Anticipation hung thick in the air. Energy buzzed to the point where it was almost tangible between both man and beast. A group of weather-worn buckskin clad men sat aboard nervous ponies well-aware of the rising excitement. Their mounts pranced anxiously just below the crest of a ridge, tossing their heads in impatience. The eyes of the men fixed intently ahead on a sentry concealed near the ridgeline. Grass danced lazily about the hidden man, revealing to the hunters the wind had remained in their favor. Perhaps fortune would fall to their favor on this day?
Just on the other side of the ridge, a small group of bison were meandering across the valley floor, unaware they were being watched. As with all life in this part of the country, the movements of the buffalo were slow, deliberate, and dictated by a sense of time that had already eroded as you moved further east. Their heads would drop to the ground as they snatched a bit of the short stiff prairie grass they had given their name to. Once a mouthful was procured, they would snap their heads to attention and gaze about the grassland. This was no doubt a habit gained from millennia in a constant dance with prairie predators who lurking about. Ever so slowly, the wary but unsuspecting herd crossed in front of the waiting ambush.
As the bison moved closer their fate was sealed. The lookout slowly crept away on knees and elbows, moving silently toward the group. Reaching a point beneath the skyline where he could no longer be discovered by his prey, he popped up and scurried back to his party.
“Check yer’ powder boys,” he whispered as he approached the group “We’ll be dinin on buffler tanight.” The flash of his eyes and a mustached smirk told the men everything was going according to plan. The trap was set, and now it was to be sprung. As the lookout swung aboard his mount, the surrounding horsemen made the final inspection of their gear. Rifles were inspected, priming powder examined, pistols were secured. It was only a matter of time now. A brief look among the group signaled all were ready. Moccasined heels thump sharply into the ponies ribs. The hunt was on.
Sensing the building excitement the horses themselves tossed their heads and pranced nimbly onward. Energized by the electricity in the air, the horses pushed against the steel bits in their mouths. As with water released from the dam, soon the horses and men began building speed as they approached the ridgeline. Soft hoofs beat louder, and louder, until the rumbling sound resembled a slow rolling thunder often heard on this windswept prairie. The fragile control of the riders was quickly crumbling. Gaining speed, and with blood running hot in their veins, they had hit the point of no return. The tension finally burst as one man let out a war whoop that would have scared the fletching off a blackfoot arrow. “AAAAYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEE!” The weathered calvary gave their ponies their heads and the rush was on.
Pounding hoofs took the men over the hill just in time to see the buffalo bolting across the flat meadow below. Horses dug hard after the fleeing beasts and like a flash raced down the hill in pursuit. Ears pinned and nostrils flared as the the horses ran for all they were worth. Determination shone from their eyes, as if they too were chasing down tonight’s sustenance. Try as they might, the buffalo herd had been caught flat footed, and the mountain calvary was bearing down hard upon them.
As the ponies gained on the fleeing herd, each man balanced deftly atop their steed. It wasn’t common practice to go running buffalo like this, but the men had been caught up in the thrill of the moment. Soon they were right in the midst of the confused beasts. Ponies, men, and buffalo, all wil hot blood running through their veins sped across the prairie. Dust mixed with the air and somewhere another war cry burst from an energized rider. Without warning a shot rang out, then another, and another. One big bull stumbled near the fringe of the herd and dove face first to a stop. As he fell still a giant cloud of dust rose up around him and several cows tried to dodge the fallen patriarch. Another bull met a similar fate and keeled over, piling up into an old fallen log.
The climax of the fallen bulls let the steam out of the hunting party. They reined in their horses, and drew to a stop. Beneath each man, the chest of their horse expanded and contracted as they consumed huge breaths of air. White foam had formed in the corners of their mouths from their exertion, but slowly they were regaining their sense of balance. As the riders regained control of their mounts, they wheeled back toward the fallen buffalo.
“Haha!” one man shouted. “Bufflers down!”
“Tobbins and Miller, took em down!” exclaimed another.
“Tobbins!” another voice rang out in jest, “least you coulda dropped one o’ them fat cows, besides these two hare old bulls.”
The man named Tobbins paid this banter no mind as he approached the closer of the fallen beasts. Near the bull, Tobbins dismounted and dropped his rein. Making meat strikes a chord buried inside the soul of a wild man, and the man they called Tobbins was no different. Confident, and proud of his marksmanship while aboard his galloping mount, he reached to his back and drew his hunting knife. Skinning and butchering wouldn’t take long with the extra hands about. As this party was on the move, they would likely ditch the carcass with all but the meat they could eat and carry along. It was simply the way of these nomadic white men.
Within a step of the downed buff, with a smile on his face Tobbins raised his hands and called out boastfully, “McEllroy you pilgrim! You an this hare buffler look like you came from the same kin!”
Just then, and without warning the buffalo at the man’s feet burst back into life. The ball had not punctured any vital organs, only ricocheting off the spinal cord and temporarily paralyzing the old warrior. With the dexterity and speed belied by his great strength the bull was on his feet in an instant. A fire of revenge and anger flared in his black eyes, and he looked for his assailant.
Tobbin’s eye’s widened and fear gripped his features. He too reacted with an instinctive quickness, fleeing back to his mount. An old wounded bull such as this could easily tear a man to pieces. His moccasined feet sprang quickly with each step drawing closer to his now alert horse. Tobbins ran like he had never ran before as he knew his life depended on it. Hazarding a quick glance over his shoulder he saw his saving grace. In his rage, the bull had targeted the tree stump he had fallen upon and took his fury out on it. It was just then the bull had spotted his fleeing adversary, and immediately changed course. His sharp hooves beat into the ground as he lowered his head to attack. Tobbins tried to mount his horse, but the startled animal sidestepped the foresaken man and left him afoot. The end of Tobbins was fast approaching and sunlight glinted off the horns of the charging beast.
The quick turn of events had caught the other men of the hunting party unprepared. As their mounts wheeled from the crazed bull, the hunters simply held on and tried to maintain the advantage of staying mounted with a wounded and ferocious bull on the fight. One man though, the seasoned hunter named McEllroy, had been ready. He had not discharged his rifle in the earlier foray. Primed and ready, he kicked his mount with great haste toward the frenzy. With his long hair blowing in the wind, he was Tobbin’s last chance of survival and he knew it.
Riding hard, he cleared Tobbin’s mount and had one chance. The bull was within feet of the stranded Tobbin’s and moving fast. McEllroy brought the familiar stock of his .54 caliber Pennsylvania rifle to his face. Steady nerves combined with the haste of the situation came together as the hunter zeroed in all of his concentration in an instant. Focusing quickly on a spot in the center of the great beast’s head, McEllroy instinctively pulled the trigger. The rifle boomed, and a cloud of smoke momentarily obscured his view.
Once the smoke cleared McEllroy looked, and to his satisfaction, the bull lay dead within a breath of his companion’s feet. Blood ran red from its mouth and nostrils, and was also seeping forth from a small hole in his head. Fortunately for the hard breathing Tobbins, life had left the old bull as quickly as it had reappeared only moments before. One moment longer and there likely would have been two dying creatures on the prairie sands.
On shaky knees Tobbins wide eyes shifted slowly toward the mounted McEllroy. Both men realized how unlikely the shot had been. Not only had McEllroy been able to hit a dead bull’s-eye on a charging buffalo from horse back, but the fact the ball had even penetrated the skull was improbable. Fortunately for Tobbins, luck had been with him on this day.
The eyes of the two grizzled hunters met. Relief and gratitude were certainly apparent in Tobbin’s eyes. No words were necessary in these parts. The look alone was enough to pass between them. For just a moment they let the gravity of the situation sink in.
Then, to break the silence, McEllroy leaned forward in his saddle. “Pilgram, eh?” He spat in the dirt as he turned his horse. “Waugh!”
Hey there Pilgrim, if you enjoyed this story you might like another short story based on an Alfred Jacob Miller painting; The Lost Greenhorn.
The mountain man possibles bag was an essential piece of equipment those mountain adventurers simply could not live without.
“It kind of looks like a purse,” I commented after I had completed it. I had just put the final few stitches through my first mountain man possibles bag and was admiring my creation. My wife just smirked as she tends to do when one of my projects is complete. As I ran my fingers over the supple brain tanned buckskin, I couldn’t help but a bit of pride creep in. About a year ago that particular piece of deer hide had been wandering the quiet land it inhabited before my well-placed arrow laid it down. Now it would help tote along gear I needed close at hand on my next hunt. Completing these kinds of full circle projects is always deeply satisfying.
The mountain man possibles bag was one of the trapper’s most necessary pieces of equipment. Besides his knife, and his rifle, it may likely his next most essential belonging. In actuality, without his possibles bag his rifle would likely have been almost near useless. Almost.
