Kings of the Missouri/Chapter 8
ALONG THE RIVER TRAIL
BRIDGER now made every effort to reach the rendezvous on Green River ahead of the A. F. C. outfit. He hurried his company by Independence Rock, through the Devil's Gate, then up the Sweetwater for six days to the divide. Although it was uncomfortably warm on the plains the water in the camp-kettles was coated with a quarter of an inch of ice the night they camped on the divide.
Five days later they arrived at the Green—named Rio Verde by the Spanish explorers in 1818, and known as the Siskadee, or Prairie Hen, by the Crows. Camp was pitched a few miles from Horse Creek, and on the first day was invaded by several hundred Nez Percés and Flatheads—who never flattened the head—and fully three hundred traders and trappers. Many of the trappers were Bridger's men who had wintered in the mountains. The others belonged to Nathaniel J. Wyeth's New England outfit, or were free trappers with small outfits.
A small tent was speedily erected for a saloon and Lander was appointed to handle the liquor trade, both whites and Indians being furious for drink. Lander was kept busy as long as he could stand on his feet, peddling out whisky at five dollars a pint. Then Papa Clair took his place.
There ensued the usual amount of fighting and gambling. Beaver pelts were the only medium of exchange, and as these were dumped on the buffalo robes of the gamblers, small fortunes quickly changed hands. Jim Baker, overfond of drink, set the pace for three days. Then Bridger went to him and suggested:
"'Bout enough for this time, eh, Jim?"
"I'm a derned fool. Lemme snooze an' I'll wake up sober's a b'iled owl."
He was as good as his word and reported for active duty. He was desirous of getting clear of the camp and Bridger sent him to raise a cache of beaver near the mouth of Horse Creek.
The big spree ended and the wounds were dressed. The trappers began buying their outfits of blankets, red shirts, tobacco and trade trinkets. At the end of seven days Baker and his party returned with eight packs of beaver, running a hundred pounds to the pack and worth about ten dollars a pound in St. Louis.
Baker announced having seen Indian signs, several smokes, and said a large number of Blackfeet were watching the rendezvous through spies and were discouraged from attacking only because of the large number of reds and whites.
Lander, not given to drink, made an ideal whisky clerk from a trader's point of view. He found the work too repulsive and asked Bridger to give him other employment.
"Some one had to do it," said Bridger. "It's about all you can do. If no trader did it we could git beaver without it. But so long as one does it all must do it or make no trade. However I'll find something else for you."
If Bridger was inclined to resent Lander's fastidiousness he quickly changed when Black Arrow and a hundred braves rode into camp and announced that they had robes to trade, but would do business with no one but the Medicine Knife. Lander, under Bridger's tutelage, quickly traded the robes. Lander enjoyed this experience much as no liquor figured in the deal.
The Crows, like the Comanches far south, did not drink at this time, having yet to learn the vice through associating with the Assiniboins. Exchanging their robes only for goods, they were always well-dressed after the Indian fashion, wealthy in horses and quite the plutocrats of the Missouri Valley Indians.
While not the best examples of robe making the Crow robes were beautiful in workmanship, while as for the quantity the nation was the best producer of all the plains tribes. Bridger did not intend to transport the robes to St. Louis if he could possibly help it, and yet he planned to turn the trade to a good account.
After the robes were traded the Indians received many flattering offers for some of their horses. They refused to part with any of their animals with the exception of Black Arrow's offer of two ponies for Lander's knife. Lander refused and Bridger told him he was foolish. Papa Clair gravely protested:
"Non, non, M'sieu Bridger. If only a piece of sharp steel—yes. But it is more than a knife. It is one of a family of five knives. It makes the heart stout; it brings good fortune."
"It's blame good medicine. I'll give my rifle for it an' stand th' chance o' my medicine gettin' mad at it," spoke up Jim Baker.
Although much less superstitious than Baker there was the Indian's belief in medicine in Bridger, and he gravely offered Lander a hundred dollars gold for the weapon.
"It loses its medicine if it's sold," Lander explained.
Papa Clair heard these offers with much uneasy tugging at his mustaches. After the Indians had withdrawn he said:
"M'sieu Bridger, M'sieu Baker, you are my old friends. Now behold—I have four knives, all of the same family. I can not give a pointed weapon away. I can not sell it, as that kills its soul. But see! I will let each of you have one of the knives. Yes, I will do that. Whenever I want them back; if you have not lost them, I will ask and they become mine.
