Is two or three days our camp
grew immensely, and many distinct types of men were at hand for one to study
and become acquainted with. The absorbing theme was the approaching
festival. For this warriors were preparing, and many devotees were praying;
for this every conjurer in the camp was making medicine, and day and night
the tapping of drums and the intoning of religious songs went on. Morning
and evening we also sang our hymns and held our services, and were ardently
studying this new strange life—every day acquiring a better grip of the
language and beginning to waken up to the largeness of its vocabulary.
One day I was invited to a
"wolf feast." Being a learner I went, and was both shocked and amused at
what I saw. About two dozen sat around in the large buffalo lodge, and
before each one a big wooden dish of thick soup was placed. This soup was
made by boiling slices of fat buffalo meat and wild lily roots together.
Neither Maskepetoon nor myself took part. When each guest was served an old
medicine- man began to chant in an unknown tongue, accompanying himself by
swinging his rattles. By and by all who were to partake joined in the song
of blessing. This over, each one drew his big bowl to him and at a signal
put both hands into the hot soup, and feeling all through it for chunks of
meat, pulled these to pieces and then began to cram the contents of the dish
down his throat. While doing this, each one made a noise like the growling
of a wolf. And now the race was fast and furious as to who should soonest
swallow all that was given to him. The growling and snarling and gulping was
terrible, and I was glad when it was over and one and another turned his
wooden dish over. I had seen a wolf feast, but, as I told my friend the old
Chief, I did not wish to see another. It was almost as nauseating as a
drunken carousal amongst the cultured white men in the east! I noticed that
it was only a certain class of these pagan men who thus brutalized
themselves—that even in those early days the larger percentage of the
Indians held aloof from such beastly orgies. Muddy Bull, mine host, laughed
when I told him what I had seen, and said that only a few of his people ever
thus disgraced themselves.
While the camp was all
excitement in preparation for the annual festival, word was brought in that
the buffalo had gone into the north between us and the Mission. This made it
possible for war parties to go north also; and from what I heard in camp I
began to be anxious about our folk at home. Finally I conferred with
Maskepetoon and he said that it might be better for me to go in to the
Mission. So I left the oxen and carts with Muddy Bull, held an evening
service with our people, and then as darkness was coming on one night Paul
and I left the large camp and took our course northward.
We went out in the dark
because signs of the enemy had been noted, and as our party was small we did
not want to be seen by those hostile to us. Steadily and in silence we rode,
taking a straight course for Victoria. Some time after midnight we stopped
on a hill to rest our horses. We had one horse packed with dried provisions,
stored in two large saddle-bags, and unpacking and unsaddling I tied the end
of the lariat which was on my horse's neck to these saddle-bags, and with my
gun at hand stretched myself beside them, while our horses fed around us.
The night was very cloudy and dark, and both Paul and I dozed. Suddenly our
horses stampeded and made back towards the camp. Seizing our guns we ran
after them, but when we could not hear the sound of their hoofs any longer
we sat down and waited for daylight. Whether it was hostiles or wolves or
buffalo which had stampeded our horses we could not tell; there was nothing
to do but wait for daylight, and be ready for anything that might turn up in
the meantime. So we sat in silence and in profound darkness, for the clouds
had thickened. Soon the rain came down, and in a very short time we were
completely drenched. Several times there were noises near us, but these came
from buffalo who were on the move past. After what appeared an interminable
time, morning broke dark and cloudy, and we began a search for our horses.
As the day grew lighter we
found that great herds of buffalo had passed through the country, and it
seemed as if every inch of ground was tracked up. The grass was cropped
close, and for hours we walked to and fro, never far from where the last
sound of our flying steeds had come. At last I caught sight of a buffalo
chip which had been broken by something dragging over it, and then I found
another, and concluded that my horse was dragging the saddle-bags behind him
in his flight.
I signalled to Paul, and he,
after examining this clue, came to the same conclusion, and slowly we
followed this our only sign. Slowly from one buffalo chip to another we
travelled, and when baffled one would stay with the last trace and the other
go on and look for another, and finding this we continued our anxious search
until about noon, when we came upon all but one of our horses. As my
saddle-horse was still fast to the saddle-bags, the first thing we did was
to take out some dried meat to appease our ravenous appetites. Then we
retraced our way to the place we had stayed during the night. Finding our
outfit intact, we saddled up and continued our journey, hoping that the one
stray horse would be found later by some friendly hunters. This actually did
take place, for some months later I found the horse at Edmonton, to which
place he had been brought by some French half-breeds who had recognized him.
