Gateway to the Classics: Fur Trappers of the Old West by A. M. Anderson
Fur Trappers of the Old West by  A. M. Anderson


Signs Along the Trail

B EFORE the sun was up Jim saddled Wasaka and was on the trail. As usual he left camp while the men were cooking breakfast. They would follow in a short time, if he did not return to report that Indians were near by.

It did not take Jim long to decide that Wasaka was the ideal horse for a scout. Fast, strong, quick to obey, Wasaka was also intelligent and reliable. He didn't race along like the wind for awhile, as some horses did, and then slow down to a trot. Nor did he move restlessly about, stamping his feet and tossing his head, when Jim halted to study the country. Wasaka stood quietly so that from afar he and his master would attract less attention.

Jim liked horses. He was always kind to them and they liked him.

And as Jim rode along he said to himself, "In many ways horses are like people. If you treat them right they are your friends." He leaned forward in his saddle and patted his horse's neck. "Yes, sir, Wasaka," he said aloud, "you and I are going to be good friends."

With Jim in the lead Provot's party made its way up the winding Powder. The sunny September days were becoming colder and the nights were touched with frost.

The green leaves of the cottonwoods and willows were turning yellow. Flocks of wild ducks and geese darkened the sky as they flew southward. Deer and elk were moving down from their mountain pastures. Buffalo, too, roamed the valley in search of grass and water.

Jim saw the signs of the coming winter months, but he kept looking for others more important to the trappers. He looked for beaver signs along the Powder and up the many little streams flowing into the river.

He was not disappointed. Beaver dams and lodges were plentiful. The signs which pleased him most, however, were those which told him it would be a long, cold winter. That meant the beaver pelts taken during the spring trapping season would be of .the finest.

In preparing for the long winter months ahead the beaver had left many signs. Their lodges were plastered over with extra coatings of mud and their dams were made stronger. Tender twigs and logs were piled at the water's edge. Before the streams were frozen over, the beavers would store the twigs and logs near their lodges. The bark was their winter supply of food.

One night, when the men had gathered around their campfire, Provot said, "Well, I guess it's time for us to begin trapping." He turned to his scout, "Jim, we'll make camp early tomorrow afternoon, so be on the lookout for Indians, beaver signs, and a good place to camp."

Jim nodded.

"I'll expect you to do your share of the trapping," Provot continued, "but don't forget your duty as scout comes first."

"I won't forget," Jim replied. "In fact I've been so busy I've almost forgotten about the South Pass."

Provot roared with laughter. "What did I tell you, men?" he asked. "Didn't I say that Jim still thinks we can find the pass."

Jim laughed with the men. He was serious, however, as he said, "Some party is bound to find the pass. It can just as well be our party."

"You're right," spoke up a man. "We have as good a chance as any other party to find it."

"That's true," agreed Provot. "But right now I'm more interested in getting an early start in the morning. Roll in, men, we're breaking camp at dawn."

The men spread their blankets on the ground, and were soon asleep. A million stars beamed down upon the silent camp.

It was still dark when Jim awakened. From force of habit he reached out and touched his rifle lying on the ground beside him. Then rising to his feet he folded his wool blanket into a small roll and tied it with a leather strap. He leaned over, picked up his rifle, and quietly left camp.

He hurried to where the horses were hobbled. As he stood talking to a guard the soft velvety nose of a horse touched his shoulder and pushed him gently.

"Good morning, Wasaka," he said without turning. The horse pushed him again. Jim laughed and placed an arm around the horse's neck. Wasaka whinnied a friendly good morning.

"It's time for us to be on our way," Jim said. "How about it, old fellow, are you ready?"

All morning Jim rode along keeping a sharp lookout for Indians. Early in the afternoon he came to a grove of cottonwoods. He decided it would be a good place to camp. The streams near by were marked with many fresh beaver signs. After scouting the surrounding country he rode back and led his party to the grove.

The pack horses were unloaded and turned out to graze. The heavy leather trap sacks were opened and the traps divided among the men. Provot ordered four men to remain in camp to guard the pack horses and supplies. The rest of the men loaded their traps on their horses and, in groups of three or more, headed for the beaver streams.

Before leaving camp, Jim examined the traps of his three greenhorns. He gave a bottle of his secret castor bait to each man. When they were ready they mounted their horses and started westward. At the first two streams they met other trappers from their party so they rode on in search of another creek.

After they had ridden several miles, Jim saw a long line of willows ahead. It was the telltale sign that they were nearing another stream.

To the trappers the graceful willows and the wind-twisted cottonwoods were almost sure signs of a river or creek. Often, at the end of a hard day's ride, thirsty, weary men searched for the trees with more care than for Indian signs. Not only would the men find water for themselves and for their animals, but the cottonwoods furnished wood for their fires and, when grass was scarce, the bark of the trees was peeled and chopped to feed their horses.

The little creek, bordered by the willows, was a trapper's paradise. A beaver dam had formed a still pond where the beavers had built their lodges. Near the slides the muddy banks were covered with the fresh tracks of the prized fur-bearing animals.

"We'll trap upstream," Jim said to his greenhorns. "Then if we find any floating sticks or other signs on the water we'll know someone is setting traps farther up the creek. Now, of course, that someone could be a trapper from our own party, or some other party. But you'll keep your hair longer if you remember it is more likely to be an Indian."

The men nodded.

"Always work upstream," Jim continued. "Don't let any of your bait sticks, poles, or floats drift downstream. And another thing—keep your ears and eyes open. Do you understand?"

