Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 13
PHINNY COMES AND GOES
THE inactivity was most distressing to Lander. He pictured Papa Clair arriving with the packs. He saw men from the fort discovering them and reporting the news to McKenzie. By this time Lander's friendship for Bridger was so partizan he would feel defeat as keenly as would his patron.
"Why not give that Indian more medicine and have it over with?" he asked of Bridger, who was lounging outside their ruined tent, smoking and watching the Assiniboins recovering from the night's debauch.
'There's one big reason," Bridger simply replied. "I've told Gauche that the Water Spirit would quit the Lance when the keelboat was back at the chantier. I've been shaving down on the hot drinks till I could know the bucks have had time to find the boat an' take it up-river. I want to hold back the cure till the boat's been returned.
"I've got to ding it into Gauche's Injun head that it was my medicine what did the work. If he gits the notion he had a hand in it he might think his medicine was so strong he could hold us for ransom. He's tricky as a snake.
"This waiting business would fret me all up if I let it, but I believe in my luck. This band done its worst when it fooled round our tent last night. They won't try to stop our going less Gauche tells 'em to. They're sick from the rum an' have lost lots of interest in lots of things. Funny that McKenzie's liquor should help us out of this scrape."
One of the leading warriors approached and stared at the ruined tent and said:
"The white men had trouble in the night."
"No trouble," said Bridger. "Some boys made a noise. That is all."
The man retired and passed the word that the white men were very stout of heart. Bridget visited the sick man. The Lance had his eyes open and his gaze was normal. Bridger placed a hand on his head and felt the perspiration starting at the roots of the coarse, thick hair.
The Lance eyed him wonderingly when he lifted him up and gave him a drink of water. To be ministered to by a white man was a new experience.
"Where is the Left Hand?" he faintly asked.
"He makes war-medicine against the Blackfeet."
"He was making medicine against the sickness in me when I went into the black sleep."
"His medicine was weak. He had to have the white man's medicine to make you well. Before sunset my medicine will drive the evil spirit from you if you do as I say."
"It is good."
"You are not to speak nor open your eyes if Gauche enters this tent. When I tell you that you are well, then you can talk."
"It is good."
Bridger returned to Lander and found him trying to make a midday meal out of corn and beans. The mountain man ate heartily of the dried meat. Gauche was busy circulating among his warriors in an effort to arouse their enthusiasm for a raid against the Blackfeet. He kept repeating to them:
"I made medicine against the Blackfeet. I dreamed last night and saw much blood on the Blackfeet. There was no blood on the Assiniboins. I saw many signs of Blackfoot horses, and all the trails led to the camp of the Left Hand. Be ready with many arrows and your bows. Let those who have guns save their powder."
It was not until late afternoon that he came to Bridger. There was a peculiar glitter in his wicked little eyes, and for a moment Bridger feared he had found some rum and was commencing a drunk that might lead him into the vilest treachery. It was excitement, however, rather than liquor that had fired the chief.
Before speaking he passed into the sick man's tent and for nearly a minute stared down on the closed eyes of the Lance. So far as appearances went the man might be dead. Coming back to Bridger he said:
"The Lance lies very quiet. I could not see that he breathed. My young men have come back to say the boat is in its place up the river. I have told my warriors to come here and see the white man's medicine drive the Water Spirit from the Lance. I hope the white man's medicine is ready to work. The Lance looks like a dead man."
Bridger put his pipe in the hanger about his neck, stretched his arms and drawled:
"The medicine is ready. But it must hear the young men speak about the boat. It can not hear you say it. Send for them."
As he had expected Gauche acted as his own messenger, there being none of his men at hand. The moment he disappeared Bridger was galvanized into action. He prepared more fever medicine in hot water and took it to the Lance and had him drink it. Then he covered him with extra buffalo-robes. Hurrying back to Lander, who was nervously awaiting the climax, he coolly informed:
"I'll have the taller oozing out of him inside of ten minutes."
