With the Indians in the Rockies - James W. Schultz

The Long Winter

"Were shall we go?" I asked "This noise seems to come from everywhere and nowhere."

I looked up at the top of the mountain which we were on, and saw a long streak of snow extending eastward from like an immense pennant.

"Look! It is nothing but the wind that is making that noise!" I exclaimed. "See how it is driving the snow up there!"

"Yes," Pitamakan agreed. "But listen. The sound of its blowing does not come from there any more than from elsewhere. It comes from every direction up there in the blue."

We could now see snow flying from the tops of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. In a few moments the whole summit of the range was lost in a vast haze of drifting, flying snow. But where we were there was only a gentle breeze from the west, which did not increase in force. I remembered now that in winter, when fierce northwest winds blew across the plains, the summit of the Rockies was always hidden by grayish-white clouds. It was a strange sensation to hear the drone of a terrific wind and not feel it, and I said so.

"Everything is strange in this country," my partner said, dully. "Here Wind-Maker lives; and many another of the mountain and forest gods. We have to make strong medicine, brother, to escape them."

This was the first of the terrific winter winds that blow across the Northwest plains. Many a time thereafter we heard the strange roaring sound that seemed to come from nowhere in particular but down in the valley, and even high up on the sides of the mountains, near the lodge, there was never more than a gentle breeze. Pitamakan was always depressed when we heard the strange roaring, and it made me feel nervous and apprehensive of I knew not what.

We waded and slid and fell down to the next ledge, and there, working our way to the edge, we saw some of the goats right beneath us. There were seven of them,—old "nannies," two kids, and "billies" one and two years old,—all in a close bunch not more than twenty feet below us. Instead of running, they stood and stared up at us vacuously, while their concave faces seemed to heighten their expression of stupid wonder.

Pitamakan shot one of the nannies. At the same time I drew my bow on one of the goats, but on second thought eased it, for I might waste a precious arrow. I had to use all my will power in denying myself that chance to add another animal to my list of trophies.

Pitamakan was not wasting any time: Zip! Zip! Zip!  he sped his remaining arrows, reached out for one of mine, and shot it just as an old nannie, awaking to the fact that something was wrong with her kindred, started off to the left at a lumbering gallop more ungainly and racking than that of a steer. Here was success, indeed! I was so excited that I went aimlessly from one to another of the goats, feeling of their heavy coats and smooth, sharp horns.

Having dressed the animals, we dragged them from the ledges out on the steep slide, where we fastened them one to another in a novel way. Making a slit down the lower joint of a hind leg, we thrust a fore leg of the next animal through it,—between tendon and bone,—then slit the fore leg in the same manner, and stuck a stick in it so that it could not slip out. We soon had all five animals fastened in line, and then taking the first one by the horns, we started down.

The deep snow was now a help instead of a hindrance for it kept our tow of game from sliding too fast down the tremendously steep incline. Knowing that we were likely to start an avalanche, we kept as close to the edge of the timber as we could. Even so, I had the feeling which a man has while walking on thin ice over deep water. I tried to push cautiously through the snow, and looked back anxiously whenever the game in a particularly steep place came sliding down on us by the mere pull of its own weight.

Pitamakan was less apprehensive. "If a slide starts, we can probably get out of it by making a rush for the timber." he said. "Anyhow, what is to be will be, so don't worry."

We came safe to the foot of the slide, but had time to skin only one goat before dark it was slow work with our obsidian knives. As we could not safely leave the others unprotected from the prowlers during the night, we laid them side by side on a heap of balsam boughs, where the air could circulate all round them, and Pitamakan hung his capote on a stick right over them, in order that the sight and odor of it might prevent any wandering lion, lynx, or wolverine from robbing us. To go without his capote in such cold weather was certainly a sacrifice on Pitamakan's part.

If I am asked why we took pains to lay the game on boughs, the answer is that although any one would think that snow would be a natural refrigerator, the opposite is the case, for freshly killed animals will spoil in a few hours if they are buried in it.

