With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

Fire and Food

"If they will not do," Pitamakan muttered, rising stiffly, while the ice on his leggings crackled, "why I'll cut off a braid of my hair."

I was now sure that our troubles had weakened his mind no Indian in his right senses would think of cutting off his hair.

"Pitamakan! What is the trouble with you?" I asked, looking up anxiously at him.

"Why, nothing is the matter," he replied. "Nothing is the matter. We must now try to work the drill with a bow. If our moccasin strings are too rotten to bear the strain, I'll have to make a bow cord by cutting off some of my hair and braiding it."

It was a great relief to know that he was sane enough, but I had little faith in this new plan, and followed listlessly as he went here and there, testing the branches of willow and birch. Finally, he got from the river shore one stone that was large and smooth, and another that had a sharp edge. Then, scraping the snow away from the base of a birch shoot a couple of inches in diameter, he laid the smooth stone at its base. Next he bade me bend the shoot close down on the smooth stone, while with the sharp edge of the other he hit the strained wood fibre a few blows. In this way he easily severed the stem. Cutting off the top of the sapling in the same manner, he had a bow about three feet in length; a rough, clumsy piece of wood, it is true, but resilient.

As my moccasin strings were buckskin and much stronger than Pitamakan's cow-leather ones, we used one of mine for the bowstring. We now carried the base stick and drill back from the creek into the thick timber, gathered a large bunch of birch bark and a pile of fine and coarse twigs, and made ready for this last attempt to save ourselves.

We hesitated to begin; uncertainty as to the result was better than sure knowledge of failure, but while we waited we began to freeze. It was a solemn and anxious moment when Pitamakan set the point of the drill in the hole, made one turn of the bow-string round its centre, and held it in place by pressing down with the palm of his left hand on the tip. With his right hand he grasped the bow, and waiting until I had the shredded bark in place round the hole, he once more started the coyote prayer song and began sawing the bow forth and back precisely the motion of a cross-cut saw biting into a standing tree.

The wrap of the string caused the drill to twirl with amazing rapidity, and at the third or fourth saw he gave a howl of pain and dropped the outfit. I had no need to ask why. The drill tip had burned his hand

when he held out a blister was already puffing up.

We changed places, and I gathered the skirt of my capote in a bunch to protect my hand. I began to work the bow, faster and faster, until the drill moaned intermittently, like a miniature buzz-saw. In a moment or two I thought that I saw a very faint streak of smoke stealing up between my companion's fingers.

He was singing again, and did not hear my exclamation as I made sure that my eyes had not deceived me. Smoke actually was rising. I sawed harder and harder; more and more smoke arose, but there was no flame.

"Why not?" I cried. "Oh, why don't you burn?"

Pitamakan's eyes were glaring anxiously, greedily at the blue curling vapor. I continued to saw with all possible rapidity, but still there was no flame; instead, the smoke began to diminish in volume. A chill ran through me as I saw it fail.

I was on the point of giving up, of dropping the bow, and saying that this was the end of our trail, when the cause of the failure was made plain to me. Pitamakan was pressing the shredded bark too tight round the drill and into the hole; there could be no fire where there was no air. "Raise your fingers!" I shouted. "Loosen up the bark!"

I had to repeat what I said before he understood and did as he was told. Instantly the bark burst into flame.

"Fire! Fire! Fire" I cried, as I hastily snatched out the drill.

"I-pub-kwi-is! I-pub-kwi-is!" (It burns! It burns!) Pitamakan shouted.

He held a big wad of bark to the tiny flame, and when it ignited, carried the blazing, sputtering mass to the pile of fuel that we had gathered and thrust it under the fine twigs. These began to crackle and snap, and we soon had a roaring fire. Pitamakan raised his hands to the sky and reverently gave thanks to his gods; I silently thanked my own for the mercy extended to us. From death, at least by freezing, we were saved!

The sun was setting. In the gathering dusk we collected a huge pile of dead wood, every piece in the vicinity that we had strength to lift and carry, some of them fallen saplings twenty and thirty feet long. I was for putting a pile of them on the fire and having a big blaze. I did throw on three or four large chunks, but Pitamakan promptly lifted them off.

