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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter V
Our caravan moves on—Difficulties of packing—Oliver's adventure with a buffalo—Novel method of "blazing" a path—Arrival at Pigeon Lake—Housebuilding—Abundance of fish—Indians camp about the Mission—I form many enduring friendships— Indians taught fishing with nets.


Now that our people were convalescing we began to make ready for a fresh start, this time without carts. Everything had to be packed on the backs of our oxen and horses, entailing no small amount of work on the part of Paul and myself. As the ground was everywhere wet, I as afraid to run the risk of a relapse with any of our patients, and would not let them stop off the brush flooring we had placed to keep them out of the water. The distance we had to travel to bring us to the lake was about twenty-five miles, and we purposed making it in two days. Our sick folk would find twelve miles far enough for one day, and our thin and weak horses would also find the distance sufficient.

Paul and I had two oxen and eight horses to saddle and pack with sick folk and tent and bedding and all our household stuff, and while we did not seem to be possessed of much of anything, yet it was quite a problem to arrange all on the backs of those ten animals. Sometimes while we were fastening the one pack on, three or four of our horses would lie down with their loads, and in thus getting down and up disorganize the whole work.

We put our wives on the strongest and quietest horses, and placed Oliver on a quiet but very hungry Blackfoot cayuse, giving him our guns to carry in addition to his own. Thus we set out along the almost obliterated bridle-path which I had gone over but once and that in the winter time when the snow was deep, and which neither Paul nor Oliver had as yet seen. My memory was sorely taxed to make out the trail where there was open country to pass through. In single file and with slow and solemn steps our sick people rode their steeds, while our horses labored under the burdens of their weak packs. Paul and I were kept busy arranging these packs, for as our saddles were crude and our-binding material rawhide, this would stretch, and the saddles or packs become loose, so that we were kept rushing from one to the other of our transports. This made progress so slow that it did seem as if even the twelve miles we hoped to cover would prove too much for the long spring day. But notwithstanding all the worrying and the work we had some fun as well. During the afternoon, while we were behind the rest fixing up a pack on one of the horses, I heard Oliver in a greatly excited voice shouting, "John! John! Hurry—come quick!" I sprang away to the front, and found that our train was crossing a small bit of prairie, and from one end of it, and coming out of the woods, there was a buffalo bull charging right straight for Oliver.

My dogs were worrying the big fellow, but it was Oliver who demanded my attention. He had our three guns on the saddle before him, but seemingly never thinking of them, he kept shouting to me to "shoot the bull." In his excitement he had let go his bridle, and this had fallen on the ground, while his hungry horse was intent on cropping grass and would not budge from the spot. In vain Oliver kicked and shouted; what cared that Blackfoot pony for the charge of a buffalo? He was accustomed to this, and moreover was hungry, and here was grass, and so far as he was concerned all else might "go to grass." Not so philosophic, however, was his rider. He was all excitement. With a big muffler wrapped around his face, a blanket around his body and legs, and our three guns in his arms, he kept shouting vehemently for "John." As I ran, not even the possibility of the bull hurting some of us could keep me from laughing.

Oliver dared not jump from his horse into the water that surrounded us, for I had threatened him all manner of punishment if he got wet and ran the risk of a relapse, and he was in mortal fear of the huge bull that was now coming quite close to him. But as I ran up, and before I could reach for my gun from Oliver, the brute took away in another direction, thus happily relieving the situation. He evidently was, as Paul put it, "a good-hearted fellow," and as we had all we could very well manage, we did not fire any shots after him. But this excitement and fun helped to break the monotony of our journey.

It was late when we reached a point that I thought would be half way to the lake, and we hurriedly cut brush for our patients to alight on, and unsaddled the oxen and horses. I had put the whole of our seed potatoes on my saddle horse, "Scarred Thigh," and he had behaved extremely well all the day, carrying his load without a jar or disarrangement, as if he instinctively knew we had enough trouble with the rest. But now he insisted on my taking the load from him before I should relieve the others. As soon as I went to a horse to unpack him the little fellow would step in between me and the other horse, and plainly say by his actions that his was the first claim, so all our party said, "Help him first, he deserves it." To unsaddle the ten animals and unpack seven of them, to cut lodge-poles and erect the lodge and floor it with brush, to chop firewood and cook supper kept Paul and I oil jump until late, but our patients though tired were gaining strength and appetite, and we were thankful.

The next day was a repetition of the one just described, only more so—water deeper, timber denser, and creeks multiplying. My wife and I each had an old-fashioned Hudson's Bay trunk. One was painted blue and the other red, and we packed these on the biggest of the oxen, firmly securing them by the handles before and behind, with collar straps and breeching of harness; and now as these boxes rubbed alternately on the trees oil side of the narrow path, one could track them by the paint, this side red and the other blue, which often was a source of wonder to travellers who came later along this path.
When we came nearer the lake we were glad to find that the land around the lake, being higher than that over which we had come, was comparatively dry, and that spring was further advanced than anywhere else along our route. Thankful for this, we put up our skin lodge near the place where we proposed to build our house.

