The Cree Chief in our company called this place, Estipah-Skikikini-Kots. Not a Cree word, Turnor told me. This was Blackfoot territory. Chief Lame Bull, the Cree, had been granted permission from the Blackfoot Nation to come here, just long enough now before winter, to take what his people needed with a sacred Buffalo Hunt, revered here as spirits, sacred animals that blessed the lives of the band with plenty for a stored cache of winter's meat.
The insects flittering inside the belly like moths in my excitement, were dancing as brilliantly as the ones hanging in swarms around us in the air. These nasty beasts were the first to introduce themselves, settling into this adventure that first day when I stepped first-boot on the flat plains of this new-found land.
“When you've taken on some of your own smoke in your hide, my boy,“ Turnor told me on that first day. “These creatures won't be so striking as to make you feel any real harm.”
He laughed and slapped me on the shoulder, as I swatted and danced myself among the swarms of these flies taking over every square inch of our surrounding air.
After setting camp, the air cooling fast with dusk brewing in the deepening, almost blood-red sky, the Cree gathered around the cone-house next to a growing fire. Lame Bull, our host for the hunt, gathered his band of hunters for tomorrow's run of buffalo.
Seeing these fine young warriors seated proudly around their leader's feet, like young boys with so much reverence in their eyes, was as moving as the fixed stare and awe seen in the eyes our own young men would show towards our Grand-Fathers back home, now so far away across the sea in England.
Lame Bull was obviously a man held in high-respect.
My own men in the company and I kept our distance. This was a spiritual moment, kept sacred for Lame Bull and his band of hunters. We were sure we weren't welcome to sit as yet at Lame Bull's feet, even though he'd not instructed us so. This was unspoken, and with no invitation coming forth, we knew we'd made the right decision to stand-off.
To be invited into the hunt at all was a surprise to the Master's of The Company. Turnor offered the men and I up as though we were part of the earlier trade he'd led between Lame Bull and his band. After sharing the blankets and pots from the small reserve of items available for the trade, Turnor took me firmly by the arm, handing me over to this so revered of what I thought was a savage man almost as a prize.
Turnor was a wise man. He knew we too would be short of meat for the coming winter. Always the opportunist, he was fast to answer a hearty, "Aye" to Lame Bull's request for men.
Turnor told me of the bands plight. They were low in numbers for the hunt, having lost so many to the pox that had invaded his people prior to moving them away from James Bay and onto the plains near the River. Lame Bull wept with telling the story, he said. As he touched my own heart with the tale, Turnor wept as well. He was such a gentle, elder of a man.
Men, women and far too many children had been lost from Lame Bull and his family. I'd not dreamt that these fine people were anything beyond savages. The stories back home that we'd come to know of these people, left us wondering if any would have souls at all, let alone souls deep enough to weep sharing stories of such great loss.
The stories we heard back home in England, pounded into us when we signed up with The Company to serve here, were of bands of these savages murdering our people, especially the French Northwesters, in droves. We were told they indiscriminately charged into our Company Forts as though blood was all they cared to know.
Turnor quickly taught me, he taught me so much on that first day, that these stories of savages were practical lies.
Turnor taught me early on, within the hour of our first meeting, that these exaggerated tales of these near-naked and dark-skinned people were justification stories, meant to grant us a little fear, to keep us all on our own toes, and make right somehow what in our hearts we knew might one day turn out to be so dreadfully wrong.
History, herself, would later need to be that judge.
"We can't take what isn't ours without first making demons of those we've chosen for our enemies. Don't hold those stories in your heart," Turner dictated to me that first day. "These are good people, family people. They love more deeply, I suspect, than even yourself has ever known."
Turnor called the band, Omushkego. The other men told me that on the day they all arrived in the Company camp, Turner embraced Lame Bull, and later the Chiefs family, as if an old friend was stopping in for tea. They'd met when his family first arrived on the plains. Turnor and a few other Company men had already taken their place, setting up camp near the river, gathering all they needed to build up the fort.
All the savages Turner spoke of in the days since my own arrival here told me these people were revered as deeply by Turnor a's Lame Bull's own men looked up to him, sitting there on the night before the hunt, hanging on Lame Bull's every word, gathered like children around the great man's, humble feet..
Once the gathering was done, and all the instructions and prayers were given, the band gathered around the huge fire, now flashing with great brilliance into the darkness of the coming night, the sparks dancing into the air like dragon-flies.
A few in the band had drums, and began pounding a rhythm to match the building pounding of my own heart. The men in the company with me, the white-faces flashing huge, white-eyes in the growing darkness of the night, said they too, the ones who'd been welcomed at such gatherings in the past, felt their own hearts seeming to take on the rhythm with every beating of the drums.
When the chanting started, in the sacred-dance the men began around the fire, the ones not setting the rhythm with the drums began a strange act, as if they were dancing on the stages of London for the crowd of primps, the elites whom I'd once seen when my mother took me to the theatre as a boy. These warriors, on this stage in the night, lowered their heads, dancing in circles around the fire. They'd place their pointing fingers to the sky, resting their hands against the side of their heads in doing so.
This, my compatriot, Thompson told me was, "The dance they do to prepare us all for tomorrow's hunt."
As the night moved slowly on, and my heart pounded with the drums, this young adventurer, fresh afoot on this far away from home new land, couldn't wait. I was bitten. Bitten with a lust for the kill, I thought. They tell me this would soon become a lust calmed, with more reverence for the spirit of the hunt than any of our white-faced company of men could quite adequately explain.
"You have to live it, to believe it", Thompson whispered to me in the night. "The hunt will be the most brilliant thing you've ever seen, my friend."
As the fire began to die, the band left us. Lame Bull and a few of the men crawled into the depths of the cone-house. After the others in the band settled in their places near the fire, came sleep-a hard sleep, like waiting for Christmas morning-the restless sleep of a child.
The true adventure I'd longed for back home in England was about to begin. Living an exploration of someplace now so completely new, I thanked God, before I finally slept.
I thanked Him for the blessing, as Thompson said Lame Bull had done, through a once-thought savage prayer, not all that far removed from my own. I was about to live a blessing-the sanctification of an adventure, wrapped up in an unseen ribbon-the blessing of the hunt.
Associate Member American Academy Of Experts In Traumatic Stress.
(Currently Needs Renewal).