A novel of ruggedness and salvation, an epic masterpiece set in a time when worlds collided, were destroyed, and were built anew
The Last Crossing is a sweeping tale of breathtaking quests, adventurous detours, and hard- won redemption. Master storyteller Guy Vanderhaeghe--hailed by Richard Ford as "simply a wonderful writer"--takes us on an exhilarating journey from the gleaming spires of Oxford in Victorian England to the dusty whiskey trading posts of the nineteenth-century American and Canadian West.
Englishmen Charles and Addington Gaunt are ordered by their tyrannical industrialist father to find their brother Simon, who has gone missing in the wilds of the American West. Charles, a disillusioned artist, and Addington, a disgraced military captain, set off to remote Fort Benton, in the outreaches of the Montana frontier. The brothers hire the enigmatic Jerry Potts, a half-Blackfoot, half-Scot guide, to lead them north, where Simon was last seen. Addington takes command of the mission, buying enough provisions to fill two wagons, and hires sycophantic journalist Caleb Ayto to record the journey for posterity. As the party heads out, it grows to include Lucy Stoveall, a fiery and beautiful woman who is bent on finding the men who viciously killed her sister; Custis Straw, a Civil War veteran in love with Lucy; and saloonkeeper Aloysius Dooley, loyal friend to Custis Straw. This unlikely posse becomes entangled in an unfolding drama that forces each one of them to confront his or her own demons.
Told from alternating points of view and in vivid flashbacks, The Last Crossing conveys the varied lives of its search party in haunting scenes--a bear hunt at dawn, the discovery of an Indian village decimated by smallpox, a sharpshooter's devastating annihilation of his prey, a soldier's guilt-ridden memory of his own survival, and an atypical love story. The Last Crossing is a novel of ruggedness and salvation, an epic masterpiece set in a time when worlds collided, were destroyed, and were built anew.
This sweeping epic novel of the search for a lost Englishman in the raw Indian territories of the U.S.-Canadian Western borderlands in the late 19th century was a Canadian bestseller and award-winner last year, but has only just made it here. That's puzzling, for Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman's Boy) is a prodigiously gifted writer who makes the West, its fierce weathers, rugged landscapes and contrary characters come to life in a way comparable to McMurtry at his best. He tells of the disappearance on the prairie of a wealthy and idealistic young Englishman, Simon Gaunt, in the company of a devious missionary who is later found dead. Simon's tyrannical father sends brothers Charles and Addington to see if they can find out what happened to him and if, by chance, he is still alive. The dreamy, artistic Charles and the preening, choleric Addington get together with a Scots-Indian half-breed, Jerry Potts (a real person of the time), as their guide and set out into a wilderness inhabited only by warring Indian tribes and rogue traders selling them whiskey. They are accompanied by Lucy Stoveall, a tough beauty in search of the renegades who raped and murdered her young sister, and Custis Straw, a battered Civil War veteran desperately in love with her. Their adventures are pulse-poundingly exciting and graphic, and if the book has a fault it is that it is almost overstuffed with drama and incident. A pair of brilliant set pieces-Straw's memories of a bloody Civil War battle, and a murderous encounter between warring Indian tribes-are not really essential to the narrative, and the elegiac ending seems oddly off-key. But the book's rewards far transcend these excesses, and no reader once embarked on this hugely involving adventure will be able to stop until it is done.
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November 29, 2004
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Excerpt from The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe
CHARLES GAUNT I let myself into the house, stand looking up the stairs, turn, go into the study, pour a whisky and soda. Today's mail is waiting, envelopes on a salver. My man, Harding, has laid a fire, but I don't trouble to light it. I leave my ulster on, stand sipping from the tumbler with a gloved hand, staring at the day's letters.
I know what they are. Invitations. Invitations for a weekend in the country. Invitations to dine. More invitations than I am accustomed to receiving. Now people court me. Queer old Charlie Gaunt has become a minor, middle-aged bachelor celebrity. Even Richards and Merton, long-time acquaintances with whom I dined tonight in the Athenaeum, did not allow my new eminence to pass unremarked. For years, I was never anyone's first choice as a portrait painter, never admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, only very lately handed the privilege of sporting the initials a.r.a. after my name. Merely an Associate. Tardy laurels finally pressed upon an indifferent brow.
The highest praise ever bestowed by my fellow artists was to say I ought to have been a history painter, my rendering of marble in oil paint was as exquisite as Alma-Tadema's. Cosgrave, with a picture dealer's disdain for the truth, once described me to a dewlapped matron as a "court painter." By that he meant I had doodled up a por?trait of a demented claimant to the throne of Spain (of which there are legion), a sallow-complexioned fellow who sat in my studio morosely munching walnuts and strewing the floor with their shells. I cannot recall his name, only that he wore a wig, but never the same wig twice. This led to an indistinct element to the portrayal of His Catholic Majesty's coiffure which mightily displeased him.
But now, the mountain comes to Mohammed. Artistic success won in an unexpected quarter. The dry old stick Charlie Gaunt publishes a volume of verse. Love poems, no less. For months, much of London society has been mildly engrossed in tea-time speculation about the identity of the lady of whom I wrote. A small assist to sales. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Times was laudatory and the Edinburgh Review kind in a niggling, parsimonious Scottish way.
Yesterday, I ran into Machar, the Glasgow refugee, outside Piccadilly Station. He was arch, and I was short with him.
"We hadn't guessed, Gaunt," he cooed. "I mean the book - that's a side of you we hadn't suspected."
I challenged him. "You've read it, have you?"
"Haven't had time to read it yet. But I bought it."
He was lying. If he had it at all, it was borrowed from a lending library. "Well," I said, brandishing my stick to hail a passing cab, "then you don't know what you're talking about, do you, Machar?" I showed him my coattails, spun off without another word.
One of the envelopes on the tray attracts my eye, addressed by an unfamiliar hand and bearing a Canadian stamp. Inside, I discover a newspaper clipping already a month old.
The Macleod Gazette July 17, 1896
JERRY POTTS DEAD
AN HISTORICAL LANDMARK GONE
Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. Jerry was a type, and a type that is fast disappearing. A half-breed, with all that name implies, he had the proud distinction of being a very potent factor in the discovery (if it might be so called) and settlement of the western part of the North West Territories. When Colonels French and Macleod left their worried, and almost helpless column at Sweet Grass in '74, after a march of 900 miles and a vain search for the much vaunted "Whoop-Up" it was the veriative accident of fortune that in Benton they found Jerry Potts . . .
My eyes skim the remainder of the obituary, settle on the last paragraph.
Jerry Potts is dead, but his name lives, and will live. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and "faithful and true" is the character he leaves behind him - the best monument of a valuable life.
The indestructible Potts dead. The news excites a pang of melan?choly despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him for a quarter?century. Yes, faithful and true he certainly was. And now, apparently famous too, after a fashion. Jerry Potts, how unlikely a candidate for renown.
Wondering who could have sent me such a notice, I peek into the envelope and dislodge a small piece of notepaper, a few words scrawled on it in pencil. There is something you must know. I can only tell it to you in person. I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw.
The shock of the name turns me to the window. In the square below, street lamps are shedding an eerie jade light which trembles in the weft of the fog.
It seems I am asked to perform at another's bidding, just as I did more than two decades ago when my father set my feet on the Pasha, 1,790 tons of iron steamship breaching the Irish Sea, bound for New York.
Twilight, the ship trailing scarves of mist, the air wet on my face. Standing at the stern, damp railing gripped in my gloves, sniffing the fishy salt of the ocean, gazing back to the blurred lights of the river traffic plying the mouth of the Mersey.
The land slowly vanishing from sight, retiring at ten knots per hour, as the screw boiled water and I stood, one hand clamped to my top hat to hold it in place, and peered down. Alone. The other pas?sengers had gone to dress for dinner. The propeller frothed the water, beat it white, the ship's wake a metalled road pointing back to England. The breeze freshened, the skirts of my frock coat fluttered. Sailors cried out, preparing to raise auxiliary sail. Chop clapped the sides of the vessel, pale veins of turbulence in the dark granite sea. A first glimpse of stars, their salmon-pink coronas.
Deferential footsteps behind me, a smiling steward had come to announce dinner was served. I shook my head, "Thank you, I shall not dine tonight." The puzzled steward's face. Thirty guineas passage, meals, wine included, and the gentleman does not wish to dine tonight?
Not when I preferred to gaze upon what I was leaving, to recall those figures in the Ford Madox Brown painting, The Last of England. A young couple in the stern of a boat, holding hands, faces sombre, the white cliffs of Dover sentimental in the distance, the ties of the woman's bonnet whipping in the wind. A lady flying from England just as Simon, my twin brother, had fled it.
Beneath my feet, the deck of the Pasha lurched, grew more and more tipsy with every minute that passed. Yet that unsteadiness was nothing to how unbalanced I feel now, staring down into Grosvenor Square, wondering what has prompted Custis Straw's blunt and peremptory summons, what it means.
