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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter XXXIV
A unique storm—Stock stampede—Half a million buffalo in one herd—Surprised by Plegans.


While on this route between Fort Benton and Sun River we were visited by a most unique storm. I had lived out of doors the most of my life, and had been in and through many storms. However, this one, in certain quality, was at the top in our experience. It was a very hot day, and calm and still. We had started early, and, having made two drives, were now about to unhitch for our second spell when I noticed a strange cloud in the northwest, and saw that this was approaching us rapidly. I shouted to our men to form into corral quickly and unharness as smartly as possible. I had four mules and four horses to unharness myself, and made all the haste I could, and was springing to make the corral as strong as we could by interlocking the wheels of the carts and wagons, when there fell near me a chunk of ice as big as a large hen's egg.

I had seen many hailstorms, all across Eastern Canada and in the North-West, but no such hailstones as this one I held in my hand. Our boys were rounding up the stock to drive them into the corral, when down came another and another of these chunks of ice. I shouted to our men to let the stock go, and for them to take shelter, and in a twinkling we were crouching under our carts and wagons, and the wildest hailstorm I had seen was upon us. The crash and roar was dreadful, and it seemed as if everything exposed must perish.

Very soon the whole valley was covered with ice and water, and the storm was passed, and we looked in vain for a single hoof of stock. I expected to see some dead, but there were none, either dead or alive, in sight anywhere. The furious storm had driven all before it, and here we were, without even a saddle horse. Nearby to us were a lot of Montana freighters, and they were in like predicament. My first thought was to follow the course of the storm, and away I ran, taking up one of my old strides when after the dogs in the North country. All I had with me was my revolver and a light riding bridle. I ran some miles before I came upon any of the stock.

Among the first lot I came to was one of my horses, easy to catch, and, having mounted him, I pushed on, passing several groups of horses and mules and some oxen. When I could not see or track any beyond in that direction, I turned and started gathering up and driving back everything I found towards camp. The first man I met was Kenny, and he and I rounded up the big bunch of promiscuous stock, and bringing these in, we saddled up and regularly organized for the hunt; but it was the afternoon of the third day after the storm before we had all our stock found, and we thought ourselves very fortunate indeed in not losing any. In the meantime the sun had shone out and the roads dried up, and all the earth was fresh and green and happy, just as if there were never any storms to disturb.

On we went, and I very well remember our coming out upon the summit looking down on the Valley of Sun River. Approximately, it would be from twelve to fifteen miles across to the limit of our range of vision on the sister summit, and from fifteen to twenty miles up and down the valley which I could cover with my eye as I surveyed the plain before me.

Immediately opposite to our gentle descent was the annual round-up--cattle and horses and cowmen and dust. As I found out later in the day from Mr. Robert Ford, who was the captain of the roundup, there were over twenty-three thousand head of cattle in the bunch down there at our feet. These were being held for the "cut-out" in a natural corral made by the eccentric windings of the river. This spot on which these twenty-three thousand cattle and horses and men were situated was, in the landscape before me, about as a single fly would be on the ceiling of a large audience room.

Several times in my wanderings I had found myself on the summits of hills much higher than those at Sun River, and commanding a wider expanse, and the whole country was like a tremendous roundup. The cattle of God had gathered upon these spots, and, while what I had seen I knew would be but a small fraction of the whole herd, nevertheless, here were millions. Many times, from hills and range summits, I had seen more than half a million of buffalo at one time, judging of the number of cattle before me and of the shape of the country they were in. As I beheld them that glorious day in 1875, I was abundantly assured that my statement was a very modest estimate.

Passing through the Sun River Settlement, we turned north and again bade good-bye for the year to the evidences of civilization so called, and anything like permanent settlement. Ours once more to face the wilderness, and in every wise to guard against our fellow-men and struggle with Nature and her forces as best we could. We still recognized the necessity of constant vigilance, and as Tom Robinson remained with me, whom my readers will remember as the young Nova Scotian who joined my party in 1874,- and who was developing as a frontiersman, and had proved himself most reliable, we relieved him of any day work and put him on as an extra and constant "night man." From sunset to sunrise he was always on duty. The rest of us travelled and slept when we might, in our clothes, and with our arms forever with us.

