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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XXX
An unexpected addition to our larder—Help Hudson's Bay men—Travel through great herds of buffalo—Kill a whole herd of buffalo at one run—Buy unique "silk robe" from Stoney Indian.


When we were about midway between what is now Innisfail and Bowden, there came an addition to our larder which very much comforted us and helped out our commissary. This windfall came to us under peculiar circumstances. When at Edmonton my brother found his dog, which had been lost for some time. The canine was a stumpy- tailed eccentric, a very peculiar-looking brute at best; but now, when found, he was but a shocking mass of skin and bone, and on this trip, with our provisions running short, he had shared, and had been very content to quietly follow in the distance. This morning as I was tramping ahead on my snowshoes, a fine bunch of buffalo cows and calves came careering across our course at right angles. These were a splendid sight as the strong leaders plunged into the drifts and made the snow fly in all directions, and then the weaker and younger, clinging to the trail and following up as fast as possible. Suddenly, as I neared the track of the buffalo, I heard a yelp at my heels, and our bobtailed pile of bones jumped past me and lunged on through the snow on to the smashed-up trail of the herd, and then, with renewed speed, he bounded away on this. Near by there was a small creek, the banks of its valley at this point being about a thousand feet across. The buffalo had rushed down into the valley, and the dog had disappeared after them. I was expecting to see him returning from his futile chase, blown and spent, when all of a sudden I heard a furious barking across the valley. Running out to where I could see, I found that our dog had brought two husky calves to bay, and was holding them as if hypnotized by his furious jumping and barking as he sprang from one to the other.

By this time David came up, and as the doctor was near, we waited until he came, and then we gave him charge of our horses, bringing up any we thought might want to run, for him to hold. Then we ran across the valley and climbed the hill under cover as much as we could. As we had no rifles with us we were dependent upon our revolvers. The calves were in splendid condition, both big and fat. From behind the brow of the hill I took sight with my six-shooter; but David yelled, "Don't. You will hit my dog." And 'again and again, just as I wanted to shoot, he would pull my coat, or say, "Don't you kill my dog." I was waxing warm and just about to shoot, whether or not, when both calves suddenly started on the quick jump and took the back trail, and our dog was pounding after them for all he was worth.

David jumped away on his snowshoes down the hill, following in the run, and I after him. When about two-thirds down, he tripped on one of the big chunks of solid drift the buffalo herd had broken up in their rush, and over he went, head first into the loose snow, legs and feet up and snowshoes in mid-air.

It was a very funny sight, and I was exploding with laughter, which helped me also to take a header; for I had not gone a rod past my brother when down I came with full force, and was embedded in the snow. I was up about as quick as David, and when I had got the snow out of my eyes and was busy taking it out of my mouth and ears, etc., I saw the calves rushing up the other hill, straight for the doctor. There he stood, holding on to the horses, and the two stout young buffalo dashing right at him, and our dog following up as fast as he could. The whole scene was exceedingly funny. The doctor was in a terrible quandary as to what to do. The buffalo and the dog were coining right at him; then those horses, he dare not let them go; and here was a wall of deep snow all around him.

As soon as I got the snow out of my mouth I shouted to him, "Doctor," and as if he expected great relief from my call, he shouted back, "Yes." Again I shouted, "Doctor, stop those buffalo! stop those buffalo!" And now the doctor was in a greater dilemma than ever. How could he stop those buffalo? The doctor's consternation and bewilderment, the dog's sudden resurrection, the unexpected chase, were all so exceedingly humorous that both David and I could hardly run with amusement.

Just then the plucky dog came and caught one of the calves by his leg, and being helped by the broken and deep snow, pulled him down, and I came up and grabbed the other leg, and there we held the big fellow. Now David came up and pounced down on his shoulders and head. When we had taken breath, and the other calf had again doubled on his track and was now following the herd away, we cut the throat of our prey, and were glad of this windfall of fine fresh meat, secured, as it had been, without our firing a shot. Of course, from thence on the dog was more than ever one of us, and this incident and the delicious meat of our hunt did much to cheer up and bring back to a fresh interest in this life our English Londoner.

