"When my indenture's up next month, I'm gone. I hear the Santa Fe Trail's dangerous as hell--eight hundred miles through Indian country."
On an autumn afternoon, Hans Banhofer's doorbell tinkled to announce the mother superior of the Sisters of Charity orphanage. His general store's shelves were jammed with merchandise and he had stacked barrels and boxes in the aisles, which forced Sister Marie Thérése to turn sideways to avoid bumping into other customers. She stood in line for over thirty minutes to pay Banhofer for the bolt of black broadcloth and white French linen she needed to sew new habits for her nuns. "Mr. Banhofer," she said while he was figuring her order, "it looks to me like you need an assistant."
Banhofer was so busy that he barely heard her, "What's that, Sister?"
"I've got a boy you might want to take on as an apprentice."
"I try to keep my costs down, but lately I've been swamped. Tell me about the boy," Banhofer said deferentially.Although he never attended church, he had been raised a Catholic and taught to respect nuns and priests.
"He came to us when he was a few days old. His mother was French. The mother, uh--worked on the riverboats," Sister Marie Thérése said, her blushing face set off against her white cowl. "She told me his father's name was Collins, and I picked Matthew for his Christian name. He's a good boy, but he's almost grown, and it's time for him to learn a trade."
"What about his character?" Hans asked. Although he had been in the United States for over twenty years, his "w"s still morphed into "v"s, a legacy of his birth in a southern German village.
"He's very serious," the nun answered. "And he's quick with languages--French, and his Latin is so good he serves as an altar boy. I wouldn't say he's shy, but he doesn't show his emotions much. He tries to keep himself under control, but he'll flare up occasionally."
"What about his reading and writing?"
"He'll read anything you put in front of him. The Bible. Our set of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. But I must be honest with you, Mr. Banhofer. You'll have to keep after him or he'll be off reading rather than doing his chores."
"And his ciphering?"
"He'll need your help with numbers. But he's a bright boy, and he'll get better."
"Is he clean?"
"He keeps himself cleaner than most boys."
"I'll expect him to bathe twice a week, even in winter. We do a lot of trade with the ladies, and they don't like boys who smell bad or have head lice. Can you bring him in tomorrow, Sister?"
The next morning, Sister Marie Thérése climbed out of her buggy, lifted her black robes above her ankles to keep them out of the mud, and signaled for Matthew Collins to follow her into Banhofer's store. Matt's jugged ears and hatchetlike nose deprived him of handsomeness, and at thirteen he was already tall, but still gawky with his newfoundheight. His red hair, as it did every summer, had turned almost blond from working alongside the Sisters of Charity in their vegetable and herb gardens.
"Why do you want to work in a dry goods store?" Banhofer asked. "You could make more money in the coopering or saddlery trades."
"Well, sir, Sister didn't ask me where I wanted to go." Sister Marie Thérése clamped her hand on Matthew's shoulder and squeezed until it hurt, reminding him that there was no tolerance for even the slightest impertinence.
"He works hard, Mr. Banhofer," the nun insisted. "He's still a boy, but he figures people out quickly. In short order, he'll know how to keep your customers happy, and who he can and can't give credit to."
"I would want you to sign up for five years, Matthew. You'll get room and board and a little pocket money. But, Sister, I'm not so wealthy that I can pay the Church for his services."
"We just want to get the boy situated," she said. "Three new orphans came this month, and we don't have room for them. We would be in your debt if you would take him, Mr. Banhofer."
Hans gave Matthew a stern look. "Son, when I was indentured, a man with a strict set of rules taught me this business. I run my store by those rules, and I'll expect you to follow them--down to the letter. If you try to run away before your contract's up, I'll have the law on you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," he answered calmly, looking directly in Banhofer's eyes.
"Fine. I'll get a lawyer to draw up the indenture papers. You and Sister can come back next Monday and we'll sign them."
After a few months, Matthew had resigned himself to the tight rules Hans Banhofer set for the running of his business. His master had arrived in the New World in 1799 and joined the tide of immigrants who were rushing west to the frontier. Hans made his living as a store clerk and finally settled inKaskaskia, a river port that had just been designated Illinois's state capital. When he first arrived, the Creole river men cursed and joked in French as easily as English, and the priests proudly rang the cast-iron bell that Louis XV had donated to the Church of the Immaculate Conception when Louisiana was still part of France.
As the Americans flooded in, Kaskaskia became an integral part of the Mississippi River network, an enterpôt that supplied the fur trappers and traders who were headed northwest up the Missouri River and southwest to Santa Fe. The city fathers were quick to brag that their Gallic-flavored town was larger than St. Louis and that Lewis and Clark had spent several days there before they left to search for the Northwest Passage.
