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


Trouble in the Mountains

S EVERAL months later Tom rejoined his fellow trappers in the West. Davy and Bill did not come with him. They had, however, sold him all the trading goods he needed. They had also promised to bring the supplies to next year's rendezvous. On the way Tom had stopped at the little Mexican town of Taos. He had hired fifty men to trap for the company and had brought them with him.

As soon as he arrived Tom told the trappers that Jed had been killed on the Cimarron Desert. At first they did not believe it.

Jim, holding the silver-mounted revolvers, kept saying, "It can't be true. It just couldn't happen to Jed."

The trappers were used to the dangers which, in a split second, could snuff out a man's life. But the news of Jed's death stunned them. He had been a mountain man—a friend to all.

Friendship was more than a word to the mountain men. It was a real living part of their daily lives. They had no courts of law and order. But few men lived by sterner, more exacting rules of conduct. Their laws, the code of the West, soon weeded out all cheats and cowards. Here, a man's word, courage, and honor were all that counted. Few men gave more proof of their friendship to one another than the mountain men of the Old West.

And Jed had been one of the best of them. Now, remembering him, the strong men wept and were not ashamed of their tears.

"That new trapper over there reminds me of Jed," said Tom pointing to a slender, buckskin-clad young man. "His name is Kit Carson."

For a while Jim and the rest of the trappers resented Kit for he was very much like Jed. His blue eyes had Jed's keen, steady gaze. He spoke quietly, softly, and he was modest, almost shy, like Jed. But Kit soon won the friendship of the trappers. He, too, lived by the code of the West.

During the fall trapping season Jim scouted for the party. One morning when he mounted Wasaka he noticed Tom and Kit watching him.

"What's the matter?" he called to them.

"Nothing," Tom replied. "Kit was just telling me that he intends to be a scout."

"Have you done any scouting?" asked Jim.

"A little," Kit answered.

"Get your horse and come with me," said Jim.

Jim and Kit were soon on their way. They kept their horses at a steady, even gallop. Once Kit was about to speak, but a glance at Jim stopped him. In camp Jim was always laughing and talking. But on the trail he was silent. He rode leaning forward in his saddle, one hand holding Wasaka's reins lightly and the other on his rifle. He appeared to look neither to the right nor left. But his eyes were everywhere, searching for signs along the trail.

After they had ridden several miles they halted to rest their horses. Jim questioned Kit about the trail. Kit had missed some signs. He admitted it quickly and did not try to excuse himself.

"I certainly missed the chance I've been waiting for and I have only myself to blame," said Kit. He shook his head and added, "I signed up to trap for your company because I thought I would get a chance to learn how to scout from you."

"Anyone could have missed those signs."

"You didn't."

"That's different," Jim laughed. "I know the country. It's new to you."

"But the signs are the same anywhere."

"Maybe I was riding too fast."

"You don't waste any time," Kit replied. "How can you follow a trail so quickly, or is that a secret like your castor bait?"

"No, my scouting is not a secret," answered Jim. "I'll be glad to teach you everything I know. We need good scouts. I want to help you, Kit, because I think you can be one of the best."

All during the fall Jim and Kit rode together. Kit was determined to become a good scout. He listened intently to Jim's advice and willingly carried out his orders. Seldom did Jim have to explain more than once any sign they found along the trail.

Jim was generous in his praise of Kit's ability. And Kit, like the greenhorns whom Jim had brought "up to beaver," was devoted to him.

When winter set in the men hurried to the nearest mountain valley, "Jackson Hole," named for Davy Jackson. A hole, as the trappers called a mountain valley, was a good place to camp for the winter months.

Beautiful Jackson Hole in the Teton Mountains was one of their favorite spots. Here they found everything they needed, water from the mountain streams, wood for their campfires, grass for their horses, and a plentiful supply of game.

On the western side of the Tetons was another mountain valley called "Pierre's Hole." The trappers decided to hold the annual rendezvous there when the spring trapping season was ended.

As usual, life in the winter camp made the men restless. Surrounded by the snowcapped peaks of the mighty Tetons they longed to be on the move again. And this year they were even more anxious to get an early start.

