Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 14

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Chapter XIV

BEAVER! BEAVER!


THE boat was fifty feet long and twelve feet wide, an awkward craft for two men to navigate even in daylight. With night blotting out the banks and concealing snags and bars it seemed to Lander to be an impossible task. Yet by the time McKenzie was galloping down the river-road to investigate the murder of Phinny the mountain man and his younger assistant had pushed the boat into mid-stream. Motioning Lander to take a position on the starboard runway—passe avant—of cleats, Bridger gave him a long, knobbed pole, and standing opposite him commanded in mimicry of Etienne Prevost:

"A bas les perches!"

Down went the poles and the two men began pushing the boat from under their feet; Bridger holding his efforts down to a level with those of his inexperienced companion. So long as they exerted an identical pressure the boat held a true course. With experienced river men at the poles there was no need of a man at the tiller. Strive as he would, however, the mountain man outpushed his employee, and the first time down the passe avant he was compelled to seize the long tiller to avoid running ashore.

"Three hours of some sort of light," he mused as they straightened out once more. "We ought to make the bulk of the distance in that time, barring accidents. I don't want to reach the fort till it's good and dark. Now let's see if I can't keep even with you."

A little practise on the part of both, one striving to increase his motive power, the other holding himself in check, soon enabled them to keep to mid-channel. Time was lost at the bends as Bridger was compelled to take the tiller and leave the current to do the work.

Twice they ran on to bars, but as the boat was empty they were soon afloat. Almost all the snags were well inshore on either hand—carried and hung up there by high water. As the night shut in and the banks became blurred it was difficult to determine where the shadows ended and the willow and cottonwood growths began.

"It's mostly luck from now on," murmured Bridger as the outstretched claw of a snag rasped against the boat. "You keep in the bow to push us off. We'll let the current do the work."

The hour was now close to midnight and they would be passing the fort very soon.

Lander completely lost all sense of direction. He was adrift on a limitless sea. There was no longer any such things as shores. Only the subdued call of a voice on the left bank dispelled this illusion of infinite space.

Bridger at the tiller softly signaled for him to remain quiet. Lander crawled back and found his patron lying on top of the cargo-box.

"See or hear anything?" came the voice, sounding very close.

"Too foggy. They must have hung up till mornin'. Ye done gone an' let th' fire go out. Yer fire, much as it is mine. Stop yappin' an' help git it started ag'in."

Bridger chuckled and whispered.

"McKenzie has men out to watch for us. He's thought up some game to take the boat back. That dark smooch up there is Union."

Lander rubbed his eyes but was unable to locate the "smooch." No lights were burning in or near the fort, and only a mountain man's vision could make out the parallelogram of stockade and buildings.

"Then we've got by," Lander exulted under his breath.

"By the fort," dryly agreed Bridger, "but we ain't by Kenneth McKenzie yet. We've got to round the Point before we can hit the Yallerstone. We'll be there mighty soon now. That's the danger place."

The Point was the narrow and thumb-shaped stretch of land formed by the river's eccentric course in running south to receive the Yellowstone and then doubling back to the north and east. As they neared the Point the channel narrowed; and, as Bridger had expected, guards were stationed there. Obviously McKenzie was determined to get the boat back.

"Git a light," growled a voice. "Why'n sin don't ye git that fire started?"

"Wal, gimme time," was the snarling rejoinder.

Bridger closed a hand on Lander's wrist and softly whispered:

"We must git by before they start their fire."

The boat glided on. The men on the bank seemed to be within jumping distance. One of them tested his memory by repeating:

"'Mr. McKenzie's mighty sorry but he must have th' boat to take Mr. Phinny's dead body down-river.'"

"'All t'other boats bein' needed for company work!'" sullenly completed the second voice.

"Then we're to say that if he ain't in too much of a hurry he can have a boat arter th' rush is over. Mebbe in a week or ten days. I reckon I can tote that talk to th' Three Forks o' th' Missouri an' fetch it back an' never lose a word."

