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


Headed for the Wilderness

Y OUNG Jim Bridger shouldered his rifle and started down a street leading to the river. The long fringe on his buckskin clothes flapped softly as he strode along. His moccasins made no sound on the wooden sidewalk.

The sun was just rising over the little frontier town of St. Louis. Even at this early hour most of the stores and trading posts were already open.

As Jim passed a trading post a man called, "Hey, young fellow, are you heading west this morning with Ashley and Henry?"

"Yes, I am," replied Jim. "I've signed up to trap for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company."

"Good luck and look out for the Indians."

"The Indians won't get my hair," laughed Jim,

waving his rifle. He strode on whistling.

Near the river Jim stopped in front of a gun shop. A weather-beaten sign over the open door swung back and forth in the April breeze.

Inside the shop an old man was seated at a workman's bench. He was mending a gun. Without looking up he said, "Come in, Jim."

"Good morning, Old John," greeted Jim as he entered the shop. "How did you know I was coming down the street?"

"Your whistling is always a little off key." Old John laughed, but his faded blue eyes had a merry twinkle. "Well, Jim, this is your big day," he added. "Turn around and let me see how the clothes we made fit you."

Jim laughed and tossed his head. His long, dark hair fell back over his shoulders. His buckskin clothes did not fit very well, but Jim's pride in his new outfit made Old John smile.

Old John studied Jim and admired the easy grace of his quick movements. Jim was only eighteen years old, but he was tall, well over six feet. He was slim, strong, and straight as an arrow. His clear gray eyes were keen and searching.

"What kind of knife is that you have in your belt?" Old John asked. "It doesn't look like a strong one to me. Where did you get it?"

"I bought it at a trading post," answered Jim. "It isn't a very good one, but it is the best I could afford to buy."

Old John rose from his bench and walked slowly across the shop to a chest of drawers. He unlocked a drawer and opened it. He held up a trapper's knife.

"An Indian or a grizzly bear isn't going to wait for you to afford a good knife," he said. "Here, take this one."

"I can't take it," protested Jim. "You have done too much for me already."

"Take it, Jim. I want you to have it."

Jim looked at the old man for a minute. Then he reached out and took the knife. "Thank you, Old John," he said simply.

Jim ran his fingers along the keen blade of steel and over the sturdy, wooden handle. "Why, it's a Green River knife!" he exclaimed. "That's the best knife money can buy."

"Yes, it is," agreed Old John. "It's named after a river somewhere in the West. Only a few white men have seen the river. They say it flows through a beautiful valley. Maybe some day you will see the Green River Valley and—"

"Maybe I'll see rivers and valleys no other white man has ever seen before," broke in Jim. "And maybe I'll explore lands that even the Indians have not explored. That's why I want to be a trapper, Old John. I don't want to spend my life working in a blacksmith shop. I don't want to listen to the adventures of other men. I want to see the West myself. I want to live my own adventures."

"Of course you do, Jim. I wish I were going with you." Old John sighed. "You have a whole life of adventure ahead of you. Here I am—old, feeble, tied to a workman's bench—and I used to be a fur trapper."

"Then you still think I was right in giving up my job?"

"I certainly do! This is your chance to become a fur trapper—a mountain man. There is nothing like it in all the world. You'll starve and freeze and fight Indians and you'll love it."

"I know I will," said Jim.

"Are you going up the river on the keelboats," asked Old John, "or are you riding with the men of the land party?"

"I'll be on one of the keelboats. So will Tom Fitzpatrick. He's waiting for me on the river front."

"I'm glad you will be with Tom. He's a fine young man. He's only a few years older than you, but he has had some experience as a trapper. I hear he's a good one. The men speak well of him."

As they were talking a rough-looking man entered the shop. In a loud voice he ordered, "Old John, mend my gun at once!"

Old John examined the gun and said, "I can mend it, but you will have to wait."

"I want it done now!"

