The mule deer buck was just across the clearing behind a cluster of aspens, but Daniel couldn’t see anything but the antlers when the buck raised his head at intervals to listen and scent the air. As he browsed, the buck moved across the clearing, and had the eagle not screeched, would have been in the sights of Daniel’s rifle in a few more minutes.
The buck had raised its head at the sound, and its large ears swiveled, searching for any sound that might mean a wolf or cougar was near. The eagle screeched again, and all Daniel could see was the black tip of a tail as the buck disappeared into the dense underbrush that surrounded the fallen ponderosa pine. Daniel cursed silently and looked up to see the huge nest perched at the top of tall, dead oak.
He’d come across the fallen tree yesterday while scouting for trapping sites for the coming winter. It lay just a few yards from the bank of a beaver pond, and Daniel had found the small, round pellet droppings of deer sign when he investigated. The next morning at first daylight, he’d gone back to the small clearing and waited. The tall grass and shrubs were ideal forage for deer, and his meat supply was getting low.
Daniel had seen areas like this many times in the past years. As age and boring insects weakened the tall, thick trunk, the big tree eventually began to rot at the base. Through the years, wind and snow weighted the branches and stressed the partially rotted trunk. Ultimately the tree fell over, another casualty in the never-ending cycle of life and death in Nature. In the process of falling to the ground, the massive trunk and spreading limbs would clear a swath through the other trees and underbrush.
The falling of the pine meant sunlight could reach the ground again, and it was as if some unseen planter had sprinkled the seeds of grasses, small, bushy plants and aspen trees on the needle covered ground. The snowmelt and subsequent rains brought those seeds to life. They sprouted, then flourished into grasses, wild flowers, small bushes, and the thickets of aspen that seemed to be everywhere.
Here and there, small pine trees only half a foot tall dotted the clearing. These were the offspring of the giant pine that now lay dead and rotting into more topsoil. Only one, or maybe two would enjoy the protection of the aspens until strong enough to stretch for the sun and fill the clearing again. The rest would be eaten by grouse and other animals, or would be choked out by the underbrush. It was the way of Nature that many would be born, but few would reach maturity.
Daniel squinted as he looked up at the eagle. There were two, instead of one as he’d thought before seeing the nest. The pair would have a chick in that nest by now, and they were just telling him to stay away. Daniel smiled at the pair of large birds screeching at him through open, yellow hooked beaks as they spiraled through the brilliant blue sky.
“Go back to your chick, I ain’t a gonna bother you none.”
Daniel smiled again when the eagles paid him no heed and continued to screech. Six years before, he would have been infuriated at losing the buck and probably would have taken a shot at one of the eagles, but that was before he grew to understand the ways of the mountains. The eagles were doing exactly as Nature intended them to do. The buck had done exactly what Nature intended him to do. Daniel waved at the angry birds as he walked down to the beaver pond. He understood that Nature intended for him to miss a kill now and then.
Daniel walked quietly on feet accustomed to feeling through the soles of his moccasins for sticks that might snap or leaves that might rustle and betray his presence. Just as had the mule deer, he stopped often to listen. That action had become reflex rather than conscious thought, a reflex honed over the years of hunting to survive and surviving to live the life he loved. He wasn’t hunting now, but the reflex was still there, protecting him from the only animal likely to harm him – a grizzly bear. Bears could be incredibly quiet for such a large animal, but still made some sounds one experienced at listening could hear.
Just inside the aspens and willows that ringed the large pond, Daniel stopped. The twin wakes of two beavers broke the flat surface that mirrored the sky above. Another beaver surfaced just in front of him and ambled slowly up the bank toward an aspen that already bore the marks of a beaver’s massive front teeth. Had Daniel wanted a beaver stew for his supper, it would have been a simple matter to raise his rifle and shoot. He didn’t. It was still early spring, and the beavers would be thin from the winter. They would also have young in the dome shaped lodge in the middle of the pond, young that would fill his traps when the snow fell. The pelt wouldn’t be worth much anyway, not until the chill of fall caused it to grow long, thick, and glossy.
Daniel grinned and stepped out of the aspens. Though beavers didn’t see very well at a distance, this one saw the movement and ran the short distance to the pond as quickly as its short legs would carry it. Once in the water, it dived for the bottom and gave the water’s surface a hard slap with it’s broad, flat tail as it went under. At that sound, the other two beavers did the same, and except for a few ripples, the pond was again a mirror of the sky and the pines on the opposite shore. Daniel turned and retraced his steps back to the clearing where the walls of the small cabin he was building already reached his chest.
Daniel was the fourth son of Johnathan and Martha Graves, and grew up on the family farm about twenty miles from St. Louis, Missouri. His three brothers inherited his mother’s easy-going manner and unquestioning belief in the Gospel. They fit into the family like peas in the same pod.
Daniel’s personality was a copy of his father’s. Though Johnathan Graves was just as devout in his beliefs as Martha, he found it a challenge to live his life according to those beliefs. Johnathan was quick tempered when challenged and not one to give in to anything or anyone. Only Martha’s quiet kindness kept him in check.
When Daniel was just a boy, that same fiery personality resulted in several black eyes when he refused to back down from boys older and larger than he. Though not quickly enough to suit him, Daniel grew up, both in size and strength. By the time he was sixteen, Daniel was a little over six feet tall and weighed two hundred and ten pounds on the scale at the general store in Runyon, the closest town to the farm. His height gave him confidence, and the work hardened muscles gave him the strength to back up that confidence.
Those older boys no longer taunted the boy who would not back down even though they bloodied his nose or blacked his eye. Now, they backed away from Daniel, the young man who used his size to intimidate them. Too often, they’d felt the pain of Daniel’s fist to their gut or to the side of their head. As a result, Daniel had no real friends, and the few girls his age who went to the church in Runyon on Sunday thought him a bully.
It was at that same age that Daniel slowly began to realize he hated farming. It was just an endless cycle of the same plowing, planting, hoeing, and harvesting, and the continual feeding of the livestock and then cleaning the manure from the small barn and chicken house and spreading it on the fields.
The family worked the fields for the single purpose of providing food for themselves and the livestock for the coming winter. They kept the livestock to assist in that work and to provide meat and eggs. There was no future that looked better. Were he to take a wife and clear land for his own farm, that would only mean even more work until he could plow and plant, and then slipping back into the same unending cycle. Still, just as his father and his grandfather, Daniel knew no other way to live.
The alternative came to Daniel in the spring of 1822 by way of a travelling man who sold remedies for about anything that could ail a body, or so he allowed. Dr. Horace Mason had just come from St. Louis where he made the medicine, and brought news of an expedition being formed. A former Army officer by the name of Ashley needed strong, young men to find the source of the Missouri River, and once there, trap beaver for three years.
Daniel knew nothing about trapping, but it was a way to find out if there was more to life than the farm. That Thursday, Daniel sat down with his mother and father after supper to tell them of his decision. Though they’d expected something like this to happen, Daniel’s mother and father were taken aback by the three-year time span and by the distance their son would be away from home.
Martha sniffed into her hanky.
“What if something happens to you, if you break your leg, or if those heathen Indians attack you? You might be dead and I wouldn’t even know for three years.”
“I’m not gonna break my leg, and as for the Indians, I’ll have a rifle and they’ll just have bows and arrows. They won’t get close enough to hurt me.”
Johnathan was a bit more understanding, but also more critical.
“Daniel, I know you don’t like farming and this expedition seems like a way to a different life. You need to think about if this is the right thing to do. Once you get there, if you decide you don’t like it, there won’t be any way to come home except by yourself. I’ve heard it’s pretty wild county and most men alone don’t live to get out.”
“I have thought about it”, said Daniel. “I don’t know if it’s what I want to do forever, but it’s what I want to do now. If they’ll take me, I’ll be back in three years. If not, I’ll see if I can find work in St. Louis and I’ll send word. I can’t stay here and farm any longer.”
In another hour, he was walking down the dirt road to St. Louis, walking away from everything he knew and into something about which he knew almost nothing.
It wasn’t difficult to find the place to sign up for the expedition. Everyone he asked knew the name of the hotel. The man at the table that said “Rocky Mountain Fur Company” asked his name and age.
“Daniel Graves, Sir, and I’m eighteen”
The man looked up and studied him for a minute or so.
“You don’t look old enough to be eighteen. You lying to me?”
Daniel tried to maintain his confidence. He would still be only sixteen for another six months.
“No Sir, I’m not.”
“You ever trap before?”
“No Sir, but I learn fast.”
“Do you have a horse?”
“Well, can you drive a team?”
“Yes, Sir. I’ve been driving a team since I was ten. I can drive a team to hell and back if that’s what you want.”
“I suppose you’ll make a teamster then. Sign here.”
Daniel signed his name on the paper the man pushed in front of him. The man examined his signature, blotted the ink with a rolling blotter, and then looked back up at Daniel.
“We start on Monday. Go down to the docks, Pier seven, and see Jonas. He’ll tell you what you need, and sell it to you if you don’t have it.”
“I don’t have any money.”
The man smiled.
“Jonas will take the cost out of your pay when you get back. Be at the same docks at daylight on Monday. If you’re not there, you stay behind.”
