“Drouillard, I cain’t pretend to understand you, not one bit,” Chouteau said, as he tied the last of the day’s furs into a bundle. “I mean, just look at you. Here you sit, as much a white man as me, and yet you make excuses for the Blackfoots. You know they’d skin you as soon as look at you, right?”
George Drouillard regarded his friend, who had accompanied him on two years of fur trading expeditions into the heart of Montana. “I’m not as white as you, Chouteau. You forget I’m half redskin.”
“Yup, and I’m a quarter. My grand pop was Mic Mac. But no matter. Either way, we’re both white enough.” Chouteau sheathed his knife and hoisted the bundle of furs onto the sled. Drouillard didn’t answer, but continued working on the trap in the firelight, replacing the broken pin of the dog post. He looked up at the last glimmer of daylight, reflecting on the spring melt.
In the North, the snows lingered into May. And in this high country, it was still piled deep around the heavy pinions, especially on the southern slopes, and in the deeper parts of the woods. It gave the air a freshness that Drouillard loved. Although the cold air that settled in these valleys overnight ensured that they’d be sleeping under their buffalo robes.
“One thing I know, George, is that you’re certainly as ornery as any half-breed. Maybe that’s your problem.”
“Well, if half of me is ornery, you’re probably right. It’s the red side,” Drouillard said, tossing the repaired trap onto a pile they’d set out in the morning. “But these past few years, I guess I’ve seen too much to be proud of the white side. Too many deaths. Too many lies.”
“You’re talking about Lewis and Clarke, ain’t ya?” Chouteau said, sinking heavily onto a fallen log they used to reflect the heat of the fire.
“No, not just,” Drouillard said. He hoped his tone would convey to his friend that this conversation had grown tiresome. He’d have preferred nothing more than just roasting the rest of their beaver tails over the fire and enjoying the night air in silence.
“Well, like it or not, friend, the white race is here to stay,” the younger man said, not taking the hint.
Drouillard didn’t respond. He liked Chouteau, and he was an agreeable companion on these long trapping expeditions. He could set a beaver trap faster and with a trigger more sensitive than any man he’d ever met. And his heart was good, unlike so many other white men he had known in his thirty-four years. He had probably already told this man too much about the dark hatred that had been growing in his heart for the past decade.
George Drouillard was the son of a French-Canadian father and a Shawnee mother, and at the age of twenty-eight, he had been recruited by Merriwether Lewis to be part of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His reputation as a hunter and interpreter was well deserved, and he served the expedition with honor. But in his long travels with the explorers, he couldn’t help but see what the white men were doing to the Indian populations they encountered. At first, he too had dismissed the tribes as savages, but he soon came to see them as exemplars of dignity and strength, under relentless assault by forces they could not understand or control.
After the expeditions returned, he found himself on his own with a growing heaviness in his heart. Not knowing what else to do with his life, he returned to the West, intent on finding some peace in the wilderness. Eventually, he ended up working with the Missouri Fur Company under the infamous Manuel Lisa. The company allowed him to spend as much time as he would like alone, or with only a single companion. He found that the only way to quell the heaviness of his heart, and blunt the memories of what he had helped the white man do in his early years, was to escape into the deep, dark wilderness. Both the wilderness of the great northern mountains, but also the wilderness within himself.
And yet, the encroaching white empire followed him to the frontier. He continued to witness the defiling of the native lands, and the native people. Even the Blackfoot, as hostile as they were, seemed to represent the last gasp of a people determined to survive against enormous odds. A people who predated the Europeans in this land by untold thousands of years.
Watching it all weighed heavily on his heart, and being alone was the only salve to his conscience he had discovered. He regretted having agreed to this foray with Chouteau. He would have found much more peace with just himself and the beavers in his traps.
Chouteau was continuing to babble as he turned the meat on the coals. “The time of the red man is over, George. This is the white man’s continent now. It’s just a matter of time. Be glad you’re not a full-blooded redskin. Hell, you can pass for white any day, and Drouillard is a good French name. Best to forget all this business about the damn natives. In a hundred years, there won’t be any of them left.”
Drouillard bristled, but said nothing.
“You said your daddy was a redskin?”
“Shawnee.” He wished the man would just shut up and eat. Or crawl under his buffalo robe and leave him be.
“That’s right, Shawnee. They were pretty much beaten down by the time you were born, I’d imagine. So have you ever really known a world where the Indians ruled?”
“No,” Drouillard replied, and looked up at the other man. “But time is long, and this land has always belonged to the red man. The white settlers may be stronger now. But they’re just passing through. The land belongs to the Shawnee and the Choctaw. And the Blackfoot. It will be theirs again.”
