Frank Bird Linderman.

On a passing frontier; sketches from the Northwest online

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ye to take 'em off, but I forgot it. When a
feller has a pardner that's like you, he don't
have to think of everything himself. You
know what ye're doin' all the time," said
Jim, as he filled his pipe. "Ye're a born


mount ainm an, Sank. That's what you be.
I'm most awful damned glad I met up with
ye," and Jim offered his horny hand to his
partner, who shook it warmly.

"Dang yer ol' hide, Jim," said Sank, as
he drew his hand across his eyes, "I been
as lonesome as a bullfrog in Lake Superior,
in these hills, but it's over with, Jim. It's
a blind trail now. Let's finish that flask an'
turn in, pardner. We been a-trapesin' these
hills alone fer twenty-five years. Now we're
pardners fer keeps, me an' you."

There was a scramble to build the morning
fire and cook the breakfast. "You mustn't
try to do it all, Sank," said Jim.

"Don't cal' late to," said Sank. "There's
plenty fer the both of us to do, I reckon."

After breakfast they began cutting wood

for use when the snows should come, and

day after day the pile grew until, a week

later, Jim declared there was enough to last

[ 181 ]


till the grass started in the spring. "I'm
shore tickled we met up with each other,
pardner," said Jim, as he stuck his axe in
a stump near the cabin. "Never did find a
man I could git along with that wasn't a

"Well, I shore ain't no crank," declared

"I know ye ain't, an' I ain't, neither. Not
by a damned sight. I don't like 'em. I
can tell 'em, always. I know 'em soon's I
set my eyes on 'em. They're like the wood-
mice all look alike. There's Hank Jen-
nings hell, I'd as soon camp with a he-
grizzly bear as him. Always a-growlin'
'round, an' as lazy as a chilled rattlesnake."

"I started to winter, once, with ol' Bill
Henry," said Sank, whittling some shavings
with which to build a fire in the cabin.

"Oh my! ha-ha-ha!" Jim's sides shook
with laughter.


"Yes, I did," confessed Sank, lighting the

"Ye poor devil ! Oh, Lord ! Bill Henry !
How long did it last ?"

"Oh, 'bout a month, I reckon. That
buck was fat, wasn't he?" said Sank, as he
cut steaks from the hind quarter of a fat deer.

Then, one night, it snowed. A foot of it
covered the mountains. "She's here, Jim,"
said Sank, as he opened the cabin door at
daylight. "About a foot of it. Seems good,


After breakfast they took their rifles and
set out to look for sign. Jim went west
and Sank headed toward the east. At night
they returned to the cabin in fine spirits.
"Not much stirrin' yet. Too fresh. But I
found some marten tracks, and there's lots
of deer an* elk," said Jim.

"I run across some lynx tracks, an* seen
where several marten had crossed that big

[ 183 1


gulch, east of here," confided Sank. "I
reckon we'll pick up a pretty good ketch,"
and he began to hum a tune, as he hung up
his rifle. "Saw a big band of elk, but they
was too far from camp to kill."

"We'd better do a little killin' for bait,
one of these days," said Jim. "I killed a
buck down near the creek, where it cuts the
trail, this mornin'. I fetched the hind
quarters in with me. I reckon I'll set a few
traps to-morrow."

"Me, too. They don't do no good in
camp," said Sank, who began cooking sup-

Jim went to the creek for water and then
whittled shavings for kindling in the morn-
ing, humming a bar or two from "Dixie," as
the keen blade of his knife shaved the pitchy

After supper, they lighted their pipes and
told of their experiences and of the doings of


friends and foes, until Jim yawned. "Well,
Sank, I guess I'll turn in. I reckon I'll set
a few traps in that big cedar swamp below
here, in the mornin'. You shore do snore
like a choked bull, but it don't bother me


"Me, snore? I didn't never know it.
Nobody never said so. I reckon I must git
to layin* on my back. But snorin' don't keep
me awake. If it did, I'd hev to move camp,
'cause you kin hit the fastest gait I ever
heared in all my camp-kettle career."

"If I snore, I never heared of it," said
Jim. "But mebby I do. This ol' bunk
feels good to-night. I'm kinder leg-weary,"
and he rolled over to sleep.

Sank went to the door and looked out.
"She's snowin' agin, an' it looks like a good
one, too. Booo! it's cold. I'll put that
big chunk on the fire." He watched the
blaze leap upon the fresh fuel, and then


turned in. Almost as soon as he had tucked
the blankets about him, Jim's snoring filled
the cabin. "Oh, no, you don't snore, ner
nothin'. Ye sleep jest like a little baby with
a belly full, you do, Gosh ! I'd hate to be
like that snortin' an* snappin', an' grittin'
my teeth. But go to it, old timer; ye won't
keep me awake none."