A possibles bag carried what mountain men referred to as their possibles. Possibles were all things the man might possibly need while out traveling. Things like shooting tools, fire starting materials, and bullets could be carried in this pouch. Oftentimes an interior pocket was sewn to the inside to allow for more organization to the bag. The possibles bag is a good representation of how resourceful the mountain men were. All of the basics tools they needed to survive in their rugged landscape was what they could carry on their person. It helps to prove that if you can take more knowledge with you as you travel, you don’t need nearly as many tools.
For my possibles bag I chose to blend a few bits of historic resources I had at my disposal. There was a photograph of an Lakota shooting bag in James Hanson’s book titled Little Chief Gatherings that caught my eye while reviewing the artifacts. Although I didn’t copy this shooting bag completely, it served as the guide for dimensions and basic structure. I also examined a few of Alfred Jacob Miller’s paintings and the possibles bags of the American Mountain Men Rocky Mountain Outfit. After viewing the historical examples I came across, I created my own unique bag to fit my taste.
Making the Bag
As mentioned the bag I designed was created from buckskin I tanned from last year’s deer. I hand sewed the entire project and used artificial sinew as my thread. My bag ended up being around 22 cm wide and 25 cm deep. The strap is 4 cm wide and 110 cm long also made of buckskin. One little accessory I wanted to include was a bullet pouch I noticed on the Lakota example. This pouch was 7 cm wide by 14 cm deep. Whether it is historically accurate for mountain men, it’s hard to say. I’m sure certain men had their own preferences when they constructed their gear. Either way I thought it would be a handy extra pocket to have to carry bullets, shells, or even extra arrow components.
When it came to putting the bag together the process unfolded pretty straightforward. I cut my front flap to the dimensions I desired. I then traced around that pattern and left extra material at the top that would become the flap of the bag. Next I needed to cut a piece of fringe material I would welt into the bottom seam. With that, most of my material was cut to size and ready for stitching.
Attaching this fringe was the biggest challenge I faced. When putting the project together I wanted to sew the project inside out to conceal the stitching. The problem was the fringe would have been trapped if I just sewed all the way around the edge. This was due to the fact I cut my fringe as a U shape. Looking back if I had simply cut the fringe straight it would have been much easier. I decided that if I started by sewing the bottom edge first I could manipulate the fringe piece easier as I sewed.
Once the stitching started it went pretty quickly. I first punched holes with my awl, widened them to size, then threaded the bag using a whip stitch. With the bag complete, I just needed to cut and attach my shoulder strap. Fellas used to wear this generally just below the elbow near the waistline. It just made it easy to access. Rather than sew the strap on, I attached it with a bit of buckskin so it would have the ability to “float”. I got this concept from the Lakota bag I saw. The bullet bag is connected in much the same way.
With the mountain man possibles bag complete I now have a major component of my gear complete. The bag accomplishes a few important things. One, it gives me a handy bag for lots of things I need while out and about. Secondly though, the possibles bag gives me some boundaries to work with. In today’s world we are so used to loading up bags, and pickups, and campers with gear that we think we have to pack along everything but the kitchen sink. It’s just not the case. The possibles bag gives me some real dimensions to work with when it comes to limiting my gear. It’s true that mountain men used packhorses extensively and they had much more gear than their possibles. It is also true however that with their knife, rifle, and possibles, they could stay alive for extended periods of time.
The mountain man possibles bag is a great piece of gear. Not only it is a historically accurate aspect of gear, but it can force you to really scrutinize your gear. Finally, the possibles bag is a very functional piece of gear. Even just the first few times I wore it, it became apparent how convenient it would be on hunting and trapping trips. All that being said…I still think it looks like a purse.
A stiff breeze coursed across the plains. Slate gray clouds overhead stretched from horizon to horizon, blocking any of the sun’s warming rays. As a result dull light cast itself over the tall grass prairie. For miles in all directions rolling hills undulated under the pressure of the passing wind, the whipping grasses conveying a sense of life unleashed. Meadowlarks traveled effortlessly on the brisk yet powerful wind, at times nearly out of control riding the rushing air currents. Hobbled horses on the edge of a small encampment nervously pricked their ears and alertly scanned the grassland. Like many animals, wind made the horses nervous. A big rawboned bay whinnied from the edge of the herd, manifesting the nervousness each of the thin horses felt. Though worsening weather was moving in, the group of men encamped on the open prairie had their attention fixed on other matters.
A small circle of buckskin clad men had gathered near the center of a temporary camp. Their fringed hunting shirts dancing carelessly in the breeze along with their unkempt hair. From beneath battered hats, weathered faces peered at the situation unfolding before them. Two men stood facing one another, each posturing with squared shoulders showing their resolve and defiance toward the other. Although the younger man was new to this wild land, a fire had built within him due to the strict orders of the man with gray streaked hair across from him. On the other hand the older man’s contempt for the greenhorn was obvious as it had been since the start of this journey. The space between the two men was filled with a palpable tension, their eyes stared hard into the other’s. Young and fiery eyes met the stare of old tempered eyes without flinching.
“Jist settle down thar Johnson and don’t get yer bristles up,” the cold silence was interrupted by one of the bystanders. “Booshways got the lead out here.”
“Well I don’t spose I’ll take no more orders from this man, booshway or not,” was the obstinate response from the young man.
“That’s good boy,” came the quick and forbidding response from the older man. His streaked hair tossing in the wind.“This prairie has a way of edjucatin tenderfoot like you anyhow.”
“We’ll jist see about that. I reckon I ken do jist fine. Been takin care of myself fer some time now. Don’t spose this prarie ken be much difernt from them Virginia mountains. A man with a rifle an a bit o sense ought to do a dern sight better than we’re doing now.”
“Then gather yor possibles and fetch up one o them cayuses. Put yer saddle on em an ride out. No sense dealin with a stubborn fool like you anyhow.” With that the old man had sealed the fate of the young hothead to exile in this barren land.
Unwilling to show the trepidation he was feeling, the young man named Hiram Johnson turned slowly away from the confrontation. His gaze stayed fixed on the steely eyes of his adversary until the last moment. He then turned his back on the booshway and split the onlooking crowd, taking deliberate strides toward his meager belongings. Within minutes he had secured everything in the world he called his; his possibles, a blanket, hunting knife, riding saddle, quirt, his powder horn, and a trusty Lancaster flintlock he called Abigail. Storming up to herd, he caught up the nearest available mount. It turned out to be a stubby legged white horse with a shaggy mane and wild look in its eye. As the upset man approached the small horse its eyes flared and it pulled back, its nervous nature fanned by the aura of the agitated man.
A few of Hiram’s former companions drifted near the edge of camp to watch his departure. The experienced men realized the dire straights young Hiram was heading toward. Mountain men rarely ventured out alone. Sure, maybe in two’s and three’s, but a man alone was sure enough a dead man. Too many Blackfeet in this part of the country especially. At times a full brigade of trappers could scarcely fend off their vicious attacks. Besides that, just the chores of survival would eat up nearly all the time of a solitary man. The complete lack of experience of the greenhorn would also certainly put him at a disadvantage. At least the booshway had offered him the use of a horse. It was the absolute least he could do to clear his conscience.
One of the things that drew young Hirman Johnson to these western lands was the freedom they offered. It was this urge for freedom that chafed when the booshway, Uriah Clermont, set to ordering him around. Sure he had signed up for service to the company, but he hadn’t enlisted in the army. Too many rules and orders to follow just didn’t suit him. Out here life was supposed to be free with each man standing solid on his own two feet. It wasn’t supposed to be about about menial labor. Hiram Johnson was a leader in his own mind, above simply tending the camp.
As he saddled his horse he recounted the list of wrongs Clermont had perpetrated against him thus far. Doing so only added fuel to the fire within and soon his wild temper had flared again. His inner thoughts became visible as his actions saddling the horse turned almost violent. With a sharp tug he tightened the cinch on the skittish horse, tacking out some of his frustration on the beast. Grabbing the saddle he tried to swing aboard his mount to take his glamorous exit. His haste and frustration though had been well-noticed by the naturally nervous horse. The gelding quickly sidestepped out from underneath the man as he attempted to climb aboard. This evasive maneuver only stoked the temper of the young hothead, in turn only raising the nervousness of the horse. Each time the man would try and mount, the horse would circle away and evade.
Well aware of the small crowd watching his now embarrassing departure, Hiram tried to collect himself in order to calm the horse. He spoke softly though roughly under his breath to the quivering white horse. “Settle down now you ol’ hoss.”
Like most folks of the day Hiram had grown up around horses and prided himself on being able to handle even the rankest horse out there. Now at its side he grabbed the bridle near the horse’s mouth and yanked it hard towards him. In doing so the horse could now only spin in tight circles, unable to evade the haughty man. As Hirman mounted he held tight to the bridle of the tightly spinning horse and swung into the saddle. Once mounted he released the bridle and sat tight as the horse made a short dash until it realized the now changed situation.
