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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter10)

2006-09-08 19:31

  CHAPTER X Where the Bow Is Better Than the Gun

  Of all popular errors about the Indians, the hardest to down is the idea that their women do all the work. They do the housework, it is true, but all the heavy labour beyond their strength is done by the men. Examples of this are seen in the frightful toil of hunting, canoeing, and portaging, besides a multitude of kindred small tasks, such as making snowshoes, bows, arrows, and canoes.

  Each warrior usually makes his own bow and arrows, and if, as often happens, one of them proves more skilful and turns out better weapons, it is a common thing for others to offer their own specialty in exchange.

  The advantages of the bow over the gun are chiefly its noiselessness, its cheapness, and the fact that one can make its ammunition anywhere. As the gun chiefly used in Quonab's time was the old-fashioned, smooth-bore flint-lock, there was not much difference in the accuracy of the two weapons. Quonab had always made a highclass bow, as well as high-class arrows, and was a high- class shot. He could set up ten clam shells at ten paces and break all in ten shots. For at least half of his hunting he preferred the bow; the gun was useful to him chiefly when flocks of wild pigeons or ducks were about, and a single charge of scattering shot might bring down a dozen birds.

  But there is a law in all shooting —— to be expert, you must practise continually —— and when Rolf saw his host shoot nearly every day at some mark, he tried to join in the sport.

  It took not many trys to show that the bow was far too strong for him to use, and Quonab was persuaded at length to make an outfit for his visitor.

  From the dry store hole under the rock, he produced a piece of common red cedar. Some use hickory; it is less liable to break and will stand more abuse, but it has not the sharp, clean action of cedar. The latter will send the arrow much farther, and so swiftly does it leave the string that it baffles the eye. But the cedar bow must be cared for like a delicate machine; overstring it, and it breaks; twang it without an arrow, and it sunders the cords; scratch it, and it may splinter; wet it, and it is dead; let it lie on the ground, even, and it is weakened. But guard it and it will serve you as a matchless servant, and as can no other timber in these woods.

  Just where the red heart and the white sap woods join is the bowman's choice. A piece that reached from Rolf's chin to the ground was shaved down till it was flat on the white side and round on the red side, tapering from the middle, where it was one inch wide and one inch thick to the ends, where it was three fourths of an inch wide and five eighths of an inch thick, the red and white wood equal in all parts.

  The string was made of sinew from the back of a cow, split from the long, broad sheath that lies on each side the spine, and the bow strung for trial. Now, on drawing it (flat or white side in front), it was found that one arm bent more than the other, so a little more scraping was done on the strong side, till both bent alike.

  Quonab's arrows would answer, but Rolf needed a supply of his own. Again there was great choice of material. The long, straight shoots ol' the arrowwood (Viburnuin dentatum) supplied the ancient Indians, but Quonab had adopted a better way, since the possession of an axe made it possible. A 25-inch block of straight-grained ash was split and split until it yielded enough pieces. These were shaved down to one fourth of an inch tbick, round, smooth, and perfectly straight. Each was notched deeply at one end; three pieces of split goose feather were lashed on the notched end, and three different kinds of arrows were made. All were alike in shaft and in feathering, but differed in the head. First, the target arrows: these were merely sharpened, and the points hardened by roasting to a brown colour. They would have been better with conical points of steel, but none of these were to be had. Second, the ordinary hunting arrows with barbed steel heads, usuauy bought ready-made, or filed out of a hoop: these were for use in securing such creatures as muskrats, ducks close at hand, or deer. Third, the bird bolts: these were left with a large, round, wooden head. They were intended for quail, partridges, rabbits, and squirrels, but also served very often, and most admirably, in punishing dogs, either the Indian's own when he was not living up to the rules and was too far off for a cuff or kick, or a farmer's dog that was threatening an attack.

  Now the outfit was complete, Rolf thought, but one other touch was necessary. Quonab painted the feather part of the shaft bright red, and Rolf learned why. Not for ornament, not as an owner's mark, but as a finding mark. Many a time that brilliant red, with the white feather next it, was the means of saving the arrow from loss. An uncoloured arrow among the sticks and leaves of the woods was usually hidden, but the bright-coloured shaft could catch the eye ioo yards away.

  It was very necessary to keep the bow and arrows from the wet. For this, every hunter provides a case, usually of buckskin, but failing that they made a good quiver of birch bark laced with spruce roots for the arrows, and for the bow itself a long cover of tarpaulin.

  Now came the slow drilling in archery; the arrow held and the bow drawn with three fingers on the cord - the thumb and little finger doing nothing. The target was a bag of hay set at twenty feet, until the beginner could hit it every time: then by degrees it was moved away until at the standard distance of forty yards he could do fair shooting, although of course he never shot as well as the Indian, who had practised since he was a baby.

  There are three different kinds of archery tests: the first for aim: Can you shoot so truly as to hit a three-inch mark, ten times in succession, at ten paces?

  Next for speed: Can you shoot so quickly and so far up, as to have five arrows in the air at once? If so, you are good: Can you keep up six? Then you are very good. Seven is wonderful. The record is said to be eight. Last for power: Can you pull so strong a bow and let the arrow go so clean that it will fly for 250 yards or will pass through a deer at ten paces? There is a record of a Sioux who sent an arrow through three antelopes at one shot, and it was not unusual to pierce the huge buffalo through and through; on one occasion a warrior with one shot pierced the buffalo and killed her calf running at the other side.

  If you excel in these three things, you can down your partridge and squirrel every time; you can get five or six out of each flock of birds; you can kill your deer at twenty- five yards, and so need never starve in the woods where there is game.

  Of course, Rolf was keen to go forth and try in the real chase, but it was many a shot he missed and many an arrow lost or broken, before he brought in even a red squirrel, and he got, at least, a higher appreciation of the skill of those who could count on the bow for their food.

  For those, then, who think themselves hunters and woodmen, let this be a test and standard: Can you go forth alone into the wilderness where there is game, take only a bow and arrows for weapons, and travel afoot 250 miles, living on the country as you go?

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