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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter III
We visit Edmonton—Nature's grand cathedral—Adventure with a buffalo bull—A trip to Pigeon Lake— Racing with dog-teams—An infidel blacksmith—Old Joseph proves an unerring guide—Caching our provisions.


ABOUT the last of February father determined to visit Edmonton, and mother also went for a change. Father took Joseph's dogs, and drove himself. Peter, with the team Susa had been using, drove the cariole in which mother rode. I had charge of the baggage and camp equipage, the provisions, and the wood-work of a plough which we were taking to the blacksmith's to have ironed. We kept the river all the way and made the hundred or more miles in less than two days. It has always seemed to me in travelling up or down our ice-bound northern rivers, either by night or by day, that a solemn, reverential feeling well befitted the scene. The long gentle sweeps, and the succeeding abrupt turnings of the river's windings; the high and sometimes precipitous forest-covered banks, always like great curtains casting shade and gloom and sombre colors; the fitful gleaming of sun or moon, or the brilliant flashes of the aurora light; the howling of the timber wolf or the barking of a family of coyotes, sending echoes to reverberate through the canyons formed by tributary streams—all these could not fail to impress the traveller. To me, thoughtless and light-hearted as I was in those early days, there always came a feeling as though I were in the aisles of a tremendous cathedral.

The great temple was completed. The Master Architect was satisfied. The glorious creation calmly waited. By and by the thronging multitudes would enter. In the meantime in humble faith and trust we worshipped. From a little ledge of hank in the thickly clustering pines, while our camp-fire lit up the nook with ruddy glow of warm light, our evening song of praise made the steep banks and the tall woods ring with lofty cheer.

We spent the Sabbath at Edmonton, father attending to his duties as chaplain and our whole party enjoying for a day or two the sojourn in the depot fort or miniature metropolis of this great West; then back down the great river, reaching home early the afternoon of the second day, which enabled Joseph, Susa, and myself to make ready for an early start the next morning to the Indian camps.

During the first part of March we made several trips of various distances, and fairly rushed the provisions and meat into our storehouse at the Mission. On one occasion, on our outward journey, as we were dashing through some scrub timber, a small tree which had been bent almost to the ground by the weight of some horse-sleds passing in, and had its sharp end projecting into the narrow road, caught me on its point and tore me from the sled on which I was stretched. At first I feared my ribs were pierced, but on examination found only my coat and shirt torn and the skin but slightly abrased. Driving on, congratulating myself on my escape from what might have been serious injury, presently as my dogs swung round a point of bush what should I see but a great buffalo bull, standing with his nose right over the track. Already my dogs were beside him, and feeling that it was too late to attempt to stay our course, or to throw myself from the sled, I called to them to go on, which they did, jerking me along at a jump right under the monster's head. I can assure you, my reader, that for the moment my heart was in my mouth. But now as we were safe I stopped the dogs, and shouted to Susa, who was coming next, and in the meantime succeeded in driving the huge fellow away from our track.

When we reached home from that trip, while I was unloading my sled, I told Larsen, the carpenter, about the bull blocking the road, and he, noticing that my coat and shirt were torn, rushed off and told our party that John had been gored by a mad bull. Mother came rushing out to see what was wrong with her boy, and I had quite a time explaining about the tree and the hull. I note this incident in passing to show how stories are made up from imagination.

March of 1865 was a stormy month. The snow deepened, and many a hard piece of road we had to encounter. About the middle of the month we made another trip to Pigeon Lake.

The readers of "SADDLE, SLED AND SNOWSHOE" will remember that Oliver and myself had visited the lake in December of 1864. Now our purpose was to take in some provisions, together with the plough, which was being ironed at Edmonton. As old Joseph knew the country well, hoped to find a straighter road than the one we had taken before.

It was storming heavily, with the snow drifting in good style, as early one morning we took the river for the journey. Our party had heavy loads, and we were glad when Smith, who was with us in 1863 and 1864, and who had recently come home from Edmonton, drove up with a flashing train of dogs and a light load, and signified his intention of accompanying us as far as Edmonton. We thought he would take a generous share in making the road, but in this we were sorely disappointed, for Mr. Smith and his five dogs kept well back in the rear. All day long Susa and I in turn ran ahead on snowshoes. The storm seemed to increase in strength, but our hardy dogs trotted steadily on up the river, and we camped for the night above the Vermilion, which was the half-way post on the road to Edmonton. The stormy March wind howled around in fierce gusts, and the snow swirled in all directions, but in the comparative shelter of our pine camp we were happy. Starting before daylight, on we went, Susa and myself in turn ahead, and our friend Smith never once offering to take the lead. The snow was growing deeper and our progress slower, and it was with glad hearts that about noon we saw the sign of sleigh tracks crossing the river, and soon were climbing the bank above the mouth of the Sturgeon, some twenty-three miles from Edmonton. "Now we will have a track; now we will make better time," we said to each other, as we climbed the bank. Then unhitching our dogs, we turned them loose to rest, while we chopped wood and made a fire in preparation for our dinner.