Hiram Johnson sat astride the nervous horse and gazed out into the dull prairie surrounding him. Nothin but grass, he thought to himself somewhat worried. He now wished he had not let his anger overtake him the past few days. Old Uriah Clermont may have been a lousy booshway, but he sure did know his way around these parts. Hiram somewhat remembered vague directions to a nearby army fort, but his dislike for Clermont had caused him to tune him out the past week or so. Not only that, but with no landmarks to follow he’d be hardpressed to find his way. These thoughts fell hard upon the young man’s psyche as he prepared to ride out.
It was at that moment his pride and anger overrode any sense of fear or humility he was feeling. Fools, he thought to himself. I ain’t no dern tenderfoot like they think. I’ll be fine on my own.
With that he turned to look over his shoulder at the small encampment one last time. A few of the men still watched on silently as Hiram took his leave, but most had gone back to their general business. Scanning the camp he saw no men he would genuinely miss. These men had never truly understood him and never let him become the leader he was meant to be. It was better this way, he imagined to himself. He gave the pony a quick kick in the ribs and turned his eyes to face his uncertain future.
“Arghhhhh!” Hiram’s temper finally erupted. He had been out from camp for three days now and was quite certain his bones would be bleached by the prairie sun. Since leaving he had failed to find any available water or game. Wind had blown incessantly since his departure, nearing gale force at the present time. Not only that but each time he would crest one of the rolling hills it only seemed to open up into country more empty and vast than from where he came. Although he wasn’t certain, he couldn’t shrug off the inkling he had actually already crossed the country he was currently in. “What kind of foresaken country is this anyhow!” he shouted to the sky, he words quickly snatched by the wind. “No food! No water! No timber!” His tirade was only fueling his anger. “An enough of the dern WIND!”
“Hmph,” he sulked to himself. How had things gone so wrong, he wondered. Hiram Johnson was a master woodsman. Hiram Johnson wasn’t a tenderfoot. Hiram Johnson could get himself out of any jam. Except it seemed at this point, the more he tried to find a way out of the jam, the more he had managed to dig his way deeper into one.
He smacked his cracked lips and peeled his dry tongue from the roof of his mouth. Having not tasted water since his departure it was fast becoming obvious this was his number one priority. In the mountains of Virginia a man was never more than a few hours walk from a stream of some sort. This desolate country surely was awful dry. Dry enough to kill a man, the cold reality sat front and center in his mind. The failing pony beneath him suffered from the same affliction. Unless they were able to quench their thirst soon the duo would not last much longer.
Pushing onward, Hiram heeled the pony in the ribs once again. The exhausted white horse slowly ambled forward struggling to stay upright on tired legs. Hiram’s momentary anger had subsided and now a sense of self-pity mixed with fear filled the void. As he sat aboard the horse, falling into the slow rhythm of its walk, he contemplated his situation. He had never been in country like this before. Hills of grass turned into only more hills of grass. Rains seldom fell from the sky. Game at times seemed plentiful, but where had it disappeared to?
He also wondered about Indians he might encounter. While sitting around the fire with his old brigade he had heard stories of how friendly and welcoming many of the tribes were. Winter months in the mountains were often passed in their lodges smoking, eating, and forming friendships. There were also tales of the hostile tribes. The Arikara, the Blackfeet, and the underhanded Crow all had a reputation with the mountain men as to be carefully watched. If he were to survive he would surely stumble upon one nation soon or later. The fear became visceral as he imagined a warrior with streaming black braids swooping down upon his with a lance. He heard stories it was a warrior’s lance like that which killed poor Jedidiah Smith. If Smith could die…realization smacked him dead in the face.
He was in over his head and he knew it. If only his anger hadn’t overtaken him. If only he had simply did his job like the booshway had requested, then he wouldn’t be in a pinch like this. Like a young boy yearning for his mother, Hiram Johnson ached for his green hills of Virginia. He longed for the sweet creek behind the house and the damp shade of an old oak. It was a sadness that filled his chest. If there had been a hole, young Hiram would have surely crawled into it.
The white horse began to ascend a steep hill ahead of them. Each step was deliberate, and the strength required seemed to be consciously summoned each time. Higher and higher they rose to the promontory point ahead. Together the duo hoped the crest would reveal something other than the emptiness they had grown so accustomed to.
Anticipation built as the marched onward and upward. Please let there be something. Anything! Hiram wished earnestly to himself. Topping the rise at first he saw only a rising cloud to the north billowing high into the heavens. Slowly though he noticed the endless hills had broken and a large flat plain opened up below. Small groups of cottonwoods dotted the landscape, their supple limbs bending deftly in the wind.
His confidence was slightly bolstered by the change in scenery. At least he hadn’t been riding in circles. Still, his parched lips quickly reminded him of the dire straights he faced. Although the trees should signal water, he failed to spot any from his perch. Then, off in the distance to the west, something caught the attention of his horse. The weary white horse perked up and with wild eyes stared intently in that direction. Hiram followed its stare, finding movement near the horizon line several miles distant. He strained forward in the saddle to gain a better look, his hand shielding what light there was. All of the sudden a burst of air blasted him from behind nearly ripping his blanket off the saddle. Hiram paid it no mind and kept his focus intently on the distant movement.
Through squinted eyes Hiram slowly watched the far off activity with anticipation. It appeared to be a small group of people encamped near the edge of a creek. “Water,” the words actually slipped from his mouth. His hope for survival was buoyed by the dual prospect of water and a fellow human. Who are those people? He wondered. Studying the scene from afar he watched, trying to determine whether the group was friend or foe. They lacked the teepees of the plains tribes he reasoned. Must be white men. The group numbers about 40 men by the looks of things. About the size of my old brigade. This though sunk into his mind. Soon the reality of the situation dawned on him. The brigade camped near the first water he had seen in three days was the same brigade that had sent him to exile.
Embarrassment initially filled up in Hiram’s body. He quickly dispatched it and reminded himself this barren prairie was not his element. If he was to die, it would not be at the hands of foolish pride. He nudged his pony in the protruding ribs and the pair ambled toward the camp. So many thoughts coursed through Hiram’s mind it was hard to make sense of it all. What would he say? Would they allow him back? Should he just turn around and prove his mettle? No, he reasoned, it was that kind of thinking that dern near got him killed in the first place. Speaking of killed, he wondered, what’ll old Clermont think o all this? He held the course toward camp not knowing the reception he would receive.
As he closed the distance to just a few hundred yards a few men in the camp noticed the approaching horseman. One man in a red flannel shirt and buckskin trousers walked toward the edge of camp and peered in his direction while leaning on his rifle. The man turned his head over his shoulder toward camp and shouted something indiscernible through the incessant wind. It was at that point most of the eyes in camp stopped whatever they were doing and stared in young Johnson’s direction. All seemed almost frozen for a second. A few blankets flapped in the breeze, blue pipe smoke rose above the several individuals, while others sat holding fresh buffalo ribs. Through the cluttered camp Hiram could see one man in particular striding toward the sentry who sent the cry through camp. It was a sturdy man with gray streaked hair falling from beneath the battered wide brimmed hat. Uriah Clermont was coming to greet him.
At this point the exhausted rider and his dog-tired horse had to simply ride out the next few minutes to see what their fortunes held. A lump was building in young Hiram’s throat as he rode up. As he approached camp no friendly greetings met him, no good natured jeering, only silence. Cold, hard, silence.
He went to speak, but the drought in his throat made speech difficult and only a coarse and cracked “Howdy,” could he whisper.
His greeting was met with only the stern stare of Uriah Clermont’s steeled eyes. The awkward moment did not sit well with the young exile. Not knowing what to do next Hiram tried to clear his throat to speak. The dryness in his throat seized him and nearly gagged him. It forced him to begin coughing somewhat uncontrollably for a brief period. Once the coughing fit was over he looked up and noticed the booshway had remained unchanged, his probing eyes examining the parched rider. Their eyes met as they had several days ago, only this time the tempered eyes of the old man met the eyes of a beaten and humiliated man. He could tell the fight had run out of that pup. Unlike several days before, this time Hiram broke his gaze and looked toward the ground in obvious deference to the weathered booshway.
“Whell pilgrim,” came the curt reply from Uriah “I reckon you done decide you’d jist walk on back in this har outfit. Come crawling back n we’d jist kinda welcom ya back all cozy like. You thought thatd shine in this crowd didja?” The old booshway’s eyes sparked amusement, as if the irony of the situation hadn’t already dawned on the young man.
“No sir,” came the hoarse reply. “I bin days with nigh a solitary drink sir. Though, if you’d allow me to drink from that ther stream yonder I’d surely be in yer debt. Ma horse been needin a drink az well. Plumb tuckered out he is.”
