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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XVIII
Down the Little Bow—Fall in with Indians—Ticklish position —Harangue the Indians—Saved—Horse trading.


While we were busy day and night rushing things, there came on a three days' storm of cold rain and a little snow. During this Spencer's cattle and our cows got away, and when the storm cleared, while we went at the work of ferrying, Spencer and one of our boys hunted the missing cattle; but after two days' search they came back without them. I volunteered to try my hand and let Spencer take my place with the crossing. I took two boys with me, and we rode carefully up the Bow, and then up the High River to the trail going south, then along that to Mosquito Creek, where we camped for the night. Then, in the early morning, we went down this to its junction with the Little Bow. We had carefully scouted all this big circle, and had made three distinct lines of observation. We felt sure the cattle had not gone west; but now, when almost at the junction of the Mosquito and Little Bow, we came upon their tracks, and were disappointed to note that they had passed this point early in the storm, and were travelling fast and evidently making for their home range.

However, I determined to follow their tracks for a few miles, hoping that they might have stopped in some sheltered spot. We had not ridden more than ten or twelve miles on the tracks of the cattle when we saw Indians, and very soon they had seen us. While we could not tell the size of their camp, still we knew there must be a considerable number of them, for those we saw were making signals.

I stopped my party of two boys and self on the top of a hill commanding all sides, and, with a good deal of internal feeling, awaited the outcome of this meeting. Very shortly, ten times our number came dashing over the hills towards us. My boys were the children of the hereditary foes of these men now charging upon us. Moreover, we were in that part of the country where every Indian had very good reason to hate the white man. Then there was no earthly law for us to fall back upon. I can tell you, my readers, it was a solemn time for the boys and myself as we watched the swift- approaching crowd of plainsmen coming down upon us. Fortunately, the Indian who first had discovered our vicinity had come on in advance of the rest, and now he stopped across the valley, on the brow of the hill, and waited for the others; but I called across to him and told him to come over.

For a little he hesitated; then he mustered up courage, and, with his ready-cocked revolver in hand, he dashed up the hill to us, and at once recognizing me, said, "John," at which I nodded, and we gripped hands. I remembered his face as that of one I had seen the previous summer. He now charged back across the valley to meet the oncoming crowd, and as these approached, he harangued them.

I could not make out what he said altogether, but heard my name, "John," and "our friend," and was glad to hear these words and to be introduced by the young warrior as a friend.

Soon we were surrounded by a wild crowd, and, as I looked into their faces, I very soon knew that, with the exception of the first-comer, these were strangers to me. All alighted and gathered around us. My friend stood a little way back from the crowd. Not a word was said. Then, as myself and my two boys were sitting on the prairie, all but my friend sat down, and I was quite conscious of conflicting emotions surging in the minds of these men.

We were lawful prey. "Kill them and divide horses and saddles and bridles and guns and revolvers. These Crees are our enemies. This white man, notwithstanding what that fellow says, is a white man. They are all the same We should kill them when we can."

Then they appealed to their better nature: "This is John. He is our friend. These boys are under his protection."

Right here these men were in a quandary, and we, with them, sat in solemn silence. Presently, the oldest man in the crowd got out his big stone pipe. He had the stem stuck in his belt, and he blew through this and attached it to the pipe, and then proceeded to mix a little tobacco with a lot of kinnikinic. When he was ready, I handed him a match, and when he had the pipe fully alight he passed it to me; but as I never smoked, I passed it on, and slowly the pipe went around the circle.

My friend stood like a statue, with his revolver in hand, watching the whole scene. Several times the pipe went around, my boys and self the only ones who did not smoke. Then a sturdy-looking fellow began to speak, never once looking our way. He harangued in Blackfoot, and after what seemed a long time to me, and I knew as much longer to my boys, he ceased, and the crowd gave assent to what he had said. Then, in rather good Cree, he turned to me and asked me if I was John. When I answered yes, he told me he was a Sarcee, and that these people were mostly Piegans. He said his name was "Little Drum." He had seen my father, "the God man," at Edmonton, and had met my brother-in-law, the Red Head, or, as the Blackfeet called him, "Me-ko-cho-to-quon." He was glad that this young man recognized me. He said men's hearts were bad, but to-day we would have peace.

Then I told the crowd, through him, our business, and why we were there; and they said those cattle would now be across the Belly River, for they had seen the tracks farther south several nights since. Then I said we would not follow these cattle any further just now, but go back to our camp. They inquired as to any chance of trade if they rode over to our camp. I said my brother was always open to trade for robes or horses, and they said they would go back to their lodges and get their trade and fresh horses, and ride with us. My friend watched them away, and motioned me the other way. I gripped his hand and looked into his eyes, and with my boys, one on each side, we rode northward.

