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


The Midnight Watch

A SHLEY'S MEN had been on their way less than two weeks when they met with their first serious accident. The leading keelboat hit a snag in the river and sank so quickly that the men on board narrowly escaped with their lives. The loss of the boat was a great blow as it was loaded with ten thousand dollars' worth of trapping supplies. Like true Westerners, however, Ashley and Henry did not let the accident discourage them. They ordered the men to push on.

Day after day, week after week the fur trappers traveled on up the Missouri River. Spring with its bright flowers and sudden rains gave way to the blazing heat of the summer months.

Every day, from sunrise to sunset, the men faced the back-breaking job of fighting their way upstream. Every day it was the same old story of countless delays caused by sand bars and snags.

Time and again the polers were unable to pole the boat and each time the land party was called into action. And always it was the same old story of more accidents and spills. The half-wild horses and stubborn mules bucked and reared, tying the cordelle into a hopeless knot of kicking animals and shouting men.

Again and again the men swam across the river hoping to follow an easier path along the opposite bank. Often it was worse. Then they walked the long weary miles as they pulled the boat with the cordelle cutting into their shoulders.

And day after day, day after day the trip was the same. They seldom made over twenty miles a day. Most of the time they made less. But mile after mile they struggled on. Slipping and falling and rising to slip and fall again, they pushed on ever closer to the land of the beaver.

The old experienced trappers did not mind the slow progress of the party. They knew the accidents and delays could not be avoided. The young greenhorns, however, were restless. They did not complain about the hard work. They were used to it. But the deadly sameness of the days made them quarrelsome and quick-tempered. More than anything else they hated the snail-like pace of each day's march.

All but one—young Jim Bridger.

To Jim each day was one of high adventure. To him the trip up the river was not a slow, uninteresting journey. It was wonderful. Everything was different and it was ever changing. The old familiar woodland country gave way to the vast rolling plains. Like a great green sea of tall grass the plains stretched on ahead for endless miles.

It was all new country to Jim. But the millions of buffalo which roamed the rich pasture land, and the deer, the elk, the antelope, the wild game birds, the wolves, and the rattlesnakes knew its every secret. And this was the homeland and hunting grounds of the proud, bold Plains Indians.

"What more could anyone want?" Jim often asked himself. "Isn't this enough?"

And for him it was more than enough. He was always good-natured. No job in camp or on the march was too difficult. He obeyed every order quickly and did his work with a ready smile.

"That Bridger kid takes to this life like one of us," an old trapper said one night to a group of men gathered around a campfire. "I never saw anyone like him. He's the last one to turn in at night and yet in the morning he's always the first one up and ready to go."

"He works like a beaver all day, too," said another trapper. "I like him."

"I think he'll be one of the first greenhorns 'up to beaver,' " said Tom.

"I don't see how he could fail to be," laughed a man. "He asks enough questions."

"I'm waiting to see how he acts in an Indian fight," spoke up Wolf Andrews. "A man isn't worth his salt unless he's a good Indian fighter."

"Give him a chance," defended Tom, "and he may become a better Indian fighter than you are. He has already proved to be a better worker."

Wolf sneered. "Ashley didn't hire me to work. He hired me because I'm the best Indian fighter he could get. And I—"

"Ashley and Henry expect every man to do his share of work," broke in a trapper. "And now that we are on the plains, you will have to do your share like the rest of us."

Jim joined the men. He glanced about and walked straight to Wolf Andrews.

"Andrews," he said, "you are to be one of the guards tonight."

"Oh, yes? Who said so?"

"Major Henry."

"Tell him to get another guard."

Major Henry's sharp voice brought all the men to their feet. "Wolf," he said as he strode forward, "you can tell me yourself."

"Major, I would just as soon stand guard tonight," said Wolf, "but we are now in Indian territory and I should get my sleep at night. You never can tell what will happen when the Pawnees and Sioux find out we are here."

"They have known it for some time," replied Major Henry, "and that's why for the past week we have posted a double guard. Each man has his turn, and now—tonight, from twelve to two—it's your turn."

"You can't expect me to stand guard, Major."

"I expect every man to take his turn."

"Yes, I know, but I'm an Indian fighter."

"I'm an Indian fighter, too, and I'm also in command of this party," snapped Henry. "You have your orders. Report to Bruce Bastian. He's in charge of the guard tonight." Without another word Henry walked away.

Wolf turned to Jim. "Who else is on guard?"

"Bill Sublette and myself."

"You!" Wolf's eyes narrowed. "You would be one of them!" He spat in the fire.

"Turn in, Wolf," said a trapper, anxious to avoid a quarrel between the Indian fighter and young Jim.

"I'll turn in when I get ready," Wolf growled. But he left the men and disappeared into the darkness. He was gone from camp for some time. When he returned he spread a blanket on the ground and went to sleep.

"Why was he out of camp so long?" Tom nodded toward the sleeping Andrews.

Jim shrugged his shoulders.

"Here comes Bastian," said Tom. "He's probably looking for you. Bruce," he called, "are you looking for Jim?"

"Yes, where is he?'

"He's here with me."

Bastian, an experienced trapper with flashing brown eyes and black curly hair, dressed in fringed buckskin, came quickly to the campfire. He sat down beside Jim. "I'm in charge of the guard tonight," he said, "and I don't want to lose any of the horses or mules on my watch. I want you and that other greenhorn, Bill Sublette, to keep your eyes and ears open. Do you understand?"

