Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 1
KINGS OF THE
SWEETHEARTS AND KNIVES
ST. LOUIS with its strange hodge-podge of humanity bustled feverishly under the late April sun. The permanent inhabitants were respectable and progressive, yet the first impression a stranger was apt to receive was an atmosphere of recklessness, if not lawlessness. This because the city with its seven thousand people was the center of the fur trade and the temporary haven for desperate characters from east of the Mississippi. Located a scant score of miles below the mouth of the Missouri—the white man's first path to the Rockies and the key to the trans-Mississippian territory—the city yielded nothing to Montreal as a jumping-off place for adventures of all sorts.
The explorations of Major Zebulon Pike, Captains Lewis and Clark, and Major Stephen H. Long, were from one to two decades old on this particular April day, and yet the people thus far had profited but scantily from the printed reports. There was soon coming a time when a mighty host, impelled by a national impulse to expand, would eagerly consult these sleeping authorities. But St. Louis in 1831 thought and talked of furs, not of peopling a continent. In the streets could be seen the lounging mountain men employed by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, formed by General William H. Ashley in 1822. The season before these same men, clad in greasy and worn garments of buckskin and buffalo hide, had brought back from the mountains a hundred thousand dollars' worth of beaver. Men of the American Fur Company, the strongest fur organization on the continent with the exception of the Hudson's Bay, were kept at their permanent posts throughout the valley of the Missouri and did not enjoy the license of leave exhibited by Ashley's old men.
Traders also were returning from Santa Fé with huge profits. Trade with the Southwest, fur-harvesting in the West and Northwest, was the order of the day. There seems to be no record of either trader or trapper seeking wealth beneath the soil. The gold strikes in California, Colorado, Idaho and Montana, were marching down the years but had not yet arrived. Fur was the king of the western country and beaver was the most sought of all fur-bearing animals. Beaver was to continue holding this eminence until 1833 when John Jacob Astor in London would write to his associates in the great A. F. C.—
"It appears they make hats of silk in place of beaver."
But beaver was readily selling from seven to eight dollars a pound this April day, and Ralph Lander hurrying to his work in the A. F. C. store never dreamed of living to see the price reduced. In 1831 there was every reason to believe the price must go up as the supply dwindled. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company specialized in beaver. The Hudson's Bay Compny, cut off from a profitable trade in robes because of portage charges, greedily took all it could get. The A. F. C. on the Missouri and its tributaries traded for all pelts, but made a drive for the dam-builders. So neither Ralph Lander nor any other man in the year 1831 could know what a blow inventive genius was to deal the beaver trade two years hence.
Lander knew changes must take place, but he could vision nothing to prevent him from becoming a mountain man, a king of the Missouri. His ideal was Ashley, the implacable rival of the A. F. C. It was Ashley who brought romance to the fur trade and set a new pace by doing away with fixed posts and by sending large bodies of trappers into the beaver country to trap and trade. With Ashley had been associated such men as William L. and Milton Sublette, whose grandfather is credited with slaying Tecumseh at the battle of the Thames, James P. Beckwourth and James Bridger. The A. F. C, clinging to the traditions and practises of the British companies, was hard put to meet the growing opposition of these celebrated mountain men. Diluted alcohol was being exchanged—contrary to law of the country—for buffalo robes at the rate of a pint for a robe.
Ashley's tactics, followed by his successors, did not pivot on the efficiency of the Indian. His own trappers caught the furs. While the A. F. C. could easily retain a monopoly of the robe trade it found itself worried because of the rich packs taken out of the country by the opposition.
Both the A. F. C. and the opposition were one in not desiring immigration. The opposition, however, was not concerned with any problems of placating and conserving the Indian. One depended for trade on the good-will and efforts of the Indian, the other went in and secured pelts despite the Indian.
Lander was not given to analysis. He knew the steamboat had come to remain a fixture and that the days of the flatboat were over. He knew the keelboat still persisted as a great factor in the upper Missouri trade, but he did not realize it would have followed the flatboat long before his day had not the flimsy structure of the steam craft made steamboat travel hazardous. He worked for the inexorable A. F. C, a huge and smoothly running machine, and he admired the privateering of Ashley's men. He credited the A. F. C. with eliminating British influence in the Indian country. He should have given the credit to the advent of the American steamboat What neither State, Church, nor Army could effect had been brought about by superstition. The Indian had decided that those who used a "fire canoe" must be more mighty than those who did not.