"That is the way of white people!" he said. "They waste wood and stand, half freezing, away back from the big blaze. Now we will have this in the way we Lone People do it, and so will we get dry and warm."

While I broke off boughs of feathery balsam fir and brought in huge armfuls of them, he set up the frame of a small shelter close to the fire. First, he placed a triangle of heavy sticks, so that the stubs of branches at their tops interlocked, and then he laid up numerous sticks side by side, and all slanting together at the top, so as to fill two sides of the triangle. These we shingled with the fir boughs, layer after layer, to a thickness of several feet. With the boughs, also, we made a soft bed within.

We now had a fairly comfortable shelter. In shape it was roughly like the half of a hollow cone, and the open part faced the fire. Creeping into it, we sat on the bed, close to the little blaze. Some cold air filtered through the bough thatching and chilled our backs. Pitamakan pulled off his capote and told me to do the same. Spreading them out, he fastened them to the sticks of the slanting roof and shut off the draft. The heat radiating from the fire struck them, and reflecting, warmed our backs. The ice dropped from our clothes and they began to steam; we were actually comfortable.

But now that the anxieties and excitement of the day were over, and I had time to think about other things than fire, back came my hunger with greater insistence than ever. I could not believe it possible for us to go without eating as long as Pitamakan said his people were able to fast. Worse still, I saw no possible way for us to get food. When I said as much to Pitamakan, he laughed.

"Take courage; don't be an afraid person," he said. "Say to yourself, 'I am not hungry,' and keep saying it, and soon it will be the truth to you. But we will not fast very long. Why, if it were necessary, I would get meat for us this very night."

I stared at him. The expression of his eyes was sane enough. I fancied that there was even a twinkle of amusement in them. If he was making a joke, although a sorry one, I could stand it but if he really meant what he said, then there could be no doubt but that his mind wandered.

"Lie down and sleep," I said. "You have worked harder than I, and sleep will do you good. I will keep the fire going."

At that he laughed, a clear, low laugh of amusement that was good to hear. "Oh, I meant what I said. I am not crazy. Now think hard. Is there any possible way for us to get food this night?"

"Of course there isn't," I replied, after a moment's reflection. "Don't joke about the bad fix we are in; that may make it all the worse for us."

He looked at me pityingly. "Ah, you are no different from the rest of the whites. True, they are far wiser than we Lone People. But take away from them the things their powerful medicine has taught them how to make, guns and powder and ball, fire steels and sticks, knives and clothes and blankets of hair, take from them these things and they perish. Yes, they die where we should live, and live comfortably."

I felt that there was much truth in what he said. I doubted if any of the company's men, even the most experienced of them, would have been able to make a fire had they been stripped of everything that they possessed. But his other statement, that if necessary he could get food for us at once.

"Where could you find something for us to eat now?" I asked.

"Out there anywhere," he replied, with a wave of the hand. "Haven't you noticed, the trails of the rabbits, hard-packed little paths in the snow, where they travel round through the brush? Yes, of course you have. Well, after the middle of the night, when the moon rises and gives some light, I could go out there and set some snares in those paths, using our moccasin strings for loops, and in a short time we would have a rabbit; maybe two or three of them."

How easy a thing seems, once you know how to do it! I realized instantly that the plan was perfectly feasible, and wondered a my own dullness in not having though of it. I had been sitting up stiffly enough before the fire, anxiety over our situation keeping my nerves all a-quiver. Now a pleasant sense of security came to me. I felt only tired and sleepy, and dropped back on the boughs.

"Pitamakan, you are very wise," I said and in a moment was sound asleep. If he answered I never heard him.

Every time the fire died down the cold awoke one or both of us to put on fresh fuel and then we slept again, and under the circumstances, passed a very restful night.

Soon after daylight snow began to fall again, not so heavily as in the previous storm but with a steadiness that promised a long period of bad weather. We did not mind going out into it, now that we could come back to a fire at any time and dry ourselves.

