Dream West is the New York Times bestselling fictional account of famed North America explorer John Charles Fremont, by David Nevin.
Upon its release over twenty years ago, Dream West was deemed a classic novel of the American West by both critics and the reading public. Telling the amazing true story of America's famed explorer, John Charles Fremont, and his beloved supporter and muse, Jessie Benton, it quickly found its way onto the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a CBS mini-series starring Richard Chamberlain. Now available once more in paperback, Nevin's epic of adventure and discovery will once again give readers a chance to witness the passion of an early explorer's dreams of the great unknown, and the love and perseverance that saw his dream come to life. Together, the Fremonts defied both nature and man, trailblazing across the Rockies to the Pacific to accomplish what no one ever thought possible: mapping the American West.
About the Author
DAVID NEVIN spent more than twenty years researching and writing The American Story, a series of novels dealing with the history of the United States from 1800-1860. His books comprising this era begin with Dream West and include 1812, Eagle's Cry, Treason, and Meriwether. Nevin died in 2011.
Read an Excerpt
They passed into a shallow draw with saddle leather creaking, and were letting the horses drink when an antelope with high pronged horns burst from a wild- cherry copse. Not ten yards away it stopped and stood motionless, gazing at them with eager curiosity, its head thrust forward, its round black eyes brazen and bright. The frozen moment, the animal tight as a quivering spring, struck Frémont like a vision. He saw a vein throbbing in its white neck and he felt his own heart in cadence. Then the antelope sprang sideways and was off, sailing over the prairie like a low-flying bird.
"We'll see buffler soon," Louison Freniere said. "Antelope are always bold when buffler are about. Beyond that ridge, I wouldn't doubt."
Buffalo. Ahead the ground rose in a steady sweep to a long dominating ridge a half-mile distant. Frémont stared at it; his pulse had not slowed and he smiled.
Both men were well mounted and each led a fresh horse already saddled for the chase. They passed a prairie-dog village where hundreds of the little yellow animals stood yelping at them, their short tails jerking with each cry. A gray owl with white-ringed eyes gazed imperturbably at Frémont from a burrowed mound. It looked strangely calm.
"Yes," Louie said, almost to himself, "I can feel 'em." He glanced at Frémont. "You'll be on your own then, Charlie. Pick you a cow and hold to her — you've got to run that horse like you was running on your own two legs. Never mind the breaks and draws and them damned prairie-dog holes. Think you can cut yourself loose like that?"
"I'm ready," Frémont said. He took a deep breath. Ever since St. Louis, all the way up the Missouri to Fort Pierre on the fur company steamboat and out across the wide open country of the Dakota Sioux, he had been waiting for his first sight of the legendary herds that blackened the land. Buffalo — Freniere and the others on the expedition seemed to think of nothing but that thundering sport and princely food of the plains. It was dangerous — the galloping horse was half blind in the dust, and if you fell, likely you'd be trampled or gored — but the danger was half the fun.
"Hell," Freniere said, "you ain't never ready for buffler till you come up on 'em." He was half-coaching, half-challenging. "You've got to run, understand? Horse is faster, sure, but a buffler can run all day, run the best horse right into the ground. Slap leather once and there goes your chance."
On the first day out Freniere, himself a magnificent horseman, had caught Frémont grabbing for the big Spanish horn on his saddle and he never let him forget it. But Frémont had learned a lot in ten days. Now Louie was sitting slouched in his saddle, throwing quick glances at Frémont and talking in bursts.
"Horse is no fool, you know. And he don't really give a damn if you get a buffler or not — he ain't going to eat none of it. He'll take you up and give you a shot, but he's sure as hell got to know you really want to go. It ain't no time to tuck your butt."
"Tuck my butt?" Frémont said, suddenly nettled. "The day you see me tuck my butt, you can have my gold watch and pistols." He wondered if he sounded hollow.
"Well, you ain't never gone after buffler before," the hunter replied. He grinned, wolfish and keen, and Frémont saw that he was nervous, too.