With epochal changes shaping about him Lander's thoughts remained those of youth in spring-time. The most important thing in the world for him to think about was little Susette Parker, only child of gruff "Hurry-Up" Parker, a valuable cog in the A. F. C.'s St. Louis machinery. The girl had been Lander's inspiration and undoing. She had filled him with ambitions and had robbed him of the power to leave the town and join a mountain expedition and prove his worth. Instead of carving out the future her love must demand, he remained slave to the present and continued packing goods for men who were to live the life.
When the opposition came back from the mountains and the A. F. C. headquarters were blue with profanely expressed rage, Lander secretly rejoiced at their good fortune and felt the thrill of youth, lusting for the unusual. Even the pack-mules, skinned from withers to tail from carrying two hundred pounds for two thousand miles, urged him to follow their back trail. Whenever an express came down from Fort Union—best built west of the Mississippi with the possible exception of Bent's on the Arkansas—and told of Indian troubles, especially of the undying hatred of the Blackfeet for the whites, he burned to take a pack and gun and steal into the hostile country and try his luck.
When self-respect reproached him for his lack of purpose he defended himself by declaring that no sane man would leave a Susette when she urged him to stay. Susette was spoiled into asking for everything she wanted. She wanted Lander and would not listen to his trying his luck in the Indian country. This eased his conscience, although reason told him he might lose her for all time because he was not strong enough to lose her for a season or two.
Sometimes the fantastic optimism of young years prompted him to scheme immediate marriage, to be followed by venturing into the land of fear and fable. His morning greeting from Hurry-Up Parker always quickly dispelled such nonsense. Parker was hard-headed and damnably practical. The caste of the A. F. C. was in his blood; he would never give his girl to an engagé. He might marry an Indian woman himself, if he were posted up-country, but no hired hand, a mere laborer, should dare raise his head high enough to glimpse Susette's pert eyes.
Now that the young people's intimacy had progressed to the exchange of love vows Lander often felt uncomfortable when he paused to wonder what the stern parent would say and do, once he learned the truth. So the affair had made him sly and secretive. His work included the running of many errands and frequently he was sent to the Parker home on Pine Street. Other times he made errands there when he knew Parker was not about. Only Susette and himself were in the secret, and yet there was one man in the store who had taken to staring at him laughingly every time he came back from an errand.
"I've got to strike out," he groaned half aloud as he slowed his steps on nearing the big warehouse and store. "That Malcom Phinny looks too knowing. He'll be telling things before Susette and I are ready. I must get up-river and work up to some position. No more putting off. I must."
He had said this before. He was very serious now, and yet the sight of a familiar figure approaching made him smile and forget love and old Parker. It was Jim Bridger, head partner now in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He stood better than six feet, raw-boned and straight and of powerful frame. His brown hair was very thick and worn to his shoulders, and his gray eyes were forever taking inventories as he swung his head from side to side. Lander smiled at recollecting some tall stories Bridger was fond of telling.
"Getting ready to go out, Mister Bridger?" politely asked Lander as Bridger shot him a sharp glance and nodded curtly.
"Lander of the A. F. C.? I remember you. Your people would mighty well like to put a snag in my way."
"I wouldn't. I always wish you luck," was the honest reply.
Bridger smiled good-naturedly.
"Then I don't mind saying we're gitting away almost at once. An' a young, strapping feller like you oughter be doing something better'n sticking round this place an' standing behind a counter. Why don't you git Parker to send you up-country where you can show your mettle?"
Lander was almost inclined to resent the tone and question, for Bridger was only twenty-seven years old and not much his senior. Bridger, however, spoke as a man of vast experience talking to a child.
"I'd mighty well like to see that Yellowstone country you talk about," said Lander.
"Fools round here think I'm making it up," snorted Bridger. "But I've seen all I've told about. Hot water spouting seventy feet high. Springs of water so hot you can cook meat in 'em. An' a cave where the Injuns git their vermilion."
