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The coming, p.1

The Coming, page 1


The Coming

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The Coming


  This book is dedicated to the Nimíipuu, the Nez Perce people


  Laboratories of Democracy

  Reinventing Government (with Ted Gaebler)

  Banishing Bureaucracy (with Peter Plastrik)

  The Reinventor’s Fieldbook (with Peter Plastrik)

  The Price of Government (with Peter Hutchinson)


  Part I: Contact

  Part II: Friendship

  Part III: Betrayal

  Part IV: War


  A Note on History



  Family Tree

  List of Maps

  Lewis and Clark’s Route, 1805–06

  Nez Perce Territory

  Flight of the Non-Treaty Nez Perce, 1877




  Our songs prophesized the coming of a “strange people with white skin” who would have a book to tell us more of these things.

  —Allen P. Slickpoo, We, the Nez Perces:

  Culture and History of the Nez Perces


  September 1805

  William Clark tucked his head down as the rain dripped off his hat. He was a large-boned man, with a long, reddish face and nose and a high brow. It was a rough face but confident, accustomed to command. He rode at the head of a long procession—31 men, one woman, and one child—snaking its way up a steep, forested slope. Clark’s horse slipped on the mud-slick trail, and those on foot stopped every few minutes, breathing hard, while the packhorses strained under their loads, snorting and blowing.

  Would they ever make it over these godforsaken mountains? Clark thought back to the day, less than a month ago, when he had first reached the Divide. It had been a warm afternoon, and he had been sweating from the climb, his heart pounding in his chest. Lewis had warned him, but when the view finally opened up, he had stopped dead. Spread out before him were range after range of immense, snowcapped peaks, as far as the eye could see. He counted five ridges, all higher than any mountains he had ever beheld.

  The wooded trail they now ascended had settled on top of a ridge that rose from south to north, no more than ten feet wide. Much of the timber on the high points had been burned and blown down, so they had to pick their way around and over a jumble of fallen trees. As Clark wound his way off the ridge around a downed spruce, the bay mare that carried his trunk and writing desk slipped and rolled. He watched as she slid for 40 yards before the desk slammed into a tree and splintered. “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.

  He dismounted, grabbed a rope that lay coiled against his saddle, and walked back to where a knot of men had gathered. He threw one end of his rope to Peter Weiser: “Tie this to a tree.” When it was secure, he let himself down the slope until he reached the mare, which shied from him. He spoke to her in a low voice, standing quite still, until she gentled enough for him to get close. He cut off the broken desk and trunk, then tied the rope to the trunk so the men could haul it up. He would leave the desk. When they threw the rope back down, he tied it to the mare’s lead. He stepped back and gave her a swat on the hindquarters; Collins, Weiser, and York heaved on the rope, and the mare struggled up the slope.

  Clark started up behind her but slipped and fell to his hands and knees in the mud. “God damn this mountain to hell!” He wiped his hands on his wet leggings and got to his feet. Collins threw him the rope, and the men slowly pulled him back up.

  The trail grew steeper as they fought their way upward. Two other horses fell and rolled. It took ten men to get one of them back up on the ridge; the other came up so lame, they had to shoot it. They unpacked its load of cooking pots and utensils and parceled them out to other horses.

  “We should butcher that animal,” young Shannon told Clark.

  “You volunteerin’ to carry the meat?”

  “No sir. But …”

  “You think these other horses can carry more weight?”

  “No sir,” the 19-year-old admitted. “But couldn’t we cook it?”

  “We stop to cook now, we’ll never get up this mountain.” They left the dead horse where it lay.

  At noon the land flattened out a bit. Old Toby, their Shoshone guide, found a spring hidden amongst a thick stand of tall pines, their bases choked with huckleberry. Stop here, eat, he signed. Clark nodded, directed Collins to light a fire and heat up some parched corn and portable soup—a vile mixture Lewis had procured in Philadelphia in powdered form. As the men straggled in, they took the soup and corn silently, too spent to do more than grumble.

