H. M. (Henry Martin) Robinson.

The great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory online

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cast in pleasant places, notwithstanding the heavy profits
upon the barter. Every day turmoil reigns in the camp, and
sounds of revelry fill the midnight air. His otherwise quiet
store becomes the rendezvous of a cursing, clamoring, gestic-
ulating assemblage of men. There the betting and drinking
of the afternoon are succeeded by the deeper drinking and
gambling of the evening; and the sound of shuffling cards,
the clinking of the buttons and bullets of the moccasin-game,
and the exclamations of triumph and despair of winner and


loser are heard at all times. Rum flows freely ; for the
plain-hunter carries to the trading-store every peltry he can
obtain. Under these circumstances the free-trader becomes
a curse to his brethren, and his store a plague-spot upon the

Toward the middle of April Pascal begins to pack up his
furs, collect his outstanding debts, and make preparations for
a return to the settlements with the proceeds of the year's
trade. His ponies are brought in from the prairie where
they have wintered out; the fractured wooden carts are
bound up with raw-hide lines ; the broken-spirited ponies
coaxed into a semblance of life and vigor; the dusky progeny
packed in with bales and blankets, the hut locked up, and he
sets forth for the lonely oasis of civilization nearer the bor-
der. On the main prairie trails he joins the trains of other
traders, who have left their winter stations at the same time.
Constantly augmented by new additions, and following each
other in single file, the long line seems at length intermina-
ble ; and by the time the border settlements are reached,
often varies from two to three miles in length. Their long
winding'columns sparkle with life and gayety ; cart-tilts of
every hue flash brightly in the sun ; hosts of wolfish dogs
run in and out among the vehicles, and troops of loose horses
gallop alongside. The smartly-dressed men ride their showi-
est steeds, their wives and daughters traveling in the carts,
enthroned on packs of fur. The traders wear their pictur-
esque summer dress — brass-buttoned dark-blue capotes, with
moleskin or corduroy trousers and calico shirts. Wide-awake


hats, or cloth caps with peaks, are the favorite head-covering.
Gayly embroidered saddle-cloths and variegated sashes are pre-
ferred to those of less showy appearance ; red, white and blue
beading on black ground is common.

Reaching the settlements, the free-trader ascertains
the current price of peltries, then repairs to his outfitter
and offers him his stock at the highest market rates. To
protect himself, the merchant generally accepts ; for, if
Pascal sells elsewhere, and obtains the money for his peltries,
the chances are that he forgets his obligation, and returns to
the plains without liquidating his debt. Having sold his furs,
however, the half-breed trader next proceeds to clothe himself
and his family in all the gaudy finery that money can pur-
chase, and then, procuring an ample supply of rum, gives a
party to his friends. In this manner, and by the dissipations
induced by a prolonged sojourn in the settlements, he
manages to squander the greater portion of the season's earn-
ings, and finds himself, when ready to return to the plains, as
poor as he was the year before. Then he returns to the
trader, who has anticipated just such a consummation of
things, and obtaining credit for a new outfit, finally departs.

But it is a month or more before the last half-breed trader
in tasseled cap, sky-blue capote, brilliant sash and corduroy
trousers, has had his last dram in the border grog-shops, and
carries his fevered brow off toward the setting sun ; a month
before the last cart-train, with its following of mongrel dogs,
unkempt ponies, lowing kine and tawny human beings, has
disappeared beyond the horizon. Very brilliant and pictur-


esque they were while they stayed about the settlements. Their

brown and smoke-discolored leather tents dotted the prairie

for weeks ; there was always a scurrying of horses and a

barking of dogs in the neighborhood ; a continual feasting

and drinking ; a reckless riding to and fro, and the jargon of

voices vociferating and shouting in half-a-dozen languages.

Pierre and Antoine ran a mad race through the streets of the

town ; dusky Darby and tawny Joan made love upon the

open plain in anything but the conventional manner ; Gabriel

drank deep of the white man's fire-water, and fell prone in the

gutter, but, raised to his pony's back, went off at a wild gallop,

to the astonishment of every one, as if he were part and

parcel of that unkempt animal; Philomel, appareled in scarlet

cloth and bewildering beadwork, like the little savage peri

that she was, danced down the still hours in the short grass of

the prairie, to the music of some long-haired and moccasined

Paganini. Dark but comely was Philomel ; her full rounded

figure, black hair, bewitching eyes and little affectations, were

enough to soften the soul of an anchorite. Like Mr. Locker's

heroine, she was —

" An angel in a frock,
With a fascinating cock
To her nose."

