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CHAPTER 20

HENRY'S FORK RENDEZVOUS............................................. FALL 1824-FALL 1825

When Major Andrew Henry discovered the marmots were already hibernating in August, he knew the fall of 1824 was lying in wait for him with an icicle in its teeth. The wrinkles around his eyes deepened as he squinted at the lofty crags with their eternal snow caps. He tasted the piney wind and heard the breeze etching the air around the pines with its whispers. Andrew Henry'd spent 16 years in the mountains, risking death every day to be free among these sights and tastes and sounds. He muttered, "Waugh! It's time to go home to Potosi."

He ambled back into the Fort Henry trading post, his swoll-up knees full of rheumatism from years of wading ice water on trap lines. Captain Weber's boys'd be in from the Wind River in a day or two. So would Davie Jackson's brigade from up north. His farewell called for a shindig!

Sliding his fiddle case from under his cot, he visualized the legion of mules he'd tied the case on -- and remembered it once shooting the Big Horn River rapids by itself. He popped the old case open.

After he swabbed the spider web off the bridge, the battered fiddle's strings pluck-tuned well enough. The bow was dryer'n last year's corn cob, but its hair held together, squawking over the strings. He didn't practice. His born fiddle sense always took over when his bow bit the strings.

Food for his festival was out in the brush. With the rutting bull moose bugling their mawkish calls, they'd be a mortal cinch to find. He'd watch for grizz cause they'd be stalking moose calves. Trick'd be to shoot a cow or calf with them bulls making all the ruckus.

Andrew Henry'd never forget the Hugh Glass mauling. He wondered to this day why Bridger or Fitzgerald hadn't freed Glass from his misery with a bullet. That's what he'd expected when he left them with the mangled Irishman. Yes, sir. He would look for bear sign!

* * *

One thing Mountain Men weren't bashful about was eating. Major Henry'd bagged a moose cow and both her calves. It was still nip and tuck if all that'd fill his 27 men. They hunkered around the crackling fire and ate, wiping their greasy mouths on their sleeves -- belching like it was a competition. They hollered and chucked moose bones in the fire.

They'd made a prodigious fur harvest! Henry broke out several gallon whiskey jugs. Mountain Men whooped and swigged the rot gut. They howled as he let wild Irish Jigs and Scottish Dirk Dances out of his fiddle to chase the stars. All danced and cavorted except those too drunk to rise.

Red eyes of bewildered creatures glowed from beyond the firelight as the Mountain Men collapsed to lay panting.

Winded, the Major lowered his fiddle for a long pull on the jug, then they all got down to the other thing Mountain Men loved most -- talking to somebody besides themselves. This get together was a joy after wading icy streams alone day after day.

Daniel Potts yelled, "Save a jug for Jim Bridger, Major! He won your bet on where the Bear River goes! Bear flowed a good 50 miles past where it quit on your sorry map. Emptied into a Great Salt Lake big as half o' Missouri! We figgered out why the Bear River showed twice on your map. They ain't two Bear Rivers. They's but one. Flows up to Soda Springs, turns and staggers back down to that big lake."

"Waugh! Bridger's won his jug!" Major Henry cackled.

Potts shook his finger in the flickering light, "Don't forget them dozen fishhooks and that pound o' black powder you owe Jim with the whiskey."

"I'll pay it all -- if you'll tell these boys the tale about them three Bears."

Potts leaned back on his elbows. "Two ole boys seen a bear across the river and shot him. Pulled off their buckskins and swum necked across the river with nothing but a Green River knife to cut some bear steaks. But the bear come to and run 'em back in the water. First one tried to outswim that bear upstream an' the second tried to outfloat him downstream. First feller reached shore by his clothes and fired his pistol, spooking the bear back to where it started. Second feller swum ashore by his scairt friend, and that there's the story of the three bears."

Major Andrew Henry played the fool, "I don't git no three bears outa that!"

"Why you sure do! You had a hoppin'-mad bear on one side of the river and two scairt bares on the other!"

After the laughter died, thick-set Captain John Weber hissed tobacco juice into the fire. "How long you been Up the Mountain, Major?"

"Well, bout 1808 me an' them Missouri Fur Company boys run inta John Colter on his way back home a year er two after his trip with Lewis and Clark an' Colter jined up with us."

Milton Sublette lowered the jug, firelight dancing on his grin, and bellered, "You sayin' there really was a John Colter?"

Major Henry nodded, "Sure as God made maggots in a fit o' temper! Colter worked for me. John mighta even outrun you, Milt less you had some fumin' husband on your trail!"

