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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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At first some of the passengers and his own engagés shot at the buffalo, killing a few, which were snared by the crew and hauled aboard, rivering water and blood. But the shooting palled, especially when dead bloody buffaloes spun and bobbed silently downstream in the opaque aquamarine water, useless meat. The boat lay on the soft-lit river as silent as the ghostly herd that shook loose of the clawing stream on the north and trotted up into the night.

He didn’t speak. No one spoke. He hadn’t heard a word for an hour. He liked being there. For the first time in moons, he felt right. He’d started to feel right back near Bellevue, where the Platte, a mile wide and six inches deep and mostly rolling sand, debouched into the Missouri. And where the bankside forests thinned, finally surrendering to grass. And where the moist oppressive air gave way to something drier and cleaner in his hungry lungs, and the scent of prairie replaced the fetid odor of hardwood forest. Above the Platte, the color of the river changed from chocolate to murky green. Below Bellevue, the trees had hemmed him like prison bars.

He’d borne St. Louis only by large infusions of corn spirits, quietly, nightly, staving off the demons that choked and throttled him until he bolted up in the night, sweating and cursing. Somehow he’d survived, eyeing the denizens of that rich city as narrowly as they must have eyed him, in his velvety fringed elkskin britches and calico shirt, his unkempt beard, and a red mane flowing from a half bald crown of skull down to his shoulders. He’d had to do it, and he did it.

Straus had booked a cabin for him on the
, but even though it was the most spacious available it closed in on him until, scarcely out of St. Louis, he’d fled out onto the boiler deck, and vaulted up the companionway and rolled into a buffalo robe on the hurricane deck, just aft of the texas. Dust Devil hadn’t joined him. She had taken to her cabin as if it was a fine eighteen-hide lodge, with slaves who’d bring her tea or coffee at the slightest wave of her hard hand. She liked slaves, and had never ceased pestering him for some, especially a few Crow women she could persecute.

The sun slid behind a bank of clouds along the northwest horizon, gilding their tops until Brokenleg thought for an aching moment they might be the western mountains, snowcapped, blue and royal. But they weren’t, and it was much too soon to entertain such thoughts. It left him disappointed in the graying light. He felt almost right, but not quite. These prairies were tallgrass and thick, dampening him almost as much as the dank forests. Not yet free, not yet. But better than St. Louis.

Odd how Guy Straus had sensed it in him and sympathized, although not a word had passed between them. On several occasions Straus had offered his carriage and trotters for a jaunt out of town, and Brokenleg had taken him up on it, driving hard out Market or Chestnut or Washington into the wooded hills to the west. But it never helped. Sometimes Straus took him to the comfortable, decaying Planters House to dine with Robert Campbell, legendary fur man who’d come out to the rendezvous with the Sublettes, Fitzpatrick, Bridger, and all the rest. They’d whiled away an occasional afternoon over thick aromatic coffee and fiery French liqueurs, talked of men they both knew like Joe Meek or Milt Sublette or Davey Jackson, and icy rivers and shining mountains and lupine-strewn meadows they’d both seen, and that had helped. He’d learned, then, that Straus had borrowed from Campbell to help provision the Rocky Mountain Company. But in the end, nothing helped much, nothing save for this, a flight out to the high and lonely lands, disturbed by nothing but the wind.

Above, in the pilot house, he heard the voices of the master, LaBarge, and his pilot, Roux, making fast the packet for the night. The boiler fires had long since died, and with the soft chuff of steam from the escapement, so the packet lay like a dead thing upon the water, anchored for and aft. Below, the dinner gong sounded, and Brokenleg knew he’d have to face the companionway, always a torture for a man without a good knee. Deck passengers, including his ten engagés, were on their own for meals, but cabin passengers were served on foldaway tables set in the men’s saloon, forward on the boiler deck, a tobacco-stained public area between the banks of port and starboard cabins. Fresh buffalo hump, boss ribs, tongue tonight, he knew. Wordlessly, Dust Devil drew her shawl around her and slid off to the companionway, heeding the bell.

“It’s not a place I’d choose for an anchorage, Mister Fitzhugh.” The voice eddied down from above, and Brokenleg saw LaBarge peering down at him from the pilot house. “These crossings have been known to last for a day or two. We may be here a while.”