Out of the black inkwell of the night sky, incongruously, a white flood poured. Fat flakes of lazy snow eddying, sticking like wet feath?ers to whatever they touched. Simon Gaunt, waking with a start, discovered himself seated on an inert horse, becalmed in a storm. For the briefest of moments, mind a blur of white, he searched for a name. Seized it. "Reverend Witherspoon!" he shouted. "Reverend!"
Nothing answered, nothing moved except for the palsied snow.
Since dawn, Witherspoon had been driving them to the brink of collapse. In London, Simon Gaunt had not recognized the danger of that side of Witherspoon, the reliance on iron rules. Cited like Holy Scripture. When journeying one must never halt until wood and shelter are obtained.
But here, on a barren tabletop plain, wood and shelter were a figment of the imagination.
Press on, my boy.
As the October dusk drew down, Simon had argued desperately for making camp. But Witherspoon would not hear of it; the impos?ing face that ecstatic love could render soft as soap in London was now cast as hard as an Old Testament prophet's certainty. We shall not yield to adversity.
So on they went, deeper and deeper into bewildering nightfall, Witherspoon flogging his mare until he opened a safe ten yards, a cordon sanitaire between himself and the weak-kneed naysayer. Ten yards to symbolize the moral gulf separating master and disciple.
The last thing Simon could remember before falling asleep was the Reverend's broad shoulders rocking side to side like a wagging forefinger, reproving his feebleness, admonishing his sloth.
How long had he slept?
"Reverend Witherspoon! Reverend Witherspoon!" The snow drowned his cry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Witherspoon had ridden on and Simon was alone. A cold clinker of fear settled in the grate of his belly. Lost. He lashed his horse into a trot; the gelding submitted for a hundred reluctant yards, then faltered, came to a complete standstill.
How dreadfully cold it was. A breeze sprang to sudden life and his cheeks, wet with melting snow, stiffened at the icy touch. The wind panted, flakes swirled, thickened. Twisting in his saddle, Simon strained for a glimpse of Witherspoon hastening to gather the lost lamb, some darker blot in the darkness of night. The blizzard was strengthening, slapping at horse and rider; he could feel the gelding's mane fluttering against his hands clamped to the reins.
Bouncing his heels on the gelding's ribs, he urged it to resume an unwilling shamble. The gusts were growing fiercer, snow was biting at his face like flying sand. He ducked his head and watched the drifts unroll beneath him, a white scroll of vellum, luminous in the dim light.
The scroll stopped. His hat sailed off. Dismounting, Simon rifled the saddlebag, found his old Oxford scarf, bandaged his burning ears with it, knotted it under his chin. Wind keened through the weave of the wool. Never had he known such cold; it drew heat out of the body like a leech draws blood. Forehead, eyes, cheeks ached from the frigid, sucking mouth.
Weariness overwhelmed him, dropped his forehead heavily against the horse's flank. He let it rest there. Just a minute. Only a minute. Then he would move. Go on. The gelding's rump was crusted with ice and snow, so was Simon's beard. Raking his fingers through it, he plucked away clots of ice, trying to pray. "Lord God of Hosts," he began, but his thoughts were lost in the roar of the storm, brain nothing but a puddle of numb slush. Falling back on memory, he recited from the Book of Common Prayer. "'O most glorious and gra?cious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below,'" he mumbled. "'Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring . . .'" His voice ebbed away.
It was no good. He dove back into the saddlebag, fingers turned to pincers by the cold, and grappled a tin, pried away the top. The wind caught the lid, tore it from his hand, kited it off into the howling night. He patted, crooned and clucked, feeding the exhausted horse his shortbread, trying to kindle in it a little strength to continue on.
The gelding shied when he tried to remount. Somehow Simon snagged the stirrup with his boot and clambered aboard, weeping when the horse once more stubbornly stalled, beating its neck with a fist. But then it swung its head, put the wind to their backs, moved off hesitantly. With the blizzard whipping its hindquarters, the gelding broke into a lope, then a wild staggering gallop, heaving like a storm?driven ship. Simon tasted long white streaks of snow, smears on the chalkboard of night, as his brain jerked from spot to spot on his body, probing. Face dead, a slab of wood. Fingers dead. Twigs.
Latimer, bound to the stake, had said to the chained and sobbing Nicholas Ridley beside him, "Play the man, master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
He would have welcomed to burn like Latimer now.
The horse gave a grunt, stumbled, fell in slow, dreamy increments. Simon became a boy again. His father had bought him a ticket at the London zoo for a ride on the camel. The dromedary was lowering itself to earth, in stages, a complicated, groaning piece of machinery, settling to its knees, sinking.
