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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XI
We return to Victoria—War parties abroad—Father's influence over the Indians–We organize a big fresh meat hunt—David's first buffalo hunt—Mark's adventure with a war party—Surrounded by wolves— Incidents of our journey—Preparing for the winter.


50

Soon the autumn was past, the most of our wandering people had gone, and we made ready to travel back to Victoria. Mark, whose wife had died during the epidemic of the previous spring, left his motherless children with their grandparents and his brothers, and went with us. He said his heart was sore and he would go with us in order to be comforted.

Carefully we scouted past Edmonton, for this was the season of activity for the scalp-taker and horse-thief, but we reached the older Mission without any mishap. Here we found everybody busy at the necessary work of preparing for the winter, which always involved a considerable amount of labor. The usual excitement over the coming and going of war parties had taken place. Mother and sisters had spent days and nights in a sort of semi-terror because of the wild conduct of these people, which even Maskepetoon's strong influence could not wholly control, though doubtless this grand old man's firm friendship for the white man, and especially for those of our Mission, was the main reason that no violence was attempted.

Under such conditions we were at times glad to see the large camps break up and in sections depart for a season. The great country around us gave the more turbulent and restless of these nomads a fine field wherein to work off their surplus energy in war and hunting. In the management of affairs during the presence of complex multitudes of wild men at the Mission father was well qualified to act prudently. He knew when to concede as well as to demand, and thus wisely never ran the risk of having his authority and influence brought into question. Moreover, he was a thorough democrat. To him an Indian was as good as any other man, and was given precisely the same treatment. There was none of "the inflated, superior style of man" in father's manner to anybody, either white or red. And this was very soon noticed by these" quick-sighted students of their fellowmen." He was a friend, and as such he became known among these western tribes.

Now the keen frosty nights were with us once more, and time was come for our fresh-meat hunt. In this we were joined by quite a number of the half-breeds. Our pickets of guards were more numerous, and larger, and thus one did not come on duty so often, an appreciable change; for it was dismal work during those long cold nights moving about the silent camp, keeping vigilant watch and looking with pardonable longing for the morning.

Our course this time was south, and on the fourth day out we came upon the buffalo. At once the work of running, killing, butchering and hauling began. This was my brother David's first sight of this kind of game, and in the excitement he lost his hat and had to go the rest of the way bareheaded. But this was a small matter; many a man under like circumstances has lost his head for the time being. No wonder David lost his hat. The novelty and intense excitement of the whole thing and the hunter's rapture in bringing down such noble game was enough to make one's head too large for an ordinary hat.

Our camp of an evening would be a strange sight to one unacquainted with life on the plains. The huge fires, sides of ribs, heads of buffalos, marrow bones, squares of tripe, and other portions of the carcase, all in various processes of cooking; every man armed and fully ready for an attack; the guards occasionally coming within the glare of the camp-fire; horses and cattle closely guarded, and a constant sense of insecurity evident on every hand; men with guns ready at hand eating and drinking, or mending harness, moccasins, or carts. After the evening song and prayer the men stretched themselves to sleep just as they had hunted and worked during the day. There was no taking off of moccasins or clothing. If one removed his powder-horn and shot-pouch he fastened both to his gun, so that with one quick grip he had the whole in his hand and was ready.

My three years of constant life of this kind had made me somewhat familiar with it, but to my brother, fresh from the quiet and security of Ontario, this whole life was a revelation. Nevertheless by heredity and instinct alike he took to it like a native.

When Sunday came we had been two days and a half among the herds and were pretty well loaded, and also pretty well tired, so that the Sabbath rest was exceedingly welcome. Breakfast and a. short service, and all who could and were not on duty slept. In the afternoon strange Indians were sighted by our watchful guards, and my man Mark threw his lariat over the neck of "Ki-youkenos "—the big American horse that ran away with Peter in "SADDI.E, SLED AND SNOWSHOE and before anyone could stop him was away on the jump to reconnoitre more closely. In the meantime from our camp we could see these strangers gathering on the summit of a distant hill, and knew from their numbers and equipment that they were a war party. Mark, with only his lariat for a bridle, was going nearer to them at every jump. Those of us who knew the horse felt that there would be no stopping or turning him until he reached those men; and our hearts were in our mouths, so to speak, as we watched Mark's progress and realized his peril. We caught up our best horses, and saddling them as quickly as possible started after him. I well remember how I felt as with my horse bounding under me I made for that hill. Momentarily I expected to see the smoke of a flint-lock, and keenly I watched Mark as he sat on his flying steed, for pull up as he might I knew he could not stop him. In a few moments he was in the midst of the party, but to our great relief was given a friendly greeting instead of the fusilade we had feared. Presently he started to come back, and we pulled up our horses and waited to hear from him who these were.

