Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 11

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Chapter XI


AFTER supper Bridger walked about and inspected the fort and admired its arrangement, and visited McKenzie's home and expressed a proper amount of appreciation. McKenzie was determined to overwhelm him with the comforts and resources of the place, and all the time Bridger was burning with impatience to be off up-river to the chantier. If one of the boats was what he wanted he intended to get it down to the mouth of the Yellowstone and a few miles up that stream, and hide it until Papa Clair came along with the packs.

To get the rich prize out of the country he knew the loading and start must be worked without a hitch. Not only might Phinny arrive at any moment, having learned the truth of the beaver packs from the Crows, but Berger was hourly expected, and he would be sure to know. But there was no suggestion of impatience or worry in Bridger's genial bearing.

McKenzie excused himself to attend to some routine matter and Bridger lounged up to Lander and without looking at him muttered:

"Sound the clerks about the boats at the chantier—number and condition. He says there are three there. We can have our pick. At first I thought he was going to refuse—suddenly gave in—signs look bad. Wait for me if you have to keep awake all night. I've got to set up with him and a bottle."

Until deep into the night Bridger listened to McKenzie's invitations to join the A. F. C. and his boastings of the company's remarkable success. If ever a man was licensed to feel proud from a trader's view-point of his success in the fur trade, it was Kenneth McKenzie.

How far he would have gone without the backing of the all-powerful company is another question. He was preeminently a trading-post man. It is doubtful if he could have plunged into the heart of an unknown country and attained the success that Bridger repeatedly scored.

Of the two men Bridger's life and efforts have been of vastly more value to posterity. McKenzie was a superlative trader. Bridger was an excellent trader, a great explorer and a born topographer. As a hunter, trapper and guide he had few equals. In the last capacity Fate was drilling him for a most important task with Johnston's army in '57 and the Indian campaign of '65-66.

McKenzie built exclusively for the advancement of the American Fur Company. Bridger built for the mighty hosts of humanity about to break loose across the plains and through the Rockies.

The mountain man listened gravely, never once mentioning the keelboat. McKenzie further to influence him quoted at length from his records of the huge number of fox, white hare, badger, white wolf, swanskins and dressed cowskins, in addition to the staple beaver and robes, the post handled every year.

"Mr. Bridger," he solemnly declared as he finished his display of records. "I'll promise you that you shall be made the head of a new department—bourgeois of the Rocky Mountain outfit of the A. F. C. with headquarters on Green River—at a salary of five thousand a year and a suitable percentage of the profits. There, sir! That is a proposition that I couldn't make with headquarters' consent to any other man in the mountains."

"It's a good offer," mused Bridger, "providing the percentage is all right. Not that there ain't a dozen men who can handle the work just as well as me. As I've said it all depends on the percentage, when you come to figuring its real value. Beaver won't always last. Big fortunes is to be made in it now, and I know beaver. But I'm much obliged for the offer. I'll chew it over on my way down-river."

"Think about it to-night," urged McKenzIe. "And remember I never lie when I want a man—I tell him the blunt truth."

"Of course—makes a feller mad to find out some one has been lying to him. No sense in it. Now I'll turn in."

He proceeded to the room set apart for them and found Lander fully dressed and sound asleep. It was obvious he had tried to keep awake to make his report. Bridger shook him out of his slumber and softly asked:

"What do the clerks say about the boats at the chantier?"

Lander blinked owlishly at the door and surprised his friend by stealing to it and glancing out into the hall. Stumbling back to Bridger he whispered:

"It's derned queer. Overheard it by chance when two of the clerks got to cussing their luck. When McKenzie left you it was to tell the clerks to take men and ride up to the chantier and bring down two keelboats and leave them on the north bank of the river, five miles above here. They started at once.

"From another clerk I found out there were three boats there just as he said, but one's so smashed up it's beyond repair. It's the smashed-up one we'll find."

"Which is darned poor listening," growled Bridger. "We must start early in the morning. He told me to take my pick of the boats up there. I'll do it! An' he said he never lied to a man when he wanted him.

"One thing's sartain; if we don't git a keelboat we'll trust to luck with the bull-boats. If we have to do that I'll be mighty sorry we didn't make for the Platte an' its shallow water. But I did want to go this way so's I could turn the packs over to Prevost an' git back to the mountains. Mebbe our medicine will work for us. Who knows?"