"They are very jealous. You must carry no other knife in the same belt. Best to wear them in the boot. And they are still mine."
"Derned if ye ain't all right!" joyously cried Baker. "My medicine didn't oughter rip and tear s'long as it's only lent to me. If ye ever want any ha'r raised jest call on Jim Baker."
Bridger, less demonstrative, caught the old man's hand and shook it warmly. It surprised Lander to see two such stout fighting men willing to attribute fetish powers to a piece of steel. He understood Papa Clair's sentiment concerning his knives and he catered to it. But here were two veteran mountain men eager to pay a rare price for what after all was a well-sharpened knife ornamented with silver.
Bridger interrupted his meditations by abruptly offering him four hundred dollars a year if he would return with the Crows to their home in the Big Horn Valley and live with them during the winter and collect their trade for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.
"They like you. They reckon you're big medicine. Your knife has brought you good luck."
Lander hesitated and Bridger urged:
"You can't go back to St. Louis. You've got to winter out here somewheres. They'll treat you mighty fine, and you'll have a chance to prove that Jim Bridger didn't tell no lies when he talked about the Yellowstone country."
"If you go then I shall go with you, my friend," added Papa Clair. "Caves of war-paint! Name of a pipe!"
And his eyes glittered at the thought of new adventures in the marvelous country Bridger had so often described.
Lander wanted above all things to return to St. Louis in the fall. To go until another summer without seeing Susette was sickening to contemplate. Yet a dead man and the inimical shadow of the A. F. C. barred his homeward path.
"I'll think about it," he sighed. "I suppose it's the only thing I can do."
"I'll throw in a suit of black broadcloth—the best you can buy in St. Louis," added Bridger.
"It's a trade," sighed Lander, "unless my knife-medicine makes it possible for me to go back to St. Louis."
Bridger was highly pleased. He had reached the rendezvous ahead of the A. F. C. outfit and had secured the cream of the trade. He had made the Upper Missouri outfit admit his importance by sending their men to head him off and to compete with him. Now by extraordinary luck he stood in position to secure the bulk of the rich Crow trade. While enjoying these delectable feelings one of his men rode up and announced a small band was coming down the river with a white man in the lead.
"They'll be the A. F. C. outfit," said Bridger, and he smiled broadly.
"Rich pickings they'll git," snorted Baker.
"I'm glad they've come," said Bridger. "I had them in mind while Lander was trading in the Crow robes for me. I don't want to pack 'em to St. Louis. The A. F. C. outfit will take 'em back to Fort Union rather than go empty-handed. Want to come along. Lander?"
Lander flushed with pleasure at the honor of this invitation and mounting his mule followed his chief up the river to meet the newcomers. There were a score of Indians, full bloods and breeds, in the outfit. One white man rode in advance. On beholding Bridger and Lander he spurred ahead to greet them.
Lander gave a loud cry and nearly fell from his mule. Bridger reined in and stared in amazement.
"Malcom Phinny!" he ejaculated.
"No one else," replied Phinny, smiling genially.
A wonderful wave of joy suffused Lander's whole being. By some miracle the dead was alive. The path to St. Louis and Susette was open. This tremendous discovery that no homicide was charged against him forced him to forget his rancor against Phinny. Never had he been so pleased to meet a man.
"Thought you was dead," he faltered.
"Head's thick," Phinny good-naturedly replied. "Bullet creased my skull. Unconscious for a bit. Men thought I was done for. I took the company's boat right after that fool Tilton went up on the Golden Queen to bother you. It was a fair fight and what he did wasn't any of my doings. I don't bring any quarrel up here against you. How's trade, Mr. Bridger?"
"Fair—I've got some mighty fine Crow robes you can have if you want 'em."
"Robes are good, but we're after beaver."
"Don't seem to be much beaver left. You oughter got here sooner."
Phinny swore and in deep disgust complained:
"That's what I told Mr. McKenzie, but he was so sure I'd be in time he held me back. What'll you take in trade for the robes?"
"Beaver, or an order on your St. Louis office for cash."
"Then it'll have to be an order at the market price. And, Lander, I'm really glad to see you. There's no fight between us, I repeat, so far as I'm concerned."
"I'm glad I didn't kill you. Let it go at that."