Hans invested his entire savings in a small dry goods store along the riverfront to cater to Kaskaskia's politicians, merchants, and the rich farmers who grew twice as much corn in the fertile bottom land as did their neighbors on higher ground. The rich soil and the vibrant Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River trade routes gave Kaskaskians the money to pay premium prices for Hans's embroidered silks, plush velvets, and English woolens that Negro slaves unloaded from the ships.
By 1822, Banhofer's small store had grown to become an emporium, with a large blue and gold sign that proclaimed BANHOFER'S GENERAL MERCHANDISE. It was a one-story red brick building that had two large, multipane display windows overlooking the wide brown river. For years he had put in long hours, but he was frugal to a fault and had put off getting a clerk until, nearing forty-five, he had almost worked himself to exhaustion. The men he had talked to had demanded what he thought were ridiculously high salaries, so he was happy to get Matthew for room and board and pocket change.
The year before Matt became indentured to Banhofer, Mexico had thrown off Spanish colonial rule and had opened its doors to trade with the United States. At the store, Matt heard the stories that trickled back to Kaskaskia aboutWilliam Becknell, a Franklin, Missouri, man who had led a pack train loaded with merchandise through the Comanche country and into the newborn Mexican Republic. Becknell, the stories went, came back from Santa Fe with bags of silver and gold--and profits upwards of 600 percent.
Matt and his apprentice friends gossiped about Becknell's enormous profits and longed for the day that they were free to go west. He had made several friends, but, for reasons he couldn't define, an apprentice at Alphonse Larue's blacksmith shop particularly intrigued him. Most of the boys were frightened of Brady Hardin, never knowing when some off-hand remark might send him into a rage. He had bloodied boys who had asked questions about the steamboat captain's daughter he had flirted with, and, when he drank, which was often, he radiated danger.
On a Saturday after the shops had closed, a group of apprentices bought a small keg of beer and went to a clump of trees south of town that they called their "club." Pierre Laroche, a printer's devil for the Kaskaskia Press, began mocking Matt's shambling gait. Matt kept sipping his beer and said nothing until Pierre, annoyed that he got no rise, shouted, "I hear your mama's a whore." Matt lowered his head and went at his antagonist, but Pierre, a short, husky boy nearing twenty, knocked him to the ground with a powerful blow to the cheek. Pierre jumped on Matt and began pummeling him until Brady, his eyes wide and face red with the excitement of a fight, picked up a fallen tree branch and slammed it into the back of Pierre's head. Brady kicked the unconscious Pierre several more times and walked away, exhilarated.
After that, the apprentices left Matt alone. A week later, Brady banged on the back door of Banhofer's store. Matt opened the door and waited for Brady to say something. Instead, he said nothing, but held up the cane poles, twine, and barbed hooks he was carrying, and nodded toward the river. After several moments of silence, Brady said, "Let's go fishin' . I know a place with still water where the catfish feed in the afternoon."
"Readin' ? What the hell are you readin'?" Brady almost shouted and his face darkened. "What crap. Damn it, let's go," he commanded.
Matt put his book down, laced up his brogans, and rose.
They walked at Brady's fast pace, stopping only to catch grasshoppers for bait. On a spit of land that broke the river's current, they put their lines in the gray-brown water. Brady raised his shirt and pulled a flask from his waist. "I made the still myself--out of some old tin and copper we had lyin' around. Want a drink?"
"How old are you, Matt?"
"They say you're an orphan boy," Brady said, taking a seat on the bank. "Me too." Without waiting for a response, he said, "When I was a little younger than you, my old lady died of the ague, and the old man run off--just disappeared. Somebody told me the bastard went out west and the Indians killed him."
"How'd you live?"
"By beggin'. And I got a meal ever' now and then from the county. One afternoon, a constable grabbed me. He waved this paper in my face and told me that the county judge had ordered me to be indentured to old man Larue." Brady's expression changed. "You ever jacked off?"
"I don't think so."
"You even know what I'm talking about?"
"Loped the ole mule?" Brady said, unbuttoning his pants. "Like this."
Matt flushed and wheeled around to stare across the river. When Brady finished, he took another pull on his flask. "You heard about this Becknell fella?"
"I heard he's made huge profits," Matt answered, still afraid to look in Brady's direction.
"When my indenture's up next month, I'm gone. I hear the Santa Fe Trail's dangerous as hell--eight hundred milesthrough Indian country. But who gives a shit? By the time I'm thirty, I either want to be dead or to have my fortune made. How much longer are you stuck here?"
"Almost five years."
"Banhofer's a tough old German," Brady said. "I wouldn't have lasted thirty minutes with him."
"He's not so bad. He's only laid the rod to me once, when I misquoted the price of some fox pelts and he lost fifty dollars."