It was coming on noon and the sun was high in a white sky. Light burned over the ridge and pressed down against Frémont's eyes until they ached. He tugged his hat brim low; he could see mile after mile of endless, unmarked prairie, rolling like a troubled sea. High overhead an eagle circled on motionless wings, a speck in the vaulting sky. It was a land to set a man free....
They were halfway up the long slope. Grass grew in tufts and clumps, gray-green and stunted but strong enough to keep a horse going forever. Little puffs of dust rose under the horses' hooves and blew instantly away. The dry air made the wind feel cool, but a trickle of sweat formed under one of Frémont's arms and ran down his side. Louie, staring ahead, had lapsed into silence. His brass- bound rifle lay across the pommel of his saddle and unconsciously the web of his hand fitted itself to the hammer, ready to draw it down on cock.
Louie was about Frémont's age, maybe twenty-five, a lean, tall man, dark face burned darker by the open, long black hair falling to his shoulders. Once Frémont had asked him why he didn't cut it. "What," he said, "and break the hearts of half the girls in St. Louis? It's right purty, Charlie, when it's combed out, and there's no shortage of belles who want to comb it." He was wearing blue homespun trousers over rough boots and a buckskin smock belted at the waist. It was nearly black with age and grease and was molded to his shape. Most of the fringed whangs that might once have shed water in the rain were gone.
It was nothing like the gorgeous suit Freniere had worn the day Frémont joined the expedition in St. Louis. That suit was of buckskin too, but clean, soft as glove leather, worked until it was almost white. Its whangs were all intact, rippling a full six inches, and the shirt and matching moccasins were brilliant with red-dyed porcupine quills and the beadwork of the northern Sioux. Some patient woman far up the Cheyenne River had made it — and doubtless given Freniere her heart as well....
It had been sunny and warm in St. Louis on that day in early May. They had been lounging in front of Pierre Chouteau's American Fur Company, where the expedition was outfitting. These warehouses of gray stone had supplied the western fur trade for three decades, but now the compound just off the levee was quiet. The men had assembled for a final muster and Frémont, who had arrived so late from Washington he'd nearly missed the expedition, was getting acquainted.
"They got buffler in the Smoky Mountains, Lieutenant?" Louie had asked. Frémont had been on two surveying expeditions into the western Carolinas and considered himself a woodsman. But no, no buffalo.
"I figured not," Freniere had said. "Well, you got a treat in store for you, I'll say that. Buffler is the biggest, fastest, god damndest animal in the whole world, bar absolutely none. I'll put it up against elephants in India for wonder and Spanish bull for power —"
"Grizzly is the baddest," a swarthy man named Martineau had said.
"That's right, and buffler is the best. He's like a king, d'ye see, he's a challenge: it takes a man to ride him down and stop him. 'Course they're easy enough to kill by creeping up on 'em, but hell, that's like sleeping with a woman in a bundling bed — it ain't near the fun it might be."
"God Almighty, yes," the heavyset Bladon had said with an explosive laugh. He had a kinky black beard. "I spent a night in one of them years ago. Give me the stone ache for a week."
"And eating," Freniere had said, ignoring Bladon, "why you just ain't et till you've had buffler roasted on a prairie fire, a few chips tossed on the coals for seasoning. Fat cow makes beef taste like putty."
"God's truth, Lieutenant," Martineau had said. "Buffler will spoil any other meat in the world for you."
The office door had opened then and Mr. Nicollet came out. Frémont had reported to him upon arrival the night before. Niccollet was a Frenchman who had come to America eight years before, in 1832, to explore the frontier; he'd been much taken by Frémont's own French heritage and his command of the language. St. Louis, though American for nearly four decades, still felt itself a French city, and most of the men on the expedition were voyaguers from the old French fur trade on the northern lakes, as accustomed to the canoe as the saddle.
