General Fiction posted December 3, 2010


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Hard times on the Oregon Trail

Smiley John, Prop

by humpwhistle















 
 

 
We was half lost, full bent-over tuckered, and give-up hungry when we rumbled acrost the most godforsaken beautiful little tradin' post we'd ever seen.  'Course it was the first tradin' post we'd seen in these last two months of westward wanderin', so our first judgment mighta been a little too belly-growl rosy.



Truth is, it wasn't much of a post at all. Just an acre or so of rough-stand clearing and a single none-too-true plank-and-bark structure with a board over the door washed to read: Honest Trading, Smiley John, Prop.


The clearing itself was wedged just a few yards east of yet another fork in the Snake, which I have come to believe is the forky-est river the Almighty ever created.  Makes the North Platte look like a crow fly.


There was little sign of life in the clearing, just two Indians of unfamiliar tribe and un-alarming demeanor.  They was sittin' cross-legged---a jug twixt 'em---on the buildin's slanty porch. Indians and tradin' posts go together like cap and ball. But every other tradin' post we'd come acrost during our travels had some sort of fortification to provide succor from heathen attacks and such treachery.  Not this one.  In my casual estimation, Honest Trading, Smiley John, Prop. was a stronghold unlikely to weather a polite sneeze.


By now our wagons, the five that was left, had formed a rough semi-circle in front of the rickety post.  For a few moments we just sat our wagons and gazed in wonderment at our apparent salvation.  Then a white man---least I took him for white, mostly by his clothes---come stompin' out the door hitchin' 'spenders over scarecrow shoulders.  A horse pistol stuck at a rude angle down his britches.  Despite the fact that nothin' about his features nor carriage suggested the name Smiley John, I nonetheless judged him to be the owner of the establishment.


Well, if we was surprised to have stumbled upon this flea-bitten excuse for a tradin' post, I reckoned that Smiley John was ever more surprised to have been stumbled upon.


"What the hell do you all want?" was his greeting.  Surly John I'da called him.


Over the twelve-hundred or so miles and considerable loss of life we endured to get our woe-begotten little caravan to this point, the reins of leadership had been passed down many times.  So many times, in fact, they were now held in my shaky, reluctant hands.  "Name's Jemal Farley," I said.  "Would you be Mr. Prop?"


He squinted in my direction, thumbed his 'spenders, and spit a gooey stream through an acorn-size tooth gap.  "Folks 'round here call me Smiley John."

I grinned.  "Folks 'round here got a sense of humor, I reckon."


He looked like he might squeeze a good-sized porcupine backwards out his hind end.  "What's that supposed to mean, mister?"


"Oh, it don't mean nothing, Mr. Prop.  I just 'spect smiley means somethin' different out here than it does back east."


"Mebbe," he said, leanin' against a porch post that a runt kitten wouldn't dare brush against.  "So, whaddaya want? Whiskey?"


I didn't have to look at my wife or anybody else in our party to know their hopes of sweet succor were rapidly turning into sour mash.


"Whiskey?" I said.  "Well, me and Big Mrs. Hultgren, might welcome a touch or two. But we was hoping you might have something with a little more starch, you know? For the other women and children. Something to help us get where we're going without scaring the little beasties out of rifle range with the rumblin' of our stomachs. You see?"


"You got money?" asked the dour Mr. Smiley John.


"Money? Oh no, Mr. Prop, we got something much better than money."


By then we had half a dozen rifle barrels pointed at various much-valued parts of Smiley John's scrawny anatomy.  A couple more sights was casually trained on the two porch Injuns.


"Not money, Mr. Prop." I cocked my Hawken loudly.  "See, we's what you call alchemists.  We turn lead into anything we need."


 
***


 
It wasn't the wilderness that made us wild.  Not the land that had bucked and grudged us ever' inch. Nor the weather that blistered us raw, then froze us solid.  No, it wasn't even the achin' hunger nor the drainin' thirst that kindled our uncivilized instincts.  No.  It was the wild men---white and red---who stole from us, cheated us, burned, scalped, raped, and kilt us that turned us few survivors into the lawless brigands we'd become.


