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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter XVIII
A half-breed's lingo—Origin of languages—Half way to Edmonton—Chief Factor McMurray—A bitter storm— First house at Batoche—Duck Lake and Fort Canton —Fortunate meeting with my old friend, Jack Norris - Neche stuck fast in a creek—Another mishap—Winter with a vengeance—Bannock-making—Buried in snow - Camp-fire cheer—Sufferings of our horses—Brilliant night-scene—Neche's simplicity—"The man with the sharp axe"—My wife nearly frozen—Sandy McDonald, hero—A plucky exploit—Little Bob's plight - Narrow escape from freezing—Changing camp during the night —Overcome by cold and exhaustion—My wife's anxious night-watch - Arrival at Fort Pitt.


WE spent our first Sunday west of the crossing of the Assiniboine. I well remember the wild snow-storm of the Monday morning, and our driving for a couple of hours into its teeth, and how thankful we were when it ceased. We met a French half-breed that morning, and I inquired of him as to water on the road between here and the South Branch. He began his reply in Cree, then went into broken English, and was bringing in some French when I quietly interjected an inquiry if he could speak Cree. He laughingly apologised and then became intelligible, and I thought as I shook the snow from my beard and rode after my wife that this was how languages had been formed. Here was a people who, if left to themselves long enough, would construct a distinct language out of a fusion of English, French, Cree and Saulteaux.

And now the nights were cold and the ice fast forming on the lakes and ponds. It was no picnic to take off one's shoes and break the thin ice by wading away out into shallow ponds in order to obtain water out of which to do our cooking and make tea; but such was now our daily and nightly experience as for another six days we rose early and travelled late, until on Saturday night we camped at the foot of the hill which was said to mark half way from Edmonton to Fort Garry. Here we spent our second Sunday, and during the day were .joined by a party of Hudson's Bay Company officers. These men had been at Fort Ellice when we passed, and hearing from Messrs. McDonald and Audey of our journey westward, had chased us all the week, but had failed to come up. Had we not stopped for Sunday they would not have seen us, as our routes would diverge at Carlton, they going north from that point to Green Lake and the Athabaska. Chief Factor McMurray was of the party. Soon they went on and we were again alone. We had now spent two Sundays and fifteen travelling days with no other company but our two selves. My young wife had driven through several storms, and most of the early mornings and late evenings had suffered from the cold; yet she did not murmur nor in any other way chide me for bringing her into these hardships and this sublimity of isolation.

That Sunday evening the sky looked ominous, and on rising before daylight Monday morning I was not surprised to find we were into a driving storm, and that it was more or less dead ahead. Nevertheless, we started early and drove into it; the season was so advanced I did not dare lose the day loitering in camp. So on we drove through snow and sleet and cold wind, and when night came sought shelter in a dry bluff of timber. The snow was now thick on the ground, but I rushed around and got on a big blazing fire, covered the cart with the tent and made things as cheerful as I could, while my little wife helped, as she was most willing to do, though all this was very new to her. The next day was extremely cold, and when we came out to the South Branch we found the river full of floating ice. The first house built where Batoche now stands was at this time in process of erection, and some people were living in one end of it. I took my wife in there to warm, and was made very welcome by the French half-breed woman in charge; then I ran down to the ferry and was dismayed to see the scow away down the river and half-way out of the water. However, I found a native and told him that if he would get another man and bring that scow up and cross us I would give him five dollars. I saw that the case was urgent; another night's frost might make this river impassable for many days. Fortunately by dint of push we got across by dusk, and I was thankful to camp a little way up from the river.

The next day we faced a snow-storm all the way by Duck Lake over to old Fort Canton, which I passed and drove right on down to the river, as I saw that somebody had just crossed and was even then climbing the long hill on the other side. I shouted and made this party hear, and the answer came back, "There is no one to take the scow over." But I continued to shout, and then came welcome words of recognition, Is that you, John?" and I shouted across a vigorous "Yes." Then there was a change of attitude, and soon a couple of men came down the hill on the dead jump, while I galloped back to the fort to look up a man. I was 'directed to some lodges near by, where I found a man named Neche willing to go with me, and I hustled him down to the river. By this time the scow was across to us, and we soon had our horses and rigs aboard. I found my rescuer was my old ,friend, Jack Norris. "I would not have come back for any one else," he said, "for I am in a great hurry; my carts have just gone on from the top of the bank. But I am glad, I assure you, to see you and your wife. I tell you, John, we're in for it; I'm afraid winter is upon us, and we're a long way from home, my boy. But if anybody can go through we can, can't we, John?" and thus Jack talked as he worked, and soon we were across the big river.

