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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

Rocky Mountain Company

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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The Rocky Mountain Company
Richard S. Wheeler









New York, NY


No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, scanning or any information storage retrieval system, without explicit permission in writing from the Author.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 1991 by Richard S. Wheeler
First e-reads publication 2003
ISBN 0-7592-5409-5


For Elizabeth S. Wheeler
and the late S. Lawrence Wheeler

Table of Contents


Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Author’s Note


Upon these people Guy Straus was betting everything he possessed. And more: everything he could borrow. From the beginning, Yvonne had been the Cassandra, begging him not to do it. But he was doing it. On its surface, the Rocky Mountain Company had seemed much too risky. Actually, he’d concluded, it was opportunity, and the difference between catastrophe and success lay in those who had joined him in the dark, burnished salon of Straus et Fils, on Chestnut Street. A fortune awaited those who knew how to trade for buffalo robes, but it took the right men to do it. Rough men like these, and their wives, gathered here to create a company.

One of those men, who would run the northern post on the Yellowstone, stood across the room, favoring his bad leg and looking acutely uncomfortable. He glared about with hawkeyes, from behind a carrot-colored beard, saying absolutely nothing and missing nothing.

The other, the brown-haired toothpick of a man who would run the southern post, slouched comfortably near the sideboard and the sweets, absolutely at home in any place, with anyone. But Guy knew his amiability could be deceptive, and that this one, in danger, could explode like a howitzer full of grape shot.

Each of them had spent fourteen years in the mountains, a thought that comforted Guy. The success of the Rocky Mountain Company depended on the wariness and experience of these two. And their beautiful dusky wives.

It seemed the right moment, something to be seized or lost and not likely to appear again. The beaver trade had died. John Jacob Astor had seen it coming, watched the silk top hat come into vogue in Europe, driving out the heavier ones made of beaver felt, and had sold out. Pratte and Chouteau, here in St. Louis, had bought his Upper Missouri Outfit, and Chouteau was now doing a modest trade in buffalo robes with distant tribesmen. And far out the Santa Fe trail, on the rim of Mexico, Bent, St. Vrain survived as an outfitter for the traffic on the trail, trading for a few robes on the side. Yes, there was opportunity, he thought, for a company dealing in robes.

On this May 15, 1841, the grass was greening on the prairies to the west and the muscular Missouri was rising toward its June crest far to the north. The date was reckoned by their calendar, that of his two partners and one of their wives. It was Yvonne’s as well. His calendar was more ancient. The other woman present in the salon reckoned time by winters, each with its own name, each committed to memory by old men. But it was not the dates, but the times that mattered, and the times were as good as they would become.

Neither of his partners — they weren’t actually partners yet, but would be in a few minutes — looked as if he belonged in these burnished offices that Guy Straus had shaped to his elegant tastes. If he’d had the slightest suspicion that they and their wives were comfortable here among these amenities, he would have chosen not to do business with them. This would be a new business, actually, but a logical outgrowth of the business Straus et Fils had been doing in rude St. Louis since 1795. His parents had arrived then, from Paris, a whisker ahead of the guillotine, condemned for the sins of moderation and past acquaintance with royal finance. Up until now, Straus et Fils had been a house of arbitrageurs and brokers, trading the unruly coin of the frontier — pesos, francs, reals, dollars, cents, pounds, ducats — for something else, always for a small fee. It had expanded into commodity brokering as well — dollars for prime beaver plews, or Witney trading blankets for wolf pelts or Crow elkskins, or whatever else rough unlettered men floated down the endless mysterious river out of uncharted lands across a continent. A perfect prelude, he thought, for what would come.

For these unusual skills, as well as a staggering investment, he would own two-thirds of the Rocky Mountain Company, as they all had started to call the new firm of Dance, Fitzhugh and Straus. That was exactly the percentage kept by Pierre Chouteau Jr. —
le cadet
— of his giant Upper Missouri Outfit, the rest going to his brilliant managers out at the posts. A good model, Guy thought. Already he had invested in tradegoods — brass kettles, fishhooks, hoop iron, fusils, hatchets and axes, blankets, awls, bolts of bright tradecloth, traps, beads of every rainbow color, gay ribbons, tin mirrors — and another item that slid delicately from mind, as if the thinking of it would alert General Clark to its presence, and jeopardize their new trading license and two thousand dollar bond. The pure grain spirits were already en route by back trails to their destinations.

