Gateway to the Classics: Fur Trappers of the Old West by A. M. Anderson
Fur Trappers of the Old West by  A. M. Anderson


Jim Bridger — Mountain Man

A T FIRST the trappers did not believe Provot when he told them they were on the summit of South Pass. How could they be, they asked? How could they climb to the mountain top and not know it? They turned to Jim.

"I can't answer your questions," he said to them. "All I know is that we are on the summit and we have discovered the pass. "We—"

"No, not we," broke in Provot. "You, Jim, you discovered South Pass."

It may be difficult for anyone who has not crossed over the pass to understand why the trappers failed to know they were climbing to the mountain top. It may be even harder to understand when we remember that the pass is more than seven thousand feet above sea level.

For those who know the trail, however, it is easy to understand. The rise is so gradual that the steady upward climb is not realized until the flat mountain top is reached.

Jim made no boastful claims when he discovered the long-sought pass. Instead he was modest. He accepted the praises of his fellow trappers lightly.

"I don't deserve all the credit," said Jim. "I just happened to be in the lead."

"Well, I like that," laughed Provot. "You're my scout and I'm mighty particular who scouts for me. You didn't just happen to be in the lead."

"Yes, and the rest of us wanted to turn back," said a trapper.

"Well, all that's important now is that we are headed for the Green River Valley," said Jim. "I hope we won't be disappointed."

The men were not disappointed. Beautiful Green River Valley was a trapper's paradise. The river and the little creeks which flowed into it were rich in beaver. Game was plentiful and there was grass for the horses. The Snake, or Shoshone, Indians living in the valley did not molest them.

For more than a month the men trapped and explored. They wanted to stay longer, but they could not. They still had to make the long trip back to Henry's fort on the Big Horn before the winter snows made it impossible to travel. At first they planned to take their fur packs with them. They decided, however, since they would return to the valley in the spring, to leave their valuable furs in a cache.

A cache, or hiding place, was used to store goods and supplies of all kinds. A cache was usually a deep bottle-like hole in the ground.

To make a cache a thick circle of sod was first cut and carefully removed from the ground. The sod was saved and later used to plug the opening just as a cork or stopper is used for a bottle.

Then the hole was dug and lined with grass, leaves, sticks, the bark of trees, or with wild animal skins. The supplies were packed firmly into the hole and the sod carefully replaced.

The size of the hole depended upon the amount of supplies to be stored. Often a cache was more than six feet deep and from ten to twelve feet wide. The cache was lined to keep the supplies dry and in good condition for many months.

It was not very difficult to make a cache. But to remove all traces of it so the cache would not be found by wild animals, keen-eyed Indians, or by rival fur trappers was a tedious job.

No cover was used to hide the cache. A cover would only attract attention. The trick was to leave the ground looking exactly as it had been before the cache had been dug.

The earth dug from the hole had to be removed. Not even a handful must be left anywhere near the cache. It was a simple matter for the trappers to get rid of the earth because they always worked along a stream. They piled the earth on blankets and skins and threw it into the water where the current carried it away. The grass was brushed and smoothed by hand to erase all footprints. It was slow patient work. The job was not finished until all signs and traces of the cache were removed.

And then even the men who made the cache could not have found it later except for one reason. A cache was always dug near a landmark. It might be a high cliff, a giant old cottonwood tree, a hill, or some other mark easy to find. But whatever it was the trappers depended upon the landmark to guide them back to their cache.

Provot ordered Jim and six men to make the cache for the party. Jim was in charge. It took Jim and his men all one day to make the cache. When it was finished not a sign of the hiding place could be found. It was a perfect job. Only the landmark Jim had selected, a lone cottonwood growing near by, marked the cache.

When the cache was completed the trappers started on their long trip back to the Big Horn. Jim, mounted on Wasaka, was in the lead. The party had no trouble finding the pass nor in climbing its gentle western slopes to cross the Rockies. Then turning their horses northward the men headed for their winter fort.

On the way they trapped and explored. The days were now almost as cold as the frosty nights. Snowstorms and a biting north wind swept across the country. The men continued to trap, however, until ice blocked the streams and kept the beavers in their snug, brush-pile lodges. Unable to trap any longer the men hurried on to the Big Horn.

After days of steady travel, Jim sighted the little fort on the river. He rode back and reported to Provot. The captain called to his men. They cheered and urged their horses to greater speed.

"Bring them in, Jim," said Provot. He touched his horse lightly and raced on ahead.

Almost an hour later Jim and the party reached the fort. Major Henry and Provot were waiting beside the opened gate. Other trappers stood near by, eager to welcome the oncoming riders.

The major signaled for Jim to fall out of line. Jim guided Wasaka to one side and let the men ride on into the fort. He patted his horse and swung from the saddle.

Major Henry strode toward him. "Jim, you've done a real job," said the major.

"Thank you, sir," replied Jim grasping Henry's outstretched hand.

"Provot tells me that you deserve all the credit for discovering South Pass," smiled the major. "He also says you are the best scout he ever had."

"He's a fine captain," replied Jim. He paused and looked about. "What about the other trapping parties?" he asked. "Have they come in yet?"

"Bastian and Andrews are in with their men, but Tom's party is still out."

"I hope he gets in soon," said Jim. "A few more snowstorms will make it impossible to travel."

"That's true, but we needn't worry. Tom can take care of his party."

While Jim and Major Henry were talking, a dozen or more old-timers edged closer to them. The trappers waited quietly, but the minute the major left they grabbed Jim. They slapped him on the back and shook his hands. They shouted all kinds of greetings; "You old beaver," "You good-for-nothing scout," "You lop-eared prairie dog."

