Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 3

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Chapter III


IT LACKED an hour of midnight when Jim Bridger locked the Washington Avenue store and walked down to the river-front. He was about to leave the city for another year in the mountains, and there was no guarantee he would ever return. There were many forgotten graves along the Missouri and its tributaries. Bridger meditated calmly on the possible vicissitudes of the season ahead, and knew that for a certain percentage of his mountain men this would be the last trip to the Rockies.

He had halted close to the river and found himself staring through the soft moonlight at Bloody Island. The island, famous as a dueling-ground for the hot spirits of the time, who would not be satisfied with anything short of a rival's blood, always fascinated him. As a boy he knew its history. Often he had wandered over it and paused to rest in the shade of the huge cottonwood which had stood there a sturdy tree long before St. Charles, Petite Côte, began life as the first settlement on the Missouri, or two years before St. Louis had its beginning.

Bridger was thirteen years old and supporting himself and his sister with his ferry-boat when Thomas H. Benton, "Old Bullion," and Charles Lucas fought two duels on the island, Lucas being killed. Six years later Joshua Barton, a brother of the first United States Senator from Missouri, was killed by Thomas Rector under the cottonwood. And could he have read the future for the period of but four months he would have known that Major Thomas Biddle, paymaster of the United States Army, and Congressman Spencer Pettis were to kill each other, the range being but five feet.

As he was recalling the historic encounters, and many others of lesser notoriety, he was disturbed by the dipping of paddles and the appearance of a long dugout making for the island. His spell vanished and he would have left the levee had he not observed that the canoe was filled with men. The hour, the number of men in the twenty-five footer, told him that only one errand could call them to Bloody Island. He stayed his steps and stared after them curious to witness the finale of the affair. A second canoe shot into the moonlight, but this was smaller than the other and seemed to contain but two men. From the forward canoe a deep voice bawled:

"American Fur ag'in' th' world!"

This sentiment was loudly cheered. Bridger, who was gathering himself to give the autocratic A. F. C. the fight of its life, walked back to the water's edge and frowned thoughtfully as he watched the progress of the second craft.

"There's going to be a fight. First canoe's filled plumb full of A. F. C. men. Them two most likely are Opposition men. They oughter have some one sorter to look after them. I'd hate to be the only stranger on the island in a crowd of A. F. C. men if any blood was to be spilled. I ain't got the time but I reckon I'll drop over an' just see how it works out."

Searching up and down the levee he soon found a small dugout and with an improvised paddle made for the end of the island.

Bridger was now beginning to be recognized as the foremost mountain man of his time. He had been schooled by General Ashley, and had trapped and explored every tributary of the Platte and Yellowstone with such men as Lucien B. Maxwell, Carson, and Jim Baker. He was old in the ways of the plains and mountains before he became one of the heads of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. He had been present at the attack on the villages of the treacherous Aricaras in the spring of 1823, the first campaign against trans-Mississippi Indians conducted by a United States army, when Ashley and his veterans joined forces with General Atkinson and his "Missouri Legion." The A. F. C. would gladly buy his services, being especially troubled and incensed because he followed his old chief's example of taking trappers to the mountains without depending upon the good-will of the natives, or on settled trading-posts. The powerful organization was now prepared to fight him at his own game by sending companies of men to dog his steps and compete with him at every turn; and in doing this the A. F. C. admitted his worth as a trader and advertised their fear of him as an opponent.

Bridger this night was on the eve of a battle royal for beaver, but he had no thought except for the fight between unknown men on Bloody Island. The sentiment from the leading canoe, revealing the men were A. F. C. sympathizers, made him keen to follow and see that the minority received fair play. Landing at the nose of the island he pulled up his canoe. Then with a mastery of woodcraft that would have made an Indian jealous he threaded his way toward the opening where the duels were always fought. Before he reached the spot he caught the sound of voices, one in particular being raised most blatantly.

"That would be Tilton," he muttered. "Owned by the A. F. C. body an' soul, if he happens to have any such thing."

