Our fate can change the course of our lives in a split second; often, it is beyond our control, but we must be ready to adapt and be resourceful enough to make the best of new circumstances. America is likely to see some dramatic economic changes in the next few months. We must be resolute to endure the possible collapse of the world’s economic systems. I suggest having supplies on hand to last at least a month and plans to unite with family members in case communications fail. I hope, I am wrong, but with leadership that seems intent on destroying or at least inhibiting the economy, the possibility of collapse is a real possibility that is heightened with the refusal of profligate members of the EU to impose austerity upon their entitled masses or the reluctance of those entitled masses to accept sacrifice; therefore, despite efforts by the overly leveraged Obama administration to avert the collapse of European Socialism, essentially by borrowing money to loan it to countries drowning in debt and unable to borrow the same money from legitimate sources. The world will now see how interrelated the international banking systems are and how fragile the US economy is under an incompetent Socialist leadership that like the leaders of the EU refuses to confront the problems of debt, entitlement, and profligate spending. Perhaps this story will give us hope for the future and for overcoming adversity by turning a disaster into a future with different possibilities.
This is part three of the Oregon Trail story. If you haven’t read the first two parts, Three Island Crossing and The Spaniard don’t worry about it, there’s still an adventure story here, without the other two. The violence is graphic as is life: you will not find me being politically correct, so please don’t bother to mention those indiscretions.
Cougar Cub of the Metis (pronounced MayTee)
Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, as he was named by a proud French father with a sense of humor, who spent a total of three winters with a beautiful Indian maiden before deserting her to go trapping in the wilds of what was to become British Columbia, and never bothering to return. She died of starvation four winters later and left her child to beg for survival among the village of teepees belonging to the Metis people of Lac La Biche, near Fort Edmonton. Louis ingratiated himself from family to family as the food supplies fluctuated with the hunting success among different families.
Louis earned the nickname Cougar Cub honestly enough, by raising an abandoned Cougar Cub to maturity, as a boy of about twelve. The cougar stayed with him for almost two years; until, the call of the wild beckoned it, away from Louis, to join nature in its true feral state. From the day the Cougar left and for the rest of his life, Louis was never called Louis again; he was Cougar Cub of the Metis. Cougar was a bright lad destined for leadership. At least, several of the Metis elders considered him an excellent choice. He was not given to hard liquor, a vice that ruined many of the young men. He wasn’t quarrelsome or mean to weaker people. He had a quick mind and often provided good suggestions in the tribal lodge. He also had keen eyesight an uncanny ability to carve objects from wood.
He was an orphan of the mixed blood people, a large tribe called Metis; a mixture of different Native American tribes and French or other European types, they lived not quite as natives and not quite as Whites. They were unique and made every effort to remain that way. True eclectics, they had no reservations against adopting the features they liked from either culture.
They were a hardy race. Horses, hunting, singing, drinking, and the lusty pursuits occupied their free time. They often worked as voyagers, courier du bois, and trappers, but their favorite pastime was hunting buffalo.
Every year, a hunt was organized from Fort Edmonton in the fall. It was not just for men; it was a family affair with a dichotomy of labor that recognized the importance of women within the family. It was also a chance to renew old friendships and learn the news of the Metis people. Women, children, and old people were all anxious to participate in securing meat for the winter and the one big annual gathering of the Metis people.
The vehicle of choice was the Red River Cart, a single axle horse or ox drawn cart with wooden axles; actually, there was no nails or metal; the entire vehicle was built of wood using mortise and tenon, and dove tail joinery. For people who could not afford nails and screws, the Red River Cart, named for the area that would eventually become Manitoba, the wooden cart was a creation of genius. With axles made of Maple to reduce flex, felloes were made of ash or oak because it could be bent with steam and because of its durability, and the hubs were made of elm because of its resistance to splitting; the Red River Cart came into prominence in 1800, primarily to service the fur trade, it was in use from Minnesota and into the farthest trading posts of Canada. The carts were primarily pulled by oxen; especially, in the boggy country, the maximum payload was nine hundred pounds on trail conditions and forage that a horse couldn’t survive on. An ox could cover 25 miles a day in the bog country without roads. In the drier prairies, horses were used about half the time. The could manage sixty miles a day, but the payload was reduced to five hundred pounds.