Other fur companies were sending out more men each year. At first the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers were not worried for they, ever exploring, pushed on to richer beaver territory. And for a while the rivals were left behind.

Then the American Fur Company began to cause trouble. The leaders of their trapping parties did not bother to explore the land. They simply followed the trails of the men who already knew the West, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers. The newcomers were shrewd business men. In a few years the wealthy American Fur Company was the most powerful company in the West.

"They want to control the fur trade," said Tom. "They may do it, too. They are able business men."

"I know it and I'm worried," spoke up Milton. "As they become stronger we and other small companies will have a harder time."

"Well, I'm worried, too," said Jim, "but we won't get anywhere by talking about it. Let's get out and do some trapping. They may break us, but let's give them a race they won't forget."

Once on the trail the men forgot their worries.

This was the life they understood. All spring they kept on the move. Then as the season ended they headed for Pierre's Hole for their rendezvous.

When they reached the Hole they were met by the men of the American Fur Company. The rivals had already begun trading with the Indians.

"They act as if this were their rendezvous," said Milton angrily.

"We still have a chance," Tom said. "Most of the Indians and free trappers won't get here for several weeks. By that time Bill should be here with our trading goods."

"If Bill doesn't make it, we're finished," spoke up Jim. "But if we could get word to him that we are in trouble, he'd be here on time."

"He ought to be almost across the plains by now," said Tom. "I'll ride east and find him somewhere along the trail. It will be a long hard trip, but it's our only chance."

An hour later Tom, Kit Carson and four other men were on their way. Each man had two horses so that when riding one horse the other would be fresh for the next stretch. Each man carried plenty of ammunition and a week's food supply.

Following a short cut about which Jim had told him, Tom headed his party toward South Pass. The men rode swiftly, sparing neither their horses nor themselves. They rode until they ached with weariness and almost fell from their saddles. They stopped only long enough to catch a few hours' sleep and then rode on. Day after day they kept up the steady pace. Most of the time they were too tired to eat, too tired to sleep. But none complained, for they were mountain men.

After a four-hundred-mile ride they met Bill and his sixty men, and one hundred and eighty pack animals loaded with trading goods. Bill needed no urging to hurry on to the rendezvous.

"We knew you would help us," said Tom. "Now I must get back to the rendezvous as quickly as I can. I'll ride with your train to the Sweetwater. Then I'll go on alone."

A few days later the men came into the valley of the Sweetwater. Tom said good-by to his friends and rode on. He had two horses, but this time instead of riding first one horse and then the other, he did not change. The extra horse, saddled and bridled, must be kept fresh to be used if he were chased by Indians.

The familiar trail up the Sweetwater was easy to follow.

Tom had no trouble until he crossed South Pass and was riding along a stream in the Green River Valley. Late one afternoon he sighted a band of Blackfeet Indians. At the same moment the Indians saw him. They raced toward him yelling and waving their tomahawks.

In a flash Tom mounted his fresh horse. Leaning low over his saddle he whirled the horse about and galloped back to a mountain path.

For a time Tom kept his lead over the Indians. But the path was rough and steep, and slowly the horse weakened under the strain. The yelling Indians began to gain on him.

The horse stumbled and fell. As the horse struggled to rise Tom searched for a hiding place. Some distance up the mountain slope he saw a hole in a rock. Tucking his rifle under his arm he scrambled up the slope.

As he ran he gathered up an armful of leaves and sticks. Quickly he crawled into the hole and covered the opening with the leaves and sticks. From the shouts of the Indians he could tell they had found his horse. "And now they will spread out and look for me," he said to himself.

All afternoon the Indians searched but they did not find Tom. Twice the braves were so near his hiding place Tom could have touched them. Once in spite of himself he grinned as a brave said, "Must be Indian we hunt. White man not hide so good."

When it was almost dark the Indians gave up the search. Tom did not leave the hole. Patiently he waited to be certain that no Indian guards were near by. The hours dragged on and on.

"Now I'll try to escape," he said crawling out of the hole. He stretched to ease his stiff muscles. Then slowly he made his way down the mountain.

