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Across the Endless River Excerpt from Across the Endless River

by Thad Carhart

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Part One

February 11, 1805
On the banks of the Missouri, 1,200 miles
upriver from St. Louis

All afternoon her cries could be heard throughout the small wooden enclosure they called Fort Mandan, winter quarters for the expedition across the river from one of the tribe's villages. Two rows of huts faced each other at an oblique angle within the stockade, and from one of these the guttural shrieks emerged with a grim regularity. In and around the other huts the men kept to their business -- skinning game, cutting wood, cleaning guns -- but each flinched inwardly when the next cry reached his ears.

"It's her first," René Jesseaume said as he ground an ax blade on a whetstone inside his hut. "She can't be more than fifteen; it's no wonder she has been at it for so long."

"All you can do is wait," said the young soldier across from him, shaking his head. He continued to dress the elk meat they had hunted two days before.

"Maybe," Jesseaume said. He put down the ax, oiled the stone, and let himself out into the biting cold.

He crossed the central space enclosed by the palisade. On the river side the American flag snapped fiercely on its pole above the roughhewn gatehouse, its edges already frayed. Hunched against the bitter cold wind, he approached the door to the captains' quarters opposite his hut. As he prepared to knock, the door opened and Charbonneau, the squaw's husband, emerged in a daze. His eyes were rheumy, his look distracted; he passed Jesseaume without appearing to see him. Jesseaume knocked lightly on the half-open door and let himself in to the close confines of the room.

Captain Lewis looked up from where he sat by a low pallet covered with a buffalo robe. His features were worn. The young woman lay beneath a woven blanket, her face turned away from the candle at Lewis's side. Lewis began to say something but the woman cried out suddenly, a long howl that paralyzed both men before it tapered off in a whimper. Jesseaume approached and knelt by Lewis's side.

"Captain, my wife's tribe has a potion in such cases where the labor is long and difficult." Lewis nodded for him to continue. "They crush the tail of a rattler, mix it with water, and have the woman drink it. I have never seen it fail."

At length Lewis said, "I have given her as much tincture of laudanum as I dare. I don't suppose the Mandan remedy you propose can keep nature from taking its course."

He rose and walked to the other side of the hut, its interior dank with the smell of sweat, blood, and wood smoke. On one wall a profusion of pelts, tails, snakeskins, and bones hung on the rough timber. He produced a knife from his pocket and snipped the rattles from the tip of a snakeskin. Then, setting his cup on an adjacent plank, he ladled out a quarter measure of water and returned to where Jesseaume crouched beside the woman.

"Will this serve?"

"Very well, Captain. I thank you."

Jesseaume neatly snapped two of the rattles from the tail, dropped them into the water, and broke them into tiny pieces, using his thumbnail as a mortar to the tin cup's pestle. Kneeling low to the pallet, he raised the young woman's sweat-drenched head in one hand and whispered in her ear in Mandan, "New Mother, the power of the snake will tell your body how to work. Drink this, and let the snake show your baby the way out." He held the cup to her lips then, and she raised her head to drink it, her matted hair stretched across her mouth. Gently, he pulled the strands clear and she drank the cloudy liquid, slowly at first, then in one long swallow. She lay down as if the effort of drinking was a new source of exhaustion. A short while later her body contracted, her knees rose to her chest, and she let out a shriek.

Lewis said, "I am going out for a short while. I fear our vigil may yet be long."

"It may, Captain," Jesseaume whispered. "But in case it is not, could you ask my wife to attend? She is at the gatehouse with Black Moccasin and his squaws."

A quarter of an hour later the girl they called the Bird Woman, Sacagawea, brought forth a fine and healthy boy. Charbonneau was found dozing in one of the soldiers' huts. He returned, tearful and smiling, and cradled the infant, wrapped in a blanket of fox fur, as he announced proudly to all, "We will name him Jean-Baptiste, like my grandfather."