Her little moccasined feet will accompany the quick thud
of hunter heel, as Louison or Baptiste dance unceasingly
upon the half-hewn floor of some winter hut, in the glow of
firelight through parchment windows, and to the sound of
fiddle scraped by rough hunter hand.


It occasionally occurs that a pure Indian turns trader, and
when he does so he is likely to be a more provident and suc-
cessful trader than his half-breed brother. I recollect one
Pegowis, a Cree, who amassed considerable wealth in this
way. He was a saturnine old red man, small of stature and
very dark even for an Indian. Of a quiet, grave and reticent
nature, yet shrewd, cunning and avaricious, he would have
made, had he been white and had proper advantages, a most
pronounced type of the successful gambler. He had every
trait of that well-known steamboat character, and loved the
hazard of a die to an equal degree. In fact, he was a noto-
rious gambler, and as notoriously a successful one. He took
the chances on almost everything. He would sit down with
an untutored Indian fresh from the primeval wilderness, and
with the fascinations of the moccasin game lure him on to
certain poverty. He would inveigle a card-loving half-breed
into a game of grand major, and strip him of his last earthly
possession. He would race his horses against any animal
that ran on four legs, and invariably came off the winner.
Of his propensity for this latter amusement I recall an amus-
ing instance.

Pegowis, on some of his visits to the military posts along
the Missouri, had picked up a bay horse of more than or-
dinary speed and endurance. He christened him '* The arrow
that flies out of the big gun," which is short for cannon ball ;
a name derived from the fact of the horse having a large lump
on his fore knee, resembling one of those projectiles. In ad-
dition to this defect, the joint of the same limb, from the knee
down, went off at an angle of forty-five degrees from the re-


mainder of the leg, and appeared, in fact, to bear no sort of
relevance to the animal at all. He limped very perceptibly,
and altogether ambled along in that fashion described by the
nautical phrase " a rolling gait." Yet the wily Pegowis cared
for the animal as for the apple of his eye, and taking him
home reduced the whole prairie country to insolvency with
him during the winter. In the spring he brought Cannon-
ball into the settlement, harnessed to a very shaky old cart,
and drawing a load of furs, and employed a wideawake half-
breed, who spoke English fluently, as a sort of " roper-in " to
effect a horse-race. Driving the disreputable looking beast
up before the door of a trading-shop, the half-breed patted
and caressed the animal, and bade his helper take every care
of him ; for, remarked Pegowis's emissary, in the hearing of
his victims, " That 'ere horse is a racer." A young Canadian,
with a fancy for horse flesh, thinking he had an easy victim,
immediately offered to race and was as promptly accepted by
the half-breed. The wager was raised higher and higher,
until it reached the formidable sum of one hundred pounds
sterling, which the venerable Pegowis, who now oppor-
tunely appeared upon the scene, at once drew forth from
the recesses of his red blanket. Cannon-ball was unhar-
nessed from the cart, the ground measured off, and, mount-
ed by a young Cree, the old horse came in an easy win-
ner, the saturnine Pegowis pocketing the money without
a smile to disturb the placidity of his muddy counte-
nance. This veteran trader still continues the business,
and unless overtaken by reverses, or estopped by the bullet


of some cheated red brother, will probably become a very
rich man.

From time to time, as the winter camp runs short of pro-
visions, expeditions are made to the buffalo grounds to obtain
a fresh supply. The herds, which wander far to the south-
ward in the fall, strange to say, return in the winter and col-
lect in great numbers in the broken country between the
two Saskatchewans, finding shelter in the timber, and brows-
ing upon the willows, or coarse grass, still uncovered by snow.

