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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter I
"Thin leather homes "—Drudgery of the Indian women Occupations of the men—Hunting parties and scalping forays—Triumphs of endurance.

IT was during the last days of January, 1865, in the story of my experiences in our great Canadian West, that I parted company for a time with my readers in "SADDLE, SLED AND SNOWSHOE." We were domiciled for the night in Muddy Bull's lodge. The weather was intensely cold. I believe I am safe in saying that all through January the mercury never rose above 10 below zero, and that it ranged from this down to 50 below.

In our lodge, which was one of the best, with ordinary travelling costume on, a blanket or a robe over our shoulders, and a brisk fire in the centre of the tent, we were passably cosy; but even then we had to turn around every little while and "warm the other side." Great bright, brisk fires were kept up in those "thin leather homes" of our Indian people, entailing a vast amount of work upon the women and girls of the camps. Gradually, by example, perhaps, more than precept, we brought about a lessening of the labor of the women; but in the meantime, during the cold winter months, the furnishing of wood to keep those huge fires going gave them constant employment.. It must be said, however, they accepted the labor and drudgery with cheerful alacrity, and could be seen at all hours of the day stringing over the hills and across the plains with dogs and horses and travois, their own backs loaded to the utmost carrying capacity with wood.

The life of an Indian woman in those early days was, indeed, an extremely busy one. Packing and unpacking dogs and horses, making camps, providing wood— making making and mending moccasins and wearing apparel, cooking, cutting up, drying and pounding meat, rendering grease, chopping bones to get out the marrow fat, making pemmican, stretching, scraping and dressing buffalo hides to make robes or leather —a long, tedious process, in which not only the brains of the worker were needed in order to excel, but also those of the dead animals as well—kept her going early and late. Besides all this, the manufacturing of saddles, travois, tents and shagganappi also devolved upon the women; and yet, notwithstanding all this, they seemed, generally speaking, to be contented and happy, and with true feminine resource still found time to give to attire and adornment, and the practising of all those mysterious arts which have charmed and magnetized the other sex, doubtless through all the past of our race. No wonder these women and girls were at a premium, and cost all the way from a blanket up to a band of stolen horses! The more of them a man had, then the greater man was he.

Nor was the life of the male Indian altogether that of a sinecure. Somehow or other the idea has gone abroad that these Indians led a very lazy life. But if the man who thought this had spent some time with either wood or plain Indians, and had accompanied them on their hunting and war expeditions, he would have materially changed his views.

To follow a wood hunter on foot from before daylight in the short days, through brush and copse and heavy timber, over big hills and across wide valleys, on and on for many miles, sometimes until neon or late 'in the afternoon before a "kill" is made; or, having started game, to 'run for miles at a terrific pace, hoping to head off the quarry and at last secure a shot; then, having killed, to butcher or secure from wolf, or coyote, or wolverine the desired meat and strike as straight as possible for the camp, sometimes many, many miles distant, with thick forest and dense darkness now intervening; or it may be to have all the labor and exhaustion of such a chase without the chance of a shot, reaching camp late at night wearied and disappointed. To continue this for days, sometimes feasting and again famishing—and all this not from choice but of necessity—could be counted no easy matter. It is not for fun, but life; health, income, influence, honor, respect, all these are dependent on your efforts.

It may be with the same wood hunter you start a prime buck moose or elk during those glorious days in the beginning of autumn, and he bounds away in his strength and swiftness. Your Indian says, "We must run him down," and leads off in long, regular strides, and for a time you feel as if your lungs were in your throat and your heart is beating a double tattoo. Over and under fallen timber, down precipitous banks, up steep hills, and it takes some time for you to "catch your second wind," and to brace up your will and say to yourself, "I am also a man," and then settle down like your Indian to steady work.

He, however, is doing more than you, who are but following him. He is noting lay of land and direction of wind, calculating in order to &it across where your game may have gone around, watching the tracks, gauging the distance the buck is ahead of you, noting the settling of the earth at edge of pool or creek where the big fellow left his tracks as he ran, and you are encouraged and spurred on, or contrariwise, as the crafty hunter tells you in hushed tones what he knows.