When Sank opened the door in the morn-
ing, the snow was piled high, and the air
was full of more that was falling. "Say!
We can't move to-day, Jim," he cried.
"Biggest fall of snow I ever seen. Must
be four feet deep right now an' still it's
comin' down. We'll have to wait for it to
settle some."

Jim was kindling the fire. "That's bad,"
he said. "I figured on gittin' out some of
them traps to-day."

"Well, if they was set now, we'd only have
to dig 'em out an* set 'em agin. It'll take
[ 186]


a while for this snow to settle so's a man can
snowshoe a mile a week."

They tramped a trail to the creek and
wallowed a way to the woodpile, and still
the snow kept falling. Each morning these
trails had to be made anew. The sky was
still black and the silence of the wilderness of
snow oppressed them, cooped in the cabin
as they were. " It's a week, to-day," growled
Sank. "We're snowed in like a couple o'
bears in a cave. Wish we hadn't come to
this dod-rotted country. Dog-on fools, both
of us."

"No use growlin'," said Jim. "Tain't
my fault because it snows."

"You picked the country, though."

"I did not pick the country. You said
there'd be fur here, an' I agreed, didn't I ? "

"Well, breakfast's ready," growled Sank.

"Forgit to salt the meat?" asked Jim.

"No, I didn't forgit nothin'."
[ 187]


"You didn't forgit to snore last night.
I'll swear to that," said Jim, reaching for the

"Me, snore? I set up in bed listenin' to
you eat 'em alive, last night. Pass the salt."

"Git the damned salt, if ye want it. Ye
ain't helpless altogether, be ye ? Don't
hev to put on no airs, here. Why don't
ye cook yer own meals, if ye don't like my
cookin' ? I kin cook to suit me. I did it
long before I ever knowed you, an' now ye're
a-kickin' all the damned time."

"That's jest what I'll do. I'll cook my
own meals."

"Well, do it, an' see if I care."

After breakfast, Jim began stringing a
rope across the cabin, whistling as he
worked. After the rope was secure, he
sewed blankets to it so they divided the
cabin into two parts, leaving a trifle more
than half toward the fireplace. Then he
[ 188 ]


divided the grub and moved half of the
supplies back of the blanket wall. There
was no conversation, and the snow was still
falling while he worked.

Sank watched him but offered no sugges-
tions. Finally he heard Jim digging a
hole in the ground behind the partition. He
was using an axe in the digging and Sank
wondered, but did not break the silence.
When Jim went to the creek for water,
Sank looked behind the blanket. Jim was
going to make mud with which to build a
fireplace, and was digging a hole in the
cabin to get the dirt. "Hu!" muttered
the spy, as the workman returned with the

Jim toiled all day. Having first chopped
a hole in the roof so that the smoke of future
fires might find a vent, he smeared the cabin
logs, in the corner under the hole, with a
deep coating of mud. But it was night be-


fore he ventured to build a fire in the make-
shift fireplace. Then it was a small, weak
blaze that furnished barely enough heat to
cook his supper. Smoke came over the
blankets, hung over Sank's head lazily, and
then was finally drawn up the chimney of
the old fireplace, but Sank did not mention
it. He ignored it, or seemed to. He cooked
and ate his supper alone. Then he went to
bed. But Jim didn't retire. He began
chopping a door on his side of the partition,
and each blow of the axe shook the cabin,
so that sleep was impossible.

"It's better'n his snorin'," mumbled Sank.
"Damned crank."

It was late when the chopper finished, but
at dawn he was up and at it again. Three
days of torture passed before the new quar-
ters suited Jim, and then the snow had settled
somewhat. He took his traps and set out,
crossing Sank's trail in the snow. "Hu!"

1 190]


he said, "the crank's out already. My, but
he's a rustler, ain't he ? "

When night came, Jim returned. There
was fire in Sank's part of the cabin, and the
smell of frying meat had penetrated to
beyond the partition. "Whew!" said Jim,
audibly. "Whew! stink a coyote away
from a dead hoss," and he left the door of
the new quarters wide open. Then he built
a fire against the logs in the corner where he
had plastered the mud.

"Bring the good old bugle, boys,

We'll have another song.
We'll sing it as we used to sing it,
Fifty thousand strong."