"Fighting is all foolishness. I've learned my lesson and now know what sort of a fool I've been. But don't it beat the devil how Mr. Bridger gets all the beaver?"
"First come gits it," said Brldger. "If I built a post near Fort Union, Kenneth McKenzie would run me out in one season. But when he chases me through the mountains he's playing my game. I'll show you the robes. They're extry fine."
Phinny fell back with his outfit and Bridger rode on to camp with Lander and his face was grave and thoughtful. Lander was impelled to say:
"What's the matter? They can't get anything. You've cleaned up every skin."
"I've been waiting for 'em to come an' take the robes off my hands. But the feller with Phinny—the guide—notice him?"
"Indian, and a filthy one."
"He's old Deschamps—Red River half-breed. Came to Missouri from the Pembina country four years ago. Killed Governor Robert Semple in the Red River massacre back in 'sixteen. He's robbed Fort Union twice and makes a practise of robbing and whipping Injun trappers. Doesn't hesitate to kill 'em when he 'lows he won't git caught—bad devil.
"Ten in his family. Three are grown-up sons—all bad. They trail round with another breed outfit—Jack Rem's family.
"The A. F. C. made a great mistake when they brought those cusses to the Missouri to act as interpreters to the Assiniboins an' Crees. Young Phinny better keep his eyes open if he travels much with a Deschamps."
Papa Clair was astounded and much displeased when Lander broke the news to him. Finally his old face lighted and his frosty blue eyes began to sparkle.
"It can be done!" he rejoiced. "Name of a knife! It will work out after the wish of one's heart. He is here. You want your satisfy. He must challenge you. I will see that he does. This time it shall be with cold steel."
"But there's no cause," protested Lander.
"There is; he is alive. You suffered much, thinking him dead. You were attacked and forced to flee. He is responsible. Leave it to me."
"No, no, Papa Clair. No more duels for me. I'm mighty glad he is alive. He's glad too. Admits it's foolish to bring a fight up here. Now there is nothing to stop me going back to St. Louis."
"No more duels!" gasped Papa Qair. "Name of a dog! It is good I am near the end of the trail. When I was young—bah!"
For some minutes he brooded on the decadence of the times, Lander humbly waiting for him to speak. Finally he showed some of his old spirit and philosophically declared:
"After all it is the fashion. It can be done. Men make high names by exploring. If they are called liars they can challenge. At least our winter in the Big Horn Valley will give us the chance to prove whether M'sieu Bridger spoke true.
"We will go to the Yellowstone. If we do not find the cave of war-paint I will challenge Bridger. Sacré Bleu! Is one to listen to such stories if they be false?"
"Papa Clair, don't you see there is no longer any need of my wintering with the Crows? I am free to return to St. Louis," reminded Lander.
With a groan of disgust Papa Clair turned aside and lamented: "Ever so! M'm'selle's eyes outshine the torch of glory; the torch of power.
"Well, well. Come, old man. One must have been a fool to be wise. Huh! Is it for you to talk? And behold, M'sieu Bridger will be the disappoint."
Lander surmised as much and it was with considerable misgivings that he went in search of his chief. He found him completing the transaction of the robes with Phinny. He waited until Phinny superintended the carrying away of the robes, but before he could speak another interruption occurred. This was a woebegone looking man, who announced he had just arrived from down-river.
"If you want a good man I'd like to hire out with you. I'm Ferguson of the H. B. I do not want to go back to headquarters. Blackfeet robbed me of forty packs of beaver. Once before I lost the season's furs."
"Lucky they didn't take your hair," said Bridger. "I'm afraid I can't hire you except as a trapper. I'll give you credit for an outfit."
Lander tugged Bridger's arm and drew him aside and whispered:
"Send him after the Crow trade. Seeing that I didn't kill Phinny I'm going back to St. Louis in the fall."
"The thunder you are!" exploded Bridger. "What am I paying you wages for?"
"Then I must go without any wages."
"How? I have no mules to spare for men who quit me."
"Then I'll walk."
Bridger grew calmer and studied him sharply.
"It's the little girl, I take it," he finally remarked. "Old Hurry-Up Parker's girl."
Lander confessed by coloring highly. Bridger frowned and pursed his lips. Abruptly he said:
"I've seen her. 'Bout as big as a kitten. She's turned your head. I don't blame you. You're a fool but you've got a mighty pretty excuse.
