Snowshoes for Billy


It was the week before Christmas, and Billy Otter lay in bed wishing for a pair of snowshoes. He brushed the tumble of straight black hair back from his brown face as he listened to the snip snip of his mother’s scissors. She was at work, cutting out moccasins from a deerskin.

Father had died of a lung disease three years ago, and since then Mother added to a meager pension by making beaded articles to sell to tourists who came to the Cree reservation. Her soft cough as she worked deepened the worried creases on Billy’s forehead. I must get some snowshoes so I can do the trapping for her, he resolved. It is too cold in the bush, especially when she’s sick.

“Your breakfast is on the warming shelf of the stove, son,” Mother called when she heard him stirring. Billy stretched and yawned widely. He got up and crossed the small, one-room cabin to warm himself by the wood stove while he dressed. When he had finished pulling on his clothes, Billy took his bannock biscuits (of unleavened oat or barley flour) and herb tea to the table. As he munched, his dark eyes watched the flash of his mother’s needle. “Mother,” he said, breaking the silence, “I’m going to help you.”

“How is that, dear?” she asked.

“By snaring the rabbits for the fur trim on the mittens and moccasins.”

“I appreciate that, Billy, but there’s no money to buy snowshoes for you, and mine are too big. You can’t get through the deep snow in the bush without them.”

While his mother sewed the bright beads to the deerskin, Billy sat thinking. Finally he said, “Old Joe Carver is the wisest Indian on the reservation. I’ll ask him what to do.”

When Billy arrived at Joe’s cabin, he found the old man sitting in his rocking chair, carving. A growling bear was taking shape from the birch block held between his knees.

“What brings you to visit, young man?” Joe asked pleasantly.

“How can I get a pair of snowshoes without any money? I need them to snare rabbits for my mother.”

Joe’s wrinkled copper face, framed by gray braids, creased even deeper as he thought. Then his gravelly voice intoned, “There is one way. Make them like our fathers did.”

“But I don’t know how.”

“I need a new pair myself. I’ll make them and show you how. We’ll start this afternoon.”

After lunch the two friends walked down a packed trail into the woods. The cold snow crunched under their feet as they strode along. Joe swung his axe in rhythm with his strides, stopping occasionally to examine the trees.

“What are you looking for?” Billy asked.

“A straight young birch.”

Soon they found a tree just the right size, and Joe cut it down and limbed it. Then Billy helped him drag it back to his cabin.

“What do we do next, Joe?” Billy asked excitedly.

“First we must cut this birch tree into three-foot lengths.”

“Can I do it?” Billy asked.

The old man handed the boy a large saw. Billy’s arms ached as he pulled and pushed it. Then the sawteeth caught and wouldn’t move in either direction.

“Here, let me help you,” offered Joe. “You must saw at a right angle or the teeth will bind.”

After Billy finished cutting the first length, and then two more, the old man ripsawed the curved sides away, leaving long square pieces. These he divided down the length into four sticks, each one about an inch thick.

By this time the sun was low. “Come back after supper,” the old man suggested, “and we’ll start the next step.”

After a supper of rabbit stew, Billy arrived at the old man’s cabin and saw a big tub had been placed on the stove. Now Joe was carrying pails of water from a hole chopped in the lake ice to fill it.

“Let me do that, Joe,” Billy offered. After he had lugged four more pailsful of water, Joe laid the long sticks of wood across the steaming tub.

“Why do you put them there, Joe?” Billy asked.

“We must soften the wood by steaming, so it will bend without breaking,” the old man answered. “While we wait, help me cut this moose hide into strips.”

As Joe slit the skin in a circular pattern with his knife, Billy gathered the thick velvet rope into a pile. Then the old man put the strips into the boiling water to soak.

Joe selected a golden strip of wood from a pile by the door and sawed it in half. Next he nailed the short pieces between two long slats from the tub.

“That looks like a ladder,” Billy said.

“Wait and see,” replied the old man.

Patiently the Indian curved the tips together, and Billy held them while Joe secured them with moose hide. The procedure was repeated on the other end.

“They have a snowshoe shape now, but how will you keep them on?” Billy asked.

“Tomorrow you will find out, when our moose hide babiche (pliable rawhide thongs) has soaked enough.”

The next morning when Billy arrived, the old man was weaving the babiche between the sides of the snowshoe. He showed Billy how to wrap the babiche around the frame and pull it tight. Finally a firm, flat net stretched between both frames.

When they had finished, Joe steamed the front tips again. Then he tied them around a log to form a curl. “Let them dry,” he said. “Tomorrow they will be ready.”

The next day, there lay two golden ovals with curved tips. The moose hide mesh had dried taut as a strung bow. Billy handled them longingly.

Suddenly his face fell, and he turned to Joe. “I’ll never be able to make a pair myself.”

“But with my help you can,” Joe said encouragingly.

“Not in time for Christmas, though,” Billy sighed. “I guess it’s sort of silly, but I’d really counted on getting some then.”

“Maybe Santa Claus will find the reservation this year,” Joe said, and they both laughed.

But on Christmas morning only boots and a shirt lay under the tree. Even the oranges and candy did not ease Billy’s disappointment.

That afternoon there was a knock on the door. When his mother opened it, Joe greeted her with a shy Merry Christmas.

“Come in,” Mother invited.

“Thank you,” Joe answered. “And how is your Christmas?” the old man asked, turning to Billy.

“No snowshoes,” Billy said sadly.

“Well then, maybe you’d better look outside.”

Billy opened the door. There leaning against the cabin was a pair of golden snowshoes with red tassels!

“They’re just my size! Where did you get them?” cried Billy excitedly.

“Each night after you left, I worked on them,” Joe explained. “I knew your heart was set on having them for Christmas. Now we can run the traplines together.”

Billy’s eyes were bright with anticipation. “Well, what are we waiting for?” he laughed and reached down to strap on one of the snowshoes.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown