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Upon these people Guy Straus was betting everything he possessed. And more: everything he could borrow. From the beginning, Yvonne had been the Cassandra, begging him not to do it. But he was doing it. On its surface, the Rocky Mountain Company had seemed much too risky. Actually, he'd concluded, it was opportunity, and the difference between catastrophe and success lay in those who had joined him in the dark, burnished salon of Straus et Fils, on Chestnut Street. A fortune awaited those who knew how to trade for buffalo robes, but it took the right men to do it. Rough men like these, and their wives, gathered here to create a company.
One of those men, who would run the northern post on the Yellowstone, stood across the room, favoring his bad leg and looking acutely uncomfortable. He glared about with hawkeyes, from behind a carrot-colored beard, saying absolutely nothing and missing nothing.
The other, the brown-haired toothpick of a man who would run the southern post, slouched comfortably near the sideboard and the sweets, absolutely at home in any place, with anyone. But Guy knew his amiability could be deceptive, and that this one, in danger, could explode like a howitzer full of grape shot.
Each of them had spent fourteen years in the mountains, a thought that comforted Guy. The success of the Rocky Mountain Company depended on the wariness and experience of these two. And their beautiful dusky wives.
It seemed the right moment, something to be seized or lost and not likely to appear again. The beaver trade had died. John Jacob Astor had seen it coming, watched the silk top hat come into vogue in Europe, driving out the heavier onesmade of beaver felt, and had sold out. Pratte and Chouteau, here in St. Louis, had bought his Upper Missouri Outfit, and Chouteau was now doing a modest trade in buffalo robes with distant tribesmen. And far out the Santa Fe trail, on the rim of Mexico, Bent, St. Vrain survived as an outfitter for the traffic on the trail, trading for a few robes on the side. Yes, there was opportunity, he thought, for a company dealing in robes.
On this May 15, 1841, the grass was greening on the prairies to the west and the muscular Missouri was rising toward its June crest far to the north. The date was reckoned by their calendar, that of his two partners and one of their wives. It was Yvonne's as well. His calendar was more ancient. The other woman present in the salon reckoned time by winters, each with its own name, each committed to memory by old men. But it was not the dates, but the times that mattered, and the times were as good as they would become.
Neither of his partners -- they weren't actually partners yet, but would be in a few minutes -- looked as if he belonged in these burnished offices that Guy Straus had shaped to his elegant tastes. If he'd had the slightest suspicion that they and their wives were comfortable here among these amenities, he would have chosen not to do business with them. This would be a new business, actually, but a logical outgrowth of the business Straus et Fils had been doing in rude St. Louis since 1795. His parents had arrived then, from Paris, a whisker ahead of the guillotine, condemned for the sins of moderation and past acquaintance with royal finance. Up until now, Straus et Fils had been a house of arbitrageurs and brokers, trading the unruly coin of the frontier -- pesos, francs, reals, dollars, cents, pounds, ducats -- for something else, always for a small fee. It had expanded into commodity brokering as well -- dollars for prime beaver plews, or Witney trading blankets for wolf pelts or Crow elkskins, or whatever else rough unlettered men floated down the endless mysterious river out of uncharted lands across a continent. A perfect prelude, he thought, for what would come.
For these unusual skills, as well as a staggering investment, he would own two-thirds of the Rocky Mountain Company, as they all had started to call the new firm of Dance, Fitzhugh and Straus. That was exactly the percentage kept by Pierre Chouteau Jr. -- le cadet -- of his giant Upper Missouri Outfit, the rest going to his brilliant managers out at the posts. A good model, Guy thought. Already he had invested in tradegoods -- brass kettles, fishhooks, hoop iron, fusils, hatchets and axes, blankets, awls, bolts of bright tradecloth, traps, beads of every rainbow color, gay ribbons, tin mirrors -- and another item that slid delicately from mind, as if the thinking of it would alert General Clark to its presence, and jeopardize their new trading license and two thousand dollar bond. The pure grain spirits were already en route by back trails to their destinations.