In the east and in Minnesota, the cart was primarily used for the fur trade, but once the Metis saw the advantages of the Red River Cart in buffalo hunting and migration, their lives were changed almost instantly.
The Red River Cart, named after the original designation for the country that was to become Manitoba, where it was the only vehicle that could travel through the bogs, it became a symbol of pride for the Metis; for it reflected the migratory ability of the horse Indians of the Plains, who used the travois and the pack horse to carry their possessions and yet, the technological advantages of a wheeled vehicle, without a complicated steering mechanism for a front axle, reflected their White heritage.
The Metis’ carts of the plains carried supplies for each family, and their teepee or wickiup, the buffalo hide tents of the plains. The children, old people, and women carrying children or with infants took turns walking and riding; while the young men dashed around on fiery horses trying to impress the young women. Older men, who had already had their share of horse falls and the broken bones that come with such accidents, were content to walk their horses with an occasional burst of speed for something important.
The teenage girls rode their horses in a group at a walk and tried not be too obvious in their admiration of the wild and reckless riding of the young men competing for their attention. They giggled and covered their mouths as they looked at each other when a youth would ride by and drop off one side of his horse at a gallop to let his feet hit the ground and be thrown almost effortlessly back on the horse’s back.
There were approximately 800 carts when they left the campground South of Fort Edmonton and more would join up as they traveled south to hunt the traditional hunting grounds West of Medicine Hat to the mountains. The buffalo could be anywhere in this vast country. The scouts were excellent trackers and they would be sent out to find the herds and then report back. They would find the buffalo eventually, but until then, everyone who wasn’t a scout was taking part in a celebration of life and the social life of the hunt.
The wheels and axles of the carts were without grease, because the grease became a trap for dirt and sand, causing the wheels to seize from trapped dirt; thus the continuous whine of wood upon wood was horrendous. The noise was so loud when hundreds of them were moving, that people could no longer carry on conversations. The screeching noise could be heard for miles. Whites from England, who heard the noise compared it to a thousand bagpipes getting started.
The Metis didn’t like the orderly White man’s method of travel, they preferred to spread out on line and not breathe the dust of those in front of them, at least if they weren’t following a narrow trail.
The Metis were a proud and handsome race from many different tribes, but in time and after a few generations, they lost the cultural traits of their home tribes and felt alienated as their connections became less distinct. Whites often discriminated against them, thus they felt united in their common heritage, which was a diverse mixture of heritages and blood.
There was bitterness among some who felt the sharp slap of rejection from both Whites and Native tribes, but most had a surreal appreciation for life and nature, with a cheerful disposition and a smile for everyone, they were determined to let no one else intrude on their happiness with bigotry and hatred.
Cougar was one of these young men. He loved the outdoors and the animals, but he had an uncanny ability with wood. With only the most basic tools, he made tables, chairs, and desks with a fascinating ease that seemed effortless.
At Lac La Biche, an old carpenter from Switzerland observed him working as a boy, using little more than a knife. He was amused and brought out an old leather satchel with fine old European carpenter tools.
He gave young Cougar a combination square, a ruler, two chisels, a plane, two saws, a brace and bit, and a small spirit level. He spent several hours with the boy teaching him about numbers, how to use the different tools, and how to sharpen them.
From that afternoon of instruction and those few tools, Cougar became a carpenter and eventually had a thriving business in Fort Edmonton by the time he was twenty. He was wealthy enough to buy tools and hardwoods for furniture from Ontario and have it shipped to his shop in Fort Edmonton. The wives of Edmonton’s most successful men, all wanted the furniture that Cougar made in his bustling shop.
He had missed the hunt for several years, but he planned to go this year and renew his old friendships. He had a traditional Red River Cart that he used to deliver his furniture and various projects, but he wanted to show off his skills and appreciable success, with a new finely made Red River Cart. He ordered iron axles and steel rimmed oak wheels with iron races from Ontario and began drawing plans for the most beautiful Red River Cart ever built.
He was not a man who could do anything half way. The cart would reflect his pride and craftsmanship. He had no family, so he would drive the wagon and have a hunting horse tied to the back for the actual hunt.
