. . .This only is certain, that there is nothing certain; and nothing more miserable and yet more arrogant than man. — Pliny the Elder

With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz




Adventures with Pitamakan

I do not know why I cried out. Of course there was no one to answer, to advise, or assist me. I have often noticed that in times of stress men shout the questions that they ask themselves. Why had Baptiste motioned me to go back, when by doing so I must run right into the Indians? I must have misunderstood his signal. Clearly, my only chance of escape was the same as his, and that was by the river.

Pummeling the old horse with rifle-stock and heels, I headed him for the stream. Not straight toward it, where the bank was apparently very high, but obliquely, toward a point not far above the mouth of the Musselshell. There the bank was certainly not high, for the tips of water-willows peeped above it.

In a few moments I was close enough to look over it. Between the narrow strip of willows and the edge of the water there was an oozy mudflat, fifty yards wide, impassable for man or horse.

I looked back at the enemy, and saw that when I had turned downstream, those toward the upper end of the bottom had given up the chase, while the rest had turned with me and run faster than ever. Thus there was a wide gap between the two parties, and I circled toward it, as my last chance. First up the river for several hundred yards, then straight south, away from it. Both parties immediately perceived my intention, and spurted to close the gap. Harder and harder I thumped the horse, although by this time he had waked up, and was entering into the spirit of the flight. The distance between the two parties of Indians was now not more than three hundred yards, and I was more than that from the point for which we all were heading; but to offset this I was covering the ground much faster than they were.

The Indians were now yelling frightfully to encourage one another to greater speed. I could see their painted faces and a little later their fierce eyes.

The gap was very small now; they began shooting, and several pieces of lead ripped by me with the sound of tearing paper. I did not try to use my rifle. In that first experience there was no anger in my heart against the enemy, nothing but fear of them.

I felt, rather than saw, that they would be unable to head me off, if only by a narrow margin, and I bent low over the horse to make myself as small a target as possible. More guns boomed close on each side of me. Arrows whizzed, too, and the shaft of one struck my rifle-stock, glanced from it, and cut the skin on the back of my hand. That was when I passed right between the two parties.

In a dazed way, I kept urging the horse on, until presently it dawned on me that I was past the danger point. Having looked back to make sure of this, I changed my course, crossed the Musselshell, and went on down the bottom, and then along the shore of the river several miles, until I came to the boat.

When the cordelliers saw me returning in such haste, they knew that something was wrong. They ceased towing, and let the boat drift in to the bank, in such a position that I rode right on the deck. I was still so frightened that it was difficult for me to talk, but my uncle, guessing the parts of the story which I omitted, ordered all the men aboard. In a few minutes we were at the other shore of the river.

The cordelliers objected to going on with the tow-line, but my uncle was firm that they should start without delay, and they did. The steersman, an old and tried employee, was sent ahead of them to scout, and Uncle Wesley took his place at the sweep. The howitzer was freshly primed, and one of the men instructed to stand by, ready to aim and fire it. I was anxious about Baptiste, and although my uncle told me not to worry, I doubted if we should ever see him again.

In a couple of hours we arrived off the island opposite the mouth of the Musselshell, and lo! Baptiste came out of the brush at the lower end of it, and signaled us to take him aboard. That was done with the skiff. As soon as he came on deck he ran to me, in his impetuous French way, gave me a hug and a thump on the back, and exclaimed, "It is my brave boy! And he is safe! One little wound in the hand? That is nothing. Now, tell me how you made the escape."

But at this moment my uncle came to consult the hunter, and my story was deferred. I learned from Baptiste later that the Indians were Crees, probably on their way south, to raid the Crow horse herds.

By this time we had passed the island. Baptiste was just asking us to note how high the cut-bank was from which he hid jumped into the stream, when the whole party of Indians rose out of the sage-brush at the edge of it, and with much yelling, fired their guns at us. As the distance was three or four hundred yards, only a few of their balls struck anywhere near the boat. Uncle Wesley himself sprang to the howitzer, swung it round tilted up the barrel, and fired it. Some of the balls dropped into the water near the far shore, several spatted little puffs of dust out of the dry cut-bank, and others must have passed right among the war party. Anyway, the Indians all ducked down and ran back from the bluff. We saw no more of them.