Only the horse-herders were astir when Bridger aroused Lander from his unfinished slumbers. Lander sleepily repaired to the square and found his horse saddled and waiting. Bridger whistled and his own animal was brought from the shed.

"We'll start at once and eat a bite as we ride," said Bridger, swinging into the saddle. "I've raided the cook and have a saddle-bag filled with provender. Don't try to talk until we get clear of the fort." And he glanced up at the bastion as if expecting to behold McKenzie on the balcony.

The river bank was shrouded in the early morning mists and at a distance of a few hundred yards the fort became half-lost to view, the stockade entirely blotted out.

"McKenzie thinks there is some game being played," tersely broke out Bridger. "He wants to be mighty nice for he wants to git me into the A. F. C. But the keelboat sticks in his crop. He ain't made up his mind just what he'll do.

"To git time to think he sends men on the sly to fetch away any boat that'll hold water an' leave the bu'sted one. This makes it safe for him to tell me I can have my pick of boats up there.

"I'll come back with a talk that the boat ain't no good. He'll be surprised an' talk to the clerk. All of this will take time. An' it'll give him room to do some thinking. He ain't satisfied about me coming here.

"When we git back from the chantier it's most likely he'll take a whirl at asking you questions. You won't know nothing, of course. Our danger is that Phinny or Jake Berger will come along before we quit wasting time—or worse still, that Papa Clair may come down the Yellowstone in his bull-boats an' be seen by some of the engagés. Lordy, that would be a mess!"

"Phinny may be quitting the Crow village just as Papa Clair comes along," suggested Lander.

"If you was a Injun you'd stick pine splinters into a prisoner an' light 'em before burning him at the stake," grinned Bridger. "Now keep shet while I look at the trail."

The sun was burning away the mists, and the trail they were following was broad and ancient. From immemorial times the buffalo had followed it; the Indians had followed it. It offered no information to Lander—no more than would a pavement of rock. To Bridger it babbled with many voices. The best plainsmen of his day said never an Indian nor a single horse could cross his path without his detecting the fact and determining how old was the bisecting trail.

The trail was hard packed by countless moccasins and hoofs, yet Bridger dismounted and dropped on his knees and became deeply interested in searching the brown earth. On the outskirts of the path the signs of recent travel were fresher. For twenty minutes the mountain man worked from the center of the trail to the edge and then back again, and as his investigation advanced Lander noted he confined all his attention to the north side.

Finally he rose and mounted his horse and announced:

"According to the number of horses some three hundred warriors are in Gauche's party."

"McKenzie said he had passed this way after being licked by the Aricaras," reminded Lander, beginning to think the time was lost.

"I wasn't pawing round to find out if McKenzie was speaking the truth, or was a liar. A blind man could read that part of the story without gitting off his horse," ironically retorted Bridger.

"What McKenzie didn't say, an' probably didn't know, was that Gauche, or Left Hand as some call him, has got a sick man an' a travois. The band was moving very slow at this point. We'll have to dodge their camp within the next few miles. He might want us to stay an' visit him.

"The trail is twenty-four hours old, but one man on a lame horse has come along here within the last hour. He stops every little way. He's either studying the Assiniboin trail, or waiting for us. All of which means we must ride with our eyes open."

Two miles were passed without any attempt at conversation. Bridger had kept his gaze focused on the winding road. Suddenly he exclaimed under his breath and dismounted and dropped on his hands and knees. He crawled slowly from the trail for a distance of fifty feet. When he returned his face was grave.

"Eight men on foot swung into the trail where your nag stands. They stood an' talked with the man on horseback; then the nine of them quit the trail an' struck into the bush. The men on foot wasn't Assiniboins. Each had a gun as you can tell by the faint marks where they rested the butts while chinning the mounted man. They toe in an' their moccasins are heavier an' stronger than them worn by the Assiniboins, showing they go much afoot. They must be breeds that hang round the fort.

"They've l'arned that Gauche is in camp with a sick man. Sick man must be a big medicine man or a chief, else Gauche wouldn't hold up his march for him. The breeds probably figger to sneak in after dark an' run off the horses. The camp must be within a mile or two an' the breeds are drawing well back from the trail to wait until night."

