With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

The Bear Cave

Well, we took up the dim trail on the farther side of the river and followed it through the timber toward the cave at the foot of the cliff, but I, for my part, was not at all anxious to reach the end of it. Midway up the slope I called to Pitamakan to halt.

"Let's talk this over and plan just what we will do at the cave," I proposed.

"I don't know what there is to plan," he answered, turning and facing me. "We walk up to the cave, stoop down, and shout, 'Sticky-mouth, come out of there!' Out he comes, terribly scared, and we stand on each side of the entrance with raised clubs, and whack him on the base of the nose as hard as we can. Down he falls. We hit him a few more times, and he dies."

"Yes?" said I. "Yes?"

I was trying to remember all the bear stories that I had heard the company men and the Indians tell, but I could call to mind no story of their attacking a bear with clubs.

"Yes? Yes what? Why did you stop? Go on and finish what you started to say."

"We may be running a big risk," I replied. "I have always heard that any animal will fight when it is cornered."

"But we are not going to corner this bear. We stand on each side of the entrance; it comes out; there is the big wide slope and the thick forest before it, and plenty of room to run. We will be in great luck if, with the one blow that we each will have time for, we succeed in knocking it down. Remember this: We have to hit it and hit hard with one swing of the club, for it will be going so fast that there will be no chance for a second blow."

We went on. I felt somewhat reassured and was now anxious to have the adventure over as soon as possible. All our future depended on getting the bear. I wondered whether, if we failed to stop the animal with our clubs, Pitamakan would venture to defy his dream, cut off a braid of his hair, and make a bow-cord.

Passing the last of the trees, we began to climb the short, bare slope before the cave, when suddenly we made a discovery that was sickening. About twenty yards from the cave the trail we were following turned sharply to the left and went quartering back into the timber. We stared at it for a moment in silence. Then Pitamakan, said, dully:—

"Here ends our bear hunt! He was afraid to go to his den because our scent was still there. He has gone far off to some other place that he knows."

The outlook was certainly black. There was but one chance for us now, I thought, and that was for me to persuade this red brother of mine to disregard his dream and cut off some of his hair for a bow-cord. But turning round and idly looking the other way, I saw something that instantly drove this thought from my mind. It was a dim trail along the foot of the cliff to the right of the cave. I grabbed Pitamakan by the arm, yanked him round, and silently pointed at it. His quick eyes instantly discovered it, and he grinned, and danced a couple of steps.

"Aha! That is why this one turned and went away!" he exclaimed. "Another bear was there already, had stolen his home and bed, and he was afraid to fight for them. Come on! Come on!"

We went but a few steps, however, before he stopped short and stood in deep thought. Finally he turned and looked at me queerly as if I were a stranger and he were trying to learn by my appearance what manner of boy I was. It is not pleasant to be stared at in that way. I stood it as long as I could, and then asked, perhaps a little impatiently, why he did so. The answer got was unexpected:—

"I am thinking that the bear there in the cave may be a grizzly. How is it? Shall we go on and take the chances, or turn back to camp? If you are afraid, there is no use of our trying to do anything up there."

Of course I was afraid, but I was also desperate; and I felt, too, that I must be just as brave as my partner. "Go on!" I said, and my voice sounded strangely hollow to me. "Go on I will be right with you."

We climbed the remainder of the slope and stood before the cave. Its low entrance was buried in snow, all except a narrow space in the centre, through which the bear had ploughed its way in, and which, since its passing, had partly filled. The trail was so old that we could not determine whether a black or a grizzly bear had made it.

But of one thing there could be no doubt the animal was right there in the dark hole only a few feet from us, as was shown by the faint wisps of congealed breath floating out of it into the cold air. Pitamakan, silently stationing me on the right of the entrance, took his place at the left side, and motioning me to raise my club, shouted, "Pahk-si-kwo-yi, sak-sti."  (Sticky-mouth, come out!)

Nothing came, nor could we hear any movement, any stir of the leaves inside. Again he shouted and again and again, without result. Then, motioning me to follow, he went down the slope. "We'll have to get a pole and jab him," he said, when we came to the timber. "Look round for a good one."

We soon found a slender dead pine snapped it at the base where it had rotted and knocked off the few scrawny limbs. I was fully twenty feet long, and very light.

