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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XXV
Through new country—"Greater Canada"—Antelopes---- Startling effects of mirage—War parties keep us on the alert—Remarkable speed of a plain Cree—A curious superstition—A Cree's gruesome story— Returning with carts fully loaded—Followed by hostile Indians—I sight and chase a "sitting" bull— My shot wounds him—Paul's son thrown under the brute's feet—Firing Stony's clever shot to the rescue —We arrive at the Mission—Road-making.


WE were now in what was new country to me, and indeed to nearly all our camp. Few of these Stonies had ever been so far out on the plains before. We were crossing new valleys, climbing over new ranges of hills, camping by new creeks and springs, and every day I was turning over new leaves of the topography and geography of this "greater Canada." What an immense pasturage this, wherein the "cattle of the Lord upon a thousand hills" were grazing! There were millions of these cattle, and yet so big was the field that you might travel for days and weeks and not see one of them. But their tracks were everywhere—paths and dust-pans and bones and chips were omnipresent as you journeyed. Over these plains also roamed large and small flocks of antelopes. Beautiful, graceful and agile creatures these looked as they would gather on the crest of a hill and curiously survey our passing train. How often under the spell of the mirage these appeared as a body of Indian horsemen, and many an alarm they caused to the wandering bands of natives as they moved with their heads erect and on the steady regular lope across the plains. One would almost swear they were horsemen. It took a first-class horse to catch buffalo, but it required one of exceptional speed and wind to come up to these antelopes.

Within three weeks of our start from the Mission we were hard at work making provisions. Several times the Blackfeet and their allies came close to us, but such under Providence was the care we took of our camp and hunting expedition that these did not dare to attack us. As our party would act only on the defensive, there was no collision between us. One evening some were seen close to the camp, and as I generally kept the saddle on one of my best horses, very soon I and some of my men were out in the direction they were seen; but darkness dropping fast, they easily disappeared. Our demonstration was largely for the purpose of letting the hostiles know they had been seen and that we were prepared for them. What did astonish me, however, was that the plain Cree whom I mentioned in the chapter preceding this was on the spot as quickly as any of our horsemen, though he was on foot. When I expressed surprise, he quietly pointed to the strip of dog-skin which he had over his shoulders with the tail attached hanging behind (this was the back of the dog-skin, from tip of nose to tip of tail, now nicely tanned and lined with colored cloth). "This," said he, "is the cause. If I had put on the swifter dog's skin I should have been here before you." I then noticed that he had the bigger and slower dog's skin as part of his dress, and he believed (if I did not) that the wearing of this gave him speed. He claimed that the spirit of his dream told him so. I told him that the "Great Spirit" had given him a good set of lungs and a pair of strong, quick legs, and that was why he could run with horses.

This same fellow was a very good shot, and an expert at selecting fat animals—in which, after all, lies the real skill of a buffalo hunter. Many a man could kill on the dead jump, and by constant practice learn to load a gun quickly, but to pick good fat meat while dust and powder and perspiration were each doing what they could to blind your eyes, and while madly galloping over rough country with numberless badger-holes, dust-pans, cut-banks, etc., seemingly seeking to break either the horse's or the rider's neck or limbs, required practice, and quickness of vision, and ready judgment. This man had these qualities, and several times I put him on one of my buffalo runners. Thus we got acquainted, and presently he began to come to our meetings, where he was a thoughtful listener. Once he told me of a strange experience he had. Said he, Several of us started in the depth of winter from the extreme point of timber on the Touchwood Hills to hunt for buffalo. Our camp was very short of meat. We carried wood on flat sleds, and when we killed the first buffalo I went back to camp with two sled loads for those at home. All day I travelled on the bare plain, hoping to reach timber that night; but my loads were heavy and my horses tired, and in the afternoon a storm came on, and I saw that I could not make the main woods that night. Then I bethought me of a small island of timber to one side of my course which would afford me shelter. But then I also knew, a. couple of moons before this, a noted Indian had died at that point, and his tent was left standing for him to rest in; that his best horse had been led to the door and shot, and the line fastened round his neck passed to the dead man. Thinking of this I felt a strong reluctance to go near the place, but the storm was raging and my horses were tired, and at last I made up my mind to go and seek shelter with the dead man.

"When I reached the spot there was the lodge, and I drew up my horses close to the door; but before I unhitched them I first addressed the occupant of the tent. I told him it was not in the spirit of curiosity or bravado or irreverence that I thus came near his resting-place, but that I was a poor lonely brother seeking shelter for the night; that if he would accord me hospitality I would be very careful and thankful. I then proceeded to unhitch my horses. I noticed that there was a fine pile of dry wood near the tent, and knew there would be more within, for such is the custom. After fixing my horses for the night I went to the door of the lodge and again apologized to my dead friend. Then I removed the fastening of the door mind stood, fearing to enter.

"It was now late at night and very dark outside, and how much darker it would be in the lodge I shuddered to think. But once more speaking humbly to the dead man I ventured in, and, as I had thought, there was plenty of dry wood near the door; so I made some shavings and took the dry grass I had carried for the purpose from my bosom, and soon I had a light, but did not dare to look up. As my fire brightened I took my pipe and filled it, and lighting it drew a few puffs and then looked up. There sat the dead man with the line from his horse's neck in his hand, and with his bow and quiver standing be- side him. He looked as if alive, and I now held my pipe-stem toward him and said, 'Smoke, my brother, and believe me when I tell you that the storm has driven me to presume upon your good-nature. I hope you will not think strange of my venturing as 1 have into your home. I will bring in some meat and cook food that we may eat together.' This I began to do, and after awhile my feeling of dread began to wear away. When the meat was cooked I set a portion by the side of the dead man and then ate my own meal. While doing this I told him of our hunt. I talked to the dead man as if he were listening to me, and I think his spirit was. Then I again lit my-pipe and offered him a smoke. Now as the night was far spent, I made my bed, stretched myself by the fire, and went to sleep. I did not wake until daylight, and there sat my friend looking at me, as I thought. I told him I was very tired and hoped he would not mind me sleeping so long as I had; now I would again cook, and we would eat together once more. This I did, placing his portion beside him. Then I thanked him for giving me shelter, and telling him I would often think of his goodness to me, bade him good-bye. Fixing the door of the tent as I had found it, I hunted up my horses and set out for the camp. When I told our people where I had spent the night, they were astonished at my foolhardiness and said, 'It was not right to thus trouble the departed.' I told them I would not do it again if I could help it."

This poor fellow and his companion were killed some years afterwards by a war party rushing upon them, not far from the spot where we now were. The Blackfeet afterwards told me that he died bravely as became a man. Crowfoot himself was with the party which killed him.

We were very fortunate in our hunting. The buffalo were not numerous, but we found enough to load us fully, and by the first of the sixth week from the Mission we were on the homestretch, making for the woods as fast as our heavily laden carts would permit. The enemy followed us for several days, but we did not give them a chance to either steal horses or charge upon our camp. As we began to leave the buffalo far behind us they gave up the chase for the time; but we did not slacken our discipline one whit until far into the woods.

Before we left the treeless plains we camped one afternoon near a big lake. On the side on which we were the country was low and fiat for many miles. Riding on alone I came to a small knoll, and from this I saw a dark speck in the distance, which the more I looked at it the more it shaped into a "sitting" bull. Finally, as the sun was still well up, I rode towards the object, and then I saw some riders start straight from our camp for the same object. When we converged, I said to the leader, "Where are you going?" and he answered, "To the same place as you are." Then he asked, "What did you see that made you ride across this way?" and I answered, "What did you see that made you start out from camp at this hour?" I then told them that I thought there was a bull over there, but as the country was very flat no object at that distance could be seen.

I galloped on and the Indians came after; but presently the older one said, "We had better go back to camp; we are now too far away from it. They may be attacked before we return. It is now evening." But we kept on, and soon my "sitting" bull was in sight, but there was an arm of the lake between us and him, and again the old Indian insisted on returning. "It is likely he will see you long before you come near; you cannot catch him to-night. Let us turn back." But I had gone too far to thus turn hack, and I said "No," and suiting the action to the word got off my horse to lead him over the soft place. Firing Stony and old Paul's son followed me, while the others stayed with the old man. Then he, to balk us, when we were about two hundred yards from him, fired his gun to scare the bull, and sure enough the bull jumped up. Firing Stony said, "It's no use, he has frightened him, and the race will be too long." I was more determined than ever, and rather vexed with the rascal for firing his gun, so I said to those with me, "He will not have his way. My will shall overcome his in this matter.. The bull will not frighten until we rush him," and sure enough the bull turned around and quietly sank into his bed. Then said I, "Do you see that? Come on, we will kill him." And while the others were now riding back fast to camp, we three went on picking our way around the soft places, and presently were across, and mounting our horses charged the bull.

This time the bull was started in earnest and went for all his speed, but the ground was good, and as my little Bob very soon overhauled him, I saw he was fat and worth coming a great way for. I was now some distance in advance of my companions, as Bob was the speediest horse in camp. As I came up I shot the bull, but struck him too far behind, so that my ball only broke his thigh. He went squat at first, but flung himself around in a flash. I went flying past him with the impetus of my horse's speed, leaving the big fellow facing my companions, and as I pulled up I turned and saw young Paul being thrown straight at the bull's head. His horse had come up as the bull faced around, and was so startled by the brute's angry roar that he stopped quick, and, the saddle-girth snapping, the rider was thrown straight ahead. There he lay with the bull standing over him on three legs, trying to get his horns under his body. For a moment I was horrified, for I knew that all the blame would rest upon me if any hurt should come to our party. I shouted, "Lie still—keep flat!" and the boy heard me; and though the bull was nosing him, he failed to put his horns under the prostrate form. In the meantime Firing Stony was coming up as fast as his horse could run. I saw him lean over his pony and shove out his old flintlock, and thought it looked as if he might shoot the lad, for the bull's head was right there also. But with unerring aim he shot the bull through the brain, and as Paul rolled away the animal dropped dead. We were thankful for this escape, and in a short time were on our way to camp with our horses heavily loaded with prime meat. Contrary to the old man's premonitions, too, we found all well when we reached there.

In a few days we were in the woods and luxuriating again on wild rhubarb and poplar sap, but finding less enjoyment from the attentions of innumerable mosquitoes and "bulldogs," as this was one of the rainy seasons and insect life abounded. Out on the plains the buffalo were sufficient at that time to sanitate the land. They drank up the surface-water and ate the grass, and there was no necessity for the smaller insect life; but here in the woods, with surface-water and rank growth in rich abundance, Nature's force of sanitation was a tremendously big one, and they bled us on every hand. Our forty-lodge camp was but a speck on their big field of enterprise.

We found the creeks full, and this caused no end of work in ferrying and bridging. Up to this time our cart road had terminated about fifteen miles from the Mission, but now I determined to chop a road right through; and when those who had no carts left us at Battle River to take the straight pack-trail to the lake, I told them to begin at that end and make the road to meet us. This they did, and after some days' hard work chopping out the forest, and corduroying swamps, and bridging streams, I had the pleasure of mounting the lead cart and drawing this right up to our Mission house door. In this humble instance the "star of empire" was trending westward. Soon the Indians who had been with us cached their provisions, and scattered into the woods to hunt moose and other wood game. But we were seldom without some of these restless nomads of the plains.


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