Lander believed he was evening up the mountaineer's air of superiority, and he solemnly repeated:
"I'd mighty well like to see those sights."
"You never will by sticking round here."
And with a jerk of his head the discoverer of Bridger's Pass, of South Pass and the Great Salt Lake, passed on his way.
Lander resumed his smile, then upbraided himself. He never would possess the wealth at tweny-seven that Bridger did. And no number of years could bring him Bridger's influence and power. The man might tell some whopping big lies about the Yellowstone country, but the fact remained that he had more intimate knowledge about the Rocky Mountains than any man of his day. As a guide and reader of signs he was superb. He was held in high esteem by the Indians. Best of all he had worked up from extreme poverty. All St. Lowis knew how he and his sister were left orphans when he was but ten years old, and how at that tender age he had bought a ferryboat and supported the two.
"If he wanted to marry a girl like Susette I reckon Hurry-Up Parker would feel mighty proud," gloomily concluded Lander.
Then he became objective and hastily studied the big storehouse. He was late and Hurry-Up Parker would never forgive tardiness. But from what Susette had said the evening before he knew Parker was entertaining the Fort Union bourgeois, and this would mean an all-night affair with many drinks. Therefore Parker would not show up until late afternoon.
He sidled up to the big doorway and ducked in. The first man he saw was Parker, his face screwed up most savagely. Lander wondered how so vicious-looking a man could be the father of the perfect Susette. He felt deeply embarrassed and not a little uneasy as Parker continued glaring at him over a bale of goods.
Hurrying to the end of the store, where lay his tasks, he met Malcom Phinny, a heavily built, dark-faced fellow, handsome in an Indian sort of a way and several years his senior. Phinny had worked a season at Cabanne's Post and had brought down the trade of the Pawnees on the Loup Fork of the Platte. He was working for promotion and was scheduled to get it this season. He gave himself airs accordingly and, having witnessed Lander's tardy arrival and the boss' irritation, he took pains to raise his voice to inform:
"Didn't know as you'd be here, Lander, so I finished sorting out the beads and small stuff for you."
"Thanks for nothing," growled Lander.
"What did you do to make a night of it?" chuckled Phinny.
"Oh, shut up!"
Phinny's dark face flushed although he continued to smile.
"I beg your pardon. I should not question my betters. After the wedding and after you've been taken in partner, I hope you'll find room for me somewhere."
Lander turned in fury, then rocked back on his heels to find himself confronting Parker. The latter's unexpected appearance from behind a pile of blankets also had a strong effect on Phinny, who glided toward the other end of the store.
"What did he mean about weddings and being partner?" demanded Parker, his eyes two black streaks between his lowered lids.
"Lord, sir! I don't know. Just some of his beastly nonsense," replied Lander.
"But if nonsense why should it make you mad? You planning to get married?"
"Good land—no, sir! That is—I'm in no position to get married."
"I should say not! You were up to my house yesterday?"
"I—I was so bold as to drop in during the evening," faltered Lander.
"You were so bold, eh? Remember this—don't be so bold again. When I want you there I'll make an errand and send some one else. You remember you're nothing but a scrub of hired help, an engagé, a man who does the odds and ends. Out of hours your range is down on the water-front until you've shown you've got some guts. You come swelling in here half an hour late as if you was one of the company. That won't go with Hurry-Up Parker again. Now git your nose to your work and keep it there."
He was Susette's father. Lander believed Susette loved him. And her father could talk to him like this! He turned red, then white, and assailed his task to keep his thoughts from murder. He could feel Parker's hard eyes boring into the nape of his neck. It seemed as if he worked an hour with the boss' gaze malignantly following his every move.
At last he heard Parker's steps receding. He twisted his head and caught a glimpse of Phinny, half doubled with merriment behind a pyramid of whisky casks. Lander's heart ached with hate of the man. Parker had some excuse—he had been drinking all night and he was the father of the incomparable Susette. It was his nasty way to be always nagging the men. He gloried in his nickname. But Phinny was free to be hated. He was ever trying to lift himself by stepping on the necks of his mates. Many of the men were convinced he carried tales to Parker.