We were quite conscious of extra danger on this trip because of the resentment of whiskey traders and adventurers who blamed us for bringing in the police, and also of laying information against some of their people. Threats from these men had come to our ears, and now it was not the Indians of many tribes only, but also with them, the more resentful and debased of the white men, we had to guard against.

Feeling all this, we travelled with great care steadily northward. Every night we made a strong corral with our wagons and carts, and the last thing at night put the most valuable of our stock in there. Then, with early morning, we harnessed up and made, if possible, some miles before breakfast. Sometimes a swamp or a creek bottom would delay us for hours. Then an axle would break, or a felloe split, or a tire roll off. All these things did and would happen, and were as so many delays and trouble.

To travel and lift and work on the steady jump from daylight until dark; then to be under a tense, nervous strain, waking and dreaming and sleeping, all the night, was our regular life. There was nothing for it but to brace up or give up, and as we did not intend to give up, we just braced up and went on. However, I can very well remember that there were times during those young summer days when to me this life was splendid, and old mother earth most glorious.

Now, it was morning, and as I walked beside my team of mules and horses or rode in the saddle on the nigh wheeler, the sun flooded the mountain ranges and made the foothills resplendent, and on herb and grass and blossom the dewdrops glistened and the atmosphere was fresh and fragrant, and I drew it in and filled my lungs and sang. Then care and weariness and a longing for home and loved ones would drop for the time, and as with Nature, around and about and above as well as beneath, my heart was glad. Or it might be that we were now rolling out from our noon spell, which had been full of work as well as refreshing, and as we beheld the immense region we were travelling through, at this time unpeopled, but full of latent possibilities and capable of carrying great populations, I would let my fancy run, and thus I saw the coming in of many peoples and the blending of races and the making of nations, for here were the great United States, and yonder also the great Dominion of Canada.

Here was the splendid room reserved throughout the ages for the giving to man a fresh opportunity of redeeming himself as one worthy of dwelling in such a world as this. Again, it was evening, and the sun was dropping on the mountains. Already the big plains were delicately shaded and slowly darkened. Here and there in spots the foothills were catching haloes of golden light; and even as we watched, these were blotting out, while still the mountain heights were full of glory. Yet this was, like all things material, passing quickly; but oh, the beauty of its passing! Fleecy clouds and snow-clad peaks blending under the concentration of the King's intense gaze thereon. It was as if both sun and earth, as they said "Good-night," truly blushed and gave color to all things seen.

While nooning one day, and still south of the line, there came upon us suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a troop of young Piegans. They saw at once that we were not surprised, for every boy and man in our party had his arms in hand, though the suddenness of their appearing surprised and amazed us because of this consummate ability to take what cover the undulations of the land gave.

It would take any white man I ever knew generations of constant practice to thus be able to approach and not be felt nor 'seen. But here they were, and we acted as if such visitations were common. Being spokesman, I welcomed them to our camp. In numbers they were more than us, and we could see how minutely they were taking stock of our equipment and personnel. As was our invariable custom, we treated them courteously, and before we parted I was much amused to have one of them who, in dress and paints and general appearance, was exceedingly aboriginal, speak to me in regular "Yankee twang."

"I say, boss, when are you going to pull out? Where do you belong? Where are you going to camp to-night?" When I had answered him I ventured to enquire as to where he had learned his English, and he answered that he had been "A-bullwhacking between Benton and Helena."

It was interesting to note how this young Indian was forced to contort his face and work his mouth and voice functions in order to give out the nasal sound he believed was essential to the use of English. In his own tongue he was natural.

Our boys and men were greatly amused to hear English thus spoken, and for many a day we could hear them trying to imitate this young student of a strange language. This visit intensified our vigilance and also qualified our conceit in our frontier craft.


 


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