It was now the first day of November, 1872, and winter was setting in earlier than in any of my previous years in the North-West. This climate is going back on us, John," said my friend Jack, and verily it was a revelation to me, this precipitate rushing of winter. Jack Frost was strengthening his grip with every passing day. We camped near Norris and his outfit that night; he had a big string of carts and with him was another party, a free trader. Early the next morning we started, but had not gone far when we came to a boggy, swampy creek, axle-deep. It was frozen over, but the ice was not strong enough to bear either horses or rigs. Jack coming up, he and I plunged our horses into the ice and smashed a channel for the carts and waggons; but when Mrs. McDougall drove in her democrat stuck about the middle of the stream, and when Little Bob really bent to it he hauled the shaft cross-bar right out of the shafts, and then we were forced to wade in and partially unload the waggon. I carried my wife ashore, and then with friend Jack, heeding not the ice-cold water, backed and pulled until our waggon was on the other shore. By this time we were armored with ice, and were glad enough to reach the nearest bluff of dry wood and get thawed out. The weather now was snapping cold, and if this kept up the swamps and creeks would bear by the morrow. My Neche proved to be a good-natured fellow, willing and obedient, and a great help now that we consumed so much more firewood and there was so much camp work to do. Jack and his party had quite a time crossing the stream, but by evening they were encamped near us.

We had not gone more than a few hundred yards from camp next morning when the iron axle of the democrat snapped off near the inner end of the hub of the wheel, and down went the back part of the rig, and away rolled the wheel. It was fortunate that the mishap came to the rear part, else it had thrown my wife to the ground, and we might have had a serious accident as well as a runaway. Here we were long leagues from a blacksmith-shop, and as yet without sufficient snow for a sleigh. I hired a cart from the party travelling with Jack, put a pole under my waggon, and resuming our journey camped that night at Bear's Paddling Lake. Mrs. McDougall now not only had the cold and wind to contend with, but with this she had to ride in the rough wooden cart, which at any time was a hard proposition, but now on the frozen ground was infinitely worse. However, I determined to fix up the democrat on its three wheels and pole so that she would be able to ride in that with some comfort,---or less discomfort. Hero Jack did not come up until next day, and in the meantime the storm had intensified so that I did not deem it prudent to travel. Down came the snow thick and fast, and by the third day at Bear's Paddling Lake we had eighteen inches of it on the level and immense drifts in places. Here was winter with a vengeance. As soon as the storm stayed we moved on and camped together for one night, but the next morning the others seemed loth to start, so we left them, and, as it proved, saw them no more on that trip.

Oh, the weary miles of slow, arduous travel of those cold winter days! Snow heavy on the level, hard and deep in the drifts, and these latter were many; every little hollow and watercourse and frozen creek full of it. "Fort Pitt Brown" led the way, or rather I led him, as we broke through the drifts backwards and forwards several times, beating down the deep snow; then came Neche with the two carts, while Mrs. McDougall brought up the rear with her three- wheeled democrat, and thus we toiled and struggled only to make but slow progress. Archie and Little Bob had shoes on, which now threatened to be their death, for not only were these cold and heavy, but, worse still, they cut the grass so that when the horses pawed the deep snow away they left but little to feed on, and it made my heart sick to see the flesh wearing off them almost hourly. In turns they pulled the broken waggon and their poor young mistress, who must often have thought we were destined never to reach our journey's end. Fortunately our provisions, of which I had laid in a good stock at the Portage and Rat Creek, were holding out well. Every night we made bannocks, Mrs. McDougall mixing the dough while Neche and I did the baking. Our one frying-pan was a small one, and it would take ten bannocks of its size to last our party for the twenty-four hours. Mrs. McDougall would eat less than one, but Neche and I could easily finish the other nine and more. Appetites "furnished while you wait" on the western plains! The effort was to daily move our bannock-baking some few miles nearer home.

One bitterly cold evening we camped in an open bit of country between White Earth Creek and the Turtle River, where there were a few scattered willow groups and the remnant of it poplar bluff that had been burned over. We put our tent up for that night—fortunately enough, WS it proved—and, finishing our baking and necessary camp work, we lay down to rest. In the night there came up a wild storm which effectually buried us. I was fully conscious it was daylight, but as the storm still raged furiously our only course was to lie still; the more so as it was some miles to any timber shelter. Here we were, buried from the rest of the world as effectually as one could conceive of; the nearest human beings the party we had left some days since, and now perhaps forty miles behind us; not a solitary settler within many scores of miles, and winter, solid winter, everywhere. My anxiety was mostly concentrated on our horses; would they survive such a storm and extreme cold? and where would they wander to on this big plain if yet alive? There we lay from about nine p.m. until two or three p.m. the next day, when, a lull corning in the storm, Neche and I dug our way out of this white cavern to look upon the storm-lashed world around us. We found the north-west wind still fresh, but moderating, and we also found a great wall of snow which had caught in some willows near by and grown to enormous proportions, and which we determined to make our shelter. To work we went to make a camp at the foot of this big snow-bank. Digging away the snow and laying a flooring of frozen willows, we made a big fire in front, and then I ventured to clear out a passage into the tent and bring my wife out from her snowy retreat. This was a great relief, even if it meant coming out into the open air tense with cold and also into one of the most wintry landscapes that one could behold. But when we had got our robes and bedding out and the camp in shape, with the kettle on the big fire and food thawing, then our horizon enlarged. Life was before us again, and we could afford to laugh and sing and be joyful. Were it not that the question of our horses and their whereabouts was constantly on my mind I would have been perfectly happy.

Our meal over, I left Neche to gather up wood, for the night now approaching promised to be bitterly cold, and started out into the deep snow to look for traces of the horses. I ran straight with the storm for a while, then I came upon a partially filled track of one animal. This I followed and presently came to Little Bob, standing in the shelter of a small bush and completely covered with snow. At first I thought he was frozen dead; but as I drew near the faithful fellow raised his head and neighed me a welcome, and while I felt like crying, yet I went joyously to work to clean him down and rub him back to warmth and life. By and by with a nicker and rub of the nose on my shoulder he said, "There, John, I feel very much better, and now I will help you to find the other chaps," and the wise old fellow started on a good trot through the deep snow, while I followed on the run. Soon we were beside the rest of our horses, and found them also in an icy covering of frost and snow. The poor brutes had been sweating when we turned them out the night before, and the perspiration had frozen and served to hold the snow as it fell. I spent about an hour giving them a good rubbing down with swamp grass, and noting that the shelter was better here, I said good-night to them and made a bee-line for camp, where I found my wife very anxious about both John and his horses. Neche had hustled and rustled and got together a huge pile of wood, and while the cold was increasing I did not apprehend any more storm for that night.

Hitherto my wife had either the tent or the covered cart for shelter, but now she was to pass her first night in the full open camp. The stars like diamonds and brilliants were gemming the heavens above us, and the aurora ever and anon swept the sky athwart our vision, painting the world overhead in gorgeous hues. As we alternated in position between our big fire and the frozen atmosphere all around us we could not help but look and admire and wonder. Speaking of the aurora Neche said, "The storm is over and the dancers are out for a good time their hearts are joyful to-night." And with our horses found and living, ourselves in the full vigor of health, and with plenty of provisions in camp, we felt we had reason to be joyful also. If any of our friends had approached that lonely, snowy, frosty camp that night in November of 1872 they would have heard no lamentations, no sighings for the onions and garlics of old Egypt. Ours was an optimistic camp, and in full faith we cooked our bannocks and crunched our pemmican, made our beds, said our prayers, and calmly laid us down to sleep. There was no undressing as we travelled; as we worked even so we slept, with the added weight of our bedding.

Long before day we were up digging out the tent and releasing the carts and waggons from their covering of snow. With the first peep of dawn I was away after the horses. Oh, how I longed for a pair of snow-shoes! Running and wading without them was very heavy work. Finding our horses all in good shape, once more we were off. We did not now attempt to follow the summer cart trail. Sometimes we touched it and crossed it, but as everything was now frozen solid we took a straight course, or as straight as the big drifts would allow us. That night being Saturday, we considered we were fortunate in striking a bluff of poplar timber to make our camp in and wherein to spend Sunday.

Neche was a pagan, some men would say, but he fully believed in the Good Spirit and was pleased to join in our morning and evening devotion; he said it did him good. He had gone to war, had taken scalps, had brought home horses he had not paid for, but in all this he did not consider that he had made himself a sinner more than the rest of mankind, and certainly we found him a true fellow, courteous, considerate, patient, even chivalrous in his conduct to Mrs. McDougall. He was simple of mind, and I, who perhaps should not have done so, could not resist sometimes playing upon this childish simplicity. For instance, we consumed a great amount of wood at our night camps, and when it was approaching time to camp I would, as I led the way, begin an oration to the trees: "Oh! ye trees that lift your tops heavenward and for many moons have stood, stately and proud, looking down upon your surroundings; ye who have drank in the dews of many mornings, and bathed in the rains of many summers, and sucked up the moisture from the breast of Mother Earth; hear me, ye trees of the forest, and as ye hear tremble, for your enemy is at hand. Even behind me comes the man of the strong arm and the sharp axe; verily he is now approaching, and soon you will lie low." Thus I would talk, and Neche would laugh and chuckle and endorse me: "It is true, my master is giving you fair warning; yes, the strong man and sharp axe are coming," and when we stopped it was amusing to see the despatch of tho. fellow as he unharnessed his horses and let them out of the carts, all the while repeating to himself, "Yes, he is coming, the strong man, and he is even now going for his sharp axe. Yes, oh, ye trees! soon we will be among you, and presently you will fall to our camp. I will carry you in lengths for our fire." I can assure my readers Neche would work around those encampments with a will that ensured to us plenty of firewood, and this was most essential to our well-being at the time. Indeed, Neche and I were busy from early morning until late at night; there was no cessation on that trip even for Sunday; it was either work or freeze. Many a coolie engulfed us so that we had to dig out both horse and cart, and every hour of the day was a struggle for existence as well as an endeavor to prosecute our journey. Monday was an intensely cold day, and we were in a more or less open country, moving along on the north side of the Red Deer Hills, when, in looking back, I saw Archie coming along without his driver. I hurried back and found my wife struggling in the deep snow in the effort to follow. She had become so cold that she was forced to alight to try and warm herself, but could make such slow progress through the deep snow that she was now almost at the point of freezing. I gently chided her for not calling out, and then Neche and I hustled up beside a bluff of timber and soon had a roaring fire. I spread the robes and bedding down beside it, and was glad in a short while to find my wife coining to herself again. After that I had my way in providing for her comfort. I put a pair of big moccasins on her feet, and then wrapping her up well, took the seat out of the waggon and deposited her in the waggon-box, allowing the horse to come on without any driving except what we needed to give him at hills and ticklish spots on the roads.

It was on a Sunday that a runner from Norris's company caught up with our camp. He was a young native from Kildonan, on the Red River, Sandy McDonald by name. Their provisions were going fast, and Sandy had volunteered to take the one pair of snow-shoes they had and go on to Fort Pitt, procure provisions and a dog-train there, and come back to meet his party. He was very lightly clad, and after giving him his dinner we made him take one of our blankets, which I belted about him in such fashion as to enable him to travel without being encumbered by it. He had never been in this country before, and was now going on description, aided by a large measure of natural instinct. I felt anxious about the young fellow as he bravely stepped out, facing the sharp, keen wind, and disappeared over the hill into what was to him the unknown. I gave him four days, if he was successful, to meet us, and on the fourth night I purposely camped on a hill in order that our fire-light might be seen from the west side for a long distance. Sure enough, along about eight o'clock I heard the old familiar "Marse" coming over the hills, and was glad to know Sandy was alive and had been to the fort. He had a very heavy load of pemmican and dried meat, and a nice bale of the latter sent me by my old friend Philip Tait. He also brought us news of the West that he had gleaned from the men of the fort. Declining our invitation to stay, he took our trail and continued on in the night to the relief of his party. Sandy displayed a marvellous spirit of heroism in that lonely trip of five days and nights through storm and bitter cold and without trail or knowledge of country, showing no small ability to endure and rare instinct and pluck to thus successfully carry out his hazardous enterprise.

It took us three days of hard work to make Fort Pitt, and it was during the evening of one of those days that Little Bob, who was taking his turn in one of the carts, stood stock-still. I sprang to his side and asked, "What is the matter, Bob?" and he looked at me and said, "I cannot do any more, John," and while the tears came to my eyes I jerked the harness from him and turned him out to follow if he could. Poor little Bob, it cut me to the quick to see him in such condition. I hung the harness on the cart and left the whole load standing in the snow, and it was not until late that night that Bob came up to the camp. The noble fellow had kept at his post until his strength was about done.

Snow deepening, cold continuous, horses losing flesh and heart every day, but to-night we are camping within ten miles of Fort Pitt; surely we can make that post to-morrow. Our camp is down in the valley of a creek. Above us is a clump of spruce, but to reach the timber the pull will be a hard one, so we conclude to stay in the open and make a shelter of the carts and waggons. Neche and I work hard packing wood and brush and getting our camp into shape, and as the night is clear we hope for a quiet time, and presently we lie down to rest. All goes well for a while, but before morning I wake up chilled through and through, and then become aware that a big storm is tearing down the valley. All day we had struggled hard breaking the way for the horses and carts. Making camp also was hard work, and my clothes had become wet with perspiration, and now I was freezing. I wondered how Neche might be faring and called to him, "How are you, my friend?" "Cold, cold," was the answer. "We must do something or die:" I said, so I crawled out from under the covers, first asking my wife if she were cold, and glad to hear her answer, "No, I am quite warm." I told her to remain still, that we were going into the woods up the creek, and when we had made a camp and had started a good fire I would come for her. Then Neche and I faced the storm, which//now was raging wild; already the snow ,had blotted out our camp. Into the night we struggled, and reaching the spruce grove, hurriedly made a shelter. All the while I was most anxious about my wife. Would she stay there alone? If she should start up and come out of the shelter of bedding and snow, she might wander and perish; so just as soon as we had a fire going and a brush camp made right in the densest part of the grove, we hurried back, happily, and to my intense relief, to find that my wife had in this instance, at any rate, obeyed her husband. Neche took the kettles and cups and a supply of provisions, and I gathered up some of the bedding; then telling my wife to follow me, we again started for the brush. By this time the storm was so violent that we had difficulty making our way against it. The drifts were piling up like miniature mountains. I warned my wife to not lose sight of me, and finally by dint of crawling and wading and struggling we reached the woods. Oh, how grateful were the shelter and the smell of the spruce pine, and the blaze of our big fire! We settled ourselves down beside the latter, and in a little while Neche had a steaming hot cup of tea ready for us. In my case, however, the reaction was too great, for as soon as I had taken a few swallows of this I fell over unconscious for the time, and when I awoke the day was upon us. I found that my wife had covered me up after making sure I was breathing naturally, and had kept up the fire while Neche and I slept. Poor girl, I could imagine what she endured during the long, lonely hours of that night vigil in a wild country she as yet knew little about. When I came to from my unconsciousness and the dead sleep of 19 exhaustion and saw her sitting beside me, I felt ashamed at what seemed to me my display of weakness, but she met my inquiring look with a smile of glad welcome back to life and duty.

We breakfasted, dug out our carts and waggons, hunted up the horses and again pushed on. Keeping at it steadily, we reached Fort Pitt in the late evening, having missed my friend Tait, who had gone out to meet us by another way. He was back, however, in an hour or so, having found our trail a few miles out, and gave us a hearty welcome.


 


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