Jim glanced from man to man. In their eyes he saw the true meaning of their rough good humor. They were telling him that they accepted him and that he was one of them. He was—at last—a mountain man.

"Well, what do you have to say for yourself?" Bruce Bastian demanded.

"I—I," Jim tried to answer. He wanted to tell them that he was proud to be a mountain man and that at all times they could count on him.

"Can't you talk good old United States any more?" a man asked. "Or is the Crow language all you can understand since you discovered South Pass?"

"What about the sign language?" asked another.

Jim held his right thumb and forefinger up to form the letter "O." He touched them to his lips. He made several quick, short, up-and-down movements with his hand held close to his mouth.

"In case you don't know the sign," he said, "it means 'stop talk.' "

The men laughed and crowded around him, that is, all except Wolf Andrews. He had walked away and had joined a group of greenhorns. They paid no attention to him. They were watching Jim.

"Where are the Sublette boys?" asked Jim.

"They are out hunting," answered Bastian. "Why Henry sent those two laughing hyenas out to hunt I'll never know."

"We greenhorns made it," Jim said to himself. "We made it! Now we're all mountain men."

After Jim and the men had talked and joked for some time they went back to their work. Jim put Wasaka in the corral with the other horses. He hurried to help the trappers of his party unload the pack animals.

Jim was glad that his party had reached the fort. But he was worried about Tom. The days passed, some with blinding snowstorms, and still Tom and his men did not arrive. Jim became more and more anxious.

Then, at last one of Tom's trappers, on snowshoes, reached the fort. He brought Major Henry a letter from Tom.

"My men and I are all right," read the letter. "We tried to get to the fort, but our horses could not travel in the heavy snow. Luckily, some Crows asked us to spend the winter with them in their village. We promptly accepted their invitation. We will meet you on the Sweetwater in the spring.

"We had a good trapping season. Our fur packs are well hidden in a cache near this village. We had no serious Indian trouble except two fights which I could not avoid. We won both fights, and after that the Indians left us alone. Once we were almost attacked by Tall Bear and his Sioux braves. When he learned I was a friend of Jim Bridger he called off the attack. We had a feast instead. Tell Jim thanks for me.

"Jed Smith was attacked by a grizzly bear. He was badly wounded before the bear was killed. Jed is slowly improving.

"We have learned nothing about South Pass. I still hope to find it. Maybe the Crows will give me some information this winter."

Major Henry read the letter to the trappers. They were all glad to know that Tom and his party were safe. And Jim, no longer worried, went hunting with the Sublette boys.

The winter months passed quickly. The men had plenty to do. There was always equipment to be mended, buckskin clothes to be made, bullets to be molded, guard duty, hunting, exploring, and endless other jobs about the fort.

Whenever Jim had any free time he saddled Wasaka and rode off to explore the surrounding country. One day when he returned to the fort Wolf Andrews was waiting and called to him.

"Major Henry wants to see you," said Wolf coming nearer. "He's in his cabin. Here, I'll take your horse."

Jim's hold on Wasaka's bridle tightened. "I'll take care of my own horse," he replied riding on to the corral.

"What's this all about?" he asked himself. He was not thinking about why Major Henry wanted to see him. He was thinking about Wolf. It was the first time during the winter that the Indian fighter had spoken to him. "I don't like it," he added frowning a little. "I feel it means trouble."

Jim hurried to Major Henry's cabin. The major, seated behind a crude table, looked up from the map he was studying. "Sit down, Jim," he smiled pointing to a stool.

Jim sat down, hat in hand.

"I've been talking to my captains," began the major. "I hope to start the spring trapping in a week or two. Each party will trap by itself on the way to the Sweetwater where we will meet Tom. Then, with you in the lead, we'll push on to South Pass, cross the mountains, and head for the Green River Valley. Now those are my plans, but I want to talk to you about scouting. Provot, of course, wants you to scout for him, but Wolf Andrews wants you this time."

"Wolf Andrews!"

"Yes," Henry nodded, "and I want you to scout for him even though you two are not friendly." He paused. "General Ashley hired Wolf because Wolf was an experienced man and we needed him. But I have never completely trusted Wolf. He has a bad temper and sooner or later he will get into trouble. I want you with him because I can depend upon you. Will you do it for me, Jim?"

"I'll do it for you."

"Good. Now go and report to Wolf."

Jim left the cabin. He closed the door softly behind him. He saw the Indian fighter standing a short distance away watching him.

Jim squared his shoulders. "Wolf," he said striding forward, "Henry told me to report to you." "Are you scouting for me?" asked Wolf.

Jim nodded. "Yes, I am," he answered.

"Well, you may have scouted to suit Provot, but you'll carry out my orders on this trip. Do you understand?"

"I do."

"And no man in my party ever questions my orders. Do you understand that, too? I won't have—"

"Just a second, Wolf," broke in Jim. "Let's get this straight right now. I'll carry out your orders as long as they are for the good of the party. But I'm warning you not to try to get even with me at the expense of your men."

"What do you mean?" flashed Wolf.

"You know what I mean."

"You still don't trust me, do you?" Wolf laughed.

"Trust you!" exclaimed Jim. "You're right, I don't trust you, but I promised Major Henry to scout for you. I will do my best to protect your party."

1. What is a cache?

2. Tell how to make a cache.

3. Why did the trappers need a landmark when they made a cache?

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