Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 10

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

Chapter X

AT FORT UNION


BRIDGER galloped up and silently wrung Lander by the hand. Jim Baker, intoxicated with joy, waved a big knife and yelled for Lander to catch a horse and join in the pursuit. But Bridger began shouting:

"We must turn back. There is a large party of Blackfeet near here. The old chief did not lie. We've got our man. Round up their horses. Land of life! What's these packs?"

For the first time he noticed the nature of Lander's barricade. Lander explained:

"I think they're the forty packs the Blackfeet took from Ferguson, the H. B. man. If he is here he can tell them."

"I'm glad to say he isn't here," said Bridger.

He quickly examined a pack and announced:

"The H. B. pelts sure enough. Ferguson's mark is on 'em. Rustle for horses, boys; we'll use the mules for packing these to camp. Papa Clair, you and Lander see to loading them. I must crowd the fighting a little more. Git after 'em, Jim Baker. Give 'em their needin's, men. Take the fight out of them. We must have time to load forty packs of prime beaver."

"Ain't that younker's medicine all ——, Jim?" bawled Baker as he dashed away to force the fighting.

Under Papa Clair's direction Lander and a score of Crows rounded up what horses were not yet captured. The Crows had left their own animals outside the pocket, and now once more in the saddle they attacked the retreating enemy more confidently, their big bows twanging out the death sentence. And as they formed in a long line across the pocket the trappers fell back and exchanged their mules for ponies.

As fast as the mules were brought to him Papa Clair superintended the loading of them—two hundred pounds to each animal—and worked as serenely as he would have in the big camp. In short time the cavalcade began retiring toward the cañon; the trappers coming next with a screen of Crows to discourage counter-attacks.

The Blackfeet had lost virtually all their stock and were poorly situated for taking the offensive. Bridger called out to Black Arrow that he and his braves should have the bulk of the horses, but the chief seemed more interested in securing the poles of the medicine-lodge. The poles were lashed to ponies in form of a travois and on them was piled a miscellany of camp equipment. Jim Baker viewed the poles with considerable reverence and confided to Lander they were better medicine than all the horses and pelts.

The escape from the pocket was made without any confusion, but once the mules were through the narrow opening the Blackfeet made a vigorous charge, knowing the Crows must pass through the exit in a mass. Bridger wheeled about and led his mounted riflemen in a wild charge, and scattered and drove the enemy to the end of the pocket. This time the Blackfeet decided they had had enough of fighting and contented themselves with climbing the surrounding heights and making many smoke signals.

Since taking refuge in the medicine-lodge Lander had seen nothing of Gardepied. None of the trappers had seen him during the fight. Once back on the Green the horses were given to the Crows after Bridger had taken one for each of his men. As there were some three hundred animals, all in prime condition, the Crows' sorrow over the fate of their tribesmen was somewhat assuaged.

"You shall receive something worth while from the sale of the beaver," Bridger informed Lander.

"Good lord! I'm satisfied with receiving my life back," shuddered Lander. "I shall never forget the women. They were terrible."

"Leave it to me to fix the terms. An' speaking of women, when a man marries he likes to have something besides high hopes. We must show our heels a bit faster, boys."

"You think they'll be following us?" asked Lander anxiously, thinking of the chief's threat to bring eight hundred men.

"They'll follow when they can. What worries me is two white men—not the Blackfoot nation. I don't like the notion of having left Phinny and Ferguson in camp together."

As they rode down the river Lander related his experience to Bridger and insisted Phinny and Porker had planned his death.

"Don't doubt it," coolly agreed Bridger. "But Porker's dead an' we can't prove anything on Phinny. Treat him just as if you didn't suspect nothing. Time enough to pay him up after we git these packs to St Louis."

When the band arrived at the rendezvous they found the Snakes and Nez Percés had flocked in to fight their ancient enemy if necessary. Phinny and Ferguson had departed. They had traded with Nez Percés for some crippled ponies and some mules and had packed the buffalo-robes on these.

They had started for Fort Union, having hired a score of the Nez Percés to act as body-guard until in the heart of the Crow country. With the Nez Percés supplementing the Indians and breeds Phinny had brought with him, he would stand in no danger of an attack unless he encounted an overwhelming force.

The fact that Ferguson had gone with Phinny was very disquieting to Bridger. He immediately called Baker, Papa Clair, Long Simons and Lander to his tent and tersely explained the situation. In conclusion he said:

"Ferguson has gone back on his bargain to winter in the Crow country for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. Phinny has offered him a good position with the A. F. C.

