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by Richard S. Wheeler
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: In 1841, St. Louis businessman Guy Strauss had sent his hopes, his son, and his money up the Missouri River to the Yellowstone, where he was opening a trading post under the command of a wild mountain man named Broken Leg Fitzhugh. Strauss knew the plan was fraught with danger. But he didn't know how many ways it could go wrong, or who would be the first to die. The Rocky Mountain Company had an enemy in a rival company, and Fitzhugh--fierce, profane, and proud--had one very deadly enemy of his own. For Strauss' son, Maxim, the fight for survival meant becoming a man. When bootleg alcohol is discovered on his own riverboat, Maxim takes a stand--against those who are intentionally fanning the flames of violence. With Maxim under siege, a father leaves his home in St. Louis--to save his son and his dream from a gathering storm of blood, betrayal and murder.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1992
eBookwise Release Date: March 2003
5 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [445 KB]
Reading time: 281-394 min.
There was still another matter to put before the partners. Guy Straus knew what their response would be, and he could override it if he chose. He owned two-thirds of the Rocky Mountain Company while Brokenleg Fitzhugh and Jamie Dance each owned a sixth.
This first annual meeting of the buffalo company, as they commonly called it, had yielded no surprises. Up on the Yellowstone, Brokenleg had weathered fierce competition from the American Fur Company and had broken even. Out on the Arkansas, Jamie Dance had managed a lively trade with the Comanches for robes, assuring an overall profit for the 1841-42 robe season.
Guy peered around the beeswaxed table in the salon of Straus et Fils, still astonished at the changes in his sons who'd been out at the posts; and in the rock-hard strength of his weathered partners, a pair of mountain men who'd turned themselves into buffalo-robe traders.
Sitting decorously along the walls were their wives, Teresa Maria Dance, looking lush and vibrant; and Little Whirlwind, as angular and haughty and unapproachable as ever. Guy felt a vast affection for them both, though only a year ago he'd wondered whether they might be serious liabilities. In a way they still were. Little Whirlwind of the Cheyennes -- Fitzhugh called her Dust Devil -- breathed fire against other tribes. And Teresa Maria had already shown Guy she could scold with the worst of them.
"Oh, your reports hearten me. Brokenleg, when all that bad news filtered down the Missouri I thought the company was finished before it had traded a robe up there. I don't know how, but you held off the Chouteau interests . . . And Jamie, your courage at Fort Dance -- yours and that of my son David" -- Guy saw his son stare at the burnished table -- "fought off the Bents, the Comancheros, and the Mexican government, and won us a solid profit."
The thing that struck Guy was that they were all strangers. He'd sent two soft, inexperienced sons out upon the wilderness, and now, a year later, they were tanned veterans at ages seventeen and nineteen. They'd become strangers -- as if they'd seen sights that Guy had only experienced through the whiskey gossip of fur and robe men at the Planters House. Not even his partners seemed the same: they'd come to him as beaver men, free trappers out of luck in the Rockies. Now, the passage of a year had turned them into hard, discerning managers of themselves and others.
"I should tell you that we have old Pierre le cadet worried down there in his lair on the levee. American Fur eats competitors. So do the Bents, I might add. You've both told me of buy-out offers. They must have been a temptation to you both -- when things ran against you. Well... Brokenleg, you've got Pierre in a lather."
Guy unfolded the letter that lay before him, written in Pierre Chouteau's own crabbed hand, in French -- a not subtle appeal to Guy, over the heads of Guy's English-speaking partners. It was dated just the day before, June 1, 1842, St. Louis. Timed perfectly, Guy thought.
"I will translate this as I go along," Guy said, donning his gold-rimmed spectacles. Brokenleg could read and write but Jamie couldn't, and Guy made a point of reading everything aloud at the annual meetings.
"My dear Guy. Chouteau and Company, along with Bent, St. Vrain and Company, propose to buy your interests in the Rocky Mountain Company, along with those of your partners. We propose to pay a fair mountain price for existing inventory at the posts, as well as livestock, wagons, and furnishings. In addition we propose to pay two thousand for each post, and an additional thousand dollars, guaranteeing you and your partners a profit, to be divided as you choose."
Guy interrupted the reading. "That's an offer of fourteen or fifteen thousand by my calculations. I imagine after deducting what's owed Straus et Fils, we three partners would share four or five thousand -- on top of the profits we've made this year."
"I ain't buyable," muttered Brokenleg. He glared at Guy.
