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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter X
Indians in sullen humor—Another hunt organized—A dubious Quaker—My fingers badly frozen—Apou and I in luck—My endurance is tried—A visit from the Chief Factor—I am sent on a difficult and dangerous mission —Indians gathering in a big camp—Rebellion being fomented—Packet brings news of Franco-Prussian war —A priest's superstitious folly and its results—New idea of prayer—Gifts of tobacco—Arrival at Hand Hills camp.


THE Indians were sullen and hungry, and kept to themselves all through the late autumn and winter of 1870 and 1871. During January we heard of a few buffalo inside of Battle River, around Flag Hill and Dust Flying Lake, and as our food was almost altogether buffalo provisions, it behooved us if possible to secure some fresh meat. To do this we organized a strong party, perhaps thirty-five or forty sleds in all. Some of us took both horses and dogs. The weather was cold and occasionally quite stormy, and the snow deep, but by changing the teams often we made good time. Our camps were in the open, usually in the lee of some island timber. We were in a hurry and meant business. Daylight found us on the march, and harnessing horses and dogs before day dawn is cold work. At that time of day everything is cracking as well as your whip-lash, and you rub cheek or nose and clap your hands and think of big fires and breakfast later on.

When near Dust Flying Lake we sighted our first buffalo. It was cold and stormy, but we concluded to run—at least some of us, for in all parties you will find those who want every condition to be favorable before they will act. These are like the extreme Quaker who will not take the initiative until the Spirit prompts Brother Woolsey was getting up in meeting and an old Quaker interjected, "Are thee quite sure, Friend Woolsey, that the Spirit is now moving thee to speak?" "Yes," answered the sturdy old Englishman, and we Methodists are very thankful to have the Spirit for the asking." So some of our party that exceedingly cold day tried to dissuade us, but we caught up our runners, and saddling them rode forth into storm and cold, and presently were into the swirl of snow-cloud made by the flying buffalo. I shot two, and then pulling up saw that all my fingers were frozen right up into the palm of my hand. They rattled like bones, and I shoved them under the saddle-cloth on the back of my horse, who was covered with perspiration and anything but cold. Then as my fingers thawed out I suffered agony, but I knew it was the only thing to do. As they melted I washed them in the snow, and again put them under the saddlecloth. After much pain the circulation was established, and I went to work to skin and butcher my animals. Soon some of the party who had not been so successful as I came to help me to do the butchering, and before long the sleds came for the meat, and presently we were roasting portions of our hunt around the huge camp-fire and exchanging experiences in the run. Some had fallen, both horses and rider, into the drifts, and others could not get their guns to go off; it was altogether too cold for these primitive firearms. In three or four days we were pretty well loaded, but still wanting more to fill up our transport capacity, we left part to take care of camp, and taking sleds and runners went on out a few miles farther. About noon we saw a lot of bulls strung out for half a mile or more, and decided to run them. But while the rest of the party were watching the movements of the bulls, I saw a small herd of cows in a brush-fringed swamp near by. I felt quite sure that what I saw would turn out to be cows, yet kept my own counsel, and leaving the boys to bring on the sleighs we rode towards the game, which gathered up and began to move of. With us was a Wood Cree, Apou, an old friend of mine. As the bulls bunched up I gave Apou a sign and he pulled up alongside of me. While we went thundering along, making the snow fly, I leaned over and said, "Do as I do." This with a look into each other's eyes was sufficient, and he nodded acquiescence. And now the bulls were running and it behooved us to follow, so I let go towards them, and Apou stayed with me. The rest of the hunters charged at once. I pulled my horse up a bit and let them fairly into the snow-cloud, and then I said, "Apou, come with me, we will run cows, you and I;" and now his face beamed with satisfaction, and into the brush and into the herd we pushed our steeds, and sure enough here were cows and yearlings and calves. Apou and I each killed two fine animals, plump and fat. The other hunters were astonished when our sleds came in with the prime cow's meat, but all I had to say to them was, "Where were your eyes? Do you not as yet know the difference between buffalo?" All of which immensely tickled Apou.

Remaining for the night on the scene of our hunt, we returned to camp the next day, and loading up, made a start for home, three of us with dog-trains going on in advance of the horses. Our sleds were very heavily loaded. I had the meat of a cow and the half of another on my sleigh. There was practically no trail. We left the horse-sleds early in the morning, and long before noon I was about played out; my heavy sickness of last summer was still on me. In all my thousands of miles of hard travel I never was so near giving out as that morning. We were crossing a wide treeless plain, where there was no chance to stop and make a fire. My sled would upset, and each time I found myself weaker and felt I must lie down and die, but again and again I willed myself up and on. There was no chance to ride, none whatever. Slowly we crossed that awful plain, for so it seemed to me, but eventually we reached brush and made a fire, and an Indian companion said to me, "You are not well, you are almost done; just try my plan, take off your shoes and bathe your feet and legs in snow, and perhaps it will help you." I did as he said and a great change came over me; the tired feeling gave way to comfort, and by the time I had taken a cup of tea I was again fit for the road. Away we went, doing in less than three days what it took our horse-teams fully six days to do. Once more our storehouse was comparatively full of good meat, and we could save our pemmican and dried meat for the spring and summer work.