His father called him Baptiste, but his mother called him Pompy, "Little Chief," the Shoshone name she chose to honor the tribe into which she had been born. Her knowledge of the Shoshone language was the reason Charbonneau had been hired as an interpreter for the expedition, after all. He didn't speak it, but her girlhood had been spent with the Shoshone, the Snake tribe, at the foot of the Great Stony Mountains to the west. They were the only tribe in the area with horses to trade, and the captains and their men would need horses to cross the mountains on their way west. She would be the go-between when they left the river and started to climb.

As she lay with her newborn and suckled him in those first few days, she thought of the new paths that lay ahead for her and her baby, one of which might lead to the place where she had been born. Four summers earlier she and three other Shoshone girls had been carried off during the seasonal buffalo hunt by a Hidatsa raiding party. They were after horses and young women, in that order of importance, and after killing several hunters and their squaws, including her parents, they galloped off with Sacagawea and the others tied to their mounts. They rode eastward for many days, through land that was different from anything Sacagawea had seen, broad and open, with swift rivers cut into the ground and tall grasslands in every direction. When they reached the Hidatsa and Mandan villages on the river they called the Knife, she had not seen mountains for a long time. She knew that her kinsmen could never rescue her from this powerful tribe so far away from their lands. She wondered if she could live the life that had now become hers.

In a dream her bird spirit came to her and pecked at her tongue, sharp and insistent, and she woke with the taste of blood on her teeth. Sacagawea must speak with a new tongue, the bird told her. She clutched the small obsidian figure her mother had placed in her medicine bundle, a tiny bird, all that was left to her from her first life. "I must do this," she said, over and over, in those first months of captivity. "I must do this."

Gradually she met other girls who had been stolen from their tribes in that summer when all followed the herds: a pair of Assiniboin sisters, several Crow and Gros Ventre, even a Nez Percé girl from across the Stony Mountains who wept for weeks until the brave who had captured her beat her into a watchful silence. Each of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages was far bigger than any Shoshone encampment she had known, with thirty or forty large earth-and-timber lodges grouped around a central clearing. Both tribes kept extensive fields of corn, squash, and beans. It was a dark time, a time of silences when Sacagawea understood almost nothing of the new language she would have to learn, but she noticed right away something that set these people apart from the Shoshone: no one went hungry. As large as the villages were, there was food for all.

She held Pompy close and looked in his eyes, gray-blue like his father's, and thought, You are the only thing I can truly call my own, little one. Soon we will leave this place and you will have neither tribe nor village. You and I will be part of this band of wanderers, headed to the far edge of the land, to the place the Shoshone call The Big Lake That Smells Bad. The Pacific, the captains name it. So begins your first life, on rivers and trails. Will it always be so?

Two months after she gave birth, Sacagawea set off up the river as part of the Corps of Discovery together with Charbonneau and her infant, strapped to her back on the cradleboard she had fashioned at Fort Mandan. Its cedar slats gave forth an aroma that pleased her with its sweetness. She felt like a mother.

There were better men than Charbonneau, she knew, but far more who were worse. A year after they were taken, he had bought Sacagawea and another Shoshone girl from the Hidatsa warrior who had captured them. They became Charbonneau's squaws, maintaining a lodge for him in the Mandan village and sharing in the women's work of the tribe. He took his pleasure with them by turns, sometimes for long hours, but never roughly like the warrior from whom she had learned what it was to lose one's body. Over time she came to accept his ways, but she was often glad that Otter Woman was there, too, when it suited Charbonneau.

She was jealously protective of her right to accompany Charbonneau on some of his trading trips along the river. He didn't often take her, but when he did she felt more alive than at any other time, delighting in the departure from her routine chores in the village and keen to see what the world looked like elsewhere. She worked doubly hard to be sure he knew her worth, gathering firewood, cleaning the trade goods, brushing the pelts, cooking his food. The presence of a woman, she knew, was by itself a message that men of all tribes understood: no fighting was intended. She took pride in her role as the companion of the white trader, a free agent who could pass from tribe to tribe without causing alarm.