"Gentlemen," Nicollet had said, smiling, and the men had fallen silent. The astronomer was in his early fifties and his hair was iron gray, though still thick. Frémont thought his eyes looked tired. His manner was gentle and the men had started to call him Papa Joe.
"All's ready, then," he'd said in a voice that sounded short of breath. "There'll be nineteen of us and we'll draw our livestock at Fort Pierre. The Antelope starts up the Missouri at dawn and every man had better be aboard. You're free tonight to wind up your business here — just make sure you don't wind yourselves so tight you miss the boat."
Louie had winked at Frémont.
"Any of you who haven't met Mr. Frémont should do so," Nicollet went on. "John Charles Frémont, Second Lieutenant, Corps of Topographical Engineers, United States Army. As you know, the expedition is under the auspices of the Army, which is reimbursing the American Fur Company for costs. Mr. Frémont is the Army's official representative. He'll serve as second-in-command and will assist me in the scientific side of the expedition.
He paused, looking from face to face. "Bear in mind that the whole purpose — the only purpose — of this venture is to map the great stretch of terrain lying between the headwaters of the Missouri and the Mississippi. We'll take six months, all told: here to Fort Pierre and across to Fort Snelling on the upper Mississippi, and we'll be back in late October — well, say early November. Now, let me say again that there never has been a map made anywhere in America — or, I venture to say, anywhere in the world — of the quality and the particularity which we will achieve, nor one which employs the scientific methods we will use. So I'm counting on everyone to do whatever may be necessary to make this achievement possible."
He had nodded to a dour man with searching black eyes. "You know Mr. Provost — he'll serve as camp conductor and will be responsible for keeping us moving in good order day by day." Hearing the name, Frémont had glanced quickly at Provost, who returned the look without expression. Etienne Provost was a famous name on the frontier. Frémont judged him to be about Nicollet's age, but he looked harder. He was a mountain man and he trapped with Jim Bridger and ridden with Jedediah Smith; he had fought at Pierre's Hole and year by year he'd brought his beaver down to the great rendezvous on the Siskadee....
"And our friend Louison Freniere," Nicollet said with a smile, glancing at the man in the glorious buckskins, "has signed on as a hunter and will keep us in meat."
"We won't have no food problems, Papa Joe," one of the men called. "Buffler sees Freniere in his fancy suit and he'll drop dead of shock."
Freniere grinned and lifted the rifle he carried. "Never you fear, boys. If the suit don't get 'em, my old Hawken will." Made there in St. Louis with an octagonal barrel of soft rolled iron, brass-bound to a cherrywood half-stock, muzzle-loaded and fired with the new-style caps that were putting flintlocks out of business, the Hawken was as fine a rifle as you could buy in the world. It had cost a full forty dollars and all the way from St. Louis across the great northern prairie, Frémont noticed that the hunter watched over it as he might have a woman. Nicollet had instructed Frémont to spend his days with Louie and learn the feel of the land, and Freniere had promised to make him a hunter as well.
Now, as the two horsemen neared the crest of the long, dominating ridge, Freniere's hand still rested on the Hawken's well-blued hammer. Since challenging Frémont he had ridden in absorbed silence, his hat pulled low, ignoring the immensity of land around them. He reined up and dismounted, glancing ahead at the glare-struck sky, and dropped a slender rawhide loop over his horse's head.
"Don't never pay to top a ridge like you owned it," he said quietly. "Never know who's watching beyond. We'll walk up for a peep and see what we see."
At the crest he crouched and then flattened and crawled forward. Frémont followed, elbows grinding in white dust, the smell of sun-warmed sage astringent in the air. A stinging gnat lighted on his face and he flicked it away. Louie stopped moving and together they looked down into a vast bowl of open country. It dwindled to blue haze in the distance and in between it was rolling and broken, tawny-colored and gray-green with bunch grass and sage, and there were dark patches on it like timber where timber didn't belong.