They rode for a bit when Bridger led off from the trail and explained:

"I want to give Gauche a wide berth. He's sure to be ugly as a bear with a sore head along of the whipping he got down-river. We'll beat back a few miles an' then strike straight for the chantier."

The traveling became much slower after they left the trail. Bridger watched for signs of men afoot but found none, and this convinced him that his deductions were correct. The nine men had simply withdrawn to one side to wait until dark. With the quickness of the forest bred he slipped from his horse and leveled his rifle across the saddle before Lander could imagine what was the matter.

Then among the bushes he made out the figure of an Indian woman. Her hair was gray and as she stared at them she tore at it. With a little laugh at his alarm Bridger swung back into the saddle and the woman eagerly advanced and began talking shrilly and rapidly.

"She's speaking Assiniboin," said Bridger as he watched and hstened. "I git it all right."

The woman ceased talking and made signs. Bridger nodded and said:

"One of your young men is hurt?"

"Hurt very bad," she replied. "Come and make him medicine."

Bridger possessed the mountain man's knowledge of emergency surgery. Also was he imbued with the superstitions of the Indians. He believed in his medicine. His kind heart urged him to follow the woman. His commercial instinct warned that he had no time to lose if he would visit the chantier and return to the fort before Phinny or Jake Berger arrived to inform McKenzie about the forty packs. He explained the situation to Lander.

The woman was laboring under great mental distress. There was none of the Indian stoicism Lander had heard so much about. Lander's sympathy was aroused.

Bridger asked how far she had come. She held the thumb and forefinger of her hands together as if holding a thread, then pulled them apart a few inches, then raised a hand with finger erect and moved it from side to side and forward.

"Says we can git there in a short time an' in a few steps," translated Bridger. "Reckon we'd best go with her. My medicine feels strong this morning. Some worthless breed; but if he's hurt, he's hurt."

The woman seemed overwhelmed with joy as he motioned her to lead the way. She ran ahead and repeatedly looked back to make sure they were following her. In this fashion she led them nearly a mile through the bush-grown area.

Bridger finally reined in and beckoned her to come back. She shook her head and pointed, and gestured for him to come on, and to convince him he had all but arrived she raised her voice and called out.

Bridger set his horse in motion, his eyes on the woman, and although his quick ear caught the rustling of bushes he was surrounded and his gun snatched from his hand before he could turn his head. A side glance revealed Lander likewise disarmed and dazed by the quickness of it all.

The woman ahead danced and flung her arms above her head and cackled hideously. Directly ahead of Bridger stood old Deschamps, and his gun covered Bridger's chest. To Lander, Bridger called out:

"Take it easy. Don't show any fight—yet. That old hag led us into a' ambush. These are thieving breeds. What the devil's the matter with that medicine of mine!" Then to Deschamps: "Why do you hold me up like this?"

"We want to have a talk with you," Deschamps explained in Assiniboin.

"Talk Crow or English, you thieving devil," commanded Bridger.

"Get down and come into our hut," ordered Deschamps, backing away a few steps and speaking in the Crow tongue.

"That skunk Phinny is in there waiting for us?"

"No. I left him at the Crow village on the Yellowstone. He is to marry my girl—make her his wife like white men marry white women. But I do not trust him yet," chuckled Deschamps.

As he finished a young woman, comely of feature and graceful of form, came bounding through the growth and stared wide-eyed at the white men. Lander caught her fancy for a moment, and she drew close to him and peered up into his hot face.

She showed her white blood in her complexion and light-gray eyes, but there was frank animalism in her steady stare that made Lander nervous and caused her to laugh scornfully. Darting to Bridger she placed a small foot in the stirrup and lifted herself erect and maintained her balance by seizing his shaggy brown hair.

Bridger's gaze was as cold as hers was volcanic. Her insolence changed to something akin to admiration and she tugged his hair playfully.

"Phinny's squaw!" exclaimed Bridger, seizing her wrists and forcing her to release her grasp.

She fought like a fury, trying to reach his face with her fingers. With a grunt of disgust he picked her up in his arms and tossed her over his horse's head and into her father's arms.