"Shet yer trap an' open yer peepers. We'll soon be able to see things."

This as a tiny spiral of flame ran up a mass of sun-dried debris.

Lander held his breath. He could make out the forms of two men armed with rifles, as they passed between him and the growing fire. The blaze as yet was scarcely under way. Bridger sighed in deep content and murmured:

"They'll be looking up-stream. By the time the fire gits to burning at a good lick they can look up or down an' be cussed, so far as we care. 'Nother three minutes an' we'll be nosing into the Yallerstone."

As if suddenly desirous of serving Kenneth McKenzie the fire flared up and burned a broad patch across the river. Lander believed they would be discovered and crouched low to escape a bullet. But although the radius of the light zone rapidly increased it did not catch up with the receding boat; and then again the watchers were staring up-stream. The keelboat was again in darkness although the fire was visible—a red hole through a black blanket.

"We must do some poling," said Bridger. "Here's the Yallerstone."

"Where?" blankly asked Lander, unable to see anything once he removed his gaze from the fire.

"Can't you feel the current pushing us to the left? Work gently. Sound carries like sin on the water."

Lander worked with great caution, but with no intelligence. He did what his patron commanded, but he did it blindly. If not for occasional backward glances at the fire he would have believed the boat was going about in circles. Then something snatched the fire from sight, and Bridger was announcing:

"We've done it. We're in the Yallerstone now. Timber on this south bank hides the fire from us. A little ahead is a bend. After we make that we'll hide up an' camp, an', as Etienne says, 'fumer la pipe.'"

Now the work was more strenuous as they were fighting against the current. Again the task became purposeless so far as Lander could observe. It consisted of nosing ashore and backing out, of blundering on to bars and snags and working clear. At last he was driven to ask:

"Do you know where you want to go and how near you are to arriving, Mr. Bridger?"

"We're already there," assured Bridger. "Work her dead ahead."

Lander stood in the stern, pushing with all his strength. He heard the rustling of branches in the bow and finally felt a limb worrying his head.

"Now it's fumer la pipe," said Bridger.

Lander reached out with his pole and found it rested on the river bank.

"I reckon I could jump ashore," he said.

"Reckon so, if you didn't fall in. Better stretch out on the cargo-box an' git a few feet of sleep."

Both were asleep when the sun came up, but were soon awake and on the bank. The river was empty. They were above the bend and snugly concealed under a rank spread of willow boughs. For a considerable distance the course of the river could be traced due south, and nowhere along its lonely reaches w^as there any sign of the bull-boats. Lander grew worried. Bridger was grave but lost none of his composure. He dozed, stood watch, and ate dried meat and never betrayed any impatience. Yet when in the early afternoon he detected a moving dot far up the river his gray eyes flashed and he put up his pipe.

"Some Indians from the Crow village coming to visit Fort Union," suggested Lander in a low whisper, as if the newcomer were well within hearing.

"White man," muttered Bridger. "Tell by the way he paddles. Not very good at the paddle, but must have been some time. Probably he's old an' has been away from it."

"Papa Clair?" exclaimed Lander, unable to make out anything except a tiny shape moving toward them with the current.

Bridger made no reply for half a minute, then slowly informed the other:

"Yes, It's Clair. He's taking it easy, thank the lord! Packs must be safe, or he wouldn't be so perky an' yet so delib'rate."

Fascinated, Lander waited and the dot became a canoe; then almost before he knew it the canoe leaped from the middle distance into the foreground, and there was Papa Clair, white hair and white mustaches and his knife in his belt.

"Good day, Papa Clair," softly called out Bridger from behind the willow screen.

"Bonjour, m'sieu," quietly returned Papa Clair, sending his canoe toward the hiding-place and picking up a rifle.

"Bound to have a fight with me," saluted Bridger, poking his head into view. "Where are the bull-boats hid up?"

