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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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“The bow wood,” Guy said. “What about blankets?”

Campbell shook his head. “It’s an odd thing the Lowell companies don’t make them for the trade. The Indians want the point bars, the stripes at either end, and the thick weight. It’d be a waste of space.”

“But the osage orange bow wood would be worth it?”

“Who can say? We don’t even know what it’ll fetch. Maybe a stick a robe, maybe two or three. But you’ve almost nothing in them. What’d you figure it — ten cents?”

“About that. I found a French-Osage to cut them for thirty dollars. That plus some warehousing at Westport.”

“An express then, Guy. I know a man. Several men. A dollar a day for four months. And more. You’ll need about four packmules. He’ll have his own horse. He can take hardware, tools, and maybe three hundred of the osage orange. Plus his own outfit. Let’s call it five hundred dollars.”

“That’d raise the price of the bow wood.”

“Good robe’s worth four in New York.”

Guy Straus leaned back, wondering if he could stand another five hundred dollar cost on top of everything else. “Robert,” he said. “How sure are you about the bow wood?”

Campbell shrugged. “You can never tell with the Indians. They prize the wood. They prize the bows. But there’s medicine. If they think it’s bad medicine to buy bow wood from a white man, you’ve hauled those sticks up there for nothing.”

“They buy trade rifles from us.”

“No choice. But bows are their own weapons. That’s different.”

“It might save us. The blankets gone, and all.”

“For one year, Guy. Until Chouteau catches on.”

Guy smiles. “Then this is the year. Send me your man, Robert.”

That very afternoon, one Ambrose Chatillon arrived at the offices of Straus et Fils. The man was wiry and short, and swarthy; so small that doubts flooded Guy.

“Are you sure you can do this?” he asked.

“I am twenty years in the mountains.”

“Who did you work for?”

“I am a free trapper. I work for Rocky Mountain Fur, some. Sublette brothers. Monsieur Campbell much. I do many things — mostly come and go, like a ghost across the grass.”

“You’ve run expresses?”

“Many times out the Platte road. Some times up the Missouri.”

“How do you deal with Indians — alone out there?”

“Deal? Deal? They almost never see me. I am a creature of the night, Monsieur Straus. I even like night, eh?”

“But you’ve had encounters.”

Chatillon shrugged. “Who has not? I make the gifts. I pour spirits. I show fangs.”

“What do you think of American Fur — of Chouteau’s outfit?”

Chatillon’s dark face turned bleak and hard, his liquid brown eyes froze over. “I do not think,” he said quietly. “You are not trusting. If you ask me of this again, you must find another man.”

“Campbell recommended you,” Guy muttered, chastened. He made up his mind. “I have an express for you. I’m not even sure where it’s going. It’s for Brokenleg Fitzhugh and my company near old Fort Cass, but they’re not at Cass. You’ll have to find them.”

“Ah, Brokenleg! We made beaver together.”

It took a while for Guy to explain what he wanted. The last packet of the season would be leaving in a week, as far as Bellevue. Beyond that, water ran too low. Chatillon was to be on board with his own outfit, plus four packmules, plus some selected hardware and tools, and the osage orange, which was to be picked up at Westport, en route.

“Osage orange sticks, monsieur?”

“Bow wood. The northern tribes covet it. They haven’t a very good bow wood. We’ll try some trading.”

Guy was rewarded with a vast smile.

“Now there’s something else, Monsieur. I need information. I wish to know what is happening, every bit. And not just from letters. I want you to be my eyes and ears. Tell me how many robes they’ve traded. What they are doing for a fort. How far along they are. What they lack. How they’re getting along with the tribes — and which ones. And my Maxim. Everything. His health. Spirits. Worries. You may need to bring him back, Monsieur. And if so — that is something you and Brokenleg must decide — my son is in your hands.”

The wiry man proved to be a bright listener, grasping his task, asking questions, mastering his mission. Campbell had sent a seasoned, intelligent man.

“You can handle four packmules?”

“It is nothing.”

Guy felt a pang of fear. “Very well, then. Very well.” He couldn’t think of anything to say, and fumbled his words.

“Ah, Monsieur Straus. Trust Ambrose Chatillon, yes? I will return maybe in January, maybe later.”

“And if the river’s frozen?”

“I am a walker, monsieur. And light on a horse.”