Jamie said nothing but listened closely. That was the difference between them, Guy thought.
"We are also willing to buy your interests alone, Guy, and assume a majority partnership in the company. We assume your colleagues would be delighted to have a new senior partner if you should decide to protect your investment."
"Haw!" exclaimed Brokenleg.
Guy smiled. "There's more detail -- time limitations and so on. But I would like your opinions about this much of it. I'll ask you first, Brokenleg."
The mountaineer adjusted his bad leg and glared. As always when he was trapped in St. Louis he looked like a keg of powder ready to explode. "Old Cadet, he's fixin' to drive a wedge betwixt you and us. I mean, ah, there's you, friends of him and all -- and there's Jamie and me."
"He say anything about what he's gonna do if he buys two-thirds of the Rocky Mountain Company? Him and the Bents, are they fixin' to boot us out?" asked Jamie.
A good question, thought Guy. "No, he says nothing of his intentions. That's for you two to infer."
"You'd git out clean. I mean, Straus et Fils. He's fixin to give you a get-out profit."
Guy nodded again. "A rather good one."
"It ain't us that needs askin' then; it's you," muttered Brokenleg. "You gonna sell out from under us?"
"Would you like me to?"
Brokenleg Fitzhugh scrambled to his feet, a clumsy act because of his locked knee. "I reckon' this is standing-up talk so I'll deal on my feet. I didn't go clear to the Yellowstone and work myself to the bone and git myself almost kilt half a dozen times to quit. And neither did your Max here. We got buy-out offers all along -- and damn, we fought instead, and we got us robes in aplenty and built a whole post -- just a handful of us. I don't want to hear quit-talk. Not one more word."
That was vintage Brokenleg, Guy thought. He had picked his men well. He turned to Jamie.
Dance didn't rise; in fact, talking was his excuse to slouch deeper in the gilded conference chair until he was nearly horizontal, his legs poking out from across the table. Instead, Dance grinned. "We shore must be raisin' hell -- pardon, ma'am -- raisin' grief with their plans. I got us a mess o' prime robes, David hyar and me, and I plan to get a mess more right out from under the noses of them Bents and half the officials of Mexico."
Guy knew his sons would enthusiastically back the partners. A year ago they wouldn't have. But maybe they'd waver, even as Guy himself wavered, if they knew the rest. Guy found the buy-out a great temptation, a chance to clear a profit on this shaky adventure and return to the conservative financial practices that had been the hallmark of Straus et Fils for decades.
"There's more," Guy said blandly, adjusting his spectacles. "You filled us with admiration -- this is Chouteau again -- with admiration for your diligent efforts in the field. It took great skills and planning and courage on the part of your young men. But will it happen again? Who knows what the robe trade will bring? This year's profit could become next year's disaster. For our part we will compete by whatever means. You must let us know of your decision before your resupply goes out to the posts."
Guy waited for that to sink in. He wasn't even sure if his partners understood Pierre Chouteau's Aesopian language. Both Brokenleg and Jamie stared at him, not seeing much gravity in it. But David spoke up. How that young man, so lean and adult, startled Guy.
"It's a threat, isn't it, Papa? He's saying more than is on paper."
"That's correct, David."
"Hey's saying that we've got to sell out or face -- bad things. That's been the rule in the fur trade -- erase the opposition."
David had a keen analytical mind, Guy thought.
"You gonna let threats whip us?" muttered Brokenleg, who was still standing.
"Threats become reality when the Chouteaus want them to be, Brokenleg," said Guy gently. "You know them all. I don't need to list the way property and lives can be destroyed in the wilderness."
"They sure fought back in the beaver days, but Bridger and Fitzpatrick and the Sublettes -- they fought back and won."
"For a while. In the end they lost, Brokenleg. American Fur -- Pratte and Chouteau -- absorbed them all. Every one, except the Bents in the south. You might ask yourselves how that happened."
"We expected the old divil to try," persisted Brokenleg. "He tried last year and got whupped."
"Pierre Chouteau is a man who profits from his mistakes," Guy said. "Especially the mistake of underestimating the competition."
They argued it back and forth, with his sons hesitant to take sides. And the more they talked the more Brokenleg hardened in his belief that the company should reject the offer. Guy wasn't so sure. Jamie slowly sided with Brokenleg. He wanted another crack at the Comanche trade and a crack at the tribes the Bents thought were in their pocket.
In the end, Guy conceded. Actually he felt trapped. He couldn't quite bring himself to oppose two fierce mountain men who wanted to lick the two most powerful fur companies in North America.
