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Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe
Chapter XV
Personnel of our party—My little rat terrier has a novel experience—An Indian horse-thief's visit by night— I shoot and wound him—An exciting chase—Saved by the vigilance of my rat terrier—We reach the South Branch of the Saskatchewan—A rushing torrent—A small skin canoe our only means of transport —Mr. Connor's fears of drowning—Get our goods over.


WE HAVE now been nearly a month on the way, and are becoming well acquainted with each other, for there is no better place than around the camp-fire, and on a trip like ours, to size up men and display one's own idiosyncrasies. Mr. Connor, the gentleman who had joined me at the Red River, proves to be a very good companion. He has travelled and read; was at one time, in the early forties, a minister of the Methodist Church, but owing to some misunderstanding had given up the ministry and gone afloat—and is still floating. He is generally bright and cheerful, and very helpful, but sometimes falls into a streak of melancholy, which, after all, darkens his own day more than that of any one else. He drives his own cart. This he has shingled with pieces of tarred bale covers, and, at night sleeps in it. His yoke of steers, though at first somewhat balky in mud- holes, after I have drilled them a few times, and got them to recognize my voice in a real western yell, come along all right. His son James, who is one of my men, is a short, sturdy fellow, and being strong and hearty, is fast adapting himself to this new life. My other man, Oliver, is but an over-grown boy; has had very little opportunity in life, no chance at school, and is rather simple-minded, but willing and strong. The Scotchman, who is on his way across the mountains,' walks by his own cart and horse most of the day's march, and is "canny and careful" about the camp; for the most part silent and reserved, but in a pinch, and at river crossings, lends a strong hand. Such a journey as we are on is new to all but myself, and I, though all my life on the frontier, am but in my fourth year in this the greater West.

We had three dogs with us, one belonging to the Scotchman, and the others to me. Both of mine were a present from a clergyman I met in the settlement, one a duck dog, and the other a small rat terrier. The latter supported the two former on the road by killing gophers for them. This little fellow was extremely agile. He would jump up on my foot in the stirrup, and at the next leap be in the saddle beside me. There he would rest for a little while, perhaps until the next gopher popped in sight, when with a bound he would be away; and this he would keep up the whole day long. At night I might wrap my blanket as tightly as I pleased about me; the little scamp would crawl in somehow and sleep in my bosom. One day when we were hunting moulting ducks during our noon spell, he got after a big stock duck, and taking hold of the tail feathers of the bird, the latter made for the lake with the dog in tow. The little fellow was gritty and held on while the duck towed him far out into the lake. It was highly amusing to see the small dog being whirled along by the duck, who was flapping his featherless wings and swimming at a great rate. Presently the dog, wanting to bark, opened his mouth, and the duck dove under immediately it was loose. My little pet swain ashore after affording us no little amusement by his unusual adventure.

One Saturday evening we camped in the Touchwood Hills, and found ourselves in the vicinity of a solitary lodge occupied by an old Indian and his aged wife. They told us that their children and people had gone out on the plains. The report was that the buffalo were not far away, and they were hoping to hear from their friends before long. The mesas-kootom, or service berry, were very plentiful all through the hills, and this old couple had gathered and dried a large quantity. I was glad to trade a bag of these from them to take home to our people, for any kind of dried fruit had been a scarce article with us.

On Sunday afternoon two boys came in from the plains with a horse-load of dried provisions. They were the old man's grandchildren, and had come for the old folks. The boys said the buffalo were a good day's journey south of us, which would be about fifty miles. Monday morning I traded some dried provisions from the old man, and we parted company.

