Loyalty of Mountain Men
T HE TRAPPERS, after making Jim their captain, moved on through the wilderness. Roving bands of hostile Sioux kept them ever on the alert. But Indians or no Indians the men continued to trap. Often they remained in one camp several days to trap the nearby streams. When they reached the Sweetwater the other parties were waiting.
Jim had barely time to swing from his horse before the Sublette boys were slapping him on the back. "Jim!" they shouted in their noisy, friendly manner. "You made it! You made it!"
"Sure I made it," Jim laughed.
"Where is Wolf?" asked Bill.
Jim didn't have a chance to answer for at the same time the shout of, "Jim's in! Jim's in!" rang out in camp. At once a dozen men started running to meet him. Tom, Bruce, and Jed were in the lead.
When the greetings were over Major Henry said, "Jim, you led the party into camp. What happened to Wolf?"
"He was killed in a fight with Tall Bear's braves."
"Tall Bear? I thought he was your friend."
For a minute Jim made no reply. But his eyes had narrowed and his lips were pressed together in a hard, thin line, "Chief Tall Bear was a friend of any white man who treated him fairly," he said at last. "Wolf killed him—shot him in the back."
"In the back!" the men exclaimed.
Jim told them briefly how he had found Tall Bear's camp and how he had traded with the Indians for their fur packs. He told them of Wolf's broken promise. As he finished he said, "Tall Bear was a good chief. His braves loved and respected him. They attacked us to avenge his death and I don't blame them. Tall Bear," his voice broke, "was my friend."
"He certainly was your friend." Tom put a hand on Jim's shoulder. He waited awhile then asked, "What kind of trip did you have, Jim?"
"A good one."
"Jim, I'd like to inspect your packs," spoke up Major Henry. "I plan to get started in the morning on the trip back to St. Louis."
After the major had inspected the furs he said, "Your packs are in excellent condition, Jim."
Jim felt the major's keen eyes searching him.
"I've been talking to your men," Henry continued. "They think a lot of you, Jim, and so do I. They told me how Wolf Andrews treated you when you shot a company mule by mistake. They also said he demanded that you pay for the mule by turning in your own horse or by working two years for nothing. They tell me in order to save Wasaka you decided to work without pay. I can't let you do that, Jim."
"I'll do anything, Major, but I can't give up Wasaka. He's mine—he's all I have."
Henry smiled. "Of course, he's yours, Jim. But I can't let you work two years without pay." "Well, I can't take the money," Jim replied. "Why not?" questioned Major Henry.
"Wolf and I made a deal. He let me keep Wasaka. I must keep my part of the bargain."
"All right, Jim, come with me. I want to talk over some plans with my captains."
Jim hesitated. "But I'm not a captain."
"Your men made you their captain."
"That was only for the rest of our trip."
"You're Captain Jim Bridger from now on."
Jim smiled quickly. He was serious, however, as he asked, "You're not doing this because I—"
"I'm making you a captain because you earned it," broke in Henry. "You have proved yourself worthy of leading your own party. The same is true of Jed Smith, and he is a captain now, too."
Major Henry and his captains discussed the problem of getting the furs back to St. Louis. It was decided that the major and a strong party of men would leave in the morning with the fur packs. The men would guard the pack animals on the trip across the plains to the Missouri River. Here the fur packs would be put on board a keelboat and floated downstream to St. Louis. Only a few men would be needed on the river trip. The rest of the trappers would then be free to do as they wished during the summer months.
"But you captains will have plenty of work to do," said Henry. "I'll expect you and your men to explore the Green River Valley."
"That suits me," grinned Tom. "I'm anxious to return to the Green."
"Return to the Green?" questioned Jim.
"Yes, my party trapped there this spring."
"Then you discovered South Pass, too!"
"Tom found the pass without knowing you had already discovered it," said the major.
"Why, that's wonderful, Tom," shouted Jim. "We both found it!"
"I didn't know you had discovered the pass until we were on our way back to the Sweetwater," said Tom. "We met Provot and his men. He told me."
"We were bringing in the furs we had cached in the valley, Jim," said Provot. He laughed as he added, "Say, Jim, that cache you made was certainly a good one. It took us all one morning to find it."
"You remembered the cottonwood tree was the landmark, didn't you?" asked Jim.
"Sure, but even then the cache was hard to find."
"Were the fur packs and gunpowder in good condition?"
"The packs were perfect," answered Provot. "The gunpowder was a little damp, but we spread it out on blankets and dried it."
"Jim, I wish you'd look at the map I made of South Pass," said Jed pulling a worn Bible from his pocket. He opened the Bible to the map he had drawn on a blank page. "See, this is the pass and here is where we trapped."
Jim studied the map carefully. "It's a good one, Jed," he said at last. "I remember all of it." He handed the Bible back to Jed. "You know, for the first time in my life I'm homesick. I'm homesick for the Green River Valley."
"We will all have a chance to see it," spoke up Bastian. "And for a year or two the valley will be ours. But other fur companies will find the pass and send their men into the valley to trap."
"That's true," agreed Jed, "and that's why I want to go on and explore the Northwest. When other fur companies come to the Green we'll move on to another territory."
"The English firm, Hudson's Bay Company, have a strong hold on the Northwest," said Major Henry. "The English trappers may make trouble for you, if you go to the Oregon country."
