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Authors: Richard S. Wheeler

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BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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When this was done he picked up the kettle and walked right down the stage to the shore, as calmly as could be, and grinning all the while, as if thirty Indians didn’t have bows with nocked arrows in them. He seemed to know just what to do. He dipped a tin cup into the pot and handed it to the headman, a burly, mean-looking warrior named Crow Beak. Well,
M. Crow Beak drank and sputtered and gasped, and smiled, and gulped it all, right down, and quietly sat on the grass. M. Fitzhugh gave a cup to the next, and the next, and they all sputtered and gasped, and pretty soon they were all jabbering and laughing and making the signtalk with their fingers. M. Fitzhugh drank some himself. I shouldn’t say some. I should say two cups. Only he just got more and more quiet, unlike all the Yanktonai, and began to smile, and listen to them politely, like some Buddha. And pretty soon he turned around and yelled to M. LaBarge, back on board, that Crow’s Beak wanted us to have all the wood we wanted, forever, as a friendship gift from the Yanktonai.

you can bet that M. LaBarge wasted no time, and soon everyone — his hands, our engagés, and even I — spread out in the woods and began cutting trees, and hauling long logs back to the boat, sweating and cursing while M. Fitzhugh sipped that awful stuff and smiled. I think his leg stopped hurting and that is why he smiled. I can always tell when his leg hurts because his face shows it, but after two cups of mountain whiskey, his leg didn’t bother him at all. And so,
he saved the day, and kept us all from being hurt or killed, and the boat invaded, and all our goods down in the hold stolen away. He’s a trader, and he knew what to do. He didn’t want a fight, the way some of the passengers did, bragging they could whip any band of Yanktons any time.
we have a good man for our
I don’t have much experience, I know, but I could see it, see him smiling and brave and ignoring all those arrows. It cost us a few centime — he gave each Yanktonai a twist of tobacco before we left — but M. LaBarge said he’d reimburse the Buffalo Company, because this was part of the expense of running the packet.

Peu a peu
we had our wood, more than eighteen cords, but all in long logs that needed cutting, and most of it dry, too. It all took only three hours, through the middle of the day. And then M. LaBarge told M. Fitzhugh the hour had arrived, and the fire was burning and soon we’d have steam. And Brokenleg — forgive me for using the familiar form,
— got up, handed out the twists, gave Crow Beak a big bearhug, and walked back on board, while all the Yanktonai howled and bawled and waved and wobbled, happy as could be.

all this is a lesson you probably wish a young man of my age didn’t learn. I know your thoughts. But even if I’m not yet grown, I am trying to keep a wise head and listen and learn. You implored me not to take chances and to heed all warnings, and I am doing that,
I will be safe. Before you know it, I will come down the river to the board meeting next summer, and you will see a different son.

Next is Fort Pierre, three days up the river, and I am eager to see it. But first we will go around a giant horseshoe bend that will take hours for the boat to negotiate. It’s only a mile or so across at the neck, and passengers like to walk overland and wait for the boat to catch up. I’ve never seen a fur post, and I want to examine everything so I can learn and maybe improve. It is one of Chouteau’s posts, named for him, so we will see how they treat us, the Opposition.

Love to you and
maman. Shalom, Papa.


Brokenleg Fitzhugh hated to admit how much fear clawed his belly. They’d rounded a gentle bight and now Fort Pierre lay ahead, baking in a hot June sun on the west bank. He knew approximately what would happen at this proud trading post of the American Fur Company, and it sandpapered his nerves raw. He didn’t like fear, though he grudgingly acknowledged it had kept him alive a few times back in the beaver days when he and Jamie Dance snatched plews from under the noses of Bug’s Boys on the Three Forks. But this ritual that lay ahead unnerved him, and he thought he’d rather wrestle a grizzly again than endure it.

The blistering sun cooked the decks so hot he could feel the heat burn through his moccasins. Fort Pierre wobbled in the heat waves like a living thing across the water. The fierce summer sun had yellowed the grasses on the bluffs, except for the coulees and gulches, where the better-watered grasses obdurately remained green. Clustered about the fort were Sioux lodges of buffalo cow skin, their peaks and wind-ears blackened by smoke. The midday sun was too hard even for the hardy squaws to endure, and they had abandoned their robe-tanning until a milder hour, and lay within their lodges enjoying the occasional promise of cool that eddied under the rolled-up lodgecovers.