Then, by and by, after an hour or two, or three, perhaps, of such work, you stand beside the fallen carcase and wipe your forehead and wish you had a dozen towels; but while your exultations and congratulations are hot within you, a word of caution comes from the Indian beside you: "The sun is low and the camp is far; let us hurry," and the work of butchering and skinning the meat goes on, till presently, with a load of meat on your back, you start for the distant camp. Suppose, as you tramped and climbed and panted, some one had said, "What a lazy life yours is," you would have shouted back, "No, sir; not in any sense is this a lazy life.

Or it may be your hunter friend is in for a "fur hunt," and you start with him to make a line of dead-falls for marten, or to hang a hundred or so of snares for lynx. The snow is deep, and at every step several pounds of it fall in on your snowshoe; but from early morn until late in the evening you tramp and toil, chopping and stooping and grunting over snare and deadfall, and when night is on, having carried your provisions, blanket and kettle all day, besides the baits for dead-falls and snares for lynx traps, you dig away the deep snow, cut some wood and make a fire for the night. While the fire burns, you doze and chill, and pile on fuel and wait for morning, only to repeat yesterday's work, and so on, until, having made a big detour and hung your snares and carefully fixed your dead-falls, you in three or four days reach home. Then in a short time you must visit all these, and in the intervening days make your forays for food. No one who has tried this manner of obtaining a living will pronounce it a lazy life.

But suppose you were with some plain or buffalo Indians, and, as was about the average condition in the winter time, the buffalo were from fifty to two hundred miles from your camp—the rigor of the winter and the condition of grass and wood forbidding the camp moving any nearer to them—the hunting parties had constantly to be organized and the meat and robes brought from long distances home. Under such circumstances the hunter not only had to undergo great hardships, but also to run very great risks. Storms on the bleak, treeless plains, with deep snow, and travel of necessity slow and difficult, were indeed as "the powers of the air" and darkness to encounter and overcome, and the really indolent man was not in it when such work was engaged in.

Then it was incumbent upon every able- bodied man, under the code of honor of the time, to make an annual or bi-annual or even more frequent foray for horses and scalps. These trips generally took place in the spring and fall. With the melting of snow and ice in spring, or the making of the same in autumn, parties large and small would be made up. Each with lariat and a few pairs of moccasins, and, if possessed of a gun, with as much ammunition as he could obtain, or armed with bow and quiver full of shod arrows, in the dead of night these men would start for the enemy's country, depending on sustaining life by the chase on their way. Journeying on, sometimes by day and sometimes by night, fording rapid streams and swimming wide rivers, what signified the breaking up of the season or the plunge into ice-cold water of river and swamp to them? These must be considered as trifles. By and by, when the enemy's presence is felt there will come the weary watching and waiting, amid cold and hunger, for cunning and strategy are now pitted the one against the other, and endurance and pluck must back these up or the trip will be a failure. One, two, three hundreds of miles of steady tramping, with your camp always facing in the direction of where your enemy is supposed to be. Every day or night the scouts, making thrice the distance covered by the party, keep up their constant effort to discover and forestall counter war- parties, or to find the enemy's camp; and when this is found sometimes to hang for days on its movements, and, following up, watch for a favorable spot and time either to make a charge or to steal in under cover of storm or darkness and drive off bands of horses. Then in either case to start for home, and push on regardless of weather so long as men and horses will hold out.

After a successful raid those long runs for home were great tests of horse-flesh and human endurance. With scalded legs, blistered feet and weary limbs, and with eyes heavy for want of sleep, these men, now exultant with victory, would vie with each other in the race for camp. A lazy man assuredly had no place in such trials of endurance and of hardship. Furthermore, upon the men and boys of the camp devolved the care of the horses. The herding and guarding of these gave many a weary tramp or ride, and many a night in cold and storm, without sleep or rest. And finally, the constant need of protecting their camps from the wily enemy was a source of permanent worry, and always rested as a heavy responsibility upon these men.


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