The rifle he got wasn’t new as he’d hoped. It was an 1803 Harper’s Ferry, but it was in good condition, or so Jonas had said, and with the short barrel and stock, it looked almost like the real mountain rifles he saw older men carrying. Daniel didn’t argue about the five dollar cost, though five dollars seemed like a lot of money. Jonas had laughed and said just three beaver pelts would pay for the rifle and then some.
The knife was only a dollar and the handle scales were just wood, but it was sharp and Jonas said he’d never send a man into the wilderness with a knife that wouldn’t hold an edge.
By the time he’d been issued a powder flask and five pounds of powder, spare flints, a bullet pouch, bullet mold, and ten pounds of lead, canteen, and another set of clothing, Daniel was in debt to the tune of thirty dollars. In his father’s whole life, he’d never had thirty dollars all at one time. Daniel only hoped what Jonas had said was true, that he could earn a hundred a year if he learned how to trap well.
What Daniel found after the long march to the north and west was what he knew to be his calling in life. It was a hard life, what with wading in freezing streams to retrieve trapped beavers, going hungry when no game was to be found, and putting up with the Indians, but it was a life he loved.
Every day was different, and presented a different challenge. Some days it was the disappointment of walking a trap line and finding no sprung traps. Some days it was walking the same trap line, and finding so many beaver he’d staggered under the load getting them back. Some days it was just sitting in the cabin he’d helped build with the four other men in his trapping party and hoping the firewood would last until the blizzard stopped. Some days it was walking through fresh snow that nearly blinded him with the reflected sun rays as he tracked a deer or an elk..
Daniel had loved it all, even facing a charging grizzly bear as he’d done once, except for the Indians. The Piegan’s, or Blackfeet, as the experienced trappers called them, had raided the camps at regular intervals over the three years. Daniel had at first been afraid during the attacks, but after one of his trapping party was killed, the fear turned to hatred for the Piegans in particular, and for all Indians in general. He seldom missed with his rifle, and several had gone down with one of his lead balls in the chest or head.
As well as trapping for furs, the trappers sometimes traded with other, friendly Indians for deer and buffalo hides. The Crows and Salish were reasonably friendly, but Daniel only viewed them with scorn because they seemed stupid. They would trade ten deerskins for a bottle of cheap whiskey and then proceed to get drunk. After that, the price in hides for everything would go up.
They would make their trades and stagger away happy with a few wool blankets, maybe an axe head or two, or a cheap knife that wouldn’t hold an edge. A month or so later, they’d be back with more hides and repeat the same mistakes. Daniel knew the traders enjoyed cheating them, and wondered why the Indians didn’t understand.
Daniel also wondered at the women of the Crow and Salish. They sometimes came to trade with men he supposed were their husbands. While the men usually dressed in decorated shirts and pants made from deer hides, the women wore plain dresses of other hides. Sometimes the dresses were mountain sheep, sometimes buffalo, and were never decorated. They wore leggings and moccasins also of plain leather.
Their hair was black, a color uncommon in Missouri except among the Negroes, but unlike a Negro woman’s tight curls, the Indian women’s hair was long and straight. The women wore their hair in two braids, one on each side of their face, and used only a thin lace of leather to secure it.
Daniel’s experience with women was slim, but the women at home enjoyed looking their best when going to church or visiting. Indian women seemed not to care how they looked. They just stood behind their husbands and said little during the trades.
Daniel arrived back in St. Louis three years and eight days after leaving. He was paid three hundred and sixty dollars for his three years of work, and felt rich beyond his wildest dreams. That feeling did not rob him of judgement as it did some of his fellow trappers. As soon as they received their gold dollars, they left for the saloons and whorehouses of St. Louis. Daniel used some of his money to purchase two horses, a tall bay gelding and a smaller, but stocky, black mare. He also purchased a saddle and bridle for the gelding and a pack saddle for the mare. Then he rode back to the family farm.
Daniel remembered his mother’s worry that he would die in the wilderness. He wanted to show her he was alive and well and had earned money as a trapper. He had another reason for going home as well.
As Daniel had come to realize his love for the wilderness, a plan had begun to take shape in his mind. The fur company had paid him half of the amount his share of furs brought in the market in St. Louis. In return, he’d given the fur company three years of his life.
While he had loved those three years, it was the fur company expedition leader who determined where they would trap and what animals they sought. That meant beaver, but there were other animals whose fur was in demand and commanded higher prices. He’d seen that demand during the trades with the Indians. For the same item, it cost less in hides if those hides were pine marten or fisher than if they were beaver.
Ashley, the owner of the fur company had declined to send more expeditions to the mountains. Instead, he would send teamsters and traders to the Cache Valley in the spring, and trade for furs with the trappers and Indians, then take the furs back to St. Louis for sale. Daniel intended to return to the mountains and trap on his own. He would still trap beaver, but he’d set traps for marten and fisher along with his beaver traps.
His parents didn’t recognize him at first. Daniel’s hair fell down over the buckskin shirt and almost covered his shoulders, and his beard hid almost all of his face. Once he spoke, though, his mother hugged him until he could barely breathe, and then set about fixing the meal that had been his favorite. His father shook his hand, and said he’d not had any doubt that Daniel would return.
He knew his mother and father would not like the real reason for his trip home. Daniel didn’t intend to return to Missouri, ever. This would be the last time they would see him. He enjoyed what he remembered as one of the few things he would miss in the future – his mother bustling around her kitchen cooking for them and singing as she did – and tried to think of a gentle way to tell them.
The next morning, he told them of his decision. It was difficult, but Daniel knew it was the only decision he could make. His mother burst into tears, and hugged him to her breast. His father didn’t do anything except to shake his hand and say the farm would be there if trapping didn’t work out.
Three days later, Daniel was riding north and west up the length of the Missouri. Hung on both sides of the mare’s pack saddle were panniers filled with gun powder, lead, coffee, corn meal, salt, traps, and ten pounds of large spikes he’d use in building his cabin. One pannier also carried six wool blankets, a dozen axe heads and a dozen knives he bought to trade with the Indians.
In the scabbard under his left stirrup sat the Harper’s Ferry rifle he’d taken on his first trip to the mountains. Cradled in the scabbard under the right was the Hawken rifle he’d purchased with most of the money he had left after buying his supplies.
The Hawken was lighter than the Harper’s Ferry, and had a reputation for being more reliable than any other rifle made. Though the Hawken was smaller in caliber, fifty for the Hawken and fifty four for the Harper’s, Hawkens were more accurate than most other rifles. Daniel had learned that accuracy was more important than caliber. Many of the shots at mule deer and elk that he’d missed over the past three years were at long range. The Hawken had a vernier sight and set triggers. Those improvements would put meat in his cache better than the Harper’s and the Hawken was easier to carry and swing quickly in the trees.
On a leather thong around his neck was a “large cent” coin. The coin had been given to his mother by her grandfather for good luck when she married his father. His father had pierced the copper coin and strung it on the thong so Daniel could keep it close to his heart. His mother said he should give it to his wife when he found one so she would have good luck too.
A month later, Daniel rode on past the site of the former encampment. After three years of trapping by a hundred and fifty men, there were nearly no beaver left, and the marten and fisher were scarce as well. The circle of trap lines had reached for ten miles past the last cabin. Daniel rode past that cabin for six more days until he found a small river lined on both sides with aspens, and then one more before finding the first beaver dam. Another day took him up river and past three more dams, each one teeming with beaver.
A few yards from the river, the forest of pines and oak trees began. The trunks of the Ponderosa pines seemed tall enough to snag the stars as they made their nightly trip around the sky. The oaks weren’t that tall, but were much fuller and with a thicker leaf cover.
Daniel knew the stand of trees was ideal for marten and fisher as well as providing roosts for grouse. Marten and fishers ate voles, rabbits and birds along with berries and other fruits. The pine nuts in the cones that littered the floor beneath the ponderosa pines were ideal food for voles. The grasses that grew between the trees and along the river would attract rabbits, as would the aspens. Mule and white tail deer ate the acorns from the oaks, as well as the brushy plants and grasses that filled some of the space between trees.
The deer meant food would not be a problem. After the snows came, Daniel would kill as many as he could and keep the deer quarters in the high cache he’d build outside his cabin. The river would furnish fish year round as well as beaver pelts and beaver meat, and though he’d have to aim carefully, his rifle could bring down a roosting or walking grouse when he found one. Daniel had learned some of the edible wild plants over the past three years, and as he scanned the ground as he rode, he saw several of these.
This cabin was his second, and though it was smaller, Daniel built it with the same care as the first. A hundred feet from the center beaver pond, he cleared the trees from a low rise in the surrounding land, leaving a single oak with a branch that was almost horizontal. From this branch, he’d hang his deer to skin and quarter them. The ponderosa pine trunks formed the walls of his cabin, each one notched to fit the one that crossed it.
A single door was in the center of the side facing south, the rough opening framed by thick boards Daniel had split from the straight trunk of a pine and then hewn mostly flat with his ax.
The door itself was made from more of the pine boards split thick enough to withstand the strength of a grizzly. Daniel nailed them against cross pieces, and then hung the door from two heavy buffalo leather straps that served as hinges. He had to lift the door to open it, but the leather hinges and the sliding bolt he fashioned from more splits would keep out any animals that might try to get into the cabin.
