With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

Escape from the Indians

"Don't you move!" Pitamakan exclaimed.

He spoke just in time, for I was on the point of springing up and running for the timber. The game—they were mule-deer, which are not fleet runners, like the white-tail—came bouncing awkwardly toward us, while the Indians gained on them perceptibly. Never before had I felt that I was a giant; but as I sat there in the short grass of the open prairie, I felt as if my body was actually towering into the sky. I instinctively tried to make myself of smaller size. All my muscles quivered and contracted so tensely that the feeling was painful. "Oh, come!" I cried. "Can't you see that they—"

"Be still!" Pitamakan broke in. "The wind is from us to them. The deer will soon turn. Our one chance is to sit motionless. They haven't seen us yet."

The deer came steadily toward us, jumping awkwardly and high. They were now less than four hundred yards away, and although the wind was increasing, they gave no sign of having scented us.

"They must turn soon," Pitamakan said. "But if they don't, and you see that the Indians are coming for us, string your bow. Let us fight our best until our end comes."

That had been my thought. I had two of our five obsidian-pointed arrows. If worse came to worst, I hoped that I should be able to speed them swift and true. Now the deer were less than three hundred yards from us, and I gave up all hope that they would turn. To me the Indians seemed to be staring straight at us instead of at the animals.

I had started to reach for my bow and arrows, which lay on the ground beside me, when the deer did turn, suddenly and sharply to the right. The pursuers, turning also almost at the same time, gained considerably on them. I realized that we had not been discovered.

The leading hunter now raised his gun and fired. The hornless old buck at the head of the band sharply shook his head, and holding it askew as if the bullet had stung it, swerved to the right again, directly away from us. The herd followed him, while the hunters again made a short cut toward them and began shooting. Their backs were now to us.

"Run! Run for the timber!" my partner commanded; and grabbing my bow and arrows, I followed him, Faster, probably, than I had ever run before. It was a hundred yards or more to the timber. As we neared it, I began to hope that we should get into its shelter unseen. Behind us the hunters kept shooting at the deer, but neither of us took time to look back until we came to our packs, and paused to lift them and the snowshoes.

At that very moment the war-cry of the enemy was raised, and we knew that they had discovered us. We looked, and saw that they were coming our way as fast as their horses could lope. And how they did yell. There was menace in those shrill staccato yelps.

"We must leave the furs. Just take your snowshoes and come on," said Pitamakan, and I grabbed them up and followed him.

It was only a few yards back in the timber to the snow-line. Upon reaching it, I threw down my shoes, stuck my toes into the loops, and was starting on without fastening the ankle-thongs, when my partner ordered me to tie them properly. It seemed to me that my fingers had never been so clumsy.

We stepped up on the snow, and found that the crust was still strong enough to bear our weight, although it cracked and gave slightly where the centre of the poor webbing sagged under our feet. At the edge of the prairie the timber was scattering; but back a short distance there were several dense thickets, and back of them again was the line of the heavy pine forest. We made for the nearest thicket, while the yells of the enemy sounded nearer and louder at every step we took.

It was easy to guess when they came to the fur packs, for there was a momentary stop in the war-cries as they loudly disputed over the possession of them. Then, abandoning their horses, they began shooting at us as they advanced into the snow, through which they broke and floundered at almost every step.

The advantage was now all with us, provided we were not hit. Once I stopped behind a tree for an instant and looked back. Three of the men had not tried to come on over the snow, but standing at the edge of it, loaded and fired as fast as possible. The others were doing their best to advance over the crust, and had our plight not been so desperate, I should have laughed to see them. They stepped gingerly, teetering along with open mouths and arms outspread, and sometimes the crust would bear their weight for three or four paces, and so increase their confidence that they would quicken their speed, only to break through and sink waist-deep.

I grabbed them up and followed him


I pushed a flap of my old capote out from the tree as far as I could with the bow, in the hope of drawing their fire; but, finding that they were not to be caught by any such ruse, I hurried on. Then several bullets came so close to me that I could feel the wind from them; one struck a tree which I was passing, and flicked off bits of bark, which stung my left cheek and cut the lobe of my left ear. When the enemy saw me raise my hand to my face, they yelled with triumph, and Pitamakan turned to see what had happened.

