A Secret Mountain Pass
G ENERAL ASHLEY returned to St. Louis to hire more men and buy more supplies. Major Henry and the trappers made their way back to their fort on the Yellowstone.
Here they heard more discouraging news. Bastian reported that the Indians living near the fort were becoming more and more hostile.
"I'm sorry to hear this," said Major Henry. "We have had more than our share of bad luck."
"We certainly have," agreed Bastian. "But now that you are back with a strong party of men the Indians may become friendly again."
"Yes, they may. They respect a big party, and the bigger your party the more respect they have."
But as the days passed, the Indians remained sullen and unfriendly. Henry ordered his trappers to stay near the fort. He posted extra men on guard and sent scouts along with the hunting party.
The men were ever on the alert. But a hunting party was attacked by the Indians. More horses were stolen and a night guard was killed.
Major Henry called his men together. "This fall we had planned to return to the Forks. But that is now impossible," he said. "We haven't enough horses to make the trip, and we haven't a chance to buy horses from the Blackfeet."
"We must go back to the Forks," spoke up Wolf Andrews. "We can't let the Blackfeet think we are afraid of them."
"We're not out here to fight Indians. We're trappers," said Henry. "If we should return to the Forks how much trapping do you think we would do? None! We would spend all our time fighting the Blackfeet. I don't intend to waste any more time fighting them. They have chased me out of their country two times and two times is enough."
"That isn't your real reason, Major," said Tom as he stepped forward. "Tell us what it is."
"What makes you think I have another reason?"
"Because I know you, Major," answered Tom smiling. "You wouldn't hesitate for a minute to take another chance at the Blackfeet, if you hadn't already decided on a better plan."
Henry laughed, "You're right, Tom. I have a good reason. Each year other fur companies are sending more men out here to trap. That means two things are bound to happen. With more rivals in the field we will get fewer fur packs, and trouble with the Indians will steadily increase."
"Then where will we go?" asked a trapper.
"I have decided to move on to the mouth of the Big Horn River."
"How will we get there?" questioned Wolf. "If we haven't enough horses to get to the Forks we haven't enough to make the trip to the Big Horn."
"We're headed for the Crow Country," replied the major. "The Crows are always eager to trade with us. They need our guns and gunpowder to fight their Indian enemies. We'll have no trouble getting horses from the Crows. They always have plenty of horses."
"Sure they have," laughed Bastian. "They steal most of them. More than likely they will steal the ones they sell to us."
"Then we'll buy them back again," said the major.
"We should return to the Forks," said Wolf.
"Well, you aren't in command, Wolf. We take our orders from Major Henry," spoke up Etienne Provot. He was one of the few experienced men who had signed up with General Ashley's second party. Quick-tempered, bold, and capable, Provot fought Indians or trapped beaver with the same enthusiasm. "Major Henry is right," he continued. "Our best chance to do some trapping this fall is to go to the Crow country. And I am for getting started at once."
"So am I," said Tom. "The sooner we get there the more time we will have to trap."
"And to explore," added the major. "This fall our exploring trips will be more than our usual search for beaver streams. Somewhere in the Crow country is a pass which leads over the Rocky Mountains. I am determined to find this pass." "Are we going to trap on the other side of the Rockies?" asked Bastian.
"Yes, as soon as we locate the South Pass."
"The South Pass!" exclaimed Provot. "We'll be wasting our time. Many trappers have tried to find the South Pass and all have failed."
"We must find it," said Henry.
"Why can't we use a pass that is already known to us?"
"Because the South Pass will open up a vast, almost unknown, territory," answered the major. "It is the key to the West. The pass leads directly to the Green River Valley."
Jim, as well as the other greenhorns, had learned to remain silent when the older trappers discussed their plans. But now in spite of himself Jim exclaimed, "The Green River Valley!"
The men turned and looked at him. He grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
"Are you interested in the Green River Valley?" asked Henry.
"Yes, I am," answered Jim. "It's one valley I really want to see."
A trapper laughed. "I have never heard anyone tell you about a new place that you haven't wanted to see."
"I guess that's right," Jim replied. "But I have wanted to see the Green River Valley ever since Old John told me about it."
"I hope we will all see it," said Major Henry. He turned again to the old-timers. "If we locate South Pass it will save us hundreds of miles in taking our fur packs back to St. Louis. By going over South Pass we could then travel across the plains instead of having to follow the Missouri River route."
"Well, now I am in favor of finding the pass," said a man. "It would be a relief to come out here any other way than by poling a keelboat."
The men laughed and agreed that poling a keelboat was not their favorite pastime.
"When we have traded for enough horses, I shall divide the outfit into five trapping parties," said the major. "I have chosen an experienced man to act as captain for each party. The captains will be Fitzpatrick, Provot, Bastian, Andrews, and myself. I guess that's all, men," he added. "We'll get started as soon as we have packed our supplies."
In less than a week the trappers were on their way. Major Henry and his scouts rode on ahead to keep a sharp lookout for hostile Indians. Guards rode with the men in charge of the pack animals. The packs were loaded with trapping and trading supplies. Most of the men, however, were on foot.