"Ferguson will be sure to tell McKenzie how he lost his furs to the Blackfeet and of his deal with me. McKenzie has an old man, Jake Berger, for a hunter. Berger used to work for the H. B. at their North Saskatchewan post—Fort of the Prairie. He got well acquainted with the Blackfeet, who carried their trade there. He is the one white man on the Missouri that can go to the butcher-shop and stand a chance of bringing his hair home.

"McKenzie will be sure to send him up the Missouri to dicker for the forty packs. As soon as Berger strikes any Blackfeet he'll learn about this fight and the loss of the packs.

"Now this is what we must do: I must reach Fort Union and buy a keelboat and have it ready for a flying start from the mouth of the Yallerstone before McKenzie can hear we captured the packs. So I will go ahead with Lander. As we shall go down the Big Horn we'll have the Crows for company most of the trip.

"Papa Clair with a dozen men will bring the pack mules through the mountains to the Big Horn, where he will make bull-boats and fetch the packs down to the Yallerstone by water. He must arrive at night so's he can hide up the boats if I ain't all ready with the keelboat. When he takes to the water Long Simons will bring the mules hack here.

"Baker will stay here and split the men into small bands and send them to their beaver grounds. Once I git the packs into a keelboat I'm off for Fort Pierre, where I'll turn 'em over to Etienne Prevost to take down to St. Louis.

"Lander will go with Prevost, an' I shall come back here. I've made a square deal for the packs an' I'm going to take the profit. Now, Lander, pick a good horse while I have a talk with Black Arrow."

Half an hour later Bridger and Lander, escorted by a band of Crows, started for the Missouri. Bridger allowed himself twelve days for making the Big Horn. Traversing South Path they struck the Sweetwater but followed it only for a short distance before striking off for Wind River, an upper reach of the Big Horn above the mouth of the Popo-agie.

They were now in the Crow country and did not have much fear of being molested. Following down the Big Horn Valley they saw no Indians except those of their party until within one day's journey of the Yellowstone, when they came upon four hundred lodges of Crows.

Black Arrow insisted they tarry and have a feast. He was very keen for his tribesmen to witness Medicine Knife's dexterity. But Bridger did not dare to pause for fear of arriving at Fort Union after Berger had brought news of the fight and packs to Kenneth McKenzie.

Some of the leading men showed a disposition to prevent Bridger from proceeding, and began to act ugly. But Black Arrow was a man of influence, and when his men had displayed their wealth of Blackfeet scalps and told how many horses and scalps were to arrive, the white men were allowed to go on.

Bridger had expected Black Arrow to keep with him to the mouth of the Yellowstone, but the chief could not resist the temptation to cross to the village and participate in the great victory dance. In return for many trade goods to be delivered later the chief promised that none of his people would interfere with Papa Clair and his beaver packs.

Bridger nearly exhausted his companions in the short dash for the Yellowstone. He feared lest the Crows attempt some mischief, not violence but the theft of their weapons or horses. However, nothing occurred to disturb them, and except for their haste Lander would have enjoyed the trip immensely.

The valley teemed with game and the traveling was easy. Reaching the confluence of the Big Horn and Yellowstone, Bridger chose the south, or right, bank, and without any unusual incidents pressed on until he had crossed the Rosebud and Tongue, when he passed to the north side of the river.

"What would happen if the Fort Union outfit learned we had the H. B. packs?" asked Lander on the last day of their trip.

Bridger chuckled grimly and replied:

"We wouldn't have 'em long if Kenneth McKenzie could help it. An' he's the king up here. He'd never let forty packs of prime beaver slip through his hands like that. He'd buy 'em, or take 'em.

"He'd show a paper from Ferguson, naming him agent for the H. B. He'd show a paper saying as how he had bought all title to 'em, with Ferguson signing it as the H. B.'s representative. If we held out he'd charge us with stealing 'em an' lock us up until the beaver was under lock an' key, or on the way down-river.

"If we went into court in St. Louis an' proved our claim the A. F. C. would pay the price, minus the H. B.'s ten per cent. The A. F. C. has more power up here with the Injuns than the government has. So we must git the keelboat an' load it an' be off down-river the minute the packs come along.

"Don't you open your meat-trap while at the fort. Keep shet. Above all things don't start a row with Phinny. Warm up to him an' tell how glad you be he escaped.

"Don't wander away from the fort where old Deschamps can git a crack at you. I'll do all the talking, an' I won't seem to be in a hurry or look fussed up any. Kenneth McKenzie is a mighty hard man to fool."

By late afternoon they made the mouth of the Yellowstone. The channel was narrow and the water was low and they had no trouble in swimming their horses across to the north side of the Missouri. As they rode up the bank and came in sight of the solid pretentious structure of Fort Union, more persistently and intimately connected with the fur trade than any other post, Bridger whimsically remarked:

"You're almost eighteen hundred channel miles from the little lady in St. Louis, an' whether you see her soon or go back to the mountains depends on how strong your medicine works for you while we're up there."