We were not the first in the same line on this spot. Nearly twenty years before Benjamin Sinclair, a native lay agent, under the direction .of the Rev. R. Rundle, began a Mission, but the coming into the vicinity of a party of Blackfeet, and their killing of some of the people, had created a stampede from here to Lac la Biche, some two hundred miles north-east, and this place was abandoned.

The little clearing had well-nigh grown up again, and with the exception of the lake in front we were surrounded with dense forests. The surrounding country was altogether more like my native land than any other spot I had seen in the North-West. The lake was approximately some five by eighteen miles in size, and full of fish—too full of the whitefish for these to be of good quality. But just now we could not test them, as the ice was in such condition that it was not safe to attempt to set a net under it. There was nothing to do but to wait until it melted before attempting any fishing.

Our first work was to put up a house. Humble though it might be, we hoped to make it better than the "smoking skin lodge." As we had most of the logs on the ground, we were not long in raising the shanty. It was another thing, however, to whip-saw the lumber for flooring, etc. The building of the chimney, too, was altogether a new experience to me; and when I had built this to the proper height, I was terribly disgusted to have it smoke worse than the lodge did. But I soon saw my mistake, and pulling the greater portion down began anew on a different plan, which proved a great success.

One morning bright and early Providence sent us a deer. Paul took his gun and went towards the lake to get, as I thought, a shot at some ducks. But it was a deer he had seen, and soon he had it secured, for which we were very thankful, as our stock of fresh meat was now low. But what is the meat of a small deer to the eating capacity of five healthy people— especially those of our party who were now fairly over the epidemic? When you are on the one diet, and that wild meat, the consumption thereof is rather startling. In the meantime the ice melted, and we made a raft, set a net and caught some poor whitefish. We caught plenty of pike and suckers, too, and to ourselves and dogs these were a wholesome change.

The first Indians to come to us were some pagans, having with them two genuine old conjurers, whose drums and rattles and medicine songs were thum-thumming and yah-yahing almost all the time they stayed with us. As some of the older members of this camp, and nearly all the younger ones, came to our services, which we held every evening and three times on Sunday, these "high priests of this old faith" renewed their efforts, if one might judge by the noise they made; but do what they would they could not keep their young people from our meetings. After a time a larger camp came to us, nearly all of whom were Mountain Stonies and mostly Christian or semi-Christian in adherence, and our gatherings became very much more interesting. But as all of these people had the measles or were convalescing from the epidemic, and had lost many friends because of the fearful mortality which this caused, we were hard worked in attending to the sick and in comforting the bereaved. As to the former, Providence smiled upon us, and all of our patients, young and old, recovered, which helped us in our first acquaintance and gave us the beginning of an influence which grew with the years.

Here I first met many who became my warm friends and bosom companions around many a camp-fire and on many a hunting field, when danger and darkness and hunger and storm alternated with peace and sunlight and plenty and calm. Here was great big Adam, who from being a first-class Pharisee, with demeanor a voicing of "Lord, I thank Thee," etc., became, through the instrumentality of a hymn I taught him to sing, humbled and penitent, and sought forgiveness and light. He found it; and oh, how changed lie became! And there was his son Jacob, one of the grandest men I have known, for whom both nature and grace had done great things. When I first saw him he was recovering from the prevailing scourge. A noble fellow he was in form and feature. He had a big record as a moose-hunter, and was famed as a long distance runner. As he spoke both Stony and Cree fluently, I very soon saw he was a man to be cultivated and made useful for God and country.

Then there was "Little Beaver," a Southern Mountain Stony, who very soon let me know that while he was glad to see me, he could never make up his mind to live down here in the woods and lowlands, but was always sighing for the mountains and foot-hills of his own section of the country, and who by his descriptions made me wish to start west with him and view for myself the land he loved. Another genuine character was "Has-no-hole-in-his-ear," an old man with a large family of boys who became my allies and faithful friends. The father was an ardent Christian in his way, and thoroughly loyal to the new Mission and the young missionary.

Later there came in a camp of Crees, amongst whom was Samson, then in his prime as a hunter, and who afterwards became the successor of Maskepetoon as chief of the wood Crees. Samson and I soon found that we were congenial spirits, and our warm friendship continues to this day. There was also Paul Chian, a French mixed blood, who had grown up amongst the Indians, and was one of them in everything but appearance. He had been a noted gambler and warrior, and the blood of men was on his hands; but he had found that the blood of Christ is efficacious to the cleansing from sin, and he became a splendid character, a solid man, a class leader and a local preacher, always in his place, and a "genuine stand-by." And there were many good women in these camps who became our staunch friends, and in whose lodges we received true hospitality and many real evidences of a solid appreciation of our work and message.

These various people came and went at short intervals. I suppose during our stay at Pigeon Lake for about two months that spring of 1865 no camp of Indians remained longer than two weeks at a time. Until I provided them with nets they had none. Indeed, some of the plain and wood Indians did not know how to set a net, much less how to make or mend one. To provide twine and teach them to make nets was an undertaking that took time to accomplish. Then to live in one place very long was a hardship in itself to these nomads of wood and plain, while to live on fish alone would be foolish to them so long as buffalo were on the plains or moose and elk in the woods. No matter as to time in the obtaining of these animals. The days and months might come and go—these men did not value time; that appreciation is an evolution belonging to a permanent or settled life.


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