In a similar fashion, Daniel made one small window and filled the opening with the dried and oiled intestine of an elk. The intestine was translucent enough to allow some sunlight into the cabin while keeping out rain, snow, and insects. The window was small enough no bear could manage to squeeze through.
The roof sloped down from the center peak, and was of split oak planks over pine log purlins. Daniel made the fireplace and chimney of smaller oak logs, and plastered the inside with mud from the river bank. The first fire he started was small to dry the mud, and once it was completely dry, Daniel added wood to bake the mud into a hard shell that would keep the wood from catching fire.
After two months of building, the cabin was completed, including a rough bed in one corner. Daniel moved his bedroll onto the bed and lit his first cooking and heating fire. Though it was still summer, nights in the mountains were cool, and he slept soundly in the warmth of the cabin.
There were still many logs and branches littering the clearing, and Daniel used the next month chopping and splitting them into firewood. The pine splits would catch fire quickly because of the resin in the wood, but wouldn’t burn all night. The oak logs would take over from the pine in an hour or so, and would last until morning. It would only take a careful stirring the next morning to separate the searing hot coals from the ash, the addition of some thin splits of pine, and Daniel would have a fire going for coffee without using his flint and steel.
In between the days of cabin building, Daniel had scouted for fur sign. He already knew beaver were plentiful, for he could watch them from the cover of the aspens and willows along the shore of the ponds. There were muskrats in the ponds too, though Daniel wouldn’t actively trap for them. Their furs weren’t worth the trouble of skinning them. He was pleased to see many of the small tracks of marten and fisher in the mud of the pond banks.
He also hunted, but usually used snares to catch rabbits instead of using the powder and lead he would need to take deer. Once the freeze came, he’d actively hunt for the deer that would hold him through the winter.
The cache was ready. He’d built the floor twelve feet off the ground between four pine poles set deep in the soil to keep bears from raiding his food supply. The cache itself was a miniature of his cabin, except the door was just a deer hide to keep out birds. A ladder made from smaller poles with rungs lashed to them with rawhide would let him scale the height, and was easy to take down when he wasn’t using it.
When the first snows fell, Daniel set his traps. Beaver traps were set in the water near shore or on top of the beaver dam. For water sets he used poles stuck into the pond bottom to guide the beaver into the trap. The marten and fisher traps were set on top of a leaning log with bait hanging from the end. The marten or fisher would climb the log to get to the grouse wing or rabbit leg hanging from a thong and walk through the trap, stepping on the pan and releasing the powerful spring that held them tight..
By the end of that winter, Daniel had two hundred beaver pelts stretched and drying in his cache, and a few over fifty marten and fishers. He’d also saved the hides of ten mule deer and two whitetails he’d shot for food. When the snow melted, he packed everything on the black mare, and rode toward the Cache Valley.
The “rendezvous”, as the French trappers called it, was alive with trappers, traders and Indians. Daniel traded his furs and hides for more traps, more coffee, salt, and corn meal, and another ten pounds each of gun powder and lead. His axe heads and knives he traded to the Indians for pemmican and buffalo jerky. Both would come in handy for eating on the trap line, or for eating if a blizzard struck his cabin and he couldn’t get to his cache. That had happened twice during the last winter, and Daniel had been forced to go without food until the storm abated.
Daniel stayed at the rendezvous only long enough to make his trades. He knew a few of the trappers from the Ashley expedition, but they were busy indulging in drinking and gambling away their earnings. Daniel had no use for either, nor did he understand how losing one’s money could be pleasurable. Two weeks later, he was back in his cabin, snaring rabbits, fishing in the beaver ponds, and making a few changes to his cabin.
So went the next three years. Daniel traded his furs at the rendezvous in spring, scouted for animals to trap in summer and fall, and trapped from first snowfall to spring melt. It bothered him a little that each year he seemed to find fewer beaver in his traps, and by the third year, he’d trapped only six marten and one fisher.
When he thought about it, the lack of furs made sense. In three years, the Ashley expedition had virtually eliminated all the beaver in the area of their trap lines. The Indians had trapped the marten and fisher just as actively, because they knew of the high prices in blankets and other things the Company would offer for them.
Daniel was only one trapper, and his trap lines covered a smaller area, but the trapping pressure on the animals was the same. The reason for the lack of fur was him. That spring, after trading his furs at the rendezvous, Daniel stopped at his cabin only long enough to gather his traps, tools, and anything else he couldn’t make at the site of his new cabin. He then burned the cabin to recover the spikes he’d used for the door and door frame. After a last look around, he mounted the gelding and led his pack horse north west and further into the mountains.
Daniel rode for three days before finding a stream large enough to attract beavers. He turned up stream and rode for another four days before the stream forked. The left fork was shallow, so Daniel rode across and continued along the bank of the larger, right hand fork. Five days later, both forks joined again, and Daniel had seen a dozen beaver dams along the way. The next day, he traveled down the other fork in the direction from which he’d already come. Along the shallower fork were another six beaver dams. Daniel rode back up the wider fork, searching for a location for his cabin.
He found it on a patch of ground that rose above the surrounding land just enough to keep him dry should the stream rise after a heavy rain. A month later, he lit the fire that would bake his mud and log fireplace, and a week after that, began scouting the area for fur sign other than the numerous beaver he’d already seen.
There seemed to be a lot of grizzly sign in the area, but that didn’t particularly worry Daniel. He understood how a grizzly lives, and would be careful to stay out of their way. He was a bit surprised at how large at least one or two were. He came across a few trees that the bark ripped open to expose the soft inner bark grizzlies sometimes ate. The slashes of the grizzly’s long claws reached at least a foot over Daniel’s head.
Daniel saw plenty of mule deer as well. He would eat well that winter.
This cabin would be better than his first. Daniel had searched for and found four red cedar trees large enough to use for the sills. It had been a real chore dragging them back to his cabin site with his saddle and pack horse, but they wouldn’t rot out as had the pine he’d used before.
The rest of the cabin he built much as he had the first though it was slightly smaller. He’d used a lot of firewood keeping that first cabin warm on cold nights, and thought a smaller space would use less. He also took better care when filling the cracks between the logs.
By the time the days turned cool and the first snow had covered the higher mountain peaks, Daniel had his cabin built, had built his cache, and had a pile of firewood he hoped would last through the winter. His two horses had a large corral in the trees with a three sided log shelter to let them get out of the wind and snow. The night temperatures had dropped below freezing over the month prior, and now the day temperatures were cool enough meat wouldn’t spoil. Daniel began filling his cache with meat.
Within a week, he had two mule deer and one whitetail hanging in his cache. He’d feasted on deer liver and heart, the first meat he always ate from a kill. Every day would find him stalking through the forest, or as on the day the eagle spoiled his kill, waiting at the edge of a clearing where he’d seen signs of deer foraging.
Daniel was looking for deer or elk, but also for a bear or two. Bear meat was good to eat and the hides made for warm blankets on his bed. Bear grease was also useful for many things. It could be used as a substitute for lard when frying meat and Daniel used it on his moccasins and heavy boots to make them waterproof and supple.
That day, he’d found the still warm droppings of a bear, a short way from his cabin though he couldn’t be sure if it was a large black bear or a grizzly. Tracks led away from the droppings, and after examining the prints for claw marks, decided it was probably a grizzly because the claws looked very long. He began following the tracks in hopes of killing the bear.
Following a bear was a stalk fraught with risk for the stalker. Bears didn’t see very well and their hearing wasn’t as acute as other animals, but their sense of smell was better even than a wolf’s. If a bear caught his scent on the breeze, it was likely it would run away and he’d never get it.
The risk was if the bear didn’t catch his scent until he was very close. Then, the bear would probably stand and defend itself. In some instances, like a sow with cubs or if he surprised the bear on a kill, the bear would attack. Daniel would have only seconds to shoot, and even then, might not escape injury. In his experience, even a bear shot directly in the heart would still press the attack. He’d found a trapper on his first expedition who had been killed by a bear he’d shot. He was found with the dead bear lying on top of him with his head locked in the grizzly’s massive jaws.
His best chance lay in staying downwind and watching carefully so he could get a shot without the bear knowing he was there. Daniel began the stalk, walking slowly and careful not to make noise, and stopping to look and listen every few feet.
His stalk had gone for almost a quarter of a mile when Daniel heard the high-pitched scream. No animal would make a sound like that. It had to be a person. Daniel began running in the direction of the sound.
Another scream followed that one, and then he heard the grunting of a grizzly. Both seemed to be close, so Daniel checked the pan on his Hawken rifle for priming powder and then again ran toward the sounds.
He broke into a small clearing a minute later and saw an Indian woman poking at the grizzly with a long, thin stick. She was keeping an oak tree between them and Daniel could see the cleared circle in the leaves where she and the grizzly had moved around and around the tree.
He saw the deer carcass lying to the side and understood what was happening. Somehow the woman had walked up on the grizzly while it was feeding and the bear decided to attack. The woman had been smart enough to not try to run away. The grizzly would have caught her before she’d take three steps. Instead, she started circling the tree to stay away from the long claws that tried to reach her.