"I'm working on a trapper's gun. I must have it ready for him in an hour. Why don't you take it to the shop across the street?"

"I told you to mend my gun. Do you understand?"

"Yes, I understand, but I can't do it now."

"Maybe this will get you started." The man slapped Old John across the face. "Now get busy!"

Jim, standing a short distance away, stepped quickly to Old John and took the gun from him. Turning to the man he said, "Old John told you to take your gun to another shop. Now take it and get out!"

"Stay out of this, kid," sneered the man.

"I said, 'Get out!' "

"Jim!" warned Old John, "he's reaching for his knife."

Before the man could strike, Jim grabbed him by the arm and twisted it. The knife fell to the floor. With a swift kick Jim sent it across the floor and out through the open door.

"Now get out!" said Jim.

"I'll get you for this!" the man called back over his shoulder.

Jim made no reply.

"You shouldn't have done that, Jim," said Old John. "He will get even with you."

"I'm not afraid of him," laughed Jim, "and I'm leaving St. Louis anyway."

"Don't you know who he is?"

"No, Old John, and I don't care who he is."

"Jim, that was Wolf Andrews."

"Wolf Andrews, the Indian fighter?"

"Yes, and he is going with Ashley. General Ashley doesn't like Wolf Andrews. But Wolf is an expert trapper and Indian fighter. Such men are hard to find, so Ashley had to sign him up for this trip. Watch out for him!"

"Don't worry. I can take care of myself." Jim held out his hand. "Good-by, Old John. You have been like a father to me. I'll never forget you. Thanks for everything."

"I don't want any thanks. But there is one thing I do ask of you, Jim. Be a man—a real man. That's all. Good-by, son."

A few minutes later Jim was on the river front.

The river landing was lined with boats of every kind used on the Mississippi and other western rivers and streams. Light Indian canoes tossed up and down in the water next to the clumsy, but strongly built, flatboats. Heavy barges lay beside dugouts hollowed out of big trees. Several steamboats were tied to the pier. They were the newest boats on the Mississippi and men always crowded around them.

Most of the boats, however, were the long, graceful keelboats. They were about eighty feet long and eighteen feet wide. They were popular because they were sturdy, but lightly built. Even when heavily loaded they floated high in the water. They could be poled up the rivers. But when the water was too deep, a land party had to pull the boats with a long cordelle, or towing rope. When the wind was favorable, sails could be used.

A group of men were gathered near the spot where Ashley's keelboats were tied to the landing. Jim looked about for Tom. He recognized his tall, black-haired friend and hurried forward.

"Hello, Tom!" he called.

Tom waved his big, black felt hat. "Hello, Jim!" he answered. There was a touch of Irish laughter in his strong voice.

"Are you ready to leave?" he asked as Jim joined him.

"I'm ready," Jim replied.

Shortly after sunrise the people of the little frontier town began coming down to the river. Young mothers, with babies in their arms, came with their trapper husbands. Children ran about playing and enjoying the excitement of the crowd. The women were quiet, trying to hide their fears. They knew the West was a wilderness, a land of Indians and sudden death.

"Here they come!" a man shouted.

General William Ashley, a handsome, commanding man, and his able partner of the new fur company, Major Andrew Henry, waved their hats to the crowd. The two buckskin-clad men hurried up the gangplank of the leading keelboat and disappeared into the cabin.

Jim, Tom, and twenty-two other men were ordered to board the keelboat. Each man was-given an iron-tipped pole about twenty feet long. The men were told to take their places, half on one side and half on the opposite side of the boat. Jim and Tom hurried down the narrow catwalk on the boat to their places.

"Set poles!" the keelboat captain shouted.

Each man dipped his pole into the muddy water and pushed the iron-tipped end firmly into the river bottom. Then holding the pole against one shoulder he braced himself by placing his feet against the cleats, or strips of wood, nailed to the catwalk.

"Down on your poles!"

