With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

Stranded in the Rockies

"There! Something tells me that will bring us good luck," said Pitamakan, when he had finished the medicine song. "First of all, we must find shelter from the rain. Let us hurry and search for it up there along the foot of the cliffs."

Leaving the trail, we pushed our way up the steep slope of the valley, through under-brush that dropped a shower of water on us at the slightest touch. There were only a few hundred yards between us and the foot of the big wall which shot high above the tops of the pines, but by the time we arrived there night had fairly come. At this point a huge pile of boulders formed the upper edge of the slope, and for a moment we stood undecided which way to turn. "Toward home, of course!" Pitamakan exclaimed, and led the way along the edge of the boulders, and finally to the cliff. There in front of us was a small, jagged aperture, and stooping down, we tried to see what it was like inside. The darkness, however, was impenetrable.

I could hear my companion sniffing soon he asked, "Do you smell anything?"

But I could detect no odor other than that of the dank forest floor, and said so.

"Well, I think that I smell bear!" he whispered, and we both leaped back, and then stealthily drew away from the place. But the rain was falling now in a heavy downpour; the rising wind lashed it in our faces and made the forest writhe and creak and snap. Every few moments some old dead pine went down with a crash. It was a terrible night.

"We can't go on!" said Pitamakan. "Perhaps I was mistaken. Bears do not lie down for their winter sleep until the snow has covered up their food. We must go back and take our chance of one being there in that hole."

We felt our way along the foot of the cliff until we came to the place. There we knelt down, hand in hand, sniffed once more, and exclaimed, "Kyaiyo!"  (Bear!)

"But not strong only a little odor, as if one had been here last winter," Pitamakan added. "The scent of one sticks in a place a long time."

Although I was shivering so much from the cold and wet that my teeth rattled, managed to say, "Come on! We've got to go in there."

Crawling inch by inch, feeling of the ground ahead, and often stopping to sniff the air and listen, we made our cautious way inside, and presently came to a fluffy heap of dried grass, small twigs and leaves that rustled at our touch.

"Ah, we survive, brother. Pitamakan exclaimed, in a cheerful voice. The bear has been here and made himself a bed for the winter; they always do that in the month of falling leaves. He isn't here now, though, and if he does come we will yell loud and scare him away."

Feeling round now to learn the size of the place, we found that it was small and low, and sloped to the height of a couple of feet at the back. Having finished the examination, we burrowed down into the grass and leaves, snuggled close together, and covered ourselves as well as we could. Little by little we stopped shivering, and after a while felt comfortably warm, although wet.

We fell to talking then of our misfortune, and planning various ways to get out of the bad fix we were in. Pitamakan was all for following the Kootenays, stealing into their camp at night, and trying to recover not only our horses, but, if possible, our rifles also. I made the objection that even if we got a whole night's start of the Kootenays, they, knowing the trails better than we did, would overtake us before we could ride to the summit. We finally agreed to follow the trail of our enemies and have a look at their camp; we might find some way of getting back what they had taken.

We really slept well. In the morning I awoke first, and looking out, saw nothing but thick, falling snow. I nudged my companion, and together we crept to the mouth of the cave. The snow was more than a foot deep in front of us, and falling so fast that only the nearest of the big pines below could be seen. The weather was not cold, certainly not much below freezing, but it caused our damp clothing to feel like ice against the skin. We crept back into our nest, shivering again.

"With this snow on the ground, it would be useless to try to take anything from the Kootenays," I said.

"True enough. They could follow our tracks and easily overtake us," Pitamakan agreed.

As he said no more for a long time, and would not even answer when I asked a question, I, too, became silent. But not for long so many fears and doubts were oppressing me that I had to speak. "We had better start on, then, and try to cross the summit."

Pitamakan shook his head slowly. "Neither we nor any one else will cross the summit until summer comes again. This is winter. See, the snow is almost to our knees out there up on top it is over our heads."

"Then we must die right here!" I exclaimed.

