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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter II
Winter sets in—A visit to Edmonton—The "Pondura antelope"—I secure a superb train of dogs—A run to Victoria—A jolly company - Representative Indian types—Aristocrats of the plains—Watch-night service— An accident—Home again.


THE winter of 1868-9 came slowly, and in the northern and western part of the country was more or less open. There was not sufficient snow to enable us to use sleighs to go out after buffalo, nor yet did we dare to start with carts. Moreover, the herds kept far out on the plains, or as much so as the weather permitted them to do. It is still very hard for the inexperienced to understand that the colder the weather and harder the winter, farther into the north did the great herds feed; but all through the sixties and seventies this was my knowledge of them. With short trips to Indian camps, furnishing firewood for our home, looking after nets and making sleighs, the short days of early winter passed rapidly. Most of our reading was done by the dim tallow dip or chimney fire; our literature was limited, and of the ancient type; one thousand miles to the nearest post gave us very little trouble with our mail. As Christmas drew on the last of the Indians had gone, scattering in many directions into the woods and mountains. The buffalo were too far away for any to think of them as a food supply, and the people had grown tired of our fish diet. We were alone, so we concluded to make for Edmonton for the holidays. We were longing for a change, for communion with kin and mother tongue, and perhaps we were also influenced by a desire for change of food. I confess that sometimes in my life this latter has influenced me considerably. As there was very little snow, and as my dogs had died the previous spring and summer of a virulent distemper, which had raged among the wolves and dogs in our vicinity, we travelled with horses. Our friends at Edmonton welcomed us with open arms, and we went into the fun and festivity of the season heartily.

I think it was at this time, essaying to preach in English at the urgent request of the resident pastor, Rev. Peter Campbell, that I broke down. I had been using Cree for years, but now when I attempted to speak in my own tongue I was at a loss, so much so that I was obliged to sit down. My friend the pastor came to the rescue, and I know that most of the audience, being gentlemen from the outlying Hudson's Bay posts, thoroughly sympathized with me. It was here also that again I met the "Pondura antelope," Mr. Henry Hardisty, who had the conceit to challenge some of us to a foot-race. He was much surprised when, running against his own brother, Mr. Richard Hardisty, and my brother David and myself, he found that the "Pondura antelope" was distanced by every one of us. He acknowledged "that the western slope of the Rockies was nowhere with the eastern in speed." Possibly this will always be the case, as there is something in climate and topography, and certainly we have plenty of space for great running on this side. At any rate, the "Pondura antelope" said no more about himself on that score. It was glorious to mingle with the joyous crowd for a day or two, and the memory of the visit to old Edmonton in 1868 is still a fresh and fragrant spot in my life.

It was at this time that I, being on the lookout for a good train of dogs, found them. A celebrated dog breeder and trainer, Mr. McGilvery, had brought them in from Slave Lake and given them to his brother-in-law, resident at Fort Edmonton. Owing to the absence of snow, these dogs were not known; at any rate this would be their first working winter. Finding that this train was for sale, I said to the owner, "Will you let me try your dogs?" and he complied by harnessing them up. I went down on the ice of the river and gave them a spin, and soon saw that if I could make the trade these dogs would be a treasure. Having tried them, the next thing was to buy them. I found that the owner wanted a good large mare of reasonable age, with last spring's foal by her side, one cart and harness, one sack of flour and an order on the Hudson's Bay Company for two pounds sterling—say, as prices went at the time, mare, seventy-five dollars; foal, fifteen; cart, fifteen; harness, five dollars; flour, twenty-five dollars; sterling order, ten dollars—totalling one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Well, this was a good price, but my credit was also good. I bought the dogs, and as some of us determined to go on down to Victoria for the New Year, I very soon demonstrated to all who travelled with me that I had the gem train of the Saskatchewan country, which to one of my temperament and style of travel was a benediction. Four magnificent brutes they were, a dark brown, a jet black, and two white with tan spots. How my heart delighted in those dogs! If anyone, even the owner, had known them before I got them, their price would have doubled, and I often said while using this train that I, though a poor man, would give all I paid for the outfit for the leader alone. Even as I write, though over thirty years have come and gone, I can see his fine hazel eyes looking into mine, and his whole expression saying, "We are more than a match for the best of them, aren't we?" and I would pat his big intelligent head and answer, "Yes, my lad, we can, with the blessing of heaven, show the whole crowd of winter travellers the way if they will only keep near enough to discern our tracks." My dogs' names were Csar, Whiskey, Jumper and Cabrea, and a right noble quartette they were in character, if not in name.

It was a lively, jovial crowd that started down the Saskatchewan in time to catch the New Year at Victoria. As there was only two or three inches of snow we had to take the ice for it. There may have been a dozen trains in all, some Victoria people returning home and some Hudson's Bay officers and myself visiting. Right merrily we raced around the points, and with swinging trot and sometimes a keen gallop our dogs rang their bells. For the time being we forgot isolation and loneliness, and the distant mission and post, and went in for a good healthy frolic. My new dogs without any effort would draw away from the best trains in the party. I confess I was tremendously proud of my "find," for thus they were termed by my almost envious friends. The "Pondura antelope" was with us, trying his hand for the first time in dog-running. The weather was splendid, cold, crisp and clear, and the atmosphere surcharged with ozone, and we were living plainly enough to be healthy and full of spirits of the right kind. Pemmican and dried meat, with a taste of flour and water in the shape of little round cakes, served as our fare; plain enough, but partaken of with such appetites and relish as a king might well envy. Scotland, Ontario and the North-West were all represented in our camp. The blood of strong and adventurous people was in our veins and hearth, and one may be sure our camp-fire was no funeral procession. Ready joke and ringing laugh and quick repartee and a full flood-tide of real good nature, and thus we journeyed in right good time to Victoria, and thus with glad cheer our friends of mission and fort met us and to their hearth and homes bade us welcome.