"The chief thought he was dead."
"Playing 'possum. See that the rifles are ready. Then try to smoke."
A confusion of voices ran through the tents. Men began to appear in small bands and make for the sick man's tent. Gauche had passed the word that the Lance was dead and that the white men proposed bringing him back to life.
Bridger stood with his back to the excited warriors. One of the headmen started to enter the tent, but Bridger caught him by the arm and hurled him back. The man's hand went to his ax, but fell limp as Gauche called out: "Be afraid of the man who brings the dead back to life!"
Then the chief harangued his men. He reminded them of how the white man's medicine had discovered the Water Spirit in the Lance, and he repeated Bridger's promise that the sick should be strong once the white medicine heard from the lips of the young men that the boat had been returned to the place-of-building-boats. And for good measure he recalled the numerous instances of Assiniboin braves who had dared set up opposition to their chief, dying of mysterious sicknesses.
There was a deep silence after the speech, finally broken by the appearance of two bucks, who pushed their way through the crowd bruskly. These were the spokesmen, and they had delayed their arrival in order to extract the full dramatic value from the scene. Halting before Bridger, they haughtily announced the completion of their errand.
Bridger turned his head and as if addressing some invisible agency in the tent rapidly repeated their words in English, then paused as if listening. Drawing himself erect, he loudly called:
"The Water Spirit is now leaving the Lance. Stay where you are and watch."
He lifted the flap behind him and entered the oven-like atmosphere and kneeled beside the Lance. The man was panting painfully and in a reeking sweat from the fever medicine and heavy robes. He gasped for water and Bridger allowed him to drink his fill from a kettle.
"You are well," informed Bridger, throwing aside the robes. "Stand up and show the Assiniboins how the white man's medicine works."
Assisted by the mountain man the Lance managed to gain his feet. With a hand under his elbow to steady him he was guided to the opening, Bridger directing in a low voice.
"You will tell them the fires no longer burn inside you. You will tell them you are strong, but very sleepy. Then you will return to your robes and drink some soup and rest for a day. To-morrow you will be strong and go and come a man."
The Lance forgot he was weak and famished. Thoroughly believing a powerful medicine had effected the cure, he felt himself a figure of much importance. His shoulders squared and his eyes grew steady as he flung back the flap of skin and confronted the mass of warriors. Nor did his voice fail him, but rang out in its usual volume as he proclaimed: "The Lance has been dead. He is alive. He was weak. Now he is strong. There are no fires in his body. The white man's medicine put them out. I go back to eat and sleep. Then I will be ready to take the path again against the enemies of the Assiniboins."
The Indians clapped their hands to their mouths, their gesture to express amazement, as they looked on one who, Gauche had said, was dead. The Lance retreated, and as the flap fell, shutting him in from the view of the warriors, he fell into Bridger's arms. The mountain man placed him on his robes and gave him more water. Opening the top of the tent to create a draft, he drew back the flap over the opening and hurried to his tent.
The Assiniboins eyed him with much awe, their hands clapping to their mouths. Verily his medicine was mighty. If he would come and live with the Assiniboins the nation would drive the Blackfeet beyond the mountains. They had seen him take a man burned and parched like a fragment of sun-scorched hide and overnight turn him out moist with sweat, ready to eat and sleep, and eager to fight.
Addressing Gauche, who had followed him, and speaking loudly for the benefit of all, Bridger said: "Now we have cured your sick we will go. Last night my medicine told me that you had made a new medicine, one that was very strong and would bring you many horses and Blackfeet scalps. Now we want our horses at once."
"If the white men will rest one sleep—" Gauche began.
"Then the Lance would fall sick again. My medicine says it must go," cut in Bridger. "Bring our horses."
Gauche gave an order and the two animals were produced. Taking their rifles, the white men led their horses through the camp, nor did they hear any voice demanding they be held for ransom. Not until they were well beyond the tents did they mount. Bridger rode rapidly for the river and would have turned up-stream had not the sound of music caused him to rein in and stare, down the river-road in amazement.