He ordered a new rifle, he could afford the best, so he bought the new Sharps buffalo rifle. The project was easy for him, but he still went out of his way to make his cart a work of art. The body was framed in Oak, sheathed in Maple, and trimmed in Walnut. The wood was finished with a walnut stain made by Cougar by cooking walnut hulls down to a gelatinous mass and straining away the solids, then applying the stain in thin layers until he obtained the color enhancing quality of the stain that allowed the beautiful grain patterns to show through. Hot bees wax was later rubbed into the wood to preserve the finish. Traditionally, the carts were built free of nails by using classic mortise and tenon and dovetail joinery, this aspect was Cougars stock and trade.
When Cougar finished his cart, he hitched up his driving horse and drove through the dirt roads of Fort Edmonton. Whites, Metis, and Indians all cheered the young man and his masterpiece whether they knew him or not, for his cart was an image of grace and beauty, that represented the open prairies and the freedom of the Metis people.
Cougar felt a mixture of pride and happiness for his cart to be so well received. Now, he needed his cooking and sleeping gear, and a teepee. He drove over to the fur trading post and told the manager he needed a smaller buffalo hide teepee and the rails. He bought cooking utensils and a set of crockery; he splurged a bit on the crockery in case he met a potential wife and invited her and her parents for dinner.
He drove out onto the campsite at daylight on the morning the hunt was to begin. The teepees were being taken down and the camping gear loaded on the carts.
He received many admiring glances when he joined the procession and a few faces showed scorn, especially from some of the young men riding spirited half broke horses.
They were the least of Cougar’s worries, he was here to see boyhood friends and find a wife.
Cougar brought his basic carpenter tools and fixed several wagons for people, free of charge.
The Metis hunters traveled far to the Southwest searching for the elusive herds. The scouts had located massive herds of a hundred thousand spread out along the Sheep River, about three hundred miles south of fort Edmonton. These people had a different concept of time, for them the objective of the hunt was to secure meat for the winter, so the distance was of little concern. After driving for several days, they camped on Fish Creek and made plans for the hunt the next morning on Sheep Creek about ten miles to the South.
The hunters planned to encircle the herd before daylight and kill as many as possible before they stampeded, they would then follow the herd until the horses were exhausted and kill as many as possible. They would try to kill enough so that every wagon had a carcass and a buffalo robe to take home for the winter.
There was a problem, Cougar couldn’t hunt and drive his cart at the same time.
He made several repairs for Jerome, who had a charming wife and a beautiful daughter. He had been admiring the sixteen-year old maiden, Hawk’s Cry from a distance; she resembled the high-cheeked native type more than her French ancestors, she had thick long black hair, there was only one feature that gave away her White heritage, her eyes were green with a golden brown ring around them.
Although her father wore the White Man’s clothing like Cougar, she and her mother dressed in traditional native dresses of tanned leather with intricate beadwork and porcupine quills decorating the area covering their breasts. They could barely communicate with Cougar, since they mainly spoke in their native tongue. Cougar spoke in a combination of French and English that was difficult for someone unused to the Metis to understand.
He invited Hawk’s Cry and her parents to dinner that night. It was a simple dinner, but they were impressed with the polite young man’s friendly nature and a well-cooked meal of bacon, beans, potatoes with butter, and cornbread.
After dinner he asked in sign if Hawk’s Cry could drive his wagon to his kill site, since he was alone. Her parents looked at her with a look that said it was her choice. He could see the disappointment in her eyes at first, because she was an excellent rider and hoped to borrow a horse, to be as close to the action as possible, not back with the screaming kids and old people, but she realized that Cougar Cub was a special catch and he might lose interest if she said no.
She agreed with a smile and the dinner party was over, Cougar asked Hawk Cry’s father, Jerome Fast Horses, if he would ride with him in the morning. Jerome’s eyes flashed and he was proud to have the young man ask him to ride with him. He was thirty-nine, and most men were no longer riding on the buffalo hunts at that age. Jerome promised to be ready at two hours before daylight.
It was customary for women to break camp and load the gear, but Cougar thought it might seem presumptuous of him to expect Hawk’s Cry to load his teepee.
Everything was loaded and his driving horse was hitched to the cart when Hawk’s Cry walked to his camp. She smiled, climbed in the driver’s seat and was one of the first carts to get on the trail. She arrived on a hill above Sheep Creek about a mile away and heard the first rifle shots just as the sun was burning away the early morning fog away.
The buffalo stood in silent confusion as thirty or forty of them dropped to their knees and then fell over sideways. One of the shots was poorly aimed and hit a hoof. The animal bellowed in pain and started to run on three legs. This strange behavior caused the rest of the herd to stampede to the West. Some of the herd crossed the creek and were shot as they scrambled up the opposite bank. Soon all the hunters were running alongside the horses and firing at close range into their backs.
