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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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Outside, the church tolled the hour, the fourteenth of that day, and Guy Straus realized the moment had arrived to begin the business at hand. He tugged at his black broadcloth frockcoat, making it fit smoothly over his burly frame, out of ancient habit. He looked like a balding bag-eyed Spaniard, which in fact he was, after a fashion, but of the Sephardic variety that had been driven out or underground by Queen Isabella centuries before. The Strauses had lived in Amsterdam for generations, before drifting into France.

“Gentlemen, and my ladies, let us begin,” he said, stopping conversation in the salon.

He eyed the young men almost paternally, though the date of his birth, 1798, wasn’t so far removed from the dates of theirs, 1810 for Fitzhugh and 1811 for Dance. Fitzhugh settled himself awkwardly, his stiff leg stabbing under the walnut table, while Dance slid into the ladder-backed chair as loosely as a wineskin. The ladies congregated in chairs along the windowed wall, as was proper, along with Guy’s children, David, Maxim, and Clothilde. Guy thought he’d hasten things along before Fitzhugh exploded.

“On this memorable day,” Guy began, “we organize ourselves into the Rocky Mountain Company, or more properly, Dance, Fitzhugh and Straus. It is a great day, eh? A little like marriage.” He smiled. “For richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part, eh?” His jest won him a few nervous chuckles.

“Before you,” he continued, “is an agreement, copied out by my clerk, Monsieur Ribeaux, which I trust is nothing more or less than what we arrived at by handshake last November. Monsieur Fitzhugh, perhaps you would read it?”

“Who, me?” said Brokenleg, startled. Guy smiled.

“I’d rather wrestle a grizzly,” Fitzhugh said, staring wildly at assorted ladies and almost-grown children.

Guy waited, letting the silence thicken. He preferred that Fitzhugh read. Dance didn’t know how, except to cipher numbers to some extent.

“Well, if it’s how we figured, me and Jamie with a sixth and you with two-thirds  . . . You know.” He stabbed the air unhappily. “Gimme the nib and I’ll just sign the thing.”

“Yeah,” said Jamie Dance. “I’ll just put my mark on. You’ll do the provisioning and accounting, sell the robes, and me and Brokenleg run the posts, that’s all I need. You got that down on that parchment, and I don’t need nothing more.”

Guy laughed. These two would rather ride a fresh-trapped mustang than commit to paper and contract. The handshake had counted, not this parchment. Guy knew that, and had organized the company and committed funds on that handshake last fall.

“I’ll read it anyway,” Guy said. “It’s just a few paragraphs.” And he did: The firm of Dance, Fitzhugh and Straus would be organized this fifteenth day of May to engage in the buffalo robe trade, and whatever other peltries and usable items — buffalo tongues in particular — might be obtained from the western tribes. Straus would capitalize the company and dispose of its product as well as provision the two contemplated posts with necessaries and tradegoods. Dance and Fitzhugh would operate the posts, conduct the trading, and ship the returns as soon as feasible each spring, and appear in person for the company’s annual meeting each July, when trade was slack.

“Is that it, gentlemen?” he asked.

“Sure ’nuff is,” Dance replied.

Guy plucked one of his steel-nib pens, made by Josiah Mason in England, and dipped it into the pot of India ink and scratched his name on the three copies. He handed the small instrument to Fitzhugh, who scratched his signature so violently Guy feared the pen would snap or the parchment would be plowed through. But except for a widening pool of black on one copy, nothing untoward happened. Guy handed Brokenleg a blotter. Next, with a small helpless grin, Jamie made his careful mark, an X, and Guy printed Jamie’s name behind it and he and Fitzhugh initialed it.

“Guess we’re married,” Jamie said, beaming. “I ain’t much of a husband and I’m a worse wife.”

“Madre Dios,
you’re no husband at all,” retorted Teresa Maria.

Jamie chortled, enjoying some secret that lay veiled from the rest of them.

Guy let the contracts dry on the freshly-beeswaxed table. “We’ll uncork some champagne to celebrate. But now, gentlemen, we’ve business to attend. Captain La-Barge is ready to sail. He’s got the southern outfit in the forehold, and the northern outfit aft. He says the sooner the better, even tomorrow, so he can catch the June rise of the river,
oui?”