"Well then, we'll try for another profit," he said wearily, filled with foreboding. * * *
The Trapper, captained by Joseph Sire and piloted by Black Dave Desiree, whaled up the Missouri for the second time that year. The first voyage had departed from St. Louis March 27, carrying the resupply of the American Fur Company, destined for Forts Pierre and Union. It had sailed downriver a few weeks later bearing the returns -- baled buffalo robes and pelts -- of both Chouteau's American Fur and the new Rocky Mountain Company as well. And on board were Brokenleg, Little Whirlwind, and Maxim Straus.
Now it was flailing the Missouri again, this time on the second (or June) rise, and carrying the resupply for the Rocky Mountain Company, which it would deposit at the foot of Wolf Rapids on the Yellowstone, the practical end of navigation unless the river ran very high -- which it didn't. From there, Fitzhugh's engages would wagon and keelboat the resupply to the company's little post at the Big Horn.
Brokenleg chafed at the delay. His giant rival would have its goods shelved and be trading weeks ahead of the buffalo company, but there was no help for it. Their annual meeting was delicately positioned to allow Jamie Dance to get in from New Mexico, which he could do only when the grass was up. It hurt the northern trade and endangered the resupply because the treacherous river dropped rapidly after the mountain melt-off and its upper reaches would no longer be navigable by mid-July.
Today, Sires told him, they'd reach Bellevue, and that was good news. Around Bellevue something began to change not only in the river but in himself. Below Bellevue the riverbanks were lined solidly with hardwoods, and the trees suffocated him until he could barely breathe. Down in steamy St. Louis he had to hold himself in like a caged creature, his mountain spirit wrestling with people, buildings, dampness, traffic, manners -- not to mention coping with people like Guy and his family, Jamie and his, and that raft of slaves. It always made him crazy, like being assaulted by a whole hive of wasps at once. That was true of Dust Devil, too. She stood beside him on the hurricane deck high above the water, looking glad.
Near Bellevue the trees thinned and the air dried and became more transparent. The steam of the southern river gave way to dry heat. The banks no longer crowded the river. The Missouri flowed through long stretches of prairie, open country where a man could see to tomorrow, and the grass pinned the trees to dense copses in low flats or cedar-choked islands. For Fitzhugh it was like freedom; jail bars falling. Soon they'd see buffalo. They'd long since seen the last vestige of civilization, the last farm, the last shack, so that the land seemed clean and pure, and as joyous as a rendezvous wedding. In St. Louis he'd survived on spirits, numbing his senses each day just to endure. He didn't need spirits so much here; only now and then when his bum leg tortured him, or he got the itch.
At Bellevue, too, they'd face their last hurdle. The Indian Agent there performed the final U.S. Government inspection of the packet, looking in particular for contraband spirits. At Fort Leavenworth the army inspected each packet, but leniently, with a knowing appreciation of the way the fur trade worked. Alcohol lubricated the business and no acts of Congress could prevent the passage of spirits up the river. There was rarely trouble at Leavenworth. In the days when General William Clark was Indian commissioner he gave the fur companies generous permits for the legal boatmen's ration. And the lieutenants at Leavenworth who poked and probed the mountain of cargo in the shallow holds never bothered to look closely at the compact rundlets marked turpentine or vinegar or lamp oil.
Still, they'd been careful. Not until well above Bellevue, at a certain wooding lot, would the Rocky Mountain Company's annual supply of two-hundred proof ardent spirits be boarded, along with several cords of dried cottonwood to fire the boiler. No company could afford to lose its license. Even Chouteau's giant company had once come close when a rival had tattled, and only the intervention of that friend of western men, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, had allayed disaster. Fitzhugh had six thirty-gallon casks awaiting upriver, carried there by mulepack at considerable cost to the company. The very thought of it built a joyous dry in his throat.
"Grass," he said to Little Whirlwind.
"Home," she replied. "The land of the buffalo."
She'd been as miserable in St. Louis as he, pulling into herself and glaring at the white man's world with ill-concealed scorn. She'd refused to don the clothing of white women, no matter that St. Louis summer was steamy and leather was clammy to the touch there. Instead, as an act of tribal pride, she'd adorned herself in the most elaborate ceremonial dress of her Cheyenne people, wearing velvety bleached-white doeskin fringed at the hem and sleeves; calf-high moccasins, elaborately beaded; and a heavy bone necklace. She'd worn her sleek jet hair in braids and wrapped each braid in white rabbit fur and garlanded it with a bow of red ribbon. And then, just to defy the customs of the whites, she'd streaked her forehead with vermilion, as if to announce that she was Cheyenne, and the Cheyenne were a finer people than any she set eyes upon in that filthy city.