"That ain't no Injun music!" he exclaimed.
"Drums, bells, violin and a clarionet," checked off Lander, his eyes lighting.
"White men from the fort," muttered Bridger, riding toward the music.
Soon they sighted them—a band of white men, mounted and playing their instruments as they rode. The music was most sweet in the ears of the trappers, and for a moment Bridger forgot to wonder at its coming.
"Look who rides behind!" softly cried out Lander.
"I see 'em," murmured Bridger, watching the figures of McKenzie and Phinny. "Remember—not a sign or a word to Phinny that you suspect him," warned Bridger. "The music ain't for us. Must be for the Injuns."
In this surmise he was correct, for on sighting him McKenzie showed surprise, then spurred ahead, and jovially explained:
"A little treat for the Assiniboins. It tickles old Gauche's fancy. We don't lose anything by humoring him. When we get him we get all his people."
"Mighty good notion," admitted Bridger.
Then with a little smile he reminded: "An' the A. F. C. never goes after the Injuns. Just let's 'em come to the fort or stay away."
McKenzie scowled but instantly retorted:
"This display isn't to fetch trade to Fort Union. It's to keep peace. I got word that Gauche plans to attack a party of Blackfeet that's coming in with Jacob Berger. I must stop it. I've worked too hard to get the Blackfeet to come to me to have it spoiled by that old reprobate's actions."
"Why if here isn't Phinny!" exclaimed Bridger as Phinny now rode up. "Howdy, Phinny."
"We meet again, Malcom," called out Lander cordially.
Phinny who had been watching them through half-closed lids, now wreathed his dark face with smiles.
"Lord, Lander! But wasn't I glad when Black Arrow's band arrived at the Crow village and said you had escaped from the Blackfeet and was on your way to Fort Union. I'm awfully glad to see you.
"And, Mr. Bridger, no hard feelings I hope because I've hired Ferguson to work for us with the Crows. He wanted the place. He felt it was more steady than working for a company that goes after beaver only."
"That's all right," assured Bridger. "I've got plenty of men who'll go and make opposition to him. The Crows think a heap of me. Don't make much difference what man I send there. I let Ferguson have it as he was begging for a job. But as you say H. B. men are better fitted for the A. F. C. post-trade than for going after beaver for my company."
McKenzie ordered the musicians to go on to the camp and hold the Indians from filling the river-trail. Then he anxiously asked:
"What became of you two? You started to get the boat yesterday morning. We've been worried about you."
"The Deschamps gang and some of the Rems corralled us yesterday morning and held us for ransom. Old woman decoyed us to their cabin by saying one of the men was sick an' needed help. They're a bad mess."
McKenzie cursed in genuine rage.
"They've got to be wiped out," he fiercely declared. "I've stood lots from the Deschamps and Rem families. I've winked at quite a few things as they were handy as interpreters. But I'm through. I'm sorry Gardepied didn't make good his threat and kill old Deschamps. My men at the fort won't stand any more nonsense from that crowd. Where are you going now?"
"We stopped here last night to cure La Lance of a fever. We're now going up to select the boat you said you'd sell us."
"I see," mused McKenzie, his eyes twinkling.
And Phinny stared at the river as if greatly interested in its muddy current.
"I did agree to sell you the best boat at the chantier, didn't I?" McKenzie continued. "Well, I'll keep my word, although it may cramp my plans. Hard to choose between friendship and business, Mr. Bridger. Lucky I didn't promise some of those down the river. Since you went away I'm called on to use all I have."
"I don't want to hold you to a promise that really fusses you," gravely said Bridger. "If you want to be let off——"
"No, no," hastily broke in McKenzie. "No one shall say Kenneth McKenzie went back on his word. I told you you could buy any boat up there. I'll even go with you. Some of my men might be there and not understand. They'd forbid your taking it. One boat was the bargain.