Soon after this winter hunt we were visited by the Chief Factor of the district and all the Hudson's Bay officials, and the missionary staff from Victoria accompanied the Factor over to White Fish Lake. There must have been a dozen dog-teams. The mission or purpose of Our trip was to preach loyalty, civilization and Christianity. If the camps to the south were brooding and planning disloyalty and insurrection, all the more reason we should make sure of those around our Mission and Hudson's Bay forts. Mr. Steinhauer received us right gladly, and meeting and lecture followed one another in quick turn. The Chief Factor presented these newly started gardeners and agriculturists with a plough, and offered to grind their grain at the Hudson's Bay mill at Edmonton (only one hundred and fifty miles distant) for little cost. He also gave them a lecture on government and Christianity, which I was asked to take note of and reproduce in Cree, and I very well remember I was much elated when the Chief Factor said, as he thanked me, "You improved on my paper, John," and for one only ten years at the language I was very much complimented.

This trip and these meetings, which were crowded from first to last, did a lot of good and solidified the people of White Fish Lake and Victoria in loyalty and ardent desire for peace. This was very timely work, for strong efforts were even then going on to produce a period of war and frontier trouble. Indeed, the Chief Factor had barely reached Edmonton when he again returned to Victoria and was closeted with father for some hours. Both then came over to where I was wintering and asked me if I was willing to go on a difficult and dangerous trip for the purpose of .upsetting the plans of the enemy, and also of winning back, if I could, the respect and friendship of the large camps. The Chief Factor said that reliable word had come to him that the Indians were gathering near the Hand Hills, on the Red Deer, and dark councils were common. Evidently they meant mischief, and by my going out now I might be able to frustrate much evil. I told father that if he said "Go," I would do so, and he said, "Go, and God go with you, my son," and the Chief Factor said, "Amen." This was about three p.m. The Chief Factor said, "There is no time to be lost. I will start at once, and will look for you, ,John, to catch me to-night;" and away he went with his two sleds of picked dogs and drivers.

The Chief Factor had said to me, "You can pick your own men to accompany you," and I named two from Victoria as my choice. These he took with him, and after making preparation, and with much affectionate farewelling on the part of loved ones and friends, I followed about nine p.m., and at midnight came up to their camp, when I found the Chief Factor waiting up for me, and right glad he seemed to have me with him. He made me supper and waited on me himself, and even helped to feed my dogs, so satisfied was he with our action. After a short sleep of a couple of hours we were up and away into darkness and storm. Having the best dogs I took the lead. On we went through drift and deepening snow, until, some time after daylight, looking back, I saw some one waving to me, and pulling up in the lee of a bluff I waited, and here was one of the Chief Factor's crack dog- teams and drivers with a light sled, the load having been taken off on purpose that he might push ahead and catch and stop me so that we might have a combination meal of breakfast and lunch, for I had driven so fast and so long that the next run would bring us into Edmonton. We cleared away the snow and cut brush and made a fire, and still the rest came not, but by and by they hove in sight; then, coming up, the Chief Factor gently scolded me for keeping him and the rest of the party out of breakfast for so long a time. This was Saturday, and early in the afternoon we made Edmonton.

I forgot to say that after the Chief Factor left Victoria, the previous day, the February packet came in from Fort Garry, and I had brought it on; thus we were doubly welcome to Edmonton folk. However, the Chief Factor paid little heed to the packet, but immediately took me to his private office and asked me what kind of outfit I wanted. I told him I wanted another man, now living at St. Albert, and he said he should be sent for at once. Then he made out a list of tobacco and tea and sugar, and I put ammunition on to this, but he said, "No." I said, "Yes, I must have powder, ball, gun-flints, and gun-worms." The Chief Factor said, "No, sir." Then we had a hot time for a little while, and I settled it by saying I would not go a step on the trip without them, and he gave in and told me to take anything I wanted. So we made out the list for four dog-sleds, with three-quarter loads for each. Besides the men's and dogs' provisions, there were ammunition, tobacco, tea and sugar, and some gun-flints and gun-worms. The whole lot was got out of stores that night and tied on to our sleds. Then in came my third man, John Rowland, and we were ready to start, which we did bright and early Monday morning, with all the inhabitants of the fort up to see us off. The old Chief Factor was quite affected when he grasped my hand at parting, and I began to think that perhaps there was some risk and danger in our trip. I saw my men turn quite solemn over it, but the faithful fellows were willing and obedient.