  The rain had stopped now and the clouds had begun to lift. Lewis sat down beside Clark, a bowl in one hand, his spyglass in the other. He raised the glass, trained it on the mountains to the south, their peaks like a wall of teeth bared against a foe.

  “Did it snow up there again?” Clark asked. Yesterday, at a stony summit they’d crossed before descending to the river, it had snowed for two hours.

  Lewis lowered the glass and nodded. Lewis had an odd combination of a gentleman’s face—serious gray eyes, long black lashes, small, tight-lipped mouth—atop a woodsman’s frame. “We’re five days in, and Toby said the Pierced-Nose Indians do it in six days.”

  “You think we’re traveling as fast as Indians?”

  “I do.”

  “We don’t even know if we’re on the right trail.”

  Lewis gazed at him. “We will not spend a second winter east of these mountains.”

  Clark remembered the day they had met, a decade ago, when the younger man had reported to his command at Fort Greenville—stiff, bowlegged, standing so straight as he saluted it seemed he would fall over backward. He was the most determined man Clark had ever encountered.

  When they started back up, Clark’s horse proved fatigued beyond all endurance. He had little choice but to proceed on foot, though his left leg still ached from a fall he’d taken exploring Lewis’s River.

  Behind him, two more horses fell and rolled until they wedged against downed trees, but only one had to be left behind. Though the rain held off, the temperature was dropping.

  Near the top the trail wound around immense granite knobs that erupted out of the mountainside. Finally they intersected a ridge running east-west, where the real trail appeared, some five feet wide and clear as day. Drouillard and Colter lay supine on a fallen pine, waiting for them. As they rose to their feet, Clark and Toby stood mute, completely spent. As far as they could see, in every direction, lay mountains, the highest peaks frosted in white.

  The hunters had killed but two pheasants; up this high, they said, game was scarce.

  “Ain’t much of a Northwest Passage, is it?” Colter muttered.

  Toby led them west along the narrow ridge. The rest of them spread out, searching the hillsides for any sign of a spring. As dusk came on, Toby stopped where a bank of old snow lay protected on the northern edge of the ridge. Melt for water, he signed.

  Clark felt as if they were at the top of the world, exposed to anything Mother Nature should choose to inflict upon them. There was no flat spot to camp but right on the ridge.

  When the first cook arrived, Clark ordered him to broil the remains of the colt they had killed the day before. The rest of the men trudged in through the dark: the Field brothers together; Cruzatte limping; Labiche swearing in French. Charbonneau staggered in last and collapsed, his ample girth flat on the ground. They devoured what little was left of the horsemeat, along with the pheasants and portable soup, but it was not enough.

  Clark sat by the fire to record the day in his journal, as he did every evening. Lewis lowered himself onto a log beside him. “I trust you have confidence we’re o
n the correct trail now?”

  Clark nodded. “But we’re traveling half as fast as the Indians do.”

  “How would you know that?”

  “Old Toby.”

  “He hadn’t got us lost, we wouldn’t have had that climb today.”

  The truth of it weighed on Clark. Yesterday, when Toby confessed that he had missed where the trail turned north, in the snow, Sacagawea had let her disgust show. When Clark took her aside, she told him Toby hadn’t been on this trail since he was a boy. Clark kicked himself for not consulting her sooner. A few days earlier, she had explained that had they simply bought horses from the Mandans, they could have reached the head of this trail in four days’ ride from the Great Falls. Instead, they had spent two months struggling southward up the Missouri, trading with her people for horses, carrying their goods across the Divide, then riding back north for two weeks. Why had it not occurred to them that the girl might know the upper Missouri country? If they were to reach the Pacific, they could not afford another such mistake.

  “We’re nowhere near the end of these mountains,” Clark finally said.