For answer, my partner began the coyote prayer song, and kept singing it over and over, except when he would break out into prayers to the sun, and to Old Man—the World-Maker—to give us help. There in the low little cave his song sounded muffled and hollow enough. Had I not been watching his face, I must have soon begged him to stop, it was so mournful and depressing.

But his face kept brightening and brightening until he actually smiled; and finally he turned to me and said, "Do not worry, brother. Take courage. They have put new thoughts into me."

I asked what the thoughts were, and he replied by asking what we most needed.

"Food, of course," I said. "I am weak from hunger."

"I thought you would say that!" he exclaimed. "It is always food with white people. Get up in the morning and eat a big meal; at midday, another; at sunset, another. If even one of these is missed, they say they are starving. No, brother, we do not most need food. We could go without it half a moon and more, and the long fast would only do us good."

I did not believe that. It was the common belief in those times that a person could live for only a few days without food.

"No it is not food; it is fire that we most need," Pitamakan continued. "Were we to go out in that snow and get wet and then have no means of drying and warming ourselves, we should die."

"Well, then, we must just lie here and wait for the snow to melt away," I said, "for without flint and steel we can have no fire."

"Then we will lie here until next summer. This country is different from ours of the plains. There the snow comes and goes many times during the winter; here it only gets deeper and deeper, until the sun beats Cold-Maker, and comes north again."

I believed that to be true, for I remembered that my uncle had told me once that there were no Chinook winds on the west side of the range. So I proposed what had been on my mind for some time: that we go to the camp of the Kootenays and beg them to give us shelter.

"If they didn't kill us, they would only beat us and drive us away. No, we cannot go to them," said Pitamakan decidedly. "Now don't look so sad; we shall have fire."

He must have read my thoughts, for he added, "I see that you don't believe that I can make fire. Listen! Before you white people came with your flints and steels, we had it. Old Man himself taught us how to make it. I have never seen it made in the old way because my people got the new way before I was born. But I have often heard the older ones tell how it used to be made, and I believe that I can do it myself. It is easy. You take a small, dry, hard stick like an arrow-shaft, and twirl it between the palms of your hands, or with a bowstring, while the point rests in a hole in a piece of dry wood, with fine shreds of birch bark in it. The twirling stick heats these and sets them on fire."

Although I did not understand this explanation very well, I yet had some faith that Pitamakan could make the fire. He added that he would not try it until the weather cleared, and we could go round in the timber without getting wet except from the knees down.

We lay there in the bear's bed all that day. At sunset the snow ceased falling, but when the clouds disappeared, the weather turned much colder, and it was well for us that the heat of our bodies had pretty thoroughly dried our clothing. As it was, we shivered all through the night, and were very miserable.

Out in the darkness we heard some animal scraping through the snow, and feared that it might be the bear come to get into its bed. We had talked about that. If it was a black bear, we were safe enough, because they are the most cowardly of all animals, and even when wounded, will not attack a man. But what if it were a big grizzly! We both knew tales enough of their ferocity. Only that summer a woman, picking berries, had been killed by one.

So when we heard those soft footsteps we yelled; stopped and listened, and yelled again and again, until we were hoarse. Then we listened. All was still. Whatever had roused us was gone, but fear that a grizzly would come shuffling in kept us awake.

Day came long before the sun rose above the tremendous peaks that separated us from the plains. Much as we ached to crawl out of the cave and run and jump, we lay still until the sun had warmed the air a bit. The night before I had been ravenously hungry; but now my hunger had largely passed, and Pitamakan said that I would soon forget all about food.

"But we can't live all winter without eating!" I objected.

"Of course not," he replied. "As soon as we have fire, we will go hunting and kill game. Then we will make us a comfortable lodge. Oh, we're going to be very comfortable here before many days pass."

"But the Kootenays!" I objected. "They will come again and drive us on, or kill us!"

"Just now they are moving out of the mountains as fast as they can go, and will not return until summer comes again."

When we finally crawled out after our long rest, we saw that a bear really had been near us in the night. It had come walking along the slope, close to the foot of the cliff, until right in front of the cave, and then, startled, no doubt, by our yells, had gone leaping straight down into the timber. The short impressions of its claws in the snow proved it to have been a black bear. We were glad of that; another night, fear, a least, would not prevent us from sleeping.