"What'd I tell you?" Freniere said softly. The patches were buffalo grazing, fifty or seventy to a herd, and there must have been fifty herds. He nudged him and jerked his head and Frémont looked to the left. There, just below the crest, much closer than the others, was a herd of nearly a hundred. A huge old bull was in command. The wind was blowing across the animals and no man scent reached them. They were moving slowly to the right, feeding as they went, making a constant grunting noise that Frémont realized he'd been hearing since he first looked. A pair of gray wolves skulked behind them, hungry and disconsolate. The old bull, though unalarmed, was watching the wolves. Frémont realized his hands were trembling slightly.
"Boys'll be happy tonight," Louie muttered. They had found no game but antelope and the men were grumbling. They hobbled the two horses they had ridden all morning and took their fresh mounts. Frémont's runner was a big bay with white stockings, an intelligent, good-natured beast named Barney who worked without complaint. The girth was loose and Frémont cinched it tight, bracing with his knee. He checked the cap on his stubby plains rifle and examined the .50-caliber pistol he carried in his belt.
Louie swung to the left so that they topped the ridge behind the herd and started toward it. Frémont seized a breath. His lungs were not working quite right. The old bull saw them against the sky and threw up his head and bellowed. The herd lurched into a sudden gallop and the bull turned to meet the horsemen, head down, snorting and pawing the ground.
"Hi-yah!" Freniere yelled and his horse leaped away and Barney tilted into a gallop as if he were spring-loaded. The bull was not at all intimidated but when the last of the herd passed him, spreading and moving faster, he turned and followed, bellowing threateningly. The horses separated and Frémont forgot about Louie, for he had fixed on a cow. He gave Barney his head, reins high and spurs hard in his ribs. The cow could hear the horse behind her and she stretched into a dead run, but Barney had fixed on her too, and he was closing the distance.
Thunder filled the air, the horse's hooves on the hard ground, the herd drumming in full gallop, cows bawling in anger and fear. Dimly Frémont heard the bull's rumbling bellow and a calf's piercing squall and his own loud voice. The cow galloped head down, throwing up clots of dirt, and dust clouds blotted out the other animals and stung his eyes. The horse was gaining and Frémont crouched forward, part of its flexing motion, reins in his left hand, rifle in his right, shouting encouragement. Another cow, a calf at her flank, blundered out of the dust on their left and Barney shied to the right as the strange cow reared backwards. Then Barney loosed a new surge of speed and closed with the cow, just behind her right shoulder, just where he belonged.
So close, she was stunning. Frémont had never seen an animal as awesome. Her hump was as high as his waist as he sat his horse. Her shaggy hair was matted, tawny-colored on her forequarters tapering off to black-brown on her rump, winter hair coming off in ragged clumps. Her little horns were polished hooks, her eyes shot with blood, her mouth open, tongue out, streamers of foam whipping behind her.
Staring at the great brute size of her, the horse matching stride for stride, the wind crashing in his ears, his own voice howling and wordless, he knew now what they meant by the sheer joy of the buffalo run. She cut sideways into a small draw, seeking its brushy cover, and Barney turned hard behind her. They crashed through low brush and Frémont heard it cracking under the horse. He felt Barney shift and twist as if he were dancing and he caught a glimpse of hole-pocked ground beneath him, but his mind hardly registered its meaning. The cow glanced over her shoulder, her bloody eyes glaring. Her big head rolled and she hooked a horn at the horse's chest. In mid-stride Barney sprang sideways. Frémont lurched against the animal's neck and his left foot lost the stirrup. The rifle slipped and he clutched it frantically against Barney's wet flank and regained his grip. Cursing, he grabbed the saddle horn with his rein hand and that snapped the horse's head back and checked him and threw Frémont forward again. He loosed the reins, fumbled his foot back into the stirrup, found his seat and rammed spurs into Barney's ribs.
Excerpted from "Dream West"
Copyright © 1983 David Nevin.
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.
Table of Contents
Sangre de Cristo,
Council of War,
Course of Honor,
Forge Books by David Nevin,
Praise for Dream West,
About the Author,