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A thrilling tale of betrayal and revenge set against the nineteenth-century American frontier, the astonishing story of real-life trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass
The year is 1823, and the trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company live a brutal frontier life. Hugh Glass is among the company’s finest men, an experienced frontiersman and an expert tracker. But when a scouting mission puts him face-to-face with a grizzly bear, he is viciously mauled and not expected to survive. Two company men are dispatched to stay behind and tend to Glass before he dies. When the men abandon him instead, Glass is driven to survive by one desire: revenge. With shocking grit and determination, Glass sets out, crawling at first, across hundreds of miles of uncharted American frontier. Based on a true story, The Revenant is a remarkable tale of obsession, the human will stretched to its limits, and the lengths that one man will go to for retribution.
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A Novel of Revenge
By Michael Punke
PicadorCopyright © 2002 Michael Punke
All rights reserved.
AUGUST 21, 1823
"MY KEELBOAT FROM ST. LOUIS is due here any day, Monsieur Ashley." The portly Frenchman explained it again in his patient but insistent tone. "I'll gladly sell the Rocky Mountain Fur Company the entire contents of the boat—but I can't sell you what I don't have."
William H. Ashley slammed his tin cup on the crude slats of the table. The carefully groomed gray of his beard did not conceal the tight clench of his jaw. For its part, the clenched jaw seemed unlikely to contain another outburst, as Ashley found himself confronting again the one thing he despised above all else—waiting.
The Frenchman, with the unlikely name of Kiowa Brazeau, watched Ashley with growing trepidation. Ashley's presence at Kiowa's remote trading post presented a rare opportunity, and Kiowa knew that the successful management of this relationship could lay a permanent foundation for his venture. Ashley was a prominent man in St. Louis business and politics, a man with both the vision to bring commerce to the West and the money to make it happen. "Other people's money," as Ashley had called it. Skittish money. Nervous money. Money that would flee easily from one speculative venture to the next.
Kiowa squinted behind his thick spectacles, and though his vision was not sharp, he had a keen eye for reading people. "If you will indulge me, Monsieur Ashley, perhaps I can offer one consolation while we await my boat."
Ashley offered no affirmative acknowledgment, but neither did he renew his tirade.
"I need to requisition more provisions from St. Louis," said Kiowa. "I'll send a courier downstream tomorrow by canoe. He can carry a dispatch from you to your syndicate. You can reassure them before rumors about Colonel Leavenworth's debacle take root."
Ashley sighed deeply and took a long sip of the sour ale, resigned, through lack of alternative, to endure this latest delay. Like it or not, the Frenchman's advice was sound. He needed to reassure his investors before news of the battle ran unchecked through the streets of St. Louis.
Kiowa sensed his opening and moved quickly to keep Ashley on a productive course. The Frenchman produced a quill, ink, and parchment, arranging them in front of Ashley and refilling the tin cup with ale. "I'll leave you to your work, monsieur," he said, happy for the opportunity to retreat.
By the dim light of a tallow candle, Ashley wrote deep into the night:
On the Missouri
August 21, 1823
James D. Pickens, Esquire
Pickens and Sons
Dear Mr. Pickens,
It is my unfortunate responsibility to inform you of the events of the past two weeks. By their nature these events must alter—though not deter—our venture on the Upper Missouri.
As you probably know by now, the men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company were attacked by the Arikara after trading in good faith for sixty horses. The Arikara attacked without provocation, killing 16 of our men, wounding a dozen, & stealing back the horses they had feigned to sell to us the day before.
In face of this attack, I was forced to retreat downstream, while at the same time requesting the aid of Colonel Leavenworth & the US Army in responding to this clear affront to the sovereign right of US citizens to traverse the Missouri unimpeded. I also requested the support of our own men, who joined me (led by Capt. Andrew Henry) at great peril, from their position at Fort Union.
By August 9th, we confronted the Arikara with a combined force of 700 men, including 200 of Leavenworth's regulars (with two howitzers) and forty men of the RMF Co. We also found allies (albeit temporary) in 400 Sioux warriors, whose enmity for the Arikara stems from historical grudge, the origin of which I do not know.
