Chapter 9 - The Yellow Chief by Mayne Reid

Saint Vrain’s.

One of the classical names associated with the “commerce of the prairies” is that of Saint Vrain. Ever since trapping became a trade, or at all events, since prairie-land, with its wonders, had grown to be a frequent, as well as interesting topic of conversation around the hearth-fires of the American people, the names of Bent, Saint Vrain, Bonneville, Robideau, Laramie, and Pierre Choteau, might often be heard upon the lips of men.

And none more frequently than Saint Vrain, by whose daring and enterprise not only were caravans carried across the almost untrodden wilderness to the Mexican settlements of Santa Fé, but forts established in the very midst of this wilderness, and garrisons maintained, with a military efficiency rivalling the body-guard of many a little European despot!

Yet there was no despotism here, supported by the sweat of a taxed people; only a simple defensive organisation for the pursuit of a valuable, as a laudable, industry.

And when the iron horse goes snorting through the midst of those distant solitudes, and cities have sprung up on his track, the spots so marked in our history will become classic ground; and many a tale will be told of them, redolent of the richest romance.

Were I to live in the not very remote future, I would rather have in my ornamental grounds the ruins of one of Bent’s or Saint Vrain’s Forts, than the crumbling walls of Kenilworth Castle or the Keep of Carisbrooke. More picturesquely romantic, more exalting, would be the souvenirs recalled, and the memories awakened by them.

Saint Vrain’s trading-post, on the South Fork of the Platte, was one of those long noted as a favourite rendezvous of the free trappers (Note 1), as might have been told by any one chancing to make stop at it in the season when these wandering adventurers laid aside their traps to indulge in a spell of idleness and a “spree.”

Just such a time was that when Squire Blackadder and his emigrant companions were approaching the post, and fell into the clutches of the Cheyennes. It was not one of their grandest gatherings, since only about twenty of them were there; but among twenty trappers, or even less, there is no lack of company. And if all, or even part of them, have returned with fat packs, and found beaver selling at three dollars the “plew” (Note 2), there will be a merry company; at times becoming dangerous—not only to strangers, but to one another—through too much drink.

An assemblage of this sort—including, we are sorry to say, both the sober and the drunk—were at Saint Vrain’s Fort, on the day above specified. They had come there from all quarters—from the parks and “holes” of the Rocky Mountains, from the streams, creeks, and branches on this side running east, as well as from the head waters of the Green, Bear, and Colorado coursing west. Nearly all of them had made a good season of it, and arrived with their pack animals staggering under the spoils of the trap and the rifle.

These had become the property of the Fort, after an exchange on its side of guns, knives, powder, and lead, with five-point Mackinaw blankets, and other articles of trapper wear; including those of adornment, and not forgetting some sparkling bijouterie intended as gifts, or “guages d’amour” for the bronze-skinned beauties of the prairie. Rude as is the trapper’s life, and solitary too, he is not insensible either to the soft charms of love, or its companionship.

In addition to the articles thus swapped or “trucked,” the trappers assembled at Saint Vrain’s in exchange for their peltries, had received a large quantity of coin currency, in the shape of Mexican silver dollars. With these burning the bottoms out of their pockets, it is scarce necessary to say that drink was the order of the day, with cards as its accompaniment.

We regret having to make this statement; as also that quarrels are the too frequent termination of these games of euchre and “poker.”

Another source of strife among the trappers assembled at Saint Vrain’s was to be found in the fact, that a friendly Indian tribe, the “Crows,” were encamped near the post; and among these birds, notwithstanding the name are many that are beautiful.

No soft courtship suits an Indian belle. If you want to win her, you must show bravery; and you will not risk losing her affections if your bravery degenerate into brutalism!

Such are the moral inclinings of both men and women in the state called “savage;” but it must not be supposed that this is the state of Nature. On the contrary, the savages, properly so-styled, have long since passed from their pristine condition of simplicity. (Note 3.)

Several quarrels had occurred among the trappers at Saint Vrain’s Fort—more than one that had ended in the shedding of blood—and one of the bloodiest was on the eve of breaking out, when a cry from the sentinel on the azotea (Note 4) caused a suspension of the broil.

The quarrellers were below, on the level plain that stretched away from the grand gate entrance of the building, and formed a sort of general ground for assemblage—as well for athletic sports, as for games of a less recommendable kind.

The shout of the sentry caused them to look towards the plain, where they saw two horsemen going at a gallop, and evidently making for the Fort.

The rapidity with which they approached, and the way they were urging on their steeds, told a tale of haste. It could be no caper of two men trying the speed of their horses. The animals seemed too badly blown for that.

“Thar’s Injuns after them two fellers!” said Black Harris, a celebrated mountain man. “Or hez a been not far back. Boys! can any o’ ye tell me who they are? My sight ain’t so plain as ’twar twenty yeer ago.”

“If I ain’t mistook,” answered another of the trapper fraternity, “that ’un on the clay-bank hoss is ole ’Lije Orton, oreeginally from Tennessee. Who the other be, durn me ef I know. A young ’un, I guess; an’ don’t look at all like these hyar purairies, though he do sit that black hoss, as though he war friz to him. Don’t the feller ride spunky?”

“Ay dios!” exclaimed a man whose swarth skin and bespangled costume proclaimed him a Mexican. “Call that riding, do you? Carrai! on our side of the mountains a child of six years old would show you better!”

“In trath an’ yez are mistaken, Misther Saynyor Sanchis, as ye call yerself. I know who that gossoon is that’s comin’ up yonder, for he’s a countryman of mine; and, be the powers! he can roide to bate any Mixikan in the mountains—not like a cat stickin’ on the back av a goat, as yez do it; but like a gintleman. Him yonder beside ould ’Lije Orton, is Misther Edward Onale, ov the Onales av County Tipperary; an’, be jabbers, he is a gintleman be both sides av the house!”

Before this new discussion could culminate in another quarrel, the two horsemen had ridden upon the ground, and pulled up in the midst of the trappers, who, with eager, inquiring looks, gathered in a circle around them.

Note 1. The “free” or “independent trappers,” as they were also called, formed a class sui generis, in many respects differing from the regular employés of the fur-trading companies. They were different in ideas and habits, as also in the dangers of their calling.

Note 2. Plew. The trapper name for the beaver skins. They are now, I believe, only worth a dollar each. Formerly they were saleable at four. The introduction of the silk hat ruined the trapper’s trade, though it has been a great boon to the beavers.

Note 3. There is no instance on record of a tribe in the so-called pristine “savage” state, having been convicted of the crime of cannibalism. This is an “institution” that comes only after a certain degree of civilisation has been attained, or rather when the period of despotism has arrived, both priestly and monarchical. There is no court where ceremonies are more complete than that of Thakonbau, the “King of the Cannibal Islands,” of “Figi.”

Note 4. The trading fort of the fur companies in the Mexican portion of the prairie country were usually built, Mexican fashion, with the flat roof or azotea.