Both of us were clothed for summer hunting, I in buckskin trousers and flannel shirt, with no underclothing or socks. Pitamakan wore buffalo cow-leather leggings, breech clout, and, fortunately, a shirt like mine that his aunt had given him. Neither of us had coat or waistcoat, but in place of them, capotes, hooded coats reaching to our knees, made of white blanket by the tailor at the fort. The snow looked very cold to step into with only thin buckskin moccasins on our feet, and I said so.

"We will remedy that," said Pitamakan. He pulled off his capote, tore a couple of strips from the skirt of it, and then did the same with mine. With these we wrapped our feet, pulled our moccasins on over them, and felt that our toes were frost-proof

The snow was knee-deep. Stepping into it bravely, we made our way down the slope and into the timber. There it was not so deep, for a part of the fall had lodged in the thick branches of the pines. We came upon the tracks of deer and elk, and presently saw a fine white-tail buck staring curiously at us. The sight of his rounded, fat body brought the hungry feeling back to me, and I expressed it with a plaintive "Hai-yah!"  of longing.

Pitamakan understood. "Never mind," he said, as the animal broke away, waving its broad flag as if in derision. "Never mind. We will be eating fat ribs to-morrow, perhaps; surely on the next day."

That talk seemed so big to me that I said nothing, asked no question, as we went on down the hill. Before reaching the river we saw several more deer, a lone bull moose and a number of elk; the valley was full of game, driven from the high mountains by the storm.

The river was not frozen, nor was there any snow on the low, wet, rocky bars to hinder our search for a knife. That was what we were to look for, just as both Pitamakan's and my own ancestors had searched, in prehistoric times, for sharp-edged tools in glacial drift and river wash. I was to look for flint and "looks-like-ice rock," as the Blackfeet call obsidian. As I had never seen any obsidian, except in the form of very small, shiny arrow-points, it was not strange that Pitamakan found a nodule of it on a bar that I had carefully gone over. It was somewhat the shape of a football, rusty black, and coated with splotches of stuff that looked like whitewash. I could not believe that

was what we sought until he cracked it open and I saw the glittering fragments.

Pitamakan had never seen any flint or obsidian flaked and chipped into arrow-points and knives, but he had often heard the old people tell how it was done, and now he tried to profit by the information. With a small stone for a hammer, he gently tapped one of the fragments, and succeeded in splintering it into several thin, sharp-edged flakes. Carefully taking up all the fragments and putting them at the foot of a tree for future use, we went in search of material for the rest of the fire-making implements.

We knew from the start that finding them would not be easy, for before the snow came, rain had thoroughly soaked the forest, and what we needed was bone-dry wood. We had hunted for an hour or more, when a half-dozen ruffed grouse flushed from under the top of a fallen tree and flew up into the branches of a big fir, where they sat and craned their necks. Back came my hungry feeling; here was a chance to allay it. "Come on, let's get some stones and try to kill those birds!" I cried.

Away we went to the shore of the river, gathered a lot of stones in the skirts of our capotes, and hurried back to the tree. The birds were still there, and we began throwing at the one lowest down. We watched the course of each whizzing stone with intense eagerness, groaning, "Ai-ya!" when it went wide of the mark. Unlike white boys, Indian youths are very inexpert at throwing stones, for the reason that they constantly carry a better weapon, the bow, and begin at a very early age to hunt small game with it. I could cast the stones much more accurately than Pitamakan, and soon he handed what he had left to me.

Although I made some near shots, and sent the stones clattering against the branches and zipping through the twigs, the bird never once moved, except to flutter a wing when a missile actually grazed it or struck the limb close to its feet. With the last stone of the lot I hit a grouse, and as it started fluttering down we made a rush for the foot of the tree, whooping wildly over our success, and frightening the rest of the covey so that they flew away.

