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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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The old ruin saddened him, and his thoughts turned to the joyous day of the free trappers, of the Sublettes and Bridger and Campbell and Fitzpatrick, the wild rendezvous when a man would squander a year’s hard-won plews for a jug of mountain whiskey, a few new traps, and enough powder and ball, sugar and coffee, to keep him until the next one. This robe trade lacked the joy of the old days. The trappers had vanished from the high lonely mountains, all except a few who hung on, earning nothing much; and now the fur companies bartered for buffalo robes, and scarcely noticed when a man brought in a pack of beaver. He and Jamie Dance had hung on, surviving somehow, building up an awful thirst because they couldn’t afford mountain whiskey, or even aguardiente, the famous Taos lightning that cooked a man’s innards. Oh, those lost days, when it lifted a man’s heart to be young and strong in the western wilderness, a thousand miles from a settlement or a fence or a loaf of bread or a lawyer or a deacon.

His reverie was cut short by the sight of Fort Union itself, shimmering in a brutal heat, its American flag limp on its staff. The fort seemed as startling now as it had ever been, with its stockade of silvered cottonwood logs surrounded by the perennial lodges of tribesmen, bright-painted cones in a sea of ochre and rust-colored rock. Now, at the height of the trading season, whole villages of Assiniboin, Cree, Blackfeet and River Crow — violent enemies elsewhere — had collected here to push soft, brain-tanned robes through the trading window and collect the shining manufactured goods on the shelves.

Within, the peaked roof of the factor’s house — once McKenzie’s palace — poked above the stockade, along with the shingled roofs of warehouses, barracks, and kitchens. It had been laid out like the rest of the fur posts, with bastions at opposite corners — defenses never used because no tribe dared antagonize the supplier of its powder and ball, hoop iron, pots and kettles, and all the rest. But towering there anyway with slits in their brooding rock walls to permit riflemen a shot along any side of the stockade — just in case — because no army would come to a rescue, and no law existed save for American Fur’s own.

This, indeed, was an occasion. On the distant levee tribesmen gathered, while engagés came running down the steep grade to the river. A boom roared out upon the water, followed by a puff of white from the near bastion, and a sudden thump of air — the fort’s salute. Scarcely ever had Fort Union witnessed two riverboats in a single year; and never had it seen an opposition packet.

He felt the sudden change as the
Platte
cut away from the swift current of the channel and into slackwater, riding easily on its flat hull. He heard the descending wheeze of steam pistons slowing and the languid splash of stilled wheels as LaBarge and Roux angled the packet toward shore. Down on the bow, Maxim looked a bit frightened. Curiosity consumed Fitzhugh: how had the passing of the old world, the beaver days, and the rise of the new robe trade affected the great old fort and its ways? And, too, what about Alexander Culbertson, the bearded senior man here, newly married, they said, to a fifteen-year-old Blood girl closely tied to the chiefs of that tribe, a pretty thing named Natawista. He’d never met Culbertson, but like very denizen of the upper Missouri, he knew the name.

A mob of passengers lined the rail, and Fitzhugh realized there still were many on board, both deck and cabin class. Few of them were employed by American Fur, he surmised. Most of those had come upriver on the
Trapper
a few weeks earlier. No, these rough sorts, some with squaws, were free men of the mountains, no different from what he and Jamie had been only a few months ago — men who’d never go east, just the way he’d never go east because he couldn’t breathe there. He could scarcely imagine how he’d borne St. Louis as long as he did. He stared sharply at them, memorizing faces one by one, wondering which of these ruffians and mountain savages had taken coin to wreck the Buffalo Company. Someday he’d find out, and there’d be a reckoning in blood. He got no clue, though some stared back from weathered eyes as sharp as hawks’, and with unsmiling visages that dared Fitzhugh to make something of their deadly gaze. Mountain men. Forever fearless, and forever afraid. He knew the feeling, how it was to live ruthlessly in wilderness, afraid of nothing — except what might happen next.

Deckmen tossed hawsers toward the levee, and the manila lines were snatched by white and bronze hands, and wrapped around posts driven there. The
Platte
had arrived, and announced its presence with an insolent shrill of its steam whistle, as if to say that not all power and law and wealth lay on the shore. Fitzhugh grinned. Whoever pulled the whistlecord had let it howl a few seconds too long. LaBarge himself, he thought; once the pilot of company riverboats; now the master of his own packet.

