Chasing Smallwood – 5. My, but that was a lovely ride!


[Wednesdays, I am posting pieces of Chasing Smallwood, an early book now out of print. This is a book about four interconnected themes:

    • how to communicate with the dead;
    • the life of a 19th-century American;
    • the massive task facing us today, and
    • the physical world’s place in the scheme of things.]


    5. My, but that was a lovely ride!

  • Still Tuesday, December 20, 2005]

1:20 p.m. Having transcribed and sent. A friend says if I have a middle initial it will make things easier. “Thaddeus” immediately pops up before I can fairly ask the question. I see there was a Joseph T. – in the 7th battery, Indiana Light Artillery – one of three initials that appear for that battery. But you have said none of the units are right.

Yes I have said you are on the wrong track. You came closest when you speculated about the 50th U.S. But first let’s talk some more about my time in the west, the high point of my life before the crusade.

You were pretty opinionated, weren’t you; pretty downright and forceful. [This because I gave an uncharacteristically blunt and even harsh characterization of what the Civil War was about, to one of my very good friends who is an ex-reb.]

Went with being a New Englander. We weren’t much for sugar-coating.

Okay. Proceed if ready.

We wintered over in Minnesota that year. That is, I did, and Charley stayed a while but then went back to catch up with the rest of the party, who went back to St. Louis for the winter and to build up their trading stock again. I loved being with the Indians and I loved learning their language, and they learned English – “white man’s talk” – from me in return. I was up there from December ’03 to late March, I think, ’04. April, maybe. [And here he was clearly harking back to Lewis and Clark. He had to mean ’43 and ’44.] Then I headed west by myself on a horse I bought with my share of the trading goods that I got as my pay when I told the traders I wasn’t going back with them. They didn’t care either way. A man could do pretty much what he wanted then. We couldn’t have lived your closed-up lives with your schedules and routines and split-second activity. To us it looks like you’re living in the inside of a machine. We weren’t much to do with bosses and retirement plans, either! You might have found it insecure, as we would find your lives insecure, with so many necessary things out of your control.

Anyway, after Charlie left I was on my own, but I managed fine. You can always point, you know! And Charley had taught me a lot already. Taught me the signing, for one thing. [Indian sign language] That helped a terrific amount when I made my way westward, for I could do what the Indians did themselves. It was their international language, and I sometimes thought it was a shame that the white man didn’t use it, or something like it.

So, as I’m saying, I took out in the very early Spring with a brown horse I named Charley – and that isn’t the “Charley horse” joke you’re thinking of, it was after my friend. I had a frypan and a cook pan [a pan to boil water in] and a spoon and a bit of salt in a paper twist, and some dried meat and this and that, and a blanket roll and a saddle and my clothes and a little hard money hidden in the saddle blanket and that was about all I had in the world, and I was never as by-God happy in my life as I was that long year.

I tell you, those Indian languages had to come from the same older language somehow. Didn’t matter who I was with, what lingo they spoke, there would be echoes of the same words for things. I forgot to say I had a couple what you call blank books. We called them ledger books. You see how old some of your habits are, you with your blank books over 40 years? I used them to start making lists of words, at first just for the fun of it – for I needed something to chew on, you know.

I started up in Minnesota territory and made my way more or less westward day by day. My, but that Dakota country had some cold, cold, bitter clear days! And snow into May, which surprised me. I don’t suppose Charley liked it much, those times. Not much I could do to protect either one of us from the weather. The Indians had said I was a dam fool to leave so early, but I figured they just wanted me to stay for the amusement of it. Seems like maybe they knew a little something about the weather out there. And they hadn’t even been to Harvard, imagine!

Well, you know, going out on my own was sort of a dam fool thing to do. Lots of others had done it, of course – we knew their names. Jim Bridger, even Daniel Boone a whole generation before. (I was about four when he died.) But I wasn’t a mountain boy like Bridger or a tree-skinner like Daniel Boone. It’s true I was a farm boy – but I was a school-bred farm boy, and that’s no passport to the high plains. (“Passport” isn’t the right word. Use another. Credential, even, would be closer. I’d say warrant, I don’t know why you’re resisting it.)

