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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter X
Ford the Saskatchewan—In the Peace Hills—Meet Muddy Bull —Ford the Red Deer—Great buffalo chase—Violent snowstorm—Cross the Dog Pond Into foothill country—Land a revelation to us—Move into Bow Valley.


Already it was the first of November, and we must hurry. My man, Donald, was on hand, cattle and horses in good shape and carts ready. My brother David was ready with his outfit. Several English and French mixed-blood families asked permission to join our party. Two white men who were travelling through the country came and asked the same privilege. Our only proviso was no whiskey or firewater in any shape.

We were as the forlorn hope, everybody said, "running great risks."

Father said, "It is settled," and gave us his blessing.

We forded the Saskatchewan with ice floating down its swift current. We climbed the big hill and camped on the south side, near Drunken Lake. We at once organized our party. The days were short and the nights cold. Mrs. McDougall drove a team. Flora, our eldest daughter, rode in the saddle, and brought up the loose stock. My brother and self and some of our native company were the outriders of the party, in advance, on the flanks, and at the rear. Donald, the staid and steady, drove the lead cart, and thus we rolled south into the new country.

We spent our first Sunday among the Peace Hills. On the southern slope of these hills the city of Wetaskiwin is now situated. In 1873 this was the wilderness primeval. Here a camp of Crees and a party of Blackfeet, in running buffalo, ran into one another, and the mutual surprise and the need of the Blackfeet to move on into Edmonton for trade purposes caused them to make a temporary peace. Therefore the name Wetuskewin, "Having Peace." We kept guard, and held meetings, and spent a quiet, peaceful Sabbath, and rolled away early Monday morning in the frost and chill across the Bears' Hill plain.

About the middle of this plain we fell in with our old friend, Muddy Bull, who was moving in to Pigeon Lake. He made us a present of some fine dried meat, which was most acceptable to our commissariat. Muddy Bull and his wife, Barbara, were old friends of mine, and certainly these simple people were among the salt of the earth.

Many a night during the last ten years I had spent in their hospitable lodge. We had starved and feasted and watched and prayed together, and now this short accidental meeting was a mutual pleasure. Our food on this journey was largely pemmican. It was too late in the season for ducks and geese. Chickens and rabbits we got a few of en route. All in our party were eagerly looking forward to finding buffalo south of the Red Deer.

It was Thursday noon when, having forded the Red Deer, we lunched on the south side, and, telling ray man to hug the river on account of water, my brother and I rode out eastward and southward in search of game, as also reconnoitering the country ahead of our party. We skirted the Antler Hills, and climbed to the summit of the Cree Hills, and presently discovered a band of about forty bulls in the valley west of the hill. The day was far gone, but we rode down under cover and ran them. David had brought up from the East a thoroughbred mare called "Favorite," and that very morning he had surprised me by stumping me to trade for a brown horse I owned, and we had changed our saddles, and each was on his new mount at this time. I found the little mare very speedy, and soon was among the bulls, and had the best one picked out, and ran the mare at him. She overhauled the huge fellow in a very short time, and I made a good shot and killed him.

Here was a change of diet for our camp, and we carefully skinned and cut up the big brute. By the time we were through with stringing some meat to take back to camp, and had put the rest away as securely as we could, to be called for the next day, it was long after dark. It took us until late that night to find our camp, and when we did, it was greatly to the relief of all in it. Then we brought fresh meat. This was most acceptable. Moreover, the chances were that in a day or two we would strike the herds. The next night we camped south of where the town of Innisfail is now situated, and during that night our horses were stampeded. At first we thought it might be a war party, but later, we found it was a band of buffalo, because we heard the bleat of the calves, and then we knew that soon our camp would be refreshed by choice meat.

In those days the item of food was much to the front, and there were no storehouses standing as a basis of supply. There were many times when men talked and thought and dreamed about "Wherewith shall we be fed?" The evidences about us at this time were that soon we would have plenty, and all were joyous in the prospect. Scouting in advance the next day, I found a good spring of water, and, a mile or two beyond this, buffalo in great numbers; so I concluded to camp my party beside the spring, and for the balance of the day arrange a general hunt. Riding back, I signed to Donald, and he came straight for the spring. Hurriedly lunching, we left part to put up tents and guard camp, and the rest of us saddled up and went forth to the hunt.