"I'm running this show!" Tilton shouted as Bridger reached the end of the bush growth and stood unobserved in the shadows and watched the moon-lighted scene.

"A thousand pardons, m'sieu," remonstrated a soft voice. "But behold, you will run on to my knife if you fail in courtesy to M'sieu Lander."

"The devil! Young Lander, who wanted a job with me!" muttered Bridger. "Wouldn't go to the mountains along of leaving his girl. Now he takes a chance on losing his life—an' all of a pleasant evening. He must have some spirit. Mebbe I misjudged him."

"Mister Phinny, as th' challenged party, has said pistols," began Tilton.

"To be sure. Behold, it is his right," broke in Papa Clair. "But the distance and the positions are not for you to name. We will toss a coin for position, and we will decide between us how far apart they shall stand."

"Oh, let's have it over with," grumbled Lander. "Give me a pistol and stand the skunk before me. If he isn't near enough I'll go after him."

"You'll find me near enough to put a ball through your heart, or my name ain't Malcom Phinny," jeered the other principal.

"Phinny?" mused Bridger. "The same who went to bring down the Pawnee trade to Cabanne's, found them away on a war-path and stole their corn, and made them believe it was our men."

"I reckon they don't want any of our fight," sneered one of Phinny's adherents from the edge of the grove.

"Pardon! Does m'sieu want to fight?" politely inquired Papa Clair, running toward the group in the shadows.

"Keep that sticker 'way from my ribs!" frantically yelled the man.

"Come back here, Papa. This is growing into a joke. That swarthy dog doesn't want to fight. Hurry or they'll be swimming back to the city," called out Lander.

"My man will fight at fifteen paces," snarled Tilton.

"Very well. It is most excellent to find he will fight at all," said Papa Clair. "If one stands where M'sieu Tilton is standing, and one here in my tracks, the light will be equal and M'sieu Tilton can place his man without tossing the coin."

"Not by a —— sight!" growled Tilton. Then with a vicious laugh: "This is for blood. Keep yer Frenchy perliteness to yerself. We'll toss a coin. Th' winner picks any spot in the openin' he wants to an' t'other man must face him. Hi, Dillings! Step out here an' flip a coin."

Bridger gave a low, amused laugh at the bald-faced plan to do murder. Papa Clair spat with a hissing noise and ominously objected:

"Be careful, M'sieu Tilton. Be very careful. Not M'sieu Dillings. He has the prejudice. He has said he did not believe my man wanted the fight. We do not trust him. No."

"Well, I can't toss it; neither can ye toss it; neither can Phinny nor Lander. Name any one ye want to," affably replied Tilton.

"But you all are of the same," protested Clair. "Let them stand as I said with the light fair for both."

"Ye keep on backin' water an' there won't be enough light to fight by," warned a voice from the shadows.

"We know our rights. Ye ain't new to this game, Papa Clair," gravely said Tilton. "I insist on th' coin bein' flipped. Name any man on this island; we'll be satisfied an' never make a yip; only be quick."

"You know well we have no friends here," replied Clair savagely. "You bring a crowd of men. We two are here alone."

"And only one of you is going back," taunted Phinny.

"Dog! Defiler of the sacred dueling-ground! Nom de Dieu! It is more the murder trap!" shrilly cried Clair.

"Name some one or Dillings shall toss th' coin," peremptorily announced Tilton.

"Wouldn't that be pretty raw, Tilton?" drawled Bridger, moving from the bushes.

The deep silence evidenced how greatly his intrusion had jolted the men. Before any one spoke or made a move he advanced into the opening and inquired, "Will I do, Papa Clair?"

"The devil would do, rather than any of these A. F. C. men," cried Clair. "I can't see you well, m'sieu. Your voice is that of some one I have known and liked. You can't be an A. F. C. man. Give your name."

"Jim Bridger. Do I suit?"

"To the sky and ground!" enthusiastically exclaimed Lander.

"Holy blue! Better than an angel!" cried Papa Clair.

"Hold on a minute!" yelled Tilton, still nonplused but realizing he must say something. "I reckin it ain't just reg'lar for a' outsider to come crowding like this. How many yer men hiding back there?"