Anyway the good lord does look after fools. I went that whole way, me and Charley and no white man in a hundred miles – hell, probably in five hundred miles – at least, it felt like that – but we never had a bit of trouble. You might think I didn’t have enough for anybody to trouble to steal, but you’d be wrong. I wouldn’t have been the first white man – no, nor red man, either – to lose his life so somebody could get his horse or his rifle or even his hat and clothes!

I think knowing their lingo, and the signing, helped. Keeping to my own business helped. But you know what I finally figured out helped more than anything? I think they could see that I wasn’t up to no good. I wasn’t going to stay there, I wasn’t going to steal anything, I wasn’t looking down my nose at them – even inside, because they could tell. Who can’t? I think they just decided I was harmless and they let me visit, talk to them as best we could, and I’d give them a few little things I had – little metal bells like harness bells only smaller, they were a big hit with them.

I wasn’t in a hurry and I didn’t even have a set destination. You’ve been thinking I was following Lewis and Clark and I was, but that doesn’t mean going over the same ground. This was forty years on! Everything changes. If I wanted to have their experience, I had to find wilder territory to go through, because by this time what they’d been the first ones through was sort of settled. Not settled the way you’d think of it, but not wild and open and free as they’d seen it. So I moved along more to the north.

Another thing I ought to mention. I left their women alone. I don’t know a better way to stay out of trouble, but it was a continuing amazement to me how many smart fellows just couldn’t do that, and of course sooner or later there was trouble. The Indians didn’t care about sex in itself, at least that’s what it looked like to us, but it stands to reason that sooner or later you’re going to put your foot in it, messing with the wrong woman, because there are all those delicate relations to be considered. I know that the way you talk it sounds like I’m making jokes, but you know that this isn’t a subject I would joke about. A tribe is closely connected in a thousand ways that aren’t obvious, and how’s a visiting stranger going to figure them all out? If somebody offers you his woman, that’s one thing, that’s their idea of hospitality. But if you get taken with one of them or, worse, she gets taken with you, then there’s hell to pay. I left them alone, and I got on fine with pretty near everybody.

Now, this past year you saw Astoria [Oregon], and it felt right familiar and comfortable that way, didn’t it? Not like Portland or Seaside. Why do you suppose? It wasn’t the first time you’d seen Astoria, or had been to the ocean at Seaside, though there wasn’t a town there then. Well, I say “you” but you know what I mean. You saw Astoria and I saw it through you. Astoria is where I fetched up at the end of the most beautiful year I ever had. I don’t think I had a dollar in my pocket, and I didn’t for sure have anything left to trade or give away. And I was out of ammunition which wasn’t too good a condition – but I’d made it there and I knew I could get some kind of work, some kind of pay, and see where I went from there.

My, but that was a lovely ride! The grasslands as far as you could see, Charley eating his fill and strong and willing as a box of bears. The sun and the wind and all day to roam as free as free. First time in my life I ever sang out loud, just for the fun of it, and to hear a voice too. Why do you suppose you still talk to yourself?

Timed it pretty good, too. Hit the mountains in the late summer not too late, and got right across through some of the same passes Lewis and Clark must have taken. Indians all the way, telling me the easiest ways. I think if I hadn’t sung and talked to myself I might have fetched up in Oregon talking Indian and forgetting how to “talk white.”

Sure is a lot of greasy meat in a bear! Saved my life, probably, though. I could kill those big old black bears – and even the grizzlies, though I didn’t like trying that so much; too dangerous – and I could get good trading material for the Indians. They could use every part of the bear, and I could kill it for them easier than they could. They got greasy bear meat and I got pemmican, or something like it – and beans and corn and once a blanket, mine being pretty rugged by then.. And I got some of the meat too, of course. I figured the body needed grease just like the bear.

Tired now. Must stop again for a while.

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