He pointed to the fort as he spoke. And even to Lander, fresh from St. Louis, the fort seemed to reflect the indomitable will and iron power of the mighty American Fur Company, against which all opposition was waged and which was to destroy or absorb all opponents.

The stockade measured more than two hundred feet on a side, with the bastions at the southwest and northeast corners. These bastions were houses thirty feet in height, built of stone with the lower story pierced for cannon, and with a balcony around the upper story for the purpose of observation. The two travelers saw men on the northeast balcony, presumably watching them, for one hastily disappeared as if to announce their coming.

Bridger gravely watched the lone man on the balcony for a few moments; then with a shrug of the shoulders he assumed his careless, good-natured and devil-may-care expression and rode for the single gate. An engagé was on the point of closing this, but waited until they had entered.

In the middle of the huge square stood a seventy-foot flagstaff, and beside it were two cannon trained to cover the entrance. Surrounding the staff were the leather tents of the half-breed employees. At the rear of the square and facing the entrance stood the two-story house of Kenneth McKenzie, first king of the Missouri and the greatest bourgeois the A. F. C. ever had.

The house, like the other buildings inside the enclosure, was built of cottonwood. It boasted glass windows. Lander blinked in surprise. He had heard much about Fort Union in St. Louis, but was never able to draw an accurate line between fact and fiction. The powder-magazine, built of cut stone and having a capacity—as Bridger afterward informed him—of fifty thousand pounds, also increased his respect for his former employer.

There were well-equipped shops for the smith and carpenter and other workmen. There was an atmosphere of stability about the place. No wonder the Indians were slow to shift their allegiance to the flimsy post erected by the opposition, who in the river argot were known as one-winter-house traders.

"I'm Jim Bridger. I want to see Mr. McKenzie," Bridger told the engagé.

"He is sitting- down to supper, Mr. Bridger. Places have been laid for you," said the engagé. He called a breed to take care of the horses and led the way inside the fort

Here again the travelers found all the conveniences they would expect in the average inn back in civilization. As they were leaving the washroom the man joined them with two black coats, and apologetically informed:

"Mr. McKenzie's rule that every one shall wear a coat at the table, Mr. Bridger. I haven't any doubt but what he would let the rule go hang in your case, but if you don't mind slipping this on——"

"We'll be glad to wear 'em," cheerfully interrupted Bridger.

They were then conducted to the long room where McKenzie and his staff had their meals. McKenzie left the head of the table and greeted Bridger warmly. He spared a nod for Lander, but retaining Bridger's hand exclaimed:

"If I'd had any notion it was you, Mr. Bridger, I should have rode to the river to meet you. Sit here at my right. Let the young man find a place among the clerks," and he pointed to the foot of the table.

Here was a greater caste distinction than Lander would have experienced in any household in St. Louis. The men were seated according to the rank of their occupation, and Susette's lover found himself decidedly below the salt and in the company of several harum-scarum youngsters going through their probation.

McKenzie was dressed in the St. Louis mode, and there was nothing in his carefully groomed and well-garbed appearance that could suggest the eighteen hundred miles between him and a civilized table. It would be several years before there would be even a rough settlement of whites above Independence.

What made an instant appeal to Lander and caused him to forget he was treated as being at par with the least of the staff was sight of the food. There were platters heaped high with tender, fat buffalo-meat. There were dishes of game birds and plenty of fresh butter, cream and milk.

However, and this was the only suggestion of stinting, there were only two biscuits at a plate. For although Fort Union might for a time run its own distillery in defiance of the law its bread ration remained something of a problem. To add the final glamour to the feast was the snow-white cloth covering the table and the two colored men in white jackets serving as waiters.

From the low chatter of his immediate neighbors Lander learned more details of how McKenzie played the dictator on the Upper Missouri. Being fond of lingering over his wine he went to bed late. It was late when he arose, and, worst of all, no one could have breakfast until he was up and ready to be served. So the morning meal was seldom eaten earlier than nine o'clock.

From the clerks' babbling Lander deduced that Phinny had never mentioned him at the fort. He was glad of this. He casually spoke of seeing Phinny at the rendezvous and was elated and much surprised to be informed that his old enemy had not yet returned from Green River. To get there ahead of Phinny impressed him as being the best of luck.

He talked shop with the young men and learned that the early fall was the time for the jerked meat and tallow trade, the Indians taking hardly anything but liquor for this trade.