The half-breeds generally go to the winter hunts in small
parties, and with horse or dog-sledges to haul home the robes,
The journey thither occupies a week or ten days, as the herds
are near or far out. Proximity to the buffalo grounds is
known by the radical change in the aspect of the country.
Instead of an interminable plain, with an illimitable per-
spective of wrack and drift, the country becomes undulating,
with scattered patches of small timber alternating with minia-
ture meadows and grassy levels. Here the buffalo sepa-
rate themselves into small bands, and often into twos and
threes, and find abundant food beneath the light snows.
But into this sylvan retreat come the hunters with their dog-
trains. Carefully skirting its border, but not penetrating
it needlessly to alarm the herds, they select their camping-
place in the thickest of the timber, and thence make pro-
longed forays upon their shaggy game. Aside from the mere
selection of the camping-ground, but little time is lost in ren-
dering it comfortable ; for on the winter hunt the main
object is attended to with a singleness of purpose that would


delight the soul of a business martinet. But few fires are
lighted during the day, for fear of frightening the game ;
so that the labor of making camp is limited to securing, out
of reach of the dogs, not only the provisions — of which by
this time there is likely to be but little left — ^but snowshoes,
harness, and everything with any skin or leather about it.
An Indian sledge-dog will devour almost anything of animal
origin, and invariably eats his own harness and his master's
snowshoes, if left within his reach.

Dividing into parties, the hunters pursue different direc-
tions, endeavoring, however, whenever practicable, to encircle
a certain amount of territory, with the object of driving the
quarry toward a common centre. Again, the small parties
follow the same plan on a smaller scale, each one surround-
ing a miniature meadow, or grassy glade ; so that, if the num-
ber of hunters is large, there are many small circles within
the limits of the general circumference of the hunt.

The winter hunt for buffalo in the Fur Land is generally
made by stalking the animals in the deep snow on snowshoes.
To hunt the herds on horseback, as in summer, would be an
impossibility ; the snow hides the murderous badger-holes
that cover the prairie surface, and to gallop weak horses on
such ground would be certain disaster. By this method of
hunting the stalker endeavors to approach within gunshot of
his quarry by stealthily creeping upon them, taking advantage
of every snow-drift, bush, or depression in the prairie, which
will screen his person from view. And it is a more difficult
feat to approach a band of buffalo than it would appear on


first thought. When feeding the herd is more or less scat-
tered, but at sight of the hunter it rounds and closes into a
tolerably compact circular mass. If the stalker attempts an
open advance on foot — concealment being impossible from
the nature of the ground — the buffalo always keep sheering
off as soon as he gets within .two hundred yards of the near-
est. If he follows, they merely repeat the movement, and
always manage to preserve the same distance. Although
there is not the slightest danger in approaching a herd, it re-
quires, in a novice, an extraordinary amount of nerve. When
he gets within three hundred yards, the bulls on that side, with
head erect, tail cocked in the air, nostrils expanded, and eyes
that seem to flash fire, walk uneasily to and fro, menacing
the intruder by pawing the earth and tossing their huge heads.
The hunter still approaching, some bull will face him, lower
his head, and start on a most furious charge. But alas for
brute courage ! When he has gone thirty yards he thinks
better of it, stops, stares an instant, and then trots back to
the herd. Another and another will try the same strategy,
Avith the same result, and if, in spite of these ferocious
demonstrations, the hunter still continues to advance, the
whole herd will incontinently take to its heels.

By far the best method of stalking a herd in the snow is
to cover oneself with a white blanket, or sheet, in the same
manner as the Indians use the wolf-skin. In this way the
animal cannot easily get the hunter's wind, and are prevented
from distinguishing him amidst the surrounding snow. The
buffalo being the most stupid and sluggish of Plain animals,


and endowed with the smallest possible amount of instinct,
the little that he has seems adapted rather for getting him into
difficulties than out of them. If not alarmed at sight or smell
of the stalker, he will stand stupidly gazing at his companions
in their death throes until the whole band is shot down.

When the hunter is skilled in the stalk, and the buffalo
are plentiful, the wild character of the sport almost repays
him for the hardships he endures. With comrades equally
skillful he surrounds the little meadows into which he has
stalked his quarry. Well posted, the hunter nearest the herd
delivers his fire. In the sudden stupid halt and stare of the
bewildered animals immediately following, he often gets in a
second and third shot. Then comes the wild dash of the
frightened herd toward the opening in the park, when the
remaining hunters instantly appear, pouring in their fire at
short range, and pretty certain of securing their game.

