With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

Hunting and Trapping

"My grandfather told me that this is one way that it was done," said Pitamakan, as taking a flake of obsidian in the palm of his left hand, he tapped it with an angular stone held in his right hand. "The other way was to heat the ice-rock in the fire, and then with a grass stem place a very small drop of water on the part to be chipped off."

We had been out after flints, and finding none, had brought back the pieces of obsidian that we had placed at the foot of the tree. Earlier in the morning, on visiting the snares, we had found a rabbit in each. They hung now in a tree near by, and it was good to see them there; the rabbit remaining from our first catch had been broiled for our breakfast.

Following my partner's example, I, too, tried to work a piece of the obsidian into an arrow-point. The result was that we spoiled much of the none too plentiful material. It would not chip where we wanted it to, and if we hit it too hard a blow it splintered.

Deciding now to try the fire-and-water method, we made for the purpose, a pair of pincers of a green willow fork, and melted a handful of snow in a saucer-shaped fragment of rock. I was to do the heating of the obsidian and Pitamakan was to do the flaking. He chose a piece about an inch and a half long, a quarter of an inch thick, and nearly triangular in shape. One edge was as sharp as a razor; the other two were almost square-faced.

According to his directions, I took the fragment in the pincers by the sharp edge, so as to leave the rest free to be worked upon. Gradually exposing it to the heat, I held it for a moment over some coals freshly raked from the fire, and then held it before him, while with the end of a pine needle he laid a tiny drop of water near the lower corner, about a quarter of an inch back from the squared edge. There was a faint hiss of steam, but no apparent change in the surface of the rock. We tried it again, dropping the water in the same place. Pip! A small scale half the size of the little finger nail snapped off and left a little trough in the square edge. We both gave cries of delight; it seemed that we had hit on the right way to do the work.

A little more experimenting showed that the piece should be held slanting downward in the direction in which the flaking was to be done, for the cold water caused the rock to scale in the direction in which the drop ran. In the course of two hours the rough piece of obsidian was chipped down to a small arrow-point—one that Pitamakan's grandfather would have scorned, no doubt, but a real treasure to us.

We worked all that day making the points; when evening came we had five that were really serviceable. At sundown, the weather having cleared, we went to look at the rabbit-snares. As neither had been sprung, we moved them to a fresh place. This last storm had added a good deal to the depth of the snow it was so much now above our knees that walking in it was hard work.

We had now before us a task almost as difficult as making the points; that is, to find suitable material for our bows and arrows. We found none that evening, but the next morning, after visiting the snares and taking one rabbit, we stumbled on a clump of service-berry treelets, next to ash the favorite bow-wood of the Blackfeet.

Back to the camp we went, got our "anvil" and hacking-stones, and cut two straight, limbless stems, between two and three inches in diameter. Next we had a long hunt through the willows for straight arrow-shafts, found them, and got some coarse pieces of sandstone from the river to use as files.

Two days more were needed for making the bows and the arrow-shafts. The bows were worked down to the right size and shape only by the hardest kind of sandstone-rubbing, and by scraping and cutting with obsidian knives. But we did not dare to dry them quickly in the fire for fear of making the wood brittle, and they had not the strength of a really good weapon.

We made a good job of the arrows, slitting the tips, inserting the points, and fastening them in place with rabbit-sinew wrappings. For the shafts, the grouse wings provided feathering, which was also fastened in place with the sinew. Fortunately for us, the rabbit-snares kept us well supplied with meat, although we were growing tired of the diet.

Only one thing caused us anxiety now—the cords for our bows. We had to use for the purpose our moccasin strings, which were not only large and uneven, but weak. Pitamakan spoke of cutting off a braid of his hair for a cord, but on the morning after the weapons were finished, he said that in the night his dream had warned him not to do this. That settled it.

On this morning we went early to the snares and found a rabbit hanging in each. Taking the nooses along with the game to camp, we slowly dried them before the fire, for they must now serve as bowstrings. After they were dry we tested one of them, and it broke. We knotted it together and twisted it with the other to make a cord for Pitamakan's bow. That left me without one, and unable to string my bow until some large animal was killed that would furnish sinew for the purpose. I was by no means sure that the twisted and doubled cord was strong enough.

"You'd better try it before we start out," I suggested.

"No, we mustn't strain it any more than we can help," Pitamakan replied; and with that he led off down the valley.

Although the sun shone brightly, this was the coldest day that we had yet had. Had we not worn rabbit-skins, with fur side in, for socks, we could not have gone far from the fire. The trees were popping with frost, a sign that the temperature was close to zero.