“Corse you ain’t had a drink flatlander,” the rebuttal was nearly out of Uriah’s mouth before Hiram had quit talking. He wasn’t scolding the young man, but there was a certain deadly seriousness in his tone. “This land ain’t got no water. Only a fool’d ride out away from hit. An yer jist dern lucky yer hare ain’t hangin from some warriors lance. Them Blackfoot bin ridin all oer this prairie.”
With nothing to say the defeated young man only continued to stare toward the ground. Like a pup that had just taken a lashing, Hiram wanted no more. Uriah hadn’t yet made up his mind on the young man. Without a doubt the fire had been taken out of him, that was obvious. What he couldn’t deal with was the aura of superiority the young man had beamed with only a few days before. No place in camp for a tenderfoot who wouldn’t keep the camp.
“Go git yersef and that cayuse a drink boy,” Uriah spoke as more of an order than an offering. “You let that horse drink till its content an you’ll kill it. Let em drink, but jist a bit fer now.”
“Thank ya sir,” Hiram replied as he once again returned the eye contact. Relief soon followed as at least he’d get some water. Hiram dismounted and walked his mount skirting camp. His sore legs barely carried him to the cool current. As he knelt down to drink in the waterlogged creekside his horse pressed in, nearly stepping on Hiram in his haste. Both man a beast drank the water down. Just a little at first, but as the moisture returned to their throats it was like a dam had burst and the water flowed in big gulps. “Ahhhhhhh,” Hiram’s satisfaction could not be contained as he pulled his dripping face from the water. It was as if life itself had been injected into his veins. Next to him the horse was noisily sucking down huge gulps of water. The pair stayed at the creek for several minutes alternately drinking their fill and giving their bodies time to accept the new nourishment.
“Hiram!” The shout came from camp. “Grab yer hoss and git har.”
Hiram turned to see Uriah standing near the edge of camp looking his direction. Somewhat refreshed, but still much humbled, Hiram obeyed the simple command. As the space closed he had a feeling Uriah had made up his mind. Just what that decision was however, was still a mystery.
“Well, I spect the prairie done taught you a thing er two pilgrim. I haint bout to let no surly pork eater come waltzin back ta this brigade. These har mountain jist ain’t real forgivin fer that type a conduct.”
Hiram’s heart sunk. He had hoped for some small token of compassion from this man. His thoughts turned toward the barren prairie, to the fresh memory of a parched throat, and to the threat of Blackfeet lurking about. He’d have to turn back he reasoned. No chance he’d make it going forward alone. With a great deal of luck he might be able to follow the water back to St. Louis. That surely was a long ways off though, and given this recent foray he didn’t like his chances.
“Thar’s jist one more thing boy.” Uriah took a few steps closer. Now he was standing face to face with the young man, gray eyes fixed onto his. What was it about his eyes that never seemed to lose intensity, Hiram wondered. “I’m needin some pots cleaned fore we break this har camp. After that, one of ma hunters is on the mend so we’s had to send the camp keepr out as well. Ifn you spose you kin muster up some vittles next time we pitch camp we might jist find room for a greenhorn like you.”
Hiram’s eyes widened slightly in shock at the turn of events. “Yes sir,” Hiram spoke up quickly. “I’d be happy to tend yer camp.”
“That’s good,” Uriah replied turning back toward camp. “Git it cleaned up an we kin break camp. Blackfoot’ll be in to steal them horses we stay har much longer. Bin a good camp though. Miller, what’d you say this here creek’s name is?”
Miller, the man in the red flannel shirt that had accompanied Uriah earlier looked surprised. “Well Uriah I don’t spose this hare crick has a name.”
“Does now.” Uriah spouted. “Lost Greenhorn Creek. Yep, I spose that name will suit it jist fine.” His eyes turned back toward Hiram once more time as if judging him for a response. If he looked closely, Hiram thought he could make out just a twinkle of humor in those hard eyes.
Hopefully you found this short story entertaining. While researching during the writing I came to realize there actually is a known account of the events that led to this painting. If you enjoyed it anyhow, you may enjoy another mountain man short story I put together titled The Battle for Bear Valley.
Using this 19th century fire starting technique with a modern twist might make you understand the past more than you’d think.
When I think about the mountain men, longhunters, and other adventurers, it’s hard not to be impressed. These men used a dash of technology, combined with a hard earned Rocky Mountain College degree, to live in the wilds for extended periods of time. For example, the mountain men of the rendezvous period only got resupplied once a year with a new outfit. These woodsmen didn’t have the luxury of forgetting something on the list and running back to the store a few weeks later. The rendezvous was it. If they didn’t buy it then they had to go without it, make it, or see if they could trade for it.
It is a time which, in my opinion, is a nice blend of technology and a working knowledge of the world. They had luxuries like steel knives, steel tomahawks, wool blankets, and metal cookware that made their lives easier. On the other hand, even with a few pack horses you could only drag along so much stuff across the landscape. In order to survive a full year, the mountain men also needed a working knowledge of the land around them. Dressing deer hides, making clothes, finding food, and learning to barter, were all skills they needed to succeed for a year at at time. One implement pivotal to the men’s survival was an everyday 19th century fire starting tool; the flint striker.
Flint and Steel Fire Starting
The flint and steel fire making method is a great long term fire starting method. Although it was not exclusive to the mountain men, it does serve as a representative symbol of their lives. With a little bit of technology (the striker), a little bit of natural material (char and tinder), and a good deal of know-how, the men could light fires all year with no problems. Although these rugged men had other methods of fire starting available, the flint and steel was most widely used and was a very easy process to learn.
Lighting a flint and steel fire takes only five ingredients. These ingredients are; a steel striker, a piece of flint, charred material, good tinder, and some knowledge. Four of these are easy to procure, and one takes a bit of experience. To make the fire you simply strike the flint against the steel to create a spark. Your goal is to land the spark on your char. Good char will catch the spark and create a glowing ember. If you’ve got good tinder, you just drop the ember in the tinder and blow it to life. It’s a very straight forward process if you’ve got experience with primitive fire making. Learning to make a flint and steel fire is not extraordinarily difficult.
The Modern Twist
Personally I’ve found the most difficult aspect of starting a flint and steel fire to be getting my sparks to land on the char. In my own defense, most folks using this method are using char cloth. I use char cloth and can catch sparks easily with it. Lately though, I’ve been using charred punk wood to start my ember. This material would have been much more likely to have been used as a fire starter by mountain men, as cloth came at a premium. The problem with punk wood is that it doesn’t catch a spark as easily as charred cloth does. What I decided to do next may not sit well with hard core traditionalists out there.
In order to create more sparks I sometimes employ the use of a modern ferro rod. These rods are very effective and greatly used by survival and bushcraft folks today. A ferro rod throws many sparks at a much hotter temperature than a flint and steel striker. When working with charred wood this comes in handy. I simply cast a few sparks into my char tin and get an ember going in just a few seconds. After that, the process is just the same as creating a flint and steel fire.
Blending the Old and the New
Although the ferro rod/char combination is not a traditional 19th century fire starting method it is still nice to know. Whether using a flint striker or a ferro rod, I prefer this concept for several reasons. One, it doesn’t require excessive gear. A simple steel, or ferro rod, and you can make fire all year. Two, both devices are fool proof. These tools work every time you use them and are nearly impossible to break. Lastly, although both use a bit of technology, the main ingredient is natural material and a skill set. Even though a ferro rod is pretty advanced in the chemistry department, it’s not something you can just start making fires with. You still need know how, knowledge of natural materials, and the right touch to get a fire going.
Again, the ferro rod/char fire starting method is not a traditional 19th century fire starting technique. However, it can be a good way to get started using other char materials rather than cloth. It is also a great tool for anyone interested in long term survival. Finally, I personally don’t feel like it is a total disregard for the mountain man time period either. The mountain men were interested in traveling light, starting fires, and having all they needed for a year’s time. The ferro rod fits all of those requirements remarkably well. It may not be the 19th century fire starting method the mountain men used, but perhaps the means of making fire for the 21st century mountain man.
If you’ve never tried smoked raccoon you seriously don’t know what you’re missing.
To be completely clear I’m probably the last person who should be eating raccoon. I never ate is growing up, though we did eat quite a bit of elk as a kid. My family doesn’t really need to eat it. We usually have other wild game in the freezer in addition to beef. And speaking of beef, my in-laws happen to operate a well-respected ranch that produces high quality beef. What in the world am I doing eating raccoon then?
Not really sure to tell you the truth. I started trapping them for their fur a few years ago and have enjoyed my time doing that. However, I was a little curious each time I would chuck away a carcass as to why I was tossing it. I also guessed that in history people would have certainly eaten the meat. I didn’t figure there was anything inherently wrong with raccoon as far as the meat goes, but yet it got tossed away. Why and what was I missing?