"Go on! It is nothing!" I called out:

At that instant another shot was fired, and I thought that I heard my partner give a little cry of pain but he did not flinch, and continued on as rapidly as before. When I came where he had been, however, I saw that his trail was bloody, and I feared the worst, for well knew that even with a death-wound he would keep on bravely to the very end. The rest of the run to the thicket was like some terrible dream to me, for I expected that every step he made would be his last. But finally he passed into the screen of young evergreens, and a moment later I was beside him, asking how badly he was hurt.

"It is only a flesh-wound here," he answered, gripping the inner part of his left thigh. "Come on, we mustn't stop."

As the enemy could no longer see us, we made our way to the line of big timber without fear of their bullets. They gave a few last yells as we went into the thicket, and shouted some words at us, which of course we could not understand. And then all was still.

Without a word, Pitamakan went on and on up the steep mountain-side, and I sadly followed him. Soon, coming to an opening in the timber, we stepped out into it, until we could get a good view of the plain below.

The Indians were riding back to where they had chased the deer. Soon they dismounted and began skinning two that they had killed. We removed our snowshoes and sat down on them. Pitamakan let down his legging and washed his wound with snow; the bullet had split open the skin for a length of several inches, but fortunately, had not torn the muscles. As soon as the wound was washed and dry, I went over to a balsam fir and gathered the contents of three or four blisters, which he smeared all over the raw place. In a few minutes he said that the pungent, sticky stuff had stopped the burning of the wound.

We were two sad boys that morning. The loss of the furs, for which we had worked so hard all winter, was not easy to bear. Every few minutes Pitamakan would cry out to his gods to punish the thieves, and my heart was as sore against them as his. With the fur packs we had lost also our fire-drill and socket piece.

"But that doesn't matter," Pitamakan said. "We have good bows and can make a drill at any time. Perhaps we shall never again have any use for one!"

"How so? Are we never to eat again. Shall we not need fire of nights to keep us warm?" I asked.

"Maybe we shall and maybe not," Pitamakan replied. "It is not likely that those hunters will go home without trying to take our scalps with them; we'll soon know about that."

We watched the men in silence for some little time. Four of them were round one deer, and three were at work skinning the other. Soon, however, one man left each group and began cutting willows. Soon afterward we saw that those remaining had got the deer hides off and were cutting them into strips.

"I thought that they would do that," said my partner. "They are going to make snow-shoes and follow us. Hurry now, and fasten on your shoes!"

I did as I was told and asked no questions. Pitamakan limped badly when he started off, but made light of his lameness and insisted that he felt no pain. By this time the sun was fast weakening the crust; in a short time neither we nor our enemy would be able to travel, and I told my partner that while they were making their shoes, we ought to get so far ahead that they never would be able to overtake us.

"They are seven, we only two," he said. "They will break trail by turns when the snow gets soft. Our chance to escape is to get back to the dry prairie while they are climbing the mountain on our trail."

That was a plan that had never entered my head, but I instantly saw its possibilities. Left to my own resources, I should only have struggled on and on into the mountains, eventually to be captured.

For an hour or more, just as long as the crust would hold, we kept along the side of the mountain parallel with the river then, when the crust at last broke with us at every step, we took off our snowshoes and floundered down the tremendously steep slope to the stream, and turning with it, walked and ran along the gravelly and sandy shore.

So, not later than mid-afternoon, we came again to the foot of the mountain, and walking to the edge of the timber bordering the river, looked out on the prairie from which we had been driven in the morning.

"Sum-is! Sum-is!"  Pitamakan cried, pointing away south to the place of the deer chase.

"I-kit-si-kum Sap-un-is-trim!"  (Seven! The whole number!) I exclaimed. The horses of the enemy were picketed out there and quietly grazing, but not one of the hunters was to be seen. It seemed too good to be true.

We stood still for some time, while we searched the prairie and the mountain-side for sign of the enemy.

"They seem all to have taken our trail," said Pitamakan, at last, "and maybe that is the way of it. If one has remained to watch the horses, he must be lying in that little pine grove near them. Let's go down the river a little farther, then swing round and sneak into the grove from the other side."

We hurried on in the river-bottom for half a mile, and then swung out across the open ground. Our hearts throbbed with hope, and with fear, too, as we approached the one place where a guard might be stationed.