Soon after leaving camp we struck a perfect network of game tracks, some of which afforded good walking—when they went our way. For there was no main trail parallel to the river, such as the buffalo and other game always made along the streams on the east side of the Rockies. On the west side of course there were no buffalo, and probably never had been any; and to judge from the signs, the other animals wandered aimlessly in every direction.

We went ahead slowly and noiselessly, for we hoped to see some of the game lying down, and to get a close shot before we were discovered. Presently a covey of ruffed grouse, flying up out of the snow into the pines, afforded easy shots; but we dared not risk our arrows for fear of shattering the points against the solid wood. We determined thereafter always to carry a couple of blunt ones for bird shooting.

Soon after passing the grouse, I caught a glimpse of some black thing that bobbed through the snow into a balsam thicket. We went over there and came to the trail of a fisher, the largest member of the weasel family. As I had often seen the large, glossy black pelts of these animals brought into the fort by Indians and company trappers, I was anxious to get a close view of one alive. I looked for it farther along in the snow; but Pitamakan, who was gazing up into the trees, all at once grasped my arm and pointed at a small red-furred creature that, running to the end of a long bough, leaped into the next tree.

"Huh! Only a squirrel!" I said. But I had barely spoken when, hot after it, jumped the fisher, the most beautiful, agile animal that I had ever seen. It was considerably larger than a house cat.

We ran, or rather waddled, as fast as we could to the foot of the fir, barely in time to see the fisher spring into the next tree, still in pursuit of the squirrel. The latter, making a circle in the branches, leaped back into the tree over our heads. The fisher was gaining on it, and was only a few feet behind its prey when, seeing us, it instantly whipped round and went out of that tree into the one beyond, and from that to another, and another, until was finally lost to sight.

"Oh, if we could only have got it!" I cried.

"Never mind, there are plenty of them here, and we'll get some before the winter is over," said my companion.

Although I had my doubts about that, I made no remark. Pitamakan was promising lot of things that seemed impossible,—needles and thread, for instance. "Let's go on," I said. "It is too cold for us to stand still."

We came now to the red willow thicket where the bull moose had frightened us. There a barely perceptible trough in the new-fallen snow marked where he and his family had wandered round and retreated, quartering down the valley.

"They are not far away, but I think we had better not hunt them until we have two bows," Pitamakan remarked.

Just below the red willows we saw our first deer, a large, white-tail doe, walking toward the river, and stopping here and there to snip off tender tips of willow and birch. We stood motionless while she passed through the open timber and into a fir thicket.

"She is going to lie down in there. Come on," said Pitamakan.

He started toward the river and I followed, although I wondered why he didn't go straight to the deer trail. Finally I asked him the reason, and right there I got a very important lesson in still-hunting.

"All the animals of the forest lie down facing their back trail," he explained. "Sometimes they do more than that; they make a circle, and coming round, lie down where they can watch their trail. If an enemy comes along on it, they lie close to the ground, ears flattened back, until he passes on; then they get up slowly and sneak quietly out of hearing, and then run far and fast. Remember this: never follow a trail more than just enough to keep the direction the animal is traveling. Keep looking ahead, and when you see a likely place for the animal to be lying, a rise of ground, a side hill, or a thicket, make a circle, and approach it from the further side. If the animal hasn't stopped, you will come to its trail; but if you find no trail, go ahead slowly, a step at a time."

There was sound sense in what he told me, and I said so; but feeling that we were losing time, I added, "Let's hurry on now."

"It is because there is no hurry that I have explained this to you here," he replied. "This is a time for waiting instead of hurrying. You should always give the animal plenty of chance to lie down and get sleepy."

The day was too cold, however, for longer waiting. We went on to the river, and were surprised to find that it was frozen over, except for long, narrow open places over the rapids. As there was no snow on the new-formed ice, walking on it was a great relief to our tired legs. A couple of hundred yards down stream we came to the fir thicket, and walked past it. Since no fresh deer track was to be found coming from the place, we knew that the doe was somewhere in it.

Back we turned, and leaving the river, began to work our way in among the snow-laden trees, which stood so close together that we could see no more than twenty or thirty feet ahead. I kept well back from Pitamakan, in order to give him every possible chance. It was an anxious moment. Killing that deer meant supplying so many of our needs!

We had sneaked into the thicket for perhaps fifty yards when, for all his care, Pitamakan grazed with his shoulder a snow-laden branch of balsam, and down came the whole fluff of it. I saw the snow farther on burst up as if from the explosion of a bomb, and caught just a glimpse of the deer, whose tremendous leaps were raising the feathery cloud. It had only a few yards to go in the open but Pitamakan had seen it rise from its bed, and was quick enough to get a fair shot before it disappeared.

"I hit it!" he cried. "I saw its tail drop! Come on."

