With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz


Out into the snow we ran, while nearer and nearer sounded that terrific roaring and rumbling; it was as if the round world was being rent asunder. Pitamakan led the way straight back from the river toward the south side of the valley, and we had run probably two hundred yards before the noise ceased as suddenly as it had begun. We were quite out of breath, and it was some time before I could ask what had happened.

"Why, don't you know?" he said. "That was a great piece of the ice cliff on the mountain across there. It broke off and came tearing down into the valley. Trees, boulders everything in its way were smashed and carried down. I thought that it was going to bury our lodge."

Pitamakan wanted to make an early start in the morning to view the path of the avalanche, but I insisted that we stay at home and work hard until the things that we needed so much were finished. I had my way.

Ever since the day of the elk killing, we had kept one of the big hides in the river in order to loosen the hair. In the morning we brought it into the lodge, and laying it over a smooth, hard piece of driftwood, grained it with a heavy elk rib for a graining-knife. It was very hard work. Although we sharpened an edge of the rib with a piece of sandstone and kept it as sharp as possible, we had to bear down on it with all our strength, pushing it an inch or two at a time in order to separate the hair from the skin. Taking turns, we were half a day in finishing the job.

We cut the hide into two parts. Of these, we dried one, and cut the other into webbing-strings for snowshoes—tedious work with our obsidian knives. As soon as the half hide was dry, I rubbed elk brains and liver well into it, and then, rolling it up, laid it away for a couple of days until the mixture could neutralize the large amount of glue that is in all hides. After that operation, I spent half a day in washing the hide and then rubbing and stretching it as it dried. I had then a very good piece of elk leather,—so-called "buckskin,"—enough for four pairs of moccasins.

These Pitamakan and I made very large, so that they would go over the rabbit-skins with which we wrapped our feet as a protection from the cold. Our needle for sewing them was a sharp awl made from a piece of an elk's leg bone the thread was of elk sinew.

0-wam  (shape of eggs) is the Blackfoot name for snowshoes. Those that we made were neither shaped like an egg nor like anything else. The bows were of birch, and no two were alike, and the webbing was woven on them in a way to make a forest Indian laugh. Neither Pitamakan's people nor the other tribes of the plains knew anything about snowshoes except in a general way, and I had never seen a pair. All things considered, however, we did a fairly good job. If the shoes were heavy and clumsy, at least they were serviceable, for they sank only a few inches in the snow when we tested them.

The evening we finished this work another snowstorm came on, which lasted two nights and a day, and forced us to postpone our hunt. We employed the time in improving the interior of the lodge by building a heavier stone platform for the fire, one that would give off considerable heat after we went to sleep.

In order to create a draft for the fire, we were forced to admit some air through the doorway, and this chilled us. Finally, I remembered that I had seen in the Mandan lodges screens several feet high, put between the doorway and the fire, in order to force the cold air upward.

We made one at once of poles, backed with earth, and then, building a small fire, sat down on our bed to see how it worked; no more cold air swept across the floor, and we were absolutely comfortable. But in the night, although the stones gave out some heat, we were obliged to replenish the fire as soon as it died down. What we needed in order to have unbroken sleep was bedding. Pitamakan said that one animal here, the white mountain goat, had a warmer, thicker coat of fur than the buffalo. We determined to get some of the hides and tan them into soft robes.

The morning after the storm broke clear and cold, but my partner refused to go up into the high mountains after goats.

"We must put it off and do something else to-day," he said. "I had a very bad dream last night—a confused dream of a bear and a goat, one biting and clawing me, and the other sticking its sharp horns into my side. Now either that is a warning not to hunt goats to-day, or it is a sign that the bearskin that we are sleeping on is bad medicine. This is not the first bad dream that I have had since lying on it."

"My dreams have all been good since we began sleeping on it," I said.

"Then use it by yourself; I shall not sleep on it again."

"Oh, dreams don't mean anything!" I exclaimed. "White people pay no attention to them."