Stealing into the little grove as silently as shadows, we moved through it so slowly that a red squirrel digging in the needle-covered earth near by never noted our passing. There was not more than an acre of the young trees, and they covered a space twice as long as wide, so we were able to see every foot of it as we passed along. When we were nearing the farther end, a coyote gave us a terrible scare; as he rose up behind a thin screen of low boughs, we could not see at first just what it was.

I have heard of people turning cold from fear; maybe they do, but fear does not affect me in that way. A flash of heat swept through me; my mouth grew dry. My sense of being perfectly helpless, my expectation that a bullet would come tearing into me, was something that I shall never forget.

This time the suspense was short the coyote walked boldly off in the direction in which we were going, and since the wind was in our faces, we instantly realized that no man was concealed out there ahead of him. Still, Pitamakan was cautious and, in spite of my urgent signs, kept on as stealthily as before. But when we came to the edge of the grove, we saw the coyote was walking jauntily round among the feeding horses.

Off to the right, near one of the deer carcasses, lay the hunters' saddles, saddle-blankets and other stuff. We found also a litter of willow cuttings and short strips of deer hide where the hunters had made their snowshoes. The saddles were all home-made, but better than none. We each selected one and the best of the blankets, and began saddling the two most sturdy and swift-looking of the seven animals. That done, we turned the remaining five loose, after removing their lariats and throwing them away. Then we got into the saddle and started to gather up the loose stock, when I suddenly thought of something that we had entirely forgotten in our excitement.

"Pitamakan! Our furs! Where can they be?" I asked.

"There! There!" he answered, pointing to where the other deer carcass lay.

And sure enough, there the two packs were, just as we had bound them.

Here was more luck! We lost no time in riding over to the place and picking them up; then, driving the other horses ahead of us, we rode away to the southwest as fast as possible. Somewhere on the big, timbered mountain behind us, the enemy were worming along on our trail or, what is more likely, completely exhausted from struggling in the soft snow, they were waiting for the night freeze, to enable them to go on.

The loose horses trotted ahead of us most willingly—suspiciously so; and in the course of half an hour, on our coming to a strip of timber, the reason for such unusual conduct was plain. Here was a broad, hard trail that led, no doubt, directly to the camp which they had come from in the morning. Of course they were willing to be driven back to their mates! And now, as we pushed along this highway, one and another of them began to nicker, a sure sign that the camp was not far distant.

There were only three or four hundred yards of the timber, and then another big prairie; and at the farther end of this, a couple of miles away, smoke was rising from another patch of timber, near which many horses were grazing.

"There! There is the camp of the enemy!" Pitamakan cried. "Already they may have seen us. Let's get back into the timber as quick as we can."

That was not easy to do; the loose stock wanted to keep right on toward their mates, and it required hard riding to head them off and turn them back. And then when we did accomplish it, they were very restless; it was only by the greatest vigilance that we kept them from breaking back.

While the sun slowly sank toward the horizon, we waited in suspense, for there was a chance that the party of seven, or some other party, might appear at any moment The thought that, after our great success of the day, we might lose everything, and our lives also, kept us keyed up to an intense pitch of excitement.

Toward sunset there was a commotion among the horse herds at the farther end, of the prairie, and two riders came loping straight toward us. At first we were not much alarmed, for we thought that they were only looking for some stray animal from the bands; but they kept coming straight on, looking neither to the right nor to the left, and it was soon plain, either that they had seen us and were going to have a look at our outfit, or that they were going to take the trail through the timber, in search, probably, of the missing hunters whose horses we had rounded up. There was but one thing for us to do—hustle the animals as far from the trail as possible; and going at it in a whirl of excitement, we hissed at them, flicked them with our bridle-ropes, and struck them with dead limbs that we snatched from the trees.

Never were horses so obstinate; they simply ducked their heads to the missiles and milled round and round among the trees and under-brush. We had got them no more than a bow-shot away from the trail, when, looking out into the open, we saw that the riders had almost reached the thin belt of timber that screened us.

"Get off your horse and try to hold him still there behind that brush!" my partner called out; and off I slid and grasped the animal by the nose and one ear.