"Never you mind my men, you 'Ricaree-hearted skunk. You and your rotten crowd won't be hurt if you don't try any dirty work. All ready? Here goes." The coin glittered in the moonlight. Phinny called out anxiously.

"You lost," announced Bridger.

"How do we know that?" cried Tilton.

Bridger stood beside him in two strides. The spectators could not see just what took place, but all could hear Bridger say:

"You heard me say that your man lost the call. What do you mean by your words? You making off to throw a doubt 'bout my honesty? Quick!"

"No, no, Mister Bridger. I spoke afore I thought," gasped Tilton.

"Some time some one will git fussed up an' you won't have time to think," somberly warned Bridger. "Lander, choose your position. You can stand and face anywhere you will."

According to Tilton's own terms Lander could have selected a position in the shadows of the bushes and compelled his man to stand in the bright moonlight. Tilton expected him to take the advantage, especially when Papa Clair repeated Tilton's words, "This is for blood." Lander hesitated a moment, not that he purposed seeking any undue advantage but solely to make Phinny and his followers squirm.

"Don't sweat any more, Phinny," he called out. "I will stand here, facing Tilton. Measure the ground."

"An' I'll stand over here near my old friends, Dillings an' others, all good A. F. C. men," chuckled Bridger, crossing to the sullen group.

"Ah, now we shall have a decent fight. Only with the knife it would be much cleaner. If m'sieu even now wishes to change and fight with the knife my man will not object. But of course not at the present distance."

"No, no," snarled Phinny, taking a pistol from Tilton and gripping it nervously.

Tilton stepped off the distance, Papa Clair mincing along at his side to see he did not make it more than fifteen paces.

"Stand here, Phinny," Tilton gruffly called. "Shall I give the word, Clair?"

"My friend, M'sieu Bridger, is better to give the word. No one objects?"

Tilton bit his lips but did not object. Bridger was to be reckoned with in more ways than one. In a physical contest there was no one between the Missouri and the Rockies who could make him hold back from trouble. He was one who never forgot a friend or an injury. His powerful personality, despite his lack of years, already was registering on St. Louis. He typed the ideals of the fur trade that existed before the A. F. C. made its headquarters in St. Louis in 1822.

"I'm willin'. It's only a matter o' countin'," sullenly replied Tilton.

"Ah, men count, and men count," ironically murmured Clair. "If M'sieu Bridger has the great politeness to favor us."

Bridger strode to a position midway between the two men, halting just out of line of their fire, and humorously remarked:

"I didn't come for the job. But if you all say I must, why, I must."

Suddenly wheeling to face the men lined up along the bushes he hooked his fingers in his belt and there was no humor now in his voice as he warned:

"I'll kill any man or men who break in on this game." Then to the duelists: "I shall slowly count three. After the word three you can fire."

"And I hold my knife by the tip. My eyes are watching M'sieu Tilton," added Papa Clair.

"Yer s'picions!" growled Tilton, edging away from his principal. "Give the word an' let's have it over with."

"Make ready. Are you both ready?" called out Bridger sharply.

"Ready here," snarled Phinny.

"Ready," quietly called out Lander.

"One—two—three," slowly and distinctly counted Bridger.

Phinny fired while the last word was being uttered, his ball whistling by Lander's ear. An instant later Lander fired, and his opponent half turned, remained motionless for a moment, then slumped down on his knees and rolled over.

Bridger started toward him, wrathfully crying:

"The miserable cur, to fire before he got the word!"

Tilton reached the prostrate figure first and tore open his shirt, and cried out:

"Plumb through th' heart!"

Bridger came to a halt. All the others stood like stumps for a count of five. Then Dillings' voice croaked:

"The devil's to pay for this. Can't kill a' A. F. C man like that!"

With a harsh laugh of triumph Papa Clair jeered:

"M'sleu is much in the mistake. The A. F. C. men can be killed just like that."

