THE CHEATER CHEATED
Traders to the Indians are part of the early West’s folklore. On the whole they were a sorry lot. As an eighteenth-century writer put it: The English manner of carrying on the Indian trade is this: the regular traders undertake twice of oftener each year journeys to the Indian villages, their Packhorses laden with Strowds, match coats, hats, looking-glasses, beads and bracelets of glass, knives, and all manner of Gawdy Toys and Knacks for children, as well as guns, flint, Powder, and Lead, and cags of potent Rum to be watered when they arrive to the Indian country. When there these traders live with the Indians, selling them goods in prospect of the season’s fur catch and often keeping one or more squaws as wives and are trusted by their neighbours for they are content or two or three centum profit . . . Other traders there are who frequently creep into the Woods with spirituous liquor and cheating trifles, after the Indian hunting camps, in the Winter season, and putting down several Cags before them, make them drunk selling their liquor at ten times its value, as the Indians will sell even their wearing shirt for inebriating liquors . . . These Traders are the most vicious and abandoned Wretches of our Nation, a set of Mean Dishonest mercenary Fellows . . . they even debauch the Indians’ young women, and even their wives, when the husbands are from home or drunk.
But here is a tale of the cheater cheated.
There was a Nipissing chief called the Red Owl, a mighty hunter and trapper, who brought enough meat to his wigwam to support several wives. His adobe was always filled with the choicest pelts of otter, beaver, fox, mink, and weasel.
There also was a trader, Smith, or Miller, or, possibly, Cooper. Well, whatever his name, he was a mean liar and cheat who would have sold his own mother’s soul to the devil for two pieces of eight. One day this thieving swindler came to the Red Owl’s wigwam, pointing to a stack of prime beaver plews, saying, “I’ll have those.”
“What you gimme for them?”
“How about this keg of whiskey, Chief? Strong as lightning.”
“No whiskey,” said the Red Owl, who could not be bamboozled by an offer of rattlesnake piss.
“Tell you what I’ll do for you, Chief,” said the trader, handing the Red Owl a small bag of coarse-grained powder. “I’m in a giving mood today. I’ll swap this for you beavers,”
“This little powder for big heap pelts?”
“These are seed grains, Chief. You plant ‘em in the soil and grow bushels of grains like these. You’ll never need to swap for powder again.”
“Let’s smoke calumet. You smoke’em calumet, you cannot tell a lie.”
“Sure, Chief, let’s smoke.”
They smoked the pipe and this Smith, or Miller, or Cooper, went off with the furs whistling a merry tune.
The Red Owl planted the powder grains. He cared for them tenderly. He watered them every day. But no plants heavy with powder grains every came up.
A year later the same transfer came to the Red Owl’s wigwam. He had so many tricks up his sleeve that he had forgotten the one he played on this chief. He spread his wares.
“I take’um gun, lead, looking glass, two bags of beads, bolt red stuff, bolt blue stuff, coat with gold lace.”
“Fine, fine, Chief,” said the trader, rubbing his hands. “Now for all that stuff I want so and so much beaver, silver fox, red fox, ermine, otter, and musquash.”
“Me not have’um pelts. Took on one more wife. Young, plump, very active. No time for trapping. Come back in twelve moons. The Red Owl five mighty heap of pelts, beaver, silver fox, red fox, ermine, otter, and musquash.”
“Let’s smoke the calumet, Chief. When you smoke the calumet, you can’t lie. Right?”
“Let’s smoke,” said the Red Owl.
Another year went by. Again this Smith, or Miller, or, possibly, Cooper appeared at the lodge: “Here I am, Chief, let’s have those furs you promised me.”
“No furs for you!”
“What, you cheating, thieving red devil? Not furs?”
“You miserable red varmint, you helliferous savage, you promised. We smoked the calumet!”
“Damn you, you painted godless heathen! Hand over the furs! Hellfire and brimstone! You promised!”
“White man,” said the Red Owl, grinning broadly, “you gave me bad of black powder, bag so little, like this. Told me to plant’um grain. Watch powder bushes grow. Tell chief never again gottum swap pelts for powder. Grains grow slow. Very slow. Come back sometime when bushes heavy with powder grains. Then chief pay with big heap beaver, silver fox, red fox, ermine and musquash.”
“Damn your eyes!” said the trader.
And that’s how the cheater was cheated.
Copyright © 1998 by edited, told, and retold by Richard Erdoes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.