Suffice it to say that our assembled forces were more than ample to carry the field, punish the Arikara for their treachery, & reopen the Missouri for our venture. That such results did not occur we owe to the unsteady timber of Colonel Leavenworth.
The details of the inglorious encounter can await my return to St. Louis, but suffice it to say that the Colonel's repeated reluctance to engage in an inferior foe allowed the entire Arikara tribe to slip our grasp, the result being the effective closure of the Missouri between Fort Brazeau & the Mandan villages. Somewhere between here and there are 900 Arikara warriors, newly entrenched, no doubt, & with new motive to foil all attempts up the Missouri.
Colonel Leavenworth has returned to garrison at Fort Atkinson, where he no doubt will pass the winter in front of a warm hearth, carefully mulling his options. I do not intend to wait for him. Our venture, as you know, can ill-afford the loss of eight months.
Ashley stopped to read his text, unhappy with its dour tone. The letter reflected his anger, but did not convey his predominant emotion—a bedrock optimism, an unwavering faith in his own ability to succeed. God had placed him in a garden of infinite bounty, a Land of Goshen in which any man could prosper if only he had the courage and the fortitude to try. Ashley's weaknesses, which he confessed forthrightly, were simply barriers to be overcome by some creative combination of his strengths. Ashley expected setbacks, but he would not tolerate failure.
We must turn this misfortune to our benefit, press on while our competitors take pause. With the Missouri effectively closed, I have decided to send two groups West by alternate route. Captain Henry I have already dispatched up the Grand River. He will ascend the Grand as far as possible and make his way back to Fort Union. Jedidiah Smith will lead a second troop up the Platte, his target the waters of the Great Basin.
You no doubt share my intense frustration at our delay. We must now move boldly to recapture lost time. I have instructed Henry and Smith that they shall not return to St. Louis with their harvest in the Spring. Rather, we shall go to them—rendezvous in the field to exchange their furs for fresh supplies. We can save four months this way, & repay at least some portion of our debt to the clock. Meanwhile, I propose a new fur troop be raised in St. Louis & dispatched in the Spring, led by me personally.
The remnants of the candle sputtered and spit foul black smoke. Ashley looked up, suddenly aware of the hour, of his deep fatigue. He dipped the quill and returned to his correspondence, writing firmly and quickly now as he drew his report to its conclusion:
I urge you to communicate to our syndicate—in strongest possible terms—my complete confidence in the inevitable success of our endeavor. A great bounty has been laid by Providence before us, & we must not fail to summon the courage to claim our rightful share.
Your Very Humble Servant, William H. Ashley
Two days later, August 16, 1823, Kiowa Brazeau's keelboat arrived from St. Louis. William Ashley provisioned his men and sent them west on the same day. The first rendezvous was set for the summer of 1824, the location to be communicated through couriers.
Without understanding fully the significance of his decisions, William H. Ashley had invented the system that would define the era.CHAPTER 2
AUGUST 23, 1823
ELEVEN MEN HUNKERED in the camp with no fire. The camp took advantage of a slight embankment on the Grand River, but the plain afforded little contour to conceal their position. A fire would have signaled their presence for miles, and stealth was the trappers' best ally against another attack. Most of the men used the last hour of daylight to clean rifles, repair moccasins, or eat. The boy had been asleep from the moment they stopped, a crumpled tangle of long limbs and ill-shod clothing.
The men fell into clusters of three or four, huddled against the bank or pressed against a rock or clump of sage, as if these minor protusions might offer protection.
The usual banter of camp had been dampened by the calamity on the Missouri, and then extinguished altogether by the second attack only three nights before. When they spoke at all they spoke in hushed and pensive tones, respectful of the comrades who lay dead in their trail, heedful of the dangers still before them.
"Do you think he suffered, Hugh? I can't get it out of my head that he was suffering away, all that time."
Hugh Glass looked up at the man, William Anderson, who had posed the question. Glass thought for a while before he answered, "I don't think your brother suffered."
"He was the oldest. When we left Kentucky, our folks told him to look after me. Didn't say a word to me. Wouldn't have occurred to them."
"You did your best for your brother, Will. It's a hard truth, but he was dead when that ball hit him three days ago."