Just as we were starting, one of the mixed-bloods in our company threw out a challenge: "Let us see who will bring in the biggest backfats."

"Do you hear that, John?" said my brother.

"Yes," I answered.

"Well, don't you let them beat you."

These were my instructions.

I answered, "A man can but do his best." However, we had a great herd to pick and choose from. Almost immediately I shot a very fine cow. I was riding "Favorite," and she flew into the herd, and, though fresh to this work, took to it as if bred on the plain. Placing the cow in position for skinning, I began to think that she was not quite fat enough to cover the challenge; so I remounted and rode north a little way, and here I was joined by my brother David. We saw a fine large bunch coming out of the bluffs of timber, and, as we approached them, I scanned them closely. Then they 'started on the quick run, and I saw a rider coming after them. Just then my eye caught sight of the animal I wanted. There she was, a huge, massive cow, the fattest I had ever seen.

I thought to myself, "If yon fellow has seen her it will be a race between us for that fat cow."

However, here were many hundreds packed together, and all on' the dead run. I kept my eye on that cow and let my blood beast out, and she responded nobly. I knew afar off that if I could catch and kill this animal there would be no better backfats brought into camp that day. Already the other man was pressing the rear of the herd. My mount was coming on finely, but the real race was still before us. Would the little mare hold out? That was the question. On we went. Soon we were opposite the hunter; now we were gaining on him.

Presently we were splitting the herd. Away yonder near the head of the bunch was my pick. The nearer I got the faster she ran, and the more I saw that this kill, if I could accomplish it, would surpass all my previous records in the killing of fat animals, and I had some good ones. I chirped quietly to the thoroughbred under me, and as if it was nothing she bounded into a quicker pace. I said to myself, "If we meet no accidents we will have her." Again I chirped, and, like a flash, my horse answered me. Now I was near enough, and watching my chance, and presently I fired, and down she dropped. Very soon my brother was on the spot, and we had placed the cow for being butchered. Whipping out his knife, he cut out the small "boss," and, holding this up, smiled exultantly. There would be no fatter buffalo killed by our party; of this we felt sure. We had won. Favorite and her rider took the medal that day.

Spending a quiet Sunday beside the spring, we continued our journey on Monday and found some more springs to camp beside that night. During the afternoon, while scouting ahead, I killed two fine cows, and as our two English friends travelling with us were not hunters, I gave one of these buffalo to them. In doing this, I took the traveller, with his horse and cart, to the animal, and very carefully pointed out to him the course we were moving on. Then I took one of my men and the cart and brought in the meat of the other cow.

Some time after dark the second Englishman came to my lodge and enquired about his companion. He said he was missing. The night was very dark, and as there were bluffs of timber, and the lost man had the meat of a whole buffalo, we did not feel so very anxious. The only danger was the possibility of his falling in with a war party.

During the night a violent snowstorm came on, and when the morning dawned the heavens about us were thick with snow. One could see but a little way. I called for volunteers, but my brother was the only one who turned out with me to search for our lost fellow-traveller.

It was a wild morning as we retraced our trail and built up our theory as to what might have happened to the lost man. Studying the topography of the country, as we remembered it, and considering the course of the storm, we decided on a plan of action, and religiously followed this, and were rewarded after a time by finding a clue, and following this, we came upon our man, and were to him as glorious deliverers. Most certainly we were delighted to find the poor fellow safe and sound. He had lost the faint trail our caravan had made. The night was so dark and the storm came on with such vigor that he was completely lost. We brought him to camp; but what surprised me was the absolute apathy of his companion in the face of all this. Ordinary humane instinct seemed to be altogether absent in this man; indeed, both of these white men were samples of a devolution which, I am sorry to note, a one-sided kind of civilization is sure to produce.

The storm continuing, we did not move camp until the next day. Then we crossed the Dog Pond, a tributary of the Little Red Deer, and made our way into the foothill country, for we were now steadily approaching the mountains. Some of our party had never seen the mountains until now. Indeed, the whole land was a revelation to every one of us. We were making across country, where wheels had hitherto never rolled, making crossings of rivers where neither pick nor shovel had been used to make approaches to the stream. A timber- covered ridge would loom up in the distance to block our way; and behold, as we came up to it, a hitherto unseen natural roadway would open up, and on we went. We were the pioneers. The centuries had prepared the way. Truly, to the capable and thoughtful mind, here was the homing land of the millions who would come in God's good time, when the other portions of the world were ready; when the Master Teacher would say, "Move up," then the flood-tides of immigration would people this wonderful land we were now prospecting and leading the way into.

