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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XXII
A busy camp—Process of butchering and drying meat— How pemmican is made—Our camp in peril— Chasing a herd of buffalo up a stiff bank—Mark scores a point on me—We encounter a war party of Blackfeet—A fortunate rain-storm—A mirage gives us a false alarm—Unwritten laws as to rights of hunters.


THERE were no idle hours in our camp. Hunting by day, and on guard every other night; when not running buffalo or butchering and hauling and packing them into camp, then drying the meat and rendering grease and making pemmican, or mending carts and harness—there was always something to do. Some of our party had become rather alarmed at our venturing so far into the enemy's country, and already they were talking about returning. But I told them that we must load right up; that we had not come all this way merely to have a feed and turn back, but to prepare food for the next winter. So by precept and example we kept the whole camp stirring. Sunday was our only day of rest, when, outside the care of the horses and camp, we absolutely refrained from labor. And now as we are actually engaged in drying meat and making pemmican, I will describe this work in detail.

In the first place, the Indian and plain hunter did not butcher the carcase in the white man's way, but followed the anatomy of the animal. There were the tongue and little boss, the big boss, the back and rump-fats, the sinew pieces, the shoulders and hams, the brisket and belly piece and ribs. Each of these came out separately under the skilful hand and knife of the hunter, and when brought to camp were cut into broad wide flakes, not more than a quarter of an inch in thickness. These flakes in turn were hung on stagings made of clean poles, and the wind and sun allowed free work at them. When dry on one side they were turned, and kept turned every hour or so during the day, and if the camp moved they were loaded into carts and taken to be spread out again on the clean grass, all being turned at some time during the day. Thus in two or three days, according to the weather, the first lot would be ready for sorting. The back-fats and rump-fats and the briskets and ribs and bosses would be folded into a regular size, and baled up into packs of from eighty to one hundred and twenty pounds weight. These bales were bound up with rawhide, and the contents were known in camp and Hudson's Bay posts, and everywhere in the Territories, as "dried meat." Though only air and sun were utilized in the curing, still this was sweet and perfect in its effect, and the meat would keep for years.

The other parts of the meat—that is, those portions which came from the hams and shoulders, and the sinew pieces—were, when dry, taken and cooked over a slow fire. In our case we made a large gridiron by digging a long grave-like hole in the ground, in which we made a fire and across the top of it placed willows, whereon we spread the meat. After cooking it carefully and thoroughly it was put away to cool, and then pounded by flail until it became pulp. This when finished was termed "pounded meat." In the meantime all the tallow or hard fat of the animal killed was cut up into small pieces and cooked or rendered, and watched closely that it might not burn. This boiling tallow was then poured upon the pounded meat, about pound for pound, and the mass thoroughly stirred up until all the meat was saturated with the hot grease.

Bags were made of the hide, nicely fleshed and prepared, and sewed with sinew. And now the hot mass of meat and grease was shovelled into the bags. Then these were quickly sewed up, and a level piece of ground was chosen, or a flooring of side-boards from the carts made, and these bags were placed on this and shaped and turned until cool and hard. A bag thirty inches long, eighteen wide and eight thick would weigh from 120 to 135 lbs. This was "hard grease pemmican." Sometimes dried berries, or the choke-cherry, would be mixed with the soft fat pemmican, and this would be called "berry pemmican." This pemmican, like the dried meat, without any spice or seasoning other than sun and wind or fire, would keep for years in a fresh wholesome state.

Before we left the camp by the creek we had manufactured pemmican and dried meat and hide covers and parchment skins and many lines, and what with the hunting and doing all this work and looking constantly after our stock, we were pretty busy. We then moved farther out on the plains, when we made another home camp, and repeated the experience of the last one. But as the buffalo were much scattered, we had far and wide to hunt for them. We would take it in turns, and leaving camp early in the morning, sometimes would not return until dark. Under such circumstances, both with those at home and those hunting, the nervous strain was considerable, for now we had seen many signs of the enemy and several attempts had been made to steal our horses. Mine was the best gun in camp, and it was a double-barrelled percussion-lock muzzle loader. All the rest were armed with single-barrelled flint-lock guns. There was not one revolver or pistol among the whole party.