When we left Independence, we was just dumb ox-pushing pilgrims. By the time we was fifty miles west, we began to realize we was just dumb prey.  Since then, we have absorbed quite a few more hard-knocks, buried more lost souls, and compromised a Bible's worth of beliefs, but we ain't dumb prey no more.


 
***


 
"So, brother Henry, what's Mr. Prop's story?"  We was sitting inside the dark, moldy tradin' post pullin' gentle on a jug.  Henry slicked his finger into the jug-ear, slung it onto his shoulder and took a good slug.  "You're welcome," I said.


"Mr. Prop says the real fort is down-river on the north fork about six, seven miles.  This place is here 'cause the weak injuns on this side of the river won't cross for fear of the strong injuns on t'other side.  Fella named La Ramie seems to be the bull goose in that barnyard.  Sent Smiley John Prop down here to sweep up whatever crumbs these here red rascals can scrape."  He passed the jug.  "Showed me a broke-down old wagon with a few bales of mangy pelts.  Mostly wolf and fox.  No buffler, ner beaver.  These Injuns be poor buggers.  Mr. Prop calls 'em Cayuse."


Big Mrs. Hultgren, widowed since the business at Cross Creek, joined us.  I had asked her to inventory the goods. She slick-fingered the jug-ear and took an impressive pull.  I waited on her report.


"Paltry," her assessment.  I waited while she pulled again.  "Coupla dozen mothy company blankets, tradin' knives and cook pots, ribbons, beads, tobacco, and whiskey.  Lots of whiskey."  Which must've reminded her she was still thirsty.


"What about stores?" I asked when she finally stopped suckling.


"A little grain--"


"Tell Dutch to--"


"Give it to the stock, yeah, already done."  She shot me a reproving glance.  "They's probably shittin' it out by now."  She passed the jug to Henry.  "Some flour, salt pork, lard, beans, two slabs of side meat, molasses, sugar, salt and coffee.  Like I said, paltry. But not much trouble for the takin'."


"Weapons?"


"Prop's horse pistol, two navy Colts, a double-dip, and a coupla muskets Hugh Glass musta give up on 'fore he learnt to shave."  Henry held the jug toward me, but Mrs. Hultgren made a clean grab.  After another prodigious swig, she added, "A 15-pound powder keg,  and about enough lead to make it useful.  Don't expect they was thinkin' on makin' a stand."


"Thanks, Mrs. Hultgren.  Please set aside enough for a good biscuit and bean supper, then tell Hardy and Thibideau to divide the rest of the grub between my wagon and Henry's."


"Christ, Farley, ain't you been payin' attention?"


Only then did I notice the shelves was already cleaner than a pauper's toothpick.  "Sorry Jeanette, I shoulda known you'd beat me to the punch.  Would you mind askin' my missus to join me and Henry?"


"Sure thing, Jemal."  She picked up the jug and walked toward the door.


"Hey, where you goin' with that?" whined Henry.


"Gonna make friends with a coupla porch Injuns.  They might know something we don't. " Henry tossed her a jaw-crackin' grin.  Big Jeanette Hultgren caught it, and blushed like a polished apple.  Then, big as she was, she Saturday-night sashayed out the door.


Henry shook his head. "If that woman don't beat the buttons off my britches."

 

***

 

I pulled another jug out from under my chair and passed it to Henry.  "What'd Prop tell you about this La Ramie and his bunch?"

"La Ramie's an old-time river Frenchie married into the local devils.  Been dealing their pelts for years.  Now he's got a dozen or so independents in cahoots with him.  Trying to skim off the American Company up to Fort Hall."


"La Ramie got a fort?"


"Proper stockade.  Brits used to call it Fort William.  At least a dozen hunters and trappers hanging around all the time.  Plus a sizeable tepee village outside the walls.  Mostly Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe."  He pulled the cork, and offered the jug to me.  I took it.  "Jemal, you ain't thinkin' of--"

"Oh, no.  Come first light, our little outlaw band will be makin' tracks down the south fork and out of Monsieur La Ramie's backyard."