It was a rainy winter day in 1825 when Brady Hardin walked in the front door of Banhofer's general merchandise store. "My God, it's been three years," Matt exclaimed. "Welcome home."
"It ain't home no more. Kaskaskia's just a place to buy some merchandise and kill some time till the Santa Fe caravans leave next spring."
"I can't talk now," Matt said, picking up an account book and quill. "We're restocking and taking inventory. I'll meet you in front of the Belle Frontiére Bar at seven."
"You old enough to get in?" Brady teased.
"I'm sixteen. Besides, they don't ask."
Since he had left Kaskaskia, Brady had become massive, with thick, heavily muscled arms. The harsh sun on the Santa Fe Trail had tanned his already dark complexion a leathery brown, and, in his broad-brimmed felt hat and ankle-length dust coat, he looked older than his twenty years.
That evening, Brady paced impatiently back and forth in front of the Belle Frontiére, glancing inside at the clock behind the bar, until, at seven thirty, he saw Matt hurrying toward him. "Where the fuck you been?"
"Sorry. Banhofer wouldn't let me leave until we toted up the last box of straw hats."
They went into the Belle Frontiére and took a table near the fire. "Why the hell don't you fix that fireplace?" Brady shouted at the barman between coughs. "It don't draw worth a shit."
"It is smoky in here," Matt said, "but it's nothing a beer won't fix."
"What you been doing since I left? Countin' ladies' corsets?" Brady sneered.
"Same old things. Sweeping, stacking, keeping the books. But I've learned what sells and what won't, and about who you can trust and who you can't. I can almost smell it when somebody's out to cheat or he's lying."
"Sounds boring as hell. How you gettin' on with Banhofer?"
"Seems like he's gotten stricter as he's gotten older. Gripes all the time--about everything. Or maybe I've gotten older and don't cotton to all his rules. I can't even pee without his permission. And he hasn't raised my allowance for a year. Skimps on everything. He even waits to buy our dinner vegetables till they're about to rot and the prices come down. The only thing he doesn't mind spending money on is the whores coming off the riverboats."
"He's like a bitch hound with her pup, watching everything I do. Even if I add up the accounts two or three times, he almost always finds an error. If he doesn't, he gets mad because he's sure there's a mistake he didn't find."
"Fuck him," Brady said, gulping his beer and waving at the barman for another.
"He gets peevish if he catches me reading at night. He says I'm wasting whale oil."
"Can't say as I blame him for that. You oughta quit readin' and start doin'."
"That's enough of the store clerk's saga. Tell me about the Santa Fe trade."
"There's big profits for those who knows what they're doin'." Brady's voice raced to a staccato beat, as it always did when he was excited, and for the first time since they had sat down the scowl left his face, which became happily animated. "When my apprenticeship was over, old man Larue give me a set of clothes, a Bible, and thirty-five dollars. I went straight to Franklin. It's booming. There's lots morechance out on the frontier for people with nothin'--like you and me."
"How did you hook up with the Santa Fe Trail?" Matt asked.
"Met this Englishman. He come down here by way of Canada," Brady said. "He had the money to outfit four wagons, and he needed teamsters. Offered thirty dollars a month. Plus food. I took it. We went down the forest trail till we got to Independence. Not much of a town. From there, we went west."
"What's it like out there?" Matt asked.
"On the prairie, you're cut loose from the civilized world. You're in the wild. Ain't nobody to stop you but yourself. You can do whatever you want if you've got enough balls."
"People say the Indians are dangerous."
"Who gives a shit about some fuckin' savages? You'll see some, and they'll try to run off your horses and mules. But they're like hornets. They don't bother you unless you stir 'em up."
"What about Santa Fe?"
"Their homes is all mud," Brady said. "Lots of cripples 'cause there ain't no doctors to set a leg or birth a baby. If you can do anything proper, you can make out real well. I made fifty dollars shoein' horses 'cause there ain't no smithy in Santa Fe."
"There must be something good about it."
"The good is that the greasers down in Mexico City ship merchandise to Santa Fe. But their prices are so much higher than ours, it ain't no competition. Last year, Captain Vick let me take twenty dollars' worth of merchandise, and I sold it in a week for over a hundred."
"Mr. Banhofer's lucky if he makes a twenty percent profit."
"And you can have some good times," Brady said, talking so fast that his words almost ran together. "Everybody in New Mexico knows when the caravans'll get to Santa Fe. And there's some good-lookin' women what come from miles around. Lots of the gals are married to goat herders.They're so damned poor they'll jump through their ass if you give 'em a couple of extra dollars. There's fandangos a couple 'a nights a week."
"Dances--where there's everybody from the governor down to the peons. I met a gal last summer at a fandango. We had us some real fun. A few days later, I takes her to another fandango, and this greaser don't like me bein' with a Messkin woman. Kept makin' these remarks."