"M'sieu Bridger! It is good to see you. Where is my young friend? Ah—now I see you, my friend. Then all is well with you. But name of a pipe! Such a bother, the boats of the bull! They are safe. Let that be your satisfy. But when we have done with them I will rip them to the devil for being blind pigs and the sons of pigs."

He passed under the drooping branches and held his canoe against the boat and exchanged handshakes. His trip down the Big Horn and Yellowstone with the packs had been uneventful except for the vicissitudes of snags and bars and the awkwardness of his craft. He had passed the Crow village in the night and seen no Indians.

Five trappers had accompanied him. They had arrived and gone into hiding early in the morning of this very day. Bridger in turn gave a synopsis of his and Lander's adventures, and rapidly explained the necessity of shifting the cargo and making down the Missouri that night.

"We must be well down-stream by to-morrow morning," he concluded. "We will stay here till dusk, then pole up to the packs. You go back an' fetch a couple men to help pole. It must be done in a rush. An' fetch along some grub. Lander seems to have a delicate stomach."

"I go. The men are impatient to hunt along the shore. One of them swore he would go and I had to show him my pet knife to hold his interests to our little camp. God is good!"

With another handshake, especially warm to Lander, he pushed from under the willows and paddled up-stream. Bridger yawned and went to sleep. Lander kept awake, nervously anticipating the night's work and feverishly crossing many bridges of risks and disappointments.

Success meant seeing Susette. He pictured Kenneth McKenzie as the great obstacle between him and the home-going. He could not imagine that gentleman remaining inactive. The failure of the keelboat to arrive at the fort was sure to cause all sorts of suspicions. The Indians would be sent to scout the country for it.

The conversation of the men on guard at the Point revealed that McKenzie was determined to take the boat back and would urge an absurd excuse in order to succeed. The distance between Lander and the girl in St. Louis lengthened and stretched out during the afternoon until it seemed as if the whole world were between them.

Lander succeeded in dozing off only to be aroused by the arrival of Papa Clair and two trappers. They brought a huge piece of cooked cow-meat and a bag of salt. Bridger joined Lander in a ravenous attack on the food. As they ate Papa Clair signaled for silence. He pointed down-stream, and Bridger crept to his side and beheld a canoe following the opposite bank. In it were two men, one white, the other an Indian.

"McKenzie's clerk an' a Assiniboin," muttered Bridger. "Sent to search the river, but they seem to be half-hearted."

"Behold! They grow weary, they turn back!"

"Saves us catching an' holding 'em till we can git away," said Bridger. "After they make the bend we'll start for the bull-boats. No more scouts will come up here now; they're going back to report."

The canoe dropped down-stream and quickly disappeared around the bend. After waiting ten or fifteen minutes Papa Clair's canoe was fastened to the keelboat and the men quickly poled it up-stream and into an eddy.

Bridger held council and selected two to make the trip as far as Fort Pierre. The others were directed to return to the Greene as soon as they had worked the keelboat out of the Yellowstone and into the Missouri.

"I'm going back to the fort to give a' order for the boat an' sell the two horses," he explained. "Papa Clair will be boss here. When it gits dark you'll run down into the Missouri for 'bout a mile an' a half where the big island is. Lay up there till I come. I'm going there now in the canoe, an' I shall hide the canoe on the bank. Papa Clair, if I'm not there by midnight you're to strike for Pierre, keeping all the men with you."

With a nod to Lander he stepped into the canoe and with sturdy strokes sped down the river. Striking into the Missouri, he crossed to the north shore and held on until he came to the island, abreast of which Fort William was to stand two years later in brief opposition to Fort Union.

The channel between the island and the river bank was narrow, and a few strokes of the paddle sent the canoe ashore. Fort Union was a little less than three miles away. Striking north, Bridger made a wide détour until he was above the fort and on the river.