Two days after this, as we were lunching, the Hudson's Bay men came up to us. They had run short of food and were pressing on, but when they came to where we had killed, they travelled almost night and day to come up to us for relief. We were able to give them both fresh and dried provisions, and, having this, they again dropped behind. When within some forty miles of our fort, the doctor's horse completely played out, and we left him on the road. The snow had lessened, and there was plenty of grass, and we hoped he would recuperate, which, after a few days, he did, and this was a very strong evidence as to the nutritious grasses of this Southern country. A long, hard trip through deep snow and heavy drifts, and in poor condition to start with, and now we leave this horse on the plains in the month of January, and he lives and is able to come on in after a few days rest in the big, wide, open country, feeding on this grass.

When within twenty miles of home, we came into buffalo numerous and in splendid condition. We travelled through great herds, and were glad, for, if we hurried up, we would be able to come out at once and kill and store away all the meat needed for the rest of the winter. Moreover, the Indians in our vicinity would make dry provisions, which we could trade and make pemmican out of for summer food, both at home and for travelling purposes.

We found our people well, and at once we started out on a hunt, and the very first afternoon hauled in several carcasses from within four miles of our fort. Then the next day we went across the river and into camp for regular hunting work. I had noticed that my brother was taking advantage of my pick of the herd whenever it so happened that we ran together. He had at this time the fastest horse, and when we charged, his method was to keep close to my side until he saw the direction of my run; then he would push his horse ahead and kill the best. To-day the ground and herds were favorable to my having my own pick. There was a round hill in front of the buffalo, and I knew this would in all probability split the herd. There were four of us to run—a Hudson's Bay officer who, though a native of the Red River Valley, would now for the first time participate in a buffalo run; a Stoney Indian, David and myself.

When we dashed in I looked the herd over, and saw a few fine farrow cows running together. Keeping my eye on them, I pressed my horse towards the other side of the herd, and, as I had anticipated, the hill split the bunch, and I soon had my friends rushing the main body on one side of the hill while I took the other side after the fat cows. Of these I killed four, one right after the other, in a very short distance, and was busy placing the last one ready for skinning when my brother rode up, and noting the quality of animals as he helped me to put them right, said, "Why, where did you find these?" I told him I had found them by looking over the herd.

Then we went to look for our Hudson's Bay friend, and when we found him his face was all aflame with excitement. Said lie, "Say, what is the matter with my gun?" He had fired the sixteen shots, and then bent the lever of the rifle in his excitement. "Where is your kill?" we casually enquired. "Oh, I must have a great many lying around," was the answer, but when we went with him to look there was not even a wounded animal to be found anywhere. This was most amazing to our tenderfoot hunter. He had fired sixteen shots, but his experience had been like many another man's, so we told him by way of comfort.

Where we were was splendid' ground for running, and we planned to bring buffalo from farther up the valley to this spot to run them on, if possible. In this we were successful, and our Hudson's Bay officer saw for the first time the "bringing in" of the wild cattle. In a couple of days we had loaded the sleds we had with us, and while our men took the meat to the fort we moved down in the valley and made camp in a new place, and again went on with our hunt. Here, in one of the runs, I had a close shave from a bad fall. Just as we were about to charge the herd, the Stoney Indian said to me, "Here, John, ride my horse." As there was not time to change saddles, I jumped on his horse just as he was, and away we rushed after the herd. There was one real good fat animal in the bunch, and I pressed the splendid little fellow under me after her. Then she jumped down a bank, and my horse jumped after her. In doing this the saddle girths snapped, and for a moment I was hanging on the horse's neck. Then I got back into my place on the horse, and had to run, to kill, and also to keep saddle and cloth on the horse with me. However, in a very few minutes I had killed the cow and kept everything together, and my Stoney, who had watched the run, complimented me on my horsemanship as well as on my hunting skill. My brother had made a good kill farther up, and having butchered our animals and protected the meat as much as we could from the wolves, we again moved our camp farther down the valley to a spot which is now on the McDougall Orphan- age and Training School claim.

The next day we made a big hunt and were kept busy on into the night skinning and cutting up our game. It was here, while in this camp, that I had the experience of being instrumental in drowning a fine herd of buffalo. I was running them on the flat when my horse slipped on a hard, shelving piece of drift, and we both rolled and tumbled far, so that before we (that is, the horse and man and gun) were together again, some time had elapsed before we caught up to the fast-moving herd. These were now near the river, and when I charged them they jumped the bank. I had barely time to pick and shoot one when my herd had slid out on the smooth ice and into a deep hole in the current, from which 'there was no way of escaping.