Henry passed a backhand 'crost lips.  "We'll be leaving tracks a blind mole could follow."

I handed back the jug.  "Can't be helped.  But the way I see it, Mr. Smiley John Prop musta done something unpopular to get hisself exiled to this scruffy little Elba.  I'm wagerin' that it could be weeks before anybody knows we even been here.   By that time, what with rains and such, our wagon tracks won't amount to teeth in a hen's mouth."  I gestured with my chin.  "My guess is those two out on the porch and their brethren are likely to take the blame."  I noted the troubled look on my little brother's face, probably caused by the notion someone else'd be takin' our heat.  "Can't be helped," I repeated

"And I suppose Mr. Prop's not gonna set the record straight?"

"Didn't he tell you?  Mr. Prop be hankering to see the Oregon territory.  And I convinced him to come along with us."

"Uh, huh. Convinced him, did you?  One more mouth to feed.  And surly company to boot."

"Can't be helped, brother Henry. Can't be helped."

A figure blocked the light from the door.  Kathleen stood there, backlit by the lowering sun, her hands on her hips, madder than a stepped-on bee.  She looked lovely.

"Jemal Farley, don't you be touchin' that jug.  And you come out here into the daylight where there's work to be did."

Kathleen's my second wife.  The lung sickness took my first.  Being as I was already forty-years-old and on the shy side of prosperous, I contented myself to settle into the quiet life of an agin' farm widower.  Kathleen, being twenty-eight,  and recently widowed herself, well, she hatched other plans.  Two years after I put Celia in the ground, I musta blinked and Kathleen thought it was a wink, and we got hitched before I was through scratchin' my head 'bout the whole doin's.  But I ain't complainin'.  Fact is, most days, I cock-a-doodle-do.
 
I joined Kathleen out on the teetery porch.

"Jemal Farley, just what do you think you're doin' sittin' in the shade while there's work to be done?"

I nodded, said, "What work did you have in mind, Sweet Kate?"

"Don't be Sweet Kate-in' me after you been pullin' on that jug. And I'm talkin' about leaderin' work. Givin' orders, postin' sentries, sendin' out scouts."  Kathleen's pa had been a captain in Langdon's cavalry.  I reckon wherever he is, he's presently pretty proud of his little girl.

"Why, that's good thinkin', Kate. But unless I miss my guess, young Dutch has already followed them same orders without me havin' to give 'em.  See, I like to do my leaderin' quiet." I took her arm and led her down the warped steps. "Let's go see that the boys repacked our wagon proper, then take a gander at what Big Jeanette and the other ladies are cookin' up for supper.  I'm hungrier than a toothless she-bear at a taffy-pull."

"Jemal Farley, that don't make no sense."

"No, I reckon it don't, Sweet Kate, but that's how hungry I am."

Biscuits and salt-pork beans is a fine meal anytime. But when you've been livin' on water and dried corn for the better part of a week, biscuits and beans'll sure make the mouth a watery place.

***

As I counted they would, the ladies kept baking biscuits long past dark, so we had cold biscuits and hot coffee for breakfast as we hitched the teams and followed our chosen fork south-by-southwest away from the Honest Trading post that we had just pillaged. Dutch and Nimitz volunteered to lag behind for a spell to cover our retreat should La Ramie or any of his men make an untimely appearance. The two porch Injuns watched passively as we paraded by. We didn't bother to tie them up, we just left them a couple of jugs. Some bonds are stronger than others.

Mr. Prop was neatly turkey-trussed and enjoying the hospitality of me and the missus' marital bed in the back of the wagon.

Kathleen nearly conniptioned when she seen him.  "Jemal Farley, I don't like it one bit."

"Can't be helped, Pretty."

"They's four other wagons, Jemal Farley. What is that disgustin' little man doin' on our bed?"

"He can hear you, you know."

"Jemal Farley, I don't care if he can hear God speakin' to the angels, and don't you be tryin' me, you understand?"

