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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter IV
Epidemic breaks out among the Indians—Snow-blindness—I take to me a wife—Our modest dowry—My father officiates as a Stationing Committee—Fearful mortality among the Indians—Our journey to Pigeon Lake—The epidemic attacks our camp—A rude hospital—An exciting buffalo hunt—Chased by a maddened bull—Narrow escape.


AT Edmonton we heard an epidemic was raging among the southern Indians, and that many were dying. As to the nature of the disease or particulars concerning it we had no information. But even the rumor of its approach was startling, for in the absence of any Government or other quarantine regulations and with tribal war existing this disease would soon cover the whole country with its ravages. In the meantime, as the season was advancing, we redoubled our efforts to bring in supplies. To do this we had to travel largely at night, the March sun making it too warm for our dogs in the daytime. This night-work with the strong glare of the bright snow was exceedingly hard on the eyes. Many a poor fellow became snow-blind, and the pain of this was excruciating. Fortunately for myself, my eyes were never affected; but it made me feel miserable to witness so much suffering and be helpless to give relief.

The Indians as a preventive would blacken their faces with charcoal or damped powder, but as nearly all the natives had dark eyes, they were most susceptible to snow-blindness. My experience was that those with lighter colored eyes were generally free from this dreaded malady.

Old Joseph, Susa and myself made a number of quick trips to and from different camps during these March days and nights; and about the end of the month we gave this up for the season. Then it came to pass that I put into execution a project I had been contemplating for some time and that was to take unto me a wife. My bride to be was the daughter of the Rev. H. B. Steinhauer. I had met her in the autumn of 1862, when I accompanied father on his first visit to Whitefish Lake. Our acquaintance, which had grown into a courtship on my part, was now between two and three years old. Our parents willingly gave us their consent and blessing. Father and Peter accompanied us to Whitefish Lake, and father married us in the presence of my wife's parents and people. Our "honeymoon trip" was to drive from Whitefish Lake to Victoria with dog-train, when the season was breaking up, and in consequence the trip was a hard one. Then after a short sojourn at Victoria we set out for the purpose of establishing the new Mission at Pigeon Lake, father having signified his strong desire that such should be done, notwithstanding that the Board of Missions had not as yet either consented to or approved of such a course. But father was thoroughly impressed with the wisdom and necessity of such action, and finally told me I ought to go and begin work out there; and, said he, "You can live where any man can." Of course I was proud to have father think this of me. His knowledge of the work required, and his confidence in my ability to do this work, more than made up to me at the time for the fact that there was not a dollar of appropriation from the Missionary Society. But father gave us a pair of four-point Hudson's Bay blankets, two hundred ball and powder, and some net twine, together with his confidence and blessing; to which in all things mother said, "Amen."

In the meantime the epidemic we had heard rumors of came to us, and proved to be a dangerous combination of measles and scarlet fever. Among the Black feet and the southern tribes hundreds had died, and already the mortality was large among the northern Crees. From camp to camp the disease spread. As winter still lingered and the deep snow was again turning into water on the plains and in the woods, these lawless, roving people without quarantine protection, lacking the means of keeping dry or warm, and altogether destitute of medicine or medical help, became an easy prey to the epidemic.

Already many lodges of sick folk were camped close to the Mission, and others were coming in every day. Father and mother and Peter had their hands full in attending to the sick, ministering to the dying, and burying the dead. And as this was a white man's disease, there were plenty of the wilder Indians to magnify the wrongs these Indians were submitting to at the hands of the whites. Some of them were exceedingly impudent and ugly to deal with; indeed, if it were not for Maskepetoon and his own people, many a time our Mission party would have suffered. As it was life was constantly in danger. Men and women crazed and frenzied because of disease and death were beside us night and day. Nevertheless father said "Go," and we started from among such scenes on our journey to Pigeon Lake.

Father had loaned us two oxen and carts for the trip. I had some eight or ten ponies, about all I had to show for five years' work; but as I had been helpful to father in educating my brother and sister in Ontario, I was thankful I had come off as well as I did. A great part of the way was under water. The streams were full, but on we rode and rolled and rafted and forded.

Our party consisted of my wife and self, Oliver, a young Indian, Paul by name, and his wife. Our provisions were buffalo meat, fresh and dry and in pemmican. We had five bushels of potatoes with us, but these were saved for the purpose of starting the new Mission. I purposed having every Indian who might come to me begin a garden, and these potatoes were for seed, and should not be eaten. Paul and I supplemented our larders by hunting. Ducks and geese, chickens and rabbits saved the dried provisions and proved very good fare.

We scouted carefully across and past those paths and roads converging from the plains and south country to Fort Edmonton. Not until we had made sure, so far as we could, that the enemy was not just then in the vicinity, did we venture our party across these highways of the lawless tribes. Then passing Edmonton we struck out south-westward, into a country wherein as yet no carts or waggons had ever rolled; and now it kept Paul and myself busy hunting and clearing the way, while Oliver and the women brought up the carts and loose horses. Our progress was slow and tedious, but we were working for the future as well as the present.