"That is because your gods give you different medicine from that our gods give us," he said, very seriously. "To us is given the dream; in that way our gods show us the things we may and may not do. Do not speak lightly of it, lest you bring harm to me."

I had sense enough to heed his wish; never afterward, either by word or look, did I cast even a shadow of doubt upon his beliefs. For that reason, largely, we got along together in perfect harmony, as all companions should.

As there was in his dream nothing about other animals, we put on our snowshoes and started out to hunt and set traps in the valley. At odd moments we had been making triggers of different sizes for deadfalls, and now had fifteen ready to use. They were of the "figure 4" pattern; more complicated than the two-piece triggers, but more sure of action. Having with the small ones set deadfalls for marten, fisher, and mink, we went on up the river to the carcasses of the bear and the bull elk. We found that both had been almost entirely eaten by wolverines, lynxes, and mountain-lions. Having built at each of these places a large deadfall, we weighted the drop-bars so heavily with old logs that there could be no escape for the largest prowler once he seized the bait.

By the time we had the last of the triggers baited and set up and the little pen built behind the drop-bar, night was coming on, and we hurried home. We had seen many tracks of deer, elk, and moose, but had been too busy to hunt any of them. As we neared the lodge, another snowstorm set in, but that did not disturb us; in fact, the more snow the better, for with deep snow the hoofed game of the valley would be unable to escape us. We could choose the fat does and cows for our winter's meat. The bucks and bulls were already poor, and the others would lose flesh rapidly once they were obliged to "yard," that is, to confine themselves to their hard-beaten trails in the limited area of a willow patch.

It was a heavy snow that fell in the night, and the next morning snowshoeing was good. As Pitamakan had had no bad dreams, and the sun was shining in a clear sky, we started out for a goat hunt. After climbing the mountain-side opposite the lodge for some time, we came to a series of ledges, whence we obtained a fine view of the country which we were living in. The mountain which we were on was high and very steep. Not far below its summit was the big ice field, terminating at the edge of a cliff, from which a great mass had tumbled, and started the avalanche that had frightened us.

Turning to the east and pointing to the backbone of the range, Pitamakan told me to notice how absolutely white it all was except the perpendicular cliffs, where snow could not lie. There was no question but that the snow was a great deal deeper up there than where we were.

I thought that there was a longing in Pitamakan's eyes as he gazed at the tremendous wall of rock and snow that separated us from the plains and from our people, but as he said nothing, I kept quiet. For myself, I felt that I would give anything, suffer any hardships, if I could only get once more to Fort Benton and my uncle. True, we now had a comfortable lodge and plenty of elk meat, weapons for killing game, snowshoes for traveling, and the outlook for more comforts was favorable. But for all that, the future was very uncertain; there were many things that might prevent our ever reaching the Missouri; all nature was arrayed against us, and so was man himself.

Pitamakan roused me from my reverie by a tap on the shoulder.

"I can see no goat signs here above us," he said, "but look over there at the ledges well up on the next mountain to the east. Do you see the fresh trails?"

I did. In the smooth, glittering snow they were startlingly distinct in their windings and turnings from clump to clump of the pines on the rocky ledges. None of the animals that made them were in sight, but that was not strange as they were of practically the same color as the snow, we could not see them at that distance except when they happened to get in front of the dark pines or rock. Although the distance over there was not more than a mile in a straight line a cut gorge between the two mountains obliged us to return to the river before making the ascent, which more than doubled the distance.

After striking the river, we followed it up past the mouth of the gorge, past three of the deadfalls set near the shore. The first one held a fine, large, dark-furred marten, its body nipped across the shoulders and crushed by the drop-bar. Taking the little victim out, and hanging it in a tree, we reset the trap. The next deadfall was unsprung. The third, one of the big falls, was down, and we hurried as fast as we could to see what it held.

"A lynx," I ventured.

"A wolverine," Pitamakan guessed.

