Saga of Mike Fink—Thomas Piekarski
Some of you baby boomers may well remember
when Disney gave us Boone and Davy Crockett
portrayed by the faithful and fearless Fess Parker.
Many a boy back in the day wore a coonskin cap
and buckskin suit with his eyes glued to the TV.
Nobody could outshoot nor outsmart either one
no matter how good they be with rifle or words.
They were savvy frontiersmen, not to be duped
by people possessing lesser experience. Neither
thief nor savage would ever get the best of them.
Their worlds filled with peril, always advancing
beyond to the next horizon, avatars of adventure
taming our vast as of yet uncharted wilderness,
manifest destiny pregnant in air they breathed.
Though Crockett and Boone remain best known
among the brave men who made the golden age
of our American West legendary, fostering awe,
wonderment, fascination and entertainment for
two hundred years, there were many more men
who paved the way for migration, devoted lives
to carving history out of the expansive unknown.
They were trappers, shopkeepers, blacksmiths,
dreamers, swindlers, mappers, drinkers, misfits,
Americans, Europeans, intellectuals, illiterates,
craftsmen, boatmen, bunglers and riflemen keen
on the beaver trade. Their westward expansion
paid for by those cute innocent beavers, the furs
in demand with fashionistas in many a far land.
St. Louis a bustling, brawling, riverfront gateway
for westward migration, furthest edge of civilized
society, depot for horses, wagons, all provisions
necessary to strike out into the unsettled territory
people yearned to reach. Only the most steadfast
and committed could hazard such deep privation
as those bold enough to venture forth would face.
Of all the boasters and toasters to their own feats,
those who daily risked life and limb yet survived,
none compared to Mike Fink, the self-proclaimed
King of Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Mike hailed
from Pennsylvania, strapping man six-foot three,
towered above most, was barrel-chested, muscled,
a veritable monster whose roar brought shudders.
Mike captained keelboats with utmost command,
would punish anyone who failed to follow orders.
It wasn’t uncommon then for mountaineers to tout
various incredible accomplishments. The bellicose
Mike Fink reigned as biggest braggart among them,
would challenge anyone who questioned the truth
of his yarns to a fistfight, and was seldom opposed.
The Ohio and Mississippi grew old for one so raw,
with such an inflated ego as Fink. The time arrived
when he must follow the tide, explore more rivers,
extend his domain, further exhibitionist ambitions.
There was the Missouri river to explore, the Platte,
hazardous Snake. Fink seized a golden opportunity,
soon hired as captain with a sizeable fur expedition.
Cocksure, Mike wore a red feather in his hat, sign
of invincibility. Crockett proclaimed him half horse,
half alligator, to which Fink would officiously add:
“I can outrun, outshoot, outjump, outcuss, outdrink,
and lick any man in the country. O watch me guzzle
a gallon of rye and shoot the tail off a pig at 90 paces.
I love willing women and always chockful of fight!”
The beaver rush lasted a scant ten years, during which
rivers, streams and creeks throughout the greater West
were virtually stripped clean of that industrious animal.
Competition from French and British companies meant
Americans had to take advantage of what time remained
to cash in on the profitable trade. At the time Mike Fink
appeared on the scene, there was still lucrative territory.
Half the population of Saint Louis showed to watch as
sixty hearty souls loaded two keelboats along the shore.
Those husky explorers toted bales, boxes, and bundles
on board, accompanied by fifty horses. People cheered,
the Rocky Mountain Fur Company about to embark on
their most ambitious expedition yet, up through narrow
passes between glacial peaks to the raging Yellowstone.
When all was prepared Mike Fink scrambled to the top
of a cargo box, bellowed “set poles for the mountains!”
At that those men dropped long poles into muddy water,
with a collective heave pitched their keelboats forward,
continuing until they contracted the current. It’s purely
serendipity that an indomitable Jim Bridger was there
with this ragtag collection, his initial of many ventures.
They left the Mississippi and entered a violent Missouri:
trees with attached roots, boughs and vines, heavy logs,
buffalo carcasses, flotsam, underbrush, rocks and rapids,
driftwood bound with sand fashioning thick dams, water
often too deep for poles. These made navigation hellish,
no less tribes of hostile Indians camped along the banks.
It took all of Fink’s resolve to keep the polemen in line.
Disaster struck when while encountering onrushing rapids
one of the keelboats went under with half of the provisions.
Colonel Ashley in command, was not one to give in easily,
had them build a winter camp, construct shelter, hunt game,
prepare for inevitable onslaught of blizzards and snow drifts.
Fink had traveled with two longtime cronies, one Carpenter,
the other Talbot. All three ruffians loved to drink and argue.
Some will say the running feud between Carpenter and Fink
had to do with rivalry over an Indian woman. It went on that
winter, carried over until next spring when beavers swarmed,
the trappers anxious to strike out and harvest them. At a party
celebrating the anticipated season, Fink and Carpenter argued.
Then they cooled off, shook hands, agreed to settle the conflict,
bury the hatchet, to prove mutual sincerity made an agreement.
Each would shoot a cup of whiskey off the other man’s head.
Foolhardy as this would seem, Mike had proven himself over
many years, by the time he left Pennsylvania widely known
as foremost marksman in the territory. Not even great hunters
and Indian fighters like Kit Carson and Jedediah Smith were
considered Fink’s peer. Mike had successfully performed this
improbable feat many times before, always hitting bullseyes.
To determine who’d shoot first a copper coin was flipped.
Mike won the toss. As Carpenter filled a cup with whiskey
Fink rammed powder and ball down the muzzle of his rifle.
Then he stepped off sixty paces while Carpenter set that cup
squarely on his steady head. Mike drew a bead, let lead fly.
Down the cup went, and Carpenter too, like a ton of cement,
as the bullet had met it’s mark at the center of his forehead.
That Mike Fink walked free after what was outright murder
drew the ire of some. But since no established law existed
he couldn’t be held accountable. As a ruse Mike apologized
profusely. He would blame the rifle, maybe too much liquor.
But Talbot, a close partner of Carpenter, he knew otherwise.
One day shortly thereafter Talbot strolled up to Mike Fink,
pulled out a gun and blasted a hole right through his heart.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry has appeared in such publications as Poetry Quarterly, Literature Today, The Journal, Poetry Salzburg, Modern Literature, South African Literary Journal, Home Planet News. His books of poetry are Monterey Bay Adventures, Mercurial World and Aurora California.