When up here in the winter I concluded that we could on the first trip with carts take them to within some twenty-live miles of the lake to which we were going. Working along as best N%,6 could, Saturday night found us at this limit, and as we were very tired, and the weather was fine, we merely covered our earth, made an open fire in front, and thus prepared to spend the Sabbath in rest and quiet.
Because of the dense forest and brush we had come through, and also as we were some thirty miles from Edmonton, we felt comparatively safe from any war parties of plain Indians that might be roaming the country, as these men were more or less afraid of the woods. Sunday was a beautiful day, but towards evening there came a change, and during the night a furious snowstorm set in. Monday morning there was nearly a loot of snow, and the storm continued all. day and on into Tuesday night. We kept as quiet as possible under our humble shelter without fire or any warm food until Wednesday morning, when the sun came out and the storm was over. Then to our dismay Mrs. McDougall and Paul's wife were taken with the measles, and sending Oliver to look after the stock, Paul and I sought the highest ground in the vicinity, cleared away the snow, cut poles and put up our leather lodge.

This we floored thickly with brush. Then we laid a brush causeway from our carts to the lodge, and moved our sick folk into the tent. In the meantime I had put some dried meat and pounded barley into a kettle to boil over the fire, and as the only medicine we had was cayenne pepper, I put some of this into the soup, and this was all we had for our sick ones. Just then Oliver came in, having found the stock, but was complaining of a sore back and headache. I gave him a cup of my hot soup to drink, and as he sat beside the fire warming his wet feet and limbs and drinking the soup, I saw he was covered with the measles. So I quietly told him to change his clothes and go into the tent. Thus in our small party of five three were down with the epidemic which was now universal in the North-West.

For the next five or six days Paul and I had our hands full to attend to the sick night and day, to keep up the supply of firewood (for the nights were cold and we consumed a great amount) and to look after the stock.

Our patients in the one-roomed buffalo-skinwalled hospital were very sick, and as we had no medicine to speak of, and nothing in the way of dainties to tempt their appetite, often caused us extreme anxiety. Hard grease pemmican, dried meat, or pounded meat and grease are all right when one is strong and well, but it was more than we could do to cook or fix these up for sick folk. When we could Paul and I took it in turn to seek for ducks ad chickens to make broth with, but there were very few of these to be found near to us, and it was not until the fever abated that, by leaving wood and water ready and making our patients as comfortable as possible, we went farther afield for game, and were successful in finding ducks and geese and the eggs of wild-fowl as our reward.

It was on one of these hunts, and while our sick people were steadily convalescing, that we came upon the fresh tracks of a buffalo bull. As we thought he might provide good meat we determined to follow him up. I think we had kept his track steadily for three hours, when all of a sudden my sleigh dogs, whom I had left as I thought secure at camp, came up to us on the jump, and now took the lead on the track, and very soon were at the bull, as we knew from their furious barking. We rode as fast as we could in the soft ground and through the dense bush, and presently galloped out on an old beaver- meadow. Sure enough the dogs had the bull at bay, and the old fellow as soon as we came in sight charged straight at us. As there was an opening into another part of the meadow I thought he was making for that, so sat my horse, gun in hand, ready to shoot him as he passed. But this was not in the bull's programme. lie was in for a fight, and putting down his head came right at me. My horse knew what that meant, for he already had been gored by a mad bull, and the little fellow did not wait for a second dose, but bounded on as fast as he could. My gun was a single-barrelled, muzzle-loading shot-gun, and though I had a ball in, I did not care to risk my one shot under such circumstances. In fact I very soon had all I could do to sit on my horse, keep my gun, and save my head from being broken; for in a few bounds we were across the meadow and into the woods, where, the ground being soft, my horse was hard pressed by the big fellow, who was crashing along at his heels. Fortunately "Scarred Thigh," as the Indians called him, was no ordinary cayuse, but strong and quite speedy. Yet owing to soft ground and brush the bull seemed to be gaining on us at several times. Paul afterwards told me he was so close to me as to raise my pony's tail with his horn, but could not come nearer to his much desired victims.

I knew that my horse could not, sinking as he was at every jump into the soft ground, keep this gait up much longer, and because of the trees and brush I had no chance to shoot back at the bull. I was momentarily expecting to feel him hoisting us, when I spied a thick cluster of big poplars just ahead. Now, I thought, if we can dodge behind these we may gain time on our enemy. So I urged on my noble beast, and as if to help us, just as I pulled him around the clump of poplars, a projecting limb knocked my cap off'. This falling right in the face of the bull for the moment blinded him, and with an angry snort he went thundering past as I pulled behind the trees.

"That was close," said Paul, who was following up as fast as his pony would bring him; 'if 'he had been a bear he would have bitten your horse, but every time he put his head down to toss you, your horse left him that much." I jumped from my horse and patted his neck, rubbed his nose, and felt thankful for our escape. Then we tied our animals in the shelter of the large trees, and followed after the bull on foot, for in such ground and such timber we were much safer on foot than on horseback.

Already our dogs had again brought the bull to bay, as we could hear, and approaching with caution we soon saw him fighting desperately. Alert as we were he heard us coining and again charged, but we met him with two balls, and the old fellow staggered back to the middle of a swamp of ice and snow-water and fell dead.

"That fellow had a bad heart, or he would not have gone out into the middle of a pond of water to die," said Paul; and it was cold enough work skinning and butchering him, with the ice-water up to our knees. But those were the days when stockings and boots and rubbers were beyond our reach in more ways than one. However, the meat was good and a providential supply to us and our sick folk. Moreover, our dogs needed an extra feed, and they got it

It was late in the day when two heavily laden horses and two tired men came in sight of camp, and it was as good medicine to Oliver, who saw us approaching and noted the fresh meat with a smile all over his gaunt and pale face, for the disease had wofully thinned the poor fellow. Only those who have been in such circumstances can truly appreciate the relief experienced by our sorely-tried party.


 


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