We were both wrong. Pinned down by the neck was a big mountain lion, to us the most valuable of all the animals of the forest. The Blackfeet, as well as the Crows and Gros Ventres, prized the skins very highly for use as saddle-robes—we could get at least four horses for this one. Taking such a prize made us feel rich. Leaving it in the fall until our return, we turned off from the river and began the ascent of the mountain in high spirits.

For a time the going was good, although increasingly difficult. After we had passed through the big timber, the mountain became more and more steep, until it was impossible for us to go farther on snowshoes. Taking them off, we wallowed up through the deep snow from ledge to ledge, keeping away from the clumps of stunted pine as much as possible, for in them the snow lay deepest and was most fluffy.

The weather was bitterly cold, but we were warm enough, even perspiring from our exertions. Much as we needed to stop and rest at frequent intervals, it was impossible to do so, for the instant we halted we began to shiver. More than once we were on the point of giving up the hunt, but each time the thought of what a few goat hides meant to us strengthened our legs to further endeavor.

I never envied a bird more than I did one that I saw that day. A Clark's crow it was, raucous of voice and insolent, that kept flying a short distance ahead of us and lighting on the pines, where it pretended to pick kernels out of the big cones. If we could only fly like that, I kept thinking, within a moment's time we could be right on the goats.

Strange as it may seem, there was more bird life on that bleak, cold height than in the forest below. One variety of small, sweet singers, flying all round us in large flocks, was especially numerous. I wondered what they could be. Long years afterward an ornithologist told me that they were gray-crowned finches—arctic birds that love the winter cold and are happiest in a snow-drift.

We saw, too, many chattering flocks of Bohemian waxwings, also visitors from the arctic regions. Most interesting of all were the ptarmigan, small, snow-white grouse with jet-black eyes, bill, and toes. Never descending to the valleys, either for food or shelter, they live on the high, bare mountains the year round. They are heavily feathered clear to the toes, so that their feet cannot freeze and at night, and by day, too, in severe weather, instead of roosting in the dwarf pines they plunge down into soft snow, tunnel under the surface for several feet, and then tramp a chamber large enough to sit in. These birds were very tame, and often allowed us to get within fifteen or twenty feet of them before flying or running away. Some were saucy and made a great fuss at our approach, cocking up their tails and cackling, and even making a feint of charging us.

At last we came walking out on a ledge that ended at the side of a big gouge in the mountain, and on the far verge of it saw a goat, a big old fellow, sitting at the edge of a small cliff. It was sitting down on its haunches, just as a dog does. Should you see a cow, a sheep, or any herbivorous animal do that, you would think his position extremely ludicrous. In the case of the goat, because of its strange and uncouth shape, it is more than ludicrous; it is weird. The animal has a long, broad-nosed head, set apparently right against its shoulders; a long, flowing beard hangs from its chin; its withers are extremely high, and its hams low, like those of the buffalo. Its abnormally long hair flutters round its knees like a pair of embroidered pantalets, and rises eight or ten inches in length above the shoulders. The tail is short, and so heavily haired that it looks like a thick club. Its round, scimitar-shaped black horns rise in a backward curve from the thick, fuzzy coat, and seem very small for the big, deep-chested animal.

The goat was almost as new to Pitamakan as to me.

"What is the matter with it?" he exclaimed. "Do you think it is sick, or hurt?"

"He looks as if he felt very sad," I replied.

And truly the animal did look very dejected, its head sunk on its brisket, its black eyes staring vacantly at the valley far below, as if it were burdened with all the pains and sorrows of the ages.

We were so interested in watching it that at first we did not see the others, thirteen in all, scattered close round on the little ledges above him. Some were standing, others lying down. One big old "billy" lay under a low-branched dwarf pine, and now and then would raise its head, bite off a mouthful of the long, coarse needles, and deliberately chew them. We had come out in plain view of the band, and now wondered that they had not seen us and run away.

"Let's back up step by step until we are in the shelter of the pines back there, then look out a way to get to them," Pitamakan proposed.