He waited patiently while crewmen lowered a stage at the gangway and the most eager of the passengers bolted to the levee, loaded with duffel. This would be an overnight stop, he judged, seeing no firemen tending the ravenous flame under the boiler. Tomorrow, the
Platte
would retreat the two miles back to the confluence, and head into the virgin waters of the Yellowstone river, probing cautiously, no doubt with a man at the prow sounding the bottom with a marked pole. He watched the passengers disperse, knowing one or two might be men he’d gladly strangle. No reunions, he noticed. No waiting women, cries of joy, handclasps, hugs. Rough men stepped onto land unmet, and uneager to talk, and vanished toward the fort or out into the sea of cowhide lodges. Chiefs and headmen waited and watched, knowing they’d eventually be invited, two or three at a time, to tour the fireboat and receive a twist of tobacco. The forward hatches remained closed, and the second mate stood guard there. The few items destined for here had long since swung to land with block and tackle strung from a spar. No blankets. Fitzhugh had watched it all, red-eyed. So had LaBarge, from above, and Hugh Clowes, standing right at the gangway.

When at last the crush of passengers and half the crew, freed by four-hour shift, had boiled toward the gray palisade, a brown-bearded man in shirtsleeves, with a demure Indian girl clinging to his arm, stepped forward, an engaging smile upon his amiable face. Culbertson, of course. Fitzhugh knew the man at once. LaBarge did, too, racing down the companionways to welcome the top man in Chouteau’s Upper Missouri Outfit. Brokenleg found himself liking the man on sight for reasons he couldn’t fathom, and wished it were not so. They would talk on board, then. He nodded to Maxim, who still sulked around the prow, and then to Dust Devil, who stood disdainfully, eyeing all these enemies of the Cheyenne, white and red, with the same expression she reserved for dog-vomit.

“Joe LaBarge!” exclaimed Culbertson, with such gladness in his voice that Fitzhugh bridled. LaBarge bawled his delight, with a handshake and mountain hug.

“And you’re Fitzhugh. Brokenleg Fitzhugh, our Opposition,” Culbertson continued, extending a warm hand.

“I reckon I am. And this is my Dust Devil,” he added. She nodded slightly, with tolerably decent manners for one who supposed she was among coyotes.

Within moments, they’d met Natawista, whom Fitzhugh found shy and beautiful. The girl spoke no English but plainly understood it, following the conversation with her brown eyes. And Brokenleg had dourly introduced Maxim, who stared solemnly, afraid to speak.

“Let’s go on up to the saloon and have some spirits,” LaBarge said. “It looks to be a madhouse out there.”

“Height of the trading season,” Culbertson said, following LaBarge up to the boiler deck. “We’ve hardly had a night’s sleep since we were resupplied.”

Fitzhugh followed irritably, flanked by Dust Devil and Maxim, irked by LaBarge’s plain delight at this reunion, and wondering darkly if the whole world had conspired against the Buffalo Company. The men’s saloon glowed amiably in the late sun. A cabin boy brought out tumblers, decanters and water and left them, while the ship bobbed quietly, a slumbering water-beast tethered to the levee.

“Ah, Mister Fitzhugh,” said Culbertson amiably. “I know you, though we’ve never met. Not a man of the mountains speaks ill of you. And here you are, starting an Opposition post, you and my friend Guy Straus, and Mister Dance,” He smiled. “We’ll have a worthy opponent this time, Mister Fitzhugh.”

“Make an offer,” Fitzhugh blurted. “That’s what you came here for; make an offer, damn ye.”

 

* * *

 

Time snagged on a bar. Joseph LaBarge stared, amazed, at the hot-tempered young man beside him. Alec Culbertson paused, sipped whiskey, and glanced at Fitzhugh, weighing words.

“Why, Mister Fitzhugh. We were just resupplied,” he began slowly.

“I already know your reasons,” Brokenleg shot back.

The response puzzled LaBarge as much as Culbertson.

“Perhaps you’d better explain, young man,” Culbertson said, carefully.

“You’ve wrecked us and now you’re workin’ around to a low bid.”

Alec Culbertson drew into a bewildered silence, obviously not wishing to exacerbate matters. Fitzhugh glared at him, daring him to say a word.

“I think,” said Captain LaBarge, “I should do some clarifying, Alec. Mister Fitzhugh, here, and his new company suffered a grievous loss downriver, near the Mandan villages. Someone onboard managed to dump fifteen bales of Witney blankets overboard — we think it was overboard — in the dark of a moonless night. We haven’t the faintest clue — “

“Hell we don’t,” Fitzhugh interrupted. “American Fur done it. You done it.” He glared at Culbertson.