In this, she realized that Charbonneau possessed a quality that the French voyageurs often showed but that was rare among the American and British traders: he was persistent, and infinitely patient. When, in the heat of negotiations over furs or beads, horses or guns, the chiefs would use hard language and refuse to be moved, more often than not Charbonneau knew what words to use to veer away from an ending, to hear "maybe" when the chiefs had said "no." He was like water in a stream, finding its way around a boulder, and then another and another, mindful that suppleness was more useful than speed, keeping the talk going until everyone had something he wanted. He was sometimes criticized for it by other whites, usually the English. Even the captains had called him "unreliable" or "unprincipled" at times because he would not confront an adversary directly. But his ways were more like Indian ways, and the proof of his effectiveness was that he continued to be welcome where the path had been closed to other whites by many tribes. He was three times Sacagawea's age when Pompy was born, a man who had seen more than forty-five winters. She knew that despite his faults he was far more likely to see many more than some of his rash counterparts, who believed that confrontation and strength were the best way of dealing with the tribes.

June 16, 1805
Below the Great Falls of the Missouri

"If we lose her, the baby dies, too."

"I know it," Lewis said grimly. "He is not even close to being weaned, and he would not last a day on what we eat." He looked at Clark and gave voice to the thought that passed between them. "So we must do all we can to make sure she lives." What was foremost in their minds remained unsaid: if Sacagawea died, the negotiations with the Shoshone for horses would be impossible. The Shoshone had had almost no contact with white men. No one else spoke a word of their language, and without horses the party would not be able to cross the mountains. The expedition would fail.

Lewis continued his examination. Sacagawea lay on a deer skin in the tepee under a light blanket, her breathing labored and irregular, her skin hot to the touch. One of her arms twitched convulsively. She grimaced as a wave of pain passed through her belly, an unfocused stare in her half-open eyes.

"She won't bear being bled again," Lewis murmured, "but if we can cause her to perspire, I think the fever may yet subside. I propose to continue the bark poultice you commenced. I should also like her to take some water from the sulfur springs we passed on the opposite bank. Drouillard can fetch some this afternoon." His face was drawn, his mounting concern apparent. "Perhaps you could tell Charbonneau to occupy himself with the child while I change the poultice."

"I can watch the boy," Clark answered quickly, moving to lift the baby from where he lay in the crook of his mother's arm. The infant started to fuss as Clark lifted him gently, and the captain held him close to his chest, looking down into the clear eyes that were inquisitive and somber.

"Come now, Pomp, come to Captain Clark and be a good boy. Captain Lewis will help your mama feel better," he cooed, swaying lightly as he stepped away from Sacagawea's prostrate body, his hair the color of a fox pelt standing up from his forehead.

Sacagawea's menstrual flow seemed to be blocked, causing pain throughout her pelvic region. While Clark talked to the infant in soothing tones, Lewis set to work assembling his meager supplies on a piece of elk hide spread open on the ground. He poured warm water from the kettle into a shallow tin basin and tore several strips from a length of clean linen. He then removed the blanket and cautiously raised her knees, spreading her legs as he did so. Lifting away the darkened mass that lay at the opening of her vulva, he wetted a strip of cloth and carefully bathed the entire area with a steady hand. He fashioned the new poultice as he kneeled at her side, placing three small pieces of Peruvian bark on a clean strip of linen and rolling it into a soft cylinder. Onto its surface he sprinkled twenty drops of laudanum, the tincture of opium whose small bottle was counted among the most precious medicines in the rudimentary apothecary he had assembled for the expedition. Satisfied that her inner thighs had dried sufficiently after his cleansing, he inserted the poultice and slowly lowered her knees, covering her body once again with the blanket. When Drouillard returned with a canteen of sulfur water, Lewis urged her to take small sips until she had downed two cupfuls.

