A charming, though bloody, historical novel based on the reminiscences of Jim Beckwourth, whose rise to Indian chiefdom in the 1830s provides an unusual angle on a fascinating slice of Native American history. Born in 1800 to a Virginia aristocrat and a mulatto slave girl, Beckwourth's story here begins when he's 24, a hunter and scout for General Ashley's group as it crosses the Rockies. His mentor is old Pierre La Blueux, a fur trader who breaks him in as a mountain man. But his real life begins when, kidnapped and a victim of mistaken identity, he's adopted by Chief Big Bowl of the Sparrow Hawk People of the Absaroka (Crows) tribe--one of several Indian tribes caught up in constant internal warfare. At first Beckwourth stays with the Absaroka because he expects to become a tremendously rich, Indian-supported trapper--but the Indians prefer horse-stealing as a way of life and the glory-path to the Spirit World. So he quickly learns the people's difficult language, enjoys marital bliss with bride Still-water, and after killing a Blackfoot in a war party, he is renamed Antelope. Through successes and reverses, he rises in the tribe's esteem and one day suddenly finds himself to be the chosen mouthpiece of spirits, speaking wisdom and leading his men into victory over the Cheyenne. Widows flock to Antelope, and Still-water encourages him to take several wives to build his power and station: he falls like an oak for beautiful warrior-virgin Pine Leaf, then like a pine for Red Cherry, an infatuation that costs him dearly in property. (But when he watches Red Cherry swallow a six-foot length of hot raw buffalo intestine he's sure she's worth everything.) And finally, after Pine Leaf is near-fatally wounded in battle and Chief A-ra-poo-ash is slain, a mystical buffalo calf appears to the people: Beckwourth becomes Chief Medicine Calf, the wisest Crow of them all. . . but all too aware of the brief shine left for the tribes before the fatal Western expansion. An education in nobility--and an engaging perspective on the strange humanity of a distant culture; an auspicious fiction entry from a veteran California poet.