"Phinny, ride after the men and see that they start for the fort after they've tickled up the chief. Tell that old villain to take his men and camp nearer the fort and that I'll fire the cannon as a salute to his greatness. The scoundrel! If I can get him into the fort and drunk I'll stand some show of getting word to Berger to hold the Blackfeet away until I can send men to make the trade."
Lander did not dare glance at Bridger for fear McKenzie would read the question burning in his eyes. Had Phinny learned about the packs? Was McKenzie's great need of boats due in part to their getting hold of the forty packs? Bridger was putting the same queries to himself, although his eyes revealed nothing.
"It's mighty good of you to go with us," declared Bridger. "Only wish Phinny could come along."
Phinny flashed his teeth in a smile, darted a glance at his chief and regretted:
"Business comes first. See you soon at the fort. I've got lots of St. Louis news to talk over with you, Lander. Express brought up some letters while I was at the Crow village."
There was a taunt in this although Phinny's demeanor seemed to breathe good fellowship only. Lander forced a smile and nodded. Bridger understood his young friend's feelings and, as if it were an afterthought, called to Phinny: "I forgot to warn you, young man, that old Deschamps seems to think you've tied up to that wildcat girl of his. Look out for a knife when you meet 'em."
The smile left Phinny's face. "Hang Deschamps!" he muttered.
"With all my heart," agreed Bridger.
In putting the man on his guard Bridger had punished him for plotting misery against Lander. It was simple enough to imagine the nature of the St. Louis gossip Phinny was to retail. Included in it would be the favoritism of Hurry-Up Parker for him, and the intimation that he was to marry Miss Susette.
The moment he had spoken, however, Bridger knew he had scored a second point. Phinny would keep clear of the breeds. If he did not already know about the beaver packs it was a most excellent move to discourage his intimacy with the Deschamps. The breed, having failed to secure the packs for himself, would be inclined to sell his secret to Phinny or McKenzie.
Even now Papa Clair might be coming down the Yellowstone. Could Phinny and the mixed-bloods be kept apart for a few days—so much the better for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company's chances. Always provided, of course, that Phinny had not learned the truth while at the Crow village.
McKenzie was most affable as the three of them galloped up the trail to the chantier. He talked on a wide range of subjects, but always edged back to Bridger's intended use of the keelboat. The mountain man stuck to his original explanation of wishing to have an extra boat at Fort Pierre. Evidently this did not satisfy McKenzie. While a most businesslike arrangement, it did not account for Bridger's haste in securing the boat. It would have been more natural for Prevost to send word down to St. Louis for another boat to be towed up by the packet.
But here was Bridger making a long journey from the Sweetwater to the Missouri for the sole purpose ostensibly of buying a keelboat. McKenzie refused to swallow it. On the other hand, although he cudgeled his brain, he could not see what use Bridger would have for the boat above Fort Pierre.
Had he brought pack-animals the answer would have been simple. But Phinny—only Bridger could not be sure of this yet—had heard nothing while among the Crows which would tend to solve the problem.
In fact he had been amazed on reaching the fort to learn the two men were there ahead of him. Bridger was shrewd enough to detect the suspicions revolving back of McKenzie's sharp eyes, and he was pleased to believe his secret was not known.
"The boat-yard is right ahead," said McKenzie as they came in view of cleared ground along the river bank.
He pulled his horse down to a walk and smiled in a peculiar fashion at the mountain man. Bridger winked gravely at Lander, who was seized with a desire to laugh. McKenzie continued: "I'm sorry I made that promise, but I always keep my word. Look them over and take your pick. You must be satisfied with what is here, as even hospitality and my warm desire to please will not permit me to go an inch farther in the matter. Loyalty to my employers draws the line rather than my natural inclination."
This well-rounded sentiment was given with much unction and McKenzie's long upper lip was drawn down in sanctimonious regret that it must be so.
