have not changed and nothing bends me, and soon the republic will see what I am made of. The army will see what I am made of. So will President Polk. And their brown claws will not touch me this time.

The Martha vibrated more than most river packets do, and I wondered if Captain Rolfe knew his main bearings were out of true. The hooded shores, heavy with mist-shrouded trees wearing their yellow October colors, slid by. I would need to talk to Rolfe; I would need to help Jessie out of her world and into the real one. I had left her in the gloomy stateroom, sitting in her ivory nightclothes on the bunk, crooning to Benton at her breast. The boy was dead. Sometime in the small hours his weak heart had failed. Kitty, her colored maid, had discovered it. Now the infant hung limp in her arms, while she whispered and sang and clutched the still, cold infant.

I would have to disturb her. It is not in me to flee from any duty.

I retreated from the deck rail and entered our dank stateroom. Jessie sat on the edge of the bunk, rocking softly, the child still clamped to her breast. She eyed me, and then the shadows, where Kitty sat helplessly.

"Jessie, it's time to let go."

She nodded. "He's dead, I know."

"Yes. May I take him?"

"I had him for such a little while."

But she handed the cold infant to me. It didn't resemble anyone I knew. I stood, holding it. She turned away, not knowing what to do or caring to see what I would do with the dead boy.

I found the blue receiving blanket and wrapped it around Benton. The boy should have weighed more. He weighed almost nothing. Did souls have weight? Did a living infant weigh more?

"I'll have the cabin boy bring you something. Tea?"

"It was the strain," she said. "All the while you were under a cloud, the little baby knew it. It shrank him up."

"Jessie — you are a beautiful mother."

She smiled fleetingly. "I wanted him to be like you," she said.

"Rest a while. I'll be back."

"I'll never see my baby again."

I nodded. Then I slipped out on the dewy deck and made my way forward, the bundle in my arms. Below, the side-wheeler shivered its way upstream, gliding over murky water, leaving a gentle wake behind. A quiet rhythm punctuated the dawn as the paddles splashed and the great drive piston reciprocated.

The grimy white wheel house was ahead. I knocked, and was shouted in, but I saw only the helmsman steering the boat's slow passage. "Captain Rolfe, please. Frémont here."

The helmsman simply pointed at a door behind the wheel house. I opened it and found myself staring at the half-dressed captain eating breakfast in a small galley. The man wore blue trousers and a stained gray union suit.

"It's you, Frémont. I knew you were aboard."

"Captain, we have lost our boy."

Rolfe stared at the small bundle. "I am sorry. Was it cholera?"

"He was sickly and died in the night."

Rolfe nodded. "I'll have the carpenter's mate build a box. Have you plans? We can stop and bury him ..."

"Can the child be shipped to Saint Louis?"

"We're coming on to Jefferson City ..."

"I would like to do it that way."

"I'm sorry, Colonel. It's a hard thing."

"Hard on Jessie, yes." That was less than I intended to say. "Hard on both of us," I added.

Captain Rolfe dabbed his chin whis kers, wiping away the remains of oat gruel, and tugged a cord. A cabin boy materialized

"Take Colonel Frémont to the shop."

I followed the youth down a gangway to the silvery rain-soaked boiler deck, and finally to a noisy room aft. It took only a moment. The carpenter's mate eyed the quiet bundle, nodded, and set to work.

I was glad to escape and headed forward until I stood at the rounded prow. This ship was heading west. I was heading west. I was going to California, but going the hard way. Jessie would meet me there, after crossing the isthmus of Panama. She had come to see me off.

I watched ahead as the river boat wound its way around lazy curves, scything deer from the riverbanks and alarming ravens. The bankside trees clawed at us. An overcast hid the sun and hushed the wind. This was level country. Far away, where the Rockies tumbled up to the sky, I would chop a hole through the wall. That was what this was all about as far as any other living soul knew. But I knew it was about much more. The West Pointers would eat crow, every feather and claw, beak and brain. They would rot unknown in their graves; the nation would decorate its public squares with statues of Frémont.

But of that I said nothing, especially not to my wife. She was my ally, prized from the Benton family by our elopement. I acquired the most powerful father-in-law in Washington, and we have put each other to good use, he in his dreams of westward expansion, and I in my dream of decorating every village square. These were unspoken but ever present. He doesn't like me, and I've never cared for him. But we make common cause.

