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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XIX
We start out to hunt for buffalo—Fish and frozen turnips --A depleted larder—David's bag of barley meal—At the point of starvation —We strike Maskepetoon's camp—An Indian burial—Old Joseph dying—We leave the camp - Generous hospitality—A fortunate meeting - Frostbites—A bitterly cold night—Unexpected visitors—Striking instance of devotion—I suffer from snowshoe cramp—Arrival at Victoria— Old Joseph's burial—Back to Pigeon Lake.


WE started on our plain trip with commissariat promising nothing more delicate or appetizing than fish and frozen turnips! Our party consisted of my brother David, Francis, Job and myself. We took our course southeast, by Sickness Hill and Birch Lake, and failing to find any fresh tracks of Indians in that direction, we then made more easterly. While going down the north bank of the Battle River our fish ran out. This was serious, but we had the turnips left. Soon, however, we roasted the last of these, and pushed on our course amid deep snow and cold and stormy weather. An old bull was shot, but we could eat nothing of him except the heart and tripe and the tongue, Even our dogs declined the meat. Things were commencing to look blue. That night David produced a small bag of barley meal which my sister had ground in the coffee mill. Our camp was jubilant over this, and we heartily enjoyed the small tin of porridge provided for supper that night. Next day we travelled as rapidly as we could, but were not in condition for quick time. The barley was going fast, and we began anxiously to watch the doling out of the slender supply. In the stress of hunger we were becoming meaner and smaller. I caught myself looking to see that my brother (lid the square thing in serving out the little pot of meal gruel, for it was becoming thinner every time. I bit my lips and felt mortified at myself for being so contemptible. I began to realize what I had read of men's doings when in sore straits such as seemed to be coming on us. But we kept on, and the day after the meal was gone we struck the trail of a large camp, evidently some days ahead of us.

The sight of the trail put new life into our whole party. We covered several of their day's journeys before we camped that night, and though hungry and weak were out early the next day. About ten o'clock we saw a column of smoke rising in the air, and as we drew nearer saw horses and people moving. Camp was being struck, and nearly all had gone from the spot as we came up. A little to one side, at the edge of a bluff of timber, a small group of men were engaged in burying one of their number. We were just in time to help in the last rites.

Old Maskepetoon was there. "You come like a ray of sunshine to comfort us, John," whispered the old Chief, as he warmly gripped my hand. The work of interment went on in silence. I knew the deceased—son-in-law to old "Great One," one of my particular friends—a great strong man cut off suddenly in his prime.

Sadly I watched the removing of the soil. The snow having been cleared away, the dried leaves and twigs were carefully placed in a hide and put aside. The earth, too, as it was loosened up, was placed in hides. Then the body was laid in the shallow grave, and the earth put back in and trampled down until level with the original surface, after which the leaves and twigs were scattered over the place, making it look as if it had not been disturbed. The unused earth was carried away and scattered so as not to appear. All this was done that the enemy might not discover the grave and desecrate the person of the dead.

Needless to say the food placed before us by our kind friends was eagerly devoured, but we were discouraged to find that these people were living from hand to mouth—that while the buffalo were within from sixty to one hundred and fifty miles distant, they had not yet attempted to come north. The camp was still waiting and hoping for this, and in the meantime was existing on the game secured by hunting expeditions which were ever and anon sent out between the severe spells of weather. That the camp was sorely in need of food was very apparent to me as I passed on through the moving crowds to the spot designated for the fresh camping ground. Already a large number of tents were placed by those who moved earlier in the day. Reaching these we went at once into Muddy Bull's lodge, and were gladly received by my old friends Noah and Barbara. Here I was sorry to hear that old Joseph was in another lodge close to us, and in a dying condition. I went in to see our "old standby," and found him very weak, and yet glad to press my hand. "Ah, John," said he, "I am still a poor weak sinner, for I have longed to be released from this frail body. I have even asked the Lord to take me home. I feel I have done wrong. I should bide the Lord's own time." "My dear Joseph," I answered, "I am sure the good God well understands your case, and His big heart thoroughly sympathizes with you. He will not misjudge you. Do not worry about these matters. You have been a faithful servant, and your reward is near." "I am glad to hear you say so, John; it comforts me to see you once more. Give my warmest greetings to your father and mother and all our people at the Mission." Thus spoke my old friend and travelling companion. Many a long weary mile we had struggled over together, many a cold camp we had shared. A brave, true, hardy, consistent Christian man he was, and now here he lay dying of hunger and cold and disease. I would have delighted in helping him, but except a hymn and prayer, and a few visits during the two or three days we spent in the camp, I could not do much for him. It seemed hard to let him die in such straits, but we had neither medicine nor the food he needed. After several services, a council or two in Maskepetoon's tent, and visiting in many of the lodges, we started across country for our homeward trip. During our stay in camp the Indians had shared with us handsomely. The best they had was given to us, and both dogs and men felt revived and strengthened. Nor was this all, for when leaving the good-hearted people made a collection of provisions, and we had with us about quarter-loads when we left camp.