"See here, Ferguson, I can use you after all. You shall winter with the Crows and bring their hunt here next season. I'll take all their robes, but it's beaver I want. Git 'em after beaver. I'll draw up the papers later and Baker will git up your equipment."
"Thank you, Mr. Bridger. Perhaps you can give me a writing, saying I lost my furs to the Blackfeet I'll send it to Fort Union by Mr. Phinny where one of the Red River breeds can take it up the Saskatchewan post. If the Blackfeet take the furs there In trade the company can seize 'em, as my marks are on the packs."
"I'll give you the writing," agreed Bridger. "Why not put in it a agreement between me an' you as agent for the company, that if by any chance or risk I manage to git the furs back from the Blackfeet I pay the H. B. ten per cent, an' keep the rest. I don't stand a chance in a million of gettin' 'em. An' the H. B. has lost 'em for good."
Ferguson was eager to assent to this proposition, as he well knew the H. B. otherwise would never see the value of a single skin should the packs be recovered by any English or American traders. During the course of the day the agreement was drawn up and signed and given to Phinny, who promised to send it by express to the Saskatchewan post. This done, Ferguson was duly employed as Crow agent for the Rocky Mountain Company.
Lander walked on air as he moved about the camp and visualized his return to St. Louis. Hurry-Up Parker's hostility was forgotten. He had proved himself to himself and now felt confident to look any man in the eye. He had made the trip to the mountains. He would go to Susette and, with her father's consent, determine the date of the wedding day. Parker would probably insist on a probationary term spent in the services of the A. F. C. Very good—he would reenter the employment of the A. F. C. and make good.
"Asleep?" broke in a voice.
Lander looked up and blinked at Phinny. The A. F. C. representative remarked:
"I've spoken to you three times. Say, I'm regular dished on this trip. Mr. McKenzie will feel like shipping me back to St. Louis for not getting here ahead of Mr. Bridger.
"But what could I do with that crazy breed to guide me; and he smuggling along some rum and getting drunk before we was clear of the Yellowstone and being laid up sick? He swore the Assiniboins put poison in his liquor before we quit the fort. Blames it on to old Gauche."
"He'll be mad because you didn't git here in time to make some of the trade?" asked Lander sympathetically.
"Like it? I'll probably be put back in that cussed store or sent down to Cabanne's post to handle what's left of the Pawnee trade. I'll be lucky if I'm not kicked out. Mr. McKenzie is much worked up at the way Mr. Bridger is getting the beaver. The robes will help a little, only it'll be mighty hard work getting them back to Union."
Lander began to pity him. Also he disliked the idea of Phinny's returning to St. Louis. The man wanted to stay at Fort Union, and that was the one spot on earth Lander wished him to locate in permanently. Phinny continued:
"There is a chance for me to make good in a small way. One of the free trappers told my breed guide that he has a small cache of beaver three days up the river. If I can trade for them my trip won't seem so much of a failure. I'll make Mr. McKenzie think I traded them right out from under Mr. Bridger's nose.
"The trapper's mad at Bridger for refusing him credit, so the R. M. F. can't get them anyway. It's either the A. F. C. or that outfit of Connecticut Yankees under Wyeth. I'm going for them and I don't want to take any of my own men as they might blab at the fort that I got them easy instead of getting the best of Mr. Bridger in open trade. My breed will guide me.
"One of your men, Porker, is willing to go with me if Mr. Bridger is willing. If you'd go along you'd be helping me out a lot—Lord knows you ain't got any reason to feel friendly toward me."
"That's all right," said Lander, eager to help him establish a secure standing at Fort Union, yet scarcely relishing the trip. "Porker wouldn't dare go without the boss' consent; neither would I."
"That's just the reason why I come to you. I want you to put it up to Mr. Bridger. If he'll let your two men go I'll return to Union with a bit of credit as a trader, and when Mr. Bridger wants to trade more robes he'll find me the man to deal with."
"Would you go and return inside of six days?" mused Lander.
"Easy. Good trail, the breed says, and the man's waiting to turn them over."
Lander placed the proposition before Bridger, who smiled in deep amusement at Phinny's naive confession—that he wished to appear as outwitting the head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company in a matter of trade. It was characteristic of his kindly heart that he should readily consent, saying:
"If it'll help him any—yes. I owe him a good turn for taking the robes. They'd been —— an' repeat to pack to St. Louis. Call it a holiday and go with him.