Guy hoped that news would translate into action later in the afternoon. “I’m assured by Waddell and Smythe that the wagons are waiting at Independence, along with the livestock. Monsieur Dance, I trust that your southern outfit will be unloaded from the
Platte
and reloaded in the Conestogas as swiftly as possible, and I trust, Monsieur Fitzhugh, that the wagons and mules destined for the Yellowstone will be loaded on the foredeck as fast as you and your engagés can manage, eh? LaBarge has other dunnage waiting at Independence, and a lot of passengers.”

“I reckon we’ll have all our truck shifted in half a day. If not, we’ll burn the torches,” Fitzhugh said.

“We’re already days behind the American Fur Company packet,” Guy said. “They’ll have their goods shelved at Fort Union before we arrive in that country.”

“Once I git there, I can move fast,” Fitzhugh said. “I don’t have to build a fort.”

That had been a key factor in their plans. When the beaver trade dwindled, American Fur had pulled off the Yellowstone River, abandoned its Fort Cass at the confluence of the Big Horn, and did a desultory business in robes and peltries from Fort Union on the Missouri, a place not very accessible to Mountain Crow and Cheyenne. All Fitzhugh needed to do was move in, and contact his Cheyenne relatives, and he’d be in business, butting against Pierre Chouteau. But Jamie Dance was going to have a tougher time, and they’d worked out a fluid strategy to deal with it. The first obstacle would be a trading license from Governor Armijo at Santa Fe. If that proved impossible — and well it might, given Jamie’s reputation — he was to establish a post on the United States side of the Arkansas River and avoid trading in Mexico. There were none to move into, and it would have to be built from adobe or cottonwood. During that first year, they wouldn’t have much of a post at all: Jamie intended to drive his wagons out to the villages and trade there. William Bent was already doing that, but Jamie felt sure he could best Bent at his own game. Jamie would deal primarily with the dangerous Comanche, Kiowa, and Lipan Apache, because Bent’s wife was a southern Cheyenne, and Bent, St. Vrain had a lock on the Cheyenne trade.

All this the three future partners had discussed by the hour over coffee, or sometimes bourbon, at the Planters House that winter. Today’s events were more ceremony than substance, and Guy didn’t suppose they would alter things much.

“You’ve each picked out a trade outfit you think is suited for the tribes you’ll be dealing with. Are you quite satisfied with it? We have a few hours to add or subtract. Our rivals are wily men,
messieurs.
Nothing — truly nothing — escapes the attention of Cadet Chouteau, or Monsieur Bent and his
frères.
But I keep hoping you might think of something, some
petite entrée — “

“Wall, as a fact, I’ve got me an ideah,” drawled Jamie Dance. “Not so much for my outfit as Brokenleg’s. Them tribes up there haven’t got much choice for bow wood. They make their bows outa juniper or chokecherry mostly, and it’s poor doing compared to osage orange. They trade most anything for a good stick of osage orange, from this country here, just so they can have them a first-rate bow. I don’t think the big outfits ever cottoned on to it — I mean, how much those warriors lust for a stick of osage orange. But I reckon we’d get a dressed robe for a stick of it.”

Bois d’arc!
A tanned robe worth four dollars for a stick of wood that grew so commonly in Missouri it could be gathered by the ton. The very thought excited Guy. “Where? How?” he asked.

“Best groves of it are over the other side of the state, east of Independence. That’s where the Osage tribe cut the wood. I’m thinkin’ — to save time — when LaBarge sends his deckmen to shore for a wooding, we can put our engagés to work cutting the osage orange sticks. I’ll show ’em what’s good sticks and what’s poor doin’s. Most of it should go up the Missouri with Brokenleg, but I’ll fetch along a few hundred myself. It’s got to dry six months, so we don’t be makin’ a robe killing until next year.”

“Ah,
mon cher
Monsieur Dance, that is the edge, the advantage, we’ve been looking for, eh? A robe for a stick of wood?”

“Should work,” Dance replied. “Most of those warriors can’t afford a parcel of robes for a fusil, but they can spare a robe or two for a prize bow wood that let’s ’em put an arrah thirty yards further than their best wood bows.”

“Only for the Cheyenne!” spat Dust Devil, from a shadowed corner. “Never to the Absaroka dogs!”

There, right there, lay one of the Rocky Mountain Company’s potential weaknesses, and Guy thought to deal with it — again.

“Madame Fitzhugh,” he began amiably. “A trading post makes a profit, and guarantees its safety, only by observing the strictest neutrality. The
bois d’arc
must be available to all who wish to trade for it, I’m sure you and your husband will agree. For your own safety.”