“Not in our lifetimes, my friend,” the other man laughed.
“Perhaps not,” Drouillard conceded.
“And why put the goddamn Blackfoots on that list? You know they’re savages, and they’d cut your throat if they got a chance. They’ve been terrorizing the Missouri Company for months. We’ll be lucky to get out of here with our skins. And I ain’t talkin’ about the beaver pelts.”
And it will be no less than either of us deserve, Drouillard thought.
The ambush Chouteau feared came the next afternoon, when they were just three miles from their camp, checking the traps they had set out the day before. When it came, it came suddenly, and afterward, Drouillard remembered very little of the actual fighting. The forest seemed quiet and peaceful one moment, and then the raiders appeared from behind trees like ghosts, and were on the trappers with furious cries.
It could have been far worse. The Blackfoot raiding party was just a group of four, and the attackers were on foot. They carried tomahawks and knives, and in the dense forest, the trapper’s guns were almost useless. After their first, ineffectual shots, Chouteau and Drouillard used their guns as clubs, and when that failed to drive the attackers back, the fighting became hand-to-hand. The rough knives and blunt tomahawks of the Blackfoot were no match for the razor sharp long knives that the two trappers used to skin the Beavers, and no match for the skill with which those knives were wielded. And yet the fury of the Blackfoot band made up for these deficits, and more.
The fight lasted no more than five minutes.
Drouillard killed the first of the raiders within the first minute of the attack, planting his knife in the back of the man’s skull as they wrestled on the ground. Inexplicably, only one raider had fallen upon him, and the other three had converged on poor Chouteau. As Drouillard pushed the dead Blackfoot warrior off his chest, and wiped the blood off of his face, he knew there was no hope for the other trapper.
But it was also clear that Chouteau was going to take at least one of the braves with him.
“Get a taste of this, you son of a bitch!” his friend yelled, as he buried a knife in the side of the man’s face, driving the blade through tongue and teeth. What came out the other side left a spray of red on the snow and trees.
Drouillard was on the other brave before he could turn to see the big man barreling down on him in his heavy furs. He tore the man’s head back so fiercely that he heard bones crack, but rammed his knife into his throat as well, just for surety’s sake.
The Indian’s body went slack at the same time Drouillard saw his friend furiously gutting the brave with the ruined face. Drouillard threw the body of his slaughtered foe at the last of the four warriors, hoping it would knock him off balance before he could attack. It wasn’t until he saw the Blackfoot dodge out of the body’s trajectory that Drouillard realized how tiny he was.
This fourth brave wasn’t a seasoned warrior. He was a boy. He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. He was probably the son of one of the men they had killed.
The boy stared at him, his legs wide in a stance that said he was ready for battle, but his lip quivered in a way that betrayed his terror.
Drouillard looked down at his friend. Chouteau lay on his back, the body of the man he killed draped across his legs like a bearskin. But the trapper’s belly was open, and Drouillard could see the organs glistening wetly in the morning light. He was making a noise now that sounded like a bleating calf.
Drouillard turned back to the young Indian boy and walked up to him slowly with his knife extended. To the boy’s credit, he did not break and run, but stood and stared, with a hatred in his eyes.
In that moment, Drouillard almost turned away. He almost turned his back on his entire life—working for the white man, raping the land, and stealing the birthright of the red men. But he knew that if he turned, the boy would drive the short knife he carried into his back. The blade might not kill him. But then he would then have to kill the boy, anyway. And he might bleed to death before he could find his way back to the company camp, three days’ journey from here.
So, knowing where it would lead, he let his knife hand fall to his side, and turned his back. And as the boy rushed, he spun back toward him, catching the boy’s wrist in his left hand, and using his right to plunge his blade between the boy’s ribs. He knew just where to place the blade, and his aim was true.
The boy was dead before his body slid off Drouillard’s blade and hit the ground.
Chouteau took a long time to die.
Drouillard stayed with the man, but the process of death always made him uncomfortable. To his mind, a man should die and die clean, not linger and moan and thrash the way Chouteau did. It didn’t seem dignified, and he didn’t know what to say in response to the man’s begging and pleadings. He was done for. They both knew that. So why was he begging him to drag him out of the woods?
After an hour, when the man still hadn’t died, Drouillard grew weary of it, and slit the trapper’s throat.
The woods were much quieter after that. And as he sat amongst the leaves, the morning wore into the afternoon. He found his mind exceptionally sharp. Soon, the light from above illuminated the forest floor through the sparse canopy, and he could see the scene of carnage more clearly. He looked at the bodies of the four red men, and of his friend, and the only sound was the wind in the tops of the trees, and the soft buzzing of the spring flies that had already found the corpses.