Nor was that the end of his investments. Among his purchases were a dozen Conestogas in fine condition, yoke and harness for them, oxen to draw them, and equipage for the trading post that would be built in Mexico, perhaps on the Purgatoire River, near Bent's Fort. More costly still was the chartering of the Platte from Captain Joseph La-Barge, the only opposition steamer available to carry tradegoods up the Missouri to the Yellowstone, and as far up that unnavigated tributary as the draft of the steamer would permit. And not even that was the end of it, for in a few hours he'd be paying wages to thirty men, mostly French engagés.
Yvonne stared at him stiffly from an uncandled corner of the salon, anxiety written upon her olive features and downturned soft lips. It was not that she disapproved, he thought, but that visions of failure and bankruptcy and debt and grinding poverty terrorized her. But that would not happen, and the rough men and barbarous women she viewed with such dread were his assets, as capable as any on earth of turning that frightful outlay into untold riches.
His slave, Gregoire, of bituminous flesh and New Orleans breeding, served chocolate-hued chicory-coffee to them all in priestly fashion, ritually pouring from silver service into Haviland teacups. Guy Straus watched Gregoire bestow a filled cup nested in its saucer to Robert Fitzhugh and his wife Little Whirlwind, a name he had amusingly converted to Dust Devil. Guy Straus wondered, idly, whether either could hold a cup and saucer properly. Indeed, he wondered whether Fitzhugh would survive the afternoon in these civilized confines. He had the look about him of a keg of black powder with a hissing fuse. He had not been out of the mountains for eleven years. No one called him Robert. He had been Brokenleg in the mountains, and indeed Brokenleg here. His left knee no longer flexed, and his leg stood rigid from hip to ankle as a result of an ancient folly when Fitzhugh's world was young and green. Guy Straus smiled. He knew his man.
Still . . . Brokenleg Fitzhugh had his weaknesses, Guy thought uneasily, his mind turning to those casks of grain spirits being carried on six packmules far to the west of the frowning American army at Fort Leavenworth. And yet another weakness too, he thought, his eye upon the comely young Cheyenne bride standing beside him in velvety white-chalked doeskin that clung deliciously to her slim figure. In a minute, Fitzhugh would own one sixth of the Rocky Mountain Company. But just now, the six-foot carrot-haired, amber-bearded scarecrow looked like he was about to snap the saucer in two.
Gregoire administered his sacraments to the other partner in this enterprise, Jamie Dance, who lounged lazily in the bay of a vaulting window that lit the salon and opened on Chestnut Street. The man stood loose as a cat, his every gesture a minimal expenditure of energy. His very tongue was as lazy as the rest of him, so that he drawled out his words in a soft slur. But there was more to Jamie Dance than his aversion to work. Among the free trappers in the mountains he'd become a legend. He always showed up at a rendezvous, or trading posts, with more beaver plews than anyone else, even though few of these were the skins of animals he'd caught himself. Not unless he was utterly desperate did Jamie Dance bait his traps, plant them in icy streams, haul beaver out of cold waters, skin, flesh and dry the plews. Instead, he purchased quantities of gewgaws from traders each year, along with fresh decks of cards and a few jugs of spirits, and then rode into the wilderness equipped with the means to allow others to do his work for him. He was, in fact, a born trader, who would go from village to village among the Indians, bartering away gunpowder, mirrors, ribbons, and sometimes a furtive cup of grain spirits, in exchange for heaps of valuable furs. And among his trapper colleagues, he employed his deck of cards, playing Euchre or Old Sledge, and achieving the same result.
Of his two partners, Guy thought, lazy Jamie Dance might prove to be the more productive -- if he could stay out of trouble, which gathered about Jamie like the flies of summer. And no trouble haunted the new company so much as the one surrounding the new Mrs. Dance, until recently Teresa Maria Antonia Juanita Obregon, daughter of the alcalde of Taos, Juan Santamaria Obregon y Castillas, and his wife Luz. Guy could understand the elopement perfectly: before him stood a woman who dazzled the eye, a wild fiery thing, slender and vivacious, with flashing eyes and tawny flesh and buxom chest, who radiated energy even as Jamie seemed to absorb it. It had been a scandal, and it might keep the Rocky Mountain Company from obtaining the Mexican trading license it needed, especially if the company's southern rivals William Bent or Ceran St. Vrain applied pressure in Santa Fe.
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?
Copyright © 1991 by Richard S. Wheeler