The wounded bird lodged for a moment in a lower branch, toppled out of that into another, fluttered from that down into clear space. Pitamakan sprang to catch it, and grasped only the air; for the bird righted itself, sailed away and alighted in the snow, fifty yards distant. We ran after it as fast as we could. It was hurt. We could see that it had difficulty in holding up its head, and that its mouth was open. We felt certain of our meat. But no! Up it got when we were about to make our pounce, and half fluttered and half sailed another fifty yards or so. Again and again it rose, we hot after it, and finally it crossed the river. But that did not daunt us. The stream was wide there, running in a still sweep over a long bar; and we crossed, and in our hurry, splashed ourselves until we were wet above the waist. Then, after all, the grouse rose long before we came anywhere near it, and this time flew on and on until lost to sight!

Our disappointment was too keen to be put into words. Dripping wet and as miserable a pair of boys as ever were, we stood there in the cold snow and looked sadly a each other. "Oh, well, come on," said Pitamakan. "What is done is done. We will now get the wood we want and make a fire to dry ourselves."

Again and again it rose


He led off, walked to a half-fallen fir, and from the under side broke off just what we were looking for—a hard, dry spike about twice the diameter of a lead-pencil and a foot or more in length. That did seem to be good luck, and our spirits rose. We went out to the shore of the river, where I was set to rounding off the base of the spike and sharpening the point, first by rubbing it on a coarse-grained rock, and then smoothing it with a flake of obsidian. I ruined the edge of the first piece by handling too vigorously; the brittle stone had to be forced slowly and diagonally along the place to be cut.

Pitamakan, meanwhile, was hunting a suitable piece of wood for the drill to work in. Hard wood, he had heard the old people say, was necessary for this, and here the only growth of the kind was birch.

By the time I got the drill shaped, he had found none that was dry, and I was glad to help in the search, for I was nearly frozen from standing still so long in my wet clothes. Up and down the river we went, and back into the forest, examining every birch that appeared to be dead. Every one that we found was rotten, or only half dry. It was by the merest chance that we found the very thing: a beaver-cutting of birch, cast by the spring freshet under a projecting ledge of rock, where it was protected from the rains. It was almost a foot in diameter and several feet long. We rubbed a coarse stone against the centre of it until the place was flat and a couple of inches wide, and in that started a small hole with the obsidian. This was slow work, for the glasslike substance constantly broke under the pressure needed to make it cut into the wood. It was late in the day when the gouging was finished, and we prepared to put our tools to the test.

This was an occasion for prayer. Pitamakan so earnestly entreated his gods to pity us, to make our work successful, and thus save our lives, that, unsympathetic as I was with his beliefs, I could not help being moved. I wanted to be stoical; to keep up a brave appearance to the last; but this pathetic prayer to heathen gods, coming as it did when I was weak from hunger and exposure, was too much. To this day I remember the exact words of it, too long to repeat here. I can translate only the closing sentence: "Also, have pity on us because of our dear people on the other side of the range, who are even now weeping in their lodges because we do not return to them."

When he had finished the prayer, Pitamakan took the drill in the palms of his hands and set the point of it in the small rough hole in the birch. We had already gathered some dry birch bark, and I held some of it, shredded into a fluffy mass, close round the drill and the pole.

"Now, fire come!" Pitamakan exclaimed and began to twirl the drill between his hands, at the same time pressing it firmly down in the hole.

But no smoke came. What was the reason? He stopped and raised the drill; we felt of it and the hole; both were very hot and I suggested that we take turns drilling, changing about in the least possible time. We tried it, and oh, how anxiously we watched for success, drilling and drilling for our very lives, drilling turn about until our muscles were so strained that we could not give the stick another twirl! Then we dropped back and stared at each other. Our experiment had failed. Night was coming on. Our wet clothing was beginning to freeze, and there was the river between us and the shelter of our cave.

The outlook seemed hopeless, and I said so. Pitamakan said nothing; his eyes had a strange, vacant expression. "We can do nothing," I repeated. "Right here we have to die."

Still he did not answer, or even look at me, and I said to myself, "He has gone mad!"