To keep from freezing, Pitamakan hurried on to camp, while I followed slowly with the goatskin and head. There was not time to take the lion or marten from the deadfalls.

When I got to the lodge, Pitamakan had a fire burning and the last of the cow elk ribs roasting over it. We were wet to the skin, of course, but that did not matter. Off came our few garments, to be hung a short time over the fire and then put on again. How cheerful and restful it was to stretch out on our balsam beds and enjoy the heat after the long day's battle with snow and precipitous mountain-sides!

The next day, and for many days thereafter, we had much work to keep us busy. We skinned the goats, tanned the hides into soft robes, and sewed them together in the form of a big bag, with the fur side in. The night on which we crawled into it for the first time was a great occasion. On that night, for the very first time since leaving the Blackfoot camp, we slept perfectly warm and without waking with shivers to rebuild the fire.

The deadfalls also took a great deal of our time. Every night some of them were sprung, and we found from one to three or four valuable fur animals under the drop-bars. It was a tedious job to skin them and properly stretch the pelts to dry, but for all that, we loved the work and were proud of the result. Here and there in the lodge a few marten, fisher, wolverine, and lynx skins were always drying, and in a corner the pile of cured peltries was steadily growing. Three of them were of mountain lions.

During this time much more snow fell it was fully six feet deep in the woods when the last of the elk hams was broiled and eaten. For a day or two we subsisted on goat meat, although the best of it had a slight musky odor and flavor. As Pitamakan said, it was not real food.

As our bows were not nearly so strong as they looked, my partner was always wishing for glue, so that we might back them with sinew. There was material enough for glue, but there was nothing to make it in.

"The Mandans made pots of earth," I said to him one day. "Perhaps we can make one that will stand fire and water."

Out we went along the river to look for clay. At the first cut-bank that we came to I gouged off the snow that thinly coated its perpendicular side, and to! there was a layer of clay six inches thick between two layers of gravel. We broke out several large flat it chunks of the stuff,—it was frozen, of course, and carried it to the lodge. There, breaking it into fine pieces and thawing it, we added a small amount of water, and worked it into a stiff paste of the right consistency, as we thought, for moulding

Pitamakan, always artistic, fashioned a thin bowl like those that he had seen in the Mandan village, while I made mine an inch thick, with a capacity of not more than two quarts. When we baked them in the coals, mine cracked, and Pitamakan's fell to pieces.

That was discouraging; evidently the clay was not of the right consistency. I worked up another portion of clay with less water, while my partner added even more water than before to his batch. We each soon had a bowl fashioned and put to bake. In a few minutes the one which Pitamakan had made fell to pieces, but mine, which was thick and clumsy in shape, seemed to stand the heat well. I gradually increased the fire round it and after keeping the blaze up for a long time, I allowed the fire at last to die out gradually. The bowl turned out fairly well; for although it had one crack in the side, it was dark red in color, and gave a substantial ring when we tapped it with a stick.

However, we took no chances of a mishap by moving it. We plastered the crack with fresh clay, and then, putting into nearly a quart of water, an elk hoof and a couple of goat hoofs, we rebuilt the fire just close enough to make the mixture simmer, and adding more water from time to time during the day, patiently awaited results.

"Ai-y!  It is real glue!" Pitamakan exclaimed that evening, after dipping a stick in the mess and testing it with his fingers. We were quite excited and proud of our success. Softening the four elk sinews in the hot glue, Pitamakan then plastered a pair of them on each bow. The place where the ends overlapped at the centre, he bound with a sinew wrapping.

Of course the bows were unstrung when the backing was put on, and as soon as the work was done, we laid them away from the fire, that they might dry slowly. In the morning, the first thing, after crawling out of our fur nest, we strung and tested them, and found that the backing had more than doubled their strength and elasticity. Now we were ready to hunt our winter meat, and after a hurried breakfast of musky goat steak, we started in quest of the game.