Before setting forth, however, we spent some time in making two rude willow arrows. We mashed off the proper lengths with our "anvil" and cutting-stone, smoothed the ends by burning them, and then scraped the shafts and notched them with our obsidian knives. I proposed that we sharpen the points, but Pitamakan said no; that blunt ones were better for bird shooting, because they smashed the wing bones. Pitamakan had worked somewhat on the bow during the evening, scraping it thinner and drying it before the fire, so that now it had more spring; enough to get us meat, he thought. The great difficulty would be to shoot the unfeathered, clumsy arrows true to the mark.

Burying some coals deep in the ashes to make sure that they would be alive upon our return, we started out. Close to camp, Pitamakan set two rabbit snares, using a part of our moccasin strings for the purpose. His manner of doing this was simple. He bent a small, springy sapling over the rabbit path, and stuck the tip of it under a low branch of another tree. Next he tied the buckskin string to the sapling, so that the noose end of it hung crosswise in the rabbit path, a couple of inches above the surface of it. Then he stuck several feathery balsam tips on each side of the path, to hide the sides of the noose and prevent its being blown out of place by the wind. When a passing rabbit felt the loop tighten on its neck, its struggles would release the tip of the spring-pole from under the bough, and it would be jerked up in the air and strangled.

From camp, we went down the valley, looking for grouse in all the thickest clumps of young pines. Several rabbits jumped up ahead of us, snow-white, big-footed and black-eyed. Pitamakan let fly an arrow at one of them, but it fell short of the mark.

There were game trails everywhere. The falling snow was fast filling them, so that we could not distinguish new tracks from old; but after traveling a half-mile or so, we began to see the animals themselves, elk and deer, singly, and in little bands. As we approached a tangle of red willows, a bull, a cow, and a calf moose rose from the beds they had made in them. The cow and calf trotted away, but the bull, his hair all bristling forward, walked a few steps toward us shaking his big, broad-horned head. The old trappers' tales of their ferocity at this time of year came to my mind, and I began to look for a tree to climb there was none near by. All had such a large circumference that I could not reach halfway round them.

"Let's run!" I whispered.

"Stand still!" Pitamakan answered. "If you run, he will come after us."

The bull was not more than fifty yards from us. In the dim light of the forest his eyes, wicked little pig-like eyes, glowed with a greenish fire. The very shape of him was terrifying, more like a creature of bad dreams than an actual inhabitant of the earth. His long head had a thick, drooping upper lip; a tassel of black hair swung from his lower jaw; at the withers he stood all of six feet high, and sloped back to insignificant hind quarters; his long hair was rusty gray, shading into black. All this I took in at a glance. The bull again shook his head at us and advanced another step or two. "If he starts again, run for a tree," Pitamakan said.

That was a trying moment. We were certainly much afraid of him, and so would the best of the company men have been had they stood there weaponless in knee-deep snow. Once more he tossed his enormous horns, but just as he started to advance, a stick snapped in the direction in which the cow and calf had gone. At that he half turned and looked back, then trotted away in their trail. The instant he disappeared we started the other way, and never stopped until we came to our shelter.

It was well for us that we did return just then. The falling snow was wetting the ash-heap, and the water would soon have soaked through to the buried coals. We dug them up and started another fire, and sat before it for some time before venturing out again. This experience taught us, when leaving camp thereafter, to cover the coal-heap with a roof of wood or bark.

"Well, come on! Let's go up the valley this time, and see what will happen to us there," said Pitamakan, when we had rested.

Not three hundred yards above camp we came to a fresh bear trail, so fresh that only a very thin coating of snow had fallen since the passing of the animal. It led us to the river, when we saw that it continued on the other side up to the timber, straight toward the cave that had sheltered us. The tracks,' plainly outlined in the sand at the edge of the water, were those of a black bear. "That is he, the one that gathered the leaves and stuff we slept in, and he's going there now!" Pitamakan exclaimed.

"If we only had his carcass, how much more comfortable we could be!" I said. "The hide would be warm and soft to lie on, and the fat meat would last us a long time."