He stood in the shade of the boiler deck promenade, watching this island of civilization startling up from a grassy wild, a thing that didn’t belong here — any more than the fort he would soon occupy belonged on the confluence of the Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers. Two Stars and Stripes flew, one from each log blockhouse at opposite corners — a Yankee presence in an alien land. The log stockade appeared to be shaped in a perfect square, and he could see the peaked roofs of civilized and carpentered buildings within. This post was no rude log affair, but one painfully transported from downriver, and well settled after a decade of service and refinement. He liked the place: it had that quality of amiable welcome to tribesmen, combined with a business-like military bearing that announced flatly that it could deal death and pain to those who misbehaved. The fort made a statement without words.

He felt the packet settle into quiet waters, suddenly released from the turbulent power of the main channel, and at the same time heard muffled bells and a metronomic slowing of the great steam pistons that drove the gouging paddles.

“Your first gander at an upriver fur post,” he said to the youth beside him.

“I want to learn everything inside. Will ours be like it?”

“Some. I’ve got my ways, and American Fur has its ways. But fetch a look at how it works, Maxim.”

“But will they welcome us? I mean, we’re the Opposition.”

“Oh, I imagine. There’s a kind of rule out here that a post welcomes any white man and offers vittles and a bunk. I suppose it’s because there’s so few. Back in the beaver days, trappers’d drift in for a winter, and the fort’d make do. Buffler meat’s there for the asking, usually. Mostly, the booshways are as itchy for company as anyone can get  . . . out here where there’s none to be got.”

“You mean they want us?”

“Of course. Guests’re big doings. Most booshways, they’ll put out a spread if they’ve got it. By spring they’re out of most everything. By May or June, they’re desperate for coffee and sugar and airtights of vegetables.”

Maxim eyed him sharply. “The engagés told me that the company will hurt us any way it can. Even — bloodshed. How are you so sure that — “

“Wait and see. I don’t know who’s the trader here, but he’ll probably have a French name and a fair-enough smile. All but one. There’s one of the top AFC men I’d rather not tangle with.”

Maxim waited, obviously wanting a name, but Brokenleg didn’t see fit to supply it. Last he knew, Julius Hervey hunkered up on the Missouri somewhere. No man in the robe trade seethed with as much hatred, imagining slights and inventing grievances even while he rode roughshod over others, red and white alike. He’d killed men and brutalized others, and made a mocking game of it all, a sort of plaster god out beyond the reach of law, discipline, and ordinary decency. It would be something to watch out for.

“You’re a wise lad to be thinking about that, Maxim. Chouteau’s got his ways.”

“Is it safe, Mister Fitzhugh? Is it safe to land?”

The youth’s urgency struck Brokenleg. He selected his response carefully. “First, lad, call me Brokenleg or Robert, like any other man — “

“But the French are more formal, sir — “

“Whatever way you prefer, Maxim. No, it’s not safe. That’s something to learn about the mountains and the country here, up the river. Nothing’s safe. We’ll put in here, and maybe there’ll be trouble. All the time I trapped beaver and watched how the stick floats, I never felt safe. And the ones that did, lad — they went under.”

Maxim turned silent, watching the looming post soberly as the packet slid toward the levee. From the near blockhouse a boom erupted, followed by a puff of white, and a percussive aftershock.

“Mountain welcome. Six-pounder.”

“This isn’t the mountains.”

“That’s how it’s all called back here.”

A mob gathered at the levee, engagés, tribesmen in breechclouts, squaws in bright calicoes, bare-armed and some barefooted, scampering golden children. And out of the front gate, back from the river, a burly graying man running to fat, his white hair riding back upon his shoulders, made his gouty way down the soft naked slope.

Brokenleg grunted. “Ulysses Chardonne,” he muttered.

Maxim peered, uncertain what that meant.

“The booshway. Good enough trader,” he said. “And good company man,” he added tightly.

The escapement pipe of the
erupted, the steam shrilling the boat’s own welcome note before evaporating in the dry air. The paddles halted their labor like resting oxen, and the boat slid close to the bank. In a flurry, deckmen tossed hawsers to waiting hands on the bank, and the packet was made fast.

“Well, Maxim. Come along now. We’ll have us a little palaver with old Chardonne, and you’ll learn a few things — such as how much the fur company knows about what we’re doing. A lot. You’ll discover ol’ American Fur Company knows what we’ve got in the hold, where we’re going, and what tribes we’ll be trading with.”