Sank was singing. Sank had been a Union
soldier, and Jim and his people had sided
with the South.

"Noise," growled Jim, under his breath.
"Nothin* but disturbance from dawn to
dark." Then he rattled his tin plates noi-


sily, and let a frying-pan fall loudly. The
singing ceased. Profane words reached Jim's
ears from over the blankets. " Rebel crew,"
he thought he heard, as he set his coffee-pot
on the fire, in a quarrelsome mood. After
supper he built up his fire, and sat before
it. He could hear Sank snoring in comfort.
It made him furious. He seized his rifle

The snoring stopped, and he heard Sank
get out of his bunk. "Dod-rot a moun-
tain rat," growled Jim, measuring his voice
that Sank might hear the words. "Til fix
J em." Then, with a satisfied smile, he
turned in.

When the morning came, the weather was
extremely cold. All night long the logs in
the cabin had popped in the frost, and the
trees in the forest checked and snapped in
the bitter blast from the north. Jim built a
big fire in the corner, and went to the creek

1 192]


for water. The wind had drifted the snow,
and the trail to the creek was full. Sank
had not been out yet, so Jim had to tramp
and wallow through to the water. It took
quite a time, and then, after reaching the
creek, he was obliged to cut through the ice
in order to get the water. When he at
last reached the cabin, the logs back of
the mud were afire. The cabin was filled
with smoke, but the neighbor had not in-
terfered. At a glance, Jim saw the danger
and threw the water upon the blaze, but it
was not enough to check the fire, that had
gained a good start in the dry tamarack logs.
Desperately Jim fought the fire with the axe,
but with a roar, the flames flared up, light-
ing the dark cabin and filling the place with
sparks that floated over the partition. These
brought Sank's tousled head through the
blanket partition. Jim stared at him a
moment, helplessly. "I'm burnin' my half


of this damned cabin. You kin do what you
please with yours," and he began to drag his
belongings out into the deep snow.


THE sun's first rays were just pricking
their way through the breaks of the
Missouri River on a keen December morning
in the sixties when a lone Indian crept to a
hilltop and looked down at the stream. His
gaze was directed to a heavy grove of cotton-
wood trees opposite Cow Island from which
two thin streaks of smoke were rising in the
still morning air. There was a jumble of
voices white men's voices in the grove,
and other sounds as strange to the wilder-
ness. They held the red man's attention;
but ever and anon his eyes followed the thin
trails of blue smoke that ascended in straight
lines to the height of the bluffs along the
river, where both bent gracefully downward
and went lazily away on the gentle eastern


breeze that was stirring over the plains above
the stream.

Down by the river a steamboat was un-
loading the last of her freight consigned to
Fort Benton, one hundred and thirty miles
up the river. The boat had been hard
aground four times on the day she had tied
up at the bank, and her captain had given up
the struggle. He could go no farther. The
water was too shallow. The cargo from St.
Louis must be unloaded to await the coming
of freighters with bull teams, who would
haul it to its destination. The season was
late. Ice had already formed along the banks
of the river, and where the eddies quieted
the current it had crept far out toward the
centre of the stream; so that there was need
of haste if the boat would reach the lower
river before the freeze-up.

As the sunlight touched the naked tree-
tops in the grove, the trails of smoke increased

[ 196]


in volume, a whistle disturbed the echoes
with its blast, a bell tinkled sweetly, and
white steam spurted from the exhaust pipes
to mingle with the smoke from the steamer's
stacks. There was a hissing, churning sound
as the boat backed away from the bank
and turned her nose down the stream toward
St. Louis.

The Indian stood erect on the hilltop as
the steamer swung around the bend in the
river below Cow Island, her paddle-wheel
churning the water into white foam as if
she were anxious to escape the northern
winter whose breath was in the air. Little
tinkling noises came from the thin ice along
the shores as the water, violently disturbed
by the steamboat, broke it in pieces. Now
and then a thin sheet would be thrown up-
ward and, landing upon the unbroken ice,
would slide over the surface with a scraping
sound that only ice can make. Often these

[ 197]


thin sheets would skate merrily over the un-
disturbed ice and land unbroken against the
bank, where, turned sidewise to the rising
sun, they reflected his light like a thousand
flashing mirrors.

At last she was gone. The steamer Spar-
row Hawk had withdrawn from the wilder-
ness with her civilization. And the Indian,
descending the hill a little way, mounted his
pony and rode away.