"Yes," the men replied.

"Good," said Jim glancing up at the sun. "It's a couple of hours before sunset, but I guess we'll get started anyway. I want to show each one of you exactly how to set your traps and that will take time." He motioned to the greenhorn nearest him. "You're first. Get your traps and follow me."

It was almost dark when the third greenhorn set his last trap. Jim, standing in the icy water, watched carefully.

"How's that, Jim?" asked the greenhorn as he shoved the trap pole into the bottom of the creek.

"You set it all right. But if you catch a beaver you'll lose your trap."

"Why? I set it just like the one I set in that beaver slide over there."

"I know," said Jim. "But no two traps can be set alike. You see, the stream is never exactly the same, so each time you have a different problem." He reached for the pole, gave it a jerk, and pulled it free. "You can't use a pole to anchor your trap here because the creek bottom is too rocky. Why not use that old tree stump on the bank?"

"Thanks, Jim, I'll do it while you go and set your traps."

"I want to see you splash plenty of water around the stump before I go. The beavers, you know, have a keen sense of smell and the faint odor of a human being is all they need to be 'up to trapper.' "

A few minutes later Jim went on alone to set his traps. The greenhorn waded upstream for some distance, as Jim had told him to do, before joining the other men. Laughing and talking they waited for Jim to return.

"I don't know how many times he made me reset my traps," said one man.

"I have six traps," laughed another, "and I had to reset each one at least twice. But I am glad we are trapping with Jim."

"So am I," spoke up the third man. "He certainly knows all about beaver."

Most trappers who were "up to beaver" were impatient with the young greenhorns. The greenhorns were anxious to learn the art of trapping, but they were often careless and they made many foolish mistakes. The old-timers felt that when they had shown the young men how to set a trap and how to skin a beaver that was all they needed to know.

But Jim was patient and understanding. He stayed with his greenhorns while they set their traps. He never hurried them and he made them feel that they would soon be "up to beaver." He stood by ready to help or ready to praise a job well done. He answered their endless questions and told them many of his secret methods of trapping.

Jim's patience was rewarded. His greenhorns were the first men "up to beaver." Every morning he and his men rode back to camp with more beaver pelts than any other group.

"It's our castor bait," Jim explained.

"It's Jim," said his loyal greenhorns.

Provot's party continued its journey up the Powder. Camp was made each afternoon and the men lost no time in hurrying to the beaver streams. The furs of other animals were not as valuable nor were they as plentiful.

Beaver was the fur most prized by the trappers. Millions of beaver pelts were used to make the fashionable tall beaver hats worn by men in the United States and Europe. The constant demand for the fur kept the price high and steady.

A beaver skin was often used by the trappers in place of money. Instead of saying a knife or gun cost so many dollars, they said it cost so many beaver skins, or plews. Not all beaver skins, however, were called "plews." The skins were sorted and only the finest were classed as plews.

"Plew" was a slang expression used among the trappers. It was taken from a French word which is pronounced the same as plew, but it is spelled "plus" and means "more, the most."

Sometimes Jim's greenhorns thought he was too strict with them. But Jim didn't ask them to do anything he didn't do himself. He was careful in setting his traps and in skinning his daily catch. He insisted that his greenhorns be the same. The work of an expert trapper was rated by the number of plews he brought in.

It was early in October when Provot's party reached the headwaters of the Powder. Jim had led the trappers safely for almost three hundred miles. He was a little anxious, however, as he reported to his captain. The trip up the river was as far as Provot had asked him to scout for the party. Jim hoped to continue as scout. He wondered if Provot had already decided that an old-timer should take over the difficult job.

Jim made his report to Provot. As always, the captain asked many questions. Jim's answers were those of a scout who knew every detail of the trail. His answers were direct, simple, and truthful.

"Well, Jim," said Provot, "the trip up the river is over. You have done a real job and if you want to be my scout for the rest of the trip, the job is yours. What about it? Do you want it?"

"Do I!" exclaimed Jim. "I certainly do!"

Provot slapped Jim on the shoulder. "There are a lot of good scouts out here in the West. But I'd rather have you for my scout than any old-timer I know. You're keen and alert."

"Well, I try to keep my ears and eyes open."

"It's more than that, Jim. You're a natural-born scout. You have a wonderful memory for signs and places on a trail. I have been up the Powder before, but this is your first trip. I know you could tell me many things about the river I have forgotten or that I just didn't see."

Jim looked back over the trail. His eyes followed the twisting course of the river until it disappeared in the distance. But for him the river flowed on, winding its way northward. Stamped on his mind was every turn of the winding, yellow stream. The valley with its grassy plains, its rugged badlands, and its great open sagebrush country was fixed in his memory.

Jim didn't look back for long. He had seen the Powder River Valley. He was ready to go on to the new country in the southwest.

"When do we leave for the Sweetwater?"

"Early tomorrow morning," answered the captain.

"Then I must be on the trail at sunrise."

And at sunrise Jim was on his way. "Now for the Sweetwater," he said to Wasaka, as the handsome black horse raced like the wind over the trail. "Do you know what that means, Wasaka?" he asked. "It means we're headed for the Rocky Mountains—and maybe the South Pass."

1. What does "Wasaka" mean in the Sioux language?

2. What fur was most prized by the trappers?

3. What were the finest beaver skins called?

4. What did Provot say about Jim's scouting ability?

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