The cutting up follows ; and the rapidity with which a
skillful hunter completes the operation is little short of mar-
velous. When time permits, the full process is as follows :
He begins by skinning the buffalo, then takes off the head,
and removes the paunch and offal as far as the heart ; next
he cuts off the legs and shoulders and back. The chest, with
the neck attached, now remains — a strange-looking object,
that would scare a respectable larder into fits — and this he
proceeds to lay beside the other joints, placing there also such
internal parts as are considered good. Over the whole he
then draws the skin, and having planted a stick in the ground
close by, with a handkerchief or some such thing fastened to


it to keep off the wolves, the operation of cutting up is com-
plete, and the animal is ready for conveyance to camp when
the sledges arrive. The half-breed goes through this whole
process with a large and very heavy knife, like a narrow and
pointed cleaver, which is also used for cutting wood, and per-
forming all the offices of a hatchet ; but unwieldy as it is, a
practiced hand can skin the smallest and most delicate crea-
tures with it as easily as with a pocket-knife.

A few days' successful stalking generally supplies a party
with sufficient meat, and, unless hunting for robes, they are
not likely to linger long upon the bleak plains for the mere
sake of sport. The winter stalk is emphatically a "pot-hunt,"
the term " sport " being scarcely pertinent to a chase involv-
ing so serious discomfort. A cache of the meat is accordingly
made, from which supplies may be drawn as required. And
this cache has to be made in a very substantial manner to resist
the attacks of wolves, which invariably hang about the camp
of the hunter. Generally speaking, it is made in the form of
a pyramid, the ends of the logs being sunk slightly into the
ground, against which a huge bank of snow is heaped. This,
when well beaten down, and coated with ice by means of water
poured over it, holds the timber firmly in position, and is per-
fectly impregnable to a whole army of wolves, though a wol-
verine will certainly break it open if he finds it.

At last comes the departure. The sledges are packed
with melting rib, fat brisket, and luscious tongues ; the cow-
ering dogs are again rudely roused from their dream of that
far-off day, which never comes for them, when the whip shall


be broken and hauling shall be no more. Amid fierce impre-
cation, the cracking of whips, deep-toned yells, and the grating
of the sledges upon the frozen snow, the camp in the poplar
thicket is left behind. The few embers of the deserted camp-
fire glow cheerily for a while, then moulder slowly away.
The wolves, growing bolder as the day wears on, steal warily
in, and devour such refuse as the dogs have left. As night
settles silently down, the snow begins to fall. It comes slowly,
in a whirling mist of snowflakes that dazzles and confuses the
eye. The ashes of the camp-fire, mingling with it, take on a
lighter grey ; the hard casing of the cache receives a fleecy
covering. Feathery shafts of snow, shaken from the long
tree-branches, fly like white-winged birds down over what has
been the camp. ]5ut all traces of its use are hidden by the
spotless mantle flung from above. The coming morning
reveals only a pyramidal drift of snow among the aspens —
around, a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white.

Such is the winter stalk — a hunt that has often formed the
theme of the traveler's story. And yet it may be doubted if
there has ever been placed before the reader's vision anything
like a true account of the overpowering sense of solitude, of
dreary, endless space, of awful desolation, which at tmies fills
the hunter's mind, as, peering from some swelling ridge or
aspen thicket, he sees a lonely herd of buffalo, in long, scattered
file, trailing across the snow-wrapt, interminable expanse into
the shadows of the coming night.

Life to the white stranger temporarily resident in the win-
ter camp becomes after a season pleasant enough. The study


of Indian and half-breed character and customs, the visits of
his barbarian neighbors, the exciting incidents of his every-
day life, all conspire to relieve the monotony which would
otherwise hang over him like a pall. It is true that of life
other than human there is a meagre supply ; a magpie or
screaming jay sometimes flaunts its gaudy plumage on the
meat-stage ; in the early morning a sharp-tailed grouse croaks
in the fir or spruce-trees ; and at dusk, when every other
sound is hushed, the owl hoots its lonely cry. Besides human
companionship, however, the white resident of the winter camj)
has many pleasures of a more testhetic character. It is pleasant
at night, when returning from a long jaunt on snowshoes or
dog-sledge, to reach the crest of the nearest ridge and see,
lying below one, the straggling camp, the red glow of the fire-
light gleaming through the parchment windows of the huts, the
bright sparks flying upward amid the sombre pine-tops, and
to feel that, however rude it may be, yet there in all that vast
wilderness is the one place he may call home. Nor is it less
pleasant when, as the night wears on, the long letter is penned,
the familiar book read, while the log fire burns brightly and
the dogs sleep quietly stretched before it. Many a night
thus spent is spread out in those pictures which memory
weaves in after life, each pleasure distinct and real, each pri-
vation blended with softened colors.



