With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

Heading Home

Crossing the valley from south to north in front of us, the snowshoe trail disappeared, a hundred yards away, in a clump of pines. The Indian, brushing against a branch, had relieved it of its weight of snow, and its dark green foliage stood out in sharp contrast with the prevailing white. There was a chance that he might still be in that thicket.

"We must know if he is there," said Pitamakan. "Though he didn't hear us we must still know whence this enemy came, and why, and where he is going."

We began by going cautiously round the pines. From a distance, we could see the trail coming out of them on the farther side and going on straight to the river, where the water fell in cascades over a wide series of low, broken reefs. From there the trail followed the edge of the open water down past the last of the falls, and then showed plain on the frozen river as far as we could see.

Venturing now to follow it to the cascades, we learned at a glance, on arriving there, why the lone traveler had come into our peaceful valley. At the edge of the water the snow was all trampled down, and the prints of bare feet in it showed that the man had been wading in the river. Scattered on the packed snow were several fragments of dark green rock, one of which Pitamakan picked up and examined.

"This is what he came after," he said. "It is pipestone and very soft. Both the Kootenays and the Flatheads make their pipes of it because it is so easily worked into shape."

"Where do you think he came from?" I asked.

"From the camp of his people. These mountain Indians winter down along their big lake. Very little snow falls there, and horse-feed is always good."

"Well, if he came from down there, why do we find his trail to this place coming straight across the valley from the south?"

"Ah, that is so!" Pitamakan exclaimed. "Come on! We must find out about that."

We took the man's back trail, and, passing our deadfall, paused to note how plainly it could be seen from several points along the way. It was a wonder that he had noticed neither the deadfall nor our hard-packed, snowshoe trail.

"The gods were certainly good to us!" my partner exclaimed. "They caused him to look the other way as he passed."

The back trail led us straight to the foot of the steep mountain rising from the valley. There, in several places, the snow was scraped away to the ground, where evidently the man had searched for the pipestone ledge that was probably exposed somewhere near. Failing to find it, he had been obliged to go o the river and wade to the place where it again cropped out. His trail to the side hill came straight up the valley.

We certainly had something to think and talk about now—and also to worry about. Others of the enemy might come after pipestone, and there was our trail running straight to the place. Going back to the deadfall, we took out the fisher, but did not reset the trap; for we determined not to go thereafter within several miles of the pipestone falls. Another heavy snowfall would pretty much obliterate our trail, and we prayed that it would soon come. From, that day, indeed, our sense of peace and security was gone.

Sitting within the lodge, we always had the feeling that the enemy might be close by, waiting to shoot us when we stepped outside. On the daily rounds of our traps we were ever watching places where a foe might be lying in wait. Pitamakan said that the only thing for us to do was to make strong medicine. Accordingly, he gave our bearskin to the sun; he lashed it firmly in the fork of a tree, and made a strong prayer to the shining god to guard us from being ambushed by the enemy.

Although we had long since lost track of the days of the week, we agreed in thinking that the discovery of the man's trail took place in "the moon before the moon when the web-feet come" or, as the white man would say, in February. At the end of the next moon, then,—in March,—spring would come on the plains. Up where we were, however, the snow would last much longer—probably until May. Pitamakan said that we must leave the valley long before then, because with the first signs of spring the deer would be working back into the high mountains, and the Kootenays would follow them.

"How can we do that when, as you say, the pass cannot be crossed until summer?" I asked.

"There is another pass to the south of us," he replied, "the Two Medicine pass. There is no dangerous place anywhere along it."

"Then we can easily get out of here!" I exclaimed. "Let us start soon."

He shook his head. "No," he said. We can't go until the snow melts from the low country where the Kootenays and Flatheads winter. We have to go down there to make our start on the Two Medicine trail."

"Why so?" said I, in surprise. "Why can't we go straight south, from here until we strike it?"

He laughed grimly.

"Between us and the trail lie many canyons and many mountains that none but the birds can cross. Besides, along each stream is a trail used by these Indians in their hunts up toward the backbone of the range, which is like the trail that crosses over to the Two Medicine. I could not recognize the right one when we came to it, and we should follow up one after another, and wear ourselves out. I remember some landmarks only where the right trail leaves the lake and enters the heavy timber, and from that place we have to start. Also, we have to start from there on bare ground; for if we started on the snow, our trail would be seen and followed, and that would be the end for us."

"Well then, let's go up and look at the summit of our pass," I proposed. "It may not be so bad as you think. Perhaps we can find some way to cross the dangerous place."

He objected that we should waste our time, but I kept urging that we must overlook no possible chance to escape to the plains, until finally I persuaded him. One bright morning we put on our snowshoes and started. As the going was good on the deep, settled snow, we were not long in covering the distance to the Salt Springs. Up and down the mountainside, all round them, was a perfect network of goat trails in the snow, and here and there were large and small groups of the strange, uncouth animals, some lying down, some sitting and staring dejectedly off into space, while still others were cropping lichens from wind-swept, rocky walls. Although several of them were less than three hundred yards away, they paid no attention to us.