"If he goes into the cave to stay, we'll get him," said Pitamakan. "If we can't make bows and arrows to kill him, we will take strong, heavy clubs and pound him on the head."

We went up the valley. Trailing along behind my companion, I thought over his proposal to club the bear to death. A month, even a few days back, such a plan would have seemed foolish; but I was fast learning that necessity, starvation, will cause a man to take chances against the greatest odds. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like facing that bear.

I was about to propose that we go after it at once, when, with a whirr of wings that startled us, a large covey of blue grouse burst from a thicket close by, and alighted here and there in the pines and firs. We moved on a few steps, and stopped within short bow-shot of one. It did not seem to be alarmed at our approach, and Pitamakan took his time to fit one of the clumsy arrows and fire it.

Zip!  The shaft passed a foot from its body, struck a limb above and dropped down into the snow. But the grouse never moved. Anxiously I watched the fitting and aiming of the other arrow.

Zip!  I could not help letting out a loud yell when it hit fair and the bird came fluttering and tumbling down. I ran forward and fell on it the instant it struck the snow and grasped its plump body with tense hands,

"Meat! See! We have meat!" cried, holding up the fine cock.

"Be still! You have already scared all the other birds out of this tree!" said Pitamakan.

It was true. There had been three more in that fir, and now, because of my shouts, they were gone. Pitamakan looked at me reproachfully as he started to pick up the fallen arrows. Right there I learned a lesson in self-restraint that I never forgot.

We knew that there were more grouse in near-by trees, but they sat so still and were so much the color of their surroundings that we were some time in discovering any of them. They generally chose a big limb to light on, close to the bole of the tree. Finally our hungry eyes spied three in the next tree, and Pitamakan began shooting at the lower one, while I recovered the arrows for him.

Luck was against us. It was nothing, but miss, miss, miss, and as one by one the arrows grazed the birds, they hurtled away through the forest and out of sight. We were more fortunate a little farther on, for we got two birds from a small fir. Then we hurried to camp with our prizes.

I was for roasting the three of them a once, and eating a big feast but Pitamakan declared that he would not have any such doings. "We'll eat one now," he said, "one in the evening, and the other in the morning."

We were so hungry that we could not wait to cook the first bird thoroughly. Dividing it, we half roasted the portions over the coals, and ate the partly raw flesh. Although far from enough, that was the best meal I ever had. And it was not so small either; the blue grouse is a large and heavy bird, next to the sage-hen the largest of our grouse. After eating, we went out and "rustled" a good pile of fuel. As night came on, we sat down before the blaze in a cheerful mood, and straightway began to make plans for the future, which now seemed less dark than at the beginning of the day.

"With a better bow and better arrows, it is certain that we can kill enough grouse to keep us alive," I said.

"Not unless we have snowshoes to travel on," Pitamakan objected. "In a few days the snow will be so deep that we can no longer wade in it."

"We can make them of wood," I suggested, remembering the tale of a company man.

"But we couldn't travel about barefooted. Our moccasins will last only a day or two longer. One of mine, you see, is already ripping along the sole. Brother, if we are ever to see green grass and our people again, these things must we have besides food—thread and needles, skins for moccasins, clothing and bedding, and a warm lodge. The weather is going to be terribly cold before long."

At that my heart went away down. I had thought only of food, forgetting that other things were just as necessary. The list of them staggered me—thread and needles, moccasins, and all the rest "Well then, we must die," I exclaimed, "for we can never get all those things!"

"We can and we will," said Pitamakan cheerfully, "and the beginning of it all will be a better bow and some real arrows, arrows with ice-rock or flint points. We will try to make some to-morrow. Hah Listen!"

I barely heard the plaintive squall, but he recognized it. "Come on, it's a rabbit in one of the snares!" he cried, and out we ran into the brush.

He was right. A rabbit, still kicking and struggling for breath, was hanging in the farther snare. Resetting the trap, we ran, happy and laughing, back to the fire with the prize.

After all, we ate two grouse, instead of one that evening, burying them under the fire and this time letting them roast long enough so that the meat parted easily from the bones.