Once more the Lord had helped us. A kind word, a smile, a little courteous act, and I had won this young fellow, and he, after months have passed, becomes our deliverer. Surely it pays to be thoroughly humanitarian and thus believe in all men.

We rode away in silence, and with a studiously dignified step; but when we had gone behind the hill we let our horses out. I told my boys to keep right up beside me and my horse would regulate the pace. Neck to neck, we galloped on. I made up my mind that few if any of those fellows would catch up to us before we would reach our camp. My boys were light riders, and I was well mounted, and we went for miles and miles on the steady gallop, straight for our distant party.

As neither we nor the horses had eaten since early morning, it was necessary that we halt somewhere. Coming out on to the trail we had made a few days previously, we presently reached our old encampment, and, dismounting, jerked our saddles off and let our horses roll and feed, while we hurriedly boiled our kettle and drank some tea, and munched some dried meat and watched the way we had come. Soon we saw a number of Indians on the jump after us. These I steadily kept my eyes on, and we, watering our horses, saddled up and again took the steady, hard gallop. The Indians were so eager to come up to us that they left one another straggled along the plain. This was just what I had hoped. I felt sure that if we got them strung out, our pace would keep them so. This would be all the safer for us.

My mount, who made the step, had come to me in a peculiar manner. Mrs. McDougall had suffered very much with some of her teeth, and there was no dentist nearer than the little village of Winnipeg, and we had not even a pair of forceps. When in Benton I made diligent enquiry for such, but none of the stores had any for sale, and my only chance was the army surgeon stationed at the military post.

Plucking up courage, I went to this august person, and he said, "No, sir; I have no forceps for sale. Do you want to buy a horse?"

I said, "No, sir," in my turn, and was much cast down in failing to find what I so much wanted. However, every time I came across the army doctor I put my case, and always met the same answer, "Do you want to buy a horse?"

As I was innocent of civilized ways, and my understanding dense, I did not catch on to what he meant; and yet, I did want the instruments.

Finally, I again went over to the fort and hunted up the doctor in his den, and asked him to tell me what he meant by always turning me off with the question, "Do you want to buy a horse?"

Then he showed me a set of dental instruments, some twelve in number, neatly done up in a leather case; and he told me he had a horse in the stable, and that if I bought that horse he would give me this set, complete, in the bargain.

I grabbed the set and put them under my arm, and said, "What do you want for that horse?"

He answered, "Sixty dollars." (Our money was at that time worth sixteen per cent. more than theirs.)

I immediately said, "Come, let us go and see that horse." Reaching the stable, here was the plump little bay, which I untied and led out, and, paying the army doctor the $60.00, thus became the owner of my present mount, and also the happy possessor of the set of instruments, and in this way became the first amateur dentist in all Alberta. I have sometimes wondered if those instruments did not belong to Uncle Sam. At my rate, with them I have relieved many a poor sufferer.

To-day the bay was doing splendidly. It was a good thirty miles from where we lunched to the river, and the sun was dropping fast. Only one Indian came up to us. He had two horses, and, by changing and riding hard, caught up.

"Ha, ha, John; you are riding hard," he would say, and I would point to the sun and say, "The river is far."

"John, your horse medicine is strong." And I thought of Uncle Sam's corn and feed and smiled, and said, "Yes."

We never stayed a moment. I knew we could not take these horses across the river that night. They would he too warm. But what are horses, compared with life? I wanted these boys and myself across that river before dark, if I could bring it to pass. On we went, neck to neck, nose square with nose, my boys and our horses. There was no stop down nor up. Smooth or hilly, with a steady, swinging gallop, we continued our course. After a while the Sarcee who had come up dropped behind; and yet we kept our pace steady and regular, and, with the sun just setting, we were on the brow of the hill, looking down into the valley of the Big River. As I had hoped, we were seen almost at once by our party from the other side. We could see them stretching the long line and tracking the crude, heavy craft up against the 'strong current, preparing to bring it across for us.

Reaching the river bank, we tethered our horses and took our saddles over with us, and were thankful when we were once more a united force. Spencer was glad to see us back safe. "Never mind the cattle," was what he said.

The Indians came up, but not until late, and they remained on the south side of the river until morning, when they came across, and David traded with them. Then they recrossed and went away back to their camp, where they told that "John had the best horse medicine in the country. He could make a horse run all day."


 


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