She was using the stick in an attempt to drive the grizzly away, but Daniel knew that wouldn’t work. Once the grizzly had decided to attack, the only way it would stop was if the woman was dead or if the grizzly was.
The woman was obviously an Indian, though he couldn’t be sure what tribe. Even though she was, Daniel couldn’t just stand there and watch until she became so tired she slowed enough for the grizzly to catch her with a paw. Once that happened, she’d be dead in less than a minute. Daniel raised the Hawken, cocked the hammer, and sighted down the barrel.
He had to wait a few seconds because the woman jumped into his line of sight, but when she moved around the tree and the grizzly followed, he pulled the trigger. The sparks from the flint ignited the gunpowder in the pan, and a heartbeat later, the rifle fired. The grizzly reared up, clawed at its chest and then looked in Daniel’s direction. In a flash, it had covered the distance between them and reared up on its hind legs.
Daniel tried to sidestep the grizzly when it came down on top of him, but wasn’t fast enough. He fell under the grizzly on his stomach and instinctively put his hands over his head to protect it.
The weight of the bear was crushing him. He screamed in pain as he felt the bear close its jaws on his left wrist. The bear continued to bite that wrist as it clawed his head. Daniel felt his fur hood pulled away and then the bite of the claws as they ripped at his scalp.
The bear growled then and raised a little. Daniel felt it release his wrist and raise its head and roar. Then he felt something hot pouring down on his head and hands. A few seconds later, the bear went still and silent. Daniel tried to push it off him, but it weighed too much. After several attempts, he felt dizzy, and then passed out.
When he woke up, the sun was in his eyes and he was laying on the ground on his back. He felt something touch his wrist, and then groaned at the pain trying to move it caused. A woman’s voice then said “tenir immobile”.
Daniel recognized the French language. He’d learned a little French from some of the trappers on his first expedition up the Missouri. The woman was telling him not to move. His voice was weak when he asked “French”.
“No French me. English, you?”
“American. You speak English?”
“Hudson Bay man teach.”
Daniel moved his head so he could look at the woman, but he couldn’t see much except a silhouette against the bright blue sky.
“Where am I?”
“How did I get here?”
“You shoot bear. Bear hurt you. Sinopa bring you house.”
Daniel started to rise again, and this time, the woman let him sit up. He started to lift his good hand to his head, but she stopped him.
“No. Bear hurt. Go inside. I do good.”
The woman stood up and pulled on Daniel’s uninjured hand.
“Up. Go inside.”
It was with great effort that Daniel got to his feet, and once he was standing his hand and head began to throb. The woman put his left arm over her shoulder to steady him and then pointed to the cabin door.
“You open. Not know how.”
Daniel worked the latch and then pulled the door up on the leather hinges. He could lift it, but couldn’t pull it open with just one hand. The woman reached for the edge of the door and helped him pull enough to open the door and let Daniel go through sideways. She followed, still with his arm over her shoulder.
Once they were inside, she walked Daniel to his bed and then went to his fireplace. She stirred the coals and after finding a few glowing embers, took a stick of pine from the stack beside the hearth. With a knife from her belt, she shaved the stick into paper-thin curls and placed the curls on top of the glowing coals. When they caught flame, she added a few more sticks of pine.
A few minutes later, the flames illuminated the small cabin sufficiently Daniel could see her well enough to know she was slender and had long, black hair done in a thick braid on each side. He’d seen that hairstyle before when trading with the Salish Indians. Their women wore their hair like that.
Her clothing wasn’t like he’d seen Salish women wear though. She wore a heavy buffalo hide as a coat, but below that, he could see the bottom of a buckskin dress. Salish woman didn’t wear buckskin. They wore the skins of mountain sheep or buffalo. Her moccasins were also different. Salish women wore plain leather moccasins that went up under their dresses. This woman’s moccasins went up under her dress, but they had quill decorations up the sides.
The woman took the canvas bucket beside the fireplace, and then turned to him.
“You stay. I go water.”
Daniel stayed on his bed because he felt weak, and watched the woman lift the heavy door to the cabin and push it open enough she could get outside with his bucket. It was a struggle for her because she was so small, but she managed to get out and then shut the door again.
Daniel wondered why she was doing this. While he’d probably saved her life, in his experience Indians only saw white men as traders who had something they wanted. Once the trade was completed, they always went back to their village. He’d never seen an Indian have any desire to even be around white men, much less want to do anything for them.
As Sinopa walked to the river that ran beside Daniel’s cabin, she was watching for the dried stalks of the sweet grass plant. It was early enough in winter the stalks should still be standing. She saw a few to her right and knelt down and used her knife to dig some of the shallow roots from the partly frozen ground. They would make a medicine to keep the spirits away from the man’s wounds.
At the river, she snapped the thinner branches from the willow trees that grew there. After the bark was removed and boiled in water, the tea would help with the pain of the man’s injuries.
Sinopa filled the bucket with water and then started back to the cabin with the roots and sticks. As she walked, she thought about what had happened and how she felt.
She had surprised the grizzly as he was eating his recent deer kill. Sinopa had tried to tell the bear that she wouldn’t take his food, but he was angry at being interrupted. He had reared up and roared, then started toward her. Only because the large tree was close was she able to avoid his long claws.
It seemed as if he became more angry when she kept the tree between them. Many times he had tried to race around it and strike her down with a blow from his powerful front paw, but she’d been too quick for him. When she picked up the section of fallen branch and poked it in his face, he seemed angrier still.
Sinopa knew it was only a matter of time before she became tired. Once she was tired, she’d be slower, and eventually, the grizzly would catch her. He would kill her and she would join the deer carcass as part of his food cache. As she dodged the swipes of his paws, she prayed to his spirit to leave her alone, but he did not listen. Sinopa was certain that was because she’d dishonored the village.
The Hudson’s Bay trader had taken a liking to her, and had given her a beautiful wool blanket. She did not know such soft cloth existed before that time, and was very pleased. The trader had smiled and said words she didn’t understand. When she gave him a questioning look, he’d spoken to another trader. That trader looked at her and said, “il dit que tu es belle”.
Sinopa’s father had learned enough French from other traders to be able to make trades in the language along with the aid of hand signs. Sinopa had listened to her father and traders speak to each other in the strange language and by asking her father what was said, had slowly began to understand some of the words. She had been embarrassed by the words “il dit que tu es belle”. She didn’t understand them all, but she understood the words for “says” and “beautiful”.
The traders stayed near their village for several months. If they were not trading, they drew strange pictures on sheets of what looked like white deerskin but were much thinner and stiffer. They called the material paper and drew on it with a goose quill dipped in black liquid.
Sinopa had been fascinated by the pictures and had spent as much time as her chores would allow in watching the men draw them. The trader who spoke words she couldn’t understand seemed interested in explaining them. He would point to a line on his drawing that looked to Sinopa like the rattlesnake crawling across the ground, and then point to the river by their campsite. He would then say “river”.
When she understood what “river” meant, he went on to point to other things and tell her his words for them. Over the course of time, Sinopa had learned enough English to make herself understood and to understand some of what the man said. She also found herself liking this white man who had given her the blanket. When he touched her one day, she felt a thrill race through her body.
Her mother had told her of such a feeling. It was a feeling of wanting to couple with a man. Sinopa knew doing so with a white man was forbidden, but if she felt so warm and tingly from his touch, why was it so?
After that, the white trader had touched her more often, and Sinopa had felt the same thrill race through her body. One day when the trader who spoke French was out hunting, the white trader had enticed her into his tent. There, he had touched her breast and smiled when Sinopa had closed her eyes at the feeling. That touch was followed by a touch to her firm hip and Sinopa had sighed again.
She didn’t resist when he lifted her dress over her head, and when he began fondling her naked body, she became so aroused she didn’t want to stop him. He had pierced her body with his a little later, and though the piercing had caused pain, the other feelings it caused made Sinopa’s mind reel.
The next afternoon, she’d gone back to the trader’s camp. She wanted to feel those feelings again. When she got there, the tents were gone.
Sinopa returned to her village and was met by her mother. Her mother was frowning and holding the sleeping mat Sinopa used.
Her mother pointed the a few drops of blood on the sleeping mat.
“It is not your moon time, yet you bleed. What have you done, Sinopa?”
Sinopa thought her mother would understand, and told her about coupling with the white trader. Her mother stared at her for a short while, then threw the sleeping mat at her.
“Be gone, my daughter who is no longer my daughter. You have shamed your family and shamed yourself, but I can not bring myself to let you stay and be punished. Take what is yours and go from this village and do not return.”
With that, her mother had turned and walked away, but not before Sinopa saw the tears in her eyes.
She’d been wandering since that spring, living on what she could find and sleeping in the forks of trees so the bears and other hunting animals wouldn’t harm her. Earlier in the week, she’d passed by a cabin next to a river and thought it might belong to the white trader. She’d waited, hidden by the trees, until a man came out. To her dismay, he wasn’t the trader. He was a trapper, the same kind of trapper her people had tried so hard to drive away from their land.
When she saw the grizzly bear, she believed he was a spirit sent by the Sun God to kill her as punishment for her sins. She was not ready to die and had tried to keep him from doing that. When she heard the blast of the white man’s rifle, she thought he must be a helper sent by Naapi to drive the bear away.