We could plainly hear now the thud of the oncoming horses. If one of the seven animals we had should nicker, we were lost. Presently the two riders entered the timber, and we could see them plainly as they sped along the trail. Tall, heavy men they were, with long, flying hair and grim faces. Each carried a long gun.

When they came in sight, my animal pricked up his ears and began to prance and toss his head, but I hung to him desperately although I was hoisted more than once clear off the ground. As I swung and bobbed in the air, I got flashing glimpses of the enemy, of Pitamakan struggling with his animal, and of the loose stock looking curiously at the scene. I expected every instant that one of them would whinny, but not one of them did!

The two men passed swiftly along the trail out of sight, and the beat of their horses' hoof died slowly away. Then once more we took hope.

The sun was down and darkness was stealing over the land. Faint from this last narrow escape, we got into the saddle once more, and leaving the loose stock to stray whither they would, rode out into the open and took a course down the prairie that would leave the big camp far to our right. Passing it a little later, we could see the dim, yellow glow of the lodge fires, and hear the people singing, and the dogs barking now and then in answer to the mocking yelps of the coyotes.

We traveled on through the night in a partly timbered country, and, by God's mercy, safely forded some streams that were raging spring torrents. It was between midnight and dawn that we finally gave out, and, picketing our animals, lay down and slept. But the first peep of the sun roused us. Staggering to our feet, stiff and sore, we saddled, and rode on again in a half stupor. It was past noon when, from the edge of a sloping plain, we saw the big lake of the Flatheads. Pitamakan knew the place at once.

"Down there by the shore was the big camp the time we were here," he said, "and over there by the side of that little river runs the trail to buffalo land."

We came to it a little later, a broad, well-worn trail that had been used for countless years for summer travel by the mountain tribes. There were no tracks in it now save those of the wolf and the deer. Dismounting beside it to rest the horses, we took a few bites of dry meat, while they greedily cropped the tender spring grass.

We did not remain there long. Behind us stretched the trail of our horses, plain enough in the young green grass, a trail that could be easily followed from where we had first taken the animals. We went on all through the afternoon eastward into the mountains. Here the mountains were low, and in the still lower pass there was no snow to block us. Indeed, Two Medicine Pass is so low that you cannot tell when you pass the summit except by the changed course of the streamlets.

Late the next afternoon we caught glimpse of the great plains, stretching green from the foot of the mountains away eastward to the far horizon; and at sight of them we both shouted, and Pitamakan gave thanks to his gods. Down at the foot of the mountains we saw a little later four buffalo bulls, and gave greeting to them as if they were our brothers. But not appreciating our feelings, they ran lumbering away.

Two days afterward we came to the edge of the hill overlooking Fort Benton and the Missouri, our stream of streams. The sight of it, and of our own people walking here and there outside the fort and along the river, brought tears to our eyes and great joy and peace to our hearts.

We urged our weary horses down the hill and across the bottom. An Indian boy, hunting horses, met us while we were yet some distance out, gave one look at our faces, and fled straight to the Blackfeet camp by the fort.

The people instantly poured out of the lodges and came running to greet us. Surrounded by several hundred of them, all talking at once and asking a thousand questions, we rode into the great courtyard. There, foremost of the company folk who came out to see what was the cause of all the noise, were my uncle and his wife.

They fairly tore me from my horse, smothered and crushed me with kisses and embraces, and were for leading me straight to our quarters; but I would not budge an inch until I had secured my precious pack of furs from the saddle and had given the worn animal into the keeping of one of Pitamakan's relatives.

By that time the factor himself had come from his office, and I had then and there to tell the story of our winter and our hardships in the great mountains. How the people hung upon my words, how they applauded and cheered! Without doubt those were the proudest moments of my life. For a mere boy to hold those seasoned old voyageurs and plainsmen spellbound was something of a feat, you may be sure.

But at last it was all over, and once more I entered our little house and sat down on my own soft couch of buffalo-robes. As the evening was chilly, a cheerful fire was blazing in the hearth. Tsistsaki bustled round, and while cooking the supper, managed to get out clean clothes for me, and get ready a tub of water, soap, and towels. Never before had I seen my Uncle Wesley so excited; he could not sit still. Every few moments he would come over and pinch my arm, or slap me on my back, just to make sure, as he explained, that I was really with them once more.

So ended my first great adventure on the frontier that was and is no more.