That evening when he felt for her pulse as she slept, at her wrist and again at her neck, it beat strong and regular to his touch. Her face was covered with tiny beads of perspiration and her skin was not as hot as before. The tremors in her arm had stopped, and her face no longer bore the mask of pain that had covered it for days. When he withdrew his hand she opened her eyes and looked into his, and put her hand on his fingers. Neither spoke the other's language but all was understood in that long moment. I will live and Pompy will live, she told him with her eyes, and it is your doing. Your spirit is strong.

August 17, 1805
At the head of the Jefferson River

Four months after they left the Mandan villages, the party of thirty-one men, one woman, and a baby boy reached the land of the Shoshone, among the first hills of the great mountain range that stood between them and the western ocean. To cross those mountains -- the Great Stonies, the Rockies, the Bitterroots -- they would need to trade for this tribe's horses.

"You talk to your people in Shoshone, then tell me in Mandan," Charbonneau said to Sacagawea as they approached the Three Forks area early in the morning with Captain Clark's group of men. They hoped to rendezvous with Lewis, who had gone ahead to join the Shoshone. "Then I'll tell Labiche in French and he can speak English to the captains." She agreed. Even compared to the parleys among several tribes, this was a complicated arrangement, but it was the only one they had. She was in a dream, she felt, seeing on this voyage, as if for the first time, lands that she recognized, places she had known as a girl. Who would be left from that time? What would they make of her? What if they could not find her tribe?

They had not walked more than a mile when they saw several Indians on horseback coming in their direction. Sacagawea and Charbonneau walked slightly ahead of the others, and suddenly Sacagawea threw up her arms and let out a wail of joy, circling Charbonneau with little dancing steps as she looked from the mounted Indians back to Clark and the rest of the party. These are my people! she signed again and again to Clark, and he understood at once. She ran to the approaching group and addressed one of the braves in Shoshone, and he confirmed that he was a member of her childhood clan. Accompanying them was one of Lewis's men, who explained that the others were less than a mile distant. The Indians sang all the way to the nearby camp, joined at times by Sacagawea whose red-painted cheeks glistened with tears.

That afternoon Lewis had the men stretch one of the large sails overhead as a shield from the sun, and robes were spread out beneath it so that he, Clark, and the principal Shoshone chief, Cameahwait, could confer and negotiate for horses. By now they had parleyed with the chiefs of several tribes and they prepared the setting for these talks with care. It was important that a sense of hierarchy prevail, that they be seen as chiefs from the great nation whose distant father had set them on their path. The three men smoked a pipe and made the formal statements of respect and good will necessary before any bargaining could begin. The chain of languages took time -- Shoshone to Mandan to French to English, and back again -- but all was going well, both captains agreed, in the first part of this negotiation that had to be successful.

Suddenly Sacagawea rose up from her place, ran to where Cameahwait was seated between Clark and Lewis, and threw her blanket over his shoulders, wailing his name repeatedly as she embraced him. Although his formal mien and the chief 's ceremonial headdress of otter fur and eagle feathers had masked his features, she had finally recognized him. It was like the way one of the small mirrors the captains offered as gifts -- things like solid water -- dazzled the eye with sunlight, and in the next instant showed you your face. He was her brother.

The captains offered coats, leggings, ax heads, knives, tobacco, and the usual mix of minor trade goods that often sealed the bargain: beads, flints, handkerchiefs, and the like. Cameahwait was presented with a medal bearing the likeness of President Jefferson who, he was told, was now the Great Father to him and his people. On its reverse, Clark pointed out as he placed it around the chief 's neck, the clasped hands of an Indian and a white man stood out in relief beneath a crossed pipe and tomahawk. Around these symbols were inscribed the words "Peace and Friendship." In return the Shoshone provided twenty-nine horses, all they would need.

During the several days of preparation for the trek across the mountains, Sacagawea discovered that she was a curiosity to her tribe, a go-between whom they asked to explain the white man to them. Why did they have fur on their faces? Was the one they called York from the spirit world, with his curling hair and skin the color of a beaver? They wondered if Lewis's huge black dog was a kind of bear cub, they wondered how the rifles and the air gun threw their power to any far place. And they asked about Pompy: why did he have his mother's hair and skin, but eyes the color of the evening sky?