Not since the day of the goat hunt had we seen any tracks of moose, elk, or deer. Pitamakan said that he had heard that the deer went from the high mountains down toward the lake of the Flatheads to winter and that we need not expect to see any more of them. But he added that it did not matter, for other game would yard close round the lodge.

Taking a zigzag course and examining every red willow patch along our route, we went down the valley. As it was a stinging cold day, we had our hands tucked up in the sleeves of our capotes, and our bows and arrows under our arms, for as yet we had no mittens. Our legs suffered, too, from need of new coverings.

The first game that we saw was an otter, fishing in a dark pool at the foot of a rapid. He would crawl out on the ice fringing it, sit still for a moment, sniffing the air and looking sharp for any enemy, and then make a sudden, dive. We watched him until he had brought up a big trout and had begun to eat it, when we turned away without the animal seeing us. Except at close range, the otter's eyesight is poor, but he has a keen nose and sharp ears. Later we intended to set a deadfall for him, if by any means we could catch fish to bait it.

A mile or more below the lodge we came to a deep, hard-packed trail, which wound and branched in every direction through a big red-willow thicket, which we guessed to be a moose yard. In many places the willows had been browsed off as far out from the paths as the animals could stretch their necks. Here and there were large, hard-packed circular depressions in the snow where they had lain down to rest and sleep, always, I imagine, with one of their number on the watch for any prowling mountain lion.

We went down through the centre of the yard, although we had some difficulty in crossing the deep trails on our snowshoes. Soon we sighted the game—two cow moose, two calves, and two yearlings. The instant that they saw us the old lead cow trotted away down the trail, leading the others, and then by turning into every successive left-hand fork, tried to circle round behind us. When we headed her off, she turned and tried to circle round us in the other direction. Then Pitamakan and I separated, and in that way drove the little band steadily ahead of us, until it reached the lower end of the yard.

There, with a tremendous leap, the old cow broke out of the yard into the fresh snow, and the way she made it fly behind her reminded me of the stern wheel of a Missouri River steamboat beating up spray. All the others followed her until we came close, when all but her calf wheeled in the new path and rushed back for the yard.

They were so close to us that we might almost have touched them. Pitamakan shot an arrow deep between the ribs of the cow and by a lucky aim I put my one arrow into the calf behind her. Both of them fell, but the two yearlings, scrambling over their bodies, escaped into the yard.

We went on in pursuit of the other cow and her calf. The strength that she displayed in breaking her way through six feet of snow was wonderful. For at least three hundred yards she went faster than we could go on our web shoes, but after that she gave out rapidly, and finally stopped altogether.

When we came close to her, she plunged back past the calf and stood awaiting us, determined to protect it to the last. All the hair on her shoulders and back was ruffed and bristling forward, while her eyes blazed with anger, although there was also in them the look of terror and despair. When we got close to her, she rushed at us. We had to do some lively scrambling to keep out of her way. But she soon tired, and then while I attracted her attention, Pitamakan slipped round on the other side of her. As his bow-cord twanged, she dropped her head, and the light almost instantly went out of her eyes. The poor calf met the same fate a moment later. It was cruel work, but as necessary as it was cruel; we killed that we might live.

There remained the two yearlings, and I proposed that we spare them. Pitamakan looked at me with surprise.

"What! Let them go?" he exclaimed. "And many winter moons yet before us? Why, brother, you talk foolishly! Of course we must kill them. Even then we may not have enough meat to last until spring."

So we chased them also out into deep snow, and did as he said. By the time we had one calf skinned we were obliged to go home and gather the night's wood.

The next day we skinned the rest of the animals, cut up the meat, and hung it in trees, whence it could be packed home from time to time. Two of the hides we put to soak in the river, preparatory to graining and tanning them. The others we stretched on frames and allowed to freeze dry, after which we laid them on our couch.

During the short days we tended the dead falls, skinned and stretched what fur was trapped in them, packed in meat and hung it beside the lodge, and tanned the two hides. Having done the tanning successfully, we went into the tailoring business. Pitamakan cut pieces of proper shape from the big, soft skins, but in the work of sewing I did my share. After three or four evenings' work, we were the proud wearers of new shirts, new leggings, and new mittens.