A new voice spoke from the shadows near the bank. "Wish we'd have buried him then, instead of dragging him for two days." The speaker perched on his haunches, and in the growing darkness his face showed little feature except a dark beard and a white scar. The scar started near the corner of his mouth and curved down and around like a fishhook. Its prominence was magnified by the fact that no hair grew on the tissue, cutting a permanent sneer through his beard. His right hand worked the stout blade of a skinning knife over a whetstone as he spoke, mixing his words with a slow, rasping scrape.
"Keep your mouth shut, Fitzgerald, or I swear on my brother's grave I'll rip out your bloody tongue."
"Your brother's grave? Not much of a grave now, was it?"
The men within earshot paid sudden attention, surprised at this conduct, even from Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald felt the attention, and it encouraged him. "More just a pile of rocks. You think he's still in there, moldering away?" Fitzgerald paused for a moment, so that the only sound was the scraping of the blade on the stone. "I doubt it—speaking for myself." Again he waited, calibrating the effect of his words as he spoke them. "Course, could be the rocks kept the varmints off. But I think the coyotes are dragging little bits of him across ..."
Anderson lunged at Fitzgerald with both hands extended.
Fitzgerald brought his leg up sharply as he rose to meet the attack, his shin catching Anderson full-force in the groin. The kick folded Anderson in two, as if some hidden cord drew his neck to his knees. Fitzgerald drove his knee into the helpless man's face and Anderson flipped backward.
Fitzgerald moved spryly for someone his size, pouncing to pin his knee against the chest of the gasping, bleeding man. He put the skinning knife to Anderson's throat. "You want to go join your brother?" Fitzgerald pressed the knife so that the blade drew a thin line of blood.
"Fitzgerald," Glass said in an even but authoritative tone. "That's enough."
Fitzgerald looked up. He contemplated an answer to Glass's challenge, while noting with satisfaction the ring of men that now surrounded him, witnesses to Anderson's pathetic position. Better to claim victory, he decided. He'd see to Glass another day. Fitzgerald removed the blade from Anderson's throat and rammed the knife into the beaded sheath on his belt. "Don't start things you can't finish, Anderson. Next time I'll finish it for you."
Captain Andrew Henry pushed his way through the circle of spectators. He grabbed Fitzgerald from behind and ripped him backward, pushing him hard into the embankment. "One more fight and you're out, Fitzgerald." Henry pointed beyond the perimeter of the camp to the distant horizon. "If you've got an extra store of piss you can go try making it on your own."
The captain looked around him at the rest of the men. "We'll cover forty miles tomorrow. You're wasting time if you're not asleep already. Now, who's taking first watch?" No one stepped forward. Henry's eyes came to rest on the boy, oblivious to the commotion. Henry took a handful of determined steps to the crumpled form. "Get up, Bridger."
The boy sprang up, wide-eyed as he grasped, bewildered, for his gun. The rusted trading musket had been an advance on his salary, along with a yellowed powder horn and a handful of flints.
"I want you a hundred yards downstream. Find a high spot along the bank. Pig, the same thing upstream. Fitzgerald, Anderson—you'll take the second watch."
Fitzgerald had stood watch the night before. For a moment it appeared he would protest the distribution of labor. He thought better of it, sulking instead to the edge of the camp. The boy, still disoriented, half stumbled across the rocks that spilled along the river's edge, disappearing into the cobalt blackness that encroached on the brigade.
The man they called "Pig" was born Phineous Gilmore on a dirt-poor farm in Kentucky. No mystery surrounded his nickname: he was enormous and he was filthy. Pig smelled so bad it confused people. When they encountered his reek, they looked around him for the source, so implausible did it seem that the odor could emanate from a human. Even the trappers, who placed no particular premium on cleanliness, did their best to keep Pig downwind. After hoisting himself slowly to his feet, Pig slung his rifle over his shoulder and ambled upstream.
Less than an hour passed before the daylight receded completely. Glass watched as Captain Henry returned from a nervous check of the sentries. He picked his way by moonlight among the sleeping men, and Glass realized that he and Henry were the only men awake. The captain chose the ground next to Glass, leaning against his rifle as he eased his large frame to the ground. Repose took the weight off his tired feet, but failed to relieve the pressure he felt most heavily.
"I want you and Black Harris to scout tomorrow," said Captain Henry. Glass looked up, disappointed that he could not respond to the beckoning call of sleep.