When she was alone in the tepee with her baby, she thought about all their questions and her attempts to explain. They have not seen what I have seen. How can I tell them? The joy of her return to the people she had grown up with was tempered by a new awareness. These are my people, but this is not my home anymore. Charbonneau was French, she told herself, but he lived with the tribes and on the river more than he did with his people. So did René Jesseaume and Georges Drouillard. They were whites who didn't live like other whites. It was a path they had chosen or, rather, two paths that made them something else. I have two paths also, she thought. I am Shoshone and not-Shoshone, Mandan and not-Mandan. And I travel with a voyageur. This is my life.

The day before the departure, when all was ready, Clark took her and Charbonneau aside in the camp. He looked into her eyes and said, "Cameahwait wants you to spend the winter with your people while we cross the mountains to the Pacific. It would be safer for you and your baby."

She waited for Charbonneau to interpret Clark's statement into Mandan, but she had understood its sense. Without hesitating she said in English, "We go." She held Pompy in her arms and said the words in Mandan that came without thinking. "We will go across the mountains and back. Our path is with you."

January 8, 1806
Fort Clatsop

In November the Corps of Discovery descended the Columbia River and reached the Pacific Ocean, completing the outward-bound leg of Jefferson's enterprise. They spent some weeks along the river's estuary, battered in their makeshift camps by perpetual winter storms. In early December they chose a sheltered cove and built a winter camp, Fort Clatsop, where they would wait for spring before beginning the return journey. Most of the men visited the coastal beaches on hunting parties or to collect salt, but by January Sacagawea had not yet been to the ocean's edge. One evening in that first week of the new year, Captain Clark entered the hut where Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Pompy were quartered.

"A group of Tillamook report a whale has washed up onto the beach south of our salt camp," he told Charbonneau. "Tomorrow I want you to go with me and ten other men to see what meat and oil we might take from the carcass." Understanding part of what was said, Sacagawea pressed Charbonneau for details. Clark turned to leave but she put her hand on his elbow and spoke rapidly, her eyes wide with anger and impatience.

"She says she has traveled very far to see the Great Waters; she has walked as swiftly as the others and carried her baby without complaint," Charbonneau told Clark, surprised at the forcefulness of her words. "Now there is a huge fish lying on the very edge of the ocean. It is unlike you, Captain, to keep her from seeing either. She would take it hard."

Clark met Sacagawea's imploring gaze, which was full of indignant dismay. "Very well," he said. "Tell her to be ready to go with us at dawn."

When they reached the low sand flat where the whale had been beached, they found not a carcass but a skeleton. The whale had been stripped bare by the Tillamook, the structure of its bones intact on the muddy inlet, but all the blubber, skin, and oil already taken away. Clark overcame his initial disappointment and set to measuring the animal's remains. "One hundred and five feet in length," he announced with awe. He wrote all the numbers in his book, as he always did. "It is so that the animals and plants we see can tell their story to others," he explained to Sacagawea through Charbonneau. Then he set out on foot to the nearby village to see if he could buy some blubber or oil.

Sacagawea stayed on the wide beach with Pompy and looked out upon the water, constantly rolling toward her in blue and black waves streaked with white, like an endless storm on the river. Some called it The Big Lake That Smells Bad, others The Great Waters or the River Without Banks, but to Sacagawea it was more like the sky: you could stand at its edge and look at it, but you could never cross it. Before the others returned she held Pompy in her arms and stood upright between the whale's ribs, as one might stand in a sizeable room. She talked to her child as she nuzzled and kissed him, turning this way and that so his wide eyes could see what surprising creatures sometimes emerged from the belly of the earth.

June 30, 1806

They were over the mountains. The Bitterroots had still been covered with snow, but on the return they had Nez Percé guides and never lost their way. Their horses had grass on every day but one of the six it took to get across. Now they were camped at the place the captains called Traveler's Rest, a valley on the eastern slope that afforded the party plentiful game in a series of grass-covered meadows along the mountain stream.