Our earthen pot fell to pieces the day after we had made glue in it. That was a serious loss, for we had intended to boil meat in it. Roasted meat is good, but does not do so well as a steady diet. The Indians of the North regard boiled meat as we regard bread, that is, as the staff of life. Pitamakan, who craved it more than I, determined, now that we had plenty of hides, to use a part of one for a kettle. From one of the yearling moose hides he cut a large, round piece, soaked it in the river until it was soft, and then sewed the edge in pleats to a birch hoop about two feet in diameter, so as to make a stiff-rimmed bag about as deep as it was wide. With a strip of hide he suspended it from a pole in the lodge roof.

Next he set several clean stones in the fire to heat, and put some rather finely cut meat in the bag with two quarts of water. When the rocks were red-hot, he dropped them one by one into the bag, and pulled them out to reheat as fast as they cooled. In this way the meat was boiled. Such was the ancient way of cooking it before the white traders brought pots and kettle into the North country.

The meat was not cooked long, only long enough, in fact to change its color, and was really more nutritious than would have been had it been stewed a long time. We enjoyed that first meal of it with keen relish and thereafter ate more boiled than roasted meat.

As the winter snows settled and hardened, we saw more and more trails of otter along the river, where they traveled from one open hole to another to do their fishing, and one day we began our campaign against them by going fishing ourselves. Our tackle consisted of a sinew cord and loop several feet long, tied to a long, slender pole.

In the first open pool that we looked into there were numerous trout and suckers; of course we tried first to snare the trout. We soon learned, however, that it could not be done, for they would not allow the loop to come nearer than five or six inches to their heads, but always drifted downstream from it in a tantalizing manner.

Next, trying the suckers, big, reddish-black fellows of two pounds' weight, we found them easy to snare. They lay as if they were half dead, their bellies close to the bottom, and never moved when the loop drifted down round their heads, thinking, no doubt, that it was but a piece of passing water-grass. When the noose was just behind the gills, we gave the pole a sharp yank, and up came the fish, wriggling and flapping, helpless in the grip of the tightened cord.

After we caught three of them, we spent the rest of the morning setting a deadfall at each of three pools where the otters were working. But for some time afterward we got no otters; of all animals they are the shyest and most difficult to trap. It was not until all traces of the man scent had died out that one was finally lured by the sucker bait, and was killed by the fall-bar.

As time passed, we set more and more dead-falls up and down the valley, so many that finally we could not make the round of them all in one day. One morning we would attend to those lying east of the lodge, and the next morning visit those to the west of it. The farthest one to the west was at least seven miles away, and for some unknown reason more fur came to it than to any of the others we seldom visited it without finding a marten or a fisher. Pitamakan called it the nat-o-wap-i kyak-ach-is—medicine-trap, as the words may be freely translated. Nat-o-wap-i  really means "of the sun"—"sun-power."

As we approached this deadfall one day, when we had taken nothing from the other traps except a marten that a passing fisher had maliciously torn to shreds, Pitamakan began the coyote prayer song, because, as he said, something had to be done to bring us better luck.

We soon saw the deadfall, noticed that the bar was down, and hurried eagerly forward to see what it held, while my partner sang louder than ever. On coming to it, we found a fine, black, fluffy-furred fisher; whereupon Pitamakan raised his hand and began chanting a prayer of thanks to the gods.

Meanwhile I saw, a little farther on, a trail in the snow which excited my interest, and I impatiently waited for him to finish his devotions to call his attention to it.

"Look! There's the trail of a bear!" I said, although it seemed odd to me that a bear should be wandering round in the dead of winter.

We hurried over to it. What we saw made us stare wildly round with fright, while we quickly strung our bows. It was the trail of a man on long, narrow web shoes—an Indian, of course, and therefore an enemy. The trail was fresh, too, apparently as fresh as our own. And but a moment before, Pitamakan had been singing at the top of his voice!