"Find something to shoot in late afternoon. We'll risk a fire." Henry lowered his voice, as if making a confession. "We're way behind, Hugh." Henry gave every indication that he intended to talk for a while. Glass reached for his rifle. If he couldn't sleep, he might as well tend his weapon. He had doused it in a river crossing that afternoon and wanted to apply fresh grease to the trigger works.
"Cold'll set in hard by early December," continued the captain. "We'll need two weeks to lay in a supply of meat. If we're not on the Yellowstone before October we'll have no fall hunt."
If Captain Henry was racked by internal doubt, his commanding physical presence betrayed no infirmity. The band of leather fringe on his deerskin tunic cut a swath across his broad shoulders and chest, remnants of his former profession as a lead miner in the Saint Genevieve district of Missouri. He was narrow at the waist, where a thick leather belt held a brace of pistols and a large knife. His breeches were doeskin to the knee, and from there down red wool. The captain's pants had been specially tailored in St. Louis and were a badge of his wilderness experience. Leather provided excellent protection, but wading made it heavy and cold. Wool, by contrast, dried quickly and retained heat even when wet.
If the brigade he led was motley, Henry at least drew satisfaction from the fact they called him "captain." In truth, of course, Henry knew the title was an artifice. His band of trappers had nothing to do with the military, and scant respect for any institution. Still, Henry was the only man among them to have trod and trapped the Three Forks. If title meant little, experience was the coin of the realm.
The captain paused, waiting for acknowledgment from Glass. Glass looked up from his rifle. It was a brief look, because he had unscrewed the elegantly scrolled guard that covered the rifle's twin triggers. He cupped the two screws carefully in his hand, afraid of dropping them in the dark.
The glance sufficed, enough to encourage Henry to continue. "Did I ever tell you about Drouillard?"
"You know who he was?"
"George Drouillard—Corps of Discovery?"
Henry nodded his head. "Lewis and Clark man, one of their best—a scout and a hunter. In 1809 he signed up with a group I led—he led, really—to the Three Forks. We had a hundred men, but Drouillard and Colter was the only ones who'd ever been there.
"We found beaver thick as mosquitoes. Barely had to trap 'em—could go out with a club. But we ran into trouble with the Blackfeet from the start. Five men killed before two weeks was up. We had to fort up, couldn't send out trapping parties.
"Drouillard holed up there with the rest of us for about a week before he said he was tired of sitting still. He went out the next day and came back a week later with twenty plews."
Glass paid the captain his full attention. Every citizen of St. Louis knew some version of Drouillard's story, but Glass had never heard a first-person account.
"He did that twice, went out and came back with a pack of plews. Last thing he said before he left the third time was, 'Third time's charmed.' He rode off and we heard two gunshots about half an hour later—one from his rifle and one from his pistol. Second shot must have been him shooting his horse, trying to make a barrier. That's where we found him behind his horse. There must have been twenty arrows between him and the horse. Blackfeet left the arrows in, wanted to send us a message. They hacked him up, too—cut off his head."
The captain paused again, scraping at the dirt in front of him with a pointed stick. "I keep thinking about him."
Glass searched for words of reassurance. Before he could say anything the captain asked, "How long do you figure this river's gonna keep running west?"
Excerpted from The Revenant by Michael Punke. Copyright © 2002 Michael Punke. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
September 1, 1823,
1. August 21, 1823,
2. August 23, 1823,
3. August 24, 1823,
4. August 28, 1823,
5. August 30, 1823,
6. August 31, 1823,
7. September 2, 1823—Morning,
8. September 2, 1823—Afternoon,
9. September 8, 1823,
10. September 15, 1823,
11. September 16, 1823,
12. September 17, 1823,
13. October 5, 1823,
14. October 6, 1823,
15. October 9, 1823,
16. November 29, 1823,
17. December 5, 1823,
18. December 6, 1823,
19. December 8, 1823,
20. December 15, 1823,
21. December 31, 1823,
22. February 27, 1824,
23. March 6, 1824,
24. March 7, 1824,
25. March 28, 1824,
26. April 14, 1824,
27. April 28, 1824,
28. May 7, 1824,
Also by Michael Punke,
About the Author,