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Forest, Lake and Prairie
Chapter VI
Across the plains - Mississippi to the Red - Pemmican - Mosquitoes - Dogs - Hunting - Flat boat - Hostile Indians.


WE had reached the prairie country, woodland and plain intermixed. We were now at the end of our steam transport service for this trip. We did hope to catch the only steamer on the Red River of the North, but in, this were disappointed.

The next question was how to reach the Red River; hundreds of miles intervened.

We found on inquiry that there were two means of crossing the country in sight—one by stage-coach, the other by Red River cart.

A brigade of these latter having just then come in from the north, father and I went out to the camp where these carts were, and the sight of them soon made father determine not to travel with them. Our first sight of these Red River chariots was not favorable. I climbed into one, but did so carefully, fearing it would collapse with my weight. All the iron on it was a thin hoop on the hub, the whole thing being bound together with rawhide. "No, gentlemen, we were as yet too much 'tenderfeet' to risk such vehicles."

Imagine mother and my sisters jogging hundreds of miles in those springless carts.

Father then went to interview the proprietors of the stage line, and concluded a bargain with them to take us from St. Paul to Georgetown, which place is on the Red River. Accordingly, one morning bright and early, and long before breakfast, we were rolling away up the eastern bank of the Mississippi—father, mother and sisters inside the coach, and myself up with the driver. Our pace was good, the country we were travelling through beautiful in its scenic properties.

We stopped for the first stage at St. Anthony's Falls. Here we had our breakfast.

If anyone that morning had said, "Just across yonder will stand one of the finest cities in America, and that before many years," all the pessimists in the party would have laughed at such a prophecy, but I verily believe, father would have said, "Yes, it is coming."

Our drive that day took us across the Mississippi to the village of St. Cloud, where father, learning that the steamer on the Red River would not come up to Georgetown for some time, concluded to stay over until the next coach, one week later.

In the meantime we made a tent, and hunted prairie chicken, and studied German, or rather Germans, for these made up the greater part of the population.

Taking the next coach the following week, we continued our journey. Soon we left settlement behind, the people of the stage-houses and stopping-places being the only inhabitants along the route.

Many of these were massacred in the Sioux rising which took place shortly afterwards.

Our stages ranged from twelve to twenty miles, and we averaged seventy miles per day.

A great part of the route was beautifully undulating, and fresh scenes were before us all the while.

My delight was to drive the four-in-hand, and the good-natured drivers would give me many an opportunity to do so.

It seemed like living to hold those reins, and swing around those hills and bowl through those valleys at a brisk trot or quick gallop.

By and by we reached the beginning of the Red River. We were across the divide; we were coursing down the country northward.

Hitherto it had been " up north " with us, but now, for years, it would be "down north."

These waters flowed into Hudson's Bay.

Presently we were on the great flat plain, which largely constitutes the valley of the Red River.

At the stopping-place, on the edge of this flat country, the stage people were about to leave the coach and hitch on to a broad-tired, springless wagon, but father simply put his foot down and we went on with our coach.

Talk about mosquitoes here, they were there by the millions. Such a night as we put in on the Breckinridge flats!

The stopping-place was unique of its kind —a dugout with a ridge-pole and small poles leaned against this on two sides, and earth and sods placed over these poles, and some canvas hung at either end. The night was hot, the dugout, because of the cook-stove, hotter still, and the mosquitoes in countless numbers.

Mother and my sisters were in misery; indeed, we all were, but we comforted each other with the thought that it was for one night only, and that respite would come in the morning.

My bed was under the table on the mud floor. My companion for the night was the proprietor of this "one-roomed mud hotel." The next morning the driver for that day said to me, "Now, young man, make a good square meal, for to-night we will reach Georgetown, and you will have only dogs and pemmican to eat." I asked him what pemmican was, but he could not tell me. All he could do was to talk about it.
All day we drove over this great flat plain —rich soil, long grass; the only break was the fringing of timber along the river.

We had dinner and then supper, and again the driver would admonish us to partake heartily of bacon and bread, for to-night, said he, "we reach the land of pemmican."

My curiosity was greatly excited as to what pemmican might be.

Late in the evening we reached Georgetown. Here we were on the banks of the Red River, and at the end of our stage journey, and where we hoped to find a steamer to take us down to Fort Garry. Georgetown was situated a little north of the junction of Buffalo Creek with the Red River. The town consisted of one dwelling house and a storehouse, both belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company.

Here, though not yet in the Hudson's Bay country, we were already in touch with this great company whose posts reached from here to the Arctic and dotted the country from the Labrador to the Pacific coast.

The gentleman in charge, a Mr. Murray, learning of our destination, with the usual courtesy of the Hudson's Bay Company's officers, welcomed us heartily, and gave up his room to our family, and himself took up quarters with me in our tent, which we speedily pitched near the bank of the river.

That night, before we went to sleep, I inquired of Mr. Murray if he knew anything about pemmican, and with a laugh he replied, "Yes, my boy, I was made acquainted with pemmican many years ago, and will be pleased to introduce you to some in the morning." I would fain have inquired about dogs, but my kind friend was already snoring. I could not sleep so soon. This strange, wild, new country we had travelled through for days, these Indian, and buffalo, and frontier stories I had listened to at the stopping-places, and heard from the drivers as we travelled—though born on the frontier yet all this was new to me. Such illimitable plains, such rich soil, such rank grass—there was a bigness about all this, and I could not help but speculate upon its possibility.

With the early morn we were up, and using the Red River as our wash-dish, were soon ready to investigate our new surroundings.

The first thing was pemmican. Mr. Murray took me to the storehouse, and here, sure enough, was pemmican in quantity. Cords of black and hairy bags were piled along the walls of the store. These bags were hard, and solid, and heavy. One which had been cut into was lying on the floor. Someone had taken an axe and chopped right through hair and hide and pemmican, and here it was spread before me. My friend stooped and took some and began to eat, and said to me, "help yourself," but though I had not eaten since supper yesterday, and we had driven a long way after that, still the dirty floor, the hairy bag, the mixture of the whole, almost turned my stomach, and I merely said, "Thank you, sir." Ah! but soon I did relish pemmican, and for years it became my staple food.

It was a wonderful provision of Providence for the aboriginal man and the pioneer of every class.

For days we waited for the steamer; not a word reached us from anywhere. In the meantime, father and I hunted and fished; we shot duck and prairie chicken, and caught perch and pickerel, and catfish and mud-turtles, and explored the country for miles, though we were cautioned about Indians, a war-party of whom one might strike anywhere and any time.

The Red River was a sort of dividing line between the Ojibways and the Sioux, the former to the east and the latter to the west of this long fluid line of natural division.

By and by the steamer came, and, to our great disappointment the captain said he could not run her back down for the water was too low.

This captain was not of the kind of pioneer men who laugh at impossibilities.

The next thing was to load a flat-bottomed barge and float her down.

We were allowed to erect our tent on a portion of the deck of the scow, and soon we were moving down stream, having as motive power human muscle applied to four long sweeps.

Day and night, with change of men, our scow kept on down this slow-currented and tortuous stream. The only stop was to take on wood for our cooking stove. Here I learned to like pemmican.


 


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