Now once more we were on our
journey north. During the afternoon I had a revelation given me as to the
number and nomadic character of the buffalo. I had by this time spent three
years on the plains in the buffalo country, had seen great herds of these
wild cattle, and thought I knew something about them. My food had consisted
almost altogether of their meat. My bed, travelling or at home, was over and
under their robes. But that afternoon, as we steadily trotted northward
across country. and ever and anon broke into a canter, I saw more buffalo
than I had ever dreamed of before. The woods and plains were full of them.
During the afternoon we came to a large round plain, perhaps ten miles
across, and as I sat my horse on the summit of a knoll looking over this
plain, it did not seem possible to pack another buffalo into the space. The
whole prairie was one dense mass, and as Paul and I rode around this large
herd I could not but feel that my ideas concerning buffalo and the
capability of this country to sustain them were very much enlarged. I had in
the three years seen hundreds of thousands of buffalo, had travelled
thousands of miles over new trails, but I had seen only a small number of
the great herds, and but a very small portion of the great North-West. Truly
these were God's cattle upon a thousand hills, and truly this greater Canada
is an immense country.
On we jogged, early and late,
watching our horses carefully and taking extreme precaution against
surprise. Nothing, however, occurred to disturb us, and by the evening of
the third day we were in sight of home, and could see our loved ones moving
in and out around the Mission premises.
Crossing the big river we
found all well and delighted to have us home again. We had been away a
little over a month, and as yet there was no word from father or the east
country. Our isolation during those early years was complete if not
"splendid." We were in a big world, but it was distinct from the ordinary.
No mails or telegrams disturbed its continuous monotony —and yet our life
was never really monotonous. The very bigness of our isolation made the life
unique and strange, and the constant watchfulness against surprise and
danger seemed to give it zest. Then the struggle for food kept us constantly
One day, shortly after our
return, we formed a party and made a flying horseback visit to the sister
Mission at Whitefish Lake, and came back on the jump; my wife and sister
being excellent horse-women, and a sixty-mile canter a common experience. In
our party we had Mr. George Flett and wife. Mr. Flett at that time was
post-trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. Later on he became a successful
missionary in the Presbyterian Church.
Settling down for a little on
our return, we went to work cutting hay. Those were the days when men swung
the scythe, and muscle and wind told on the unmeasured and unfenced
hay-fields of the Saskatchewan. Hard work it was from early morn until
evening; but we cut a good bit of hay, and had it stacked by the time father
In the meantime we were
surprised and delighted by the arrival of a colony of some twenty-five or
thirty families of English half- breeds, who had transplanted themselves
from the valleys of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to this of the
Saskatchewan. I well remember the first Sunday service after their arrival,
how abashed I felt in the presence of these people who could speak both
English and Cree, and some of whom had had special advantages in education.
But they listened attentively to my preaching in the mother-tongue, and were
regular in attendance upon all our services. Their presence, too, made us
feel that we were stronger and more able to withstand the enemy than we had
been. Many of these people made good neighbors, and all were kindly disposed
to the Mission and its work.
In the Red River country
their bane had been the intoxicating cup. Here, far from the temptation,
they hoped to better their circumstances. These also were buffalo people,
and this was another consideration leading to their removal west.
Immediately these people went to work to put up houses in the valley to the
east of the Mission. I gave them to understand that the Indians desired the
land to the west. It did is good to see these humble homes being erected
beside us. Mother and wife and sisters all rejoiced that in a measure our
loneliness was past; that a semi-civilization at least had come to us.
Sometime in August we heard
that father and party were not more than three days away, and with grateful
heart I saddled up and set forth to meet them, which I did about fifty miles
down the trail. Father had with him my brother David and sister Eliza. These
we had left in Ontario five years before, mere boy and girl, but now they
had grown into young manhood and young womanhood, and the long trip across
the plains had done them a vast amount of good. My sister was rather
astonished to meet her eldest brother clad as he was in leather and with
long hair curling on his shoulders, but this was the western fashion, and
anything else would have been singular at that time and amid those scenes.
Within a couple of days we
were once more a united family and mother's joy was full. I was particularly
pleased to note the manner of both my sister and brother towards my wife.
The fact of her being a native did not in anywise affect the kindliness of
their conduct towards her, for which I was very thankful.