Milt Sublette slapped his muscular thigh, "When I was a tadpole, my Grandpa scairt me green with some story bout Colter bein' chased 250 miles in 11 days by Blackfoot!"

"Waugh! Cinch nothin's scairt you green since, Milt, but Colter hisself swore he's chased 150 mile in seven days."

Somebody yelled, "By next week, we'll swear it was 400 mile in two days. Inna mountains, first liar ain't gotta chance!" Laughter overflowed the firelight.

"Indians runnin' you off, Major?" David Jackson asked.

"Mostly old age. Waugh. I'm stove up, Davie. It's a lotta things. Been out here longer'n the grizz. This trapper competition has got my goat. When I first come up river with Missouri Fur, competition for furs was pretty much Jacob Astor's American Fur Company and Hudson's Bay Company. Hudson's Bay people been in fur country longer'n God -- chartered by King Charles in 1670. North West Company was always nosin' around here till it got swallered by Hudson's Bay four years back. Missouri Fur's gone busted, but we got all them new boys. They's a new trappin' outfit behind every bush. Fore long, won't be nothin' left to trap but other trappers."

"Ain't that the truth?" chimed in a bleary voice.

"Waugh. Gonna play more fiddle music. When you boys wakes up tomorry with yer heads stomped on, me an' a few old hands will be packin' furs to St. Louie! Then I'm agoin' home to Potosi. Druther birth a porkypine back'ards than say good-bye, but it's over. Boys -- it's been good to know you!" Cheers drowned Major Henry's final words and David Jackson started the sporadic rifle salutes blazing into the inky sky.

The Major's bow, strands splaying like witch's hair in the firelight, jumped on the fiddle strings, shrilling a rousing Hornpipe. Major Henry didn't hear Milt Sublette yell he'd be heading to the settlements with him.

* * *

In the last week of June 1825, Jedediah Smith's party caught Ashley's pack train en route to the site of the Henry's Fork Rendezvous.

Jedediah put William Sublette in charge of making camp while the square shouldered New Yorker met General Ashley in a stand of lodgepole pines. Jedediah was shocked by Ashley's appearance. Ashley'd lost 15 pounds, his face was haggard, and he kept opening and closing a locket. The locket's delicate painting of a woman preoccupied him.

"You won't believe what's happened, General!"

"How bad is it?"

"Not bad at all. Twenty-nine Hudson's Bay deserters joined us with over 700 skins."

Relieved, Ashley sighed, "Tell me about it."

"Last September, we came upon a party of Hudson's Bay Iroquois hunters hounded by the Shoshone. They offered us 105 beaver skins for safe conduct to their Flathead Post on the Columbia River. We escorted them and wintered there. Ross, their Commandant, regarded us as trespassers though we have as much right in Oregon as the British under the Joint Occupation Agreement."

"Could you get to the meat?" Ashley flipped the locket open and shut, then caught himself and stashed it in his pocket.

"Of course. From December through this April, we trapped with the Flathead Post's new Commandant, Peter Skene Ogden, taking a rich haul of beaver. Ogden says Hudson's Bay Company's constructing Fort Vancouver at the mouth of the Columbia River. He claims it'll be the grandest post ever built, attracting trade from all over the west."

Ashley blurted, "And if the Rendezvous works, we'll cut the furs off at their source every year before they ever reach their grand Fort Vancouver! Where's Drew Henry?"

"We ran into Captain Weber in May. He said to tell you Major Henry quit and packed the furs to St. Louis."

"He said he was going home, but it hurts after all these years. Sorry, Jedediah, go on."

"After Captain Weber left, Johnson Gardner's free trappers crashed our camp. Gardner told Peter Skene Ogden the British were trespassing on American soil and better get off if they didn't want war! When Ogden withdrew, 29 of his trappers deserted to our party with their skins to sell. The humorous point of this is that when the American Gardner told the British Ogden he was a trespasser, we were all on Mexican soil!"

Ashley laughed dryly. "You fathom what we're trying to establish with my new Rendezvous approach?"

"Perhaps I don't, General."

"In the 1790s forest runners like John Jacob Astor ferreted out the Indians and traded for furs. Next, fur companies built trading posts and waited for Indians to bring furs to trade. Some times they came and sometimes they left the posts idle. Then, Manuel Lisa sent trappers out to trade for furs with a little trapping thrown in. Major Henry and I changed that game by sending masses of our men to trap the streams, by-passing the Indians and our competition by going directly to the beaver. All our competitors copy us now. So we're switching the game again. With our new Rendezvous approach we take trade goods to the trappers and the Indians to corner all the furs and sell all the supplies before our competitors get a crack at any of them. If Rendezvous works, we're rich. If it doesn't, we're bankrupt. We've sent expresses to the trappers and tribes for a year about meeting to trade at Henry's Fork on July 1, 1825. But we still don't know if anybody but us will be there."

