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Saddle, Sled and Snowshoe
Chapter XX
Victoria becomes a Hudson's Bay trading post—An adventure on a raft—The annual fresh meat hunt organized—Among the buffalo—Oliver misses his shot and is puzzled—My experience with a runaway horse —A successful hunt—My "bump of locality" surprises Peter—Home again.


THE Indians, both Wood and Plain, pagan and Christian, were now flocking into Victoria in such numbers that the Hudson's Bay Company saw the necessity of establishing a trading post there. I was offered the charge of this, but father did not seem to relish the idea, so it dropped, and a Mr. Flett was sent to put up buildings and open trade with the Indians. Mr. Flett was a native of the Red River settlement, and thoroughly understood the Indians and their language. He was a warm friend of our mission, later on himself becoming an honored missionary of the Presbyterian Church to the Indians in another part of the country.

Victoria had now (in 1864) the beginning of a Christian mission and the starting of a Hudson's Bay post, and was becoming known as a place on the Saskatchewan. For the month or six weeks that the large camps were there, spring and fall, it was a busy point. Travellers, traders, hunters and freighters were coming and going every little while all through the year. Already this new place had become the nucleus of a Christian civilization. I One Hudson's Bay packet once in the year, and an occasional budget of mail by some unexpected traveller, were our sole means of communication with the outside world. In this matter we were farther away than Hong Kong or Bombay.

As autumn merged into winter, the larger number of the Indians recrossed the Saskatchewan and struck for the buffalo. In the meantime some of us were busy getting out more timber and lumber. One night, when most of the Indians had gone, Peter, Oliver and I were coming down the river on a raft of timber. We had left early the previous morning, expecting to be back by evening, and therefore had not taken bedding with us. The carrying, rolling and handspiking of the timber to the water's edge, and the making of our raft, had kept us late, so before starting we put some earth on the raft, and throwing dry wood on this, as soon as (he night grew cold we made a fire. When about half way home, while passing through a ripple, our raft grounded on the rocks, and do what we would in the night we could not get it off. Having neither provisions nor bedding, and our supply of wood on the raft but small, we concluded to wade or swim ashore. The river was broad, the distance to the shore long, and the depth uncertain.

Undressing, and tying our clothes in bundles above our heads, we started into the ice-cold current. Slowly we felt our way, for the bottom was full of boulders and stones, and irregular in depth. As I was the shortest of our party I came near having to swim. Down I went, and deeper still, until all but my head was submerged. Stepping slowly and carefully on my toes I made my way, longing for the shore. Many a river have I swam and waded in all kinds of weather, but that long, slow trip from raft to shore in the dark night, made darker still by the sombre shadows of the high wooded banks, I shall never forget. After an interminable time, as it seemed, we reached the shore and stepped out with bare feet and naked bodies on to the rough, stony beach, and into the keen, frosty air. But what a glow we were in when we did have our clothes on once more! We were in prime condition for a sharp run, and it did not take us long, inured as we were, to climb the steep bank and run the three or four miles to the mission house. The next day we towed a skiff to where our raft was, worked it off the rocks, and brought it down home.

As the cold weather set in, it became necessary to organize for the "fresh meat hunt." In an isolated interior place like Victoria, where there are neither waggon nor cart makers, nor yet harness makers; where your wheels are wooden and your axles ironless, and wood grinds on wood; where your harness is of the skins of the wild animals around you, crudely and roughly home-made, it means something to get ready for a trip where you expect to find heavy loads and frozen ground, with winter perhaps setting in before you again reach home. To mend carts and harness, to hunt up horses and oxen, to transport your vehicles and equipment over a wide river in a small skiff, to swim your stock through the cold water—all of this takes some time and causes a great deal of hard work. But we must have the meat, and so in good time we are rolling south, hunters, running horses and cart drivers, all eager for the first glimpse of the buffalo.

This time our course was more westerly, and on the third day we had our first run, near the "cross woods," on the plain which stretches from within a few miles of Victoria to the Battle River. Our chief hunters were "Muddy Bull" and Peter. The rest of us were kept busy butchering and hauling into camp, moving camp, guarding stock, providing wood, etc. From before daylight until late at night we were all on the jump, Sunday being our only rest, and then we took turns in guarding our stock. To work hard all day, and then guard stock and camp all night, those long fall nights, made one very "gapish" the next day, and gave him sound sleep the following night. In all this father took his share, and upon him rested the chief responsibility of the expedition. On these trips as much haste as was consistent with the success of the object in view was made in order to be as short a period as possible away from the mission, which was during this time almost without any human protection.

My man Oliver, though a native of the Red River Settlement, and thus born in the great North-West, had never until now seen buffalo. In fact, all the experiences of this last summer had been new to him. We left him in charge of camp one morning, and went out some miles after buffalo. When towards evening I came in on a cart-load of meat, he exclaimed: "What kept you so long? I have been waiting to go for my buffalo."

"Where are your buffalo?" I asked.

"Oh! just over yon hill," he answered.

"How many have you 1" was my next question.

"I don't know," was the answer.

"How is that?" I queried.

"Well," said Oliver, "a big band of buffalo came down to the creek near camp, and I jumped on the bay colt and charged them up yonder slope. There were hundreds of them, and just as they went over the ridge I fired into them, and I am sure there must be five or six dead buffalo lying over there."

"Did you see any dead ones?" I asked.

"No," said he, "for I hurried back to look after things, and have been anxiously waiting for some one to relieve me, so I might go and bring in my buffalo."

