Sergeant Patrick Gass, Chief Carpenter: On the Trail with Lewis and Clark
Captain Lewis honors me
more than I deserve
by giving a stream my name,
which as if something to be savored
I whisper more than once
as we move our canoes
through the mountains: Gass's Creek.
Gass's Creek. Gass's Creek.
Five days ago, having embarked
at sunrise, we happened
onto the finest currants you can
imagine—red and yellow and black,
black being the most pleasant
Eight days from now the sweetness
of currant and of honor
will turn sour: I'll misplace
Captain Lewis's tomahawk
in an impossible tangle of brush.
When I'll offer the Captain the hand
that failed to keep the tomahawk in tow,
telling him to punish it however
it might please him,
he'll smile. Accidents happen, he'll say,
even in the best of families.
Even so, I'll not know sweetness
for many days, and in my dreams
I'll return to the brush where
behold! I'll find the tomahawk
each and every time.
Many tools in life's toolbox,
chance among them.
Twice now Captain Lewis, without
moving, has dodged the ball
that, but for chance,
would have ended his bold career.
He told us he heard the Blackfoot's shot
whistle an ear,
and Cruzatte's misplaced slug
might have been fatal
had it struck a few inches higher.
And consider the beaver,
how gnawing it fells the sapling
you attached the note to, chance
like a drunken guide
sending the rear echelon
up the shallowest branch of the river.
Thus does chance both help
and hinder. And because
the Captain is alive
we laugh with him. And because
we learn eventually
that a river is not a stream, we
re-trace our steps
to begin the ascent again.
Hunger, they say, does not know bad bread.
Even so, some of the men do not relish
Captain Lewis's portable soup,
so we kill and roast a colt
whose meat makes the soup tolerable
for some, unnecessary for the rest.
But the meat doesn't last, and soon enough
we are left with no choice: portable soup,
parched corn, and a bank of snow
to answer as a substitute
Earlier, among the Flatheads,
we lost several pair of moccasins
to ravenous dogs. I watched these
pitiful animals and could see in their eyes
a desperation I myself have come close at times
When we kill a second colt
its mare returns to where we took dinner
the day before. She must have thought
her missing offspsring had been left
behind. So she does what
we higher animals might have done,
she being just that much human.
What a curious thing this act
we call possession.
I managed to lose Captain Lewis's
tomahawk, yet meanwhile managed
not to lose my hatchet—or my flask,
or the cedar box I've come
almost to worship that
protects my razor.
At Mandan, about to begin the last leg
home, we say goodbye to Sacagawea
and little Pomp, both
to be further possessed by Charbonneau.
With us, of course, will be our good black
comrade, York, Captain Clark's
body servant, who must continue to dance
to a myriad of tunes devised by others.
Sacagawea: a peace medal for your thoughts.
York: a bottle of the rum I don't have
for your doubts.
Ah, what a curious thing this act
we call possession!
There must have been a meadow somewhere
where the first bird sang,
a meadow somewhere
where the first flower bloomed.
We must have found such a meadow yesterday
where in the midst of emerald splendor
we camped the night.
Almost daily I see flora that I cannot name beyond
description: tiny, tall, blue, yellow,
leaves with edges like sawteeth.
Those few that I know the names of sing on the
tongue: sweet myrrh, angelica, timothy
grass, serviceberry, aster, flax.
Last night we camped in the midst of emerald,
aromatic as the dark moist hair
of the woman
I look forward to spending the less feral years
of my life with. I will speak to her
of this meadow where, I will
tell her, the first bird must have sung, where the
first of all the flora on God's green earth
must have bloomed.
Does our fiddler admire the taste
of well-cooked dog?
He does indeed, proof of which lies
in his trading a fine capote
for an animal that, on the spit,
grins as if he approves.
Private LaBiche, himself also
somewhat a Frenchman,
challenges Cruzatte to play a tune
LaBiche has the title for—The
Dead Dog Polka.
Cruzatte, sated, obliges, and
his swift improvisation sets our feet
to tapping, our voices
to sporadic barking.
Add to this scene an influx of hats
brought to the fort eight days ago
for bartering. They are made
of cedar bark and silk grass, ride
high on the pate, and
according to the Chinooks that
made them are impervious to water.
Now they both adorn and extend
the visages of several corpsmen as
we rise to dance The Dead Dog Polka,
hats doing their own spastic jigs
on the tops of our civilized heads.