Guy paid him half, gave him papers empowering him to pick up warehoused items at Westport, and gave him carte blanche to pick up hardware that would be needed at a post.

“Oh, Monsieur Chatillon — there might be a bonus for you.”

The French Canadian smiled and was shown out by Gregoire. Guy watched him go, half afraid that he had thrown more money away. But he had to trust. He had to trust Robert Campbell’s judgment, and this man.

Risk, he thought. For years, his firm had operated with minimal risk, exchanging coin and notes. Then with more risk, brokering money and goods. And now with terrible risk, investing in a ruinous business that either broke men or won them a fortune. But he liked it, even though the risk loomed like an evil monster just beyond his vision. Risk. If Fitzhugh could get a dressed robe for a stick of wood, they’d recover most of the loss of the blankets — and profit on the rest. He stared out his window, aching to know the future. Risk added some pepper to his bland life. He knew his father would have been horrified by such a thought.

Nineteen
 
 

Gone. It hurt. Brokenleg glared at the empty camp, finding it smaller and meaner. Something intangible had left it. Life had shrunk down. Dust Devil had brought something he couldn’t quite name, something female to the place, making life good.

He limped toward the river, mauling his leg on brush and logs, but heedless of the pain. He’d brutalized his leg this day, and had ceased to register it. He crashed through brush that sealed him from the others, from Maxim, from his engagés, and headed for a barren bankside place he knew where eagles fished. Behind him the cottonwoods sealed off the others, and he was alone.

The hurrying river, burly here, helped him think. Life was like a river, unstoppable, cutting through the canyons of tribulation, flowing leisurely through broad meadows. It gave him an handle on life, seeing all that restless water, coming from somewhere and going somewhere. This strange river drained a vast area, the Wind Rivers and Absarokas to the west, and the Big Horns to the east, and changed its name along the way. Far to the south, it had sawed and hammered its way through the very bedrock of the earth, purple and red, in a place where Jim Bridger swore the water ran uphill. He and the other mountain men called it Wind River above that point, and they had rendezvoused near its banks, on the Popo Agie. And before it arrived here, at the confluence, it punched it way through a solemn yellow canyon that could frighten a man witless for no reason at all.

He watched a yellow leaf ride the current, and knew he could no more stop it than stop her. She’d fetch herself back to her people, purge and sweat herself, consult the shamans, take a new name, and anathematize whitemen forever. He thought she’d loved him, but maybe the Cheyennes didn’t cotton to feelings like that.

St. Louis had done it, he thought. All that stuff she’d never seen and hadn’t even imagined. She had been like a frightened sparrow there, beating a cage with feathered wings, wanting to fly free. It’d plumb changed her, darkening her mood, cooling her ardor. She’d eyed him narrowly, discovering him among his own kind, scarcely realizing he’d been feeling half caged up too, and itching to escape. It’d damaged something in her, something to do with her pride, her Suhtai heritage, her being at the center of all the secrets and wisdom of the world she had known. She’d become subdued and angry, but he’d reckoned she’d get shut of it once they got up the river again.

He remembered the first time he’d seen her. She was sixteen winters then, and living in her pa and ma’s lodge, living the chaste life of a Cheyenne maiden waiting to be married. That was up the Tongue a piece, on a creek near the Big Horn Mountains. He and Jamie Dance had come for a visit, a bit of yarning over a fire, and maybe some trading. Dance never went anywheres but he got busy laying out some tobacco or tin looking glasses or ribbons for some pelt or other. And there she was, standing there beside the lodge, taller than the rest, and solemn. It struck him that she was a right pretty child, that one, but she wasn’t laughing and giggling like the other dainty girls, wanting to fetch themselves a ribbon or a glance from the white trappers.

She stood solemn, as if she figured she had some kind of duty or obligation in her to stay solemn and superior-looking, no matter how the rest of the young ladies whickered and whinnied. That wasn’t long after he’d busted up his leg, or the grizzly sow had, and he figured she just wasn’t having anything to do with some stiff-legged smelly trapper who rode a horse with his bad leg poking out like something obscene that should have been cut off. It wasn’t just seriousness in her, either. She stood sort of arrogant, her fine clean jaw cocked high, a faint disdain marking her features and a flat challenge to her eye. He figured she was seeing some caterpillars crawl by. So he looked again at her, puzzled, and that’s when he’d been struck dumb.