"Now I am the stronger," said Pitamakan, as we went back, "so do you handle the pole, and I will stand ready to hit a big blow with my club. You keep your club in your right hand, and work the pole into the cave with your left. In that way maybe you will have time to strike, too."

When we came to the cave, I found that his plan would not work. I could not force the pole through the pile of snow at the entrance with one hand, so standing the club where I could quickly reach it, I used both hands. At every thrust the pole went in deeper, and in the excitement of the moment I drove it harder and harder, with the result that it unexpectedly went clear through the obstructing snow and on, and fell headlong.

At the instant I went down something struck the far end of the pole such a rap that I could feel the jar of it clear back through the snow, and a muffled, raucous, angry yowl set all my strained nerves aquiver. As I was gathering myself to rise, the dreadful yowl was repeated right over my head, and down the bear came on me, clawing and squirming. Its sharp nails cut right into my legs. I squirmed as best I could under its weight, and no doubt went through the motions of yelling; but my face was buried in the snow, and for the moment I could make no sound.

Pitamakan fiercely striking a blow


Although I was sure that a grizzly was upon me and that my time had come, I continued to wiggle, and to my great surprise, I suddenly slipped free from the weight, rose up, and toppled over backward, catching, as I went, just a glimpse of Pitamakan fiercely striking a blow with his club. I was on my feet in no time, and what I saw caused me to yell with delight as I sprang for my club. The bear was kicking and writhing in the snow, and my partner was showering blows on its head. I delivered a blow or two myself before it ceased to struggle.

Then I saw that it was not a grizzly, but a black bear of no great size. Had it been a grizzly, I certainly, and probably Pitamakan, too, would have been killed right there.

It was some little time before we could settle down to the work in hand. Pitamakan had to describe how he had stood ready, and hit the bear a terrific blow on the nose as it came leaping out, and how he had followed t up with more blows as fast as he could swing his club. Then I tried to tell how I had felt, crushed under the bear and expecting every instant to be bitten and clawed to death. But words failed me, and, moreover, a stinging sensation in my legs demanded my attention; there were several gashes in them from which blood was trickling, and my trousers were badly ripped. I rubbed the wounds a bit with snow, and found that they were not so serious as they looked.

The bear, a male, was very fat, and was quite too heavy for us to carry; probably it weighed two hundred pounds. But we could drag it, and taking hold of its fore paws, we started home. It was easy to pull it down the slope and across the ice, but from there to camp, across the level valley, dragging it was very hard work. Night had fallen when we arrived, and cold as the air was, we were covered with perspiration.

Luckily, we had a good supply of wood on hand. Pitamakan, opening the ash-heap, raked out a mass of live coals and started a good fire. Then we rested and broiled some rabbit meat before attacking the bear. Never were there two happier boys than we, as we sat before our fire in that great wilderness, munched our insipid rabbit meat and gloated over our prize.

The prehistoric people no doubt considered obsidian knives most excellent tools but to us, who were accustomed only to sharp steel, they seemed anything but excellent; they severely tried our muscles, our patience, and our temper. They proved, however, to be not such bad flaying instruments. Still, we were a long time ripping the bear's skin from the tip of the jaw down along the belly to the tail, and from the tail down the inside of the legs to and round the base of the feet. There were fully two inches of fat on the carcass, and when we finally got the hide off, we looked as if we had actually wallowed in it. By that time, according to the Big Dipper, it was past midnight, but Pitamakan would not rest until he had the back sinews safe out of the carcass and drying before the fire for early use.

It is commonly believed that the Indians used the leg tendons of animals for bow-cords, thread, and wrappings, but this is a mistake; the only ones they took were the back sinews. These lie like ribbons on the outside of the flesh along the backbone, and vary in length and thickness according to the size of the animal. Those of a buffalo bull, for instance, are nearly three feet long, three or four inches wide, and a quarter of an inch thick. When dry, they are easily shredded into thread of any desired size.

Those that we now took from the bear were not two feet long, but were more than sufficient for a couple of bow-cords. As soon as we had them free, we pressed them against a smooth length of dry wood, where they stuck and laying this well back from the fire, we began our intermittent night's sleep, for, as I have said, we had to get up frequently to replenish the fire.

