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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XXIX
Start for northern fort and settlement on bank of North Saskatchewan—Found Mounted Police quartered at Edmonton---Col. Jarvis' marvellous stories—Police adapt themselves to new conditions—Find our cache on the Red Deer.


I had been told by the party who brought me the summons, as also in letters from the North, that this Chairman was going to put a stop to all trading and bartering on the part of missionaries, and I was therefore much surprised to find a postscript at the bottom of the summons, asking me to bring in to him "a couple of good buffaloes." I smiled as I thought of the inconsistency of the thing, right here apparent; but what of the larger inconsistency of the thought held by many, that the missionary had no right to barter or trade with the people to whom he is sent. Here we were, without any currency other than that of kind, no banks or mint, a horse, a dog, a gun, a blanket, a fathom of cloth or print, a shirt or a coat or a cap, and on the other hand, a robe, or dressed leather, or fresh or dried provisions, or furs of any kind; these were the only currency of the times, and how in the name of common sense could one do without bartering. No; there must always be adaptation to conditions, as these are found; and there can be no general law but that of equity and right dealing, and, by the grace of God, there we stood, and would stand, notwithstanding anybody's opinion or ruling. My brother was going in, and also the Hudson's Bay Company was sending in a couple of men; so we made ready and started just before Christmas for the winter journey to the northern fort and little settlement on the bank of the North Saskatchewan. We found the snow deep and almost intact, and we were continuously braking the trail; but as there were four of us taking this in turn we made pretty good speed. We were using horse toboggans, long, flat, two-board sleighs.

We travelled all Christmas Day, but coming to the Peace Hills, where the town of Wetuskewin now stands, late Saturday evening, we went into camp and prepared to spend the Sabbath at this point. There was an abundance of dry wood, and we worked late gathering an immense pile of this, and made a good comfortable open camp, and then settled down to rest, even as the Lord had, in His infinite mercy and wisdom, ordained.

Sunday evening David brought out from his sled a munificent supper and made a special spread, and I asked him the reason of all this. He reminded me that this was the 27th of December, and my birthday, and that my good sister-in-law had thus made ready and commissioned him to bring out this supper and give us the feast if possible. I was delighted and grateful for this kind thoughtfulness, and we, as a little company, in the profound solitude of the time, most thoroughly took pleasure in this genuine surprise birthday feast. I had, in the strenuousness of my life for many years, hardly ever thought of these things. The Sabbath was the only day we aimed at observing.

At Edmonton we found things much the same. The Mounted Police had come with the winter, and were quartered in the Hudson's Bay Fort. Col. Jarvis was in command. Capt. G-uion was his second. Sergeant-Major Steele (now Col. Steele of Strathcona Horse fame) and the rank and file did the work. A few strange faces were to be seen outside of the police. The new Chairman pro tern. was on the ground, having taken seventy-three days to come from Winnipeg to Edmonton. No wonder the Rev. Lewis Warner found the great North-West interminable.

We held our district meeting, and by my handing in the two buffaloes at the opportune time we avoided the lecture on trade and barter which had been in preparation for us. From letters I met at Edmonton, I found I was authorized to engage a teacher for my mission, and at once I began to look around for a suitable person. A Dr. Very, who had recently come into the country, being recommended to me, I engaged him to return with us to the mountains. The Hudson Bay Company's men who had come north with us had loaded imp and started back almost immediately. For the first fifty miles of our journey we had the company of Col, Jarvis. He had sent on Sergt.-Major Steele and some nine or ten men, and proposed to travel with us until we caught up to his party. Their objective point was Buffalo Lake, where a large camp of mixed-bloods and Indians were wintering, and where it was reported that whiskey was plenty. It was a keen, cold winter's night, 'and we were in the open camp under the lee of some willows, and the Colonel gave us a graphic account of the trip from the Red River to Edmonton. The expedition of Sir Charles Napier into Abyssinia, which had become quite historic, was not in it with this most formidable journey which the Colonel gave us a very fiery description of. It was gross blasphemy which spoiled the whole business, and I felt I must take the wind out of his sails and let him down easy in so doing, for he was our guest for the time.

After he had cursed the Canadian and British governments and the whole North-West country, the rivers especially, and wound up expecting us to applaud such wonderful heroism, I said to him, "Colonel, nine or ten miles north of Edmonton there dwells, when at home, a French half-breed who, when the spring comes, will load his carts with his winter's trade and catch of furs and pemmican, and, with his wife and children, will take the trail you came by, crossing all the streams you crossed. In due time he will reach Fort Garry; then he will sell his furs and robes, and purchase his fresh supply of goods and articles of trade, load these on to his carts, turn his face westward, re- cross all the streams, now at their highest, reach his home north of Edmonton, put up several stacks of hay, fix up his winter quarters, mend his carts and harness, and having carefully stored his goods, he and his family, with the same horses and carts, will cross the Saskatchewan and travel out from two to three hundred miles on to the plains, make a big turn through the country, run buffalo, stand on guard day and night, make many bales of meat, make many bags of pemmican, and finally, being now well loaded, return over the long journey to their home north of Edmonton. And still, it is not yet winter; and thus this native has travelled about three times the distance you and your party did, Colonel; and they had no government behind them, and what they have done is a common occurrence in this Western country."

It is needless to say that the Colonel saw the point, and we heard no more about the greatness of the feat of crossing the plain' on an old trail in a summer's time.

