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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XVIII
Father visits our Mission—A dream that proved a portent —Drowning of Mr. Connor—"Straight fish" diet— We are visited by a war party of Crees—I am given a problem to solve—Francis and I set out to seek fresh provisions—Feasting on fat bear steaks—A lonely Christmas—Mr. Hardisty visits us—We in turn visit Mountain House—A hard winter in the Saskatchewan country—Rations on short allowance —A run to Victoria—David and I have a hard experience—Father and mother as "good Samaritans."


DURING the autumn father visited our Mission, and as a large camp of Stonies had gone westward, among whom there were children to be baptized and couples to be married, I prevailed upon him to follow them up. Accordingly we set out on their trail, and after two days of steady travel, during which we made a considerable detour, we came up to them at Buck Lake. We spent a day and night with them, father marrying several couples and baptizing some children. On our way back father had a strange dream, which he related tome the next morning as we rode along. It was to the effect that Mr. Connor, who had returned from Ontario and gone into Lac la Biche to trade for the winter, was drowned. Father said he could not shake off the spirit of depre3sion which the dream had created in his mind. Reaching Edmonton, he met the word that Mr. Conner was drowned, and, strangely enough, this had occurred at the time we were camping between Buck and Pigeon lakes. Readers of "SADDLE, SLED AND SNOWSHOE" will remember Mr. Connor as the gentleman who travelled with my party across the plains in 1864.

Cutting and hauling timber, building a stable, whip-sawing lumber, making dog-sleds and horse-sleds, and fishing entailed an immense amount of work as winter came on. We made new nets and mended our old ones, built stagings and hung the fish until the real cold weather set in, when we froze them oil ice and then packed our catch. But while the fish were plentiful, they were of a very poor quality, both wormy and lean, so that out of hundreds a very small percentage was fit to eat. It was a case of over-production. Later, when some scores of thousands had been caught, there was a very perceptible improvement in quality; but that took years to accomplish.

It was at this time that a war party of Crees came to us. Fortunately there were quite a number of Stonies camped beside the Mission at this time. It was in the evening, as Francis and myself were working the whip-saw for all it was worth, in order to finish our number of planks for the day, that these fellows, some thirty in number, filed into our clearing. As the Stonies did not look upon them with favor, Fox, their leader, an old acquaintance of mine, brought the entire party of warriors into our house. Fortunately our one room was a big one, and in the interests of peace and the future of our work it was better to put up with a crowd for one night than to have turned them out, though the Stonies would have stood by us in such a case. We told them plainly, though, that we would have no nonsense this time; they might stay with us for the night, but I would issue ammunition to to the Stonies, and have them guard the place all the time that they were with us, and if they attempted to play any tricks their own lives would be the forfeit.

Fox protested against any evil intention on their part. He said they were tired and hungry, and were on their way back home, disappointed in their attempt to make a foray against the Blackfeet. Said he, "Let us stay with you one night, John, and we will leave quietly in the morning." We therefore sheltered and fed them and guarded them from the Stonies, who very naturally were resentful of the conduct of the Crees at different times in the past. However, old Mark took charge of the watch, and assured me that it would be all right. I have no doubt that some of those men for the first time listened to the Gospel message sung and spoken in the language wherein they were born.

We entertained our guests as best we could, and spent the long evening by the light of our big chimney fire, opening to their minds visions of peace and predicting to them the near approach of the time when they should go to war no more. During the evening an old warrior, who had evidently been listening to what we had to say in an unbelieving mood, said, "You white men think you are very wise; now I will give you something to count which you will never be able to find out." "Well, let us have it," I said, when I saw that the crowd was interested in the matter. So the old fellow propounded his great puzzle. Said he, "There were seven buffalo bulls. Each had two horns and two eyes and one tail, and each foot had a split hoof, and above the hoof were two little horns. Now, for the seven bulls what was the whole number?" and the painted warrior gave a contemptuous grin, as if to say, "There, take that for your boasted wisdom to grapple with." I mentally worked out the simple question, and quickly gave him the number, and then Fox laughed and said, "Did I not tell you you could not catch John? He is very much wiser than we are." But the old man, being much more obtuse and ignorant than Indians generally are, would not believe that I had answered his question, so lie got a small pole and faced it on all sides with his knife. Then he took a piece of charcoal and began laboriously to make marks for the horns and eyes and tail, etc., of the bull. But his companions chafed him so unmercifully that he was soon lost in his calculations and gave up in chagrin.

This incident gave me a chance to enlarge on the benefit of schools and of education. I told that old mathematician that the little boys and girls in our schools would laugh at such a simple question as he gave; that the white men went on into millions upon millions in their calculations. Fox then said, "We are worse than children in all these matters, and we are foolish to gainsay the white man. But I believe John when he says that what has been possible to the white man is also possible to us Indians, for I notice that in some things our minds are quicker than those of most white men. But as for John, you cannot play with him; he is both white man and Indian put together." I warmly protested that I was but a child in wisdom; that I was learning about the Indians every day, and wanted to be their friend in truth.

Early next morning the party took their departure, and Mark and I saw them off some distance on their road, for it was hard to restrain some of the more turbulent and revengeful of the Stonies—they had too many old scores to wipe out.

Winter was now upon us, and our people scattered in quest of food and furs, so that by the first of December Francis and myself and our families were the only ones left at the Mission. At times the solitude was oppressive, and would have been much worse but that we were constantly busy hunting and fishing, taking out timber, gathering in firewood, etc. Breaking in dogs also took some time, for the old stock was about used up. Old Draffan and his contemporaries were gone, either dead or now too old for hard service.