As it was only a little way, I told Oliver to jump on one of the horses and see if there were any dead buffalo over the ridge. Presently he came back, quietly wondering how he could have missed the big herd. Many a man has had a similar experience. Over a rough country, with horse at full jump, inexperienced men have fired many a shot, and never even hit the carcase of a big bull. Then, as to killing more than one at a shot, this was seldom done. I have heard of an Indian in the Beaver Hills killing two bulls at one shot, and when his comrade came over the hill, and saw the two dead animals, he asked, "How is this? you fired but one shot." "Yes," said the other, "I did wait for some time to get three in a line, but finally had to be satisfied with two." This same fellow was possessed of some dry wit, for his friend asked him, as he was leaving the fire for a little, to turn his roast, if it needed turning; and when he came back the bare spit was over the fire, and the meat at the other end on the ground. "What is this?" he asked, with a touch of indignation in his voice. "What is the matter?" responded the wag. You requested me to turn your roast, and I did so," and the victim had to swallow the joke. But it was harder to make Oliver understand how he could miss hundreds of buffalo bunched up as these were, and he could not but refer to this strange event ever and anon all the evening. Many a banter did he get from the rest of our party about his dead buffalo. "Where are you going?" one would shout to another, and the answer would come back, "After Oliver's buffalo."

I had quite an experience the same afternoon in coming back to camp with my load of meat. The rather wild horse I was driving somehow or other shook off his bridle and started across the prairie at a gallop on his own course. So long as the plain was only slightly undulating this did not very much disturb me, but presently we came to buffalo trails and badger holes, and thump, bump, thump went the wooden cart, and piece by piece out tumbled the meat, and I began to speculate how long the cart would hold together. Then I saw we were making straight for the banks of a creek, where a decided smash would be inevitable.

I could have jumped out behind, and let the whole thing go, but I was loath to do this, so I finally mustered up courage to climb out on the brute's back. This only made him the more frantic for a while, but presently I got a line over his nose, and, slapping his head, turned his course to smooth ground, and finally stopped the excited animal. I then got things fixed up, drove back along the course of our wild race, gathered up my meat, and thus brought horse and cart, meat and self, without much damage, to camp.

In those days we seldom bothered with the hides. Now and then we took some specially good ones and used them on the way home to cover the meat, and later on had them dressed; but generally, with the exception of what we used to mend carts or harness, we left the hides on the plain. Our need was meat, and for this we required the utmost capacity of our transport.

On the third evening, after we got fairly among the buffalo, our carts were loaded, and we felt that we had been successful indeed. No lives lost, no limbs broken, no horses stolen. Our hunters had ridden without hurt over thousands of badger holes, across many miles of rough country, and amongst hundreds of wild, strong buffalo. Our cart drivers had gone in every direction, across country, to and fro, butchering the slain, and hauling in the meat to camp. Hundreds of great grey wolves, and— to judge by the yelping—thousands of coyotes, had howled and snarled and fought all about us both day and night. Yet in a very short time we were loaded, all safe and sound; and feelingly we sang our praise, and father voiced our thanksgiving ere we retired to rest that night.

It was on this hunt that Peter woke up to the fact that I had been born with the natural gift of a large "bump of locality." Three of us -" Muddy Bull," Peter and myself—charged a bunch of buffalo. Peter had a long flint-lock gun and a big percussion six-shooting revolver. I happened to be riding alongside of him when he fired his gun, and now that he pulled the revolver, the gun was in the way; so he handed it to me. Presently in the rush we were separated, and here I was with two guns. Not caring to be so hampered, as gently as I could I flung Peter's gun to the ground; but in doing so noticed the locality. Fortunately, also, I saw "Muddy Bull" directly opposite, about two hundred yards distant, knock a cow down. She could not get up, for I could see that he had broken her back. This was another mark to me, and I charged my memory with it as on we rushed in the mad race. By-and-bye I came across Peter some two miles from there, and the first question was, "Where is my gun?" "I threw it away, back yonder," I answered, and Peter blessed me warmly, declaring we would never find that gun again; and it did look like it, for here was all out doors and a thousand places looking alike. However, I took him straight back to his gun. He could hardly believe his own eyes, but as he picked it up lie said, "You will do for the North-West."

The next day our carts were creaking and squealing with their heavy loads on the home stretch. In the meantime winter was steadily creeping on. The ground was frozen, the ice on the lakes becoming thick and strong, and the nights were cold. If you were on guard, you felt the necessity of quick action to keep warm. If you were asleep under the carts, you very reluctantly turned out at four o'clock a.m. to gather up bedding, etc., hitch up your share of the brigade, and trudge on through the cold until near daylight, when you stopped for breakfast; but, as this was the regular thing, you soon came to the conclusion that the chicken-hearted and weak-willed had no place in this keenly new land—so new that the polish of nature was still bright and thick all over it.

In a little more than two weeks from our start on the hunt, we are again letting our loads down the steep southern bank of the Saskatchewan, and yonder the smoke from the mission house chimneys and the ear-flaps of a few buffalo skin lodges meets our eyes, curling heavenward. I say "curling heavenward" because I have been bred to do so, but who knows where heaven is, especially when one thinks that what was up a little while ago, is down now? This time we ford our stock through a ripple, about half a mile below the mission, which is infinitely better than swimming them through the floating ice-cakes which are being hurried eastward by the rapid current. Then comes the hard and cold work of crossing carts and loads in the skiff; but finally the whole thing is done, and the product of our fall hunt is on the stage, and will become a prominent factor in the working of the mission for the next two months, unless an extra lot of starving people come upon us.


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