"Yes, I know," replied Jed, "but Oregon doesn't belong to England." He shrugged his shoulders. "And I don't think it ever will. The English trappers don't settle in their fur-trapping lands. They want to keep them a wilderness. But we Americans are different. We push on to new frontiers. Some day our settlers will take over the Oregon country and claim it for the United States."
"It would be a great thing to have Oregon a part of our country," said Bastian. "But, Jed, I wish you'd stop talking about your settlers. They are going to put us out of business."
The men laughed. When they were quiet again, Henry said, "Don't worry, Bastian, it will be years before the settlers put us out of business. In the meantime we have plenty of work to do. Now I want you four captains," he nodded toward Jim, Tom, Provot, and Bastian, "to explore the Green this summer. You and your men are to locate the richest beaver streams so we won't waste any time searching for them this fall."
He turned to Jed. "You and six men are to go to the Oregon country. Don't get into any trouble with the English, but take a look around."
"I'll do that," replied Jed.
"Well, I guess that's all." Henry smiled at his captains. "Good luck to you—to all of you."
In the morning camp was broken. Major Henry and his large party of men guarding the fur packs headed eastward across the plains. The rest of the trappers rode westward for South Pass and the Green River Valley.
On the trip westward the captains and their men had a good time. They were all friends and they were like boys together on a vacation. The long miles of each day's ride were broken by buffalo hunts and at night in camp they laughed and sang around the campfires. Even Jed, more serious than the others, enjoyed the freedom of the summer months.
But the men were not careless. They knew too well the dangers of the wilderness. They were on the alert. When on the trail, scouts rode ahead keeping watch for Indians, hostile or friendly. At night guards stood at their posts protecting the horses and sleeping men.
One day the scouts, the Sublette boys, reported that they had met a band of Crow Indians. The Crows told them they had been attacked by a band of Sioux braves. Some of the Crows had lost their horses in the fight.
"The Crows will now try to steal some of our horses," said Bill. "They will—"
"We'll need extra guards on duty tonight," interrupted Milton.
"Extra guards won't stop the Crows." Jed laughed a little. "The old horse thieves!"
"More than likely the Crows have already spotted our camp," said Jim, "so we won't stay here. We'll cook supper, leave our campfires burning and ride on for another five or six miles."
The men agreed. They cooked their suppers and waited until it was dark. Then, after throwing more cottonwood logs on the campfires, they mounted their horses and rode away into the darkness.
The trick worked. The Crows did not find the new camp. The following day, however, the trappers rode straight into an ambush of the warring Sioux. Taken completely by surprise the men fell back under the shower of feathered arrows.
"If we run they'll follow us," said Provot. "But if we close in on them, they'll scatter. Come on, men," he ordered. "Follow me!"
The men obeyed. Firing their guns, they rode toward the Indians. Another shower of arrows sent them reeling back. In the charge several men, including Provot, were wounded.
"Bastian, take over," called Provot. His face was white and drawn with pain.
Bastian nodded. He turned to the men. "We'll divide into four parties." He spoke quietly, but Jim noticed that his eyes, usually smiling, were now deadly serious. "Tom, you and your men close in on the right. Jed, you and your men close in on the left. Jim, your men and mine will take it head-on. Spread out and when I give the order to fire let the redskins have it."
The men raced their horses into position. Bastian waited to give the order.
A war whoop split the air. The Sioux kicking the sides of their ponies streaked across the plains.
"Fire!" shouted Bastian.
Rifles blazed. The men leaned forward in their saddles reloading their guns as they closed in on the Indians.
Jim touched Wasaka lightly and the horse broke into a gallop. Jim raised his rifle. He was about to fire when an arrow struck him in the right arm. The gun dropped from his hands and his arm hung helpless. Blood stained his buckskin shirt. He fell forward and for a minute clung to Wasaka's neck. Then he fell to the ground.
Bruce, fighting with his men, saw Jim fall. He whirled his horse about and raced to help his friend. Even before he reached the spot where Jim lay he swung from his saddle.
"I'm all right," Jim said gritting his teeth.
"Sure you are, but you're out of this fight," Bastian replied cutting the arrow shaft with his sharp knife. "Come on." He helped Jim mount Wasaka. "Now get back to Provot. Have someone remove the arrowhead and bandage your arm. Get going, Jim. I'll see you a little later."
As Jim rode to safety Bruce turned back to the fight. Two Indians closed in on him. He lifted his gun and fired. One Indian staggered forward and fell dead. Like a flash the other Indian, with upraised tomahawk, was upon him.
That night after the trappers had finally defeated the Sioux they buried young Bruce Bastian. They buried him where he died, trying to help his friend, Jim Bridger.
The men formed a circle around Bastian's grave. They stood with bowed heads while Jed repeated the Lord's Prayer. Then silently they went back to their camp, leaving Jim alone in the darkness.
Jim, his right arm wrapped in a bandage, knelt beside the new grave. "Good-by, my friend," he said in a low voice. "Good-by, Bruce Bastian, mountain man."
1. Tell how the fur packs were taken back to St. Louis.
2. Why was Jed Smith anxious to explore the Northwest?
3. How did the mountain men prove their loyalty to one another?