When the bear attacked the white man, Sinopa believed she was witnessing a battle waged by surrogates for the two gods. It also looked to her as if the “helper” was being defeated. She had drawn her knife from her belt, run and jumped on the back of the grizzly, and stabbed and slashed at his neck until she saw the blood spurting from the wounds. A few seconds later the grizzly had collapsed on top of the white man.
When Sinopa saw the man closer, she realized he was the man from the cabin. Though his left wrist was crushed and his head was bleeding, he still breathed. Sinopa thought about leaving him to die, but then thought just because he was a white trapper didn’t mean Naapi hadn’t sent him to help her. If Naapi had, helping the man might atone for part of her sin.
Sinopa knew she would never be able to roll the bear off the man. Bears at this time of year were fat and heavy. They had eaten almost constantly since spring in preparation for sleeping over the winter as Naapi had told them to. She also knew the man was a large man and she would never be able to carry him. It was then she remembered the two horses in the corral beside the man’s house.
The cabin wasn’t far away, so Sinopa ran the distance and then brought back the black mare and a length of rope she’d found in the shelter inside the pen. She’d tied one end of the rope around the mare’s neck and the other around the bear’s legs, and then started to lead the mare away.
It was obvious to Sinopa the mare was afraid of the bear. She’d had to keep talking to the mare to keep her calm and close enough to tie the rope to the bear’s legs. When she pulled on the mare’s halter, the mare dug in her hind hooves and tried to run away. Sinopa kept her hold on the halter and talked to the mare some more, but didn’t stop her until the bear was a good distance from the man. Then, she tied the mare to a tree and untied the end of the rope from the bear’s leg.
The man was still bleeding when she led the mare back to where he lay. Sinopa knew if she didn’t get him someplace where she could care for him properly, he would probably die. There was no time to build a sled or travois. Instead, Sinopa worked the rope under the man’s arms and over his chest and tied the rope into a loop that would also hold up his head.
It was easy for the mare to pull the man back to the cabin, though Sinopa worried the short trip might hurt him more. As it was, he slid over the ground on his back and his fur coat protected him from the ground and the underbrush. She’d taken off the rope and put the mare back into the corral, and was sitting beside the man and examining his wounds when he woke up.
It was because she didn’t know his language she spoke to him in French. Most of the trappers and traders who came to this area spoke at least some French. When he replied in English, Sinopa had tried hard to remember the English words the English trapper had taught her.
When she opened the door to the cabin, Sinopa saw the man looking at the blood on his hand and wrist. She quickly walked to the bed.
“No touch. I clean.”
Daniel was a little taken aback by the tone of her voice. It was more like a command than a request. He’d found out what he wanted to know, though. There were deep cuts in his scalp that were still bleeding a little. He’d also looked at his left wrist. He could see the bones in one place and the rest was mashed and bloody. When he tried to move it, he had to hold back the cry of pain.
He sat on the bed and watched as the woman poured water into his cooking pot and then sat the pot near the glowing coals. From time to time, she put a finger in the water, to gauge the temperature he figured. After one such test, she stood and walked to the bed.
Daniel pointed to the small table he’d built from scraps left from the cabin door. The woman walked to the table and picked up the wooden bowl, then went back to the fire. Daniel saw her put something into the bowl and then fill the bowl with water from the pot.
She brought the bowl to the bed, and then used her knife to slice a strip from one of the deerskins that covered Daniel’s bed. After dipping the strip of deerskin into the bowl, she began carefully cleaning his wrist. When Daniel winced, her voice was soft and caring.
“Not move. Root water make spirits go away. Soon good.”
When the woman finished with his wrist, she moved to his head and Daniel winced again. The woman didn’t say anything this time. She just wiped at the cuts to blot up the blood and then rinsed the strip of deerskin in the bowl.
It took her longer with his scalp, and it was more painful. By the time she finished, Daniel had tears in his eyes. The woman saw this and patted him on the shoulder.
“Over now. Need hat…no…cover.”
She sliced another, wider strip from the deerskin and trimmed the ends to form straps. She put the strip over Daniel’s head and tied the straps under his chin. Daniel saw her smile and figured she was happy with the results. He wasn’t happy because his wrist and his arm hurt. His wrist hurt more when the woman took a pine spit from his firewood, cut a wide strap and a narrow one from his bed cover and bound his wrist to the pine split.
The woman then stood up and took the bowl to the door of the cabin, pushed it open a little, and threw the contents outside. She went back to the fire then and started peeling the bark from the branches she’d brought inside. Once she had a small pile, she put the bark into the bowl and then partially filled the bowl with steaming water from the pot. A few minutes later, she brought the bowl back to the bed.
“Drink. Hurt go away.”
She held the cup to Daniel’s lips. He sipped at the liquid and then made a face.
The woman smiled again.
“Taste bad. Do good. Drink.”
Daniel managed to drink the bowl of tea after several attempts and grimaces. The woman took the bowl from him and then pushed gently on his chest.
“Sleep. I go bring bear.”
Daniel didn’t know how long he slept. He’d fallen asleep a few minutes after she left the cabin. The pain had gone away a little by the time he recognized the neigh of the black mare. A few minutes later, the woman came back into the cabin. She smiled when she saw him laying down.
“Sleep good. Heal fast. I go skin bear.”
When the woman came back, she was dragging the hide of the grizzly. She dropped it in front of the fire, then went back outside. She came back through the door carrying a large piece of meat. She looked at Daniel.
“Need eat. Bear taste good. Make strong. I cook.”
The bear meat did taste good and Daniel was starving. The woman looked on as he ate, and then smiled.
“You eat good. You heal fast. Now, sleep.”
Daniel reclined on his bed and watched as the woman began fleshing the grizzly hide.
For a week, Daniel lay on his cot, let her clean and bind his wounds, ate when she fixed something, and slept the rest of the time. At night, Sinopa slept on the floor of the cabin in front of the fire. By the end of the week, his wrist still hurt when he moved it, but his head had stopped hurting. The woman wouldn’t let him feel his head, but when she cleaned it, he saw her nod.
“Heal good. Soon, no cover.”
“What about my wrist”, he asked and pointed to the deerskin she’d with which she’d wrapped it.
The woman shook her head.
“Heal good. No bend yet.”
As she bound his wrist to the pine split again, Daniel asked her name. He had used sign language to some extent with other Indians, and started the conversation that way.
He pointed to his chest.
“I am called Daniel”
Then he pointed to the woman.
“What is your name, woman?”
The woman looked at him for a moment, then smiled.
She shook her head.
“Piegan. No Piegan now”.
“Not Piegan now?”
Sinopa shook her head and frowned.
“Hudson Bay man do like man with wife to me. Mother say no daughter now. Mother say go away.”
“So, they made you leave? Where were you going?”
Sinopa looked at Daniel and shook her head.
“No know words.”
Daniel pointed at Sinopa, then used his fingers to imitate legs walking, and finally opened his hands.
“Not know, just walk.”
Daniel pointed at the roof and swept his arm in an arc.
“How long have you been walking?”
Sinopa touched her fingers with her thumb, then held up five.
“Five months? How did you survive?”
As soon as Daniel said it he knew she didn’t understand him. He pointed to Sinopa again, then at his open mouth, made the motion of chewing, and then held out his hands again.
“Hungry you? I go cook.”
Daniel waved his hand, then pointed at Sinopa again.
“Find plants. Kill bird and rabbit with stick.”
Daniel put his hands together and laid his cheek on them.
“Where did you sleep?”
“Climb tree. Bear no get.”
Daniel shook his head. He knew how difficult it was to survive in the mountains. Even with his horses and his cabin with a fire, surviving could be hard. It only took being caught outside in a blizzard or as Sinopa had discovered, meeting a grizzly on a kill to fail in that effort.
“You’re a brave woman, Sinopa.”
She gave him the same look that said she didn’t understand. Daniel tried again.
“You kill bear. You are strong woman.”
“You kill bear. Bear take long time die. Sinopa help die fast, not kill.”
Daniel then asked the question he’d thought about since he woke up outside his cabin.
“Sinopa, why did you take care of me?”
She didn’t understand again, so Daniel pointed to his wrist and head, then pointed at Sinopa, and then imitated the washing motions Sinopa had made. Then he opened his hands and said “Why”.
Sinopas face was solemn.
“Me think Naapi send you help me. He not like me let you die. He not help again.”
“Who is Naapi? Your father?”
“Naapi father all things.”
“Ah. Now I understand. He’s your God.”
Daniel pointed at Sinopa, then imitated walking with his fingers again, and then opened his hands.
“Where will you go now?"
“Naapi want me stay so you well.”
Sinopa washed his injuries each day and roasted more of the bear until the scavengers of the night had taken most of the carcass. When Daniel had explained to her about his cache by using sign language and the few words she understood, Sinopa used the ladder to climb up and bring down a haunch of venison. After that, she roasted or boiled venison for their meals. Daniel ate and slept for the first week. After that, he stayed awake and watched Sinopa.