I think it was the fourth day afterwards that we camped in a small round prairie, backed by a range of hills and fringed around by willow and poplar brush. We had pulled our carts into a line, with our camp-fire in the centre. We were sufficiently north, as we thought, to be comparatively safe from horse-thieves and war parties, so we merely hobbled our horses, and making a good smudge near our own fire, we rolled in our blankets, each man under a cart, except Mr. Connor, who slept in his. Some time in the night I was awakened by my little dog, who had crept under my blanket as usual, and now startled me by springing forth and barking vigorously. As I raised myself on elbow, I saw that the two larger dogs were charging at something quite near. The moon was about three parts full, and the night quiet and almost clear. From under the shadow of the cart I could see our horses feeding near the smoke. Presently I discovered an object crawling up to come between the carts and the horses. At first I thought it was a big grey wolf, but as the dogs rushed at it, I saw that it did not recede, but came on. I reached for my gun and watched closely, and presently saw the object pick up a stick and throw it at the dogs. This convinced me that it was someone trying to steal our horses. His object evidently was to creep in between us and our stock, and gently driving them away, he would then cut the hobbles and run them off.

Having made sure that what I saw was a human being, and a would-be horse-thief, or worse, I immediately planned to intercept him. So I in turn began to crawl along the shade of the carts until I was under the last one, which was Mr. Connor's. Here I waited and watched until, seeing the fellow repeatedly frighten the dogs away, I was sure it was a man. He was slowly coining up on hands and knees, and was now near the first horse, when I took deliberate aim and fired at him. My gun was loaded with shot, and fortunately for him was only a single barrel, or I would have given him the other, for I was not at that moment in a mood to spare a horse-thief. My shot at once knocked him flat. When the smoke had cleared away I saw him starting to crawl off, so I jumped for him, on which he rose to his feet and ran for all he was worth towards the nearest brush. I dropped my gun and picked up a pole that lay in my way, and was overtaking him fast when he reached the thicket; then thinking he might not be alone, I ran back for my gun. My companions by this time were all up, and we made ready for an attack. Tying up our horses, we watched and guarded until daylight, but were not further molested.

By this time I concluded that the thief was alone, and I became very anxious about him. I knew I had hit him, but to what extent I did not know; so taking a man with me, we went on his track and found that he had lost considerable blood, had rested and, we supposed, had in some way bound up his wound and then gone on. As we tracked him I concluded by his step that he was but slightly hurt, and would reach his camp all right. This relieved my mind considerably, but it was not until the next year we heard about the fellow. Then it came out that I blew the top off the man's shoulder, and after a hard journey back to camp, he lay some three months before recovering. Having ample opportunity for reflection, he saw the error of his former way and vowed to steal no more.

This Indian had heard from the old man and his two grandchildren, whom we left in the Touchwood Hills, that a small party of white men had travelled west, having with them some good horses. He concluded that this would be a 'soft snap," and acted accordingly. Had it not been for my vigilant little rat terrier, he would have taken our horses and left us in a pretty fix. I have always felt thankful I did not kill the fellow, but most certainly I wanted to at the time. If my gun had been loaded with ball, or that bit of prairie had been longer—for I was coming up on him fast, and the pole I carried was a strong one—the results might have been different.

We were now approaching the South Branch of the Saskatchewan. The streams we had crossed thus far were as child's play compared to this. It was midsummer, and the snow and ice in yonder mountains, six or seven hundred miles away, would be melting, and the mighty river be a swollen torrent. Would we find a boat there or not? If not, how were we to cross? These were thoughts and questions which kept coming up in my mind all the time. It is very easy under some conditions to say to another man, "Do not cross the river until you come to it," but when you know the river to be big and wide, and the current like that of a mill-race; when you know that there is not a man in your party as good even as yourself in such a case; when you feel all the responsibility of life and property, involving the well-being of many others, you cannot help but worry.

We were still several miles from the river, when I galloped ahead to find out the best or the worst that might be in store for us. Coming to the river I saw it was booming. Great trees and rafts of driftwood were being swept down by its swishing currents, and with a strain of anxiety I rode down the several hills to the river's brink, and felt almost sick at heart when I found there was no boat in sight. Very often the Hudson's Bay Company kept a boat at this point, but now, search as I would, there was none to be found, and I rode back up the hill with a heavy heart. however, at the top of the bill I now discerned a pole stuck in the ground, and thought I saw something white at the end of it. Galloping over, I found a note tied to the pole, which said, "Down in the woods in the direction this stick points, there is a skin canoe."