"What made him think I was up at the house last evening?" Lander asked himself as he slowed up his work and rested a hand on a trade-ax and was tempted to hurl it at the grinning face. "Phinny knew somehow that I was there and he let it drop this morning. Curse him! He's got all the ways of a Red River half-breed."
For the rest of the morning Phinny kept out of his way. When it was near the noon hour Lander saw the men near the door bustling to one side, bowing and scraping in an extravagant manner. Twice before Susette had come to the store, and her arrival had been greeted by just such clumsy attempts to do homage to the pretty daughter of a domineering boss. Ordinarily Lander would have marked it a red-letter day and been filled with joy; now he glanced uneasily toward the door marked "Office" and prayed Parker might not emerge.
Then came a flutter of youth and beauty and Miss Susette was standing inside the door, her skirts pulled aside to escape contamination from a small mountain of whisky casks destined to be smuggled by Fort Leavenworth for the Sioux and Assiniboin trade. Lander hoped she would pass into the office.
She spied him and with a little cry of discovery came tripping down the lane formed by the heaped-up trade goods and supplies.
"Why didn't you come to help me in?" she sternly rebuked. "Two of the men had to lift me up."
"Not a hard job for one man," he said, grinning ruefully at her slight, dainty figure and again marveling how the old bear could be her father. "If you want to see your father he is in the office."
"I don't want to see him," she coolly informed. "I saw him this morning and he was very cross. Can't you come outside where we can talk? This place smells so of things."
"Susette, I don't dare budge. I was late. Your father mounted me like a wildcat. I can't even talk in here. If you'll walk down by Tradeau's house at eight o'clock this evening I'll have much to tell you."
"Walk by Jean Tradeau's house?" she repeated, much puzzled. "Why not see me at my house?"
"I'll tell you this evening."
"But tell me now!" and a maternal glitter quickened her gaze.
"It's like this——"
He halted and cast an apprehensive glance over his shoulder. Phinny's voice was loudly informing:
"She was here just a minute ago, Mister Parker. I thought she was right behind me when I announced her. Now she's gone. No, there she is chatting with Lander."
Lander felt his heart slipping. To get the best of physical fear was easy enough; one had only to buckle down and come to grips with the cause. But the anticipation of being put to shame before the girl and by her father fairly sickened him. Susette, not understanding in the least, was rather provoked that her father should intrude on the scene. She affected not to see him.
Parker bore down upon them and unceremoniously seized the girl by the arm and without a word led her to the door.
"But, papa, I was talking with Mr. Lander," she indignantly protested.
Ignoring her, Parker called out to a servant and a frightened colored woman bobbed her head in the door, her lips broadly smiling, her eyes wdde with fear.
"You, Maime," hoarsely growled Parker. "If your mistress ever comes here again without my telling her to come I'll sell you down-river."
With that he lifted the vision in lace and ribbons down from the high door and turned back to speak with Lander.
Lander had suffered the worst and now stared at his employer sullenly. Parker halted a few feet from him and began:
"So it's true, eh? I couldn't believe it at first. You're chasing my little gal, eh? I thought it was a lie when he told me——"
"Meaning when that puppy of a Phinny told you," hotly broke in Lander. "I haven't chased your girl. I've known Miss Susette ever since I came to work here two years ago. You've sent me to the house every few days. You knew we met and talked."
"Well, you won't call again. Now git out of here. You're through. You're not only through, but the A. F. C. will see you don't git any work in St. Louis, except it's nigger's work on the levee."
"The A. F. C. may stop me getting work, perhaps. I won't call at your house till you ask me," replied Lander, slipping on his coat and picking up his hat.
"I'll ask you to call when the Missouri flows from the Mississip' into the Rocky Mountains. Git your pay at the office now. I don't want you coming in here again."
"God forbid!" exclaimed Lander, hastening blindly into the office.
When his mind cleared Lander found himself down by the old Chouteau Pond. From the time he left Parker he could remember nothing of having procured his pay although he found it in his pocket and right to a penny. He had no recollection of where he had walked or by what route he had come to the pond. He could recall but one thing, and that was Phinny's hoarse bleat of derision as he left the storehouse.
"I have made the breath come hard trying to catch you," spoke up a gentle voice at his elbow.