After watching some that were feeding on the cliff wall, where they looked as if they were pasted to it, we came to the conclusion that they could travel where a bighorn would certainly fall and be dashed to pieces. One old billy-goat was almost human in the way in which he got over difficult places. After standing on his hind legs and gathering all the lichen within reach he concluded to ascend to the next shelf. Since there was not room for him to back away for a leap, he placed his forefeet over the edge, and drew himself up on to it—exactly as a man draws himself up by the sheer muscular strength of his arms.

Not far beyond the springs, we left the last of the timber and began the ascent of the summit proper, and soon came into the zone of terrific winds; but fortunately for us, there was scarce a breath stirring that day. The snow was so hard-packed by the wind that when we removed our snowshoes, our moccasined feet left no impressions in it. The rocky slopes facing the northwest were absolutely bare, while those pitching the other way lay buried under drifts from five to fifty feet and more in depth.

Late in the afternoon we came to the west end of the pass, having made twice as good time in the ascent as we had in the descent in the autumn with horses. I needed but one glance at the place to be convinced that it was impassable. The steep slide where my horse and I had so nearly been lost was buried deep in snow; towering above it were heavy greenish, concave drifts of snow clinging to the knife-edge wall and likely to topple over at any moment. Our weight might, and probably would, start an avalanche rushing down the slide and off into abysmal space. We stood in the trail of several goats, which had ventured out on the slide for a few yards, abruptly turned and retraced their steps.

"Even they feared to cross," said Pitamakan. "Come on! Let's go home."

I was so disappointed that I had not a word to say on the way down. We reached the lodge late in the night, made sure that no one had been near it during our absence, and after building a good fire and eating some roast meat, crawled into our fur bag, nearly worn out. It had been a long, hard day.

At this time our catch of fur began to decrease rapidly. It is my belief that the predatory as well as the herbivorous animals never stray very far from the place where they are born.

A case in point is that of an old grizzly bear, whose trail could not be mistaken because he had lost a toe from his left front foot. Every three weeks he crossed the outlet of the Upper St. Mary's Lake, wandered up into the Red Eagle Valley, swung round northward along the backbone of the Rockies to the Swift Current Waters, and thence down across the outlet again. Observation of other animals also leads me to believe that they all have their habitual rounds. If this is so, it explains why it was that our deadfalls held fewer and fewer prizes for us, until finally three or four days would pass without our finding even a marten to reward us for our long, weary tramps.

The days now grew noticeably longer and warmer, until finally snow-shoeing was impossible after nine or ten o'clock in the morning. The warm sun turned the snow into large, loose, water-saturated grains which would give way every few steps and let us down clear to the ground, often in places where the snow was so deep that we stood, so to speak, in a greenish well from which we had to look straight up to see the sky. It was very difficult to get out of such places.

Toward the end of our stay we did most of our tramping in the early morning, when the snow was covered with so hard a crust by the night's frost that it would hold us up without snowshoes.

One evening we heard the distant cry of wild geese. That was our signal for departure. We made a last round of the deadfalls, sprung each one that was set, and the next day made up two bundles of the peltries that we were to take with us. There were in all sixty-one marten, ten fisher, seventeen mink, five wolverine, one mountain-lion, eight lynx, and two otter skins. Fortunately, there was little weight in all that number, and we bound them so compactly that there was little bulk. A quantity of moose meat, cut into thin sheets and dried, made up the rest of our pack. Nor did we forget the fire-drill and a small, hard piece of birch wood that had been seasoning by the fire all the winter for a drill base.

The goatskin sleeping-bag was too heavy to take along; it would have added much to our comfort, of course, but there was now no night cold enough to be very disagreeable so long as we could have fire, and of that we were assured. However, Pitamakan did not intend that the bag should be wasted almost the last thing that he did was to make an offering of it to the sun. Lashing the bundle in a tree, he prayed that we might survive all perils by the way, and soon reach the lodges of our people.

At sundown we ate our last meal in the lodge and enjoyed for the last time its cheerful shelter. Somehow, as we sat by the fire we did not feel like talking. To go away and leave the little home to the elements and the prowlers of the night was like parting forever from some near and dear friend.

We waited several hours, until the frost hardened the snow then putting on the snowshoes and slinging the packs, we started away down the valley. There was certainly a lump in my throat as I turned for a last look at the lodge, with the smoke of its fire curling up from it and beckoning us back to rest and sleep.

Until midnight the stiffening crust occasionally broke and let us down; but after that time it became so hard that, taking off our snowshoes and slinging them to the packs, we made remarkable time down the valley.

After passing the pipestone falls, we entered country new to us, where the valley became much wider. Every mile or two a branch came into the river, which we were obliged to ford, for the ice had gone out of the streams. It was no fun to remove moccasins and leggings, wade through the icy water, and then put them on in the snow on the other side.