The next morning, expecting to have a fine feast, I broiled some of the bear meat over the coals, but it was so rank that one mouthful was more than enough; so I helped Pitamakan finish the last of the rabbit meat. He would have starved rather than eat the meat of a bear, for to the Blackfeet the bear is "medicine," a sacred animal, near kin to man, and therefore not to be used for food.

Killing a grizzly was considered as great a feat as killing a Sioux, or other enemy. But the successful hunter took no part of the animal except the claws, unless he were a medicine-man. The medicine-man, with many prayers and sacrifices to the gods, would occasionally take a strip of the fur to wrap round the roll containing his sacred pipe.

Pitamakan himself was somewhat averse to our making any use of the black bear's hide, but when I offered to do all the work of scraping off the fat meat and of drying it, he consented to sleep on it once with me, as an experiment, and if his dreams were good to continue to use it.

I went at my task with good will, and was half the morning getting the hide clean and in shape to stretch and dry. Pitamakan meanwhile made two bow-cords of the bear sinew. First he raveled them into a mass of fine threads, and then hand-spun them into a twisted cord of the desired length; and he made a very good job of it, too. When he had stretched the cords to dry before the fire, he sharpened a twig of dry birch for an awl and with the rest of the sinew, repaired our badly ripped moccasins. At noon we started out to hunt, and on the way dragged the bear carcass back to the river and across it into the big timber, where later on we hoped to use it for bait.

This day we went up the river, walking noiselessly on the ice. From the start we felt confident of success; for not only were our bow-cords as good as we could desire, but the bows were now in fine condition, having dried out and become more stiff, yet springy. Since, during the latter part of the night, more snow had fallen, we could distinguish fresh game tracks from old ones. And now that there was snow on the ice, we naturally expected to see where the hoofed game had been crossing the river; they seldom venture out on smooth ice, from fear of slipping and injuring themselves.

The first game we saw were a number of ruffed grouse standing in a row at the edge of a strip of open water, to take their daily drink. They walked away into the willows at our approach, and from there flew into the firs, where we knocked down four of them with our blunt-headed bird arrows. I got only one, for of course I was not so good a marksman with bow and arrow as my partner, who had used the weapon more or less since he was old enough to walk.

Burying the grouse in the snow at the edge of the shore, we went on, and presently came to the place where several elk had crossed to the north side of the river, browsed among a bordering patch of red willows, and then gone into the thick firs. We followed them, not nearly so excited now that we had trustworthy weapons as we had been on the previous hunt. When we came near the firs, which covered several acres of the bend in the river, Pitamakan sent me round to enter the farther side and come through the patch toward him, while he took his stand close to the place where the band had entered.

"You needn't come back carefully," he said to me. "Make all the noise you can—the more the better; then they will come running out here on their back trail, and I'll get some good shots. You'd better give me one of your real arrows, for you will probably not get a chance even for one shot at them."

That left me with only one arrow with an obsidian point, but nevertheless I determined to do my best to get an elk. As Pitamakan had remarked about himself, I, too, felt the sun power strong within me that morning and looked for success. With that feeling, call it what you will,—all old hunters will understand what I mean,—I was not at all surprised, a short time after entering the firs, to see, as I was sneaking along through them, a big bull elk astride a willow bush that he had borne down in order to nip the tender tips.

He was not fifty feet from me, and no doubt thought that the slight noise which he heard was made by one of his band. He could not see me at first, because of a screen of fir branches between us, and he had not looked up when I made the final step that brought me into the open. But when I raised the bow, he jerked his head sidewise and gathered himself for a jump.

He was not so quick as I. The strength of a giant seemed to swell in my arms I drew the arrow sliding back across the bow almost to the head with a lightning-like pull, and let it go, zip!  deep into his side through the small ribs.

Away he went, and I after him, yelling at the top of my voice to scare the herd toward Pitamakan, if possible. I saw several of them bounding away through the firs, but my eyes were all for the red trail of the bull. And presently I came to the great animal, stretched across a snow-covered log and breathing Its last; for the arrow had pierced its lungs.

"Wo-ke-hai! Ni-kai-nit-ah is-stum-ik!"  (Come on! I have killed a bull!) I yelled.

