"Don't 'member Pa at all," slurred the youngest of five men gathered around the night-time warmth of a late-spring Rocky Mountain campfire.
"I was jus' two when they shot him dead at Seven Oaks," the speaker continued as he took another sip of whiskey and passed the bottle to the man to his right, "and the next day the Red River Colony broke up with all the White folks headin' east and Ma and me heading north to Lake Manitoba and the Metis camp where I grew up tradin'—sometime with the Northern Fur Company what killed my Pa and sometime with the Hudson's Bay Company, the same outfit what brung me to this here rendezvous."
The other four men were more taciturn, quietly drinking whiskey and nodding every so often to let the beardless man know they were paying attention.
Other campfires stretched as far as they could see, each of them surrounded by men who had survived the previous winter trapping beaver, otter, and whatever else they could skin for fur.
Every so often rifle shots would crack the way lightning does when it strikes close by and overhead.
Sounds of men singing, laughing, arguing, and fighting could be heard coming from all directions and drunken trappers staggered lost in the dark, sometimes passing out so quick that they fell into nearby campfires like moths drawn to a flame.
"Ever kill a bear?" one of the older men asked before answering his own question. "Killed one last month what was goin' at my grub. Shot her in the eye and dropped her dead—straight down like she was a dollop of griddle cake dough dropped onto a pan."
The fire flared up as one of the men added a fresh piece of wood.
"Traded her coat to Sublette for a new set of traps," he continued, "and smoked 'nough pemmican to last me through summer."
The man, whose grey, tangled beard was tucked into a foul-smelling wool shirt turned to the man on his left.
"Got more pemmican what I need," he said. "Trade you fer some of that dry powder you got in that keg of your'n."
"Two pound for half-a-pound," came the answer.
The old man said, "Done," and that was that.
"Never killed a grizz, yet," said the younger man, who went by the name of Philippe. "But up on the Athabasca I had one knock me twenty feet 'cross the camp with the back of his paw."
"Knows it," said the man with the keg of gunpower. "Seen the same thing happen to Sam Giliken near Big Hole two year ago, jus' before Pierre's Hole. Funny. Came through it nary a scratch but got shot through dead by one of them Gros Ventre during the fight what came after."
Philippe nodded, acknowledging the man's loss before continuing his story.
"Never been so skeered in my life, so I lay there on my back tryin' to look like I was dead—hopin' he'd get interested in somethin' else or jus' get bored and wander away. But he walks up to me slow like, sniffin' and gruntin' 'til he pokes his muzzle up against my face, bares his teeth, and starts growlin' like he was offering grace afore dinner.
"I knows I got to do somethin' and do it right quick, so I pull out my Green River and rake the blade 'cross his nose. Cut him so deep that he rears up and falls over backwards. Nothin' he could do 'bout it but run off howlin' into the trees, prob'ly lookin' to stick his bleedin' face into some cold water.
"But like I said," he added after taking another long pull of whiskey, "I never killed a bear, 'cept mebbe the one I shot that wandered off and we trailed her for two days but never found her. She might of died but can't know for sure."
That ended the conversation. So, after listening to the fire spark and sputter for another hour, the boy stood up, nodded, and wound his way through the maze of tents until he came to his own, which he entered and immediately fell to the ground in a deep sleep.
Philippe Girard was 20 years old and so drunk he didn't feel the full effect of the kick to his ribs until he woke up the next morning.
"Sacrebleu!" he winced as the sharp pain caused him to sit up and then drove him flat back to the floor.
The pain not only roused him from unconsciousness but forced him to face up to the worst hangover he had ever had.
The words entered his head and began pounding on the inside of his skull as if trying to get back out again.
"Damn you, Philippe!" shouted the voice. "I didn't drag you all the way down here to Ham's Fork so you could get drunk. Hell, you could have stayed at Pierre's Hole and gotten just as drunk without me havin' to coddle you like you were some mama's boy! Are you listening to me? Do you understand what I'm sayin'?"
Through the fog in his brain, Philippe slowly sifted through enough bits and pieces of displaced memory to recognize the voice.
"Oui, oui." he muttered as he forced himself to balance upright on his knees. "Pardonne-moi. Je suis un imbécile."
"From now on, no more parle Fran çais," growled the voice of Will Marquette, Philippe's Hudson's Bay Company superior. "First time we've been to one of these rendezvous, but even so, we've been feudin' with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company long enough. It's 1834, for God's sake, and time we buried the hatchet under a rock 'stead of into each other's brains. The fur's beginnin' to run low and we've got to stake our claim to get as much as we can out of what's left."
It had taken a lot of time and effort to round up enough HBC men and trade goods to make a show of strength at the Wyoming rendezvous and it was going to be Philippe's job to make sure all the folks that spoke French understood everything that was said in English.
Not that it mattered much, since just about everyone at the rendezvous spoke a passable amount of both, along with enough Blackfeet, Crow, and Shoshone to get by.
As the supply of beaver dried up the trappers kept moving further west, leaving Wyoming, Utah, and Montana and pushing past the Tetons into the disputed Oregon Territory through the Sawtooths, down the Snake, and beyond—down the Columbia to John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company in Astoria.
Philippe's head cleared enough to ask a question he'd been chewing on for several days.