* * *

July first came up hot and brassy. Ashley'd camped a mile from the Rendezvous site. The General summoned Jedediah Smith to his tent. Moments later, Jedediah rode off in a one-horse race. Ashley paced his tent. His men packed up for the last mile of the trip. Everybody sweat in the chill dawn -- and waited. Hoofbeats closing on the dead run brought every head around. Ashley hit parade rest, bracing himself for the worst.

Jedediah Smith's erect figure atop his horse cut the horizon and grew larger. With a leg over, Jedediah slid from his pony to stand before the General, dust swirling over them.

"Well?" Ashley grated, hands outstretched.

"By the Lord Jehovah, you won't believe it, General! I make out over a hundred trappers and 800 people from the tribes camped in two locations!"

General Ashley extended his small hand, "Let's hope they're friendlies, partner! Welcome to the first Rendezvous of Ashley & Smith!"

Jedediah shook the General's hand, "I am truly honored to become your partner, Sir."

Doubtless anxious trappers and tribesmen expected big things from Ashley at this first Rendezvous, but none expected his enormous prices. Ashley handled each transaction at a makeshift table -- a confidential distance from the waiting hordes. Jedediah Smith stood by with his rifle in the crook of his arm. Ashley bought beaver for $2 to $5 the pound, depending on who was selling it. After establishing the price the trapper or Indian had coming for furs, Ashley sold him trade goods, charging purchase goods against his pelt money.

Sugar ranged from $1 to $2 the pound, tobacco up to $3 the pound and scarlet cloth the sky-high price of $6 a yard. Trade blankets cost $9 each and watered whiskey went for $3 a pint! Jedediah felt his salvation slipping with each gasp of disbelief from the trappers, and prayed fervently through most of Ashley's dealings. Jedediah wondered how their new partnership agreement would read, then prayed all the harder.

William Sublette watched trapper after trapper slip away into the Shoshone camp and decided to investigate. Tom Fitzpatrick fell in beside Sublette, matching his long legs stride for stride. "Fitz, you seen Clyman?" Sublette asked.

"No but we both know where the man is as the Crow flies, now don't we?"

Sublette was glad Fitz was goin' to the Shoshone camp because the Irishman knew most Indian hand signs. Fitz had a warm way with the Indians none of the other trappers had. Fitz knew the Indians were his friends and wouldn't let 'em forget it.

Three Shoshone squaws in pale buckskins with beads and flowers in their long dark hair stood around a bent elder with his upper face died blue. A Shoshone woman who put Sublette vaguely in mind of Monique Perrault sat cross-legged on her tan buffalo calf robe.

Sublette thought the comely woman on the robe was blind, because she looked without seein' him. She held a wilted wildflower. She made Sublette's heart thump harder.

Fitz quit signing with the elder to exchange hand signs with one of the standing squaws. Sublette rested his hand on Fitzpatrick's wrist and halted their palaver. "Find out why this woman on the robe won't look at me."

"I'm a bit busy meself, Sublette."

"You ain't that busy, Fitz. Find out."

Fitz snorted, then signed with old Blue Face. Fitz turned to Sublette. "His nibs says she cannot see you because of the hair on your face."

"Hope I don't hafta paint my face blue to git her to see me."

"Blue Face says scalpin' the hair off your face will make her see you."

"Must mean shavin' it off," Sublette argued.

"The sign he's making is scalpin' it off."

Sublette knelt in front of the Shoshone woman. She wasn't beautiful, but she made him glad he was a man. He pulled his straight razor from his possibles bag. "Tell her to shave the hair off my face."

Interested in how far Sublette would go to impress the woman, Fitz signed with Blue Face, then the woman on the robe. "She be Moondancer. She asked your name. Told her it was Cut Face. Wouldn't surprise me none if she speaks English, the way she watches me mouth when I talk to yourself."

Moondancer splashed water from her gourd on Sublette's sandy beard, then shaved it with a vengeance, cutting his face repeatedly with the straight razor until his beard was gone. Moondancer laughed, grasped his bleeding face and kissed him sensuously on each of the razor cuts, then long and hard on his mouth. Her eyes twinkled as she whispered, "Cut Face."