There was an uneasy stirring by the bushes, and the metallic click of a pistol being cocked brought Bridger's hands from his belt, holding two pistols; and he warned:

"A fair fight on Lander's part. A try at murder on Phinny's part. Had he killed Lander I should have killed him for firing before the word was given. All stay where you are till we're afloat, or more'n one corpse will be toted from this place."

"If any one is grieved and wishes to settle a point of honor with me, I will remain. I, Etienne Clair, an old man," began Papa.

But Bridger cut him short by fairly taking him under his arm and disappearing among the bushes with Lander at his side.

"You two take your canoe an' paddle to the foot of the island. I've got a canoe there an' will join you in a few minutes."

They jumped into their dugout and shot the craft down-stream. Bridger remained in the narrow path, over which so many vindicators of honor had traveled, and waited. From the opening came a confused murmuring of many voices. Then some one passionately cried out:

"Is three men to git away like that? It's light 'nough to pick 'em off in th' canoe. Come on!"

There was a rush of feet, a floundering about in the narrow path, then a precipitate halt as Bridger coldly warned:

"Stand back. A bullet for the next man who comes another step."

"Jim Bridger!" ejaculated one of the men.

"An' he's waiting to see who'll be first to enter his butcher-shop," was the grim reply.

"We want to take Phinny across," called out Tilton.

"No hurry in his case. Stick where you are for a few minutes."

With this warning Bridger noiselessly slipped into cover and swiftly retreated to the shore and peered down-stream. The dugout was not in sight. He waited a couple of minutes for good measure, and then announced:

"I'll count twenty, slow-like, then the path is open."

The men waited for him to commence counting. But he had ducked into the bushes and was following the path which skirted the shore, and soon came to where he had left his canoe. Holding their dugout stationary by grasping some overhanging branches Papa Clair and Lander were waiting for him. Pushing off his canoe and leaping in he softly cautioned:

"Git work out of your paddles. They're skunks, but there's a full dozen of 'em; an' a bullet from a coward's gun might kill the bravest man that ever lived."

He led the way and it was not until they were nearing the levee that they discerned the other dugout slowly making the crossing. As they landed and hurriedly walked up the levee Bridger said: "The man Dillings 'lowed there'd be trouble. I reckon he was right so far as our young friend is mixed in it, Papa."

"It was a fair fight. No one can bother him," said Clair.

"He won't be bothered by the law but he'll be a marked man so long as that band of wolves feels fretted over to-night's work. Some day he'll turn up missing. Mebbe not to-morrow or next day, but soon. He must quit town for a spell if he wants to keep on living."

"I must see some one before I quit town," said Lander, his mind in a whirl.

"All right. You oughter know your own business best. But the chances is you'll never grow up an' die an' leave her a widder. But that's your game."

"M'sieu Bridger is right as he always is right," sighed Papa Clair. "If they had fought with knives no one would make trouble. If those who want to pick up the quarrel would come out in the open like men you should stay and meet them one by one, always choosing knives, as you would be the challenged party. But a shot in the dark, a knife-thrust while you sleep! Bah, the savages! My young friend, you must leave St. Louis."

"He must go to-night," added Bridger.

"Go? Where to?" asked Lander.

"Up or down the river," retorted the old man.

"With no work ahead of him an' probably without much money," mused Bridger. "No; that won't do. They could trail him easy an' find the killing; better down-river than right here in St. Louis. This is the best way; go across country an' make St. Charles by morning. Some of my men are there, waiting for the rest of the band to join 'em. Etienne Prevost is there with a keelboat. He'll take the boat up to Lexington an' some of the men will keep abreast of him with the mules. The mules are for the band at Lexington who are to go overland while Prevost takes the boat on up to Fort Pierre. You can go on the keelboat from St. Charles to Lexington, or you can stick along with the men driving the mules. By the time you reach Lexington you'll have made up your mind whether you'll stick to the boat an' go to Fort Pierre, or make straight for the mountains with the land party. I shall ride 'cross-country an' join or catch up with the land party at Lexington. Once in the mountains all A. F. C. influence this side of judgment day can't make you budge, but mebbe a Injun will dance your sculp."