Ever since leaving the mouth of the Yellowstone we had been passing through the extraordinary formation of the Bad Lands. From this point onward the scenery became more and more wonderful. Boy that I was I was so deeply impressed with the strange grandeur of it all that the sensations I experienced were at times actually oppressive. At every turn there was something to astonish the eye. There were gleaming white and gray turreted castles, perched high above the stream cities of clustering domes and towers and minarets, all wrought by the elements from sandstones of varying hardness, but all so apparently real as to suggest that men and women in medieval dress might pass out of the gates in the walls at any moment.

We arrived at Fort Benton just ninety days after leaving Fort Union. The flag was raised and cannon fired in our honor, and more than five thousand Blackfeet, headed by the factor, Alexander Culbertson, and the employees of the fort, crowded to the river-bank to give us welcome.

I was astonished to see so many Indians. I noticed that they were tall, fine-looking men and women; that they wore beautiful garments of tanned skins; that their hair was done up in long, neat braids; that many of the leading men shook hands with my uncle, and seemed glad to meet him.

My uncle introduced me to that great man, the factor, who patted me kindly on the shoulder. With him we went into the fort, where, just as we passed through the big gate, a tall, handsome Indian woman, wearing a neat calico dress, a plaid shawl, and beautifully embroidered moccasins, came running to us, threw her arms round my uncle, and kissed him. I must have looked as surprised as I felt, especially when I noted that he was very glad to meet her. Having spoken a few words to her, which I couldn't understand, he turned tome. "Thomas," be said, "this is your aunt. I hope that you and she will become great friends."

I was now more surprised than ever, but tried not to show it as I answered, "Yes, sir."

At that the woman gave a smile that was pleasant to see, and the next instant she had me in her arms and was kissing me, smoothing my hair, and talking Blackfoot to me in her strangely clear and pleasant voice. My uncle interpreted. "She says that she wants to be your mother now; that she wants you to love her, to come to her for everything you need."

I do not know just what it was,—her voice, her appearance, the motherly feeling of her arms round me,—but there was something about this Indian woman that made my heart go straight out to her. I gave her hand a squeeze, while tears came to my eyes as I snuggled up close to her. Right willingly I went with her and Uncle Wesley to the room in the far end of the long adobe building forming the east side of the fort, which he said was to be our home for a long time to come.

It was the kind of room that gave one a restful feeling at sight. Opposite the doorway was a big fireplace of stone and adobe, with hooks above the mantel for rifles and powder-horns and ball-pouches. Two windows on the courtyard side afforded plenty of light. There were a strong table and comfortable chairs, all home-made. A settee covered with buffalo-robes was placed before the fire. A curtained set of shelves in the corner contained the dishes and cooking-utensils. The north end of the room was partitioned off for a sleeping-place. My bed, I was told, would be the buffalo-robe couch under the window at the right of the door.

The next day my uncle took me all round the fort and made me known to the different employees—clerks and tailors, carpenters and blacksmiths, and the men of the trade-room. The fort was a large one, about three hundred feet square, all of adobe. Entering the front gate, you saw that three long buildings, of which the easterly one was two stories high, formed three sides of the quadrangle, and that a high wall containing the gate formed the fourth, or south side, facing the river. The outer walls of the buildings were thus the defensive walls of the fort. They were protected against assault by two-storied bastions, with cannon at the southeast and northwest corners. All the tribes of the Northwest together could not have taken the place by assault without the loss of thousands of their force, and they knew it.

Before night the keel-boat was unloaded, and our trunks were brought in and unpacked. My mother's little library and my school-books filled a new set of shelves, and that evening I began, under my uncle's direction, a course of study and reading, preparatory to going East to school in the following year.

