Throne of Grace

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by Tom Clavin

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Throne of Grace: A Mountain Man, An Epic Adventure, and the Bloody Conquest of the American West by Bob Drury and yours truly will be published on May 7. The setting is the early 19th century, and the land recently purchased by President Thomas Jefferson stretches west for thousands of miles. Who inhabits this vast new garden of Eden? What strange beasts and natural formations can be found? Thus was the birth of Manifest Destiny and the resulting bloody battles with Indigenous tribes encountered by white explorers. Also in this volatile mix are the grizzled fur trappers and mountain men, waging war against the Native American tribes whose lands they traverse.

Throne of Grace is an epic narrative whose main character is arguably America’s greatest yet most unsung pathfinder, Jedediah Smith. His explorations into the forested frontiers on both sides of the Rocky Mountains and all the way to the West Coast would become the stuff of legend. Below is an excerpt from early in the book.

The hole was dry. Jed Smith was discouraged, not surprised. He had been warned about this stretch of the Santa Fe Trail. The old timers called it “The Water Scrape.” For good reason. Smith and his lead scout, the Irish-born Thomas Fitzpatrick, dismounted and ran their fingers through the clumpy alluvium at the bottom of the wash. The granules were cool, damp. Fitzpatrick unsheathed his long-handled fleshing knife and began scraping for an underground spring. Smith, climbing back to the lip, raised his spyglass and swept the horizon.

It was late May 1831, and months of severe drought had rendered the entire Southwest parched and brown. Even the Arkansas River, where their wagon train had topped off its water jugs before crossing into Mexican territory, had been but hip-deep. Those jugs, lashed beneath the twenty-two Murphy freight wagons laden with trade goods, had been empty now for going on four days. By the time Smith and Fitzpatrick plunged ahead in their search, the swollen tongues of the wagon mules were lolling out of their mouths. Even Smith’s and Fitzpatrick’s mounts, sturdy mustangs evolved to ride for days without water, had begun to wobble and stagger.

Smith reckoned they were perhaps twelve miles out ahead of the caravan. Over the nearly ten years in which he had traversed the far west’s mountains and deserts, its prairies and forests, he had honed an innate sense of direction and especially distances, whether already covered or yet-to-be traveled. The Cimarron River, he knew, had to be near. He squinted through his glass. The sight of a scraggly yucca, a purple bloom of sage, even a sagging cottonwood, would mean they were close. But no vegetation appeared for as far as the eye could see. The only movement came from the ever-shifting sand piles, the eerie walking hills, carried on their never-ending journey by the blistering south wind.

A stretch of broken ground, twisted and faulted and seeming to snake through a series of knobby rises, finally caught Smith’s attention. Some three miles distant, nearly due south. Rock? Like the subterranean Mojave he knew all too well, the Cimarron was a dry river, its flow disappearing beneath a gravelly bed for months at a time only to re-surface after heavy rains. Or when forced upward by an immovable impediment. Like non-permeable rock.

Smith, saving saliva, tossed a pebble to catch Fitzpatrick’s attention. He swung his chin toward the craggy rises. The Irishman, hard as hickory bark, understood. The two had been boon companions since their initial trip up the Missouri and into the mountains during what seemed a lifetime ago. Words were not needed. Fitzpatrick would continue to dig, awaiting the arrival of the desperate wagon train. Smith would ride south. Fitzpatrick watched through his own spyglass until his friend’s silhouette vanished beneath the rim of a distant arroyo.

* * * * *

Despite having risked a good third of his life breaking mountain trail, trapping and trading beaver pelts, fording ice-strewn rivers, and battling hostile tribes, the vast and rugged territory west of the Mississippi River remained a country of myth to the deeply religious Jedediah Smith – a parable, in a sense, meant to illustrate God’s munificence to any man willing to keep the Christian faith through the many trials the Almighty set before him.

Smith had kept his faith; if anything it had sustained him during his time with heathens and apostates both red and white. It was said that he made the mountaintop his confessional, the forest glade his altar. The high-country outfits he had piloted were sprawling amalgamations of licentiousness and vice, yet he himself touched alcohol sparingly, shied from tobacco, never “womaned up” despite myriad opportunities, and “with his ears constantly filled with the language of the profane and dissolute, no evil communication proceeded out of his mouth.”

To this point Smith’s Lord had indeed placed many trials in his path, few if none more hazardous than at present. The buffalo tracks crisscrossing The Water Scrape formed a crazy quilt heading in all directions. The freshest, however, appeared to lead to and from the outcropping he had spotted, now close enough to make out without his glass.

He was within a half-mile of the rounded bluffs when the riders showed themselves. Through the shimmering heat haze Smith counted fifteen, maybe twenty. Comanche or Kiowa, he could not be certain. It was said that a veteran plainsman could tell the difference by studying the ornate stitching adorning their buckskin leggings and moccasins. Smith’s attention was more focused on the sunlight glinting off the metallic blue barrels of their rifles and the steel-tipped points of their buffalo lances.

In his time on the borderlands, Jed Smith had absorbed an irrefutable truth foreign to most easterners – that there was no single, amorphous mass of “Indians” inhabiting the North American west. The scores if not hundreds of tribes and moieties scattered across the continent each had its own customs, its own ritual beliefs, its own often violent views toward outsiders, particularly whites. And each expected to be dealt with on its own terms. In this case, however, any difference was moot. The Comanche and Kiowa had long ago formed a military alliance which had evolved into the most feared and powerful entity across the southern plains. Riding and fighting as one, they had cowed first the Spanish and then the Mexicans and even driven off the mighty Apache. Presently, with wagon traffic increasing on the thin ribbon of trail connecting St. Louis to Santa Fe that bisected their lands, they had begun to wage war on the trespassing Americans.

Jed Smith had sharpened his battle instincts to a fine edge in lethal confrontations with peoples as disparate as the Arikara and Blackfeet, the Mojave and Arapaho. He recognized when it was time to flee, time to fight, time to negotiate. The band he now studied sat atop stout, well-watered ponies that would easily overtake his own hobbling horse. To run would be futile. And given their number, combat, even if he could find cover, appeared equally bootless. Which left talk.

Jed Smith drew his long-barreled Creamer rifle from its elk-skin scabbard, balanced it across the rise behind his saddle horn, and spurred his mount forward. It was his only play.

Originally published on Tom Clavin’s The Overlook.

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Tom Clavin

Tom Clavin is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and has worked as a newspaper editor, magazine writer, TV and radio commentator, and a reporter for The New York Times. He has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and National Newspaper Association. His books include the bestselling Frontier Lawmen trilogy—Wild Bill, Dodge City, and Tombstone—as well as Blood and Treasure, The Last Hill, and Throne of Grace with Bob Drury. He lives in Sag Harbor, NY.

The post Throne of Grace appeared first on The History Reader.

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