We will live,
Sacagawea allowed herself to think. I have not been the cause of my baby's death. After this voyage we will return to the Mandan and make our lives on the river with Charbonneau. She knew that perils still lay ahead -- dangerous rapids, unseasonable storms, hostile Indian raiding parties -- but the mountains had threatened them more than anything else, and the fear had been lifted from their shoulders like a heavy burden that had fallen away. Even the captains allowed themselves to smile and walked with a light step.

The evening of their second day there, the warmth of the sun stayed in the valley until dusk, and the men made a fire by the stream. They sat along the banks and lay on the grass, talking and arguing in an easygoing way. Captain Clark stood with Pompy at the water's edge, a shallow stretch of back current with a gravel bottom. He was a robust baby, almost seventeen months old, despite all the ordeals of the expedition. He stood facing the small river, holding each of Clark's massive thumbs for support, and ventured into the water, where he stamped his feet in delight.

Cruzatte had begun to play his fiddle, one of the old Breton tunes the men favored, and Pomp stamped half-rhythmically to the music. He gave forth little squeals, surprised and pleased at the explosions of wetness that his feet made upon the captain's leggings. It turned into a dance as Clark lifted his feet and turned the boy back and forth. Seaman, Clark's good-natured Newfoundland, barked and wagged his tail, striding into the water to join in the fun. Everyone laughed, Clark most heartily of all, and Sacagawea saw that more than one man had to turn away to hide moist eyes. The winter had been wet, cold, and cheerless, and they were still far away from home, but for the first time they could taste the end of the voyage. This vision of the child's joy in the surrounding warmth of others made each man conjure a memory of his family. They needed to be among their own: sweethearts and siblings, parents and elders. Each one missed his home most sharply that night.

August 14, 1806

They reached the Mandan villages in the late afternoon, coming down the river like boatloads of visitors appearing from the spirit world. It seemed impossible to the Indians that all those who had set off sixteen months before in search of a route to the Great Waters had reached their goal and returned safely, including the squaw and her newborn. It gave her and her voyageur husband a new status in the eyes of the Mandan, and everyone agreed that the boy was destined to lead. "In his first year he has been where none of us has been," the Mandan chief Black Cat announced when the captains smoked a pipe to mark the reunion. "His spirit has breathed in the trail to the west, and we will learn from it."

The news from the tribes was not good. While they had been gone, the Arikara had attacked white traders as well as Mandan and Hidatsa canoes below the villages, making any travel south along the river extremely hazardous. The Sioux, too, were acting warlike, and several bands had raided the Mandan and Hidatsa lodges. Anxious to return to St. Louis and to get news of the expedition's successful conclusion to President Jefferson, the captains assured the Mandan of their support. They convinced the Mandan chief Sheheke to accompany them downriver and then continue to Washington to visit the Great Father, the better to make known his people's grievances against the Arikara and the Sioux.

Two days later the captains said their goodbyes and prepared to leave. Charbonneau and Sacagawea had decided to remain with Pompy in the Mandan villages, promising to journey to St. Louis when river travel was safer. Lewis was ailing and gave a feeble handshake from the makeshift litter on which he lay. As the last of the canoes was being loaded, Clark drew the couple and their son to one side at the river's edge.

"Do not forget, Toussaint Charbonneau, my pledge to you: bring your darling boy to me in St. Louis and I will raise him as my own and see to his proper education." He shook Charbonneau's hand and turned to Sacagawea, who held Pompy close. During their sixteen months together on the trail, Clark had formed a strong attachment to the baby. "Let him learn the white man's ways," he said to her, pleading with his eyes. His hand reached out and stroked the boy's hair lightly, then he strode away quickly and the boats shoved off.

Excerpted from Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart Copyright © 2009 by Thad Carhart. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, 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.

The above is an excerpt from the book Across the Endless River by Thad Carhart. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.