I climbed the steep hank, and in sorrow watched these wild cattle drown, as, one by one, they turned over and floated up against the ice of the river. I stood as one convicted in the very act of this immense slaughter. There would be sixty or seventy in the herd, but as it would be both dangerous and disagreeable to bother with them, we left the lot to freeze in and become the food and profit of a band of Sarcees, who came along later in the season and chopped them out. Many a time, in camp and home, my old friend, Chief Cheneka, would chide me for thus killing buffalo by the bunch. He would say, "I have killed many buffalo, but never more than five or six at once; and here comes John, who forever preaches economy and thrift, and he killed a whole herd at one run."

We remained in this camp and kept on hunting until our men had made several trips to and fro with the sleds, and our storehouses were being well filled with choice meat. It was at this time that I saw the wonderful instinct of the buffalo in crossing an ice-bound river. The ice was very smooth and glassy, and many score jumped the high bank at the mouth of the Ghost River and made to cross the Bow. I sat on my horse and thought that they would balk at the smooth ice; hut, to my great astonishment, the wise animals bunched to the centre, and In a packed, dense mass, went skating and sliding across the smooth ice to the other bank without a tumble. They braced each other across the hundred yards or more of glassy ice, and went on the run up the other bank as if this was a common experience in their history, and again I said to myself, "How wonderful is instinct."

Having secured several thousands of pounds of splendid fresh meat, my next move was to put up a log schoolhouse and start our new teacher at work. In three or four days we had the first school in all this country south of Edmonton in fair running order.

This accomplished, and learning that a goodly number of my people were scattered in' camps north and east and south of us, and busy gathering robes and making provisions, as well as doing some timber trapping, I started out on horseback alone and paid these what might be called a pastoral visit. I found them in camps of from ten to fifteen and twenty lodges, and all very glad to see me. I spent from two to three days in each camp, holding religious services and giving lectures on the coming changes in government, and settlement, and general civilization.

My whole equipment on this trip was a blanket and a little copy of the New Testament and my Cree hymn book. I always found a number of newly dressed robes arranged for me to use in the lodges I made my home in. The kindness and real genuine hospitality of these people was most refreshing, and the intense interest in our gatherings was encouraging. In the most northerly camp I visited on this trip I stumbled on a unique find in the shape of a "silk robe," a genuine freak in nature. This animal had been killed a few days before my coming, and now the skin was in parchment shape and arranged at the back of my seat in this lodge. When an opportune time came I asked mine host as to the killing, and also if he had promised the robe to anyone. When I found that I was the first on the spot I told him that I wanted to purchase this robe, and he answered, "Yes, you can have it." "How much do you want for it?" was my answer. Then he conferred with his wife, and she, speaking in Stoney, told him to ask six skins for the robe.

At this time an ordinary head and tail dressed robe was priced at three skins. I understood what she said, and immediately told them that I was quite willing to give them thirty skins for the hide. They were astonished at this, and also overjoyed at my offer. I told the Indian the next time he came into the fort I would pay him the thirty skins, and his good wife smiled at the prospect of a new blanket and some strouds and cotton prints, etc. This Indian told me some time afterwards that when he went into the fort the Hudson's Bay trader wanted to know of him why he had let me have the robe, and said he would have paid very much more for it. "How much would you have given me for it?" enquired the Indian. The trader answered, "Six skins," and the Indian said, "Well, perhaps you might have given me that much, but I question." Then the Indian told the trader that I had given him thirty skins, and no more was said.

When I left that camp I had this parchment robe carefully packed and tied to my saddle, and, reaching home, Mrs. McDougall had, it dressed by an Indian woman who was an expert in such work. To-day, 'if we had not prized and kept this robe, though living among buffalo for twenty years and handling and trading many robes, we would be absolutely without one. However, my wife has hung on to our silk robe, and when I see it, I also see the lodges among the Douglas firs on the foothill slope, and all the wild and strange life of the winter of 1874-5 comes to me even as if it was but now; and those Indian people, men and women, splendid folks, genuine and true—Jacob and Cherieka and Bear's Paw and Hector Nimrod, the man who killed this animal with this beautiful covering. They have gone on, and we sorrowed for them, and yet we remain.


 


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