* * *

Four days after the Fourth of July the Rendezvous ended with most of its revelers sick, sorry and broke. That did not include General Ashley who headed for St. Louis with $47,000 in skins and 50 men on the horses once owned by the Hudson's Bay Company deserters. Jedediah Smith led the horse train, and William Sublette rode drag, not wishin' to explain his healin' razor cuts to the General.

En route to the Big Horn River, Ashley ordered Sublette and 20 other men to accompany him to a cache of 45 beaver packs he'd buried a month before near the bank of the Green River. After raising the cache, they made camp.

While they were breaking camp at dawn 60 Blackfeet rode howling from the darkness. But the Blackfeet couldn't attack between rifle salvos, because this time Sublette made some men reload while others fired like he'd told them to in the first battle with the Arikaras.

Puzzled by Sublette's steady-fire tactic, the Blackfeet retreated, driving off all but two of Ashley's horses. Beckwourth refused to get out of the horses' way, so the Blackfeet shot him in the thigh as they left. Moses "Black" Harris dug the bullet out of Beckwourth's leg and gave it to him in a little bag of salt to wear around his neck on a thong. And Beckwourth wore it.

General Ashley'd known a disaster was coming, and he hoped the attack was it. He still had to get his furs down river, or the first Rendezvous would be another fiasco like his political campaign. Knowing he could count on Sublette, he dispatched the big blond fellow back to the main party for new mounts.

Sublette bent low on his black and white pinto, ridin' it at a walk through the trees to cut noise and dust. Stayin' off the ridgelines, he ate jerky and made no fires. He stopped often to listen and smell the wind.

William knew brother Milton woulda kicked this pinto in the flanks and outrun every Blackfoot north o' the Platte, but he wasn't Milton. He double checked the charges and prime on his rifle, both boot pistols and the big bore .71 caliber belt pistol he'd traded from one of the Hudson's Bay Iroquois for two pints of whiskey. If he got jumped, there'd be at least four Blackfoot ponies goin' home empty. It dawned on him he should be learnin' to sign from Fitz. It'd be a lot quieter signin' with an Indian than blowin' a hole through him. Sublette pressed on quietly, methodically.

While Ashley waited for mounts, his men fought off a midnight attack by the Crows, using the Sublette tactic of staggered firing. The Crows weren't ready for it either and vanished into the dawn mists. Ashley brooded over his constant feelings of doom. First the Blackfeet -- then the Crows -- what next?

Sublette led the rescuers back with the horses, reuniting Ashley's parties. They reached the Big Horn and began building bull boats. Clyman, who'd materialized from no place after the Crow raid, shot buffalo for hides while others cut the willows.

Ashley liked the solidarity in the Judge's boy, Bill Sublette. Placing Sublette in command, he ordered him to take the remaining horses with half the men, and return to the mountains to trap until the snows came.

Ashley's fur caravan glided into the Missouri River. At the mouth of the Yellowstone Ashley was surprised to find General Atkinson with five keelboats of soldiers, but even more shocked to meet Benjamin O'Fallon with his liver intact. They were negotiating treaties with Ed Rose as interpreter. General Atkinson invited Ashley and Jedediah Smith to load all the beaver aboard the keelboat Buffalo.

On the way down the Missouri, Ashley confided to O'Fallon that South Pass provided a safe and easy path through the Rocky Mountains. O'Fallon said he'd put that in a letter to the Secretary of War as soon as he reached Council Bluffs.

Slit-eyed, Ed Rose avoided Jedediah, but asked Ashley where Clyman and Sublette were. Ashley decided Rose was too anxious and gave a useless answer.

Ashley and Smith did not debark at Council Bluffs with Atkinson and O'Fallon, but continued on to St. Louis, reaching their familiar dock on October 4, 1825, three months after the fur trade's first Rendezvous. Newspapers exaggerated the Rendezvous' success, but Ashley did not ask for a retraction.

Instead, sure one good Rendezvous deserved another, Ashley immediately set about outfitting a new expedition of 70 men, 160 mules and horses with $20,000 worth of merchandise. But William H. Ashley decided not to leave for the mountains with Jedediah because he had a wedding to attend on October 25th -- his own.

Ashley planned to hire the ballroom in St. Louis's best hotel for his wedding and reception but Eliza Christy would not hear of it. She urged that her father William's stone mansion had hosted many elegant family weddings. And since he'd given them a 98,000 square foot lot as a wedding present for the building of their home, he'd be crushed if their wedding fled his roof.