  Lewis met his gaze. “Have faith, my friend. One way or another, we’ll make it.”

  “If we don’t starve first.”

  “When the colts run out, we’ll eat horses.”

  “And carry our goods on our backs?”

  Lewis’s face knit in exasperation. “Do we have a choice?”

  “We could go back, winter in the valley, with the Flatheads.”

  Chief Three Eagles had treated them with every politeness. His people had been hungry too, their dogs so desperate they ate four pairs of the men’s moccasins. But they had secured the corps from want, then sold the captains 11 horses. And their women. Clark had not enjoyed the nightly company of a woman since Fort Mandan, and he should not have partaken, he knew. Julia—pale, dark-haired Julia—was waiting in Virginia for his return, becoming a woman herself. But when these Indian women came to him he could never resist—their brown skin, brown breasts, so lovely, their unselfconscious pleasure unlike anything he could imagine in a white woman.

  “You just want another winter with loose women.”

  “I want to survive.” He turned to Lewis. “What happens when it snows again, Meriwether? We’re up high enough we’ll be in the gut of it. What happens if it doesn’t stop? If we can’t find the trail?”

  Lewis glared. “We winter on the Pacific.”


  September 1805

  Swan Lighting on Water awoke expecting to see her husband’s face. She had been dreaming of him; they were riding side by side, toward the Smoking Place. He rode gracefully, his slender back swaying in rhythm with his horse. He wanted to show her something: he had told her strangers were riding toward them on the Buffalo Road. But when she opened her eyes, it was Black Eagle shaking her awake.

  “Go to your lodge, Sister. It is time for bed.”

  Her mind cleared as she sat up. A moon lit the prairie; around her, tipis cast deep shadows. Across the meadow she could make out the council fire. “Will there be war?”


  She shivered; her fire had died down. “How many will go?”

  “All our young warriors.”

  “Who will protect our camps?”

  “A few older men.”

  “But I had a dream. My husband warned me about strangers coming west, across mountains.”

  She could see the worry that was in Black Eagle’s eyes so often now when he watched her. “Go to bed, Sister.”

  * * *

  The next morning her mother prepared camas cakes and pemmican, mixing dried meat and berries, crushing them with a stone pestle and storing them in hide pouches. Swan Lighting was not allowed to prepare food during her mourning, so she wandered the camp. The entire Nimíipuu nation had gathered on the Oyaip Prairie for the harvest of camas roots. A dozen camps dotted the prairie, surrounded by thick pine forest that sent its dark fingers snaking into the meadows.

  The warriors would spend the day visiting the Old Man to purify themselves for battle, and she longed to do the same. Bitterness welled up in her; she wanted to go with her father, to kill as many Snakes as she could. And why not? Had she not killed a Lakota warrior when their camp was attacked in Buffalo Country?

  Her mind drifted back to her dream. She could still see her husband sitting tall on his black gelding, just as he had last spring. He had departed in the Time of Qawas Bread with Horse Blanket and Black Feather—ridden south from their camp at Ewatam, after Kaooyit. He had been so proud to be chosen to visit the Snakes and offer peace. She had learned his fate in the summer, at the great gathering of nations at Celilo Falls. The three had made it safely into a Snake lodge, undetected, their friends from the Umatilla River had told them. Custom had prevented the Snakes from harming them when they were discovered, until they stated their purpose. They had counseled, made their offer of peace. And the Snakes had rejected it.

  She shuddered, walled off her mind. She could not let herself think of how they’d killed him.

  The war dance began at sundown. Swan stood with the women around the great circle. The others wore their finest dresses, ornamented with beads, shells, quills, and painted designs. She wore the same shapeless dress she had worn for two moons since learning of her husband’s death.

  She watched the men, in two lines, moving slowly around the circle in the bull dance. Heavily painted, most wore little but loincloths and the headdresses of their wyakins: eagle feathers, bear heads, wolf heads, buffalo horns. In their hands they carried weapons: bows, spears, war clubs, tomahawks, rawhide shields.