When she had skinned the bear, Sinopa had brought the hide into the cabin. When she wasn’t washing his wounds or cooking, she sat on the floor and scraped the flesh side of the hide with the back of her knife. Daniel understood this. He’d done the same thing with beaver and other fur hides. If any meat or fat was left on them, they’d rot and be worthless.
Over the next few days, Daniel watched Sinopa tan the bear’s hide. He’d learned the process on his first expedition. The hide was first washed and then a paste made from water and the brain of the animal was worked into the inside of the hide. The hide was rolled up to allow the mixture to soak in for a day and then the process was repeated until the hide would no longer absorb the mixture. The hide was smoked over a low fire and then worked over a log until it was soft and supple. Daniel used the same method to tan hides to make leather for his clothing and blankets for his bed.
While he watched Sinopa, Daniel tried to teach her more English. Since the cabin was small, Sinopa did most of the tanning process beside the bed. As she worked, Daniel would point to things or mimic her actions and then tell her the words in English.
Sinopa proved to be a quick learner. Daniel didn’t have to use sign language quite as much because she began to understand more of the words he used. After a week, she began pointing to things and asking him for the English words. When Daniel said the word, Sinopa would repeat it several times and then look up and grin.
Words for things were easy for Daniel to teach her. Words for actions were more difficult because there was no object to point to. He taught her “who” by pointing to himself and then looking at her. When she didn’t answer, he pointed to her, said “who” and then “Sinopa”. Her eyes lit up when she understood. She pointed at Daniel and said “who”. Daniel said “Daniel”. Then she pointed at the bed and said “who”. Daniel shook his head.
“What, not who. Who is just for people. What is for things.”
Sinopa appeared to think for a few moments, then pointed at the bed and said “what”. Daniel grinned.
“Bed, this is a bed”.
Sinopa then pointed at him and said “who”. Daniel grinned again.
After that, when Sinopa wanted to know the English word for something, she’d point at it and say “what”. Daniel would give her the word. Sinopa would repeat it several times and then smile at him.
It was two weeks later that Sinopa took the deerskin wrap off his head and carefully examined the wounds. Daniel felt her parting his long hair as she looked at each claw mark. Then she looked at him and smiled.
“All well. No cover now.”
She unwrapped his wrist then and did the same careful inspection. The scars Daniel had seen before were slowly lightening to a darker pink than the rest of his skin, but the bite mark had healed. Sinopa looked at Daniel.
“All well. Move little.”
Daniel tried to flex his wrist. There was some pain, but he could bend his wrist a little. Sinopa smiled.
“Move little all time. Make better.”
The next day, Sinopa brought Daniel a strip of roasted venison in the morning, then filled his cooking pot with water, put in a large chunk of venison, and sat it close to the coals. While he ate, she tried to tell him something, but Daniel was having trouble understanding her. She had started by holding up her right hand and one finger of her left.
“Deer cook in water. You eat. Sinopa go away, come back after this days.”
Sinopa pursed her lips, then pointed at her belly and made a sweeping motion from there down toward her thighs.
“Woman, it’s freezing at night. Where will you go?”
Sinopa pointed in the direction of the lean-to Daniel had built for the horses.
“Stay with horse.”
Daniel shook his head.
“I’m not going to have you freeze to death just because of something like that. You’re going to stay here in the cabin with me, understand?”
Sinopa shook her head.
“No. Woman go away at moon time. Bad spirits come if stay.”
Daniel touched her arm.
“Sinopa, I want you to stay inside with me. How can you do that?”
Sinopa thought for a long while. In her village, she’d have gone to a special low hut with dried grass on the floor and sat there until the discharge had ended. Other women would have been there doing the same thing, and they’d have talked about being women. They would also have done weaving or beadwork to pass the time.
Here, she had no one, but that meant there was no one to judge her if she violated the customs of the tribe except Daniel and he wanted her to stay. Would Naapi be mad? She thought about that and decided he wouldn’t. Grandmother Moon might, but Grandmother Moon had given women the ability to make life, so she should understand. Sinopa looked at Daniel.
“Need grass on floor in corner and deerskin.”
“There are two deer hides and one elk in the cache. I’ll go bring you some dry grass if I can find some.”
Sinopa shook her head.
“You stay. Sinopa bring grass and deer skin.”
For the next week, Daniel didn’t see Sinopa at all. He knew every night after dark she left the cabin for a few minutes, but by then the fire had died down and he couldn’t really see her. All he could tell was the cabin door creaked and he’d feel a chilly breeze when she opened it.
At the end of six days, Sinopa came out of the corner with the dried grass bundled together. She carried it outside and came back a few minutes later with another bundle tied with a few more strands of grass.
“For moon time”, she said when Daniel looked at her, then looked at his wrist.
Daniel showed her how much he could move the wrist. It wasn’t as far as before yet, but he’d be able to use it.
“Sinopa say good.”
“It’s about time. I need to hunt and start setting traps or I won’t have anything to trade in the spring.”
She looked at him.
“Sinopa help. Find much deer and beaver.”
She did help him, and Daniel was surprised by how much help she was. Sinopa could see deer sign as well as he, and when he shot the first deer and started to dress it, Sinopa stopped him.
“Woman do, man hunt. Go hunt.”
It was like that every day they went out. Daniel would kill a deer or an elk, and Sinopa would stay behind to gut it while Daniel went after more. He was a little worried about wolves and bear scenting the kill, so he showed Sinopa hot to load and shoot the Harper’s Ferry rifle. After that, she carried the Harper’s Ferry and Daniel his Hawken.
Together they’d drag the carcass or carcasses back to the cabin. Sinopa would skin the deer and cut it into pieces while Daniel put the pieces in his cache. In two weeks, there was enough deer and elk meat in the cache to last them both through the winter.
Daniel then turned his attention to trapping. He showed Sinopa how his traps worked and how to set them. She wasn’t strong enough to set the beaver traps, but had no trouble with the smaller traps for marten and fisher. He showed her how he set traps for marten and fisher and Sinopa said she’d set those. After picking up a wire loop of traps, she walked off into the woods. Daniel picked up his beaver traps and started down to the river.
She was waiting in the cabin for him when he came back and smiled.
“Tomorrow, many marten and fisher. You see.”
Daniel sat down on his bed.
“I hope so. I won’t have much to trade in the spring since I got started late.”
“Have much to trade. You see. Now, eat.”
After they ate, Sinopa began examining Daniel’s deer skin shirt. She pulled on one sleeve and the sinew stitching tore away the deer skin in one spot. She frowned.
“Daniel need new shirt. I make.”
Sinopa went to the stack of deer and elk hides she’d tanned as they shot the animals for food. She selected two and came back to Daniel’s bed.
“Take off shirt.”
Daniel looked at her for a moment, then frowned.
“Woman, I’m not gonna let you see me naked.”
“What is naked?”
“Naked is with no shirt on.”
“No make shirt if no see how fit. Piegan man take off shirt for wife all time. You take off shirt.”
“You’re not my wife.”
“Sinopa be like wife. Sinopa cut meat. Sinopa cook food. Sinopa tan skins. Now Sinopa make shirt.”
One thing Daniel had learned about Sinopa over the last months is that she didn’t change her mind once she’d decided on something. He did need a new shirt, and Sinopa seemed hell-bent on making him one. Daniel pulled the shirt over his head. Sinopa smiled.
“Now make shirt.”
She put the deerskin against his chest.
Daniel felt her soft hands against his skin as she pulled the deer skin around and marked it with a piece of charcoal from the fire. That touch set his every nerve tingling. He knew why, but he knew it was wrong. Sinopa was an Indian, not a white woman. Still, he couldn’t stop the growing stiffness in his manhood. That hardening became worse when Sinopa marked the bottom of the shirt. Her hands brushed him through his deer skin trousers, and Daniel knew she had to have felt him. Sinopa didn’t say or do anything. She just finished marking the skin and then took it from him.
She did the same with a second skin for the back of the shirt. By the time she’d finished, Daniel was embarrassed as much by his thoughts as by the bulge in his trousers. He was glad when she pulled the second deer skin away and went to sit by the fire.
Sinopa worked on the shirt during the next three days, first cutting the skins on the lines she’d marked, then punching small holes along the seams with a sharp awl made from a deer leg bone. It took her a day to sew the whole thing together with sinew from a deer, but when she finished, she smiled at Daniel.
“Try on shirt.”
Daniel grinned when he pulled the shirt over his head and then into place. He’d made the first shirt himself. It fit loosely and at times had been uncomfortable. Sinopa’s shirt fit a lot better. He worked his arms back and forth and found the shirt moved with him and didn’t restrict his movement. He smiled at Sinopa.
“This is a good shirt, Sinopa, better than my old one. Thank you.”
Sinopa looked down.
“Sinopa only do what all Piegan women do.”
“Maybe so, but you did it for me. That means a lot, just like you taking care of me after the grizzly does.”
Sinopa looked up and smiled.
“Sinopa take care of you always.”
Daniel was a bit taken aback by that. He thought Sinopa would probably stay with him until the spring thaw and then be on her way. Now, it sounded like she’d made up her mind to stay with him. He wasn’t sure he liked that idea. He knew there were some trappers who lived with Indian woman, but according to them, it was just to do what they called, “keeping their bed warm”. He’d see one with an Indian woman one spring, and then with a different one the next spring.
