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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XXII
Receive my commission from Government—Make ready for long journey—Mishap in river—Trouble in crossing stream.


At Edmonton, I found my commission, with instructions, also a credit in the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company, which the Government had authorized, and I rushed my preparations for this mission laid upon me. In all this I had the instruction of my Chairman and the hearty co-operation of the Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company.

At Edmonton I found our old friend, Spencer, and he, in turn, secured a young fellow, Tom Robinson by name, and I engaged these for the trip. I bought three carts and loaded them with tobacco and tea and sugar and ammunition, and took with me a case of small cutty pipes, a full gross, which was one of the best investments I made for the purpose in view. Father and mother and George, my youngest brother, were now about to start for the long journey East.

In 1874, no iron horse had as yet belched his smoke cloud over the plains of the great West; no shrill shriek of a trembling locomotive had as yet disturbed the hush of the wilderness primeval. The cayuse in summer, and the dog train and snowshoe in winter, these were the overland means of transport. The only alternative in summer was to embark on the turbulent currents of the long river or risk the stormy lake in small open boats. Father and mother would stick to the cayuse until somewhere in Southeastern Manitoba, or Northern Minnesota, they would meet the oncoming railway. There were so few of us; there were so many apparent dangers in sight before each one in the great, big, wild country that when we met we gripped hands and held on, and when we parted, the pressure was but stronger and the clasp longer. This time everybody knew we were going out into more than usual risk, so the parting was more intense.

Farewell, and we have made the crossing of the Big River, and doubled up the long, high bank, and are rolling off and out towards the mountains once more. The first day we met my comrade of the previous season, The Dried Rat. He had married. He had several carts, and he was now coming in with these loaded to trade at Edmonton. He gripped me with both hands, and called down the blessing upon myself and present work. He rushed to his cart and got out some tongues and marrow- fat and splendid dried meat, and bestowed these upon me, and said he was glad. It was most refreshing to meet this man, who had been our companion for a few weeks, but upon whom had come a wonderful change because of this association. He had become a Christian, and his outlook had broadened, and, as we gripped hands at parting, there was a look of eternity in his eye. To thus incidentally meet this Indian friend at this time was cheering indeed, and we went on our way greatly encouraged.

The rains had been heavy; the creeks were high and roads very muddy, and our carts heavy laden, but we made long days. Early and late was our motto, as we pushed out. Near where the enterprising city of Wetuskewin now is, the road crossed a small, tortuous stream, and I had gone on ahead of the carts to have my horse unhitched and myself ready to help my men when they should come up. On the tail of my buckboard there sat a nice wooden trunk father had given me, and I left it without being lashed to the rig. Coming to the creek, I dashed the horse in and out, and jumped down beside him to unhitch. I had half done this when, casually looking down the stream, I saw something red moving rapidly. Looking for the trunk on the buckboard, I saw that it was gone. The plunge had been a little too deep, and my box had floated away. There it was, boxing the compass, away down stream, and I with my horse half unhitched. I got him out of the shafts as soon as I could, and fastened him, and then rushed down stream, cutting across the little points, and plunging into the little creek I brought my trunk ashore. Goodness knows where it would have brought up if I had not just caught the moving object as it wound in and out. I laughed to myself as I packed it back up stream, and was glad to find that it was waterproof, and had kept right side up, for my papers and the latest mail were in it.

Battle and Blind rivers were as great streams, and we had to spend a lot of time at each one.

When we came to the Red Deer it was full, and here we caught up to the noted John Glenn and his company, "From the Rio Grande to the Peace," and here he was brought right up to a standstill by the Red Deer in one of its partially wild moods.

It was in the early morning that we came to the stream, and I pulled my buckboard and carts 'up under the steep banks as far as the current would allow, and myself and men went to work at once to make our crossing. I had with me two buffalo cowhides, sewn together with sinew. These I at once put into water to soak. Then I took the wheels off the only real wooden cart we had with us. With these lashed one behind the other, with the dish side lip, I bound them solid with small dry poles. Then I put a side-board from the cart from hub to hub, thus making the keel of it.

Then I spread the cowhides, hair side up, on the shore, and placed our wheel frame fairly in the centre, and then drew the hides up tight all around. When all was fastened we turned our craft up to dry for a little while in the sun and wind, and when it was dry we caulked the seams and stitches in the hides with the hard tallow of the buffalo. In preparing this, we chewed it in our mouths, and then we put this drum of a boat, or, as my man said, who had never beheld such a ferry, "rum craft," into the stream, and began loading and crossing. Here I was, on the north side of this wide and now deep and very strong-currented river, and in my own party there were three men, and in John Glenn's also three men and a woman and child, and the only one of the whole number that could swim was myself. I told these men that I would not ferry them. The woman and child and the travelling kit and the general freight and the vehicles were enough for me to tackle with two buffalo cow skins.

We put from six to seven hundred pounds on the frail craft, and while my men gently towed it further up stream, I stripped to light underclothes, caught up a horse and fastened a good long line to his tail; then I fastened the other end of the line to the scow. Then I rode the horse out into the stream, telling my men to let go, and after us came the saucer-like skin boat. When my horse began to lose bottom I slipped to the lower side of him, and 'swam with one hand and feet, and with the other hand kept his head across stream, and in due time we were at the other shore, but far down from where we had started.

Here I turned the horse loose and unloaded the boat. Then, getting into it, I paddled it back to the north side, where it was towed up the long distance to where our stuff was waiting.

Thus we toiled and worked, and after I had swam the broad, cold river nine times, and then paddled back eight times, my share of this crossing was completed; but still I had to stand in light costume and watch those five men come over, one at a time, as they each and every one ran great risk of drowning. I wanted them to take hold of the tail of a horse and let him tow them across; but no, they must ride him. I then instructed them to do as I had done, that is, slip to the lower side of the horse, and, in their case, hold on to his mane, but invariably they did not do this; for when the horse began to lose bottom, they climbed up on to his neck and sent him under. Then the horse would, by a desperate plunge, come up, and the men would now slide back, and, becoming cooler after the ducking, hold on, and the horse brought them across. It required a lot of nerving up for these men to cross a wide, wild stream without being able to swim. In all my many journeys I never remember being with so many men who could not swim a stroke. The crossing over, we loaded up, climbed to the top of the plateau, and camped a few miles from the river.

It was most opportune that the next day was Sunday, for we were a very tired company; so much cold mountain water and struggling with heavy currents was a great strain on the strongest.


 


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