After awhile Smith came up, and seeing the track ahead, had the impudence to drive his dogs past us and place his sled on the road ahead of ours, which action said louder than words, "Now, gentlemen, I will show you my heels from here to Edmonton." Susa and I looked at each other and winked, as much as to say, "Well, Mr. Smith, it is still twenty-three miles to the Fort, and perhaps we will be there as soon as you."

While we felt rather hard toward this man, who with his light load and fresh dogs had sneaked behind thus far, still this was our camp, and for the present he was our guest, so we treated him accordingly. However, when lunch was over and he had his last dog hitched, ours was also, and old Joseph stood with whip in hand, putting the last coal into his pipe, and pressing it down with his fingers. In so doing there was a spirit manifest in the action and attitude of the old stoic which seemed to say, "Well, young man, when you reach Edmonton, I expect to be there also."

When Smith said "Marse" John and Susa and Joseph said "Marse" likewise; and away we went, climbing the banks and on up the sloping valley of the Big Saskatchewan. It was a glorious day for the testing of muscle and wind and endurance on the part of men and dogs. The clouds hung low. The gusts came quick and strong. The track was fast drifting full, the footing was bad, the sleds pulled heavily. Even before we reached the summit of the long incline to the river, Smith's dogs began to show distress. Old Draffan was rubbing against his heels all the time with his traces loose, as much as to say to Smith and his dogs, "My three companions are more than able to keep up to you, though our load is much the heavier," and Susa and Joseph were right up. Presently Smith ran up to thrash his dogs, and I saw my chance; so did old Draffan, and with a quick "Ohuh" my noble dogs sprang past, and once more we had the road, and on we went. Gradually widening the distance between us and Smith, I knew that both Susa and Joseph would also watch their opportunity to pass. At any rate with even one ahead our credit as a travelling party was safe. After two or three miles of steady run in the loose snow, I looked back, and was delighted to see that Susa and Joseph had passed Smith and were coming on splendidly; and now our quondam companion was far in the rear. I waited for my men, and when they came up we congratulated ourselves, while old Joseph made us laugh when he said, referring to Smith, "He likes being behind anyway; let him have what he likes so much." And on we went to the Fort, reaching there a long time before our friend did.

The same evening I met with what was to me a new experience. I had gone to the black-smith's shop to see about the plough, and the blacksmith began to question me as to what we intended to do at Pigeon Lake. I told him that father hoped to establish a Mission there. "Oh," said he, "you want to delude some more people with your fanciful stories about God and heaven and hell."

"Why," said I, "do you not believe in God?"

"No, I do not," was the emphatic answer I received, and a strange feeling came over me. I was afraid of that man, and took the plough away as quickly as I could.

The wild storm, the lonely night, the savage beast, or even more savage man, how often I had come in contact with these, and all this had not worried me very much. But here was something new and awful to my young and unsophisticated mind. No God! I found it hard to shake off the thought suggested by that man's expression.

The next day, when we were away from the Fort on our journey, I told my companions. Susa's eyes fairly bulged with astonishment, and Joseph said, "He must be without any mind," and we dismissed the subject; but as my father thoroughly believed in God, and we were abroad to do his bidding along the line of that faith, we tied on our snowshoes and took the straight course for Pigeon Lake. Old Joseph now became guide. This was the scene of his young manhood. Here he had trapped beaver (ever and anon we crossed the creeks and saw dams), here he had tracked and slain many a moose and elk. In this vicinity huge grizzlies had licked the dust at the crack of his old flintlock. Long years ago he had helped to make this small winding trail which he now hoped to pick up and to keep to the lake. Big fires and wonderful growth had changed the scene. More than twenty years had elapsed since this road was frequented, but with unerring memory and skill the old man picked up the road, and on we went slowly through the deep snow, across bits of prairie, and while all around looked the same, without a miss we would again enter the bush on the unused trail. It must have taken centuries to develop a brain capable of thus having photographed upon it the topography of a country.

Saturday night found us some seven or eight miles from the lake and in a dense forest, with the snow about three feet deep on the level. Here we camped for Sunday, and again I noticed Joseph's consistent Sabbatarianism, for except for supper he never ceased to chop and pack wood until midnight, and thus obviated our working any on the Sabbath. From early morn this Indian had been tramping down the deep snow ahead of our trains, and working his brain in order to pick up the old trail. He had lifted thousands of pounds of snow in the course of the long day's travel, and now he willingly and gladly works until midnight to provide wood for our camp, which, being an open one, consumes a very large quantity. And all because it is written, Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy." I do not know what my readers will think about this, but I do know what I thought at the time, and it was this: I would undergo hardship and danger with such a man beside me a great deal rather than live in the same house in comfort and plenty with the man who a few days since said to me, "I do not believe there is a God."

We spent the Sabbath quietly, and early Monday morning continued our way, reaching the site of the proposed Mission about noon. Here we found the cache Oliver and I had made, still secure, but surrounded with the tracks of a wolverine, who thus far had been baffled. Into this cache we put the balance of the provisions we had brought, and making it doubly secure, as we thought, placed the plough on top, and then retraced our steps back to the camp we had left in the morning. From this we reached Edmonton Tuesday night, and were home early Thursday afternoon.


 


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