Daniel didn’t say anything to Sinopa about the other trappers and how they seemed to treat Indian women. She wouldn’t have understood anyway. He just shrugged.
That night, he rolled into his bed and pulled the furs over him. Sinopa was sitting on the grizzly hide in front of the fire where she always slept. He heard her murmuring something in Piegan. She did this sometimes and Daniel didn’t know why. If he asked, she just shrug and say she was talking to Grandmother Moon or some other of what he’d learned were her many gods. Daniel closed his eyes and made a mental count of the beaver skins in the cache. He’d need gunpowder and lead by the time spring came, and he hoped he’d have enough pelts to trade for a year’s supply.
He was estimating the value of the beaver, marten, and fisher hides he and Sinopa had collected when he heard the rustle of leather beside the bed. He opened his eyes in time to see Sinopa’s naked silhouette as she climbed over him and got under the fur blankets. Daniel raised up on one elbow.
“Sinopa, what are you doing?”
“Floor cold. Sinopa sleep in bed, keep warm.”
“You took off your dress.”
“Piegan woman always take off dress to sleep.”
Sinopa tittered, something Daniel had never heard her do before.
“Piegan man like.”
“Well, I’m not a Piegan man.”
“You same as Piegan man when Sinopa fit shirt. I feel.”
“That was just because…”
Daniel couldn’t finish because he’d felt Sinopa’s small hand touch his belly through his shirt. Her hand went lower, then lower still. Daniel couldn’t control his reaction, though he tried. When she touched his manhood though his trousers, it was already swollen and stiff.
Sinopa’s voice was soft.
“You same as Piegan man now.”
Daniel reached for Sinopa’s hand to stop the soft strokes she was making.
“Sinopa, why are you doing this?”
“Sinopa no have people. Sinopa like you. Sinopa talk to Grandmother Moon. Grandmother Moon say if Sinopa be like wife, you like Sinopa and let stay with you. Sinopa cook, tan hides, help you. Tonight, Grandmother Moon say be with you like wife.”
“But I’m white and you’re an Indian.”
“Grandmother Moon say not matter. Sinopa not Piegan now.”
Daniel felt Sinopa’s hand start stroking him again. She moved closer and touched his nose with hers.
“Do to Sinopa what man do to wife. Sinopa help.”
Daniel tried to resist her when she started pulling up his shirt, but her small, soft hands against his skin stirred his loins and took that resistance away. He sat up, pulled the shirt over his head, and tossed it to the floor. Sinopa had continued to stroke his rigid shaft as he did that, but now, slipped her hand inside his trousers.
Daniel felt the sensations race to his loins as she stroked him, and then lifted his hips so she could slide his trousers down his legs. Once she had them down to his knees, Sinopa straddled him and pulled his hands to her firm breasts.
She moved his hands around on the soft mounds and when he began doing it by himself, Sinopa reached between them, grasped his shaft, and guided it between her thighs. She parted her lips with the head, then moved it up and down between them.
She sighed after a few moments, and Daniel felt her push his shaft back a little more. He felt slippery wetness coat the head just before Sinopa eased her body down. He caught his breath when his manhood penetrated her a little. Sinopa raised back up, then lowered her body again, and Daniel felt her start to impale herself.
Sinopa did it with short strokes that became deeper with each one until she was sitting on his thighs. Then, she took a deep breath and began rising and then easing back down.
Daniel had never in his life felt anything like this. The sensations of Sinopa’s snug passage massaging his shaft took his mind away from everything except Sinopa and how she was making him feel. It wasn’t just those sensations though. It was also the way this small woman had said she felt about him. She’d said she liked him and wanted to stay with him. Daniel knew she was using the only words she knew, but what Sinopa was doing told him she felt a stronger emotion than just liking him.
He didn’t consciously have those thoughts, but they were there, hiding under the euphoria of Sinopa’s small body impaled on his shaft and her firm breasts in his hands. Those thoughts wouldn’t come out until later. They were just there, floating under the surface of Sinopa’s quiet moans and rapid breathing, and causing Daniel to feel more for her than just another Indian woman.
He didn’t know how long it should take, but he knew he didn’t want it to end. As Sinopa slowly stroked her body over him, Daniel relished every tiny little sensation, every tiny little shake of Sinopa’s body, and every little sound they made from her moans to his groans to the quiet wet sounds of their coupling.
Of course he knew the end would come and how that would happen. It was happening to him right then. He could feel the tension building in his body. He could feel it in Sinopa as well. What had begun as slow regular strokes was becoming more rapid and when Sinopa had impaled herself as deep as she could, sometimes she’d shudder and gasp. Those shudders and gasps kept getting closer together and louder.
Sinopa leaned down to take some of her weight on her arms, and on the next of her strokes, rocked her hips down. Daniel groaned when she did that. The next time, both of them groaned, but Sinopa’s legs also began to shake. Three strokes later, Daniel couldn’t help himself. He thrust his hips up to meet Sinopa’s downward motion. Sinopa gasped and ground her body into his, then quickly raised up. Daniel met her downward stroke again, and Sinopa cried out and her hips rocked rapidly. Daniel thrust up hard and felt the release of seed racing up his shaft and into Sinopa. Sinopa cried out again but didn’t keep stroking. She wasn’t in control of her body any more. It was writhing out the waves that raced through her from her knees to her core.
Sinopa collapsed on Daniel’s chest with her chest heaving and her passage still clasping and unclasping Daniel’s shaft. For a while, neither said or did anything. They were just quietly easing down from what had just happened. Sinopa pressed her breasts into Daniel’s chest and stroked her nose against his again, then whispered, “You like Sinopa?”
Daniel stroked her back and then the swell of her hips.
“Yes, I like Sinopa.”
The winter passed more quickly than Daniel remembered ever happening before. He and Sinopa trapped three hundred beavers, a hundred or so marten and fisher, and had ten deer and six elk skins to take to the Cache river rendezvous that spring. The black mare was dwarfed under the load of hides. Sinopa rode behind Daniel on the gelding.
Sinopa was amazed by the rendezvous. There were so many trappers and Indians camped and trading with each other. When she and Daniel rode up to the wagons of the fur traders, she marveled at all the items set out on display. She and Daniel made the rounds of those displays, and Daniel bartered for the items Sinopa seemed to like the most. She smiled proudly when the trader handed Daniel four wool blankets.
“We have warm bed now.”
“It was pretty warm before.”
When they were ready to leave for their cabin again, the mare’s panniers were filled with the blankets, two more cooking pots, a new knife for Sinopa, and enough gunpowder and lead to last for at least two years. Sinopa also rode her own horse, a small paint mare that she’d seen and told Daniel it looked like one her father had owned. He’d traded their last six beaver pelts for it and a saddle and bridle.
Daniel was checking the cinch on the mare’s pack saddle when another trader walked up.
“I see you got yourself a squaw. I’ll give you ten beaver for her.”
Daniel raised up and looked at the man.
“Mister, she’s not for trade.”
The man frowned.
“Well, I thought ten beaver was a good trade. She don’t look like much and she probably just lays there like all the squaws do. I could go twelve hides, but that’s all.”
Daniel stared at the man, then rested his hand on the handle of the knife at his belt.
“I think it’s time you moved on Mister. Like I said before, she’s not for trade.”
The man swore under his breath, but walked to one of the nearby campsites and sat down. Daniel saw him watching them as they prepared to leave.
Sinopa asked Daniel what the man had said. Daniel just said the man wanted to trade for the black mare and that he’d told him no. He then mounted the gelding and they started back up into the mountains.
Their cabin was three days ride from the Cache Valley, so they had to spend two nights camped in the trees. Daniel had found a niche in a cliff face the afternoon before they rode into the Cache Valley, and he and Sinopa stopped there for the night. The niche overhung the ground enough they’d stay dry if it happened to snow or rain, and the small fire Sinopa built would as well.
That night, the niche gave Daniel some comfort too. He hadn’t liked the look on the trapper’s face when they rode away, and he hadn’t liked the way he’d leaned over and talked quietly to the other two trappers at the fire. Daniel had learned to understand the ways of the wild animals of the forest and mountains. Since he was a small boy, he’d learned the ways of people as well. Of the two, Daniel trusted the animals more than people. He didn’t trust the trapper at all and was glad to have the stone cliff at his back..
Sinopa was happy with the things they’d traded for and wanted to talk about what she’d do with them. Daniel seemed to be preoccupied with something. She was beginning to feel disappointed when he picked up his Harper’s rifle, checked the priming in the pan, and then turned to her.
“Sinopa, take your rifle and go sit in that aspen grove beside the rocks until I tell you to come out.”
“Just do it. If you see anybody coming toward you except me, shoot them and then run into the trees. I’ll find you.”
Sinopa’s legs were shaking when she worked her way through the dense mass of small saplings and underbrush and then knelt down. She watched as Daniel put two logs in her sleeping furs and then rolled the furs over them. After checking his Hawken, he laid it by his side and sat down in front of the fire. Sinopa saw him ease the knife from his belt and stick it in the ground beside his right leg.