Away we went, up the long hill and out on the Hay Lake trail, and over the Bonny Knoll, where during the last season a strange scene for these days and times was enacted and Christianity terribly discounted by one of its exponents. A camp of French half-breeds was caught here by the smallpox. Many lay in weakness and death's grip, when suddenly a fire was seen approaching. "Never fear," said the priest, "I will go and meet it and stop its course," and the simple people believed him, so confident was their spiritual guide. Ammunition and powder- horns and camp equipage, carts and saddles, etc., the prostrate sick and the dying, the weakly convalescent, the few excited well ones worn out with nursing—all in danger. "Never fear; don't move. I will stop the fire," assured the priest, and while many things could have been done, and which ordinary common-sense would urge the doing of, these people, dazed and burdened by the awful epidemic, were passive in the hands of the foolish fanatic, and left undone what should have been done. So out towards the fire the priest went, with book and cross and beads, and kneeling and praying and signing the cross towards the flames did what he could according to his belief; but ruthlessly and relentlessly the fire came on, nor heeded him for one moment, and he had to flee for his life, alas, too late to save the camp. There was weeping and wailing and rushing to and fro, and calamity and suffering and death was the sequence. We cross over the spot where these poor men and women and children were hastily laid and barely covered by the dust of Mother Earth as she received them to their long sleep.

The first night out our camp was joined by some half-breeds who were on their way to where quite a number of their people were wintering near the edge of the woods. They occupied the other side of our camp-fire, and in due time my men and self engaged in our evening worship, and so did my man Johnnie, who was a Roman Catholic. The others across the fire did not, but quietly went on with their mending and drying of moccasins. When we were through and had made up our beds these half-breeds also in turn knelt in prayer, and presently Johnnie noticed them and remarked thus: "Oh, saying your prayers now, are you? Well, we have already done that on this side of the fire; that is enough for me to-night, for if the Lord is at all like any of the lords I have travelled with, and I have travelled with a good many, the less you bother Him the better He'll like you." This was Johnnie's idea of petition and prayer, but to me it was amusing and certainly very distinct from ordinary orthodox opinion.

On Friday evening we camped at the last point of woods, and from which we had a long day's run to the Hand Hills. On the way out we saw quite a number of French half-breeds, who corroborated all the Chief Factor had heard, and also told us that now the camps were large and that starvation as well as disease was menacing them; further, that they blamed the white man for all the troubles and were talking very badly. "But," said an old French half-breed to me, "if anybody can help them out of their trouble you can, and I am glad you are going." This greatly encouraged me. Now we were at the last camp, and from here we must take wood for our noon stop, for there was a long, cold run before us. I saw that my men were somewhat dubious as to our reception at the camps; they said little, but were thinking a lot. I had purposely refrained from talking about the matter on the way, the packet having furnished plenty of material to relate and discuss. I had spent most of the last Sunday in gleaning the news of the world. The Franco-Prussian war was on, Paris was besieged, the terrible battles were being fought. I had taken notes of as much as I could of world events, knowing these would help me if I was fortunate enough to get into the Indian camps and obtain a hearing. I told my men around the camp-fire of these stirring events, and thus we kept up our spirits and made the lonely camp as cheerful as we could.

Long before dawn we were away and running hard. When daylight came we saw that Indians were ahead of us and also travelling our way, and by and by we began to come up to the stragglers. I had some pieces of tobacco in the head of my sled, and presently when I came up to an old man picking his way with a staff in each hand, I handed him a piece of tobacco and said, "Here, grandfather, smoke this and live." The old man dropped his staves and took the roll of tobacco and smelled it, and then lifted his hands and exclaimed, "May you live long and be happy, my grandchild," and again he smelled and fondled the piece of weed. The gift had gone straight to his heart. Said he, "It is some moons since I had so much tobacco. I am glad, my grandchild; you have done me good." "Where are you going?" was my next question. "Travelling for life," replied the old man. "Where will you find it?" I again asked, and back came the answer, "Look yonder, my grandchild; do you see a blue range of hills far away?" "Yes," I answered. "There is life," said the old man. "There are my people, there are buffalo; these are life to me." "Well, keep up a good heart, my grandfather," was my parting word as on I went. To the aged, either men or women, I gave a piece of tobacco as I passed them, and they were thankful and glad. Some had not seen a fort or a trader since last spring, others since midsummer, and this was now late in February.

On we hastened until my men and self were alone in mid-prairie and as atoms on the great spreading white winter landscape. We had neither tent nor wood with us, and as we scanned the sky we were thankful the day was clear. Clustering around the little fire of buffalo chips, drinking our cups of tea and munching our pemmican, we looked at the range of hills yet distant, and wondered what might take place with us before night came on; but not a man said a word of fear or dread. What we felt we kept to ourselves, and again went on.

After a while we were ascending the slopes of the hills, and in good time stood on the plateau which forms the summit. Back to the north was the way we had come, an immense region stretching from below our feet to the far skyline. Anxious and nervous as I was, I could not help but look and think of the future of such a vast country. But already the smoke from the lodges hung over the southern edge of the hills, and I could hear the barking of dogs and the neighing of horses. In a little while roads from the timbered gullies and coolies converged on the trail, and climbing on my load I shouted to my dogs and almost flew towards camp. As I drew near some women recognized me, and the cry went up, "The young preacher! The young preacher!" ("Aha-yua-me-ha-we-ye-neese," literally translated, "The young man who talks to him "—the significance being addressing the Deity). This was wafted on, and thus heralded over the brink of the hill we tobogganed right into the large camp.


 


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