"How'd you understand him?"
"It ain't hard to get the idea. You know me, Matt. I don't take shit, I give shit. We went outside and had a good fight," Brady said, lifting his shirt to show a ten-inch scar on his belly. "When that healed up, I come on back. Got home with just over seventy dollars to buy a stock of goods for next year's caravan. With any luck, I'll turn that seventy into three hundred." He paused and grimaced. "I gotta piss."
"There's a hole out back with lye in it," Matt said. "It doesn't stink too bad." Matt lifted his beer glass and whisked away the wet circle it had formed on the table. Brady, he knew, reveled in his bravado, but his aggression alienated most everyone. Still, there was something intriguing about him. Maybe, Matt thought, it was because they were both orphans or because Brady had protected him from bullies, or because, wherever Brady was, there was excitement and often danger. Matt wasn't sure.
"What's it like to be in a foreign country?" Matt asked when Brady came back.
"When the caravans get to Santa Fe in June, us Americans take over the town. Somehow, it don't feel like you're in the real world. It's like you're from heaven or hell or some other world. In a funny kinda way, you feel a lot freer and you get to thinkin' that the Messkins can't do nothin' to you."
"That fellow with the knife damned sure did something to you," Matt said, smiling.
"I got ahold of him too. I beat him with an ax handle so's he couldn't come outa his house for more'n a week."
"The Mexicans didn't arrest you?"
"Unless you kill somebody, they leave the Americans alone 'cause they're makin' too much money off us. Matt, you oughta think about goin' with me. With what you've learned from Banhofer, you know ten times more about buyin' and sellin' than most of them proprietors."
"I've learned a lot from the old man," Matt said, "but he's gotten his money's worth. When he's with his women, he leaves me to run the shop. His river gals make a beeline for the store as soon as their boats tie up. Sometimes, he jumps them in the back room, and I'm sitting out front listening to some gal's butt slapping a stack of buffalo hides and him moaning like a mounted-up bull. Makes it hard to keep my mind on how many new stockings and suspenders we need to order."
Brady went to the bar, got another beer for Matt and a whiskey for himself, and returned to the table. "You gotta figure out whether you're gonna live for old man Banhofer or for yourself. Whether you're gonna spend your life with them ink stains on your hands. Do what you want, but you'll be lettin' one hell of a chance slip by if you don't jump into this Santa Fe trade. There may not be another money-makin' proposition like this one to come along for years. Them goddamned Messkins are so screwed up--changin' governments all the time--they might shut down the Trail or do somethin' else that bungles it up. You never know what'll happen."
"I'd need to think on something like that, Brady."
"Think all you want, but there's something else that's gonna kill this trade in the next few years."
"You come out to Franklin, and you'll see men swoopin' in from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and from as far away as Connecticut and New York. So far, only about thirty-five wagons a year been goin' down the Trail. But, with all the newspapers talkin' about the Santa Fe profits, it won't be long before there's two hundred wagons. There's even a few of the rich Messkins gettin' in on it. Ricos they call 'em. Prices are gonna come down, and sloggin' yourway down that trail ain't gonna be near as romancey--or as profitable."
Brady took a long, greedy drink of his beer, swallowed wrong, choked, and spit it on the table. He almost doubled over with coughing and went outside to catch his breath and clear his head. While Matt waited, he weighed Brady's dare. He still had two years remaining under his indenture, but his employer had gotten full value the last three years. "When are you going to Franklin?" Matt asked when Brady returned.
"I've got my merchandise ordered up," Brady said. "I'm shipping it on the Beau Riviére. She sails the day after tomorrow."
"I don't plan to spend my life being somebody's store clerk. I know I've got to make my move at some point. I just don't know if it's now."
"You think about it, and let me know."
"Let's have another beer," Matt said, his face relaxing into a smile. "How would we get away? Mr. Banhofer'll have the sheriff after me sure as hell."
"You slip out real quiet tomorrow night. Tomorrow's Saturday, and Banhofer won't know you're gone till Monday morning. If we take the inland road and walk all night, we'll be out of Randolph County before they know you're gone. Once we're across the county line, the sheriff can't arrest you. Besides, he'll probably be lookin' for you to take the river road. We'll catch up to the Beau Riviére in St. Louis and take her to Franklin."
"All I've got saved up is fifteen dollars," Matt said.
"Captain Vick'll probably be needin' teamsters, and if he don't you can hire on with another proprietor. Matt, you gotta be gutsy."
When the store closed the next day, Matt rolled up his extra clothes, a packet of crackers, and his copy of James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers in a blanket, and tied it with a rope to make a sling. After sunset, he and Brady walked north, and sometimes broke into a jog along the inland road.
Copyright © 2004 by Jon R. Bauman.