We docked at Jefferson City, an indifferent city of indifferent people, and I watched the roustabouts heft the small pine casket ashore to a waiting spring wagon, and that was the last I would see of my son. The Bentons would bury him. Jessie did not join me at the rail, and I supposed she lay abed. I am made of stern stuff, and I watched what passed for a coffin removed from the vessel. The Martha did not tarry long, but it did take on some dripping wet cordwood, and then we shuddered west once again, and I would have it no other way.

I put my son out of mind.

This, my fourth expedition, had formed swiftly. It had been privately financed by that old fur trade entrepreneur Robert Campbell, along with O. D. Filley and Thornton Grimsley, but all told, they had not pledged a third of what the government would have given me. There were those in Saint Louis who saw the virtue of steel rails to the far Pacific, spanning the unknown continent, and funneling the whole commerce of the Pacific and the Orient through the gateway city. I was indifferent to that. Success would merely line other men's pockets. But I was not indifferent to other facets of this trip. I would do it without the leave of the army, without the hindrance of government. And I would do it in winter, the very season requiring the most strenuous exertions and posing the greatest risk. Let them absorb that.

I would be my own commander, exempt from court-martial, and my only judge and jury would be public opinion and my private esteem. I supposed there would be some obligation to my backers, most particularly my father-in-law, who contributed his skills and his purse to all this. And I would provide it. They would receive the cartographic results for which they anted up.

There were other things on my mind; I wished to look upon the great foothill tract in California, Las Mariposas, that had been purchased for me by the American consul, Thomas O. Larkin, from the Mexicans. It was not anything I wanted, and Larkin had violated the trust I had placed in him. So I was stuck with a huge tract of rolling land, good for little. Perhaps something lucrative could be made of it, though I wasn't sure what. I knew it would do for the grazing of cattle or sheep, because that was how the Californios had exploited it. But it might yield more under good Yankee management. I had sent an entire sawmill around the horn, knowing that sawn lumber is in short supply in that remote province. I planned to discover how best to line my pockets.

The Mediterranean climate of that far shore appealed to me, and I imagined it would appeal to Jessie as well, but it fostered indolence in the natives. She could not endure the transcontinental trip, so she would travel to the Pacific across the isthmus of Panama after seeing me off and meet me in a remote place recently renamed San Francisco, destined by geography to become a fine city someday. Thus she would accompany me to Westport Landing, where my corps of exploration would assemble and depart, and then return to Saint Louis and New Orleans, and we would have a rendezvous some unimaginable distance away, at some unfathomable moment to come.

It was just as well. She might be brimming with youth, but she was not fit.

I returned frequently to the stateroom where Jessie secluded herself. She seemed uncommonly stricken, and I did my best to cheer her, along with her maid, who was quartered below. By the time we reached Westport she was up and about, wearing gray wool, taking tours on the boiler deck, studying the ever-moving panorama as we shivered our way west.

"I am very nearly the only woman on board," she said on one of our tours, her arm locked in mine.

"The wilderness offers no closets," I said. "Men go west first."

"Oh, fiddle, Charles. There are women in the wagon trains, and no closets for two thousand miles."

I enjoyed her renewed brightness. She might have an entirely unrealistic perception of the strength and weaknesses of the sexes, but at least her lively spirit was returning, along with a healthy blush to her cheeks. She took great delight in me, which I found flattering. She certainly had her pick of men, being a senator's daughter, but all those high-bred swain were felled before they knew they had been hewn down. On my part, I prided myself in offering her the utmost consideration.

This was not her first experience of steam travel, and she eyed the roustabouts with a knowing eye. Most were freed blacks, raw-boned ragged men in ceaseless toil. The furnace required enormous amounts of wood to wrestle the packet against the steady current, and that meant that the deck hands sweated through long days, lifting three-foot logs, nimbly swinging them into the firebox, somehow avoiding burning themselves, only to draw yet another log off the great piles stacked on the boiler deck, only two feet or so above water. It was steam that wrestled with gravity and nature, but the sinewy legs and arms of men fed the furnaces that wrought the steam.

"They are so thin," she said.

"They move tons of wood each day," I replied.

"They would be good men for you to take with you."

"I have better men," I replied.