That was a certain sign. When a deer of this variety is alarmed and runs, it invariably raises its short, white-haired tail, and keeps swaying it like the inverted pendulum of a clock but if even slightly wounded by the hunter, it instantly claps its tail tight against its body and keeps it there.

"Here is blood!" Pitamakan called out, pointing to some red spots on the snow. They were just a few scattering drops, but I consoled myself with thinking that an arrow does not let out blood like a rifle-ball because the shaft fills the wound. We soon came to the edge of the fir thicket. Beyond, the woods were so open that we could see a long way in the direction of the deer's trail. We dropped to a walk, and went on a little less hopefully; the blood-droppings became more scattering, and soon not another red spot was o be seen—a bad sign.

At last we found where the deer had ceased running, had stopped and turned round to look back. It had stood for some time, as was shown by the well-trodden snow. Even here there was not one drop of blood, and worst of all, from this place the deer had gone on at its natural long stride.

"It is useless for us to trail her farther." said Pitamakan dolefully. "Her wound is only a slight one; it smarts just enough to keep her traveling and watching that we don't get a chance for another shot."

I felt bad enough, but Pitamakan felt worse, because he thought that he should have made a better shot.

"Oh, never mind," I said, trying to cheer him. "There are plenty of deer close round here, and it is a long time until night. Go ahead. We'll do better next time."

"I am pretty tired," he complained. "Perhaps we had better go to camp and start out rested to-morrow."

I had not thought to take the lead and break trail a part of the time; of course he was tired. I proposed to do it now, and added that it would be a good plan to walk on the ice of the river and look carefully into the timber along the shores for meat of some kind.

"You speak truth!" he exclaimed, his face brightening in a way that was good to see. "Go ahead; let's get over there as quick as possible."

In a few minutes we were back on the ice, where he took the lead again. And now for the first time since leaving camp—except for a few minutes after the shot at the deer—I felt sure that with so much game in the valley we should kill something. On the smooth, new ice, our moccasins were absolutely noiseless; we were bound to get a near shot. Inside of half an hour we flushed several coveys of grouse, and saw an otter and two mink; but there were so many tracks of big game winding round on the shore and in and out of the timber that we paid no attention to the small fry.

It was at the apex of a sharp point, where the river ran right at the roots of some big pines, that we saw something that sent a thrill of expectation through us; the snow on a willow suddenly tumbled, while the willow itself trembled as if something had hit it. We stopped and listened, but heard nothing. Then nearer to us the snow fell from another bush; from another closer yet and Pitamakan made ready to shoot just as a big cow elk walked into plain view and stopped, broadside toward us, not fifty feet away.

"Oh, now it is meat, sure," I thought, and with one eye on the cow and the other on my companion, I waited breathlessly.

For an instant Pitamakan held the bow motionless, then suddenly drew back the cord with a mighty pull, whirled half round on the slippery ice and sat down, with the bow still held out in his left hand. From each end of it dangled a part of the cord!

That was a terrible disappointment. Such a fair chance to get a big fat animal lost, all because of that weak bowstring! The elk had lunged out of sight the instant Pitamakan moved. He sat for a moment motionless on the ice, with bowed head, a picture of utter dejection. Finally he gave a deep sigh, got up slowly and listlessly, and muttered that we had better go home.

"Wait! Let's knot the cord together", I proposed. "That may have been the one weak place in it?"

He shook his head in a hopeless way and started upstream, but after a few steps halted, and said, "I have no hope, but we'll try it."

The cord had been several inches longer than was necessary, and after the knot was made it was still long enough to string the bow. When it was in place again, Pitamakan gave it a half pull, a harder one, then fitted an arrow and drew it slowly back; but before the head of the shaft was anywhere near the bow, frip! went the cord, broken in a new place. We were done for unless we could get a new and serviceable cord! Without a word Pitamakan started on and I followed, my mind all a jumble of impossible plans.

We followed the winding river homeward in preference to the shorter route through the deep snow. The afternoon was no more than half gone when we arrived at the little shelter, rebuilt the fire, and sat down to roast some rabbit meat.

"We can't even get any more rabbits," I said. "There are so many knots in our strings that a slip-noose can't be made with them."

"That is true, brother," said Pitamakan "so we have but one chance left. If there is a bear in that cave across the river we have got to kill him."

"With clubs?"

"Yes, of course. I told you that my dream forbids the cutting of my hair, and so there is no way to make a bowstring."

"Come on Come on!" I said desperately. "Let's go now and have it over."

We ate our rabbit meat as quickly as possible, drank from the spring, and by the help of the indispensable "anvil" and our cutting-stones, we got us each a heavy, green birch club. Then we hurried off to the river. Although much snow had fallen since we had seen the black bear's tracks there, its trail was still traceable up through the timber toward the cave.