Friday night we camped south of the second crossing of the Dog Pond. During the night our guards were startled, and every one of us jumped to arms as we became aware that a party was approaching. However, our alarm was appeased when we learned that these were Mountain Stoneys, whose camp was moving south to the westward of our course. One of the chiefs, Bear's Paw, was with this company. They were out searching for one of their leading men, who had mysteriously disappeared some few days before. He had gone out hunting. He was, to my knowledge, a famous wood hunter, and a fine Christian character and also a very brave man. Several times we had been on dangerous trips together, and you could depend on this man, for whom all the camp of his fellows were now mourning. Later, we found that he had been killed by a party of Blood Indians, who, hearing him shoot, had crawled upon and slain my friend without giving him a chance for his life. We had come past the scene of this recent murder, as we hunted out our way through the foothills. The first missionary had baptized this man Enoch, and his wife Eunice, but now "Enoch was not."

Saturday we moved on into the valley of the Bow, and up this scenic spot to the mouth of the Ghost. It was ticklish work taking our carts and wagons down the steep, ungraded hill at this point; but, using extra precaution, we succeeded, and, crossing the Ghost River, encamped in the valley. Here the Mountain Stoneys met us and camped beside our party, and expressed great satisfaction at our coming.

For thirty years some of these mountain men had looked and longed for a missionary, and now he had come. He was here. Somewhere in this vicinity he would establish a mission, and this would be to them a centre, a house of refuge, a court of appeal. Thus the realization of their hope made them glad, All day Sunday we were busy, preaching, singing, praying, baptizing, marrying, answering questions, and teaching these eager people as we were able. In the meanwhile we were studying hard ourselves. Here was new material, altogether different in many ways from any people we had lived amongst heretofore. Here were men familiar with the strong, energetic and constantly exciting and stimulating side of life. The mountains, with snow- slides, and mud-slides, and rock-slides, and sudden avalanches, were their birthplace and hunting grounds. Impetuous, tumbling, rushing, raging mountain streams were their swimming schools. Grizzlies and mountain lions and wildcats were their constant game. Blackfeet, Bloods, Piegans, Sarcees, and often Crees, were their perennial enemies. To run down moose and elk and lynx on foot was their common sport. To climb and carry and starve and feast were their frequent experiences. Among nomads these men excelled; from the head waters of the Missouri to those of the Athabasca, from the Columbia to the heart of the great plains, these people roamed and hunted and fought and conquered. They were a terror to the plain tribes. Before the new evangel reached them, they were inveterate gamblers, and often killed the people of their own tribe in these mad scenes of intense excitement. Such were our new parish- loners, and we felt that we needed a large measure of tact and patience to manage and keep the peace with these wild, nervous tribes. Moreover, there had come in just now the illegal and baneful traffic in alcohol and forty-rod whiskey, and while these Stoneys had thus far kept away from this evil and withstood all the blandishments of the cunning trader, yet they had come into contact with the lawlessness and brutality and absolute selfishness of the white man. They were familiar with massacre and crime, originated and carried on by the white man, and his invention, firewater, and new kinds of guns, the like of which these people had never seen, but had heard of from Blackfoot and Blood during their short periods of peace. The wild young fellows in the Stoney camp were beginning to class all white men as alike, and questioning the realness of the faith he had brought with him; these looked upon us and our mission with doubt and suspicion. Thus we were in the face of a great deal which the earlier missionary had not to meet. A serious change was on, and we could feel its presence.

We were fortunate in our meetings at this time in securing the services of a splendid interpreter. James Dickson was the name given to this man by Robert Rundle, the first missionary of any church to visit the country of these people. James was a linguist, had the Cree and Stoney equally well, and could speak Kootenay and Blackfoot also very well. He was thoroughly in sympathy with us, and fired up and became intense, even as we did in our illustrations. He saw, he felt; and between us, and with the blessing of God, we gathered the crowd and kept them, and men's hearts were stirred, and even the wild crowd attended all these gatherings, and we were hopeful.

Monday we moved on up the valley, and camped beside the creek which has become the boundary line between the reserve, on the north side, and the English-speaking settlement. Part of the day David and myself spent in looking up a location for wintering.


 


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