I was in fact missing out on a historically popular meat. Not only was raccoon meat enjoyed by Native people, but it also has deep roots in the history of European America as well. Raccoon meat was so popular in certain areas of the country that some communities even had local celebrations and cook-offs featuring the meat. A favorite on farmsteads as well, this meat is something people have been using for generations prior to the last few. If people ate it for so long, what’s been my holdup?
The best I can reckon is that raccoon has earned a bad rap for a few reasons. One reason is that coon seem to be viewed as kind of scavengers who feast mostly in garbage dumps and sewers. I guess it depends on where they are living, but I would assume the raccoons I’m trapping to get the bulk of their food from more natural sources. Most the ringtails I’m trapping are likely eating a variety of foods they natural would including fish, insects, and small critters, in addition to their diet of grains. As omnivores they can eat about anything, including the rubbish that many people associate them with. I guess I didn’t imagine my coons were eating too much refuse so I was safe there.
Another reason raccoons likely fell out of favor is their reputation for carrying diseases such as rabies. The CDC reported that in 2014 5,398 wild animals were reported to have confirmed rabies. Of those, 1,822 were raccoons. Sure, raccoons may be the #1 carrier of rabies in the United States, but that is mostly for folks east of the Appalachian mountains. This is due to the fact rabies is mostly a species specific virus. In other words there are raccoon strains, skunk strains, bat strains, fox strains, and so on, of the virus. The CDC also reports each strain can jump species, but it’s not common. You can examine these maps and see what strain of rabies is most common to your area. It will give you a clue as to which animals would be likely carriers.
Rabid animals are said to be easily identified by their behavior. This video shows a rabid raccoon one citizen happened to catch on camera.
In reality one of your biggest concerns when consuming raccoon may be the presence of worms. The linked source offers some good information about the worms and safety concerns. It also relates what is probably true in most cases; cook the meat and you’ll be safe. When eating all meat, it’s generally a good idea to cook it thoroughly and you’ll kill most bacteria that could potentially harm you. Knowing raccoon meat had a few strikes against it, I still decided to go all-in and give it a try.
The first job was to get the skin off the carcass. I skin all my own raccoons anyway, so this wasn’t a big deal to me. Once the skin was off I fleshed the pelt and hung it to dry until tanning. With that chore done I then needed to get all of the fat off the meat. Wild game fat is not like fat on domestic animals. Anyone who has hunted or trapped these fur bearers probably realizes how fatty coons are. They also probably realize that whether you’re eating deer, elk, raccoon, or goose, getting the fat off can really improve the table fare. Coons are extra greasy, so this job took some time and I wasn’t able to get the fat entirely off.
With the fat off I started to remove the big cuts of meat. These came mostly from the back end and back. The surprising thing is how little meat the carcass actually holds. Although these animals appear to be fairly full animals, they are mostly fur. Meat was not very abundant, and I would guess one raccoon would provide enough meat for one day for a semi-active hunter.
Next came the cooking. My wife mixed up a batch of our family secret; Uncle Dean’s famous rub. As you might guess it comes from Uncle Dean himself. You could smear this rub on a Goodyear and it would be palatable. The rub provides a nice blend of sweet and spicy and we put it on nearly everything we smoke. With the meat covered we put it in the fridge for a few hours to help the rub soak in.
After a few hours in the fridge the meat went on the smoker. Now, as I mentioned there wasn’t a whole lot of meat on the carcass. Not only that, but the pieces I got off had been chunked into even smaller pieces. This not only helped the rub soak in, but would also help the smoker do its thing. As mentioned, cooking the meat was to be extra important. With the smoker set at around 250˚ I let it cook and smoke for around four hours. Once the internal temperature was near 180˚ I knew we were in the money.
With the meat fully cooked and smoked I was ready to give it a try. I’ll fully admit I wasn’t sure what I was about to bite into when I stared down that first piece. What I found was an extremely tender, moist, and sweet meat. After the first few bites coon meat was flying off my plate and into my mouth. Compared to most other wild game I’ve eaten, this was very tender with little gamey taste. I wouldn’t say I could stand eating the meat, I would say I enjoyed eating the meat.
Eating smoked raccoon is surely a recipe I’ll add to my yearly diet. I saved the meat from the all the coons I’ve trapped so far this year, and will certainly keep their meat in the future. In fact one aspect of eating a wild game diet and growing our own food I like so well is getting to enjoy seasonal food. Whether it’s radishes in the spring, tomatoes in late summer, venison in the fall, and waterfowl in the winter, we get a good dose of it all. It circles back to one of my main goals; to recognize more of the abundance that is lying all around.
Not only that but it helps me make more use of the animals I trap and turns my trapping adventures into a full-circle endeavor. If you trap I’d encourage you to try smoked raccoon at least once. It’ll help your catch go further and you might enjoy it like I did. If you’re looking to experiment at catching some of your own food, you should give trapping a try. Catching coons is relatively easy and they are very abundant. You’ll not only procure some good food and fur, but you’ll help balance a population. I’d encourage you to give it a go. Happy eating!
What’s the best way to learn about a historical time period. Go to the source. Such is the case with Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Primary sources are a researcher’s, or historian’s, best friend. For those unfamiliar with the term primary source it refers to any historical artifact created during a period of study. Cave paintings, for example, are an example of a primary source for the Stone Age. Cave paintings were made during the time period by the people we want to study. From those paintings we can not only learn about the paintings, but their lives, something of their world view, and can gain insights into their world. If you really want to learn what a time period was like, a primary source is the best place to go. Another example of a primary source, this time of the mountain man era, is Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is just what is sounds like, a mountain man’s journal. This journal is generally regarded as standard reading material for those of us interested in the ways of mountain men and the time period. Like the cave paintings, this journal lets us know what trappers did, what they thought, and opens up a true window into their world. Combined with other sources of the time it can really shed light on historical skills needed to survive in the mountains. Not only is this journal academically enlightening, but its entertainment value shouldn’t be underestimated. Although I wouldn’t recommended the journal to everyone, to the right person Osborne Russell’s journal contains some truly entertaining stories.
One story you can’t help but laugh at is contained in the first few pages. It unfolds when Russell initially arrived to the mountains and was green as tender spring grass. He and some fellow trappers were on one of their first hunts when they bumped into a grizzly bear. Full of a dangerous mix of energy and inexperience the men take after the bear, shooting several balls through her while she’s in the open. Next, they proceed to trail the wounded grizz into a thick patch of nearby willows. What ensues is a story of how one man learned NOT to follow a wounded grizzly anywhere. It is one of the stories that highlights the fact these men were not mountain men when they hit the mountains. They were mountain men when they left the mountains. That can teach us a good deal about the type of men attracted to the western fur trade. These men were wildcards, with a sense of supreme self-confidence.
Russell’s hunting exploits while in the mountains also offer some great insight. He talks of numerous sheep hunts in the high country of The West. His tales of trudging up steep mountain sides, sweating all-the-while, and spooking groups of seemingly unsuspecting groups of sheep, are great tales for hunters and mountaineers alike. Although Russell appears to have favored sheep hunting, he also describes numerous hunts of a variety of other creatures. Elk, deer, buffalo, sheep, and bear are all animals he hunted while in the mountains. At times the men diligently preserved the meat from their harvest, and at time they took only what would satisfy them for the day. Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper brings on a yearning to see the herds of the past.
Not all of Russell’s tales are of adventure though. Many of his entries discuss the dangers trappers faced. One of the most exciting moments in the journal describes the time he a two fellow trappers were ambushed by a war party of Blackfoot. After taking several “fuse balls” to the leg, Russell somehow manages to find refugee in the forest. He describes his feelings from hiding as the attackers come within mere feet of him on several occasions. Picture the scene in your mind and you can almost feel the perilous situation he was in. The sand certainly seemed to be running out on his hourglass.
This particular tale is made complete as the wounded mountain man describes his journey after the attack. He, and another companion he managed to locate, began a trek through the mountains and across the sage to the closest fort. Because the men were caught unsuspecting for the attack, Russell was near naked on the trip. With night temperatures dipping into freezing he notes how cold and miserable they were. Functioning on little to no sleep, very little food, and wounded to boot, to say the trip drained the men is an understatement.
One interesting thing that stood out to me though, was how little time he spent discussing the hardships. When you read the journal, Russell spends much more effort describing hunts, the beauty of the mountains, and his travels, rather than how tired, cold, and hungry he was. If you really take the time to imagine how miserable his post-attack trip would have been, and how little he describes it, you can learn an awful lot about his character. I don’t suppose the mountains catered to whiners.
Inside the Mind of a Trapper
My favorite tale in Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper, opens a window the distant past we seldom get. While traveling throughout the mountains as part of a trapping brigade, Russell bumps into a small group of Native people in a remote river valley. He describes the people as isolated and living a life that seemed relatively untouched the first few whites into the mountains. Lacking the horse, the group had a sizable pack of dogs (30 according to Russell) to transport their camp. Many dogs also appear to have been loaded with fur. The men of the band were still using obsidian tipped arrows for their hunting needs and started their fires by friction. Friction fire seems to have impressed the trapper, and he appears to have had no prior knowledge of friction fire. According to Russell, it seems the only item of post-Stone Age modernity that had reached the group was one worn out butcher knife. Other than that, the group seemed to have been a perfect example of how people lived prior to European contact.