Maskepetoon thoroughly enjoyed our visit, and it was at his suggestion that the collection of food was taken up. He said, "Tell your father that we are still hopeful of the buffalo taking a turn northward, and of making robes and provisions and coming into the Mission in the spring well loaded. Tell him to pray for us. We send him and those at the Mission our heartfelt greetings."

We had not made more than eight or ten miles on our way when we had the good fortune to come across Maskepetoon's son just as he had killed two bulls. These were in fairly good flesh, and the generous fellow told us to help ourselves. We each took about a hundred pounds of fresh meat from his kill, and thanking him went on our way. That afternoon we had a wide plain to cross with snow deep and the cold searching. Frozen noses and chins and cheeks were common, and we were constantly telling one another to rub and helping to rub until the clear white gave place to the natural color.

By dark we reached the first point of woods, and were disappointed to find that there was no dry timber of any size to be found; but as there was no road we concluded to camp and do the best we could. And now the cold was bitterly cutting. Work as hard as we might we still were constantly freezing. The few little dry willows we found were barely sufficient to start our fire, but the frost was so keen that the green trees blazed up as if dry, and in turns we cut them down and carried in and stood around that blaze. There was no thought of trying to sleep; we were afraid to risk it.

We boiled some of the bull's meat, and I very well remember, as I stood before that big brush fire, with a robe over my shoulders to break the wind, that my piece of meat, but now out of the boiling soup, though not very big, was frozen before I had eaten more than half of it. I was astonished at this, but found that my companions were having similar experiences. No sleep, no rest; steadily all night long we fought the storm and cold. To make matters more dismal, if possible, about an hour after midnight we heard parties approaching our camp, and when these came up, found that they were bringing poor Joseph's frozen body to take it to the Mission for burial.

It was all of one hundred and fifty miles to the Mission. There was no road, the snow was unusually deep and the weather intensely cold; yet here were two Indians with a dog-sled upon which was stretched the inanimate body of their friend, and they were willing in the face of great difficulty to undertake this long journey, Just because their friend had signified a wish to be interred beside the Mission. Who will say after this that these people have no sentiment?

Now there were six of us to keep the fire burning, and in relays of two we chopped and carried until daylight came, when in gladness we resumed our journey. At any rate we would have plenty of dry wood for the rest of the trip. What food we carried was not of the best. Having no fat in it, it had not the quality essential to keeping out the cold. It takes the heart out of most men to struggle on day after day under such conditions, and in my case there was a complication of troubles, for during the second day out of Maskepetoon's camp I was taken with my first and only attack of" snow .shoe sickness." This is a contraction of the tendons and sinews of the instep, and is exceedingly painful, worse, indeed, than toothache or even earache. It kept me from resting at night, and when we went out of our noon or night camps I would hop along on one foot 'with the help of a pole, until in sheer weariness I would force my foot to the ground. Our dogs were so thin and weak that they could not draw me on the sled.

Five days of cold and pain and extreme hardship brought us to the Mission. While our friends were glad to see us, they were sorely disappointed that our food report was not more encouraging. There was nothing for the settlement but to he content with potatoes and parched barley for some time to come. During our absence young Hamilton had died, and we buried old Joseph beside him. For some years of this life he could say with him of old, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." And in full hope we laid his mortal remains in the ground, once more to recline on the breast of mother-earth.

Two days at Victoria, and Francis and I and my brother David again set out for Pigeon Lake. There had been no travel, and the snow had deepened so that every step of the road had to be broken. But in spite of this we made the lake in four days, and found our families still alone but well. For thirty-three days their isolation had been complete, and during the latter half of the period their anxiety great. What signified that we had brought little or no provisions? We had reached home, and with four days' rations ahead. From the purely material standpoint our trip had been a miserable failure. We had spent our strength for naught, had undergone untold hardships, and the financial results were nil. But is it not written that "man doth not live by bread only"? We had brought consolation to the sorrowing and dying; we had conveyed to Maskepetoon and his large camp, during a desponding time in their experience, the kind brotherly greetings of the big Church we represented, and the love and profound sympathy of the larger Christianity we professed. We had preached the Gospel of hope and joy to multitudes; we had made men and women forget, for a time at least, their present hunger and cold and pain and suffering, as we told them of that better land where these conditions did not exist. We had been privileged during that trip to sound the glad tidings in ears hitherto strange to such sublime teaching. And if these were some of the present and tangible results of our journey, who will estimate the fruitage of eternity? Verily to men of humble faith such work as ours is a continual paradox. We are hungry, yet always feasting; we are tired and weary, yet constantly gaining strength; we are sad, yet full of joy; we are at times despondent, still ever rejoicing. Verily this Gospel of our Christ is a perennial benediction.


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