Nor was that the end of his investments. Among his purchases were a dozen Conestogas in fine condition, yoke and harness for them, oxen to draw them, and equipage for the trading post that would be built in Mexico, perhaps on the Purgatoire River, near Bent’s Fort. More costly still was the chartering of the
from Captain Joseph La-Barge, the only opposition steamer available to carry tradegoods up the Missouri to the Yellowstone, and as far up that unnavigated tributary as the draft of the steamer would permit. And not even that was the end of it, for in a few hours he’d be paying wages to thirty men, mostly French engagés.

Yvonne stared at him stiffly from an uncandled corner of the salon, anxiety written upon her olive features and downturned soft lips. It was not that she disapproved, he thought, but that visions of failure and bankruptcy and debt and grinding poverty terrorized her. But that would not happen, and the rough men and barbarous women she viewed with such dread were his assets, as capable as any on earth of turning that frightful outlay into untold riches.

His slave, Gregoire, of bituminous flesh and New Orleans breeding, served chocolate-hued chicory-coffee to them all in priestly fashion, ritually pouring from silver service into Haviland teacups. Guy Straus watched Gregoire bestow a filled cup nested in its saucer to Robert Fitzhugh and his wife Little Whirlwind, a name he had amusingly converted to Dust Devil. Guy Straus wondered, idly, whether either could hold a cup and saucer properly. Indeed, he wondered whether Fitzhugh would survive the afternoon in these civilized confines. He had the look about him of a keg of black powder with a hissing fuse. He had not been out of the mountains for eleven years. No one called him Robert. He had been Brokenleg in the mountains, and indeed Brokenleg here. His left knee no longer flexed, and his leg stood rigid from hip to ankle as a result of an ancient folly when Fitzhugh’s world was young and green. Guy Straus smiled. He knew his man.

Still  . . . Brokenleg Fitzhugh had his weaknesses, Guy thought uneasily, his mind turning to those casks of grain spirits being carried on six packmules far to the west of the frowning American army at Fort Leavenworth. And yet another weakness too, he thought, his eye upon the comely young Cheyenne bride standing beside him in velvety white-chalked doeskin that clung deliciously to her slim figure. In a minute, Fitzhugh would own one sixth of the Rocky Mountain Company. But just now, the six-foot carrot-haired, amber-bearded scarecrow looked like he was about to snap the saucer in two.

Gregoire administered his sacraments to the other partner in this enterprise, Jamie Dance, who lounged lazily in the bay of a vaulting window that lit the salon and opened on Chestnut Street. The man stood loose as a cat, his every gesture a minimal expenditure of energy. His very tongue was as lazy as the rest of him, so that he drawled out his words in a soft slur. But there was more to Jamie Dance than his aversion to work. Among the free trappers in the mountains he’d become a legend. He always showed up at a rendezvous, or trading posts, with more beaver plews than anyone else, even though few of these were the skins of animals he’d caught himself. Not unless he was utterly desperate did Jamie Dance bait his traps, plant them in icy streams, haul beaver out of cold waters, skin, flesh and dry the plews. Instead, he purchased quantities of gewgaws from traders each year, along with fresh decks of cards and a few jugs of spirits, and then rode into the wilderness equipped with the means to allow others to do his work for him. He was, in fact, a born trader, who would go from village to village among the Indians, bartering away gunpowder, mirrors, ribbons, and sometimes a furtive cup of grain spirits, in exchange for heaps of valuable furs. And among his trapper colleagues, he employed his deck of cards, playing Euchre or Old Sledge, and achieving the same result.

Of his two partners, Guy thought, lazy Jamie Dance might prove to be the more productive — if he could stay out of trouble, which gathered about Jamie like the flies of summer. And no trouble haunted the new company so much as the one surrounding the new Mrs. Dance, until recently Teresa Maria Antonia Juanita Obregon, daughter of the alcalde of Taos, Juan Santamaria Obregon y Castillas, and his wife Luz. Guy could understand the elopement perfectly: before him stood a woman who dazzled the eye, a wild fiery thing, slender and vivacious, with flashing eyes and tawny flesh and buxom chest, who radiated energy even as Jamie seemed to absorb it. It had been a scandal, and it might keep the Rocky Mountain Company from obtaining the Mexican trading license it needed, especially if the company’s southern rivals William Bent or Ceran St. Vrain applied pressure in Santa Fe.

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
5.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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