"Long Simons says there is no signs of hostiles within fifty miles of us. Baker isn't so sure, but his Snake friends have been reading their medicine and filling him up. Too many friendly Injuns and trappers here for the Blackfeet to be sneaking round.
"It's Bill Tracy who's got the furs. There's eight or ten packs, and the R. M. F. isn't passing 'em by ordinarily. He's sore because I wouldn't let him have a keg of liquor on credit. I offered an outfit but he wanted the rum.
"He offered the cache to the New England outfit, but Wyeth was suspicious an' wouldn't dicker unless the packs was fetched in here. Take a mule an' go ahead."
"Can Papa Clair go with us?"
"No, siree! Think I come up here to work for the A. F. C.? You can go as you're not any help just now. Papa Clair is always a help. An' be back at the end of the sixth day or you'll find us gone.
"We're 'bout to split up into small parties. The A. F. C. will try to tag us round, and I may make a jump clear into the Blackfoot country. Then let them follow an' lose their hair."
Lander said nothing about Porker. Bridger's tone did not invite further requests. Very possibly Phinny had agreed to pay Porker well and the man would undertake the trip without permission. But that was Porker's affair. Returning to Phinny he reported the results of his mission and reminded him that he must be back in six days.
"We can make it easy. I've already started old Deschamps ahead to make the packs ready for the mules. He took two mules besides the one he is riding. His trail will be easy to follow if Porker can't go.
"Sorry you didn't ask about Porker, but Mr. Bridger might have said, 'No.' You don't care if Porker goes without asking?"
"Nothing to me as I don't know anything about it. If he goes I shall take it for granted he got permission," said Lander with a smile.
Papa Clair and Long Simons were about to depart in search of beaver country along the various small tributaries of the Green. Lander wished he were going with them. Jim Baker was visiting the Snake Indians, now camped ten miles below the rendezvous. Clair and Simons did not suggest that Lander go with them, and he did not feel called on to speak of his trip with Phinny.
The man Porker was busily cleaning his rifle and sharpening his knife and gave Lander a knowing glance. There was no doubt about Porker making the trip to Tracy's cache.
The first night out was very warm. The men had not bothered to bring any tent, and although a canvas is but a frail protection Lander wished he had something for shelter. Porker laughed at him. Phinny smiled more politely.
"It's the wolves," Lander explained, feeling sheepish because of his squeamishness.
"Wolves!" guffawed Porker. "A mountain man don't keer a cuss for all th' wolves this side o' Tophet."
"Old mountain men tell me the wolves are quite harmless unless starving," Phinny said.
"I'm not entirely an idiot," assured Lander with a laugh. "I'm not afraid of wolves that act natural. But several times to-day when I was riding behind, one big fellow almost passed under my horse and took a snap at my heel. He was too fat to be hungry, but he was keen to bite. Now wolves don't act that way."
Porker's merriment vanished and he glanced uneasily about their camp.
"Mad wolf—that's what he was," he mumbled. "They do git pestiferous this time o' year. Two seasons ago they bit a bull that belonged to th' A. F. C. outfit. We was bringin' up th' bull an' six cows. Bull went mad. I don't wanter see any sight like that again!"
"I thought that was all stuff," said Phinny, peering anxiously about. "Must be wolves that's hungry."
"No, sir!" emphatically denied Porker. "They'll go right by dead buf'ler. All they wanter do is to bite something. I was with a' outfit on th' Sweetwater when a big gray feller sneaked into our camp an' bit th' stock. We had tents an' I hope to die if he didn't come into one tent three times in one night. We had orders not to shoot; th' boss thinkin' we'd kill each other, or th' mules.
"Twice th' fellers drove him out with heavin' things at him, but th' last trip they was all asleep, and he chewed George Holmes on th' ear 'n' face somethin' cruel. Holmes begin to say he was goin' mad. Got so bad he wouldn't cross water till we'd covered him with blankets. Then one day he had fits, an' that night threw away his clothes an* run off, an' was never seen since."
"Don't!" shivered Lander. "I'll sleep in a tree if you keep on."
"Yes, that's enough," growled Phinny. "Lucky if they don't git in and bite the mules."
"If they try that they'll be lucky not to have their derned heads kicked off. We'll keep a fire an' stand watch. Fire won't skeer 'em if they're mad, but it'll give a light to shoot by."