He turned and his face lighted as he beheld the frail figure of a man with snow-white hair and white mustaches. It was Etienne Clair, an old and very eccentric Frenchman who roomed near him on upper Market Street.
"I'm in a devil of a mess, Papa Clair," he groaned, feeling as free to crave sympathy as if the ancient had been a woman.
"I followed you many streets. I thought you mad. The devil's to pay? Then there must be work for the knife. We will fix it together!" cried Clair, speaking his English with scarcely a trace of accent. "I have lived long on the river and at the foot of the river. I have seen many troubles eased with the knife. But never have I been so glad——"
"The knife will hardly do in this case," morosely broke in Lander.
"Not do?" squealed the Frenchman, his arms and hands violently repudiating such heresy. "Have I not taught you the etiquette of the knife? Is there a young blood in St. Louis, in New Orleans, who knows it better? And behold, you say it will not do!"
"Papa Clair, your heart is as white as your hair. I've quit the A. F. C. Made to quit——"
"Hurry-Up Parker discharged me without a second's notice."
"Descendant of a pig! He shall be insulted by you and challenge you. I will appear for you. Weapons? Knives. He is not so old he can hide behind his age and refuse to meet you."
"Impossible! Even if I wanted to fight him I couldn't."
"Holy blue! I—I do not understand, M'sieu Lander. I, Etienne Clair, walk in darkness, m'sieu. I have taught you the knife. I have made for it the scabbard for you to wear inside your boot. Knowing what I have taught you, wearing the blade I gave you, you can look the devil in the face and tell him to go home or have his tail cut off. And behold! You say you can not demand your safety from a low-down Indian-trader. God's mercy! M'sieu Lander, if you can not explain——"
"You don't understand!" choked Lander. "The girl, his girl—Susette. But I mustn't mention names."
"Now God is good! It is unsaid. No name has been spoken!" cried the little Frenchman, sweeping off his shabby fur cap and bowing low to some Imaginary princess. "Your high heart does you great honor. Your knife will sing the sweeter when we find honest work for it to do. The divinity of woman must always protect her men from her lover."
"There are three things I must do at once," mumbled Lander. "I must get work. Parker says the A. F. C. will stop me getting work in St. Louis unless I work on the levee."
"His father was a liar! There is always much work for honest men. Go on."
"I must settle my score with Phinny. He has told tales and set Parker against me."
"Surely he shall be paid. The third?"
"I must see—I mention no names."
"Of course. Etienne Clair understands." And again the low bow till the cap brushed the dirt. "It is delicate, eh? Now a message. Behold, I can carry a message with eyes that turn in and see nothing, with a tongue to bring an answer which my ears do not hear."
"I have arranged for meeting her unless she is kept in the house."
"She shall not be kept in. I will enter from the rear and release her and——"
"No, no! I believe she will meet me. The hour is early as it was fixed before I knew what was to happen to me. I shall walk by the scholar Tradeau's house on Pine Street at eight o'clock."
"Most good! Then this scoundrel Phinny? You can look for work to-morrow but you should look for him to-night."
"I must find him to-night if I would sleep to-night."
"Brave spirit! I will go with you when you seek him."
Lander pondered for a moment, then said:
"Be in Tilton's drinking-place at nine. Wait for me until ten. He goes there. I've heard him speak of the place often."
"A vile place. Scum and cutthroats. I will wait for you."
They separated and Lander returned to his room to brood and rage until the soft twilight hour was come.
He dressed in his best but looked forlorn for a lover as he made for the door and halted to stare at a plain leather scabbard on the wall. He slowly took it down. It was made to go inside his boot, and from it he drew the Frenchman's gift knife, a wonderfully effective weapon in the hands of a master. It was ground to a razor's edge, wath a weight and solidity of haft and a length of blade that satisfied all exactions made upon it. It was a queer thing for a lover to take to his tryst, yet he pulled up his trousers leg and slipped the scabbard inside his boot.
His act was partly prompted by his affection for Papa Clair. He knew he was facing a crisis, and somehow it strengthened him to have with him a token from one he loved. Papa Clair had a superstitious regard for his knives. Lander had known him for two years and perhaps had absorbed some of his fancies. The old man had made him master of the knife; only there was none in all St. Louis outside the teacher who suspected the fact.