With a scream of rage she pulled a dirk and came at him, her teeth bare, her eyes blazing. He made no move until her arm went back for the blow; then he caught her wrist and gave it a wrench that brought a howl of pain to her red lips. Turning toward Deschamps he sternly ordered: "Take this hell-cat away."

Deschamps shrugged his shoulders, showing no inclination to interfere. But another of the family, Francois, the oldest son, dropped his gun and pinioned the girl's hands to her sides and carried her into the bush. When he came back the girl did not attempt to follow him.

"Good lord! What a woman!" gasped Lander. He stood in greater fear of the pretty vixen than he did of the entire Deschamps gang.

"If Phinny marries her he will be paying the price for all his deviltry."

"Get down," ordered Deschamps.

There was an ominous steadying of guns and Bridger quietly slid from the saddle and motioned for Lander to do likewise.

"You and your gang plan to steal Gauche's horses while he camps to cure a sick man," Bridger accused.

Deschamps was startled. The white man's medicine was very wise to read his plans. His villainous old face hardened. When the white man showed he knew so much he dug his own grave. After he had answered certain important questions he and his young friend would disappear. Bridger swung his bold gaze over the circle of sullen faces and remarked:

"My medicine is whispering to me that your friend Francois will be killed very soon—I see Jack Rem and his three sons. They hunt with the Deschamps now but my medicine says the time is just ahead when the two families will fight and kill each other off. Wait—my medicine is whispering."

He paused and tilted his head and smiled grimly—then announced:

"My medicine says Baptiste Gardepied is coming after you with a big war-party of Blackfeet. Better git yourself killed before he gets you."

"You lie!" hissed Deschamps. "Gardepied knows I will kill him and has left the country."

"He is with the Blackfeet and has turned them against you. He almost caught you when you betrayed my young man into the hands of the Blackfeet. He set the young man free. He will kill you."

"No more, or I will kill you," yelled Deschamps, now beside himself with rage.

Francois feared his father's anger would break up their plans, so he now assumed command and gave an order.

The men closed in about Bridger and Lander and poked them with their guns and drove them toward the old woman who had acted as the decoy. She fell back as the prisoners were made to advance, and within a few minutes halted before a long log cabin roofed with bark.

The whites were pushed through the low door, the breeds following and remaining between them and the only exit. On each side of the room was a small opening, high up and too small for a man to escape through. These answered for windows and admitted light.

In the middle of the room was a short section of a cottonwood log, standing on end to serve as a stool. Bridger appropriated the stool and Lander dropped on the hard-packed earth at his side and clasped his hands over his knees—the knife in his right boot being ready for his hand.

Deschamps stepped ahead of his gang to act as inquisitor, but before he could begin, his daughter squirmed her way through the group and darted like a fury toward Bridger and raised a long-barreled pistol. The intrusion was so quickly completed that not a man moved, and as she stood crouching before her victim, the pistol leveled, the occupants of the room became paralyzed and glared blankly and waited for the tragedy to arouse them to action.

Bridger, on the stool, remained calm of countenance, his gray eyes meeting and holding the eyes of the woman. Her bosom rose and fell with the lust to kill. Still the gray eyes held her gaze captive, and as she stared she found herself discovering strange depths in the dilated pupils.

No one about the door dared move, for fear of precipitating the homicide. Lander was frozen with horror of the situation and looked straight ahead, waiting for the pistol to speak. For a slow count of ten the tableau endured, then with a shriek the girl dropped the pistol, threw up both hands and staggered blindly for the door.

The men gave way and in silence watched her depart. The white man's medicine was very powerful when it could tame a wildcat like the Deschamps girl. Bridger picked up the pistol and examined it and then laid it between his feet.

Deschamps recovered first from the general stupor. He ordered: "Give up that pistol."

"The young woman gave it to me. I will keep it here," quietly replied Bridger.

"Give it up or I fire!" commanded Deschamps aiming his gun.

"That would spoil your plans. You brought us here for something," reminded Bridger, placing a moccasin on the pistol.

"Let him keep it. We have many guns," spoke up Francois.

"But we will shoot if his hand touches it again," added Jack Rem.

Deschamps changed his attitude and called out for the old woman to see that the girl did not enter the cabin again. Then turning to Bridger he asked: "Where are the packs of beaver you took from the Blackfoot medicine-lodge?"