"Katie, we can't leave him behind to tell everybody what we done, or where we're goin' to."

"That don't explain why he's lying in our bed."

"Katie, darlin', I admit we ain't won us no prize. So, if you want, I'll just pull on these here lines, jump down, drag Mr. Smiley John Prop outta our marriage bed and put a buffalo slug in his ear. If that's what you really want, that is. "

"Can't he ride with Henry?"

"Sweet Kate, you are a genius. When we stop for supper, would you bestow upon Henry the good news?"
 
***

We'd just finished another fine biscuit supper when Dutch and Nimitz came straggling into camp. Rain had begun to fall.  We sat on the ground under some old canvas stretched out from the back of Henry's wagon.  I'd brought Smiley John with me, untied and rubbin' his wrists.

Henry produced a jug, as Dutch give his report. "We hung back about four, five hours, watching from the cottonwoods. No sign of La Ramie's bunch.  But you all wasn't gone more time than it takes to say so when about twenty red buggers---men and women---come through the trees and lickety-split scavenged everything we didn't."  He took his turn at the jug. "Skittery bunch, they were.  Nimitz here fired off a round to fun 'em a bit and they lit out slicker than spit in a high wind."  Dutchie hoo-rahed some, then handed the jug off to the knee-slappin' Nimitz.

"So, Smiley John," I said, "how long you reckon 'til La Ramie discovers you're out of business?"

"Don't get comfortable, old man." He sneered, "These two boys got here just in time for the party. La Ramie and the rest'll be coming through them trees yonder any minute."

I took a hit from the jug, then passed it straight to Smiley John.  He looked at it skeptical, then took a tentative swig. "Well, I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. Prop. And I expect you should be, too."

He wiped his mouth with his sleeve as Henry palmed the jug.  "Whaddaya mean, old man?  La Ramie's comin' to get me."

"That's just what I'm thinkin', Smiley. See, if I was Monsieur La Ramie, and I was watchin' this little powwow from out there in the dark?  Well, I'd be thinkin' Mr. Smiley John Prop is not the loyal employee I trusted him to be."

"Now wait--"

"No sir, I'd be thinkin' that little piece of ox snot sold me out to the first sorry bunch of pilgrims--"

"That ain't the way it was!  You--"

"Truth is, if La Ramie is out there...well, all I'm sayin' is, I wouldn't want to be settin' right next to you."  Henry scooted over a mite.

"But that ain't the way it went, old man. Your bunch rustled me proper."  He held out his wrists.  "These burns'll tell the truth."

"I suppose eventually they will, but I 'spect you're likely to be wearin' one of their balls in your brain pan by then."

Smiley John Prop glanced nervously out to the tree line.

"So, Smiley, the truth now.  How long you figure we got 'til La Ramie finds out you abandoned your post?"

He folded his arms acrost his chest.  "Coupla weeks, at least."
 
***

I climbed up into the wagon.

"Jemal Farley, that you?"

"None other, Pretty Kate.  Who was you expectin'?"

"You better not've brung that Mr. Smelly John Prop with you."

"Oh no, Little Dove, Smelly can sleep in the mud for all it matters to me. It's just you and me Mrs. Jemal Farley."

"You post sentries?"

"Yes'm. But if you don't mind, I'm all leadered-out for the night."
 
***

If Monsieur La Ramie ever found out what we done, he never came lookin' for us.

A coupla weeks west, we come acrost some bubblin' springs, and a rather rude bunch of Injuns with pierced noses, from whom we were able to, uh, acquire a small string of handsome spotted ponies.

Our little caravan continues toward the settin' sun.  Henry, Dutch and some of the other boys out-ride their ponies in a wide circle.  Scoutin' trouble, sniffin' for easy opportunity.  It is a hard and perilous trail we trek, and while we ain't out of the woods, we ain't dumb prey no more, neither.

By the by, Old Smiley John's real name is Marion. And, aside from his being lazy, he ain't such a bad sort. Oh, and Darlin' Kate thinks she got got a dose of the mornin' heaves.  If that don't just beat the buttons off my britches.
 






 


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