"I do," answered Jim.

"Good. This is the first time you have been on guard duty with me, and this is Indian country."

"Don't worry about Jim," said Tom. "You can count on him and you can count on Bill Sublette, too."

"Well, we can't be too careful. You know these Plains Indians." Bastian shook his head. "They would rather steal horses than eat. If we can't keep our horses now we will certainly lose all of them when we finally reach the Crow country."

"Are the Crows better at stealing horses than the Sioux and the Pawnees?" asked Jim.

Bastian slapped Jim on the shoulder. "They are all good at it, but the Crows are experts. Most Indians just try to steal as many horses as they can, but a Crow will spot the horse he wants. No matter if that horse is within two feet of a guard, the Crow will get the horse and the guard won't hear one sound." He laughed, "Tom, you know what we old trappers say about them."

Tom grinned, "Yes, and it's almost true. We say, 'Look away for a minute and a Crow can steal the horse you are riding.' "

"They must be good if you old fur trappers admit it," said Jim.

"Get some sleep, Jim," said Bastian rising to his feet. "I'll call you in plenty of time."

At midnight the four men took over their guard duties. As Jim reported to the guard he was to relieve, the man said, "Keep your eyes and ears open, son. Remember we can make the trip without you, but we need our horses and mules."

Jim made no reply. He knew how important the horses and mules were to the fur trappers.

The loss of only one horse or mule was serious, but the loss of even as few as ten or twelve was a disaster. In the wilderness the fur trappers depended almost entirely upon their pack animals for transportation. Many trapping leaders placed the safety of their animals above the lives of their men.

Ashley and Henry, however, did not value their animals more than the lives of their men. But they did demand that the men be ever watchful and alert.

"Who else is on Bastian's watch?" asked the guard.

"Bill Sublette and Wolf Andrews."

The man laughed. "So Wolf had to take his turn. Where did Bastian station him?"

"On the north side facing the plains."

"Well, don't let an Indian get your hair tonight," the man said starting back to the nearby camp.

Gun in hand, Jim stood quietly in the moonlight for a few minutes. He listened intently to become used to the sounds of the night. His eyes studied every dark shadow around him. The stillness was broken by the soft neighing of the hobbled horses as they moved about, or as they stamped their feet. Now and then an owl hooted and far to the right a wolf howled and was answered by another wolf far to the left.

Quickly and without making a sound Jim walked along his side of the camp. He peered into the darkness which covered the open plains and wondered what adventures were waiting there for him. The sound of footsteps made him halt.

"That you, Bridger?" came Wolf's voice from the darkness.


"Well, you don't need to come around here. I'll take care of this side of the camp and I don't need any help from you."

"My line of guard duty comes to this point."

"Do as I tell you!" ordered Wolf Andrews.

"Bastian gave me my orders," replied Jim.

Jim did not meet Wolf as he made his next three rounds.

"I wonder where he is?" Jim asked himself.

Quietly he started down Wolf's side of the camp. He had gone only a short distance when suddenly he stopped. Ahead were two men. They were talking in low, but excited voices.

"No, not tonight. Go!" said one of the men. It was Wolf's voice.

The other man said something which Jim could not hear.

"No, no, go!" said Wolf again.

"Andrews," called Jim, "are you in trouble?"

There was no answer.

Jim ran forward.

"Stay where you are," snapped Wolf as he hurried toward Jim. The other man turned and fled. His footsteps made only the faintest of sounds.

"Who was that?" asked Jim.

"None of your business."

"Was it one of our men from camp?"

Wolf hesitated for a second. "Yes," he answered. "Yes, that's who it was. One of the men from camp. Now get back to your station."

Jim returned to his side of the camp. He kept thinking of the soft footsteps of the running man. "That wasn't a white man," he said to himself. "Only an Indian could run that quietly."

Jim reported what had happened to Bastian. "I tell you I'm sure it was an Indian," said Jim.

"Thanks, Jim. I'll look into this."

When Bastian questioned Andrews, the Indian fighter sneered, "That Bridger kid is trying to make trouble for me. I was talking to a man from camp. I'll take you to him."

At two o'clock Bastian and his men were relieved by four other guards and they returned to camp. They followed Wolf as he led them to a man sleeping on the ground a little apart from the other trappers.

"Tell Bastian that you came out and talked to me while I was on guard duty," said Wolf, kicking the man with the toe of his moccasin.

"What? What?" the man sat up rubbing his eyes. "Oh, yes, I did," he added quickly.

Bastian turned to Jim.

"I guess I was wrong," said Jim.

But as Jim walked away he said to Bill Sublette,

"I still think he was talking to an Indian."

"They seemed to be telling the truth," said Bill. "If I were you I would forget it."

But Jim couldn't forget. At the first break of clay he hurried to the spot where Wolf and the man had been talking. He looked for their footprints, but they were not easy to find in the early light. He dropped to his knees and crawled along the ground. Suddenly he reached for something in the grass.

Later that morning when Wolf Andrews awakened, Jim was waiting for him. "Last night your friend left something," said

Jim. "You might want to give it back to him."

"Why, you—" Andrews sprang to his feet.

Jim was holding in his hand an eagle feather—a feather worn by an Indian brave.

1. How did most of the fur traders and trappers get their fur packs?

2. What was Ashley and Henry's new plan?

3. What does "up to beaver" mean?

4. Would you rather ride with the land party or work with the polers on the keelboats?

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