"Oh, ho! So that was the cat in the bag, eh?" chuckled Bridger. "Did Phinny think I was carrying 'em with me? You might look in my saddle-bags; or perhaps my young man has 'em in his belt."

"Phinny doesn't know about them," sullenly replied Deschamps. He added:

"I was told about them at the Crow village a day's march below the mouth of the Yellowstone. Black Arrow told his warriors to say nothing about the packs to us, but one man was my friend and told me. Phinny does not understand the Crow tongue. He knows nothing. Ferguson may find out about it, but he had not when I left the village."

Bridger eyed him in admiration. Deschamps' reputation for bloodthirsty deviltry was known to most mountain men, but few would have credited him with scheming to steal forty thousand dollars' worth of beaver, unless he found the packs cached and unguarded. His larceny was especially daring since it involved the deception of an A. F. C. man.

"Pretty smart for a' Injun. What did the Crows tell you?" asked Bridger.

"How you and the boy got the packs. You two came through the valley alone. Your coming to Union tells me the packs will come down the Yellowstone. You are not such a fool as to have them brought to the fort where Phinny and McKenzie would see them. Phinny hired Ferguson away from you. He will handle the Crow trade for the A. F. C. this winter."

"Phinny will be coming; to the fort soon," mused Bridger.

"He started as soon as he found I had gone," growled Deschamps. "But he better be careful. He wanted my girl for his squaw. Now he doesn't seem to want her so much. But he can't make a fool of her. She's got white blood in her. He'll take her, or I'll cut his throat."

"She'll cut his throat if he takes her," grunted the younger Deschamps with a hideous leer.

"I don't like him. I'm going to kill him anyway," growled Francois.

"Keep still!" snarled Deschamps. To Bridger:

"I'm waiting to know when the packs will come through and how. Tell me and you won't be hurt."

"They're to come by pack mules. How do I know when a string of mules will git into Fort Union, you fool? Phinny may hold them up for all I know. Perhaps he has them now."

Deschamps gnawed his lips and eyed Bridger evilly. Jack Rem spoke up and declared:

"Your white medicine is strong, you say. It better tell you where the packs are. My woman was at the fort when you asked about a keelboat. You want it for the packs."

Deschamps stamped his feet and cried:

"Good for you, Jack Rem. Your woman shall have much red cloth. She has sharp ears.

"So you'd fool the old fox, would you, Bridger? Keep him covered, boys. I'll give him until I fill my pipe to tell when the packs will come down the Yellowstone."

Bridger bowed his head and pondered deeply. There were nine of them, all armed and not a bit averse to murder. His and Lander's rifles stood in the corner. He had a short skinning-knife in his belt and Lander had his long blade in his boot. His moccasin rested on the long-barrel pistol. One life—if it could be discharged. But should either he or Lander make a move both would be riddled. Were it in his power to turn over the packs on the spot he knew the gang would not permit him and Lander to leave the hut alive could they help it. His only hope was to play for time until a moment came when the gang was off guard.

"Deschamps," he earnestly insisted, "I do not know when the packs will come. Mebbe in three days. Mebbe not for twice as long. Mebbe not at all. I came ahead and traveled fast. That is the best I can tell you."

"You'll do better than that or never leave this hut," coolly retorted Deschamps, still rolling the tobacco between his palms. "I've killed better men than you. Tell the truth and you'll be kept here till we get the packs. Then you'll be free to go."

Bridger smothered a smile, still fighting for a little chance to turn up on which he could pivot an offensive. Lifting his head he gravely said:

"My medicine knows everything. If it will tell me I will tell you. I do not want to die. I can get more beaver. A life lost stays lost. I will talk to my medicine."

Deschamps brightened and nodded for him to proceed.

Bridger warned: "Let no one move or speak, or I shall learn nothing." Then very deliberately to show he intended no tricks he gently pushed the pistol to one side, bent between his knees and rested a finger on the earthen floor near Lander. He tapped on the floor in front of the log which served him for a stool, as if to attract his medicine, and succeeded in putting Lander on the qui vive. Then he tilted his head as if listening, and was able to keep an eye on the gang.