In the journal Osborne himself notes, “they seemed to be perfectly contended and happy.” Upon his departure he also opens up and describes his feelings.
“I almost wished I could spend the remainder of my days in a place like this where happiness and contentment seemed to reign in wild romantic splendor surrounded by majestic battlements which seemed to support the heavens and shut out all hostile intruders.”
It seems the romance of the Stone Age is not some New Age idealism, but something that has captivated the imagination of people across the ages.
One final note in the journal which caught my attention was a simple entry near the conclusion. In the early 1840’s Russell describes riding over country he was quite familiar with. He and several other trappers note the bones of buffalo on the land, and how age-old buffalo trails had become overgrown with grass. Even in his brief tenure in the mountains Osborne witnessed the beginning of the end of wild buffalo. It was at this time Russell recorded the following;
“The trappers often remarked to each other as they rode over these lonely plains that it was time for the White man to leave the mountains as Beaver and game had nearly disappeared.”
There is an awful lot loaded into one simple sentence.
Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is simply a must read for anyone interested in learning more about the lives of our mountain men. Although it only briefly describes aspects such as clothing and equipment, it offers fantastic insight into the everyday lives of these men. It was a life where danger seemingly popped up unexpected. It was a life with brief periods of extreme hardship and bitter weather. It was also a life where you had better like the view from horseback because these men traveled an awful lot. Given all the hardships it also was a life the men truly enjoyed. Osborne Russell seems to have appreciated the beauty of The West as much as anything. Oddly enough, I don’t recall him mentioning money one time throughout the writing.
Although it wasn’t for everyone, the life of a mountain man suited certain men to a T. For some of us, this kind of life shouldn’t be simply relegated to a bit of text left to read. Rather, the text can help us better understand how to keep the ways, knowledge, and spirit of the mountain men alive and well.
With trapping season upon us, it’s time to live history.
Cold air instantly saturates me as I step out of my pickup. Breath invisible just moments ago inside the warmth of my disheveled cab, now hovers suspended in crystals with each exhale. A fine sheen of ice covers the prairie grass set aglow by the barely rising sun in the east. With clouds seemingly on fire, and rays of sun piercing through openings, the landscape looks like something from a Charles M. Russell painting. Simply too good to believe.
I wish I had more time just to soak up the splendor, watch the ducks whistle overhead, and the deer skittishly meander across the meadow, but I’m on a strict time schedule this morning. My daily chore must be complete before heading to work. After getting my dog leashed, grabbing my gun, and bag of bait, I head off to check my short line of traps.
Traps. Just the word can cause an outburst of rage from some folks I’m sure. These efficient devices have been peddled to the public as cruel animal torture devices set by life-hating hicks like me. The thing is though, they aren’t. And I’m not life hating and neither are the trappers I know. Ok, maybe I’m a hick at heart, but that’s beside the point.
I understand most people have very little knowledge of traps and how they work. The bit they do know comes from anti-trapping groups or news articles about something negative toward trapping.The truth is up until the last few years I didn’t know that much about them either. After getting acquainted with them over the past few years my experience has contradicted the bad press.
The truth is trapping has been around since before anyone even thought about writing things down. It was a fundamental skill and knowledge set of people who lived off the land. For likely tens of thousands of years people utilized the effectiveness of traps to procure meat, food, and other resources that would allow them to live their simple existence. In fact in Osborne Russel’s Journal of a Trapper he notes a moment he encounters a band of Native people who still lived an essentially unchanged Paleo life. During their encounter he noted the numerous amounts of fur the people had. Although he doesn’t mention if the furs were trapped, it can be assumed at least some of them were.
Not coincidentally this practice has remained a part of the human story unbroken since its secret beginnings. Here in America people have always trapped. It is just a part of life for some people out there. Today people trap for all sorts of reasons, each individual in nature.
Personally I’ve only trapped for the past three years, but hope to make it an annual event. Not only does trapping get a body out of doors literally everyday, but it promotes an intimate education of the land. I also feel like the handful of reasons I trap would be difficult to promote as evil. For starters I trap to learn more about our world and the animals that we live with. After I got my trapping start I would have to sheepishly admit how little I actually knew about the nuances of animal’s habits.
Secondly I enjoy trapping because it helps procure furs I use to practice other aspects of ancestral knowledge including tanning and making my own gear. I also trap because, in a small way, it helps to preserve and pass on the body of knowledge humans have on the subject. I firmly believe this body of knowledge we would sorely miss if we let it slip from our collective knowledge.
Today I’m off to check just a half dozen traps hoping to land a coon or two. Most days I come up empty, but some days I’ll get lucky. Today is one of those empty days, where the only thing I managed to trap was a little peace of mind and some time in the great outdoors. With a little luck I’ll end up with a humble catch of animals while their pelts are in peak condition. Not only that, but the bit of added meat I can procure is something I’m setting out to use. The truth is that historically trappers did eat meat from their furbearers. Although perhaps uncommon today, eating uncommon meats like raccoon is part of the history of trapping. I would just like to be one link in the chain of that history.
Trapping has always been part of human life. We need and use wild animals for some of our basic necessities. Not only does it promote knowledge of the natural world, but it can help families out in a variety of ways.
The real story of the first Thanksgiving can teach us many things about what how much we have to be thankful for.
Today is Thanksgiving day here in America and what a great day it is. Contrary to most holidays, Thanksgiving is a relatively simple holiday. No gifts are exchanged, no cards distributed, no fancy fireworks to buy. For most folks Thanksgiving is a time just to get together, spend time in each other’s company, and “give thanks” for all we have. I can imagine many families across our nation will be gathering around tables of food and drink, laughter and music, friends and family. It affords us a break from work to focus on a few of the things that matter most in life.
One aspect of this holiday most folks are familiar with is the story of the first Thanksgiving in America. Part truth and part myth, the story we are taught is well known. During the early days of the English settlement in America a small settlement of Pilgrims came seeking religious freedom. Although they found this new land to be a place they could worship freely, they also found a land where their old ways wouldn’t work. They were unprepared for the challenges they faced and more than half died in their first winter. Eventually local Native people would come to the aide of the desperate settlers and show them the ways of the land. They taught them to plant corn, build adequate housing, and other skills they needed to survive.
After one season of this knowledge sharing, the Pilgrims were ready to face their second winter in America with a full larder. To show their gratitude these Englishmen invited a handful of Native people to join them in a feast of Thanksgiving. Not only were the crops of the Pilgrims used, but Massasoit, chief of the Wampanoags, sent out his men to bring food from the forest. They returned burdened with deer, birds, fish, and food they could gather. The ensuing three day feast would go down in history as The First Thanksgiving.
Interestingly though, this grand celebration was not the actual first Thanksgiving in America. Taken at its core the Thanksgiving holiday is just that, a time to give thanks for the many blessings we are granted. In truth people had been giving thanks for many generations in formal ceremonies and holidays. The Wampanoags for example held six separate thanksgiving ceremonies at different times of the year. They gave thanks for various harvests, planting, and for the year itself. Rather than setting aside one day a year to profess thanks, the practice of recognizing simple blessings became an almost year round custom to those people.
Native Americans were not the only people in the world who paused to give thanks. Puritans had been performing similar rituals in the old world for much of the same reasons. So the first thanksgiving was not the first time either Europeans or Native Americans had given thanks, and certainly wouldn’t be the last. Although this first peaceful feast between nations was short lived, the core idea of the celebration is something we can take to heart.
In my eyes the great lesson of the First Thanksgiving is a guiding principle we can learn from. Give thanks for what you have and realize where all your blessings flow from. Although Thanksgiving will forever be enshrined as a national holiday we celebrate once a year, hopefully you can realize the professing of thanks can, and should, extend beyond just this one day. One part of this is recognizing all of the small gifts God leaves lying around and learning to make the most of them. Recognize and give thanks for things everyday, and you’ll also experience a myriad of benefits including better sleep habits, better health, and a decreased chance at developing syndromes like depression.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy friends, family, and good food this Thanksgiving. With luck you’ll also wake up on Black Friday with the same sense of “thank you” for the blessings you have. In a world where we are pushed more and more into believing we have less and less its times like Thanksgiving to reflect on reality.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the first Thanksgiving in the comments section below.
“Arghhh,” Gideon Chase moaned as he awoke from his slumber. Pulsing beats throbbed in his head, exerting forces near the point of explosion. He shut his bloodshot blue eyes and focused on the pain in his head. After several minutes he realized the methodic aches would not be going away anytime soon. About this time he began to notice the dryness of his mouth. Not a drop of moisture remained. His tongue stuck dryly to the roof of his mouth. Licking his lips was much the same. What a morning, he thought.