"Look, why don't we just leave? We've already ground Sublette and them Rocky Mountain boys under heel by undercuttin' their trade goods. Everyone knows they're good as broke. And Wyeth and his crew got kicked up-river and since no one's buyin' their supplies they're good as broke too. And Astor's so old he's good as dead and you keep sayin' how he's plannin' to break up his company into bits and pieces. And Warren Ferris, he's obliged to us and the Company and he's heading south to the Uinta's and below . . . I mean, c'mon, Will, Hudson's Bay's goin' to run the table if'n we can set up them supply lines down the Snake."
"You might be right," Will answered, "but you might be wrong. It's Wyeth I'm worried about. If he can find folks willin' to trade furs for his goods there's no tellin' what he could do with all those boys he brought with him."
"Here me out, Will, and call it off—the meetin' with Sublette and Bridger and all. It's a waste of time and you know it. We've got more furs than we can carry. I've already had my fill of hootin' and hollerin' and, by God, I swear I got my ribs broken last night. What happened? Who did it? Tell me, Will, and I'll track 'em down and break somethin' that'll hurt 'em more than a busted rib!"
"Then try and break me," Will snarled, "'cause it was the toe of my boot that caught you in the ribs when you was snorin' louder than a hibernatin' grizz—keepin' us decent, sober folks wide awake and getting' everybody in the tent steamin' mad for it."
Philippe was beat, and he knew it.
"Will," he sighed, "for what you done, I'd break every bone in your body if I could get away with it. But since I can't then I hope one of them Gros Ventres sneaks up on you when you're not lookin' and does it for me, you hear—like they did in '32!"
Will took the threat and threw it straight back into Pierre's face.
"From what I heard it was Sublette's outfit that did the sneakin', and the Gros Ventre gave 'em what they deserved. Good men died that day—and some women and children on the Gros Ventre side, too."
Will glared at Philippe without blinking until he saw Philippe's own glare began to fade.
"And back in the day one of them children could have been you," Will continued. "Born and bred with Indians, I hear—and you a breed . . . "
Philippe began to blink back tears as Will continued his rant.
"So, now you say you want the Gros Ventre to do me in, and hearin' you talk like that gives me pause to wonder just whose side you're on."
A near-by rifle shot broke the icy silence that had grown between the two men.
"Well?" Will demanded.
"Well, what?" Pierre snapped back as he raised his eyes high enough to reconnect with Will's.
"I should have kicked you in the head," Will snorted, "'stead of wastin' my toe on your ribs, you no good . . . "
"Enough," Philippe whispered as two more rifle shots rang out. "I don't want nobody to do you in. I was just angry 'cause of my rib and all."
Philippe hesitated for a moment before reaching out his hand.
"I'm a breed, it's true. But, Will, I'm on your side and glad to call you my friend."
Will met Philippe's hand with his own, a gesture that caused Philippe to break into a grin.
"But I'd be even gladder if you hadn't gone off and kicked me last night!"
The men's hands held together long enough for Will to grin back.
"Pack your gear, friend," he said as he let go of Philippe's hand, "and tell the rest of the company to do the same. 'Cause you're right—we done what we came here to do and it's time to go afore one of them lead balls comes down and hits me on the head."
By midday, Will, Philippe and the Hudson's Bay Company had left Ham's Fork heading north and then west to Pierre's Hole and beyond.
As they entered the Oregon Territory the emerging track of the Oregon Trail and the future of the American West followed them like a shadow.
Although the annual Rocky Mountain rendezvous continued until 1840, the 1834 gathering at Ham's Fork was the last to meet on such a grand scale. That summer the Rocky Mountain Fur Company sold out even before they got their furs back to St. Louis, and the trading companies that came later never again enjoyed the prosperity of earlier, shining times.
As the summer of 1834 progressed, Nathaniel Wyeth traded enough gear to independent trappers to finance the building of Fort Hall just to the south of Pierre's Hole on the upper Snake River near modern-day Pocatello, Idaho.
Several months after that, Hudson's Bay Company countered by building Fort Boise between the Sawtooth Mountains and the lower Snake, consolidating their control of the fur trade in the Oregon Territory to the point where two years later, in 1836, they bought out Wyeth and took possession of Fort Hall—the same year that Priscilla Whitman and Eliza Spalding, accompanying their missionary husbands Marcus and Henry, became the first White woman to cross the Rocky Mountains—over South Pass and in wagons.
Also, in 1834, John Jacob Astor sold off his interest in the Pacific coast branch of the American Fur Company, with headquarters at the mouth of the Columbia River in Astoria. In response, Hudson's Bay Company moved into Astoria and renamed it Fort George—while at the same time expanding Fort Vancouver (across the Columbia River from modern-day Portland, Oregon) and establishing it as the administration center for what remained of the Pacific Northwest fur trade, an industry doomed that same year as silk replaced fur as the European hat of choice.
In 1846, Hudson's Bay Company was forced to abandon the Oregon Territory and withdraw to the north after the British/American treaty was signed that drew the border between Canada and the United States along the 49th parallel.
With the departure of the Hudson's Bay Company, the fur trade and the mountain men who opened up the American west faded into history—and entered the realm of legend.