Now she stood beside him feeling the throb of the twin steam pistons and hearing the thrash and rumble of the sidewheels of The Trapper as it fought the relentless river. But her face had softened, he thought. He knew why: the grass. The prairie, with its promise of liberty, running unfenced to distant horizons where her Cheyenne people lived and hunted and worshipped their everywhere-god, Maheo. And soon, the sacred buffalo, the commissary of her people. Her face would soften again some time soon when they spotted their first buffalo.
They passed the confluence of the Platte, that shallow flow out of the Rockies far west, and Fitzhugh's mind leapt up that river to the beaver camps and rendezvous he'd know at the end of that highway. Then he heard the clang of bells and the muffled sound of voices erupting from the speaking tube that connected the pilothouse atop the texas to the engine room. The packet slowed and began slewing in the current. Ahead, around a bight, would be Bellevue and after that -- freedom.
Even as the duckbilled prow of the packet slid toward the levee a small crowd of Otos and Omahas collected there, running down the steep paths to the water's edge. For years Bellevue had been run as a trading post for American Fur by Peter Sarpy. The comfortable post was still a trading center, but it had a new resident as well, the U.S. Indian Agent for the Omahas and other local tribes -- the Reverend Mr. Foster Gillian, a portly divine of the Congregational Church. It had become Indian Bureau policy to appoint ministers as Indian Agents, supposing civilizing good would come of it. Brokenleg hawked up some spit and spat. He had his notions about all that.
From up on the hurricane deck Brokenleg eyed the fat cleric in his black clawhammer frock coat and silk top hat. The man was teetotal. And worse, he'd been imposing his morals on tribesmen until they brimmed with resentments, turning a happy, fruitful trading post into a seething mass of hatreds. Still, this would take all of twenty minutes and they'd be on their way upriver. Below, on the main deck, a motley mob of deck passengers, ruffians and mountain men mostly, swarmed to the rail. Brokenleg hardly knew any of them -- the old beaver men, his rendezvous pals, had mostly vanished into some void. Oh, where had all them coons gone? Men he drank with, trapped icy streams with, told tall tales with through a wintry night? The Stony Mountains had become as silent as a trapped-out creek.
Deck hands lowered the stage and a welter of men boiled off the packet to stretch their legs and explore the loveliest of all the Missouri River fur posts. After that exodus the reverend proceeded forth, as stately as a whale, accompanied by a horde of factotums, mostly breeds. Brokenleg decided he'd better head down to the main deck even though descending the companionways was torture for a man with a leg welded straight at the knee by an old injury.
But Captain Sire was down there to greet the agent, and young Maxim as well; the boat and the company were represented, so he didn't hurry. At length, after some babble, the deckhands opened the hatch and the Reverend Foster Gillian lowered his portly self down the ladder, a glassed candle-lantern in hand. Maxim accompanied him; no one else bothered. By the time Brokenleg limped up, the hold had swallowed the reverend.
Down there, Brokenleg knew, Maxim would steer the man along the two aisles through inky blackness, warning him not to bring the lantern close to casks of gunpowder, occasionally shifting crates and bales of trade goods to let the inspector examine what lay beneath. That had been young Maxim's duty from the start; he kept the books, did the clerking, checked the cargo against theft each day.
Nearby, Mrs. Gillian awaited under a white parasol, respectably isolated on the deck by cowed passengers. Brokenleg did not introduce himself. Something about Mrs. Gillian's manner forbade it. He wondered how she treated the red men in her husband's charge. He heard the scuff and scrape of shifting cargo below and knew Maxim was being put through a workout. And then he detected rising voices.
Maxim's head bobbed up at the hatch, looking worried. "We need two deck hands," he said, shooting an unhappy look at Brokenleg.
The mate sent down two deckhands, and in short order three rundlets were hoisted to the main deck looking like fat felons, followed by the lumbering bulk of the minister, who was helped out upon the planking, and stood puffing after his exertion up the ladder.
He had a bung starter in hand and proceeded to twist it into wood until he was able to extract the plug, which taxed his muscles to their limit. Then he bent his portly frame until his nose probed the hole, and sniffed.
"Vinegar indeed," he wheezed. "I smell foul spirits."
Copyright © 1992 by Richard S. Wheeler