She was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen, and that included all the white girls he’d ever seen. She’d reached womanhood; that was plain to his alert eye, with a proper swelling of breast and hip beneath her loose doeskin dress. Like all the maidens in that chaste tribe, with its rich taboos about marriage, she would be wearing the cord, a kind of rope tied around her waist and knotted in front, with the two lines running to the rear of her thighs and wound around her legs as far as the knee, making a sort of chastity belt that no proper Cheyenne male ever violated. For Cheyennes, marriage and all that went with it was a plumb serious business, serious enough to gladden the heart of a preacher.

But it was the chiseled planes of her face and her honeyed flesh that kindled something berserk in him. Her cheeks lay broad and prominent like those of her people, but her nose fell thinner and aristocratic, and her jawline sang of clean grace and strength. He didn’t meet her that time: she proved as elusive as doe with a spotted fawn. But he vowed he would fetch her up the next time, if she hadn’t been married off. And while he waited, he began mastering the Cheyenne tongue, which was something like the Arapaho one he knew. A Cheyenne grandmother living among the Arapaho taught him through that winter.

The next spring he caught up with White Wolf’s band on the south fork of the Powder, hunting winter-thin buffalo. She was there, in the lodge of her parents, Antelope and One Leg Eagle. He liked her father’s name; he had about a leg and a half himself. That time she met his gaze with an unwavering one of her own before vanishing. In halting Cheyenne, with an assist from his fingers, he offered a bride-gift: a new Hawken he’d got at rendezvous; powder and ball; two four-point blankets; a pound of coffee; a pound of sugar minus the weight of a trader’s thumb; and the entire bolt of scarlet tradecloth. Then he waited outside the lodge on his good leg, while pining Cheyenne girls stared and flirted and giggled, and a boy or two glared angrily.

Little Whirlwind — he hadn’t known her name until then — had been given to him in marriage by her parents the next day, along with a dowry of horn spoons, fine robes, several parfleches, a high-horned woman’s saddle, and a sacred Suhtai medicine totem, a red pipestone buffalo. Her Suhtai were the red pipestone people.

“I knew it would be so,” she said to him. Those were her first words to him, and they spoke nothing of joy. But an obscure light shone in her eyes, which could have meant anything. She seemed pleased, but he didn’t know for sure. Her bridal gown had been the softest white doeskin, belted at her slim waist. It hung just below her knees, longer on the right. The whole of its loose bodice had been quilled and beaded into geometric rainbows, and trimmed with elk teeth. On her calves she wore bright yellow-dyed doeskin leggings, and below these, exquisitely shaped moccasins that lay like onionskin over her small feet. She’d brushed her black hair until it shone, and then braided it, and wrapped the braids in yellow tradecloth. On her apricot cheeks she’d rubbed bright vermilion, and along the part in her hair as well. She’d bathed, as all Cheyenne did daily, and scented herself with the smoke of sweetgrass, and sage. When the moment came, her friends carried her bodily to Fitzhugh’s lodge, and set her down there for him to gaze upon, thunderstruck.

They’d spent the night in a borrowed lodge set apart from the village, while Jamie Dance made himself scarce, and the first night had been a torment. She had the right, along with all Cheyenne maidens, of wearing her loin rope for a few days, as long as half a moon if she chose to. That night she chose to wear it, driving Brokenleg to gibberish. She knew it, and smiled gently, and shook her head softly when he clawed her close.

But they’d talked. They had little else to do but palaver, he scratching up words with his broken tongue, barely expressing himself, and she solemnly and slowly, like the twilight song of a bird, so he might catch her thoughts. It occurred to him when dawn probed the eastern side of the lodge that they’d become friends, a little, even if his loins ached and his temper ran as sore and brimful as a flooded river. The elders had told him about the rope custom, revealed to him the wisdom of it; that it gave a newly wed couple the chance to become friends, be at ease, learn how to please the other. He’d thought to pitch it to the winds and snag her into his arms until she went mad with a passion like his own, but once they had sequestered themselves, he knew he wouldn’t. One thing for sure; this tall Cheyenne girl had a will of iron and a way of looking at the rest of mankind — himself and Dance for example — that wasn’t exactly friendly.

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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