He looked up at the stars and set his course by the North Star. Shouldering his rifle Tom headed for the rendezvous.

Suddenly the barking of dogs broke the stillness of the night. For a minute Tom stood motionless. "Dogs! I'm in the Indians' camp," he thought. "Now I'm in for it."

Running as fast as he could Tom returned to his hiding place. His buckskin clothes were torn and he had cut his hands on the rocks. But he was safe.

In the morning the Indians were out searching for him again. All day the braves shouted to one another as they scrambled up and down the steep slopes. Late in the afternoon the chief, riding Tom's horse, led his braves back to their camp.

Once again in the darkness Tom tried to escape. He circled wide and slipped by the Indians' camp. With the North Star as his guide he walked all night. As morning dawned he found another hiding place and hid during the day. That night he was on his way again.

In the morning he was very hungry. He wanted to shoot a buffalo, but he dared not fire his rifle. He was still too near the Indians. Instead he hunted for berries and roots and ate them.

He came to a mountain stream. It was too wide for him to swim so he made a crude raft. Halfway across the stream the raft broke in two. His rifle was carried away by the rushing waters. Somehow, more dead than alive, he reached the opposite bank.

Day after day Tom struggled on toward the rendezvous. The trip was becoming more and more difficult. His mocassins wore out and he cut up his big hat to make another pair. He was starving and although he searched for berries and roots he found only a few. He became so weak he could barely walk. He had to rest more often, but somehow he stumbled on.

Then one morning he was so weak he could no longer get to his feet. He crawled along the trail on his hands and knees. His hair dropped down over his shoulders and with unbelieving eyes he stared at his long hair. It had turned white—snow white.


Tom gritted his teeth and crawled on. At last, unable to go any farther, he fell forward. He lay still, his face in the dust of the trail.

Hours later, he never knew how long, he felt the touch of a hand on his shoulder. And as from a dream world he heard the voices of two Indians.

"Old man dead," the braves were saying. "We no help him. We go."

Tom forced himself to move his head. "No! No!" he thought he shouted, but he had barely whispered the words.

"He move!" the braves exclaimed as they knelt beside him. "He talk."

The Indians lifted Tom to a sitting position and for awhile talked in excited whispers.

"We feed old man," one brave said. "We camp here tonight."

"We go in morning," the other Indian replied. "We have no time. White men at rendezvous send us hunt for Broken Hand."

"I'm Broken Hand," Tom whispered.

"No! No!" the Indians protested. "Broken Hand big fine man. We know. He our friend."

Slowly Tom raised his crippled hand.

The Indians looked at each other and then at Tom. They touched his hand.

"Broken Hand!" they shouted. "We find you!"

The Indians made camp. Gently they cared for Tom. They fed him and gave him new buckskin clothes and moccasins. Tom tried to thank them for saving his life, but the braves told him to rest. All night they took turns sitting beside him as he slept.

In the morning after feeding Tom, the Indians lifted him onto a horse. With a brave holding him in the saddle they started back to the rendezvous. They traveled slowly for Tom was still very weak.

At last they reached Pierre's Hole. The rendezvous was over, but the trappers and many Indians were still there. They were shocked to see Tom. But they were happy and thankful that he was still alive.

Shouts of "Tom" and "Broken Hand" rang out as mountain men and Indians crowded around him.

"Tom, you are all right, aren't you?" Jim and Milton asked as they half-carried, half-walked Tom to a campfire.

"Sure, I'm all right," Tom answered. "What about Bill?" he asked. "Did he get here on time?"

"I certainly did," said Bill as he sat down beside Tom. "I wish you could have seen those traders of the American Fur Company when I arrived."

"We had a fine season," said Milton.

"Good!" Tom smiled weakly. He turned to Jim. "What's the matter, Jim?" he asked. "You're so quiet."

"There's nothing the matter now, Tom," replied Jim. "You're here and that's all that counts. We're together again."

1. What was the code of the mountain men?

2. Discuss with the class why rules of conduct as well as laws are necessary.

3. Name three rules of conduct which you think would make a good code.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The Odds are Against You  |  Next: The Trails Have Been Blazed
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.