Pitched headlong, Simon lay in a pillow of snow, listening to Ridley screaming in the flames.
No, not Ridley screaming, the horse. He staggered to the fallen gelding. It was trying to rise on three legs, the fourth was horribly broken. Lurching up and falling back, lurching up and falling back. Simon caught the head stall, pulled the beast down and squatted on its neck, bringing to an end the terrible struggle. The horse stared up at him. Its eye a coal-yoked egg.
He placed his hand over the eye. His brother Addington had smashed a lot of hunters' legs. Addington, merciless rider. Long ago, a boy of ten, he'd seen one of the victims of Addington's recklessness destroyed. The gamekeeper delivered the coup de gr?ce while Addington and his fox-hunting friends drank whisky in the house. The callous cruelty of it had made him sob miserably, displeasing his father. "Buck up," Father had commanded him.
Left hand blinkering the eye of the horse, Simon reached for the knife sheathed on his belt. Less a knife than a small, bone-handled sword bought in Fort Benton, a bowie knife the Americans called it.
He told himself, "The Holy Ghost reads hearts."
When he sliced the throat, a tremor ran down the horse's neck, hot blood scalded his hand. The weary horse did not take long to die.
Whimpering, Simon huddled against its belly, cringing from the wind. His hands were alive with needles of agony; when he slipped them down the front of his pants to warm them, he felt the gluey blood on his privates.
There was a hymn - it skipped about his brain before he heard himself singing. "'How mighty is the Blood that ran for sinful nature's needs! It broke the ban, it rescued man; it lives, and speaks, and pleads!'" Blood running for sinful nature's needs. Living, speaking, pleading. To rescue man.
Simon scrambled to his knees, knife upraised. Drove the sixteen?inch blade into the horse's chest, sawed the belly down to the legs. Guts spilling, a thin steam sifting out of the lips of the incision. Plunged his hands into the mess of entrails. Tore away, scooping offal behind him, hacking with the knife at whatever resisted, whatever clung. Moaning, hunching his shoulders, drawing his knees up to his chest, wriggling away at the mouth of the wound, he burrowed into the balmy pocket.
O precious Side-hole's cavity
I want to spend my life in thee . . .
There in one Side-hole's joy divine,
I'll spend all future Days of mine.
Yes, yes, I will for ever sit
There, where Thy Side was split.
Safe in the slick, rich animal heat, out of the cruel wind. Not all of him, but enough. An embryo, curled in the belly of the dead horse.
The little bells sewn to the hem of Talks Different's caped buffalo robe jingled crisply as she strode along, towing an old buffalo bull hide piled with sticks rooted out of a coulee bottom. The sharp cold that had greeted her at dawn was lifting; Sun was climbing higher and higher, softening the snow, making it stick to the parfleche soles of her moccasins.
The passing of last night's blizzard had left the air perfectly still. Talks Different sweated in her robe, eyes squinted against Sun's daz?zling dance on the white plain. All at once, she stopped and stared. Off in the distance, something was moving, most likely a prairie wolf gorging on a kill. She gave a tug to the hide-tail, briskly covered another hundred yards, but still could not give a name to what it was she saw. Something crouched above a carcass, something forbidding and black. The bells of her robe pealed a thin warning, but the crea?ture did not run from the ringing like a coyote or wolf would. And it was too small to be a grizzly.
The glaring light stabbed thorns in her eyes; they streamed with tears. What she was straining to see could not be a vision, visions were given freely to her. This seemed to be a thing of the earth, but very strange. She hurried on.
Now she could recognize the body of a horse, one hoofed leg jutting up. But the black thing that had moved before now stayed absolutely still, wrapped up in a ball. She called out to it, identifying herself as a holy being, asking it if it were a holy being too. At the sound of her voice, it stirred, twitched.
Talks Different was not afraid to meet anything strange because she had been made an unusual being herself, a bote granted the bless?ing of Two Spirit. Confident in her sacred power she came forward, ready to face whatever waited there.
Slowly, unsteadily, it rose up on its hind legs and became a Hairy Face dressed in black pants and black coat. He said nothing. His clothes, his hands, the hair of his head, even his beard, downy as a fledgling duck, were smeared with dried blood.
Now he worked his lips, trying to make words, but nothing came from his mouth except the sounds of a baby wanting to nurse. He took a step and his legs gave way, dropping him on his bottom like a toddler. And like such a child, he stretched out his arms to Talks Different, begging to be picked up, carried and comforted.