“Just seeing them — just seeing — “ he stopped, unable to convey something that burned in him in ways beyond the captivity of words. Why did everyone want to talk? Couldn’t they just leave him to his silence? “And an arrow’s shot from shore,” LaBarge continued. “Shallow enough for them to wade most of the way out here, too. The Yanktonai, I mean. Here we are, stalled, in the only country where we’ve had trouble for years. And I’ve got only three cords aboard, and most of it green cottonwood, so I’ll need the rosin. Let’s hope all that banging didn’t reach the wrong ears.”

Fitzhugh said nothing.

“If you’re inclined, Mister Fitzhugh, you might put one or two of your engagés on watch tonight, up here on the hurricane deck.”

“Do it myself,” Brokenleg said.

“I’ll have some roustabouts on the foredeck, watching for sawyers or driftwood all night. They can snare the firewood and keep watch.”

“Last of the herd’s swimming right now. You could get up steam and go a mile or two before it gets pitch dark.”

“How do you know that, Mister Fitzhugh?”

“Just know it.”

LaBarge laughed softly. “I believe you. My pilot and I know this river the way you men of the mountains know the wilderness. But I suppose we’ll wait; take our chances with the Sioux.”

Below, amid the motley crowd on the main deck, his engagés performed their evening chores. Oxen, horses, and mules, packed tightly into a temporary pen lashed to the foredeck, were being watered and fed with precious hay and oats stowed down in the hold. Many nights, when La-Barge was able to anchor at an island, the animals were led out to pasture or picketed on grass beside the packet under careful guard. But not this night, with the packet riding a backwater eighty yards from shore. The scrape of shovels and the acrid scent of manure told him his men were cleaning the pen in the dusk, dumping the waste overboard.

Beside the corral hulked the three Pittsburgh wagons they’d decided on. These were high-wheeled monsters with watertight boxes to protect the cargo while fording streams, useful for hauling tradegoods out to the villages and returning with the robes. They stood now without their sheets, their bows naked in the twilight. These giants had proved their worth on the long flats of the Santa Fe Trail, but none had ever been brought into the rougher country of the northwest, and Brokenleg considered them a gamble.

Every one of his ten engagés was a Creole, and every one had experience on the great river. He’d asked his old mountain friend Samson Trudeau, back there in St. Louis, to put together a seasoned crew for him, annual contracts at twelve dollars a month. Brokenleg knew almost none of the engagés, but he’d learn about them soon enough, and probably fight a few of them, too. And he supposed that one or two were being paid by American Fur to report everything to the powerful men up at Fort Union. He’d weed them out soon enough, with fists if necessary. Those things didn’t stay hidden forever.

Dance had the larger crew, twenty teamsters drawn from the small settlements near the Missouri and the Mississippi. He had to haul his entire stock of tradegoods and furnishings out the Santa Fe Trail, a task that ate up men and wagons — and capital. The Rocky Mountain Company was investing far more in its southern post than in his, on the Yellowstone.

The dinner bell gonged a second time.

“The second bell, Mister Fitzhugh,” said LaBarge from the pilot house. “You’ll miss the boss rib and tongue.”

Fresh buffalo meat! The first since last fall. The lordly buffalo’s flesh was hard, tough, chewy — except for the soft, delicious humpmeat, which made a roast better than any beef he’d ever tackled, or the tongue, sweet and moist and flavorsome. It set his stomach to growling, and he limped toward the companionway, wishing he could hurry his bad leg.


* * *


The hollowness that Guy Straus felt in his heart was something new in his experience. It felt as if he’d lost everything except life itself. That wasn’t the case, he reminded himself, and the chances were excellent that, far from losing, he’d win a fortune. But not even Yvonne’s steadying presence in that rude Independence inn allayed the underlying dread that possessed him.

They’d taken the
— LaBarge’s packet — as far as Independence, along with all the rest. They’d return to St. Louis on the next riverboat heading east, one of the dozen that plied the Big Muddy between St. Joseph and Independence and St. Louis. He wanted to see everything, every wage-man his capital had engaged, every Conestoga he’d contracted to buy and have refitted here; every ox and horse and mule. There were sharpers at every hand in this robust village sprawled at the edge of Indian lands. Independence thrived as an outfitter for the Santa Fe Trail; the place to buy mules and oxen, Conestogas and Pittsburghs, and light wagons; the place to collect yoke and harness. The place to warehouse hides and furs for transshipment down the river. The goods he’d purchased in St. Louis and here, and the men he’d hired back there and here, had cost him more than the entire available capital of Straus et Fils. And with everything riding on an investment as terrible as that, he had ridden the packet west so that he might examine every spoked wheel, every hickory or ash tongue, every watertight box, every wagon-sheet waterproofed with linseed oil, every fat and well-shod ox and mule.