On starting to do so, we found that the goats had seen us all the time. Two or three of them turned their heads and stared at us with apparent curiosity the old billy at the edge of the cliff gave us one vacant stare, and resumed his brooding; the others paid no attention to our movements. Unquestionably they had never seen man before, and did not consider us enemies because we were not four-legged, like the beasts that preyed upon them. So instead of backing cautiously, we turned and walked into the little clump of pines, and beyond them to a deep gutter, where we began the difficult task of stalking the animals. We had to climb for several hundred yards to a broad ledge, follow it for perhaps twice that distance, and then work our way, as best we could, straight down to the goats.

That was a terrible climb. As the angle of the mountain was such that the climb would have been difficult on bare rock, you can imagine how hard it was to go up in the deep snow. Using our snowshoes for shovels and taking the lead in turn, we fought our way through, upward, inch by inch. More than once a mass of snow gave way above our gouging, and swept us down a few feet or a few yards. Once Pitamakan was buried so deep in it that I was obliged to dig him out; he was gasping for breath by the time I uncovered his head.

On the ledge the going was so level that we wore our snowshoes a part of the way across, and then, wading to a point directly above the goats, we began the descent. That was easy. Straight ahead of us the mountain dropped in a series of little shelves, or cliffs, down which we could easily climb. Stopping when we thought we were near to the goats, we strung our bows and fitted arrows to them. As I was a poor shot, I took but one arrow, to be used only in an emergency. Pitamakan carried the other four.

In a few moments we struck a deep and well-picked goat trail that meandered along a shelf thirty, and in places fifty feet wide. Here and there were clumps of dwarf pine and juniper that prevented our seeing very far ahead, and Pitamakan gave me the sign to look sharp for the game.

A moment later, as we followed the trail round some pines, we came face to face with a big billy-goat. The instant that he saw us he bristled up his hair and came for us. Did you ever see a wild pig prance out for a fight? Well, that is the way that goat came at us—head down and prancing side-wise. I don't know whether we were more surprised or scared; probably scared. The sight of those round, sharp black horns made our flesh creep; indeed, the whole aspect of the uncouth animal was terrifying.

Coming at us head on, there was little chance for an arrow to do any damage to him.

"Run out that way!" Pitamakan cried, as he gave me a push. "I'll go this way!"

There was not any running about it; we waddled to one side and the other from the canyon-like trail out into the deep snow, and it was remarkable what progress we made. As I said, the goat came prancing toward us not jumping full speed, as he might have done, so that we had plenty of time to get out of the trail.

When he came opposite he seemed undecided what to do next. We did not give him time to make up his mind. Pitamakan let fly an arrow, while I stood ready to shoot if need be. But Pitamakan's shaft sped true; the old billy flinched and humped himself, threw up his head with a pitiful, silly expression of surprise, and dropped in his tracks. We waded back into the trail and examined our prize, such heavy, thick, long hair and fleece I had never seen on any other animal. At the base of the sharp horns were black, warty, rubber-like excrescences. "Smell them!" Pitamakan bade me, and I did. They gave off an exceedingly rank odor of musk.

Pitamakan now pulled out the arrow; it had evidently pierced the heart. He proposed that we go after the band and kill as many as possible; we needed at least four large, or six small skins for a good bed-robe.

"Well, come on, lead the way," I said.

He held up his hand, and I could see his eyes grow big as if from fear. "What is it?" I asked.

He did not answer, but stood anxiously looking this way and that, and soon I, too, heard the faint, remote droning noise that had alarmed him. We looked at the mountain above us, and at others near and far, but there was nowhere any sign of an avalanche.

The droning noise became louder and deeper, filling us with dread all the more poignant because it was impossible to determine the cause.

"The old medicine-men told the truth!" said Pitamakan. "These mountains are no place for the Blackfeet. The gods that dwell here are not our gods, and they do strange and cruel things to us plains people when they get the chance."

I had nothing to say. We listened; the droning grew louder it seemed all about us, and yet we could see nothing unusual.

"Come on! Let's get away from here!" Pitamakan cried.