No boy ever had a happier time than I had in that fort so far beyond the borders of civilization. Day in and day out there was always something worth while going on. Hundreds, and often thousands, of Indians came in to trade, and I found endless pleasure in mingling with them and learned their language and customs. In this I was encouraged by Tsistsaki (Little Bird Woman), my uncle's wife. She had no children, and all her natural mother love was given to me. In her way of thinking, nothing that I did could be wrong, and the best of everything was not good enough for me. The beautifully embroidered buckskin suits and moccasins she made for me fairly dazzled the eye with their blaze of color. These were not for everyday wear, but I took every possible occasion for putting them on, and strutted around, the envy of all the Indian boys in the country.

The winter passed all too quickly. With the approach of spring my uncle began to plan for my long trip to St. Louis, and thence to the home of my mother's Connecticut friend, where I was to prepare for Princeton. I said nothing to him, but I had many talks with my aunt-mother, Tsistsaki; and one night we poured out such a torrent of reasons why I should not go, ending our pleadings with tears, that he gave in to us, and agreed that I should grow up in the fur trade.

A frequent visitor in our cozy room in the fort was a nephew of Tsistsaki, a boy several years older than I. We liked each other at sight, and every time we met we became firmer friends than ever. "Friend" means much more to Indians—at least, to the Blackfeet—than it does to white people. Once friends, Indians are always friends. They almost never quarrel. So it came to be with Pitamakan (Eagle Running) and myself.

My uncle Wesley was as much pleased as his wife. One day he said to me, "Pitamakan is an honest, good-hearted boy, and brave, too. He gets all that from his father, who is one of the very best and most trustworthy Indians in all this country, and from his mother, who is a woman of fine character. See to it that you keep his friendship."

Except, of course, Baptiste Rondin, the hunter of the fort, Pitamakan was almost the only one with whom I was allowed to go after the buffalo and the other game which swarmed on the plains near by. What with my daily studies, occasional hunts, and the constant pleasure I had in the life of the fort time fairly flew no day was too long. And yet, for four years, I never once went more than five miles from the fort.

During this time my one great desire was to go on a trip into the Rocky Mountains. Clearly visible from the high plains to the north and south of the river, their pine-clad slopes and sharp, bare peaks always seemed to draw me to explore their almost unknown fastnesses.

In the fall of 1860 there came an opportunity for me to do this. The Small Robes band of the Blackfeet, of which Pitamakan's father, White Wolf (Mah-kwi'-yi ksik-si-num), was chief, outfitted at the fort for an expedition to trap beaver along the foot of the great mountains, and, much to my surprise and delight, I was permitted to accompany them.

At this time there were ninety lodges about six hundred people—of the Small Robes (I-nuk-siks) band of the Blackfeet. They had several thousand horses, and when the moving camp was strung out on the plain, the picturesque riders, the pack-animals laden with queerly shaped, painted rawhide and leather pouches and sacks, made a pageant of moving color that was very impressive.

Our first camp after leaving the fort was on the Teton River. A couch was made up for me in White Wolf's lodge. The lodge of the plains Indians was the most comfortable portable shelter ever devised by man. One of average size was made of sixteen large cow buffalo-hides, tanned into soft leather, cut to shape, and sewed together with sinew thread.

This cone-shaped "lodge skin" was stretched over tough, slender poles of mountain-pine, and the lower edge, or skirt, was pegged so that it was at least four inches above the ground. Within, a leather lining, firmly weighted to the ground by the couches and household impedimenta of the occupants, extended upward for five or six feet, where it was tied to a rope that was fastened to the poles clear round. There was a space as wide as the thickness of the poles between the "skin" and the lining, so that the cold, outside air rushing up through created a draft for the fire, and carried the smoke out of the open space at the top. This lining, of course, prevented the cold air from coming into the lower part of the lodge, so that even in the coldest weather a small fire was enough for comfort.

Traveling leisurely up the Teton River we came in three or four days to the foot of the great range. There we went into camp for several weeks, long enough for the hunters to trap most of the beavers, not only on the main stream, but on all its little tributaries. Pitamakan and I had twelve traps, and were partners in the pursuit of the animals.