"If I must go, I must," sighed Lander. "I'll start at once, but I must write a letter first—and get it delivered."

"I'll act for you, my friend," promptly offered Papa Clair. "Holy blue! What is to become of me after you are gone? No more evening lessons.… Yet behold, you know about all I can teach. No more evening walks down by Chouteau's old grist-mill. I have lived my day."

"I'll be back inside of two years if I'm lucky," lugubriously consoled Lander.

"Too much talk," snapped Bridger. "That gang has landed. No knowing when they may strike your trail. Git about your letter-writing. Pretty soon they may be combing the city for you. I'll hitch a mule back of my store. I'm off at once to make Lexington. You can make St. Charles by morning easy. Don't stop to git any outfit. Just take your gun an' ride like the devil. Prevost will outfit you. Tell him I sent you—that I'm on my way to Lexington."

"Would Tilton dare to attack me here in the city? Isn't there any law in St. Louis? Or can the friends of the A. F. C. do just as they want to?" demanded Lander, beginning to grow wrathy at the prospects of enforced flight.

"Oh, Tilton isn't anybody's fool," assured Bridger. "He won't appear in what happens in St. Louis. But there's a choice collection of murderers an' robbers hanging around his saloon who'll do any dirty work for a prime beaverskin. If they slip up on the job Tilton won't be dragged in. He'll just send out another gang after you."

They parted, Bridger going to procure a mule for the fugitive, the latter and Papa Clair hurrying to the Market Street room. Here Lander wrote a long letter, explaining his plight and vowing his undying love, and pleading for Miss Susette to wait for him. While he wrote Papa Clair laid out his rifle and trappings. With a long-drawn sigh Lander finished, sanded and sealed the missive and handed it to Papa Clair, and was asking his friend how he proposed to deliver it unsuspected by Hurry-Up Parker, when the old man stuffed the letter inside his coat, clutched Lander by the arm and with his free hand extinguished the light.

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The old man stuffed the letter in his pocket and extinguished the light.

"The devil!" faintly ejaculated Lander, rubbing his eyes in the darkness.

"No, men. On the stairs," softly whispered Papa.

"Tilton?" whispered Lander, fumbling round and securing his rifle and slipping on his belt, powder-horn and other hunting accouterments.

"No such luck. Men sent by him. Men he will wash his hands of if they blunder. They're working for blood-money. Stand here with me behind the door."

They leaned against the wall and listened. Till now Lander had heard nothing. With his ear to the wall he fancied he caught the sound of soft footsteps stealing to the door. Papa Clair caught him by the ear and dragged down his head and murmured:

"There are twelve or more—only six apiece. I hear some still coming up the stairs. When they come in keep behind me. We must get into the hall and put out the light."

"We can go down the back way."

"Much better. I see your head is clear. They will be sure to have men posted at the bottom of the front stairs. Now be ready."

An audible shuffling outside the door heralded the coming attack. There followed a few seconds of silence; then Lander jumped spasmodically as a volley of heavy balls riddled the panels of the door, smashed in the wall beyond and shattered the window. With the discharge of firearms there came a rush of heavy bodies against the none-too-strong door, and in swept the mob of professional killers. The one light in the hall burned dimly and was at the top of the stairs some twenty feet away. It barely dispelled the thick gloom of the room.

The first two men in were now at the bed, stabbing furiously. One man wheeled and blundered into the couple crouching behind the door waiting for a chance to dart into the hall. The blunderer screamed and fell writhing to the floor. Papa Clair dived into the group, horribly active and efficient. Lander with his rifle in one hand and knife in the other kept behind him.

Instantly the room was choked with yells and curses. Blows were showered on the two at random, and Lander's upraised rifle proved an excellent buckler. Some of the blows, blindly bestowed, fell on the intruders. Pistols were discharged at close range, but the darkness of the room prevented accuracy of execution.

Neither Clair nor Lander had time to distinguish individuals. With their eyes more accustomed to the darkness they made out a frantic mass of milling men, and thrust their knives at random where they found their way blocked by the surging bodies.