  Her father danced at the front of one line, his face painted red and yellow, his headdress an enormous bear’s head. In his hands he carried his tomahawk and his long war club. Around his thick neck he wore an otter skin with the fur and head still attached. It came down to his knees, and the scalps, thumbs, and fingers of his many victims hung from it, bobbing as he danced.

  The drummers pounded out a rhythm and sang out their war songs as each man in turn performed his dance, asked his wyakin to protect him on this journey. When each finished, the warriors let out shrill cries.

  At dawn, the women served komsit. The men retrieved their horses and lined up for departure, and the few women who would ride along to cook lined up behind them. Swan saddled her best horse, a spotted mare. In the cool morning air the animal trotted with ease, happy to be with her, anxious to travel. Swan nudged her with her heels and loped to the front of the procession, where her father sat his white mare. Heavy and solid as an oak, he needed a big horse, broad across the chest.

  “I will go with you,” she said.

  He stared at her for a long moment. “You are in mourning.”

  “I will avenge my husband’s death.”

  “Your sadness will infect us, weaken our power.”

  “My desire for vengeance will infect you, make you stronger.”

  He hesitated. It was not easy for him to say no, she knew; he had always indulged her, his only daughter. “What you ask is impossible,” he finally said. “You will stay here, care for Black Horn.”

  “I am coming.”

  “Daughter, I sent your husband. I cost him his life.” The pain was clear in his dark eyes. “I will not lose you.”

  Angry tears clouded her eyes as he turned in his saddle, raised his war club, and motioned forward. She watched him lead the procession in two great circles, the women following behind their warriors on foot, singing. Then they all stopped and, facing the center, sang a final song.

  Her father nudged his horse forward, into the center of the huge circle. He raised his war club for silence; his eyes moved around the circle, taking in the 500 warriors who would join him. “Hear me, my friends! Today we ride toward warm lands, in search of Snakes. We have sent our young men to them with a peace pipe, and they have broken this pipe and killed our men. Now we will avenge them! We are many. We are Nimíipuu! We will teach these
Snake dogs a lesson they will never forget!”


  September 1805

  The cooks had slaughtered the last colt. Seven days into the mountains, the men had vacant stares, their faces gaunt, their buckskins soaked from the snow and mud they had slogged through for two days. When they fell today, they cursed less and stayed down longer.

  Clark decided to take their best hunters on horseback and get out of the mountains as fast as they could, find game, and send it back up to those on foot. He chose Drouillard, Shields, the Field brothers, Colter, and Collins.

  They left at sunrise, the morning clear and cold. All around them was silence, save for the whisper of a breeze in the tops of the pines and the occasional call of a jay or chatter of a squirrel.

  They had gone only a mile when the trail emerged out of the forest into a snow-covered meadow, on top of a large knob. A vista opened before them: ridge after ridge of dark, forested mountains gave way in the northwest to sharp granite peaks gleaming with new snow. All seven stopped, their breath still steaming in the early morning air. The horses reached down to graze on the thick grass that poked up through the melting snow.

  Once the sun began to warm the earth, the mild air felt like a reprieve. They rode through green glades carpeted with grass. In places where the sun speckled through they found huckleberry bushes heavy with ripe fruit, which they picked and ate. Occasionally they passed trees whose bark had been stripped as far up as a man could reach, to get at the soft, edible layer underneath. Clark wondered if Indians or bears had done it.

  In the early afternoon they ascended another steep mountain. As the trail wound its way down the west side the view opened up. Drouillard, in the lead, was the first to see it. He reined in and pointed.

  Far to the southwest, beyond several more wooded ridges, they could make out a level plain. It was unmistakable: a low, golden-brown area, 40 or 50 miles away, before another hazy blue range on the horizon. The Field brothers broke into whoops and hollers and flung their hats in the air.

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