The moon was high in the sky and Sinopa was beginning to doze off when she heard the quiet crack of a twig breaking. She was instantly alert. A breaking twig in the spring might mean a bear hungry from sleeping through the winter and looking for food. It might mean wolves attracted by the smell of the roasting meat she’d cooked over the fire. Was that why Daniel had her go into the aspens?
She saw Daniel freeze at the sound and then begin slowly searching for the source. For a while, only the crackling of the fire broke the silence, though Sinopa was certain anyone could hear the pounding of her heart. Then, she heard the metallic click of a rifle hammer being cocked.
The trapper from the Cache Valley walked slowly into the small clearing in front of the niche in the rock.
“Just leave that there rifle on the ground. I got me another man in the trees out there. One of us’ll get you before you can pick it up.”
“What do you want”, asked Daniel.
The man chuckled.
“I want that squaw you’re traveling with.”
“I told you she’s not for trade.”
The man chuckled again.
“I never said anything about trading for her, now did I? I figure since you won’t trade, I’ll just take her along with me. We’ll have a good time with her over the winter. Now, stand up and move away from her.”
Daniel put his right hand on his right knee as if he was going to stand. Instead, he grasped his knife with his right hand and using an underhand sweeping motion, threw it at the trapper. The knife hit him in the face, handle first. The man dropped his rifle and yelled, “Jacob”, as he felt his nose and mouth. That gave Daniel time to pick up his rifle, cock it, aim and shoot the man.
Just as he fired, Sinopa saw another man run out of the trees and aim his rifle at Daniel. Daniel was running for the safety of a tree and the man was swinging his rifle trying to follow him. He might have seen the flash of the flint igniting the priming charge when Sinopa pulled the trigger. He saw nothing after that. The big ball caught him in the ribs and he went down gasping for breath. Sinopa had started out of the aspen thicket to make sure Daniel wasn’t hurt when she saw another man run out of the trees with a rifle in his hands. Daniel was trying to reload his own rifle, and Sinopa knew he’d never be fast enough.
The third man had stopped and was raising his rifle when Sinopa leapt on his back, pulled his head back, and slashed her new knife across his throat. The man gurgled as blood spewed from the wound and then fell down with Sinopa on top of him. She jumped up and ran to Daniel.
Daniel was standing there with his rifle and watching the trees. He handed her the Hawken while he reloaded the Harper’s. Sinopa asked if he thought there were more. Daniel shook his head.
“I don’t think so. I only saw him talk to these two, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. We’ll spend the night in that aspen thicket and then move on in the morning. You sleep and I’ll watch.”
“What did they want?”
Daniel turned to Sinopa and frowned.
“They wanted you.”
The rising sun was just lighening the from the dark gray of the waning moonlight when Daniel and Sinopa mounted their horses and rode north toward their cabin. Daniel led the black mare, and strung out behind her was a chestnut gelding with a saddle, bridle, and rifle scabbard. In that scabbard was a Hawken rifle of .54 caliber, the same as the Harper’s Ferry in his left saddle scabbard.
Sinopa led a bay mare and another paint mare, both with saddles and scabbards. In the scabbard on the bay mare was another Hawken very nearly identical to Daniel’s. Sanopa carried the third man’s rifle, a .36 caliber Kentucky style rifle but with a half-stock and a shorter barrel. On the paint mare’s saddle was tied the deerskin bag that had held their marten and fisher skins. In that bag were the skinning knives the three men had carried, two hatchets and one axe, and the gunpowder and balls for the three rifles.
Before they left the niche in the cliff, Sinopa asked if Daniel was going to bury the men.
“White men put dead in the ground. Will you do?”
Daniel had frowned.
“We bury people. We leave animals like these three for the wolves.”
Daniel and Sinopa rode until nearly dark that night. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between them and the Cache Valley. He didn’t think the three men would be missed. Trappers floated in and out of the Rendezvous without saying anything to anybody. He just wanted to be sure. They reached their cabin in late afternoon the following day.
That night, Sinopa filled one of her new cooking pots with venison and the other with new shoots of plants she’d gathered in the forest. While they ate, Sinopa asked Daniel about the three men again.
“They want me, you say? Why want me?”
“They were going to make you do what we do.”
“Like man do with wife?”
“Yes. Like that.”
“I happy you say no.”
“So am I.”
Sinopa touched his hand.
“You husband Sinopa now.”
“How did I get to be your husband?”
“Piegan man show father he good hunter and he brave before ask marry daughter. Sinopa no father now. Sinopa talk to Grandmother Moon last night. She tell me you good husband and protect me. You husband Sinopa now. Sinopa have many sons for you.”
I heard this story from an old Piegan man while covering the Pow Wow for the local newspaper. There had been dancers wearing fancy costumes who competed against each other, several stands that featured authentic Indian foods, and other stands that sold everything from recipe books to the materials needed to make those fancy costumes. It was a glimpse into a life long gone, a life of hardship, but a life in harmony with the world around them. You could almost hear that life in the beat of the drum and the voices of the singers.
The old man who stepped up beside me looked at least eighty if not older. The hair he wore in a single, long braid down his back was more white than black, and his body was stooped. His eyes glowed with the flames of life though. He smiled.
“The young people today are trying, but they need to listen to us old men more and to the television less. They’re good dancers, but the spirit isn’t in most of them like it used to be. The women are not like they used to be either. They used to tell men what to do but they took care of their houses. Now, the young girls just want to look at their cell phones.”
I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “come over to my tent and I’ll tell you a story about a Piegan woman. Then you’ll understand how the women used to be. Maybe you’ll believe me. No one else does”.
Over a cup of coffee sweetened with a little bourbon against the chill of the October night, he told me the story I’ve just related. When he finished, the old man sitting across the fire from me sighed.
“Now you see why no one believes my tale. They cannot believe a Piegan woman of that time would marry a white man. The old man, Kitchi, who told me the story swore it was true though. He was only eighteen years old when he went out to hunt mountain sheep. He intended to show a certain girl’s father he was a good hunter and brave enough to scale the mountain. Instead, Kitchi slipped and fell.
“Kitchi woke up in a cabin high in the mountains. A woman was washing the cut on his head. When he spoke to her, she answered in Piegan that he was hurt but that the medicine would heal him, then turned to the young girl who was holding the pot of medicine and said, ‘Kanti, go bring father’.
“Kitchi said he was surprised the woman spoke both English and Piegan, so he asked her about that. She told him part of this story. When the father came to the bed where the man laid, Kitchi saw he wore the deerskin shirt and trousers of a Piegan man, but he was white. His hair had many different places where a grizzly had clawed at his head. The man asked the woman if the man would live and she said he would.
“The woman fed him and cared for his cuts until he was well enough to leave. While he stayed with them, the woman, she called herself Sinopa, and the man called Daniel told him the rest of the story.
“When it was time for Kitchi to leave, the man called Daniel tied a strip of deerskin over Kitchi’s eyes so he could not see, and then led him down the mountain. They went several different directions so Kitchi would be confused, and though he later tried, Kitchi could never find that cabin again.
“At a meeting of the Piegan villages, Kitchi asked around about a woman named Sinopa, and was told she’d wandered off when she was a young girl and hadn’t been seen since. Her mother, now an old woman, said she was in the Sweet Grass Hills. That’s a sacred place where no one goes because it’s where the spirits of good people live after they die.
“Kitchi was very old when he told me the story, just as I am very old now. People don’t believe old men when they tell stories. They think part of our spirit is already gone and in its place are dreams we’ve had. I know this story is true though. When I was a young boy living on the reservation, I met a man who said he came down from the mountains when his last sister died.
“He spoke both English and Piegan, and he looked like a Piegan except he was very tall and his hair was brown instead of black. His name was Daniel, and he said he was the last of four brothers and two sisters. The others had all died. He had with him a very old copper coin, so old all the letters were mostly worn away. Daniel said his mother had given it to him just before she died, and had said he should give it to his wife when he found one.
“He got a job taking hunters into the mountains so I didn’t see him very much. He decided to go back to the mountains a couple years later and that was the last I saw of him. I suppose he’s dead now since he was older than I was then. He did leave me this because he said he wouldn’t be needing it.”
The old man handed me a coin made of copper. In the firelight, I could just make out the outline of a woman, two stars, and the faint numbers “1811”.
The old man pointed to the coin in my hand.
“See, this is the coin Daniel’s mother gave him, and the same coin Daniel gave Sinopa. She gave it to her youngest son, also named Daniel. That proves the story is true.”
I thanked the old man for telling me the story and then went to my car and drove home. On the way the thought that the story was true teased at my mind. Like the old man had said, when people get old, sometimes younger people think they’re not quite normal anymore and tell about things they dream. Sometimes, that’s true.
I still don’t know if the story is true or not, and there’s really no way to prove one way or the other. I like to believe it’s true though. It just seems right that a man who loved the mountains would find a woman who loved that life too. It’s hard, these days, for two people like that to find each other. You can’t believe most of what people write about themselves on social media sites, and the dating sites are worse yet.
It’s just comforting to think that before all the technology invaded our lives two people from entirely different backgrounds found each other and decided they were meant to live together. I don’t know if they loved each other like we think of love today, but Sinopa found a man she wanted to stay with and Daniel found the woman he was sure he’d never find. A story like that kind of gives you hope, you know. In this day and time, a little hope means a lot.