That was a cold night in the lee of a big snow- bank and some willows it had caught on to, sparkling stars gemming the firmament, the great disc surcharged with frost-laden ozone from 30 to 40 below. To the Colonel, from the comfortable home and barracks of Eastern Canada, and my doctor teacher from London, England, and the ship's cabin, such a capacious, marvellous, sleepy, living- room as we were now in was a new experience. However, we had the huge campfire, and if we worked hard we could keep this up with a sparkling, laughing flame, which, for a few feet around, tempered the climate of our huge refrigerator. We sang a hymn, and knelt in prayer, and if the act of worship did not do any more, at least it hushed the blasphemous soldier, and it also thawed our backs for the little while we turned them to the big fire as we knelt in prayer.

Up and on before daylight, and in course of a few miles we came up to the police outfit, some of whom, like their commanding officer, had now spent their first night in strong winter weather in the open. This was splendid discipline for these men, with the work they had come into the North-West to perform. Let but the native and the mixed-blood or lawless white man know that this force was always ready, through storm and cold and distance, then the law would be observed, and right there and then we would continue to lay the foundation of a peace-loving and law-abiding citizenhood.

I was glad to see these Easterners show as much adaptability as they did. Many a hard knock did they receive. To be battling with the elements on unbeaten trails and under beclouded skies is the hardest kind of work, and the man capable of strong development would stay and learn in such a field as was now opening before these men.

Soon our trails diverged, they to follow the sometime beaten roads to Buffalo Lake, and we to break a fresh one for ourselves, as already the tracks of our Hudson's Bay men were obliterated, except here and there where there was a bit of bush. We found the snow deep and drifts hard for our horses to break through, and our progress was slow, very slow; and yet we soon caught up to the Hudson's Bay men and passed them. I was ahead all the time, tramping a trail with my snowshoes, and keeping the most direct course. Our teacher doctor was in misery. He never dreamed of such horrible conditions. He seemed to take on melancholy, and we were afraid to let him out of our sight for fear of suicide. To make matters worse, provisions began to run short.

We had made a cache on the south side of the Red Deer. Last winter's experience had taught us a degree of caution, but still there were long miles between us and the cache, and the cold was steady, and the whole country from Edmonton to where Innisfail now is situated was as if there was no life in it. Tramp, tramp, and, struggle, and not only the doctor to watch, but now his horse was also playing out, and we had both man and horse to coddle and chirp up, and our rations growing smaller all the time. David and myself would sing and joke and try and laugh off the hardship, but the doctor was solemn and sour and ready to give up. As to our cache across the Red Deer, we had purposely never said anything about this to the doctor. We were not sure of it ourselves; some starving man might have found it, but our greatest fear was the cunning and skill of the omnipresent wolverine. If he had found our cache, and was able to circumvent our precautions, then alas for us.

It had been one of these dark, gloomy days, more or less drift and snow 'squalls, but almost too cold for the latter. The doctor was growing more depressed, and his horse, humor him as we would, showed signs of playing out. Nevertheless, we determined to make an effort, and reach our cache if possible.

It was some time after dark when I, being several miles ahead of my companions, came to the bluff of poplar not far from where we had left our store of provisions. I was greatly assured by not finding tracks of either men or beasts in the vicinity, so, taking off my snowshoes, I climbed down the precipice, on the slope of which stood the tree from which, extending away out over the bank by the use of another tree, we had hung the leather bag containing our precious store of provisions, and there, to my' great joy, it hung, just as we had left it. As I could not very well take it down alone, I climbed back up, and now, greatly encouraged, went to work making camp. This I did, so far as I could without an axe, and busied myself breaking down and carrying in the dry poplars, all I could manage in this way. I had shovelled away the snow with my snowshoe, and built a huge fire, and broken off several armfuls of frozen' willows with which to floor our camp, and packed in a lot of wood, and still my party did not show up. But presently I heard a horse neigh, and out of the darkness my little Bob trotted in. I very soon unhitched him and turned him loose to paw snow and forage for food. Then up came my brother with his string of horses and sleds, and the first question was, "Well?" and I said, "All right," and he was thankful.

We turned his horses loose and got our axes out and went to work in real earnest to cut wood and finish making camp, and as yet there was no sign of the doctor; so I started on the back trail, and on a hard run, for we were very anxious about our companion. I must have run some three or four miles when I heard his voice, and said to myself, "Thank God, he is still alive," and in due time we were all in camp. Up to this we had not mentioned to the doctor anything about our cache, and the gloom upon his face was heavy to behold, as he sat down before the fire without uttering a word. Then David and I slipped away into the night and took down our bag of provisions and carried it into camp, and the doctor was so absorbed in his own misery that he saw us not, neither the strange bag that had come into our' camp. There he sat, gloomily looking into the fire.

We melted snow and got our kettles boiling, and now we got out some of the mountain fort food and placed it to thaw before the fire. All of a sudden, the doctor noticed the spread, and then he woke up and began to take a fresh interest in life. Where did these provisions come from? When we told him, "Why, you never said a word about this." We told him we were not sure of finding it; the wolverine and the wandering Indian might have discovered them. But now we were better equipped than when we left Edmonton—splendid dried meat, soft, fat pemmican, buffalo tongues, some nicely cooked bread foods our good wives had put up for us—and it was wonderful how that Englishman. and Londoner came to and revived and became almost hilarious around that campfire. True, there was no trail; the snow and drifts were deep and difficult; the distance was not yet half accomplished; but now his stomach was satisfied, and thus his whole being was rejoicing. I suppose all men are more or less susceptible in this respect, but the ordinary Englishman is, in my experience, at the top of this sort of susceptibility. Undoubtedly, through his stomach is the shortest way to his heart and head. And now, with renewed vigor, we pursued our journey through the drifts.


 


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