Victoria at this time had a fine settlement, of English half-breeds. These people were easily influenced either way, and now under father's wise hand were gladly on the right side in both civilization and Christianity. They were a distinct type of humanity—a speculative, adventurous, roving white race of men for fathers, and nomadic, homeless, natural people for mothers. Here was a new experiment in the race problem—a strong, weak people—a paradox in humanity. And as all men have needed a period of intense tuition and constant oversight in all matters, even to the maintenance of domestic and commercial habits and instruction in life, as well as a multiplication of law in moral and spiritual experience, so these men wanted a leader or teacher, or failing this they went to the wall before the many forces a man has to contend with. Just now, in the order of Providence, the missionary is the leader in all things, and as these are the holidays he is at the head of these gatherings, whether for frolic, or fun, or for spiritual benefit.

Coming and going, and now for the New Year, there were represented several distinct classes of Indian peoples. First there was the real native of the vicinity, the semi-Wood and Plain Cree, the man who could make his way either in the forest or plain; a moose and fur hunter, a dweller alone with family or with the multitude, generally a plucky character whom isolation made self-helpful. Then there were the true woodmen, who almost shunned the plains, whose delight was to travel alone or in small parties, and whose hunting was still-craft Wonderful knowledge of animal movement and habit was theirs by long heredity and by steady practice. Brave and docile, believing and humble, these were the easiest converts to Christianity, and also were the most easily handled by the great trading company which had exploited their country for generations. Then there were the Plain Crees. Speaking the pure mother tongue, while the others were more or less dialectical, these at times rose into the classic language, doubtless of the long past, when these strange men must have had a civilization, and possibly a literature, which have entirely disappeared. These Plain men were the aristocrats of the nation; they looked with disdain and contempt upon the Wood Indians. They lived in large camps and flocked together, and while they were constantly at war, were not nearly as bravo as the Wood men they so despised. It was amusing to watch one of these lordly fellows visit either a mission-house or a Hudson's Bay post. He had the air of conferring a great favor. He patronized even more than the new graduate or the new curate. His self-consciousness projected in every direction. If he mentioned his fellowmen, it was by way of parenthesis and en passant, "merely a trifle, you know." The broad plains, the big herds, the sublime ignorance had developed the wrong way with this man, and the result was a conceited prig. Slow to learn, he had much to unlearn; and it takes time to do the latter. Unburdening the load of centuries of misconceptions a great work, but it must be undergone by all people before the lessons of the new life can germinate and take root.

New Year's came in with a crowded watch- night service. After a delightful meeting, on bended knee and in solemn silence, we watched the last minutes of the old year pass and the first ones of the new year come in. Then there were warm hand-shakings and congratulations. The day was spent in a general feast, followed by out-door sports, football, foot-races, and tugs-of-war, dog-train races, etc. The "Pondura antelope" was steadily awaking to the agility and strength of the eastern slope. We had come from Edmonton in quick time, so he thought. By the river it was at least one hundred miles, on hard ice, difficult to run continuously upon. He offered to bet two hundred dollars that no man could go on foot this distance in twenty hours. I thought for a moment and then told him that I did not bet, but if he would give me two hundred dollars for the church I wanted to build at Pigeon Lake, I would do it. This backed him down and out of the running business for the time.

The second day of January, 1869, found us a scattering crowd. "To your tents, oh, Israel," was the necessary cry of the time. The settlement had no such supply of food as would warrant a long stay of many visitors. No one recognized this more than the visitors themselves. Indians and half-breeds and ourselves one after the other departed for our widely separated homes, and by evening we were sundered far. Our party camped in a spruce grove on a small bench, under the shadow of the high bank of the Saskatchewan. Early the next day we reached Edmonton. One of my sisters, Georgina, accompanied us that far, and had a wild experience riding after my new dogs, one which almost resulted seriously; for as we swung up the hill at the fort, so fast was the step and so quick the turn, that my carryall upset and threw her out, and her head striking a boulder she was for a time unconscious. My heart was in my throat as I put her back into the sled and hurried up to the fort. Fortunately the hurt was but temporary, however. She advised her friends after this to be careful how they went driving behind John's dogs. Indeed, there was not snow sufficient for such work, and I did not risk my wife and children on the dog sleigh in returning to Pigeon Lake, but let my dogs run light beside the sober gait of the horses we had brought in with us. There had not come any more snow, and the sleighing was extremely poor. However, we were back at the lake and glad to be home again, but greatly refreshed with our short sojourn on the outside of our little world.

Our oldest little girl, Flora, whom we had left with her grandparents at Victoria in September, I brought up with me, and she was now with us, and though scarcely three years old, was a most remarkable example of language learning, for in three months she had learned to speak English. Her vocabulary was quite extensive, and her pronunciation remarkably correct. Formerly it was all Cree with our little daughter; now it was all English, and she quite amused her mother and the Indians around us by her insistence in using this new language at all times.

We found our people and home all right, and at once fell into the routine of travel and work for the winter. When we had a congregation, either few or many, we lectured and preached as best we could, and around the camp-fire did some of our most effectual work; and God blessed us in helping men and women to a higher plane of life. Getting out timber and lumber, gathering firewood, hauling hay, keeping the pot boiling, and our time was fully taken up. Even if we had a study and books, there would have been precious little time for them. But as we see things now, our study was a big room wherein was all manner of strange life and mysterious problem, and in the working out of the questions before us at the time God was teaching in His own way; at any rate He was giving us a grip of this wonderful country, and also of the confidence of the people dwelling in it. We were aliens no more in this commonwealth.


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