Eliza Christy's prominent family invited over 300 French and American elite and provided a white-wigged symphony orchestra with liveried servants for the gala event of the St. Louis fall social season. Eliza was secretly vexed at most of the guests for abandoning the General's bid for the governorship. She vowed to get even with them in a most fitting way.

In Ashley's mind Eliza had seemed more of a plain woman to be loved for her intelligence, good breeding and social graces. But that was before he'd seen her in her full length white silk wedding gown with its chic embroidery, ribbons and veils. Eliza was a mannerly goddess with more interesting cleavage than he'd ever seen before. Her silken brown hair was coiled at the back of her head, held by a diamond studded mother-of-pearl comb. Several loose ringlets of hair draped over her silver head- band to dangle interestingly about her face. Eliza's face was powdered to alabaster with rose lip rouge, and she smelled divine. She'd even done something to her eyes, but Ashley wasn't sure what.

Even though the vast Christy home was drafty when the first carriages arrived, it was sultry by the time they closed the doors to keep out the rest of St. Louis. Ashley learned the Christy family had definite ideas about decorum, pomp and circumstance. Everything proceeded according to an elaborate plan. After vows were exchanged, their reception began.

General Ashley sat beside Eliza near the orchestra. She'd taken him for outfitting to Godoine's in St. Charles, the area's fashion leader where her clothes had been created. He'd wanted to wear his Militia uniform, but she said it was tired and styleless. A slight graying Frenchman with a thin mustache had dressed the General more ornately than anything he'd ever imagined for himself. He wore shiny black leather-soled dancing shoes just a bit too snug. His dark blue trousers were also too tight in the thighs "to make him look younger." His slate gray cut-away waistcoat with tails and silver gray buttons was topped by a black cravat over a collar with points like small horns protruding on either side of his chin. For all the discomfort and expense, Ashley rather liked it.

At precisely eight o'clock, the symphony played a short fanfare. Eliza and William Ashley rose, bowed, waved to the crowd and sat down to polite applause.

The orchestra filled the room with the Overture to The Magic Flute by Mozart. While the polite music droned on, Ashley whispered to Mrs. Ashley," How could you possibly find such a glorious gown in the three weeks since I came home from the mountains?"

Eliza smiled warmly, "Bill, This gown has been a year in the making. It began with a Pandora Doll, presented just as I am tonight, shipped to us by Godoine's niece Monique, a Parisian fashion designer. From that, Godoine and his other niece, Fifi, spent months creating this gown and acquiring my accessories."

Ashley shamed himself for ever doubting her loyalty. "You must have been pretty sure of this wedding."

"Bill, I never doubted it for a second. I'm your second wife, but you are my first husband. I will stand by you till I die."

He raised her hand, smoothed the lace back and kissed her palm with all his heart and soul.

The symphony bid adieu to Mozart, but to the audience's chagrin, they ground out a dry rendition of the First Movement of Haydn's London Symphony No. 93. Polite coughs and a few screeching chair legs voiced the crowd's quiet agony. When it seemed the evening was doomed, Eliza whispered, "These plutocrats wouldn't talk about you when you were running for Governor, but they surely will after this!"

Eliza rose and walked lightly to stand well poised at the conductor's back. She raised her arms to the bored legion. Haydn trailed off.

Eliza spoke in silvery tones that rang through the grand room, "You came here tonight expecting to dance the Minuet -- or at the wildest a Cotillion or Quadrille, but the General and I will have none of that! Tonight we will Waltz in close embrace in those dizzying swirls that set the spirit free!"

The stuffy crowd's mood catapulted from boredom to audible amazement.

"Not too shocked now, please! They've danced the Waltz in stodgy old London for a decade. No one has died from the immodesty of the Waltz! It's a turning, gliding dance in 3/4 time with six evenly accented steps to a full turn per every two bars of music. You need only repeat that until your joy overcomes your intelligence!" She extended her white gloved arm, "William, may I have the honor of this Waltz?"

As he strode toward her, his heart breaking down the walls of his chest, Ashley heard Eliza command, "Maestro -- the Radetzky March!" She took him in her arms and began to twirl to the rousing, explosive Strauss. Only a few elegantly dressed couples ventured out to join the Ashleys until her whirlwind gown and the tilt of her head seduced them all. The guests rushed from their chairs to share the bombastic music's magic with the Ashleys. The melody engulfed the hearts of the dancers -- merging all in a lilting fantasy of swirling gowns and laughter and crystal chandeliers, trembling in jubilant splendor.

 

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