When we met Mark told us that the strangers were plain Crees on the war-path, going into the Blackfoot country, and though unacquainted with us still they were the allies of our people. Mark said they were coming down to visit us, so we returned to our camp. The war party came along in the course of an hour or .so, and concluded to camp with us for the night, though I am sure no one in our party gave them a pressing invitation to do this. To be under the necessity of watching within as well as without your own camp becomes rather tiresome.

We put on double guards that night, and were relieved when our friends started away bright and early Monday morning, allowing us to go on with our hunt.

I have seen great numbers of grey wolves, but never, I think, did I see them more numerous than at this time. Troops of these native scavengers would hang around our encampment and prow] very close up during the long night watches. When we were butchering the animals we had killed, they would form a circle around us, and impatiently wait until we had our meat loaded into the carts. Then, as we moved away, they would rush in and scramble and fight for the offal which we left. Many a wild fight amongst them we witnessed, but as ammunition was none too plentiful, we seldom shot any.

Their howling, especially at night, was bloodcurdling and terrifying to the inexperienced. Indeed, one could not at any time hear their deep, long, mournful notes without a lonesome and uncanny feeling. There are two distinct kinds of these animals. The coyote and the big grey wolf belong to the plains and are altogether different from the timber or wood wolf. The latter can become dangerous, while the former never seem able to muster enough courage to attack human beings.

By the middle of the following week our carts were loaded to their utmost capacity and were rolling homewards. As the days were short we generally started long before daylight, and while I have had plenty of this ante-dawn travel I confess I never relished it. To roll out of your blankets into the keen cold of a young winter's. morning, and then hastily roll up your bedding, place it in a cart, then rush out into the dark and catch and bring in the horses or oxen you drive, and with tingling fingers harness them into the carts committed to your care; and then as the leading cart begins to signal its onward move by its own peculiar squeak and squeal, to place your carts where they belong in the line of march; to come to ponds and creeks covered with ice as yet not strong enough to bear your weight, and yet through which you perforce must wade in order to secure the safe crossing of your loads, your wet moccasins and nether garments stiffening with the intense cold as you march,—I will say that while I in common with most pioneers in our Canadian North-West frequently did this, still I am free to admit that I was never in love with it.

What a big market-square we have to take our winter's food from—hundreds of miles in length and breadth, with great widely distant valleys like stalls furnishing us with the food we seek, the quality of which depends on the skill of the hunter. And right here my friend Muddy Bull comes in as a reliable guarantor that what we take home will be first-class. On we roll. Our only delays are breaking axles and splitting felloes and snapping dowel-pins; but who cares for such trifles as these while we have the fresh green hides of the buffalos we have killed. The green hide serves as both wheelwright and blacksmith as it dries upon the weak portion of our vehicle. And while the kettle boils and the meat is roasting almost anyone in our party with axe and auger and saw will put a new axle in working trim. Ah! those were the days wherein to cultivate self-help and independence. The man who was not capable of this manner of evolution very soon drifted back into the older countries.

But here is the river and we are almost home. Fording our stock in the rapids, about half a mile down, we unload the meat, "pack" it over in a skiff, and taking some carts to pieces we "pack" them over also in the skiff for use on the north side, leaving the rest until the ice-bridge forms. Then when all is safe on the stage at home we feel that unless a crowd of starving Indians come to us, we have our larder full for some time to come. And this was very satisfactory to us in those days when we were so far away from any outside help and so dependent on the movements of buffalo herds and contending tribes of Indians.

Sometimes the buffalo were far out on the great plains, and inaccessible to us; sometimes hostile Indians intervened, so that we dare not leave our people or in any way divide our forces; but the opening of the winter of 1863 found our stage loaded with prime meat and our party together and in the enjoyment of many blessings. There generally is in our northern country a short period which is neither summer nor winter, and if possible all travel ceases for a time. It would not be prudent to start out with horses, and without snow and ice dogs are of no use. This time we made use of by making ready for the winter. Buildings were to be repaired and washed over with white mud, which by the way is a very good substitute for lime. Hay was to be hauled, fire-wood to be cut in the log and hauled home, then to be sawed and split for use. In the meantime, as now there was a permanent settlement, at Victoria, and good congregations, meetings of various character had to be organized. Christianity, temperance, education, civilization must be inculcated, and on all these questions father was thoroughly alive. Then, the snow fell and the ice made, and with Mark as my companion we began our evangelistic and missionary trips.

Our first was to Edmonton, and thence to Pigeon Lake, during which time we tried to preach the Gospel to white men and Crees and Stonies. Even then it was becoming easier for me to speak in Cree than in English. My brain and voice functions were almost in constant use in the former, and but seldom did I require them in the language wherein I was born. Steadily I was becoming able to give the glorious Gospel of the Lord Jesus to others in the tongue and idiom of the language "wherein they were born."


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