Down in the grove by the river two white
men stood silently gazing in the direction the
boat had taken. The water had quieted;
the broken ice still reflected the sun's light
from the blue sky; but for long after the
steamer had disappeared the men stood still
and followed with their eyes the smoky way
of the Sparrow Hawk as she widened the dis-
tance between them and their erstwhile

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed one of the men at
I 198 ]


last. His breath was white in the air, and
his laugh was harsh and unnatural.

His startled companion faced him.
"What are you laughing at, Van ?" he asked.

"Nothing, I guess. I just thought what
fools we are to have volunteered to guard
these goods till the bullwhackers come for
them, that's all. It may be a month, and
it may be never. I should have known
better. I've been up the river before now.
The Indians are bad, and if there is anything
I am afraid of it's an Indian."

His name was Van Renssler, and he spoke
with a slight foreign accent. Turning, he
surveyed the big pile of bales and boxes the
boat had left. "Not a drop of whiskey or
high wines in all of that," he said disgustedly.
"The wood-hawks will come once and
then go away. If we had whiskey, we'd
have a few visitors, but without it we'll have
none at all. Let's fix up a camp."


"There's plenty of grub, anyhow," said
the other, as he unrolled a wall tent. "We
can make a comfortable camp here, and
wood's handy."

"Yes, the camp will be comfortable if
only the Indians don't find us," replied Van
Renssler, cutting a cottonwood pole. "I
saw a camp of wood-hawks below here about
fifteen miles, I should think. They might
call on us, but unless we have whiskey they
will not call a second time. I know them."

"I haven't seen an Indian, though. Have
you ? " asked the other man.

"No not one," said Van. "But they're
here, or close to here. This is the land of the
Blackfeet. Now! up she comes." And
they raised the wall tent and pegged it to the
slightly frozen ground.

"There she is," said Van. "Now we'll
build a fire in front of it, and then one of us
will go out and kill some meat. Hey,

[ 200 ]


"I guess so," said the other, whose name
was Tom Spencer. "But we oughtn't to
do much shooting, I reckon. You'd better
go. I'll finish making the camp comforta-

Van set out in search of meat, and Tom,
left alone, began to make the tent snug.
Time went so swiftly that the sun had passed
the meridian before he noticed it. He
lighted his pipe and viewed his work with


Tom started. The hail came from over
the river, and he seized his rifle and listened.

"Haloo-oo, over there !"

"Hello!" answered Tom. "Make a raft
and come over."

"Got any whiskey ?" came the voice from
over the river.

"Not a drop. But come over and visit,"
called Tom.

He heard several voices in conversation,

[201 ]


and then: "Too much work to get across,"
came to him from the other bank.

Three men wood-hawks now came down
to the river's edge and looked across at the
pile of freight doubtingly. Then, waving
farewell, they turned away.

The shadows were long when at last Van
returned with a fat antelope. Tom told him
about the wood-hawks.

"I knew it," said Van. "They're the
only white men within a hundred and thirty
miles, but they despise so cheap an outfit,
and I don't blame them. It's getting colder.
There's plenty of game, though. I saw
lots of antelope and several deer. Let's
skin out this buck. He's fat as butter."

The sun set in a clear sky. Night came
on with its big round moon, and in the beauty
of the moonlight among the leafless trees,
Van and Tom forgot their loneliness. They
watched the shadows creep across the river



where the ice was forming anew, and heaped
dry wood upon the fire, until Van yawned.
"I suppose we ought to stand guard, but
let's take a chance to-night and sleep," he

"All right," agreed Tom. "I don't be-
lieve there's an Indian near here, anyhow."

There was an abundance of blankets, and
the bed was warm. In the last flicker of
firelight both men turned over and slept

Next morning the river was frozen nearly
across, and from the open way of the waters
a mist was rising in the bright morning air.
Van went to the river for water, and return-
ing, filled the coffee-pot and put it on the fire.

"Hey! Tom," he called. "Get up and
hear the little birds sing their praises."

It was night again before they realized it.
In the firelight they told their stories and,
again omitting to stand guard, went to bed.
[ 203 ]


But each day was like the others. The
stones played out. Weeks passed, and each
night the wolves howled dismally. Silence
had come to them and with it greater loneli-
ness settled upon the camp at Cow Island.
Days and even nights passed with scarcely a
spoken word between them.

"I don't believe anybody wants this
damned truck/' growled Tom, as he surveyed
the pile in the growing gloom of night.

"Neither do I," said Van. "Most likely
nobody knows it's here. Give me that list
and let me look it over."