Indeed, I had assembled a fine lot of volunteers, many of them men from my old corps of exploration who knew the wilds and how to survive in it. To these I had added a few adventurers, who would travel unpaid. There was no money to pay wages, and not even enough to equip them, but my father-in-law planned to introduce a bill that would cover costs. His first efforts along those lines had been roundly rebuked, with the court-martial looming as the obstacle to any further consideration. But the senator and I thought that on the successful completion of the railroad survey, some funds would be forthcoming from a grateful Congress. So I did not hesitate to assure our company that one way or another, they would be paid, and in any case they would have safe passage to California. Thus did we finally dock in Westport, where the Missouri River bends north, and we were met by most of the men of my company, who were waiting for their leader.


John Charles Frémont

I grew anxious, as we approached Westport, that there should be an appropriate showing of my men. I wanted Jessie to see with her own eyes the enthusiasm of the company, so she could report favorably to her father and my backers when she returned to Saint Louis. It would suit me ill if few of my stalwarts showed up to greet us.

I was not disappointed. When we rounded a leafy bend and Westport suddenly hove into view under an opaque pearl sky, I noted the compact crowd at the levee awaiting the Martha. Westport was a tangle of temporary gray structures in a sea of mud; its denizens had not yet acquired the civic spirit that fostered grace. The disorder of the town reflected the disorder of their passions.

The ship's passengers crowded the rail as the shuddering subsided and the steam whistle emitted an eerie howl like a wolf 's cry. Then came deep silence as the packet slid against the thumping current toward shore. Deckhands had pike poles and hawsers at the ready, and soon the stained boat would be snubbed fast to thick posts set in the mud.

This was Westport, famed entrepôt where the Santa Fe caravans and Oregon trains and most overland companies outfitted and then vanished into the unknown continent. There was a last weird silence, broken only by the slap of waves on our prow, and then the boat thumped against the piles and a dozen brawny blacks made it fast.

But my gaze was on my company. There they were, the motley crowd I had recruited over the past several months. I was gratified to find cheerful ruddy faces among them, men who had been with me during previous expeditions. Men who were in my California Battalion. Men who had climbed the Sierra Nevada with me in midwinter, proving it could be done. Some of them were ready and willing to try it again, loyal to their commander through all kinds of weather.

"There's Godey," I said to Jessie. "He'll be my second. And there's Preuss, the topographer, grouchy old German. And there's the Kern brothers. Philadelphia people. They've come to greet me. Ned Kern was with me on the third expedition. I'll have two artists this time. They'll catch every landscape. Railroad men like sketches best of all. See what's ahead, where the trouble is."

"They look very competent," Jessie said, as the sweating roustabouts slid a long gangway over a small span of water to the muddy bank.

"They are, when taking direction," I replied. "But they need to be welded into a company, and that's what I do best. Ah! There's Vincenthaler, another of my stalwarts. With me in California. Oh, and Taplin! With me on the second and third expeditions, army captain then, and I made him an officer in my California Battalion. Ah! Raphael Proue, a Creole, with me on all three of my trips. And Tabeau! Morin! Voyageurs, my dear. Men born to the wild."

"They've spotted us," she said. "Oh, capital!"

I eyed her sharply. Her face had lit, and I saw a bloom in her cheeks that belied the somber gray of her stiff woolen dress. Good. She would take the good impressions back to Saint Louis and convey them to her skeptical father. When it came to Senator Benton, Jessie was my best advocate. He listens to her but expects me to listen to him, and I play the lesser part in his company.

I waved cheerfully at my men as they crowded the gangway but said nothing. I would have more than enough to say once we had alighted and our luggage had been hauled ashore, along with several leather-bound trunks filled with cartographic and navigational apparatuses.


Excerpted from Snowbound by Richard S. Wheeler. Copyright © 2010 Richard S. Wheeler. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.

Meet the Author

RICHARD S. WHEELER is the author of over fifty novels of the American West. He holds five Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to the literature of the West. He lives in Livingston, Montana, near Yellowstone Park, and is married to Sue Hart, an English professor at Montana State University in Billings.

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Snowbound 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
glauver More than 1 year ago
As the novel opens, we meet the national hero and explorer John C. Fremont. He begins the narration of the story of his fourth expedition, the search for a transcontinental railroad route. As he, his wife Jessie, and the men who join his party continue the story, two Fremonts emerge. Is he the heroic Pathfinder or a Captain Ahab figure who mesmerizes those with him to their doom? Richard S. Wheeler has created a historical novel that probes the danger of charismatic leadership and tells a gripping tale of survival and death. The Year of Decision by Bernard DeVoto and A Life Wild and Perilous by Robert Utley provide some background on Fremont and other Western figures mentioned in this well-researched fictional account.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago