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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter XI
Interview with the head chief—Spirit of rebellion rampant— Sabbath services--A terrible storm—Big gathering of Indians—Exhorting loyalty and order—Good impression made—Distributing gifts—Return trip—Rejoicings at success of mission—Recognition of service by the Hudson's Bay Company.


ON entering the camp that night my first inquiry was for "Frightens Him's" lodge. This was pointed out to me, and in a moment I stood at the chief's door. The old man was there to meet me, and I was welcomed most heartily. "Surely the Great Spirit has sent you, John," was the manner of his greeting; "come into my lodge, behold it is yours." I pulled my dogs out of their collars, left a message for some one to pilot my men to where I was, and went in to be given the guest-seat of honor.

"Sayaketmat," I said, addressing the chief by his Cree name, "I am here on a mission. I have much to say to the camps, and I wish you would send messengers to each one, telling them that John wants to see the chiefs and head men assembled here the day after to-morrow. Here is tobacco. Word your summons as you please, but tell them that John brings greetings and messages and help, and fain would see and speak with them two nights from now."

In a little while the runners were away, and soon fifteen large camps would know of our arrival, for I found that this was a big preconcerted rendezvous, and that within twenty miles of where I sat in Sayaketmat's lodge there were gathered several thousand Plain and Wood Crees, as well as a number of Saulteaux. The chief soon let me know that evil counsel was predominating in these camps, but said, "Who knows but that your visit at this time, coming as you have so unexpectedly, and so welcome to some of us, will turn the whole tide of feeling?" I very soon let him know what my programme was, and saw that it met with his decided approval. In came my men, and we were domiciled in the big lodge, and until midnight were stared at and interviewed by alternating crowds who came and went as space allowed, and then, tired and worn with nervous and physical strain, we slept until the camp stir awakened us on the early Sabbath morning.

The site of the camp was on an elevation several hundreds of feet above the surrounding country; at a glance one could look across an expanse of from fifty to seventy-five miles of country. A congregation of curious yet earnest listeners gathered for service in the morning. It was a motley throng; all colors of paint, all manner of costume, all sorts of men—murderers, horse thieves, warriors, braves, chiefs and common men, polygamists and monogamists—a strange mixture, but they behaved wondrously well while I did what I could in directing their thought Godward. Twice I spoke in the big open, and held several services in lodges, and thus the day passed while all looked forward to the general gathering Monday morning. These before us were comparatively known quantities; the most of them we had met before in divers places and also in divers conditions; but tomorrow would come the strangers and wild men who, reasonably or unreasonably, hated the white man and now charged up to him all trouble and disease and hunger, made him the cause of many deaths, said he was the evil genius, and were harboring a growing spirit of revenge in their hearts. How would they receive me on the morning of the day approaching? I can assure my reader I was a bit nervous that Sunday night, but was so downright weary that I soon forgot everything in sound sleep, after leaving the whole matter in the hands of my Heavenly Father.

Monday morning came bright, cold and calm. I rose early and went out to view my surroundings. Young men were starting for the distant caches of meat, and women striking out with dogs and horses harnessed into travois for fresh supplies of wood. Scores of women also were stretching and scraping robes and hides in the various processes of preparing and dressing these, when suddenly, like a bolt out of a clear sky, dark clouds gathered and burst, and a terrible storm was upon us. In a lifetime on the frontier, and in countless storms, I do not remember anything quite so sudden or severe as that blizzard which came to us at the Hand Hills in February of 1871. I thought of the many from the other camps who in all probability at my request were crossing the prairie stretches to come to my meeting. In common with hundreds I thought of the many who had gone forth for wood and meat and in search of horses, many of whom were women and girls, and poorly clad at that, and my heart went down in me for a time. I felt in a measure responsible for a lot of this suffering and possible death, but here was the big storm making everything hum about us and making every one work to keep lodges erect and fires going. For six hours this sudden paroxysm of Nature's forces fumed and raged and tore over our camp, and doubtless over a large area of country about us. Tens of thousands of millions of sharply frozen moisture assailed us from every point of the compass. Down went the temperature, and doubtless it was this action of the Storm King that gave us, about three p.m., a clear sky and the already guaranteed promise of from forty to fifty below zero for the night quickly coming.

And now to the rescue! Out in every direction issued parents and brothers and friends to seek their loved ones. I fully expected many deaths, and if the people of this camp had not been prepared by the centuries for the rigors of a northern clime many would have perished. But these mothers and daughters and sons, the product of generations of struggling with northern winters and endless plains, did the best possible to be done under such circumstances, and either went with the storm or lay quiet under it until the worst was spent. Thus the searchers and rescuers found them, and by dark began to bring in the numb and frozen and almost perished victims.

"John, come to my mother!" "John, come to my sister!" "John, come to my son!" Come quick, John!" came the appeal to me from all sides, and with a little cayenne pepper, the only medicine I had, I went around from camp to camp helping to rub back to life, administering a warm drink, dropping on my knees beside an unconscious patient and offering a short prayer, which was a new evangel to the hearts and ears of those who listened around the lodge fires that night. All the while anxiety was heavy on me concerning the many probable victims of the storm. About midnight there were arrivals from other camps, in twos and threes and more, and I listened for the sound of mourning and wailing, and was in great suspense as to the re- suit of my mission. It was a long, weary night which preceded the morning of Tuesday, but morning finally came, and was as if this world never knew a storm so far as sky and sun and landscape glory were concerned.

Again the crier went forth, "Come to the centre of the camp! come and listen to John and in a short time the large space was filling up. As I stood and looked into the many strange faces before me, I could not help wondering how these wild, sullen, disappointed and bereaved and ofttimes hungry men would receive my message. I often think of the endurance of that audience. The floor on which they stood was frozen prairie, with ice and snow for paint and varnish. The temperature was down, I do not know where, for there was no thermometer within two hundred miles of us. My breath became ice and hung as such upon moustache and beard. I spoke for a full hour or more. I brought them the greetings of the northern settlements; told them that both white and red men were interested in them and sorrowed with them, and that my mission was to tell them that we, like them, had suffered; that the anxiety about them had resulted in my being sent by the Church and the great Company which had dwelt amongst and traded with their people for many generations; that I did not come empty-handed, or with lip sympathy merely, but I had with me something for them to smoke, and also ammunition and flints and gun-worms for their hunting and for protection from their enemies; that it was the wish of all to help them. Great had been our mutual sorrow; doubtless we all had sinned, and our Great Father had permitted this disease to come, and we in common with many others were punished. As brave men it became us to resignedly accept our punishment, and to repent of our past wrong-doing and turn unto the great and good Spirit and live. I told them that we had not been alone: that across the great waters a most fearful war had been going on; that while we had lost hundreds by disease, over there tens of thousands had been slaughtered. I gave them a picture of the siege of Paris, the starvation and death and disease that accompanied it, and the terrible slaughter of the Franco- Prussian battles, fresh on my brain from the papers of the last packet. I wound up by saying, "I will gladly carry your messages to those forts and settlements on the Saskatchewan, and when we are through my men will distribute the gifts we have brought as the evidence of the good-will and wishes of your old friends, the Hudson's Bay Company."

When I ceased speaking the head chief present, Sweet Grass, rose, and addressing the assembly asked, "Will I voice this multitude?" and there came back a thundering answer, "Yes!" Then turning to me he said: "We are thankful that our friends in the north have not forgotten us. In sorrow and in hunger and with many hardships we have gathered here, where we have grass and timber, and, since we came, buffalo in the distance, few, though still sufficient to keep us alive. We have grumbled at hunger and disease and long travel through many storms and cold; our hearts have been hard, and we have had bitter thoughts and doubtless said many foolish and bad words, but it is true, as you say, John, we have sinned, and we must bear our punishment. My people are thankful for your coming to us; we are thankful that your father sent you, that the Company chief asked you to come. We believe you, John; you belong to us, therefore you were not afraid to come the long distance and enter as a friend into our camp and lodges. Some of us have met you before; we have listened to you because of what you said, but more because of the way you have spoken even in our own language and as one of ourselves. Yes, John, all these men and women and children from to-day are your friends, and as you leave us we will think of you and wish you prosperity and blessing. Your coming has done us good; it has stayed evil and turned our thoughts to better things. We feel to-day we are not alone; man is numerous and God is great. We are thankful for the gifts you have brought with you. We will smoke and forget, and if there has been wrong will forgive. These women will drink the tea, and bless the 'trading chief,' and bless John. Tell the 'trading chief' we thank him, and as in the past will again frequent his forts and posts. Tell your father we thank him for his son and all his good wishes for us and our people." Then, turning around in appeal to the crowd, he asked, Have I spoken your minds ?" and again a great "Yes" came with loud assent.

And. now we placed the people in lines and circles, and my men and a few Indians I had selected went at the work of distribution. Powder and balls and tobacco and tea and sugar and gun-flints and gun-worms were given out, and never in my life did I witness a more thankful and delighted crowd. Many a warm grip of the hand came to me from men whom I had never previously seen. Little Pine, who had been quoted as saying that he would kill my father the first chance he had, came to me and said, "You have changed my heart, John; henceforth I will think good of you and all your people." Ere long the last load of powder was given and the last pipeful of tobacco carefully wrapped up or put away in the pouch of some brave, and our present mission was done in this camp. I shouted to the crowd: "We were five nights corning to see you, and, as you well know, we travelled hard; but we know that your friends in the north are so anxious to hear of you and to learn of your condition that my men and self will take but three nights to reach Edmonton, when we will tell them of how we found you, and will carry your kindly greetings to the 'trading chief' and in turn to all the people of the north."

This was received with great approval and shouts of "You can do it, John, if any one can."

It was late in the afternoon when we left the rows and circles of lodges and took the trail leading over the summit of the hills. We carried wood on our sleds and camped for a few hours as night came on at the foot of the high range, and long before daylight struck for the "north country." I remember well how my men handled axes the next night "Now we will have a fire," was the frequent exclamation from their lips.

Early Saturday afternoon we were on the brink of the high bank of the noble Saskatchewan. It would seem that some of the men were watching for and at once recognized us, for up went the old flag and down the long hill we tobogganed after our eager dogs, and across the ice and up the bank, to be met at the fort's gates by all the inhabitants, at the head of them the Chief Factor and my father and brother-in- law, Hardisty. The two latter had come up all the way from 'Victoria to watch for our coming, so anxious were they, as indeed were all the settlements along the river. We were many times welcome, and when I had opportunity to report there was much rejoicing. The dark spell was broken, and we now looked into the future with hope for brighter days.

The grateful Chief Factor took me into his office and told me that while he remained in charge of the Saskatchewan district I should rank as an officer of the Company—that is, I should have the entry of their forts and posts, be furnished with provisions and even transports if I should need them, also be given a liberal discount on any purchase I might make for family or self from any of their stores; all of which was helpful to my work and gave me as a missionary and man in the country a standing of respect and influence. Father was delighted with the success of my mission, and Hardisty warmed to me more than ever.

Monday we started east and reached Victoria Tuesday evening, and again resumed the routine duties of our life. A trip to White Fish Like was undertaken, followed by several trips to Indian camps, where from lodge to lodge we preached and lectured, sowing the seeds of faith in God and man and country. Many an hour around the camp-fire the eye glistened and the ear was tense, and the hearts of strong men were moved, as in answer to some pertinent question we talked of law and government and civilization and Christianity. No idle time was ours; father was incessant, and if we had wished to loiter he would have none of it.


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