For several weeks avalanches had been thundering down the mountain-sides all round us, and this night they seemed more frequent than ever. Once one tore its way to the valley just behind us. Not an hour later, Pitamakan's pack-thong broke, and let his bundle down into the snow. As we stopped to retie it, there came the rumbling of an avalanche, apparently right over our heads.

I thought that it would strike the valley not far below us. "Come! Get up!" cried. "Let's run back as fast as we can!"

"Not so! We must run the other way. Can't you hear? It is going to strike either where we are, or close behind us," Pitamakan answered; and grasping my arm, he tried to make me go forward with him.

"Can't you hear it there?" shouted taking hold of him in my turn and pulling the other way. "It is coming down right where we stand, or not far below here!"

And thus we stood while the dreadful noise increased, until it seemed as if the world was being rent wide open. There was a confusion of thunderous sound—the grinding of rocks and ice, the crashing and snapping of great trees. The avalanche came nearer with terrific speed, until finally it filled all the region round with such a deafening noise that it was impossible even to guess where it would sweep down into the valley.

We ran a few steps upstream, then as many more back, and finally stood trembling, quite uncertain which way to fly. But only for a moment just ahead of us the great forest trees began to leap out and downward from the steep mountain-side, and then the mass of the avalanche burst into the flat and piled up a hundred feet deep before us—a dirty ridge of wrecked mountain-side that extended away across the valley to the river. There was a last rumble and cracking of branches as it settled, and then all was still.

The avalanche burst into the flat


"You see that I was right," I said. "It did strike below us."

"Yes, you heard better than I did," my partner admitted, "but that is not what saved us. I am sure that the gods caused the pack-thong to break and stop us; otherwise we should have been right in the path of the slide."

Re-slinging our packs, we climbed the rough mass of the slide, round and over big boulders, ice blocks, and tree trunks, through piles of brush and broken branches. At the apex of the heap Pitamakan reached down, pulled something from the earth-stained snow, and passed it to me. It was the head and neck of a mountain goat, crushed almost flat, the flesh of which was still warm.

"You see what would have happened to us if my pack-thong had not broken," he said grimly.

"It must be that many goats perish in this way," I remarked.

"Yes, and also many bighorn," he said. "I have heard the old hunters say that the bears, when they first come out in the spring, get their living from these slides. They travel from one to another, and paw round in search of the dead animals buried in them."

At daylight we entered an open park where we could see back toward the summit. There was no doubt that we had traveled a long way during the night, for the mountain opposite our abandoned lodge looked twenty miles distant. The valley here was fully a mile wide, and the mountains bordering it were covered with pines clear to the summit. They were not more than a thousand feet high, and the western rim of them seemed not more than fifteen miles away. We believed that from where they ended the distance could not be great to the lake of the Flatheads.

Down here the snow was only about four feet deep, less than half the depth of it where we had wintered. The air became warm much earlier in the morning than it did up there. Using the snowshoes now, as the crust was getting weak, we kept going, although very tired. During the two hours that we were able to travel after sunrise, we passed great numbers of elk, and not a few moose, and when, finally, the snow grew spongy and obliged us to stop for the day, we were plainly within the deer range, for both white-tail and mule-deer were as plentiful as jack-rabbits are in certain parts of the plains.

We stopped for our much-needed rest on a bare sandbar of the river, and with bow and drill started a little fire and roasted some dry meat. The sun shone warm there, and after eating, we lay down on the sand and slept until almost night.

Starting on again as soon as the snow crusted, we traveled the rest of the night without any trouble, and soon after day-break suddenly passed the snow-line and stepped into green-sprouting grass. The summer birds had come, and were singing all round us. A meadow-lark, on a bush close by, was especially tuneful, and Pitamakan mocked it:

"Kit-ah-kim ai-siks-is-to-ki!"  (Your sister is dark-complexioned!) he cried gleefully. "Oh, no, little yellow-breast, you make a mistake. I have no sister."

We were in the edge of a fine prairie dotted with groves of pine and cottonwood. The land sloped gently to the west. I thought that it could not be far in that direction to the big lake, but Pitamakan said that it was way off to the southwest, perhaps two days' journey from where we were. Suddenly he fell on his knees and began with feverish haste to dig up a slender, green-leaved plant.

"It is camass!" he cried, holding it up and wiping the earth from the white, onion-shaped root. "Dig! Dig! See, there are plenty of them all round. Eat plenty of them. They are good."

So they were; crisp, starchy, and rather sweet. After our winter-long diet of meat, they were exactly what our appetites craved and our systems needed. We made a meal of them right there. For once hunger got the better of our caution. Laying down our pack and snowshoes, we dug up root after root, all the time moving out into prairie farther and farther from the edge of the timber.

"Come on! Let's get our packs and hide somewhere for the day," I said finally. "I am filled with these things to the neck."

"Oh, wait a little; I want a few more," my partner answered.

Just then a band of deer burst out of a cottonwood grove about five hundred yards to the west of us, and as we sat staring and wondering what had startled them, three Indians came riding like the wind round one side of the grove, and four more appeared on the other side, in swift pursuit of the animals.