One day we went as far as the Red Deer River, and finding a bunch of bulls right down on the river bottom near the water's edge, we made a big circuit and started the herd. They took up a deep ravine and soon began to climb the almost perpendicular banks to the uplands above. These banks were not small affairs, but were hundreds of feet in height. In our eagerness we followed close on their heels, and some of them would stop and look around at us as if the next move would be a charge down the steep upon us. Woe to the man or horse caught in such a fix. But then if these fellows should reach the level summit much in advance of us we might not catch them again, for our horses were pretty well blown by this run and climb. I am sure it must have taken from ten to fifteen minutes to follow those big monsters (for these were the fattest we had seen) up that hill, and of course every one of us secretly in his own mind wanted to kill the very fattest. I had already singled out mine and was keeping dangerously near him, but it would not do to fire at any on such a hill; we must let them reach the top. However, as I was next to the bulls, I thought mine would be the first chance. But in this I was beaten by old Mark, whose experienced eye had seen a better way. As we reached the summit and the bulls jumped into a hard race at once, as if the climb had been nothing, I was pushing my way after them when in came Mark ahead of me, and "bang" went his old flint-lock right into the best bull of the crowd. Of course I took the next one, and another also, and felt if I was to be beaten—why, I had rather it be by Mark than another.

We took home more good meat and fat that day than at any time on our trip. Another time we went far from camp, and ran right into a hunting party of Blackfeet. They were more surprised than we were, and left their hunt on the field and fled. As we did not know how many there were, or how near the camp might be, we made haste to load our horses, and started for home by a roundabout way, but not until dark did we make direct for our camp.

Here Providence interfered on our behalf, for before daylight next morning a heavy rain-storm set in and continued for two days and two nights, not only washing away all our tracks, but keeping the enemy pretty constantly under cover. We were thankful for the storm, and yet were miserable all through it, as we had not sufficient fuel to keep us warm. When the third day opened with bright sunshine the whole camp was glad. Not a soul in our party had even an overcoat, much less a waterproof. There were no long boots or rubbers to be found in our outfit at that time. And to remain out with those horses in the cold rain all night long was not child's play.

With returning sunshine we moved camp westward and northward, and making a good long day settled at evening in as good a spot as we could find for the hiding and protection of our camp. Then we went to work finishing up our drying and pounding and preparing provisions, and arranged our loads in order to make them water-tight and storm-proof as much as possible with parchments and hides. When this was all done we resumed our homeward journey.

When moving one day, word came in that we were being followed by a troop of Black feet, and immediately I sent Mark out to reconnoitre. Riding back a couple of miles he signalled to us "They are coming," and again he signalled, "They are many." The first was done by riding his horse to and fro, and the second by throwing dust in the air. This put us to making strenuous efforts to be ready for attack.

We arranged our carts as a bulwark on one side at a spot where a small hill gave us protection on the other. We gathered and picketed our horses close up, saddling the speediest, and got all our ammunition ready. Then Samson went out to join Mark. Presently the two came in on the jump to tell us that a mirage had deceived everybody, that the trailing party was nothing more formidable than a big pack o wolves! Our alarm thus allayed, we journeyed on, not unmindful, however, of the episode, for I had run around rushing in the horses and placing the carts quite regardless of the numerous beds of cactus, and now the soles of my feet were like fire because of the many small points which had entered them.

The unwritten law as to hunting rights which obtained at that time was as follows: When on the journey from one part of the country to another, say, to and from a Mission station or between Hudson's Bay posts to the herds of buffalo and back, everything killed was common property—that is, all who came to the kill had common share of the meat; but when fairly into the buffalo range, and at the work of making provisions, then each man handled and kept his own hunt. There was also a well understood law that the owner of a buffalo horse also owned whatever was killed from the back of his horse. Many a time after I became proficient in the art of selecting the fat ones, and had gained a reputation as a shot, Indians would bring me their best horses to ride in a hunt. And as I was often in camp merely visiting, many an exciting time I had with the strange horses, and many a man and his whole family came to hear me sing and preach because I had won their admiration by my handling of their pet horse.


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