“How can they know that?”

“Because on the upper Missouri — they’re God.”

mon ami
Fitzhugh, it is you!” bellowed Ulysses Chardonne as they stepped off the stage onto dusty ground. “Come along, come along. We will make the talk, eh?”

“You’re looking well, Ulysses,” Fitzhugh replied, limping as badly as the gout-tormented factor.

Chardonne grunted. “Neither of us is exactly, what is the precise word — new. In new condition.”

“Ulysses, this hyar stripling is Maxim Straus, Guy’s boy. Come to help me.”

“Oh, I know.” The jowly factor stared at Maxim. “The country’s not safe for a lad like you, well-educated, prepared for a life in finance. Maybe you should stay here, wait for the company boat to take you down.”

“Maxim can made up his own mind,” Fitzhugh said hastily.

They pierced through a gate in the looming stockade into an inner yard surrounded by frame and clapboard buildings of unpainted milled wood that had been hauled a vast distance upriver. Engagés’ barracks occupied one side; dining, kitchen and storage rooms the other. In the warehouse, robes had been gathered into bales of ten, and filled the air of the yard with a pleasant redolence. Before them stood Chardonne’s own house and offices, a peak-roofed structure that looked as if it had been ripped from the east somewhere and planted here.

No sooner had the
led them into an ornate parlor with red silk settees than an Indian woman — Sioux, Fitzhugh thought — emerged silently, carrying a tray with a decanter of brandy, and wide snifters. He could only guess at her relationship with Chardonne, but one thing was certain: he had an eye for beauty.

“Ah, a little something to make wet the throat on a day like this. We were resupplied three weeks ago when the company packet came in, and for a while, now, we’ll make a few luxuries. . . . Young master Maxim, would your father permit you some brandy, or shall I have Ix-ta-sah bring some tea?”

“I am permitted a few sips, M. Chardonne.”

smiled. “A French boy.”

Fitzhugh sipped from the proffered glass, and felt the fire scour his tonsils and clear his nose.

“And what is the news, my
bon ami
Brokenleg? It is the Opposition, yes? Tell me about it all. Here you bravely tackle M. Chouteau, and off to the south, you engagé Bent, St. Vrain. A penchant for bloody noses, I’d say.”

“Buffler robes ought to fetch more than beaver, Ulysses.”

“But the market, she is already flooded. What are they good for? Carriage robes. And how many of those can all these fur companies sell? What else? In Europe, they don’ like the buffalo, and like the fleece of the sheep, yes? And what of the rawhide. No one makes a decent shoe or boot from the buffalo. No one can make the tan so the leather’s just right, not too soft, not brittle. So — it is a great mystery, why you and M. Straus and that wildman Jamie Dance, you get together and do this crazy thing.”

Fitzhugh realized that the wheezing
had not wasted a minute, and would be getting to the point shortly. “That’s for Guy Straus to work out, Ulysses. I’m just the coon that exchanges a few gewgaws for robes.”

“Ah, and what makes you think you can offer what we can for the robes, or pay as little as we do for the tradegoods, eh?”

“I imagine we’ll give it a whirl.”

“Ha. Madness. The tradegoods disappear. The hides rot or get wet or bugs eat them. There are great calamities on the river. A tribe trades with you one day, and makes grief the next, he? It is not a game for little companies, but only giants that can absorb the losses, eh?”

“We’ll take our chances.”

“Ah, Fitzhugh, indeed you will. Do you trust the savages? Will they never strike when you are away from the post, out on the prairie somewhere, with a wagon of goods they want, or a wagon of robes you’ve traded for, plus a few horses, eh? They strike, and you die only once, and then what?”

“I suppose it’s plumb unsafe, Ulysses,” Fitzhugh said, thinking to help this little waltz along. He slid some of that fiery brandy down, to keep his whistle wet.

“I’ll tell you how to be safe,
bon ami.
I’ll tell you how to avoid the heartache, the loss, the awful feeling when the news comes that the packet, she is wrecked with all of a season’s returns on board, eh?” He leaned over, swilling the brandy around in his snifter. “M. Chouteau has authorized me to buy your entire stock of trading goods at cost plus ten percent. A true profit, a handsome profit, eh? And of course, retire from the business.”

BOOK: Rocky Mountain Company
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