It was now at the edge of dusk, and he knew the keelboat would be descending the Yellowstone within an hour. He hoped his presence at the fort would concentrate and hold McKenzie's attention to him and that the search for the keelboat would slow up. Almost as soon as he came up the bank from the river and entered the river-road he was quickly spied by one of the clerks. The young man was astonished at seeing him, and gasped: "Mr. Bridger! Why, we've been— Why, Mr. Bridger! That is, Mr. McKenzie was hoping you'd show up. Where's the boat?"

"Ashore," sternly replied Bridger. "I've come afoot to see your boss."

He walked on, exhibiting no desire for the clerk's company; and the latter, glad to be free, ran ahead to give the news to his irate employer. When Bridger passed through the gate he walked with a slight limp, as if lame from travel.

McKenzie, on the southwest bastion balcony, saw him approaching and hastened out to greet him. His shrewd gaze took account of the limp and the downcast expression on Bridger's face.

"The boat got ashore, the clerk tells me," said McKenzie in a soothing voice. "Too bad. Too bad. I wanted you to let my men fetch it down, you know. Too much for two men to do alone and in the night. Must have grounded quite a ways up-stream."

He frowned slightly, unable to understand how his men had failed to find the boat after scouring both sides of the river almost to the boat-yard.

"You couldn't have more'n got started."

"Quite a ways," sighed Bridger, lifting a leg and tenderly feeling his ankle. "But I'm here to give you an order on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company for the boat an' to sell you the two horses."

"Come inside," invited McKenzie, turning to the bastion. "I want to talk with you. Do you mind coming up to the balcony? I've been watching for Jacob Berger. He and the Blackfeet should be getting along before now. I'm afraid of old Gauche. He wouldn't move his camp down here. Promised he would, but he hasn't showed up. I promised him twenty new guns and ten kegs of liquor if he wouldn't have any trouble with the Blackfeet until after they'd fetched me their trade. Slippery old rascal!

"But about the boat. I hate like the devil to back out of a bargain, but I need that boat to take Malcom Phinny's body down-river. He stands high in St. Louis with the A. F. C. and with the people of the city——"

"Bah!" broke in Bridger in huge disgust. "You just stick that young devil up in a tree to dry same's you would a' Injun an' send his carcass down-river when your steamer comes along. He betrayed my man Lander into the hands of the Blackfeet; he killed my man Porker. He an' old Deschamps planned to murder Lander the minute they l'arned he was at the rendezvous."

"I don't believe it!"

"Careful, Mr. McKenzie. Me, Jim Bridger, says it. An' I don't accuse any man till I know. Phinny was worse'n a' Injun. The A. F. C. don't owe him any partic'lar attention."

"It's hard for me to believe it," corrected McKenzie, his face flushing. In truth he never had had the slightest suspicion that Phinny was carrying on any campaign of hate against Lander.

"Of course it's hard for you to believe it until I say it's a fact, but it's true. Even if he didn't take naturally to murdering, why such a hurry to git his dead body down-river when you've already told headquarters the steamboat will let you keep live men up here an' pay 'em off in goods at the reg'lar Injun-trade profit?

"Mr. McKenzie, I'm keeping the boat. The bargain's made an' you'll stick to it."

"I'll stick to it when I know what you want that boat for," retorted McKenzie. "I'm something more than a trader up here. I'm called the King of the Missouri, perhaps you'll remember. I'm not only responsible to the A. F. C. for what goes on up here, but I'm also responsible to the United States government."

"Was you responsible to the United States government when you set up your distillery?" asked Bridger with a grin.

"That was to conduct scientific experiments with our natural fruits and berries," McKenzie haughtily replied. "The government is perfectly satisfied, and that matter is ended."

"An' the still is bu'sted up," added Bridger. "Why, every one knows how Pierre Chouteau, Jr., worked his head off in getting Senator Benton to fix it so the A. F. C. wouldn't lose its license. It took every ounce of power an' influence Old Bullion had at that to straighten it out.

"Now you've 'lowed by your words that I'm doing something I hadn't oughter. I'm waiting for you to take them words back."