Within a few minutes, the majority of the buffalo had outrun the horses, and it was all over. There were buffalo carcasses spread out for five miles along Sheep Creek and she saw where at least two riders and their horses had fallen, and were trampled to death.
She felt a moment of sadness, but this was life, you hunted and sometimes you died in the pursuit of the animals. It was a fairly simple explanation for the human toll below.
She drove Cougar’s cart down to the river to look for the men and her mother followed in her father’s old cart. She heard her mother call her name and turned to see her pointing to a small Fleur de Lis flag waving in the air about a mile up stream. Her father’s father had given it to Jerome when he was a young man. It was awarded by French soldiers to her relative for gallantry in a battle back East. He always had it with him and today it was perfect for his wife to locate his buffalo.
Hawk’s Cry saw Cougar working on a huge carcass about two hundred yards beyond her father; he had the traditional blue and white Metis flag, with the symbol for infinity. She waved to her mother and drove up to Cougar with a big grin. She was dressed in a white smoke tanned deerskin dress trimmed with martin and moose hide moccasins trimmed in beaver. These clothes were not meant for work, they were worn to catch Cougar’s attention.
The ploy worked well, when he saw her, he was speechless. He stood up to look at her, stepped backward to trip and fall over the gut pile. She smiled with flashing eyes and a mouth full of snow white teeth, he still couldn’t say anything in front of her overwhelming beauty.
She told him he had killed a good buffalo in sign language and turned to let him appreciate her feminine form. He still was unable to speak. She said in a language he didn’t understand, “I will put on my work dress, and help,” but he was oblivious. He watched her in awe as she pulled her best dress over her head to reveal one of nature’s most perfect feminine forms. She wondered why Cougar was being rude and staring at her nude body. She wasn’t shy, but it was considered rude to stare at someone’s nude form.
Cougar stared at the first nude female he had ever seen, for half a minute and then dropped down to continue skinning the carcass. Hawk’s Cry laughed at his strangeness and slipped one of her old dresses over her head and changed moccasins. She started to tie the leather thong to tighten the V neck opening over her breasts, but then decided to leave it open, since Cougar seemed to enjoy looking at her nakedness, maybe he might want to look some more.
She was quick with her hands and together they skinned the buffalo in short order. Cougar was lost in love, but he couldn’t look at her, and she was beginning to realize the power she had over this talented young man.
Cougar split the skull with an ax to remove the brain for tanning the hide and cut out the tongue for lunch. They quartered the animal and Cougar lifted the quarters into the cart. Hawk’s Cry tried to help with the lifting, but he was so strong, she was just in the way.
They drove over to her dad’s kill and Hawk’s Cry felt so proud sitting next to this handsome young man with the finely made cart and the freshly killed buffalo in the back. She decided, she wanted this young man for a husband, the sooner the better.
When they drove up to her parent’s buffalo, Cougar handed the reins to Hawk’s Cry and jumped out to help Jerome lift the quarters into the cart and then suggested they wash upstream and cook lunch. Her parents somehow understood or at least agreed to follow him to a nice campsite away from the gore and the stench resulting from butchering so many large animals.
The four of them washed at the creek, Jerome told Hawk’s Cry of what a fearless hunter Cougar was and how he shot four animals by riding right next to the buffalo with the reins on his horses neck and riding with just his legs. He said Cougar was just like the hunters of the old days.
Hawk’s Cry listened, but showed none of her parents’ enthusiasm; she seemed to be oblivious to the hunting abilities of Cougar as she pulled up her skirt to expose thighs the color moose hide moccasins and began to wash the blood from her knees and hands. Cougar was watching from such short range that he lost his balance on a slick rock a fell into the swift water. The others laughed and Cougar felt awkward and humiliated. Jerome and his wife suspected that Cougar was smitten with their daughter, and they were excited to see how this ancient dance of love was to be played out.
They decided to set up their teepees and spend the night, then leave early the next morning. They cooked a big feast that night and many people stopped by to congratulate Cougar and thank him for his hunting skills. There were several single girls who looked at Cougar with an appraising eye, but Hawk’s Cry made sure to be sitting next to him throughout the evening and smiling at all the visitors. Cougar felt funny, he wasn’t self-conscious around the other girls and they were much easier to talk with, since it was more common to speak a mixture of French and English rather than the native tongue, but the other girls respected Hawk’s Cry and her claim to the handsome young buffalo killer.