From the Teton we moved northward to Back-Fat Creek, now Dupuyer Creek. From there we went to the Two Medicine waters, and then on to the Cut-Bank River. The trapping area of this stream was small. On the first day of our camp there Pitamakan and I foolishly went hunting, with the result that when, on the next day, we began looking for a place to set our traps, we found that all the beaver-ponds and bank-workings had been occupied by the other trappers.

It was late in the afternoon, after we had followed up the south fork to a tremendous walled canyon, where it was impossible for the beavers to make dams and homes, that we made this discovery. Our disappointment was keen, for from Cut-Bank the camp was to return to Fort Benton, and we had only thirty-seven of the fifty beaver pelts that we had planned to take home with us.

We were sitting on a well-worn trail that stretched along the mountainside above the canon, when Pitamakan suddenly exclaimed:—

"Listen to me! We will get the rest of the beaver! You see this trail? Well, it crosses this backbone of the world, and is made by the other-side people,—the Kootenays and the Flatheads,—so that they can come over to our plains and steal our buffalo. You can see that it has not been used this summer. It will not be used at all now, since winter is so near. Now, down on the other side there are many streams in the great forest, and no doubt there are beavers in them. We will go over there to-morrow, and in a few days' trapping we will catch enough to make up the number we set out to get."

This plan seemed good to, me, and I said so at once. We left the traps on the trail and started to camp, to prepare for an early start in the morning. We decided to say nothing to any one of our intentions, to White Wolf least of all, lest he should forbid our going.

At dusk we picketed near camp two horses that we selected for the trip, and during the evening we refilled our powder-horns and ball-pouches to the neck. Rising the next morning before any of the others were awake, and each taking a heavy buffalo-robe from our bedding, we quietly left the lodge, saddled and mounted our horses, and rode away. Some dried meat and buffalo back fat taken from the lodge furnished us a substantial breakfast.

The trail was plain and easy to follow. We picked up the traps, and mounting steadily, arrived at the extreme summit of the great range not long after midday. From where we stood, the trail ran slightly downward, along a narrow divide, across to the next mountain. The south side of the divide was a sheer drop of several thousand feet. The top was a narrow, jagged knife of rock, along which a man could not have passed on foot. On the north side the sharp reef dropped almost precipitously to a narrow and exceedingly steep slope of fine shale rock, which terminated at the edge of a precipice of fearful depth.

It was along this shale slope that the trail ran, but there were no signs of it now, for the tracks of the last horses that passed had been filled. Even while we stood there, small particles of shale were constantly rolling and tinkling down it and off into abysmal space. Shuddering, I proposed that we turn back, but Pitamakan made light of the danger.

"I have been here before, and know what to do," he said. "I can make it so that we can safely cross it."

With a long, thin and narrow slab of rock he began gouging a trail out of the steep slide. The small and the large pieces of detritus which he dislodged rattled off the edge of the cliff, but strain my ears as I might, I could not hear them strike bottom. It was fully a hundred yards across this dangerous place, but Pitamakan soon made his way along it, and back to me.

His path seemed more fit for coyotes than for horses, but he insisted that it was wide enough, and started leading his animal out on it. There was nothing for me to do but to follow with mine. When part way across, my horse's hind feet broke down the little path, and he went with the sliding shale for several feet, all the time madly pawing to get back on the sound portion on which I stood. When I tried to help him by pulling on the lead-rope, the shale began sliding under my feet. At that, Pitamakan, starting to run with his horse, shouted to me to do the same.

For the rest of the way across, the strain on me and my animal was killing. We tore out all trace of the path in our efforts to keep from going down and off the slide. Wherever we put down our feet the shale started slipping, and the struggle to climb faster than it slipped exhausted our strength. When finally we did reach the firm rock where my companion stood waiting, we were utterly fatigued and dripping with sweat.

Pitamakan's face was ashy gray from the strain of watching my struggles. He drew me to him, and I could feel him trembling, while he said, in a choking voice, "Oh, I thought you would never get here, and I just had to stand and look, unable to help you in any way! I didn't know. I should have made a wider, firmer path."