About the middle of December Francis and I started out towards the plains with dog-trains. My object was two-fold—to visit the people, if I could find any, and also to try and obtain some provisions. We were growing tired of fish. We had about a foot of snow to break on the trail, and were glad towards the close of the third day to find the track of a solitary hunter, which we followed into his camp. Here we found Samson and old Paul and other of our own people, all very glad to see us, but, like ourselves, on "short commons." The buffalo were far out, and these people were barely existing on an occasional deer and a few porcupines. But, fortunately for us, someone had run across a deer and killed him just before we arrived in camp, and we feasted with the rest on good fat meat. It was a rare treat to taste some fatty substance once more.

We held a meeting that night and another the next morning, and then went on, taking Samson with us, hoping to find some food. But after three days' steady travel all we got was a starving bull, which made both dogs and men sick, so we concluded to separate, Samson to strike straight for camp, and we for home. Snow had deepened, our dogs, like ourselves, were hungry and tired, and the miles seemed longer than usual, so that it was midnight on the fourth day on the home stretch before we reached the lake, glad enough to settle down again even to fish diet.

Christmas of 1864 came, but no Santa Claus for any of our party. However, my frugal wife managed to contrive a plum-pudding, and our little company enjoyed immensely such a delightful break in the monotony of our daily fare.

During the holidays I started alone for Edmonton, and there found my brother-in-law Hardisty from the Mountain House. He accompanied me to Victoria, where we spent New Year's day with father and mother and the rest of our family. We found that at Edmonton' and Victoria there was the same scarcity of food as with us. The buffalo were as yet far out, and the Indians were between us and them, and in a semi-starving condition. Moreover, the winter was a hard one, the snow deep and the cold intense.

Hardisty accompanied me back to Pigeon Lake on condition that I would go on with him to the Mountain Fort. "For," said he, "you should visit your sisters; our fort is part of your parish. You can preach to us—we need it— and you may meet some Indians in on a trade. Besides we can spare you a little provision." I here confess that while all the other reasons were true, the last one at that time was convincing and unanswerable.

I took Francis along, and we fought our way through deep snow and extreme cold to the Mountain House, a distance from Pigeon Lake of one hundred and twenty miles, reaching there after dark the third day. For both Francis and myself, after the meagre piscatorial diet of some months, it was hard work. Heavy exertion such as this requires strong food. But while at the fort, where we spent part of three days, we fared sumptuously on good dried meat, which had been brought in from the plains by the Blackfeet. We had a delightful visit with my sisters and the people of the fort. Some Stonies came in to trade while we were there, and among these was my old friend Jonas, whom I was well pleased to see again. We held several services, and would gladly have stayed longer were it not that our families were in a state of semi-starvation at the distant lake.

We had presented to us 125 pounds of dried meat, and with this carefully tied on our sleds we said good-bye and turned our faces homeward. Though the road was heavy, by travelling most of the night we were back at the Mission early the third day, where we found all well and exceedingly glad to see us.

Not a single Indian put in an appearance. These were having all they could do to keep soul and body together. It was a hard winter all over the Saskatchewan country. We got up a lot of firewood and cut it into proper lengths, spending several clays at this work. Meantime, we tried to fatten our dogs on fish, but even they would not thrive on these. Then we started for Victoria, hoping that by this time a change for the better in the provision line would have taken place.

At Edmonton we found the people of the fort on limited rations. Pushing on we made a big day without any trail, from above Sturgeon River to Victoria, over sixty miles, and when comfortably seated in the Mission mother said, "I am sorry, John, but all I can give you for supper to-night is potatoes and milk." Both Francis and I vehemently asserted that this would be a glorious change for us, and so it was.

Here also the whole settlement was on short allowance. Father had heard of Maskepetoon's camp being about 150 miles down country, but the reports were not encouraging. "Still," said he, "those Indians ought to be visited, and I am glad you have come, for now you can go to them." To do this we must have food, and as my brother David had made a fishery out at Long Lake that fall and his fish were still out there, we first went out to the lake, about sixty miles north, for the fish. On this trip David and father's Cree boy Job went with me. The round trip was only one hundred and twenty miles, but it still lingers in my memory as one of the hardest on record in my experience. The cold was so intense it worried our dogs to stand it, and the snow was so full of friction that our sleds seemed almost as though they were being pulled through sand. The camps were smoky, and on the whole it was a hard and disagreeable journey.

In the Mission house at this time there lay upon his dying bed a poor young fellow who had wasted his substance in riotous living and was now paying the penalty in extreme physical prostration. He had gone out on the plains the same summer that I did, and wintered in the Saskatchewan the season of 1862-63. During that winter, while he and a companion were out hunting near Battle River, their camp was attacked one night by Indians. His companion was shot and killed, he himself wounded, and in making his escape, and in the subsequent journey to Edmonton, he underwent great hardship. It was after this, when he had thoroughly recovered, that I first met him. He was then a very strong man, one of the best swimmers I ever saw in the water. But he went across the mountains into the mining camps, and when he came back to our side his strength was about gone.

Father found him in a room in the fort at Edmonton in sore straits, and arranged for his transport to Victoria. Both father and mother and all the rest were now doing everything they could to make him comfortable, but he was dying. He said to me as I bade him farewell for our trip to Maskepetoon's camp, "Good-bye, John, until we meet up yonder." "Why, Harry," T said, "I expect to come back soon." "Ah," he said, "but I will be dead before you come." And so it proved. Poor Harry was now all right. He had come to himself, and was born again. But it was a heaven-send to that young fellow in this wild country to fall at last into mother's hands. She in a multitude of ways soothed and comforted the last weeks of his life.


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