And from the far side of the firs came the answer: "Nis-toah ni-mut-uk-stan!"  (I have also killed!)

That was great news. Although was hard for me to leave my big bull even for a moment, I went to Pitamakan, and found that he had killed a fine big cow. He had used three arrows, and had finally dropped her at the edge of the river.

We were so much pleased and excited over our success that it was some time before we could cease telling how it all happened and settle down to work. We had several fresh obsidian flakes, but as the edges soon grew dull, we were all the rest of the day in getting the hides off the animals and going to camp with the meat of the cow. The meat of my bull was too poor to use, but his skin, sinews, brains, and liver were of the greatest value to us, as will be explained.

"There is so much for us to do that it is hard to decide what to do first," said Pitamakan that night.

It was long after dark, and we had just gathered the last of a pile of firewood and sat ourselves down before the cheerful blaze.

"The first thing is to cook a couple of grouse, some elk liver, and hang a side of elk ribs over the fire to roast for later eating," I said, and began preparing the great feast.

After our long diet of rabbits, it was a feast. We finished the birds and the liver, and then sat waiting patiently for the fat ribs to roast to a crisp brown as they swung on a tripod over the fire. I was now so accustomed to eating meat without salt that I no longer craved the mineral, and of course my companion never thought of it. In those days the Blackfeet used none; their very name for it, is-tsa-si-pok-wi (like fire tastes), proved their dislike of the condiment.

"Well, let us now decide what we shall do first," Pitamakan again proposed. "We need new moccasins, new leggings and snow-shoes. Moreover, we need a comfortable lodge. Which shall be first?"

"The lodge," I answered, without hesitation. "But how can we make one? What material can we get for one unless we kill twenty elk and tan the skins? That would take a long time."

"This is a different kind of lodge," he explained. "When you came up the Big River you saw the lodges of the Earth People? Yes. Well, we will build one like theirs."

On the voyage up the Missouri with my uncle I had not only seen the lodges of the Earth People (Sak-wi Tup-pi), as the Black-feet called the Mandans, but I had been inside several of them, and noted how warm and comfortable they were. Their construction was merely a matter of posts, poles, and earth. We agreed to begin one in the morning, and do no hunting until it was done.

The site that we chose for the lodge was a mile below camp and close to the river, where two or three years before a fire, sweeping through a growth of "lodge-pole" pines, had killed thousands of the young, slender trees. In a grove of heavy firs close by we began the work, and as every one should know how to build a comfortable house without the aid of tools and nails, will give some details of the construction.

In place of the four heavy corner posts which the Mandans cut, we used four low-crotched trees that stood about twenty feet apart in the form of a square. In the crotches on two sides of the square we laid as heavy a pole as we could carry, and bolstered up the centre with a pile of flat rocks, to keep it from sagging. On the joists, as these may be called, we laid lighter poles side by side, to form the roof. In the centre we left a space about four feet wide, the ends of which we covered with shorter poles, until we reduced it to a hole four feet square.

The next task was to get the poles for the sides. These we made of the proper length by first denting them with sharp-edged stones and then snapping them off. They were slanted all round against the four sides, except for a narrow space in the south side, which we left for a doorway. Next we thatched the roof and sides with a thick layer of balsam boughs, on top of which we laid a covering of earth nearly a foot deep. This earth we shoveled into an elk hide with elk shoulder blades, and then carried each load to its proper place. Lastly, we constructed in the same manner a passageway six or eight feet long to the doo

All this took us several days to accomplish, and was hard work. But when we had laid a ring of heavy stones directly under the square opening in the roof for a fireplace, made a thick bed of balsam boughs, and covered it with the bearskin, put up an elk-skin for a door, and sat us down before a cheerful fire, we had a snug, warm house, and were vastly proud of it.

"Now for some adventure," said Pitamakan, as we sat eating our first meal in the new house. "What say you we had best do?"

"Make some moccasins and snowshoes," I replied.

"We can do that at night. Let us—"

The sentence was never finished. A terrible booming roar, seemingly right overhead, broke upon our ears. Pitamakan's brown face turned an ashy gray as he sprang up, crying:

"Run! Run! Run!"