He wasn’t so sure they agreed. Dust Devil had made it a life mission to fight the traditional enemies of the Cheyenne, especially the Absaroka, or Crows, but also the Assiniboin. She was a Suhtai Cheyenne, and thus of the special clan that largely governed the tribal religion and its sacred symbols, including the medicine hat. Fitzhugh himself was more Cheyenne than European these days, speaking his wife’s tongue adequately, and favoring her people in all tribal matters. If the post made its bias too obvious, it would collapse — and sink them all.

“I reckon I’ll trade where the trading is,” said Brokenleg quietly, overriding Dust Devil. “That’s how it’s got to be.”

They toasted the new company uneasily, knowing the risk even better than they knew the reward. The Cheyenne problem in the north. A problem with Mexican licensing in the south — a license they needed to put them close to the Kiowa and Comanche. And looming like a rumbling volcano over them all, the ruthless competition of two giant firms with deep experience in the fur and hide business, Chouteau in the north and Bent to the south.

“I’ll tell Monsieur LaBarge we’ll be aboard at the fifth hour,” he said. “Have your engagés ready by the fourth, with their packs. He will wish to sail at dawn. Mrs. Straus and I will board this evening and say
au revoir
to all of you and our sons at Independence.

Eighteen-year-old David would be Dance’s clerk, reading and figuring for the trader; sixteen-year-old Maxim would clerk for Fitzhugh. Guy had fought it fiercely, fearing he might never see his dear flesh and blood again, but acceded at the last: what papa could stand in the way of sons whose eyes gazed toward the shining mountains?

Two
 
 

A red ball of fire rolled across the broad Missouri valley ahead, so that the black waters of the river seemed to rise out of a cauldron of fire. Not a tree lined the banks to catch the gold of the setting sun, but only grass, glowing ochre in the last light. Already the sky above the bluffs had turned indigo.

Before them, the river vibrated with life as an endless stream of black buffalo swam north like some giant snake out of the skies. Brokenleg’s senses demanded noise; demanded the thunder of a vast herd on the move; insisted at least upon the splash and froth and bawling of a thousand animals, a column a hundred yards wide, swimming a half a mile of water en route to summer grass. But he heard no noise. Countless buffalo, backlit against the dying sun, swam as patiently and silently as beaver, scarcely disturbing the powerful river. On occasion this vast black bridge bowed downstream, toward the idling
Platte
, which lay anchored in still waters away from the main channel because there was not a stick on shore to tie it to.

He couldn’t fathom the silence. Not even when the water-blackened beasts clambered up the slippery bank gleaming orangely off to the right did they shake and bawl and thunder the earth. Instead, the great procession slid across grassy bottoms and up an apricot bluff and vanished into the dark sky, like a mirage. He could see no end to them in the south; no end to the humped beasts that dominated the short-grass prairies from Mexico far into the English possessions to the north. If the parade continued much longer, LaBarge would probably stay the night here, no doubt irritable because the nearest woodyard lay far ahead and he’d anchored too close to the current.

It seemed an omen, all these buffalo, as common as ants, rippling the sunset light before him, making the river hump and shatter into silver splinters that seemed to bounce off a few high wisps of cloud above. He’d come to have the same instinct about the sacred animals as Dust Devil, seeing them as something much more than meat and hide, clothing and tools, glue and horns. The buffalo was more; it was holy; the gift of the One Above, Dust Devil would have said, for the use of the People. He waited, trying to fathom in himself whether the silence of tens of thousands of buffalo was a sign of welcome — or something else. He needed that welcome, though he would never admit it. He glanced covertly at Dust Devil, standing beside him up on the hurricane deck beside the texas where they could see, and sensed her fierce anger. A bad omen, then, all those sacred buffalo marching up into a great hole in the sky.

They’d been stalled for two hours there in the land of the Santee and Yankton Sioux. These buffalo were the first they’d seen this trip, though they’d been looking ever since the stop at Bellevue, where the army performed its final inspection to ascertain whether the packet contained nefarious spirits. It found none except normal ship’s stores for passenger use. Not until they’d reached a certain woodyard below Sergeant Bluff one moonless evening had spirits in wooden casks appeared in the low hold. None of the passengers knew it save for himself, young Maxim Straus, and Dust Devil, who frowned at it all. Those plus Captain La-Barge and his mate and two crewmen. Without those illegal spirits, the whole enterprise would collapse. With them, they had a fighting chance against the giant American Fur, with all its ruthless power and subterfuge — and vast stores of the illegal commodity.

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
11.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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