"Here it is," and Tom handed his partner
a half-dozen sheets of paper. "I'm going
to turn in," he added, as Van took the

Van threw wood on the fire and seated
himself before it with the list of freight in
his hands.

The river had frozen solid. Along the
[ 204 ]


banks the ice was smooth and clear, but out
in the middle of the stream where the
swifter water interfered with the work of
the frost it was bulged and rough. No
snow had fallen, but the weather had steadily
grown colder; and Van shivered as finally
he folded the sheets of paper with a sigh.
Throwing a last glance at the dark pile of
freight, he followed Tom into the tent and

When morning came, Van had the fire
started and was prowling among the boxes,
which were consigned to hardware dealers
at Fort Benton, Helena, and Virginia City.

"What the dickens are you looking for,
Van?" called Tom from the tent.

"Skates," growled Van. "If I had a pair
of skates I'd go to Fort Benton and get us
some whiskey. It's only four more days till
Christmas; but there ain't no skates in the
hardware boxes. It's a hoodoo cargo this is."



Tom came out and stirred the fire and
spread his hands before it. "No, I don't
reckon there are any skates," he said. "But
it can't be long now until somebody comes
for the freight."

"I've quit guessing," muttered Van, as
he tugged at a heavy case beneath several
bales and boxes.

Suddenly the pile overturned with a crash,
and a crate of scythe blades broke open,
scattering a dozen blades on the ground.
Van stooped, picked up one of them, and
stood for a moment studying the long sharp
edge and its blunt back.

"Say, Tom!" he cried. "I'm going to
make a pair of skates out of this scythe
blade!" And he took it to the tent.

He gathered a file, a hammer, and a cold
chisel, and with the aid of the fire cut the
blade into proper lengths. Then he dulled
the sharp edges, punched two holes in each



piece, and drove them into two pieces of
dry cottonwood two inches thick, fastening
them in place by driving nails into the wood
so that they would intersect the holes in the
steel. With the file he squared the blunt
edges; and the bits of scythe blade were skate

But it was after noon before Van succeeded
in fastening them to his boots.

Then, with bread and meat and a file in
his pockets, he hobbled to the river, aided
by Tom, and set off up the stream.

"They're fine!" he called as he skated

Tom watched him turn the bend above ^^
camp. Then he went back and put a camp-
kettle of beans over the fire.

Van, keeping near to the river bank, sped

on toward Fort Benton. Mile upon mile

through the wilderness of bad-land stretches

and cottonwood groves he kept his course,

[ 207 ]


the bite of the winter air stinging his face
as bend after bend in the crooked stream he
rounded in the teeth of the wind. No
sound came to him save the szzt szzt of his
skates. Once, far ahead, he saw a pack of
wolves crossing the river; and twice he saw
deer and antelope near the frozen stream;
but there was no camp of wood-hawks or
other human beings to be seen.

His spirits were high. He was a splendid
skater and a man of exceptional strength and
endurance. As he flew past, his eyes swept
every grove, but his anxiety waned as each
was left behind.

The sun was low and the breeze was stiffen-
ing when he came to a long stretch of treeless
bottom-land. He crossed the river to avail
himself of the shelter of the opposite bank,
which was higher, for the wind here was
strong. Having gained the other side, he
was relieved of the wind's pressure and in-
[ 208 ]


creased his speed. He now saw, far beyond,
a heavy grove of cottonwoods on a high-cut
bank where the stream made a sharp turn.
In a little time he had reached it and
rounded the bend. The wind was strong at
his back. It was a welcome help, for the
bend was long.

But suddenly he smelled smoke the
smoke of a cottonwood fire. It could mean
but one thing. Almost as soon as his nose
had warned him, he saw the tops of a dozen
lodges among the trees above him. His
heart bounded with fear. Bending low, he
sought to pass them unnoticed in the shadow
of the bank.

But a dog howled in the Indian camp.
Then he heard the hoofbeats of a pony and
looked over his shoulder. A rider was going
for the pony band. There was a scurrying
in the camp, and the voices of men were
mingled with the wolfish howl of dogs.
[ 209 ]


They would chase and kill him. Faster
and faster his skates met the ice. Swifter
and swifter he flew over the river's surface
with both fear and the wind lending strength
and speed to his strokes. He was nearly
to another bend when he again looked be-
hind. They were coming! fifty or more,
their ponies racing over the frozen ground to

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Online LibraryFrank Bird LindermanOn a passing frontier; sketches from the Northwest → online text (page 7 of 8)