“Mister Fitzhugh, I assure you I haven’t the foggiest idea who  . . . “ Culbertson’s voice trailed off. “It doesn’t matter what I say. We’re convicted.”

“Make your offer. If it’s good enough, you’ll get the outfit. That’s what you wanted.”

LaBarge bridled at the harshness he was hearing, and the vicious glare in Fitzhugh’s eyes, half mad.

“I had no intention of buying your outfit. We’re well supplied. Most items, anyway.”

“You can have it for what we have in it.”

“But, sir, I told you — “

“I know what you told me.”

Maxim stared at the floor and wouldn’t lift his gaze. Dust Devil sat stone-faced and impenetrable. LaBarge sighed, unable to balm the hurt moment. “I think Mister Fitzhugh sees all this as a conspiracy by American Fur, Alec. At Fort Pierre, Chardonne made your company’s usual offer, along with some veiled threats. Now Brokenleg’s upriver without a key trade item, knowing it’ll be twice as hard to buck your competition. I think he was expecting the coup de grace from you.”

“Mister Fitzhugh, this is a large company, and things happen that I’m unaware of. But I can promise you this: if I find the culprits who stole your tradegoods, I’ll have them punished. If it was something done by one or another branch of American Fur, I’ll resign my post here. I plan to defeat your opposition, sir, by every means available to me — that’s honorable.”

“You ain’t making an offer?”

“No. Under other circumstances, I might have bought some of your tradegoods. We’re already short of some stock. But not under these conditions. We’ve a few blankets I’ll sell you at our cost, sir.”

That struck LaBarge as an unusual offer. “There, Brokenleg, Alec’s doing what he can.”

“It’s just a way to get more robes outa us.”

“Mister Fitzhugh,” LaBarge said gently, “the cost of shipping your entire outfit downriver would be ruinous to your company.”

“Maybe you’re an AFC man.”

“I’m my own man,” LaBarge snapped. “And this is my own packet. And if you deal with me, or Alec Culbertson, or the tribesmen you wish to barter with in this fashion, you’re doomed before you begin. I think Guy Straus made a mistake about you.”

“No, he didn’t!” cried Maxim miserably.

“Some sneak dumped the blankets, and it wasn’t so he could get rich trading them. He did it to hurt me.”

Alec Culbertson drained his glass and stood. “I think I’d better attend to my duties, gentlemen. My sincere regrets, Mister Fitzhugh. Captain, Natawista and I would enjoy your company at dinner, eight o’clock. You’ll hear the bell.” He paused, wrestling with his own instincts. “And you, my friends. I trust you’ll join us?”

He peered at Fitzhugh, Dust Devil, and Maxim amiably.

“You go, Maxim. Me, I’m not walking into that thieving fort.”

The boy stood gravely, troubled to the core. LaBarge was irked.

“I’ll come,” Maxim said.

“Very well, then, Mister Straus. You come along with Captain LaBarge.”

LaBarge accompanied his guests down the stairs to the main deck, and saw them to the stage. He didn’t much care for American Fur, but Alec Culbertson was another matter altogether. He knew no finer man. “I’m sorry about this unhappy occasion, Alex,” he said, shaking hands. “It’s been my pleasure to meet you, lovely Natawista.”

She smiled and said something in her Blackfoot tongue.

Over on the levee, the headmen waited. They always did. These were nearly naked in the hot sun. Some he knew, such as Bear Ears of the Cree, and Standing Buffalo of the Hunkpapa Sioux. There was a Crow headman here too, standing amiably among his mortal enemies.

“Mister Clowes,” he said, “bring them on board by threes.”

He always enjoyed this because a fireboat was magic to them. It had become a ritual for pilots and masters to permit them — but not other tribesmen — to gawk and touch, and explore, and to receive the peace-offering from the company, the tobacco twist. He adjusted his doublebreasted blue uniform, wishing he could be as naked as the headmen in the boiling summer heat, and smiled as the first three, two Assiniboin headmen and a lesser Crow chief, spread out on the deck.

He motioned them up the companionways, until finally they reached the pilothouse, where the chiefs could peer down upon the world below like lords in castles. They touched the gleaming brass of the compass, and tugged at the helm, and exclaimed at the twin black-iron stacks before them. He couldn’t explain anything — their tongues were beyond him — but he didn’t need to: they’d entered a wonderland, fantastic beyond the imaginings of tribesmen, and needed no explanation of the actual utility of instruments.

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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