12. June 2024 · Comments Off on From West Towards the Sunset · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(The Ketterings and their wagon company are at Fort Laramie – the women are relishing a chance to do laundry … and perchance, trade a little with the friendly Indians.)

In a very few minutes, we had spread out all the damp laundry over the grass and the mountain sage bushes; the day was so warm and the mountain air so thin and arid that I thought it would not take very long for even the heaviest flannel to dry thoroughly. Ma and Mrs. Glennie and Mrs. Herlihy had already hurried from our collection of tubs, the fire and kettles – back to our wagon camp, to meet Choctaw Joe and the small party of Sioux women wading through the grass towards us.

There were three of them, the youngest of about Shiboone’s age. She was leading a pony by a bridle, the pony drawing a sort of frame – two long poles crossed over it’s back, with the ends trailing on the ground, and a large bundle tied to a woven panel of cane and leather bands lashed between the trailing ends of those poles. Much later, I learned that the contraption of poles and cane was called a travois, since the Indians knew nothing of making wheels and using carts. The other women were older than the girl – and their leather dresses appeared to be more elaborately trimmed. I envied those Sioux women on account of their hair, which was long and dark, bound up into braids as thick as my wrist. Such long braids, whereas my own hair made a pair of measly little plaits, which barely came to my shoulders.

As we came, panting from the effort of running in the thin mountain air, Choctaw Joe was saying, by way of introduction,

“This is Han-tay-wi, her sister, Kimmi-Mila, and daughter Eh-hawee – they have come to offer goods to trade.”

“Tell the ladies that we are most pleased to make their acquaintance,” That was Mrs. Glennie, most regally formal, as if she were receiving them in her own parlor, and not in the space of trampled grass between our wagon, and the Glennie’s wagons and tent. “I do not know if we have any such goods as might please them, and that we can spare…”

“You’d be surprised,” Choctaw Joe replied. Meanwhile, the younger woman was untying the cords which bound together the big bundle and spreading out the contents; three or four enormous robes of buffalo hide, with the thick wooly brown fur still on, a stack of painted hide boxes full of some crumbly brown stuff – pemmican, and six pair of moccasins, all trimmed with fancy colored stuff, and elaborate fringe. It wasn’t beadwork, I learned, much later – but flattened and dyed porcupine quills. Two of them were large, to fit a man, but the others were smaller. There were some other things – pouches and sheaths for knives, all made of leather, and trimmed with fringe, beadwork, feathers and porcupine quills.

“Oh, my!” Ma whispered, upon seeing the buffalo robes and the moccasins. Although it was only June and at the height of summer – we had felt the cold as we traveled higher into the mountains. “Those things certainly look as if they would be warm at night!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Choctaw Joe looked as if he were hiding a grin, even as he cast an assessing eye over the robes. “Nothing better, softer or warmer to sleep on than a prime buffler robe. These are tanned and softened up real nice, too. You can’t go wrong with one of them, Miz Kettering.”

“Then let me look in the wagon, for what we can spare,” Ma had a determined look on her face. Mrs. Glennie and Mrs. Herlihy were also eyeing the robes, with an acquisitive expression on their faces. I was looking at the next-to-smallest pair of moccasins and thinking that they would just about fit me, and the smallest would be perfect for Jon.

But that was a frivolous thing, and up to Ma to decide, anyway. I think the oldest Indian woman saw me looking at the moccasins, though, with longing for them all over my face. So did Choctaw Joe.

Ma emerged from our wagon, with a bundle in her hand – one of our store-bought blankets that came from the east, and some other things – a campfire turning fork with a busted tine, her needlework basket and a small iron kettle which we had hardly ever used on the journey so far.

“These,” she announced calmly. “And three good steel needles and a paper of new pins. For two of those robes.”

“I want one of those robes, too,” Mrs. Glennie looked enviously on Ma, as Choctaw Joe relayed Ma’s offer to the three Sioux women in their language.

Choctaw Joe listened to the response that the oldest woman made to him, and grinned. “A generous bid indeed, Miz Kettering. Very generous. For that, Han-tay-wi will add in a parfleche of good pemmican, and two pair of moccasins – she is an honorable woman and does not want the white folks to think she is taking unfair advantage.”

“I appreciate Mrs. Han-tay-wi’s sense of honor and generosity,” Ma replied, as Choctaw Joe looked in my direction and winked. I was thrilled beyond words – my own pair of moccasins, and another for Jon, too!

Although the pemmican looked perfectly disgusting. Choctaw Joe later explained how it had been made from buffalo meat, dried and then pounded to powder, and mixed with dried berries and made into bricks with the addition of melted bear fat. It was what sustained the wild Indians during winters, when they couldn’t hunt. I don’t know how anyone could relish eating it. I said so to Pa, later on, and Pa laughed, and told us about scrapple that the Dutch folk made, back in the east.

“If you’re hungry enough, Sugar-Plum, just about anything that won’t bite you back tastes good.”

Mrs. Glennie emerged from the Glennie’s tent with a blanket and a shawl hanging over her arm – the shawl was a pretty printed challis one, with a long silk fringe. She  wanted a buffalo robe in exchange for the shawl and the blanket, and two pair of the moccasins, and one of the fancy leather pouches with beadwork on it. I could see Han-tay-wi’s eyes light up, when Mrs. Glennie spread it out for them to examine closer. The three Indian women bent over the shawl, talking to each other as they stroked the fringe.

“Yessirree bob, you’ve got them something rare, there,” Choctaw Joe murmured, and Mrs. Glennie came close to laughing. “I have never favored that shawl – it was a gift from Mr. Glennie’s sister Althea Murchison, and dear Althea deliberately chose it in colors which I find to be quite ugly – and she knew that very well! But it was so very expensive that I had to thank her for her generosity and exquisite taste every time we encountered her …”

“You don’t care for your sister-in-law then,” Mrs. Herlihy ventured, knowingly.

“She is a woman of many extremely dislikable virtues,” Mrs. Glennie replied, and I could see that Ma was trying to hold back laughter.

Mrs. Glennie did get her buffalo robe, and some other interesting Sioux pretties. I wondered if the Sioux women spent their parlor hours, knitting and crocheting, making embroidered and Berlin wool-work and tatted lace, just as Ma and Aunt Rachael and their other woman friends back in Ohio, to keep their hands busy and to show off to their friends. Mrs. Herlihy had nothing much to offer, but some fine steel needles, and a box of odd bits of scrap metal from Mr. Herlihy’s forge works, but she got the last buffalo robe in exchange for it, as well as three or four of the hide boxes of pemmican.

“They’ll make arrow heads from it,” Choctaw Joe commented, knowledgeably. “Better than from obsidian – don’t break and shatter so bad. And you’ll be right glad of that there pemmican, Miz Herlihy, if we come to camping cold in the mountains with our supplies running low.”

“Oh, it won’t come to that, I’m certain,” Mrs. Herlihy chuckled comfortably. “Himself says that we’re moving briskly enough that we should be well over the mountains and into California before the first snow falls. As for the pemmy-whatever, the lads eat as if starving at every single meal. I could stand by the fire and put food into them with Himself’s forge shovel, they eat so much and never bother to taste before swallowing it … the great hungry lumps that they are!”

The three Sioux women seemed very pleased with their takings from the session of trade, but not half as pleased as Jon and I were, that night, with that heavy buffalo robe drawn over us, against the chill of the night … or I was, later on when I grew out of my shoes, and they rubbed such blisters on my feet that Ma said I could wear my Indian moccasins.

But all that came later, when we were crossing the great barren desert.


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