'' I ''HE old maps, based upon the discoveries of Cabot and
-*- Castier, which represented the centre of America as a
vast inland sea, erred only in the description of the ocean
which they placed in the central continent. The ocean is
there ; but it is one of grass and waves of sand, and its shores
are the crests of mountain ranges and dark pine-forests. The
eye travels over it to the farthest distance without one effort
of vision, and reaching there, rests unfatigued by its long
gaze. No jagged peaks break the monotony of sky-line ; no
river lays its silvery folds along the middle distance ; no dark
forests give shade to foreground, or fringe the perspective; no
speck of life, no trace of man, nothing but wilderness. Strip-
ped of its drapery, space stands fotth with almost terrible

The salt sea does not present a more infinite variety of
aspect than does this prairie-ocean. In early summer, a vast
expanse of waving grass and pale pink roses ; in autumn, too
often a wild sea of raging fire ; in winter a dazzling surface
of purest snow, heaped into rolling ridges or frost-crested
waves. The phosphorescent waters of the ^gean cannot

show more gorgeous sunsets ; no solitude of mid-ocean can


vie with the loneUnessof a night-shadowed prairie. The still-
ness can be felt, the silence heard. The wail of the prowling
wolf makes the voice of solitude audible ; the stars look down
through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. This
ocean has no past ; treeless, desolate, and storm-swept was it
when the stone of the Sphinx was yet unhewn, and the site of
Nineveh was a river-meadow, and it is the same to-day. Time
has been nought to it ; and the races of men have come and
gone, leaving behind them no trace, no vestige of their pres-
ence. It is an unending vision of sky and grass, and dim,
distant, and ever-shifting horizon. " The seasons come and
go, grass grows and flowers die, the fire leaps with tiger
bounds along the earth, the snow lies still and quiet over hill
and lake, the rivers rise and fall, but the rigid features of the
wilderness rest unchanged. Lonely, silent, and impassive ;
heedless of man, season, or time, the weight of the Infinite
seems to brood over it." *

To the unaccustomed voyager upon the great prairies of
the Fur Land they bear no landmark. As well might he be
left alone upon an uncharted sea. There are spaces where
no tree or bush breaks the long monotony of sky-line, and he
gets "out of sight of land." Standing in the middle of the
plain, it presents the appearance of an immense sheet slightly
raised at both ends; for the level prairie has the peculiarity
of seemingly being elevated in whatever point of the compass
one may turn, leaving the observer always in the depression.
So clear is the atmosphere that the natural range of vision is

"•• Major Butler, " Wild North Land."


greatly extended, and distant objects may be clearly and
easily seen ; which, anywhere else, it would be impossible to
distinguish or define. It is almost like looking through a
telescope. As a result, one finds it difficult to ascertain the
relative distances of objects, and in consequence, to estimate
their size. One makes the blunder of mistaking a buffalo for
a crow, or, more frequently, a crow for a buffalo. If anyone
be inclined to laugh at this, let him stand upon the sea-shore
with a sailor, and compare their estimate of distance with his,
and mark the difference. The eye ranges over a sea of short
waving grass, without a single intervening object to afford the
accustomed means of estimating relative size and distance.

Left to himself, the inexperienced traveler finds it impossi-
ble to pursue a straight course, and invariably begins to de-
scribe a circle by bearing continually to the left — a weakness
incomprehensible to the plain-dweller, M'ho looks upon it as
the most arrant stupidity. Unless he be an expert in the use
of a compass, the possession of an instrument is likely to
prove of little avail. If he take the sun for a guide, he will

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Online LibraryH. M. (Henry Martin) RobinsonThe great fur land; or, Sketches of life in the Hudson's bay territory → online text (page 19 of 24)