The breeds stood breathless and waited. None of them had any doubts as to the virtue and intelligence of Bridger's medicine. It was celebrated for efficacy throughout the mountains. Nor was there one who failed to understand how whimsical a man's medicine can be at times, and must be catered to and indulged and have feasts made for it.

Bridger's eyes widened and he began working his finger in the dirt. Lander with a sidewise gaze saw letters forming in the dirt. With much business of listening to the mysterious voice and taking care not to move his lips and give any alarm Bridger slowly completed his message. Lander read:

Fall flat when they fire then at em I shall thro the log

Lander, staring blankly, patted his boot-leg to show he understood. Bridger rocked his head back and forth and began to groan; then he bowed forward, his hands working convulsively between his legs and against the log. He was like a medicine man having convulsions.

"My medicine is here!" he gasped, his eyes protruding wildly, his hands resting on the sides of the log, his legs straddling gradually apart.

"What does it say?" whispered Deschamps.

"This!" roared Bridger, surging forward while his hands fetched the log between his legs and with a violent toss hurled it into the group. And as he made the cast he threw himself flat, pulled Lander with him, and reached for the pistol.

As the two went down four of the men fired—their lead plumping into the rear wall. Deschamps was scrambling for his rifle and four of the men were writhing on the floor—knocked over by the weight of the heavy missile.

"At 'em!" yelled Bridger, coming to his feet and rushing toward the door.

He snapped the pistol at Deschamps and it failed to explode. He hurled it and struck a man in the chest. Lander was at his side, his knife drawn. One of Rem's sons-in-law jumped to get the prisoners' rifles, but Lander threw his knife and pinned the man's arm to the wall.

The men knocked out by the log began crawling to their feet. Deschamps shrieked to the others to use their knives. Before they could draw their knives, however, Bridger was among them, trying to bore a hole to the door.

He instantly became the hub of a revolving wheel of fiercely fighting men. He caught old Deschamps by the scruff of the neck and flung him about as a shield while his free hand delivered smashing blows. The younger Deschamps boy tried to dirk the mountain man but drove his steel into his father's arm and was rewarded with a string of horrible curses.

Bridger looked for Lander to help him and was dismayed to see him on the floor with blood flowing from a cut on the head. A war-ax lay at his side with blood on the handle. The exulting face of the Deschamps girl in the doorway and the direction of her gaze told him it was she who had hurled the ax, and only by chance had the handle instead of the blade struck the blow.

The sight of the young man maddened Bridger. Pivoting on his heel he swept Deschamps around in a circle, and maintained his balance with his outstretched right fist—two spokes in a terrible wheel. He felt Deschamps go limp and knew his senses had been battered out of him.

Four men were down and showed no inclination to rise. Three men still opposed him as the fellow pinned to the wall made no effort to release himself, and Deschamps was unconscious. Ceasing. his gyrations he lifted Deschamps above his head and hurled him against Francois, and evil father and son went down together. Leaping over the prostrate bodies with two men after him armed with knives, he reached the man pinned against the wall, wrenched loose Lander's knife and wheeled and slashed one of his assailants across the face. Something fanned his cheek and a knife stuck and vibrated in a log. Again the girl at the door. Ignoring her and the chances of further attention on her part he drove the remaining combatant back and secured the two rifles.

Lander was now rolling his head and groaning. Holding both guns in one hand, Bridger tossed the long knife at Lander's side and cried:

"There's your medicine. Wake up an' pick it up! We've licked 'em!"

Lander's fingers closed on the haft and he crawled to his feet, glared wildly about, then sensed the meaning of it all and lurched toward his friend mumbling:

"You've licked them you mean. Lord, what a fight you put up!"

"Reckon even Jim Baker would have to knuckle down a little to this scrimmage," Bridger proudly admitted as he swept his gaze over the prostrate forms.

"Them two bears he fit an' killed weren't full grown of course. But baby grizzlies are mighty bad poison. Now we'll quit this place. Have your knife ready an' look out for that hell-cat. Some of these in here may be playing 'possum. I'll back out an' keep 'em cooped up till you can find an' fetch the horses. Go ahead."

Lander leaped through the doorway and endeavored to cry a warning to his patron. Bridger followed and was instantly seized and hurled to the ground.