This had been arranged by the Company people at Canton for the benefit of Mr. Hardisty, whom they expected to be on his way west from an eastern visit. They had not a boat to spare, so they made this small skin canoe, brought it here and left it staged up in the trees for his use when he should come along. The note also said, In the bow of the canoe you will find a chunk of hard grease." This was to pitch its seams with and make it waterproof if possible. Now for a light travelling party, with saddle and pack-horses, this would be sufficient, but for a heavily loaded train like ours it seemed like a "small hook to hang your hat on." But even this was something, and I soon went to the spot in the woods indicated and found the canoe placed high on the limbs, to keep it from the wolves and coyotes, who would soon gnaw its skin covering. I saw it was very small, being made of two buffalo cowhides, stretched over a frame of willows, and in it were two paddles and a parcel, which undoubtedly contained the grease.

It was late Saturday evening when we camped upon the shore, and my companions were almost paralyzed by the appearance of the river. It was fortunate that they had all day Sunday to become somewhat familiar with the sight of this mad current and its tremendous volume of water. Monday morning I was up with the day, and calling my two men we boiled the kettle, chopped some chunks from our mass of pemmican, and sat down to breakfast. Presently• Mr. Connor crawled out of his cart, and sitting on its edge, said "Good-morning." I invited him to a cup of tea and a piece of pemmican, but to my astonishment he very solemnly said, "Before I do anything to-day I want to come to an agreement with you men as to how long you are prepared to stay here and search for the body of anyone of us who may be drowned here to-day." It was very early in the morning, and myself and men were not very hungry—at any rate, the one dish of uncooked pemmican was not very appetizing—but when the above very anti- tonic remarks fell in sombre tones from the venerable-looking .man's lips, I noticed that Oliver dropped his pemmican, while his eyes widened and his face blanched. I saw that I must do something, or else I would not be able to take Oliver near the river that day. So I laughed out a regular "Ha, ha1" at the old man's strange demand. "It is no laughing matter," said he. "Yes it is—a very laughable matter," I answered, "that a man of your age and experience should make such a proposition, for in the first place we do not expect anyone to be drowned here to-day, and more, if any of us should drown in that current, what would be the use of searching for the body? If I am the one to be drowned, don't you lose a minute looking for my body, but go on taking the stuff across, and take it to its destination; but my word for it, we will get across all right. Come along and have a cup of tea." This he did without saying any more about drowning, and he worked like a trooper all the rest of the day, helping in any way he could. Some years later Mr. Connor was drowned, and he may have felt premonitions of his coming fate that morning.

Breakfast over, we immediately began operations. The first thing was to carry the canoe to the water's edge, then taking the grease, and biting off a mouthful, chew this until it became like gum; then with finger cover over the seams wherever they occurred in the canoe. When this was done we launched the canoe, and for the first trip put in about three hundred pounds, as this, we thought, with the two men necessary to work her, might be all she could carry. Then we had to track or trail our canoe up the river a long way, for the current would carry us down a great distance while crossing. This we did by one pulling on a line and the other wading along the shore and keeping the canoe out from the rocks; then when we did let go, the two in the canoe had to paddle as hard as they could, for the rough hide and flat shape of the clumsy thing made it very heavy in the water. Having reached the other side, and unloaded and carried up our goods out of the reach of a possible rise of water, we had to again pull our canoe a long way up the river on that side, in order to reach anywhere near where our stuff was in crossing again. After the first trip we found that we could average about four hundred pounds with the two men, and keeping hard at it the long summer's day, drying our boat while we lunched or dined or supped, and ever and anon repitching it with the grease, we had most of our stuff across by sundown, and were once more in camp—and no one drowned!


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