McKenzie bit his lips, then smiled graciously and declared: "Jim Bridger, I never accused you of any wrong-doing. You're going to be one of us some time. But as King of the Missouri I must keep an eye on things."

"A King of the Missouri. I'm a King of the Missouri too," said Bridger. "So is Jim Baker an' Etienne Prevost an' Papa Clair an' a whole herd of others. Now we'll make out an order for that boat an' I'll sell you the two horses."

"I refuse to sell the boat," stiffly decided McKenzie. "Whenever I find it I shall seize it; and I do not care to buy your horses."

"I don't give a hang 'bout the horses; but the boat's mine. If you won't take an order on the Rocky Mountain Fur Company then I'll credit it against what the A. F. C. owes me for the robes I traded to Phinny. I'll trade my horses to old Gauche. He thinks I'm prime medicine. Reckon I'll put a winter man with him. He'd do well."

"If you'll agree not to put a winter man in with Gauche you can have the boat for four hundred dollars and I'll take the horses," growled McKenzie.

"You ain't losing a penny on that boat," solemnly declared Bridger. "Boat prices have gone up mighty smart. So's the price on horses. We'll call the horses two hundred apiece. That squares off the boat an' saves bookkeeping. Got Deschamps yet?"

"No. My men are after Deschamps now. If they'd been at hand you might have decided you didn't want the boat. If Gardepied is with the Blackfeet I'll send him after Deschamps."

"Here comes some one in a hurry. Probably bringing word that they've found Deschamps," said Bridger, pointing to a man riding furiously toward the stockade gate from the river-road.

McKenzie quit the balcony and ran down the stairs with Bridger close behind him. The new-comer rode into the stockade as McKenzie ran from the bastion. One glance and Bridger dodged behind a group of clerks and edged toward the gate.

"Kenneth McKenzie!" cried the horseman, leaping from his animal and glaring wildly about.

"Yes, yes, Berger! Here I am. Mr. Bridger and I were on the balcony and saw you coming."

"Bridger?" gasped Berger. "So he knew enough to fetch the forty packs of beaver he got from the Blackfeet to you 'stead of tryin' to git 'em down to St. Louis. It's a fine trade even if ye do have to give some presents to the Blackfeet—to them what's left, anyway."

"Forty packs of beaver! ——! That's the answer to the keelboat!" yelled McKenzie. "Where's Bridger? He was here a second ago. Find him, you idiots! Don't let him get away in that A. F. C. keelboat!"

But by this time Bridger was through the gate and running along the western stockade to make the woods at the north.

"Forty packs of beaver, and the A. F. C. kindly letting him have a boat to take them down-river!" moaned McKenzie.

"There's something else to worry 'bout, Mr. McKenzie," panted Berger, staggering to him and clutching his arm. "I'm wounded an' can't talk a whale of a lot. That cussed old p'isoner of a Gauche had his men fire into th' Blackfoot lodges two hours ago. Killed a heap of warriors an' got away with three hundred ponies. It ain't no time to talk 'bout Bridger's beaver packs unless ye wanter lose th' Blackfoot trade."

While McKenzie was confronting this new problem Bridger was making the best of the dusk and the confusion in the fort to reach a point where it would be safe to turn his course toward the island. He assumed that all the hubbub inside the stockade had resulted from McKenzie's discovery of his plans. So he spared himself none in racing to the concealed canoe. He believed the search for him would be up the river, as he had arrived from that direction.

An hour later he was hiding on the up-stream tip of the island and answering a low signal out on the water. Ten minutes passed and Papa Clair was softly announcing: "We arrive, M'sieu Bridger. Holy blue, but your medicine was strong to let you go to the fort and return."

"All the men except two take this canoe an' hustle back up the Yallerstone," cried Bridger. "Berger's come with his Blackfeet an' they may strike for home through the Crow country, an' it's best for you men to have a big start of 'em. An' keep humping. Now we'll travel."