"But wait till old Berger fixes things with the Blackfeet," said one clerk. "Chief Good-Woman used to know him on the Saskatchewan and Berger's up there now, somewheres on the Marias. Berger's to be paid eight hundred dollars a year if he gets the Blackfeet to consent to our building a trading post on the Marias.

"You were lucky to get here without being robbed. A canoe band of Assiniboins, worst of that tribe and greatest thieves ever lived, started for the Crow county to steal horses. Don't see how you missed them."

But Lander was now all ears for the upper end of the table. McKenzie was saying:

"Mr. Bridger, here at Union alone last winter we made four hundred and sixty packs of robes, and other peltries in proportion. Our outposts sent in thirty-five hundred pounds of powdered buffalo-meat and three thousand pounds of dried. Our run of fox was remarkable. Lamont and his men alone brought us forty-two hundred buffalo-robes from up-river."

Bridger kept on eating and nodded in approval. At last he took time to say:

"Fine if any one goes in for robes. I never bother with 'em. I sold your young man quite a few packs. Took his order on St. Louis for 'em. Don't see him here."

McKenzie looked surprised and asked to see the order. Bridger produced it and the nabob of the river read it carefully; then gravely informed:

"Perfectly correct, Mr. Bridger. I gave him authority to draw orders on St. Louis in case a man isn't coming here. Had he known you were coming to Fort Union he would have left the order for me to draw.

"I'm glad to have you turn the robes in to us. We deal in a big way. I'll get ten thousand robes from the Blackfeet next season.

"When I sent A. J. Tulloch to the Crows I told him to get them into the habit of trading—to trade them for anything they had. He went to the Yellowstone and some of his men were killed by a war-party of Blackfeet while they were chopping wood.

"He stuck and traded the Crows. His first returns made our men here laugh until they were sick. Hardly anything but elk and deer horns. Yet his trade on the whole was profitable because the A. F. C. can handle anything. That's why the Indians like us; we'll trade for anything they've got."

"Phinny isn't here."

"You must have passed him. Probably he was resting at the Crow village and arranging for the winter trade. I'm glad to get the robes. Any time you have any we'll take them."

"I don't care to bother with 'em," Bridger carelessly assured. "All I'm after is beaver."

"We do quite a bit with beaver, and we shall do more. My man, Jacob Berger, is up visiting the Piegans. They're the best beaver-hunters among the Blackfeet, and as the opposition hasn't taken all the beaver above Milk River I'm expecting rather good returns from there."

"When does Berger git back?"

"Any time now."

"You'll be the first to git into their good feelings," said Bridger with a genial smile. "By the way, do you happen to have a keelboat in your chantier (navy yard)? I'd like to buy it if you have. I'll give a St. Louis order for it. It'll help cancel my order on you."

"Our chantier is twenty-five miles up-river, you know," slowly replied McKenzie, trying to imagine why Bridger, arriving without packs, should want a keelboat.

"I don't know just what we have there, or what condition it may be in. I might be willing to sell one. Of course we have use for all our boats, but I'd like to oblige you, as you'll some time be working for the A. F. C. Yes, Mr. Bridger, I'd go out of my way to oblige you."

"Mighty handsome of you," declared Bridger, spearing a half-pound piece of meat. "I've got one down at Fort Pierre. Seeing as how I must go down-river I thought I'd take it there to be loaded with any packs we may be sending across-country. We usually pack 'em into St. Louis on our mules. Etienne Prevost is there at Pierre waiting for me.

"Of course he can make bull-boats if it comes to a pinch. An' then again we mayn't need another boat. But I'd like to feel sure. Can use it anyway."

"Why not come in with us?" bluntly asked McKenzie.

"Mebbe I will. I'm hitched up pretty tight just now, but with no settled posts to hold us together I may be free before next season. Mighty nice place you got here."

"I pride myself on it, sir. We do not chase the Indians. They must bring their hunt to us. They fight among themselves but they never bother us. Big war-parties are always coming here. Sometimes they meet and fight outside. Sometimes they send word for us to keep in the fort so we won't be hurt.

"Old Gauche, the most feared and best obeyed chief of the Assiniboins for forty years, stopped here yesterday on his way from down-river where he went to put a fight on the Aricaras. His medicine must have lied to him as he was soundly whipped. He's had enough fighting for a while and promised to bring me in two hundred robes.

"Rather easy way to get trade, eh? Very comfortable quarters. Annual steamer bringing supplies and those little things it's hard to get when living off a mule's back."

And he illustrated his meaning by tapping the bottle of wine that stood between them. Then reflectively:

"If you care to ride up to the chantier and see what we have for a boat I think we could arrange it."

"Mebbe I will to-morrow or next day," said Bridger.

"There are three there, I believe. Take any one."

"That's very kind of you."