A group of young men came into their camp after dark. It was obvious they had been drinking. They took plates of food without asking, but it was a feast. The leader was loud and belligerent. After taking a few bites he said the buffalo was spoiled and unfit to eat. He broke his plate by throwing it on a stone next to the fire and then turned to smile at Hawk’s Cry as if she might be impressed with his behavior.
Jerome stood up and tried to walk the young man out of the camp, but he pushed Jerome away and pulled a knife and looked at Jerome and then Cougar.
He told them the girl was his and he was going to take her. Cougar jumped to his feet and walked toward his rifle and suddenly felt the razor edge of a skinning knife cut his cheek through to the teeth. The drunken boy drew back to slash again when he was hit above the eye with a good sized rock, thrown by Hawk’s Cry. Cougar started for his rifle again and felt the boy on top of him. He grabbed the boy’s wrist that held the knife and they were locked in mortal combat.
Cougar tripped the boy and they fell. Cougar wrapped both his hands around the boy’s knife hand, took the knife away from him and stood up. The boy stood up and lunged for Cougar’s rifle, but he had no idea how to work the mechanism and when he realized it was hopeless, he swung it like a club at Cougar’s head.
Cougar ducked and jumped forward and cut into the boy’s gut with the knife. He heard air escaping and the foul odor of a bowel being cut open, the boy had his hands around Cougar’s throat and was cutting off Cougar’s air in a last ditch effort to kill him. Cougar aimed the knife upward and thrust it hard toward the boy’s heart. The hot blood squirted all over his fore arm and wet Cougar’s body from the waist down with the hot pulsing liquid, the boy went limp and fell to the ground. He was dead.
Cougar looked at the boy and knew the Red Coats patrolling the country for American whisky sellers would hang him for killing the boy, no matter what the circumstances. The boy’s friends were mounting their horses and soon galloped away into the night.
He had to move fast. Cougar started loading his cart. Jerome talked with his family for a few minutes and started loading his cart. Cougar had his cart loaded and told Jerome in sign language that he was heading south to the United States. Jerome tapped his chest and then pointed his vertical palm south and then pointed with his index finger.
It looked like Cougar was going to have company along for the ride on his bid for freedom. Suddenly, he had an idea. Jerome and the women would take the carts south to Sweetwater Montana and Cougar would head straight for the Glaciers to the South. The Red Coats would track the wagons and if they caught up to the wagons it would be too late to catch him. They would then drive down to the Great Falls and he would meet them there in two weeks.
The communication was all in sign language, for them it was much more accurate than trying to speak in the fragments of several languages.
Cougar would cross the High River about ten o’clock and then cross the Oldman River before noon. With luck he should cross the border before daylight the next day.
The NWMP detachment sent one man to bring in the killer, Mike Irons or Iron Mike as he was known to the Indians and American Whiskey traders. Most outlaws gave up when they knew Iron Mike was on their trail. He inspired respect and fear in the wild country. He was fair, but if you resisted, Iron Mike shot you before the court could hang you. He was an expert tracker and used to Indians making a run for the border. He was on the trail of the two carts by nine the next morning. It would be easy to run down the two Red River Carts.
The story he heard from the Metis boys didn’t add up, but that wasn’t his problem. That’s what they have courts for, he was just a man hunter and the law west of Medicine Hat. He slowed his pace and tried to piece together the odd story. Young man by himself, old man with beautiful daughter and wife, they are hunting buffalo and camped together. They get two buffalo and a young man comes into their camp and gets butchered.
“Wait a dang minute,” Mike said aloud to himself, “They were supposed to have four horses. There’s only tracks for three.”
He dismounted and walked a circle around the tracks to be sure, “Well, I’ll be, they almost out smarted Iron Mike.”
He rode hard to the southwest looking for a lone track headed straight south.
About ten miles from the border, he picked up a single track. The horse was exhausted and unable to track straight. This had to be him. He came to the border and saw Cougar leading his horse about sixty yards into the US.
“This is Constable Mike Irons of the North West Mounted Police, turn around and come back or I will shoot you dead.”
Mike fired a warning shot and Cougar pulled his rifle from the scabbard and shot Mike’s horse through the heart in less than a second, and then dropped down below a hill and disappeared.