We sat down, and he told me about this pass: that after the winter snows came neither man nor horse could cross it, since the least movement would start the snow sliding. Three Blackfeet had once lost their lives there. In that manner, the avalanche which they loosened had swept them with it over the cliff, to the horror of their comrades who stood looking on. Upon our return, he said, he would make a safe path there, if it took him all day to finish the task.

Soon we went on, turned the shoulder of the twin mountain, and felt that we had come into another world. Near by there were some tremendous peaks, some of them covered with great fields of ice, which I learned later were true glaciers.

In other ways, too, this west side was different from the east side of the Rockies. As far as we could see there were no plains, only one great, dark, evergreen forest that covered the slopes of the mountains and filled the endless valleys. Here, too, the air was different; it was damp and heavy, and odorous of plants that grow in moist climates.

Working our way from ledge to ledge down the mountain, we came, toward sunset, to what my friend called the Salt Springs. Farther west than this point he had never been.

Early the next morning we pushed on, for we were anxious to reach the low valleys where the beavers were to be found.

Still following the trail, we struck, about mid-afternoon, a large stream bordered with alder, cottonwood, and willow, the bark of which is the beaver's favorite food. There were some signs of the animals here, but as we expected to find them more plentiful farther down, we kept on until nearly sundown, when we came to a fine grass meadow bordering the now larger river. Here was feed for the horses; in a pond at the upper end of the meadow there were five beaver lodges.

"Here is the place for us," said Pitamakan. "Let us hurry and picket the horses, and kill a deer; night is at hand."

We started to ride into the timber to unsaddle, when we heard a heavy trampling and crackling of sticks off to the left of the beaver-pond, and so sat still, rifles ready, expecting to see a band of elk come into the open.

A moment later thirty or forty Indians men, women, and children, rode into the meadow. Perceiving us, the men whipped up their horses and came racing our way.

"They are Kootenays! It is useless to fire at them, or to run!" Pitamakan exclaimed. "I do not think they will harm us. Anyhow, look brave; pretend that you are not afraid."

The men who surrounded us were tall and powerfully built. For what seemed to me an endless time, they sat silently staring, and noting every detail of our outfit. There was something ominous in their behavior there came to me an almost uncontrollable impulse to make a move of some kind. It was their leader who broke the suspense.

"In-is-saht"  (Dismount!) he commanded, in Blackfoot, and we reluctantly obeyed.

At that they all got off their horses, and then at word from the chief, each crowding and pushing to be first, they stripped us of everything we had. One man got my rifle; another the ammunition; another snatched off my belt, with its knife, and the little pouch containing flint, steel, and punk, while the chief and another, who seemed to be a great warrior, seized the ropes of our horses. And there we were, stripped of everything that we possessed except the clothes we stood in.

At that the chief broke out laughing, and so did the rest. Finally, commanding silence he said to us, in very poor Blackfoot—

"As you are only boys, we will not kill you. Return to your chief, and tell him that we keep our beaver for ourselves, just as the plains people keep the buffalo for themselves. Now go."

There was nothing to do but obey him, and we started. One man followed us a few steps, and struck Pitamakan several blows across the back with his whip. At that my friend broke out crying not because of the pain, but because of the terrible humiliation. To be struck by any one was the greatest of all insults; and my friend was powerless to resent it.

Looking back, we saw the Kootenays move on through the meadow and disappear in the timber. Completely dazed by our great misfortune, we mechanically took our back trail, and seldom speaking, walked on and on. When night came, rain began to fall and the wind rose to a gale in the tree-tops. At that Pitamakan shook his head, and said, dejectedly, "At this season rain down here means snow up on top. We must make strong medicine if we are ever to see our people again."

Hungry and without food or weapons for killing any game, wet and without shelter or any means of building a fire, we certainly were in a terrible plight. Worse still, if it was snowing on the summit, if winter had really set in, we must inevitably perish. I remembered hearing the old trappers say that winter often began in October in the Rocky Mountains; and this day was well on in November "Pitamakan! We are not going to survive this!" I cried.

For answer, he began singing the coyote song, the Blackfoot hunter's prayer for good luck. It sounded weird and melancholy enough there in the darkening forest.