Pushing on his pole each man slowly walked to the stern of the boat. Cleat by cleat he made his way along the catwalk straining his muscles with every step. Slowly—slowly the boat slipped from the landing.

When a man reached the stern of the boat, he pulled his pole from the water and ran forward to the head of the line. Then he reset his pole against the river bottom. Again he braced himself and again step by step he walked to the stern.

With twenty-four polers on a keelboat there were eighteen men pushing while six men were hurrying from the stern to the head of the line.

The land party of fifty men guided their horses along the river bank. They were ready to tow a boat if it ran onto a sand bar, a snag, or when the water was too deep.

Jim looked back at the second keelboat just heading upstream. "We're on our way," he said to himself. "At last I'm going to see the West."

Jim, Tom, and the other polers were all powerfully built men and they were used to hard work. But poling a keelboat was a back-breaking job.

"Ashley says that each day the men on the boats are to exchange places with the men of the land party," said Tom rubbing his big hands. "So tomorrow we'll be with the land party."

"Good," laughed Jim. "Riding a horse will suit me better than pushing on this pole. I know we're headed for Three Forks on the Missouri River, but how far is it from here?"

"About two thousand miles."

"How long will it take us to get there?"

"Well, it's April now." Tom hesitated. "We ought to get there sometime in September or October."

"Six months!"

"We will if we're lucky."

Jim whistled.

"How about it?" asked Tom. "Are you glad now that you signed up for three years?"

"You know I am," was Jim's prompt reply.

All day the men on the keelboats struggled upstream against the rushing waters of the Mississippi. The annual spring floods made the journey dangerous and difficult.

Shortly before dark the land party was ordered to make camp. The horses and mules were hobbled and fed. The keelboats were anchored and the men went ashore. Campfires were started and supper cooked. General Ashley and Major Henry joined the men on shore for supper, but after they had eaten they returned to their boat.

The day's work was done. The men gathered around the campfires to sing and try to outdo each other in story-telling.

Jim and Tom were with a group of men at one of the campfires. Toni was laughing and talking. Jim was listening to the stories and thinking to himself how lucky he was to be on his way west.

Suddenly a man at the next campfire rose to his feet. He walked slowly toward Jim.

"Say, aren't you the kid I met in Old. John's gun shop early this morning?" he demanded.

Jim stood up and answered, "I am."

"What's your name?"

"Jim Bridger."

"So you're Jim Bridger. Well, well. Guess you have heard of me. I'm Wolf Andrews."

Jim nodded.

"Then you know that when I say I'll get even with someone I generally do."

"So I hear."

Wolf's eyes narrowed. "Trying to show me you're not afraid of me, kid?"

"Any one who bullies a feeble old man who can't defend himself is a coward," Jim replied looking straight at Wolf. "I'm not afraid of a coward and that's what I think you are."

"Me! I'm the best Indian fighter in the West."

"Then keep on fighting Indians."

"Why you—you greenhorn trapper trying to bluff me."

"I'm not bluffing," said Jim.

"Do you hear that?" sneered Wolf turning toward the men. They were silent. Wolf shrugged his shoulders and walked back to his campfire.

Jim took his place in the circle again.

"Let me give you some advice, Jim," said a trapper. "Wolf is an old-timer and you're a greenhorn. Don't quarrel with him or as sure as you were born you'll have your hands full of trouble."

"Jim won't quarrel with him," said Tom quickly. "But if Wolf tries to start something I think Jim can finish it."

"You can't beat Wolf at his own game," spoke up another trapper. He shook his head. "I know because when I was a greenhorn I tried it." He turned to Jim. "Leave him alone, Jim, and you'll get along all right."

"I don't intend to quarrel with Wolf Andrews or any man in the outfit," replied Jim. "That isn't why I signed up to trap beaver. I'm out here to become as good a mountain man as you old-timers and," he paused, "to see the West."

1. Why did Jim want to go West?

2. Do you think Jim will become a good mountain man? Why?

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