A fringe of willows concealed the river-shore until one had entered the clearing. Leaving McKenzie and Lander, Bridger eagerly pressed ahead and leaped from his horse.
"I had no business to allow my admiration for Mr. Bridger to wring any promise from me," McKenzie said to Lander. "But he has a way of getting what he wants. Phinny tells me you were employed in the A. F. C. store in St. Louis. You should have remained. Your merit would have been rewarded."
"I was pitched out, neck and crop," Lander informed him.
"So, so? But there is a chance of your returning—yes, I believe I am warranted in saying it, even if it would sound better coming from one of my superiors, either Mr. Pierre Chouteau, or some of the others; I have some influence in the St. Louis office.
"Or if you wish you can stay on here with me. A clerk, say, at three hundred, to stay three years. Next year I could give you a hundred more. Another hundred the third year. We want young men who work with the idea of becoming partners in the company, who feel they are a part of the organization."
"I'm following Mr. Bridger now," said Lander. "If he joins the A. F. C. I should be pleased to come in with him. He's been mighty good to me."
"Well, well. Every man must decide on which side his bread is buttered. Mr. Bridger seems perplexed over the boats."
"He's probably trying to make a choice," Lander innocently suggested, his lips twitching.
"I hope he is not disappointed," mused McKenzie, his face gravely sympathetic.
To relieve his fears Bridger called: "All right, Mr. McKenzie. I'll take this one. Fact, there ain't only one choice. T'other one seems to be bu'sted."
"The other one—" began McKenzie. "To be sure; the other one is damaged. I had forgotten that. And you find one that—that suits?"
"It's all right," cheerily cried Bridger. "Come down and look it over. I can't see anything wrong 'bout it."
Much puzzled and deeply disturbed at the unexpected presence of two boats, McKenzie cantered into the clearing and rode his horse down to the shelving bank. To his dismay he beheld one of his best keelboats. It was one of the two he had ordered his men surreptitiously to remove. But here it was—fast beside the broken boat.
"Yes, it seems to be all right," he mumbled, mopping his forehead with a gay silk handkerchief. "Seems to be all right."
And in his heart he cursed the blunderers. "I'll send some of my men up to fetch it down for you," he added.
"I'd never forgive myself if I took any more advantage of your neighborly kindness," earnestly declared Bridger. "Lander 'n' me will work it down. I'll give you the order at the fort."
"Come, come, Mr. Bridger. Never do work you don't need to. It's a bad example for the engagés and Indians," McKenzie protested with some asperity. "And you have your horses to take care of."
"Here comes one of your musicians, riding like the thunder!" exclaimed Lander, recognizing the drummer.
The horseman came up at a gallop, and, yanking his blown mount to its haunches, excitedly cried out: "Th' Deschamps gang has murdered Mr. Phinny. One of Gauche's men found him stabbed to death half a mile from th' Assiniboin camp. Th' Injun read th' trail an' says he found tracks of a Injun woman's moccasins."
While McKenzie remained speechless with horror at the news Bridger yelped out: "What sort of a knife was used?"
"Then th' squaw done it—old Deschamps' wildcat girl. She tried to stick a dirk into me. The old man said Phinny had promised to keep her as his woman. She probably thought he was going back on his bargain."
"This is terrible!" groaned McKenzie. "I must ride back at once."
As he reined his horse into the trail Bridger ran up to the messenger and said:
"Your nag's blowed. Ride one of our horses to the fort, leadin' t'other two."
"Yes, bring the animals along," wearily mumbled McKenzie as he rode down the trail.
Bridger piled into the keelboat and beckoned Lander to follow him. Then he warned:
"Now, young feller, you're going to see some real boating. It's twenty-five miles, an' keelboats ain't s'posed to run at night except when there's a good moon. But we're going through—bent for breakfast. It'll be darker'n the inside of a beaver. We're going to pass the fort in the dark an' make the Yallerstone without being spotted. Now grab one of them poles an' hump yourself."