He trusted Dance and Fitzhugh utterly, but they were new at aspects of all this, inexperienced in business, and certain facets of provisioning and selling would depend on him alone. He had to see, see with his own eyes, the whole of his investment; judge with his own seasoned grasp of human nature the quality of the new employees of the Rocky Mountain Company.

And there was still another final, overpowering, gripping reason for him to come upriver this far. Maxim and David. He could delay a little longer the wrenching loss of his two slim, thoughtful, adventuresome sons; one heading southwest, the other northwest, both into wild barbarous lands with dangers lurking at every hand. He did not know how he’d endure it, and wondered why he’d succumbed to their constant badgering, their demanding, their shining hopes. True, Dance needed a clerk; someone to read correspondence and keep the books and tally goods and sort prime robes from poor ones. Who better than his own David? God knows, the young man had danced through his studies, mastered four tongues and could understand a fifth, and had a business sense in his young head that delighted his father. But Maxim, Maxim, only sixteen, a stripling boy. If David could go, nothing less suited Maxim, and between them, his sons had worn him down. Even dear Clothilde, thirteen, had begged to go, at least for a season, but there he’d put his foot down firmly.

Not everything had gone smoothly. Jamie Dance’s idea of collecting osage orange bow wood had come too late, and they’d gathered only a few dozen suitable sticks bankside while the packet crew was fueling at the woodyards. These few were given to Fitzhugh because the wood was prized so highly up on the Yellowstone. And the wagons awaiting them at Independence were to be equipped with spare tongues of suitable hardwood, but his inspection revealed that none had been supplied. He’d uncovered a wheel with cracked felloes, too, and other defects. Three of the men engaged for the Mexican post failed to appear, and a search of the rough dramshops of Independence revealed no trace of them. No replacements could be found; it was already late in the shipping season, and those bound out the Santa Fe Trail had departed long since.

In spite of all that, the two outfits were assembled swiftly. It took only a day for the rest of the Yellowstone provisions to be loaded in the cramped hold of the
, and only one more for the Mexican outfit to be assembled and loaded into the giant wagons gathered at Westport, well up from the levee.

The first bad moment came at dawn, when LaBarge’s roustabouts were firing up the boilers, and heavy black smoke from the twin chimneys lowered down upon them through a gray fog that the sun would soon burn off. He and Yvonne had stood on the levee watching Fitzhugh’s men drive the bellowing oxen and whickering mules aboard and pen them. Maxim, his son, his flesh and blood, stood beside them, too excited to notice the grief etching the faces of his parents. But at last, when all was stowed and steam chuffed from the escapement above, Fitzhugh had limped over to Guy, given him a rough mountain embrace, just the sort of emotional hug that had always faintly embarrassed Guy, and said his goodbyes.

“Adieu, papa, maman,”
Maxim had bawled, his eyes bright. “See how well I’ll do!”

“Be careful!” Yvonne had cried, reaching for Maxim as he’d danced off. “Listen to Monsieur Fitzhugh!”

“Go with God, Maxim,” Guy had yelled at the skipping lad, feeling desolated.

Moments later the whistle shrilled, and deckhands hauled in the manila lines. A violent shudder shook the riverboat as the sidewheels cranked into water, and the boat edged from the bank, a writhing thing off to its doom in an unmapped, unknown land.

“Don’t let him go, Guy! Stop it!” she’d cried, grasping at his arm. “We’ll never see him again. My baby. He’s too young. Oh, why did you ever — “ She stopped suddenly. She’d started to accuse him, he knew.

He watched the riverboat churn up the slate-colored river into the morning fog, and vanish silently and mysteriously. About him, rough-dressed men and a handful of women turned off the levee and wandered up the bluff and back to Independence, a sprawl of log houses, frame stores, and a few brick buildings that were signs of permanence out there at the edge of the Indian country. He felt emptied; half his fortune riding the dangerous river; his youngest son plunging into a wild land.

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
10.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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