Arising fully from sleep he rolled over and let the mid morning sun beam down onto his face and bare chest. His lean body soaked up the rays, cherishing the pleasant heat they provided. Too much dern whiskey, he reasoned. He was too old for drinking like that, but this far from the settlements a man can tend to get carried away. It had also been awhile since he had been able to catch up with some old comrades. William Stuffins and Hobbins Traffegen were solid men, and he appreciated their company. Gideon was wary of their new companion though, a half-breed named James Nighthand. The two never did warm up in their short acquaintance. It wasn’t his breeding that Gideon distrusted, he had known many half-breeds, it was something subtle. Something in his dark eyes that hinted toward evil.
Propping himself up Gideon began to search for some water. He was a short distance from the creek but slowly ambled that direction . Once he reached the moist bank he dropped to his knees and drank life-giving mouthfuls straight from the icy waters. Somewhat satiated he turned his aching body back towards camp; and that is when he noticed it. Something was amiss. Stuffins and Traffegen lay in blanketed heaps around the smoldering fire, but where was Nighthand? A second look told Gideon all he needed to know.
“Arrrrgh!” he growled storming back to camp. “Get up! Both of you get up! That dern no-good, stealing, rotten half breed cleaned us out during the night.” Gideon kicked at a stirring bundle on the ground. “Get up Stuffins! You brought that thief into camp, I reckon you can help me track him down.”
William Stuffins groaned from his pathetic posture on the ground “What d’ya mean that thief?” He asked, a bit of annoyance in his voice with eyes blurred from sleep. “James is always up early. Anyway he’s probably out hunting up some vittles for the camp.”
“Well I suppose that could be the answer,” Gideon shot back, “but he’d have a might better luck with only one horse than all six he’s took with him. Better luck sneaking around you sees.”
“Huh?!” Hobbins retorted . As he sat up his red checks lightly toasted by the sun seemed to glow. “Took the horses? James? Why that no account take our horses?”
“Probably figured to trade a mite for em.” Gideon reasoned, his initial anger diminishing. “I guess he headed south, away from the blackfeet and to the Crow. No Crow would ever turn down a good mount, even if he knowns it was stolen.”
“Well heck,”Stuffins remarked, pulling himself up to standing position now, ”might as well have sentenced us to the gallows! A man without horseflesh is as good as dead this close to them bug boys.”
“Now settle down Stuffins” Gideon has reclaimed a sense of calm he tried to restore to the situation. Times like this called for clear thinking. “Them Blackfeet ain’t in this country this time of year. Probably down on the flats chasing buffs. Nope, we ain’t gotta worry bout no bug boys. We will have a dern hard time staying alive if we can’t find those horses. Had quite a few possibles on that pony. Be hard to stay alive long without em.”
The trio picked up the remains of their makeshift camp. Each took a trip to the clear creek to whet their gullet before heading out. Searching the area they soon found Nighthand’s tracks leading straight out the mouth of the valley. He made no attempt to cover his tracks, probably guessing with the head start and the horses there would be no need. What he didn’t figure on, was the type of man who was trailing him. Nighthand was raised between worlds . He had a spell of the whiteman’s world, and a bit of the Indians. Although he knew some of the trappers in the mountains, he knew not their determination. These men would trail him day and night as long as they had a trail to follow.
“As well as I can figure he’s got a half day head start on us. Grab your possibles boys, we got some horseflesh to find.” With that, Gideon’s long strides carried him off down the valley in pursuit of his outfit.
After several days the trio of travelers was still hard on the trail of James Nighthand. Although the trail was easy enough to follow for the seasoned veterans, they pursued at a distance. Gideon often times led the group, but by no means was in a leadership position. In the mountains, men had learned to fend for themselves and developed an independent spirit. Each man was free to go his own direction at his own time. This particular situation called for teamwork, and Gideon was the best tracker. It was understood by all, that while Gideon Chase was in the lead, he only worked to save his own outfit.
It was high noon when they came upon a small rushing creek surrounding by towering pines. Stiff winds swayed the large boughs of the lofty sentinels. Stopping for water, Gideon examined the tracks in the muddy banks. “How old do y’spose them track are?” Hobbins asked scratching his scruffy red beard.
“Well Hobbs,” Gideon answered while thoughtfully examining the tracks “I spose he passed this a way bout, oh… three hours ago.”
“Three hours!” Stuffins lit up. “That no account horse thief will be sleeping good tonight when I send him under. No place in these mountains for a horse thief. Half breed or not.”
“I reckon that with any luck we’ll be riding tomorrow boys.” Gideon posited staring intently at the trail leading away. “Better move slow though. He ain’t likely to go quiet.”
Starting off again, they moved uphill. Nighthand had stuck to deer trails for most of the journey so the going was easy. Even with the easy travel Gideon had a nagging feeling something was wrong. The trail was just too good. Not even the slightest effort was made to conceal the passing. Wet spots in the trail, which easily identify tracks, were taken rather than going around. It’s almost as if he wants us to catch him, Gideon’s mind reasoned. Still, they pushed on in search of their stolen stock.
As they climbed the gentle slope of the mountainside Gideon could see where they were headed through breaks in the trees. Up ahead lay a pass over the mountains Gideon figured the thief would head to pass over. To his left rose a towering snow covered peak with a scree field of loose rock half way down culminating in a chaotic boulder field. To his right lay the spine of the ridge they had been paralleling for some time. As they gained elevation Gideon could see the timber thin out close to the top of the ridge. They soon came to a small clearing Gideon stopped to examine the lay of the land before him.
“No good,” he said. “I’m guessing that horse thief is a sitting up on that pass, jist waitin fer us to step out into that clearin at the bottom. We’d sure be easy pickens, what with the last quarter mile wide open. Anyways if’n a body got close, there’s no way you could climb to the top o that pass without him punching holes clear through you. He’s a smart one. Even with one rifle he could take down the lot of us.”
He continued, “If’n you want my mind fellers, I’d be for cuttin up through this spotty timber to the top of this spine off to our right. We’d be wise to head up after dark. I’m a guessing he’s got a fine view from where he’s waitin.”
“Ach! I can’t hardly stand the thought of that dern louse spendin another night with them horses,” Stuffin’s tone was serious. “What makes you think he’s up thar anyways Gideon? That flatlander ain’t got no mountain sense. Why he’s probably thinking we’re clear on the trail floundering around looking for him. He don’t know mountain folk near as well as he figures.”
“That’s whats got me worried hoss” Gideon replied. “It just seems a bit too easy. Ever since camp we jist follered the trail right easy. Never has he made a bit of work to hide the trail. I spect hes a thinkin we’ll walk right into his trap.”
“Sounds like fine reasoning to me” Hobbins spoke up. “Even a yearling could hide a trail better n that. Anyways, whats the worst could happen? We hit that pass and everything looks good, we’ll jist keep on after him and make up time the next few days.”
“I don’t know fellers.” William Stuffins eyes were hard beneath the shadow of his wide brimmed hat. “I’ve knowed that breed for a spell. Long enough to sleep heavy when camped with him at least. Never seemed like the type to do no purposeful killing. If’n I had to guess, I’d wager he rolled over that pass just afore we could see, and kept right on a going. He’s like that you know. Probably jist heading fer some injun camp to trade them horses then quit the country for a bit. He don’t seem like no killer.”
“Well Will, I won’t doubt your judgement, seemin as I jist met the man, but I don’t suppose you’d been sleepin so heavy if’n you know your horses would git lifted by the man” Gideon said. “Maybe thars more to him than you think.”
“I don’t suppose youd been sleepin so sound either, ceptin that whiskey was a mite stout!” Will retorted, a bit peeved by the comment. “I guess we all shoulda laid off the fire jug a bit. Just got caught up a bit I spose.”
“I guess we all did Will” Chase recognized his mistake. “My plan stands either way. I’m headed up the side o this here spine come dark. You fellers are welcome to come along if’n you want.”
“Heck Gideon, I’ll throw in with you” Hobbins confirmed. “Seems a safe bet against a reckless one. Sides, we can catch some rest fore the climb. That feller will be plumb tuckered out by now. He’s had to be workin to keep that string of horses cared for. What about you Will, you pitchin in?”
Hands on his hips Stuffins shook his head in frustration. “I guess a coon ought to take the smart bet here, much as I hate to. Feels too much like I’m runnin from that coyote. I’ll wait with you boys on one condition. If’n he aint up thar we travel like red devils to catch him. I hate the thought of losing another pony for sum injun chief’s daughter.”
“Agreed,” Gideon’s steely blue eyes stared at the pass, “we’ll wait here till closer to sunset, then we’ll make our move.”