Mike felt fear for the first time in his career, he felt his blood turn cold and he felt himself shaking; he had just looked death in the eye, this young man was a stone cold killer and a deadeye shot.
He took his tack off the dead horse and started the long walk home, feeling lucky to be alive.
Cougar kept his horse walking until they had walked several miles to the east and came to a nice valley with good feed and a creek. He turned his horse loose and laid down to sleep between two rocks. Cougar slept the rest of the day and all through the night. He caught his horse the next morning. The horse was still exhausted and sore. He walked beside his horse, so that the only weight he carried was the saddle. Cougar carried his rifle; he didn’t want to have someone like Iron Mike getting the drop on him again.
After two days of walking beside his horse, the horse seemed to be regaining its strength, but Cougar kept walking, hoping to insure the recovery of his horse.
A few days ago, he had a beautiful cart that was admired by almost everyone in the Metis nation, a possible romance with the most alluring girl he had ever seen, a closeness with a family group he genuinely liked, a buffalo carcass in his wagon, and a good meal in his belly. Now, because a drunk walked into his camp, he could be hanged in Canada, he was on the verge of starvation, and leading a lame horse.
Life’s fortunes can change quickly; especially when you are trying to be someone you aren’t. He was a carpenter with a good business at Fort Edmonton, not a buffalo hunter.
They will be shocked to hear he is wanted for murder. He had a few carpenter tools in the wagon, not much more than the old Swiss carpenter had given him when he was a boy, but they were in his cart and hopefully his cart was in Great Falls.
He met some Indians on the trail. He had never seen Indians like these. There were three of them and they each had human scalps tied to their saddles.
Cougar used sign language to tell them he was Metis from Canada and the Red Coats wanted to hang him for killing a man.
Their faces showed no emotion, until he said a Red Coat was hunting him and wanted to hang him, he then saw a measure of respect emerge from the eyes of these warriors. They asked when he had last seen the Red Coat and he said he had shot his horse two days ago at the border.
The warriors admired his rifle and he thought they might try to kill him for his rifle, but instead they gave him a foot long piece of pemmican. Cougar asked how far to Great Falls and the warriors said it was two more days to walk and he would cross a good trail when he walked through these rocks hills.
He was surprised when they told him they wanted to hunt this Red Coat and they had to leave. The three warriors rode off silently as they followed Cougar’s back trail.
The three warriors were the most dangerous men Cougar had ever seen, but he had learned some valuable lessons: never show fear, and violent men respect men who are capable of violence.
They had treated him well and had even given him food to ward off starvation, but now he had a new problem, his moccasins were worn out after walking over this rocky trail and his feet would soon be bleeding if his horse didn’t overcome his lameness.
Iron Mike cached his tack under a cottonwood and continued on with just his rifle, when the bullet ripped through his thigh and he felt his right boot fill up with blood almost immediately. He looked down to see the pulsing of his blood moving his military issue riding trousers. He knew this would be his last fight.
The rider who shot him now was riding straight towards Mike with a lance aimed for his chest. Mike waited until the horse was only two strides away and sent a bullet through the center of the man’s chest.
The Indian dropped his lance and rode harmlessly by Mike to fall and die a few seconds later. The second rider was charging right behind the first, he fired and missed Mike. Mike drew his revolver and fired three rounds before the last round hit the man in the center of the forehead, rolling him backwards out of the saddle. Mike emptied his revolver at the third rider as the lance tore through his chest, killing him instantly.
The third rider turned his horse to look at the battle scene and the glory that no one would hear ever about at tribal fires. He could hear the air sucking through the hole in his chest as the lung filled with blood and he felt lightheaded while drowning in his own blood.
He thought to himself, “These Red Coats are great warriors,” he raised his hand to appeal to the spirit world and fell from his saddle to die a few minutes later gasping for air.
Cougar rode the last thirty miles into Great Falls and found his people camped upstream on the North side of the river. They greeted him like long lost family and made cooked a feast of buffalo hump roast and potatoes.
Hawk’s Cry traded several roasts for a new pair of over the ankle winter moccasins for Cougar and he was touched by her concern for his welfare.
After dinner that night, Cougar asked Jerome what he planned to do. Jerome said there was free land in Oregon and he thought they could all go there together in the spring. Cougar felt tears come to his eyes at the sense of belonging to a family group. The two men embraced and Cougar told him they would head to Oregon together.