Days later the men reached the Powder River and made camp. A band of friendly Crow Indians came to their camp. Many of the braves had extra horses with them. They traded the horses for goods.
The warriors who did not have extra horses with them examined the goods, too. The goods had been chosen carefully to satisfy the Indians' love for color and for their needs. There were countless strings of glass beads, yards of red and blue cotton cloth, and dozens of red woolen blankets. There were boxes of needles and thread, and ribbons of every color. Iron and copper kettles were displayed beside the boxes of small, round hand mirrors. The braves prized the mirrors. They used them to flash their signals across the sky when they were on the warpath or out hunting. But most of all, the braves prized the guns, gunpowder, and the sharp hunting knives of the white men.
After the braves had looked over all the goods they held a council with their chief.
The chief, a tall, stately, young Crow came to Major Henry. "My warriors," he said, "like white man's goods." He nodded toward the mounted braves waiting near by and added, "They go, get horses. They come back soon. You wait?"
"Yes, I wait," answered the major.
The chief held up his hand. The braves whirled their horses about and galloped from camp.
"Crow good hunters," said the chief. "We go hunt for you."
"Thank you," said Major Henry. "Some of my men can go with you."
"Fine! Fine!" said the chief. "I pick white men." He glanced about. "I take him," he said pointing to Jim. "He look like good hunter."
When the hunting party left camp, Jim was riding in front with the chief. Jim asked many questions about the Crow country.
"No Indian have land like Crow country," said the chief. "Crow country best. Many beaver here. Hunting good. Much grass for horses."
"There is a pass somewhere in your country which leads over the Rocky Mountains," said Jim. "Do you know where it is?"
"No," the chief answered.
"Do your braves know where it is?"
"I not know. They not know."
"But someone must know," insisted Jim.
"My father, big war chief of Crow. He killed by Sioux in big fight. He know about pass."
"What did he say about the pass?"
"All he say it not look like mountain pass."
A yell from the Indians made Jim and the chief rein in their horses.
"Buffalo!" shouted the braves. "Buffalo!"
The hunt was on and the pass was forgotten. Late in the afternoon when they had plenty of buffalo meat the hunters returned to the trappers' camp.
As Jim swung from his saddle, Bill Sublette called to him. "Tom told me to tell you good-by."
"Good-by?" questioned Jim. "What do you mean?"
"He and his trapping party left while you were out hunting," explained Bill. "Andrews and his men left, too."
"I don't mind missing a chance to say good-by to Wolf," laughed Jim, "but I had hoped that you, Milton, Jed, and I could be in Tom's party."
"Jed went with Tom," said Bill.
While they were talking Provot joined them. "You're in my party, Jim," he said. "We're pulling out in the morning as soon as Major Henry can buy more horses from the Crows."
"I'll be ready," said Jim. "Where are we trapping?"
"Southward along the Powder River," answered Provot. "Then we'll head for the Sweetwater River Valley and trap there, too."
"Good! That's all new country to me."
"I thought you'd like it," grinned Provot, "but let's get one thing straight, Jim. I'm captain of a fur-trapping party and I'm not out to see the country."
"What about trying to find the South Pass?"
"We'll do some exploring," replied Provot, "but I still say I'm captain of a fur-trapping party." He turned to Bill. "Who was lucky enough to get the Sublette boys?"
"We're with Bastian," answered Bill.
"He's a good captain," said Provot. "Say, he didn't get caught to build the fort on the Big Horn, did he?"
"No," Bill laughed, "and I'm glad of that. I want to do some trapping this fall. Major Henry and his men are going on to build the fort."
"Well, I'll see you there when the weather gets so cold we can't trap any longer," said Provot.
"Have you ever trapped in the Sweetwater Valley?" asked Jim.
"Yes," Provot nodded, "and I'm glad to be heading back there again."
"Then it must be good."
"It is," replied Provot. "I'm expecting my men to bring back the most fur packs. That means you'll have to be 'up to beaver' all the time, Jim. You'll not only have to bring in your daily catch, but you will also have three greenhorns to bring 'up to beaver.' "
"And if I do, may I have the rest of the time to explore the surrounding country?" asked Jim.
"Well, after you have brought in your traps each day, taken care of your pelts, mended your equipment, cooked, stood guard, and a few other odd jobs you won't have much time to explore."
"No, that won't give me much time," agreed Jim. "But when we are on the march, I could go ahead of the party. Maybe then—"
"That is exactly what you are going to do," broke in Provot. "I'm making you my scout."
"Your scout!" exclaimed Jim.
Provot nodded. "Do you think you can take us up the Powder River Valley?"
"I can do it all right. I know I can."
"I think you can, too," said Provot. "You're no longer a greenhorn. All you need is a chance to prove it and I'm giving it to you." He slapped Jim on the shoulder. "But there is one thing I want you to remember and I don't want you to forget it—not even for a minute. I have twenty-five men in my party. Our lives will depend upon your ability as a scout."
"I'll remember," promised Jim.