Hours later, the sun dipped behind the pass west of the travelers. Dark shadows stretched across the mountainside, and a dull light lingered in the drainage. Like wisps of smoke the three companions scaled the steep ground. Moving stealthy from tree to tree, clad in their buckskins they knew they would be near impossible to see in the fading light. Drawing nearer to the top of the spine Gideon gazed up from behind a small tree. Nothing but a scree field covered the final twenty yards to the top of the spine and safety. Searching the surrounding area, Gideon realized this thin strip of loose rock lined nearly the entire spine. Examining the possibilities he weighed their options.
“Wha’d ya think Gideon?” Hobbins asked, his red face bright from exertion.
“Well, the way I have it figured, bout the only option we got is to make a bit of a dash up this here scree field. Once we clear it, we are up and over the other side.” Gideon rubbed his silver beard as he spoke.
“Seems a mite risky Gideon,” Will said “be like sitting ducks stumbling up that rock field.”
“Probably so, but I don’t see no other way. If’n I’m gonna get my horseflesh back an save my scalp, I guess it’s a chance I’ll have to take.”
The three men stared thoughtfully at the loose rock above them for several minutes. As they considered their choice darkness continued to creep over the land.
Gideon spoke up, “Well boys, its now or never I guess. I reckon we should make one big run across here, so as the first one across don’t tip him off about the others. Should be our best bet. You fellers ready?”
“Sure,” Hobbins answered “If’n that breed is up thar, I’m bettin he’ll be looking down the trail. We go quick, he might not have much of a chance. Only problem is, we’ll have to streak down upon him like cracking lightening fore he quits the country with them horses.”
“Right you are Hobbs,” Gideon replied. “Keep them rifles ready. We hit the top o’ this and we’ll charge right down on him like Satan hiself. If we get lucky the surprise will catch him off guard and he’ll hesitate. We’ll only need a short minute to be on top of him. No mercy for a horse thief fellas. You ready Will?”
“Dern you Gideon!” Will’s temper had boiled over. “I guess I ain’t got no choice at the moment.” And with that he let out a war whoop and charged head long up the scree field. Not wanting to be left behind, the other two travelers shot up the scree field.
As they climbed the small rocks gave way beneath their feet and made progress difficult. Scrambling on all fours the men desperately climbed toward the top of the spine and the safety it offered. As they neared the top a shot erupted from the still evening air. At the same moment a rock exploded near Gideon’s midsection. Fragments shot in every direction, some small shards embedding themselves into his skin. A jolt ran through his body and his adrenaline overtook him. He clawed like a madman toward the top of the ridge.
Hobbins cleared the rocks first and swung his Hawkens to his shoulder looking for his target. “I can’t see him!” He cried. At that moment Gideon hit the crest of the ridge and without a hesitation took off sprinting toward the pass. He swung his rifle off his back and into his hands without missing a beat. Longs strides carried him swiftly over the remaining ground between him and his attacker. He was running across open country now toward the lightly timbered pass ahead. If he could close the distance fast enough, he could be upon him before he had a chance to reload.
Gideon ran for all he was worth, his eyes focused intently on the pass now less than one hundred yards away. Through the dusky light he saw unclear movement up ahead. Although he could not discern the figure, he knew without a doubt he had found the thief.
The shadow darted through the trees away from him. Gideon pushed hard, his strong legs chewing up the ground in front of him. His buckskin fringes whipped haphazardly in the whistling air around him. Reaching the edge of the trees he could barely make out a shape less than twenty paces in front of him. The figure was astride a horse and was wheeling it quickly for his getaway. With too little light for shooting, Gideon tossed his rifled aside and careened headlong for the rider. Closing in he sprang up and buried his shoulder in the man’s midsection. The horses reared and whinnied in alarm, but Gideon would not let go. In the ensuing tussle he managed to drag his enemy off the horse to the ground.
Crashing hard into the pine needles, the pair tossed about on the forest floor. Gideon’s strength allowed him to roll atop the struggling man. He began to rain devastating blows down upon his foe. The sick thud of his fists against the man’s face drove Gideon to a greater level of fervor. His normally clear vision had clouded in red, and revenge was being extracted one punch at a time. Each punch found his mark and his fists moved like stinging wasps, stabbing in and out in quick succession. Anger had overtaken him and rage fueled his thoughts. This man had left you for dead. The thought broke into his mind. Gideon raised a bleeding right hand high above his head toward the dark sky and prepared to smash it down upon his enemy. Suddenly, he was jerked backwards off of the limp figure beneath him.
“Stop Gideon!” Hobbin’s voice called out through the cloud of rage in his head. “Stop it Gideon! The man is near dead. You whooped him a good one child. I can make out the horses up ahead. Looks like we got em back. Every one of em.”
Gideon’s adrenaline rush subsided as he sat on the pine needles staring fiercely at the bloody pulp of a man on the ground. His lungs breathed deep breaths as he tried to calm enough to think. Gideon looked into the bright eyes of Hobbins Traffegan. Traffegan smiled as said“Relax a bit you old coon. This cussed horsethief ain’t going nowheres for a while.”
The next day found the travelers camped at the top of the pass tending to the broken man. It was the way of the mountains. Even though enemies, they would not leave a man in his condition wasting away. Several minutes after regaining consciousness James realized his situation and turned his gaze down, buried in shame.
“If’n I was you, I don’t spose I could look at me neither” Will Stuffins chided the man. “Left us to die out thar is what you did. In these mountains a man’s as good as dead without horseflesh under him.”
They sat in silence around a crackling campfire waiting for the coffee to boil and listening to Jame’s pitiful groans. “Water” James croaked hoarsely after nearly an hour. “Please. I know I don’t deserve any, but I’m mighty thirsty.”
Gideon lifted himself from his seat and fetched his bladder. The water up this high trickled slowly from its source, but was cold and clear and tasted a like something you would have to pay for back in the states. He ambled over to the dreadful looking man. As he approached he noticed the man’s eyes were near swollen shut, and his nose had a wicked bend in it. A drizzle of dried blood clung to the corners of his mouth. Gideon squatted down and handed him the water.
“Your head hurtn bad son?”
“Sure. Feels like its gonna crack right down the middle.”
“Good” Gideon replied curtly. Staring intensely at the man he continued “You ever go stealin my stock again, and that Hawkins rifle will really make your skull feel broke.” With that he turned his back and returned to his seat by the campfire. The coffee was just finishing up and Hobbins handed him a cup with a thick freckled hand. “What’s your plans now Gideon?” he asked.
“I reckon I’ll head south till I hit the Yellowstone. Then probably swing west till I can find some good beaver.”
“What do you reckon we do with him?” Hobbins asked, gesturing toward the low moaning heap of blankets.
“Tomorrow I’m pullin out” Gideon said without hesitation. “That man will be just fine by mornin. I figure with any luck he’ll be able to walk east out of here and catch a keelboat back to the settlements. I don’t reckon he’ll last long in these mountains.”
Time passed and as night approached they bound their captive, not wanting to offer a foolhardy chance at an escape. The next morning the sun rose slowly over the eastern horizon, casting warm rays into the cold thin air. After a quick breakfast and a bit of coffee, the men each gathered their respective stock and got their outfits ready. Within the hour they each sat astride their mounts and turned to face Nighthand. The poor man had managed to pull himself into a fairly upright position, knowing his aide was about to head out.
“James,” Gideon spoke sharply “Ifn I was you, I’d head straight east into the rising sun and pray to whatever god you wish that you’ll meet a keelboat on the Missoura fore you meet a party of bloodthirsty bug boys. You had no account for leaving us high and dry like you did. Afore you leave yore gonna do one more thing for us.” Gideon’s stone blue eyes stared straight into the man as he leaned forward in his saddle. “Take off yore mocsins and bring em over to me.”
Stiffly, James obeyed the command and hobbled over with his moccasins in hand. He scowled as he handed them up to Gideon. “What’s this all about? Ain’t you got yer revenge yet?”
“Not quite yet” Gideon smirked. “Boy, John Colter outrun a village of blackfeet warriors fer three hundred miles with nothing but the clothes God give him. I spose you can manage without this here pair of mocs.” Then Gideon glared at the man and said “I spose it goes without sayin what’ll happen ifn we catch you back in these mountains. You’d do best to stay back in the settlements. After word gets out about your stealin hide, won’t nobody have a friendly campfire for you.” With that Gideon spun his horse and trotted south.
Hobbins and Will soon caught up with him. “Chase, what do you figure on stealing the man’s shoes fer? We jist spent a day patchin the man back together, then you go and steal his only shoes” Will declared.
“Well, I figure that young man will make the settlements and have quite a tale to tell. I also figure he’ll fall into a crowd you’d expect a horse thief to run with. Maybe after a long walk through prickly pear country he’ll advise those fellers to stay east of the Missouri and steal their horses.”
The three men’s hearty laughter echoed back to James just as he cut his foot open on a sharp rock. It was going to be a long way to St. Louis.