That night, as Cougar was sleeping in his teepee, Hawk’s Cry slipped in between his blankets. At first he thought she was cold, but then he realized she had ideas of her own. He had no idea of what to do, but Hawk’s Cry was an excellent teacher. From that moment on, they communicated in the language of love. The next morning, she moved all her belongings into Cougar’s teepee and they became a couple for the rest of their days.
The winter seemed a magical time for Cougar’s family. He and Hawk’s Cry fell deeper in love with the passage of time. The family had great meals in the evening and Jerome’s family had a quick mind for learning the English of the frontiersmen.
The fur trader of Great Falls paid Cougar a twenty dollar gold piece to build a twenty by twenty log home.
People were amazed at Cougar’s craftsmanship and tried to entice Cougar into staying in the area to build homes, but Cougar wanted to distance himself from his crime in Canada and Oregon, with its free land, seemed like a good idea.
In the spring after the creeks and rivers settled down and were safe to cross, the little family of four, that was soon to be a family of five, set out to the southwest, hopefully to join up with emigrants on the North side of the snake, and continue on to Oregon.
They were on a well-worn trail that had been used for thousands of years by buffalo hunters, but now the trail was busy with miners headed north to the Montana Gold Rush of 1860. The miners were causing resentment among the native people, and there were already incidents of violence.
Cougar’s family avoided the hostility, because they traveled with women and showed respect to the natives they met on the trail.
The trail was an ancient migration route that had served Indians and wildlife for thousands of years as it weaved through the mountain valleys and crossed into the country that was to become Idaho. In Idaho the winds raged and left them exhausted at the end of each day.
They met some Shoshone along a fast, deep river and asked the name of the river. The leader made a wriggling motion with his hand out away from his body several times. In the international language of the Plains Indian, this meant the River of Many Fish.
Jerome and Cougar made sure they traded with the Indians they met. Cougar kept them well supplied with buffalo and elk with his Sharps rifle. Cougar also carved small figures of buffalo, fish, eagles, and horses. The Indians considered them to be sacred talismans and traded valuable goods and camas root for them.
On an early morning during breakfast, Cougar and his family saw five Indian buffalo hunters on horseback chasing a buffalo that bristled from so many arrows stuck in its hide, that he looked like a big speed porcupine; except the bull was much faster than a porcupine and much faster than the exhausted Indian ponies. None of the arrows seemed to be deep or lethal enough to cause the animal to slow down enough to allow them to finish him with their spears.
Cougar pulled his Sharps out of the scabbard and at a distance of two hundred yards, put a 50 caliber round just behind the left shoulder of the running buffalo in mid-stride. In the split second before the front feet hit the ground, the animal lost all control and power in its front legs and collapsed onto his great shaggy head. His momentum caused him to roll on over onto his back after standing on his head for an instant, he bounced on his back and into the air twice before the massive body came to a complete stop. He was dead.
The Indians yelled out some cheers and held their bows in the air and then rode over to the dead bull and attacked the still bleeding carcass like wolves. While Cougar’s family began to break camp, they noticed the Indians cutting off long portions of the gut and squeezing out the contents from one end and eating the intestine from the other end. Another Indian was eating the heart and still another was eating from a huge chunk of raw liver.
Jerome laid his hand on Cougar’s shoulder and said in a mixture of languages and sign, “They are starving. Their bodies tell them to eat the most nutritious organs first; this is what starvation looks like. You are a good provider my son; otherwise, we might be in the same condition.”
The scene had a profound effect on Cougar, and he vowed to never allow his wife or her parents to ever go hungry.
They passed near the carcass and the Indians waved them over. There were five of them and they had the bull cut up and divided into six equal piles on the hide. The Indians loaded one of the piles into the two carts along with the huge tongue as a measure of appreciation. They each rode up to Cougar and touched him with their hands and bows to try and share in his uncanny accuracy with the rifle.
Cougar reached under the seat and gave each of them a small wooden talisman and for the young chief, Bull Calf, he placed a buffalo carving, about half the size of a fist with a small hole drilled through its back and suspended from a leather thong, around his neck.