It fell to Lander to stand the first watch and he was glad as he was too nervous to sleep. He patrolled back and forth for an hour, pausing only to replenish the small fire, and then sat down satisfied the night would pass without any intrusions.
Something whitish-gray, moving noiselessly so far as his ears were able to register, passed by him and toward the mules. For a second he believed it was imagination; then the mules set up a fearful braying and kicking, and thinking he glimpsed the furtive shape he discharged his rifle.
Phinny and Porker came to their feet and snatched up their weapons.
"What is it?" roared Porker.
"Wolf!" yelled Lander, rushing toward the mules and expecting to find the terrible visitor dead. But he could not find even a drop of blood.
His companions swore fretfully as he returned to the fire, and insisted he had dreamed it. Lander angrily asked if they believed the mules also had dreamed it. But his companions had heard only the rifle-shot and believed it was that which frightened the mules.
"Jest tuck this inter yer pipe an' smoke it," warned Porker. "No more shootin' in this camp. Ye'll be pottin' either me or Phinny next. It's all right to heave a' ax, but this sprinklin' lead round every time ye have a bad dream——"
"Oh, shut up! If you two say not to fire—all right, I won't fire. But if you get nipped don't blame me."
"We certainly haven't any right to find fault with you," mollified Phinny. "Reckon we're all rather nervous. Only thing I heard was the shot, then the mules, and it scared me blue. But we'll all agree to shoot off no guns in camp. It might fetch some small band of Injuns down on us."
Irritated at the fault-finding, Lander sullenly completed his watch and aroused Porker. The latter asked if there had been any signs of a wolf, and Lander growled a negative. Porker lighted his pipe and took his turn. When he called Phinny it was growing light in the east.
"Reckon ye won't have much to do," yawned Porker, returning to his blankets.
Phinny walked about until thoroughly awake; then discovered the mules were acting uneasy and went to them. As he came up they milled about and lashed out with their heels. Something darted by him and he leaped aside and heard, or fancied he heard, the click of poisonous teeth. In another moment Porker screamed and staggered to his feet, firing his rifle blindly and sending the ball near Phinny's head.
"You fool! Trying to kill me?" roared Phinny.
"Oh, God!" cried Porker, whirling frantically about. "Th' wolf bit me! Now I'll go mad!"
"Nonsense!" yelped Phinny, his voice quavering with fear.
Lander came out of his blankets and taking in the situation demanded, "Let me look at you."
He turned Porker about and felt the massive form trembling violently. There was no doubt but that something had bitten him, for his chin was covered with blood. Lander stirred up the fire, threw on some dry stalks and washed the blood away and found the marks of teeth. Thrusting a ramrod into the fire, he heated it and cauterized the wounds, and encouraged him.
"It's nothing. Skin barely broken. You'll be all right. Probably some kind of a rat."
Phinny knew better, but held his tongue. As the day broke he secretly studied the mountain man as if expecting to behold immediate symptoms of hydrophobia. Under Lander's cheerful encouragement Porker recovered his composure and affected to have no fears. Yet when he filled his pipe his big hands trembled, and more than once he sought to study his lacerated face in pools of water.
Their course lay up the Green, and they found the traveling easy with a broad trail left by Deschamps and his mules. The finding of several broken arrow-shafts told them it was a thoroughfare for the Indians. Porker examined the shafts and said they had weathered for at least one season.
Throughout the day Porker was normal in his bearing, but toward sundown he became silent, which was not characteristic of him. Once a gray form flashed across the trail ahead and he shook in a paroxysm of fear. However, he managed to keep his nerves well under control. He bolted his supper hurriedly and although it was his turn to stand the first watch he rolled up in his blankets.
"He's powerful scared," whispered Lander. "You wake me for the second watch and we'll let him sleep through. A full sleep will fix him all right."
This was done and Lander found nothing to disturb his dreams of Susette until near morning. He was half-way through the extra watch and thinking of the girl, marking time until it should grow light enough for him to start the breakfast, when a dirty gray form flashed from cover and streaked toward the camp. Instinctively his rifle flew up and discharged, and the gray patch took to the air and came down within a few feet of Porker. Both Porker and Phinny sprang erect at the shot.
"I got him this time!" cried Lander pointing.
It was a big gray wolf, and its jaws, agape, were hideous to contemplate. This time neither of his companions found any fault with his shooting.