This must be what real peace feels like, Drouillard thought, as he watched the flies. The blade of his knife was bloody, and he cleaned it the way he always did. Three quick thrusts into the snow, and then a quick wipe on his leggings.
As he sat through the afternoon, Drouillard knew what he had to do.
He had fled into the wilderness, but he had brought the soul of a white man with him. The steel beaver traps were just another piece of the rot that was infecting the land. The rot of the white men. The rot of imperialism. The rot that the Europeans had brought to what was a noble continent, and a noble race of men.
If I am to save my soul, I have to leave it all behind. Now and forever.
In the cool air of the spring afternoon, he hoisted Chouteau’s body onto his shoulders. It felt light from all the blood loss, and he carried it easily. By the time he reached their camp, his own robes were soaked in the man’s blood. But that was fine. It was the way he wanted it.
He kindled the coals of their morning fire back to life and then piled brush and logs on it until it burned high and bright. He had not made so big a fire since he was a boy, growing up in Canada. It was foolish and wasteful, but for tonight, a big fire would serve his needs. Slowly, he undressed Chouteau, and threw the man’s clothes into the fire.
The two men, despite their difference in ages, looked similar enough for his purposes. The younger man’s hair was a shade lighter than his own, but he found that his own clothes fit the man well enough.
After struggling to get the already stiffening body into his bloody clothes, he stood naked next to the fire, glistening in sweat, which mixed with the blood on his face and hands and dripped onto the leaves. The heat from the fire and his exertions caused waves of steam to rise from his body, and waft into the frosty evening air.
He worked through the night, enjoying the air on his naked skin, and the work that made his muscles sing.
Next, he ransacked their camp, making it look as much as possible as if the Blackfoot raid had happened here, and not three miles distant. And to make it look like the results had been less in his favor. He considered retrieving one of the Blackfoot bodies, but decided against it. A Blackfoot raiding party would not leave their dead behind, and he wanted very much to make this scene look believable.
He scattered some papers that bore his name on the ground—mostly contracts and handwritten receipts for bundles of pelts. And then he stuffed a handful or two into the pockets of the corpse, just to be certain.
He thought hard about what a redskin might want to keep from such a raid, and what they would leave behind. Anything of value that he suspected they might take, he stuffed into two leather bags that sat on the haunches of the mule they used to haul out the furs. If they had brought horses, he would have shooed them off. But as it was, their only companion had been Frank, the fly-bitten old mule that had hauled out their furs every month.
When he was satisfied with the tableau he had created, he picked up the corpse of the trapper under the arms, and pulled it to a sitting position, with his back to the fire. The neck was already stiff, and it looked almost as if the man’s open eyes were looking at him. Perhaps even judging him.
“Sorry about this, my friend,” Drouillard said. And then he laid the corpse back so the head and shoulders nestled gently amid the blazing logs. He watched as the man’s hair caught fire, and then as the skin sizzled and cooked away from the bone. He was sure that by the time the fire burned out, there would be nothing left but a skull. The rest of the body would remain intact, but there would be no way to identify the body, other than by the documents in the pockets.
That should be enough, he thought.
The scene did indeed look like one of the many Indian raids, and any other trapper that ran across it would not question what had happened here. They would likely leave, or perhaps bury the body and carry back the news of the passing of the famous George Drouillard.
He imagined that there would be few tears shed for his passing. And that was fine with him. He wanted no white tears. He wanted nothing anymore, of the invader’s world and all its death and destruction.
After this, George Drouillard would be dead.
There was just one thing left to do, and he dreaded it, but it would be an important part of the scene he wanted to leave. With one comforting hand around the shoulders of Frank, their old mule, he quickly plunged his knife into the animal’s neck.
The act hurt his heart more than he expected. He had worked with Frank longer than Chouteau. “I’m sorry, old friend,” he said, as he held the dying animal’s head in his lap. He realized, as the life drained away, that he felt far worse about the mule than he did about Chouteau.
When the life of the animal finally winked out, George Drouillard wiped his naked body with handfuls of leaves, and then dressed in a set of Chouteau’s clothes he had set aside. When he was dressed, he removed the two bags from the haunches of the dead mule, and surveyed the scene one last time. Hoisting the bags onto his shoulders, he walked off to the south, and did not look back.
He had only one more task, and that was to drop the two bags of valuables down the first convenient gully he could find. And after that, he would be free of the life he had once loved, but had come to despise.
As he walked, he felt he had severed his relationship with the white settlers for good. He felt clean.
George Drouillard headed south.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.