"To the door!" yelled Lander to recall Papa Clair from his Berserk rage.

The old man remembered their purpose was to escape and shifted his advance, swinging his knife in an arc before him and leaving it for his pupil to guard the flanks. When first precipitated into the conflict Lander was heart-sick at the thought of bloodshed; now he was committed to it. Once he had heard the grunts of the two stabbing the empty bed, he knew only one sensation, to hack his way clear of the beasts who for a few pieces of silver had come to murder an inoffensive stranger.

Cursing and screaming, the hired assassins found their very numbers blocking them. Then one voice rose above the hubbub, yelling:

"That ol' devil of a Clair's here! Look out fer that knife!"

"In your throat!" shrilly cried Papa Clair, and he seemed to straighten out in mid-air, his knife-point darting an incredible distance. His traducer went down, choking and coughing.

Lander brought his knife back in a wide slash that sent the crowding assailants reeling back for a moment, and with a rush carried Papa through the door and to the head of the stairs. After them came those still able to walk. With a swing of his rifle he knocked the light to the floor and the hall was in darkness.

Papa turned to renew the fight but, putting up his knife, Lander swept him from his feet and carried him down the hall. The desperadoes took it for granted their quarry had descended the main stairs to the street, and they called for the lookout at the outer door to stop them. As they rushed down the stairs Lander sighed in relief and led the way down the rear stairs.

"Bridger was right," said Lander as they stole through the dark streets. "Tilton and his gang will never be satisfied until they get me."

"The more so, my friend, because M'sieu Bridger appeared in the affair as your champion. Yes, you must go.… But life stops for old Papa Clair after you've gone. Yet behold, you should have gone before. The time for wooing is after the long trail has been covered, when your buckskin garments are so worn no one can tell what they are made of. To come back and say: 'I have seen life. I have lived and fought my way among men and savages.' Ah, that is the speech that makes m'm'selle very proud. A woman likes to discover things in the man she loves, not to know him as we know the way from here to Petite Côte. Her love is like an old mountain man—always hungry for something new."

"Eighteen months!" muttered Lander, more to himself than to Papa Clair.

"The months will pass. Come snow, go snow. What profit could you squeeze out of them if you stayed here and worked in a store?

"Life is a bag of months. Fortune is what a man squeezes out of them. To get his satisfy he must squeeze each month very hard. If he can't get love he gets gold. If neither love nor gold he can at least get red-blooded life. Fortune may play tricks with him; m'm'selle may turn from him, but life, real and burning, can always be his."

"Yes, yes; of course," mumbled Lander, in a poor mood for the comforts of philosophy. "Now you must leave me. Deliver the letter to Susette in the morning. I must hurry to Bridger's store and get the mule."

"The little lady shall have the letter early in the morning. Do not doubt it. My friend, always wear my knife and scabbard. Do not, unless hard pressed by several, uncover yourself with those wide, slashing movements you used in the room. Keep behind the point, and God bless you."

Instead of taking Lander's outstretched hand he seized him by the shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks.

Lander almost winced in his surprise, then remembered the Frenchman's emotional nature, also his ferocity as a fighting man, and for the first time during the day found himself thinking of some one besides himself and Susette. The slight, frail figure and the snowy hair contrasted vividly with the indomitable will and high heart. He realized he had been Papa Clair's only intimate, perhaps the only close friend the old man had known for many years.

"Good-by, Papa. God knows I am grateful for all you've done for me. Sometime we'll meet again."

"A year and a half will go quicker for an old man than for youth waiting for his sweetheart. I shall be here, looking for you when the men come back from the mountains.… Remember and keep behind the point, I shall think of you much.… Only clumsy fools try to see how much blood they can let loose with a knife with their cutting and slashing."

There was more, but he had turned away and the words were lost in his throat.

Lander, too, felt very lonely as he made for the Washington Avenue store. He found the mule hitched at the rear of the dark building. Mounting and holding his rifle ready to repulse any attack, he rode to the plain back of the city and swung into the north for his dash to St. Charles.