"Same feller that nipped me," shuddered Porker. Then hopefully: "Some say ye ain't in any danger if ye kill th' cuss."
"That's right," heartily agreed Lander. "Besides, I burned all the poison out."
"I don't count much on th' burnin'. Took too long for th' iron to heat. What ye oughter done was rub in gunpowder an' touch it off. Wal, I'm derned glad he's dead, an' let's be gittin' away from here."
It was with difficulty that they induced him to wait until they had eaten. He refused to touch any food.
"Eat something," insisted Phinny.
"Curse ye, I ain't hungry!" snarled Porker, striding to the mules and beginning to saddle up.
Phinny looked at Lander inquiringly.
"I don't know any more than you do," said Lander. "Bridger and Baker say mad wolves will pass by food and seem keen only to bite something. I don't even know that that dead brute was mad; or if he was if he's the same one that bit Porker. But if Porker gets to thinking things hard enough he'll go mad."
They mounted, and Porker, contrary to his usual custom, rode some distance ahead of his companions. According to Lander's reckoning they were almost up to the cache.
Phinny watched Porker steadily. It was easy to read Phinny's mind by watching his eyes. He was afraid of the big man ahead. Porker, usually so gregarious, now seemed loath to come near them, and when Lander did manage to ride abreast of him and manage to catch his gaze he saw that which made him willing to drop back with Phinny.
Near sundown a man came galloping a mule down the river bank. Lander covered him with his rifle, but Phinny called out:
"Don't shoot! It's old Deschamps!"
The breed came on, his wily eyes instantly detecting constraint in the three men. He glanced askance at Porker, who kept to one side and made no move to join his mates. In an undertone and speaking rapidly Phinny explained what had happened.
"Bad," grunted Deschamps. "Better kill 'um." And he fingered his gun.
"No, no!" hissed Phinny. "He'll be all right if he gets over his scare."
Deschamps, who understood English much better than he could speak it, nodded his head slowly. Lander, who was anxious to have done with the disagreeable trip and its possible tragedy, asked:
"How far to the cache?"
Deschamps eyed him stolidly as if not understanding. Phinny repeated the query sternly. With a sullen duck of his head the breed held up one finger.
"One day!" cried Lander in disgust. "It won't do. We should be turning back to-morrow."
"One sleep," corrected Deschamps.
"Means we can camp here to-night, raise the cache to-morrow and start back," said Phinny. "It must be near as he has left the pack mules there."
"Sleep, then go. Mules there," grunted Deschamps.
They called to Porker and told him their plans. He made no reply but hobbled the mules. He made no offer to help with the evening meal, but after some meat had broiled he seized a portion and withdrew and attacked it ravenously for a few minutes; then seemed to lose his appetite.
Suddenly he began to laugh, not his usual boisterous guffaw, but a strident, interminable cackling with a peculiar metallic quality in his voice. Lander was frozen with horror, and Phinny stealthily reached for his rifle. Old Deschamps effaced himself in a clump of bushes.
"What's the matter, man?" sharply demanded Lander. "Stop it and light your pipe."
"Light my pipe, ye pasty-faced pet o' Jim Bridger's," croaked Porker, twisting his thick lips in a most grotesque manner as if each word had to be dislodged by force. "By this time to-morrer I'll be lightin' my pipe in the other world an' yer ha'r'll be hangin' in a Blackfoot lodge."
"Shut up that fool talk!" shrilly commanded Phinny, drawing the gun to his side.
Porker was seized with a convulsion of laughter. His mirth was titanic and of a horrible quality. Pointing a quivering finger at the dazed Lander he shrieked:
"Ye poor fool! Tried to make it hot for me in Bridger's outfit, eh? Wal, here ye be only a few feet behind ol' Porker when he takes th' long trail.
"Goin' back to St. Louis, be ye? Yer hide will be tanned by Blackfoot smoke. They'll find me mad as th' mad wolf what bit me. They'll find ye——"
Phinny fired and Porker went down on his face.
"Why did you do that?" gasped Lander, breaking into a clammy sweat.
"He's gone mad!" panted Phinny, working with desperate haste to reload. "It was his life or ours."
"He said they'd find me—wish he'd finished," muttered Lander.
"Crazy talk. Hand me that ramrod," puffed Phinny, his hands shaking.
Lander stooped and reached for the ramrod. The bushes stirred and he started to lift his head. Then a crash and nothingness.