It was this small act of kindness that insured the legacy of Cougar and their safety. The Blackfeet were in a famine and Cougar broke the famine. He later gave the hunters talismans and they all had great success from that point forward. Cougar was given a status of protection until they passed into Oregon and later on the protection was extended to Colonel Fallon’s wagon train. He was considered to be a shaman and a legend among Indians of the Northwest.
The word spread by moccasin telegraph of the Metis from Canada with the repeating rifle who never needed a second shot, who was a shaman who carved animal spirits from wood that gave hunters and warriors extra spiritual guidance. Thus many Indians were willing to travel for days to get a buffalo or elk carving that would enhance their hunting skills.
Whether there was actually magic in the carvings is debatable, but the results were never in dispute, for the Blackfoot nation once again regained their hunting luck and the tribe began eating well. To the mind of a stone-age man, Cougar was the man who changed their luck, many gamblers of modern cultures blame lesser objects for good luck or bad. Perhaps Cougar gave them the confidence they needed or maybe there was magic in his carvings, the main thing was that the people were no longer starving and they gave the credit to Cougar.
Cougar had heard the miners speak of the Snake River and how treacherous it was, but if it was more treacherous than the River of Many Fish, it must be an extremely dangerous river, it was at that moment, he realized the problem. The Whites were interpreting the wavy hand-signal as the symbol for a Snake, when it was actually the symbol for many fish. This was a great relief and he quit looking for a ford. He could now follow the Snake on the North bank and join up with a wagon train on this side or he could meet a wagon train on the north side of the Three Island Crossing.
As they traveled on the plateaus of the North Snake, they were accepted without the hostility and animosity that was building because of the increased traffic of miners and emigrants. The Indians were intrigued by these mixed bloods, who were fluent in sign and traveling in these amazing carts. They came to trade salmon and flint knives for amulets carved by Cougar. The carved salmon, buffalo, horses, and eagles were the most popular.
Cougar’s group came to the Three Island Crossing and he did a brisk business repairing damaged wagons. He passed up opportunities to travel with different groups because he felt there was a need to wait for the right wagon train.
When Cougar saw Colonel Fallon with his cavalry hat, he knew that this was the group he was supposed to pair up with. He stood by on the bank and watched helplessly while Captain Levin drowned, but when his body was recovered along with the wreckage of his wagon, he started building the Captain a casket from the wreck of the wagon.
Colonel Fallon was astounded at the speed and accuracy that the young man used to create the dove tail corners and mortise and tenon top and bottom.
After the little ceremony, Cougar asked the Colonel for permission to join the wagon train. He told him he comes with his own Blackfeet escort that will follow them to Oregon and make sure they will not lose stock to horse thieves and they will not be attacked.
The Colonel was suspicious, but Cougar told him he was regarded as a type of shaman and the Blackfeet had sworn to protect him as long as he was in their territory.
The Colonel called over Mr. Tomlin to translate for him since there was a combination of languages and the Colonel wasn’t sure of the message. Mr Tomlin and Cougar talked in sign and then Cougar turned to call in the Blackfoot chief with the buffalo carving, and he and Mr. Tomin engaged in several minutes of parley in sign.
“Colonel, we best take this young Metis, Cougar is his name, with us. He is the best insurance policy we can have. Anyone who tries to hurt him will die by the hand of these hostiles. They rarely like each other, but Cougar kept their tribe from starving and they figure he is pretty special. We better take him and be glad he wants to travel with us.”
The Colonel was surprised at Mr. Tomlin’s candor and trust. He turned to look Cougar in the eye and said to Mr. Tomlin, “Tell him we try to make fifteen to twenty miles a day and he and his father-in-law will be expected to keep up and pitch in with camp chores.”
Mr. Tomlin used sign to translate the message and Cougar broke into a big grin and replied in sign.
Mr. Tomlin looked at the Colonel and said, “He says the two carts can easily make fifty miles a day and he is an excellent hunter and marksman, if we need meat.”
Cougar laughed grabbed his rifle and said something to his wife in the native language and jumped on his horse to ride off with the Blackfeet.
Later on that afternoon, Cougar returned and the two carts headed North and returned close to dark with half a buffalo in each cart. Some of the wagon train members came to him with tears in their eyes to thank him for the fresh meat; many of them had been living on fry bread and a few bits of smoked salmon they had traded the last of their silver coins for.
Cougar had made friends once again.
Epilogue: This is a novel with a degree of historical accuracy. The characters are fictional; their struggles are real and based heavily on the author’s experiences in the wild country.