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On Western Trails in the Early Seventies
Chapter VIII
Cross the Milk River—Down the big Alkali Flat—Meet Father and his Party—Reach Fort Benton—Terrible blizzard— Take shelter at a ranch.


We had crossed the Milk River, and had for some time held in view the Sweet Grass Mountains. We had passed the Rocky Springs, and had gone down the big Alkali Flat. We had crossed the Marias River, and had struck out for where we hoped to find the Pondura Springs, but we had gone a trifle too far west, and noon came and no water. Being anxious as to our stock and ourselves, I rode on in advance of my party and found the country through which we were passing entirely without water.

Thus night fell suddenly; but just before dark I thought I saw the tops of trees which, if so, would denote water. I now began to retrace my way, but night was on me quickly, and I rode and listened. I had seen a few bulls and quite a number of antelope during the afternoon. As I rode back in the night, I looked and listened, but the gallop of a bull, or the bound of an antelope, or the howl of a wolf was all I could hear, and the night was thickening and the smell of an approaching storm was becoming very apparent. I already felt the chill of it; but I kept on, and suddenly checked up my horse because of the flash of a light, which seemed to be right in front of me. This light, as I saw it, seemed to come from the striking of flint with steel, and it might be a war party resting for a little, and someone trying to light his pipe.

So I watched my horse that he did not betray me, and let him move gently on. Again I saw a flash of light. This made me more cautious; but presently I perceived that I was climbing a slope, and now I knew that what I had seen were the flashings of a camp-fire in the distance. These had deceived me; and now from the summit of the hill I could plainly discern the fire.

Was this my party, or some whiskey smuggler, or a war party of Indians?

This was the question I must now solve. I rode on. By this time the approaching storm was chilling the air. I was lightly clad, but did not mind this much. What was the fire which, in the distance, was like a lone star in the thick darkness? Slowly and carefully I approached. Here I started a few bulls; then I stampeded some antelope, who, with a bleat, bounded away. Steadily on I went, now out of sight in the valley, and by and by I began to discern men in the glare of the faint fire of the buffalo chips. When I got near enough to distinguish forms, I counted and watched, and the number tallied with my party. This gave me more confidence, and I drew nearer; and as I was facing the rising wind, I could now hear these men speaking, and soon I heard my father's voice. Then I let my horse out, and soon was within the circle of the little fire. How glad these men were to see me! The Dried Rat was delighted. I told them that I thought I saw the tops of trees as it grew dark, and this made us all hope for both wood and water on the morrow. But now the water of the clouds was beginning to strike our cheeks, and soon it would be both rain and snow, as indicated by the lowering of the temperature around us.

We put up tent in the lee of the wagon. We drove the pins in firmly, and guyed and braced as we best could, and, feeling that the bleak plain and storm would protect us from prowling men, we turned in. However, as the storm grew stronger and the wind became like a hurricane, I felt sure our tent would fall. Father and myself conferred, and we made up our minds to let it come down, and stay where we were, under the blankets, storm or no storm, until daybreak. I was sleeping between father and Dr. Taylor, and I told the doctor to keep covered up and stay quiet; but this he would not do, and as soon as the tent began to collapse he got up. I very foolishly got out also, more to let the doctor see we could not do better than let the tent come down on us. However, he was stubborn, and said it could be made to stay up.

I did what I could; but, seeing it was hopeless in the wind, which was now very violent, and as I was getting wet through, I said, "Doctor, get under your blankets quick; I am going to let this pole go in a minute."

Again lie was stubborn; so I let go and jumped for my blankets, and the doctor saw lie must submit to the inevitable. In the meantime, he got a good soaking, and, while I felt for him, I could not but know it was his own fault, and I also was wet through and chilled because of his stubbornness. The rest of the party had very wisely remained under the bedding, where we all should have stayed.

When dawn came we were a cold lot of men; but the doctor was not only cold, but also glum and silent. Hurriedly we loaded up and made ready and started, the doctor and I in the wagon, our course as straight as I could make it for where I had seen the treetops last evening. On for miles, but not a word out of my fellow-traveller. Silent and solemn he sat beside me all those leagues, and while we had the wind behind us, nevertheless, it was cold. Sure enough, here were the trees, and in due time we looked down upon the valley of the Teton. Soon we were in shelter; very soon we had a great big-wood fire.

In a short time the kettles were on, and the buffalo meat boiling. When the dinner was served, and the fire had done its work, and while we were eating, the doctor opened his mouth and said, "Brother John, I have dined on the stall-fed animals of Old England; I have eaten the Blue Grass beef of Kentucky; I have partaken of the meat which did feed on the shores of Galilee; but this meat which we are now eating beats them all." This was a fact, and this was an evidence of the stimulating force of meat and food.

That night we camped within sound of a cowbell, and were cheered with its music. The next day we reached Fort Benton. This was the head of navigation on the Missouri. Steamers came this far (luring the high water season all the way from St. Louis; ;steam brought freight here, a distance of over 3,000 miles, for three cents a pound, and sometimes less, while we had to pay in the North ten cents for a thousand miles. The difference was altogether in the manner of transport.

Benton was a typical far-Western town in the seventies. Here was a small garrison of United States troops, living in an adobe fort. The use of these troops was to chase "Ingins." You might kill an Indian; so much the better. White men might kill one another, which was often the case, and there was not much fuss made about it. Drinking and gambling and wild life was here rampant and bold. This was the centre of import trade for all the country west and north of here, mining, ranching, furs, robes, etc. Bull-whackers and mule-punchers and cowboys and general roustabouts were here in strong evidence. The big firms who controlled the trade of Montana were I. G. Baker & Co. and T. C. Power & Co.

In the former company were the Conrad brothers, William, Charles and Howard. From all these business men, during the years between 1873 and 1883, until the Canadian Pacific came to us, we received the greatest kindness and uniform courtesy. These men were the pioneers of trade and transport in Montana, and also what is now Southern Alberta. As yet there were no schools nor churches. As a prominent citizen said at that time in my hearing, "Religion and education are at a very low ebb in this country." This was very apparent to us, for during the parts of two days we spent in Fort Benton, I feel sure that I heard more awful blasphemy and foul, obscene talk than I had in ten years on the Saskatchewan; and yet all these men were they who had come out of what is called civilization. If these were the only products of our modern progress, then, for God's sake and humanity's also, give us barbarism. Every man was armed; revolvers and knives and repeating rifles—all were on the person and to hand. The revolting swagger of some of these "savages" was most disgusting.

We soon found that this spot would for some time become our base of supply. We could, by coming to Benton, obtain our necessaries in a 900-mile trip, as against going to Winnipeg or Fort Garry, which would mean from 1,800 to 2,000 miles of a journey. True, coming this way we had more dangerous rivers and a much wilder country to traverse; but the time saved would be to us the vital point. here we were in touch with a stage line west to Helena, and on south to Utah. There had been a telegraph line, but the buffalo had scratched down the poles and carried the wire across the prairie.

It was at this place, on a stormy morning, with a heavy snowfall on, we bade Dr. Taylor, our friend and companion in many tribulations, as also in many pleasant experiences, good-bye. As we struck the trail for the North country and home, he rolled away in the Concord coach and four for the southern and western mountains, to reach home by the Central Pacific. It was truly a wild day when we waved our hands to the Doctor, as he leaned out of the coach window, he to presently reach the railroad and the thronging centres of humanity, and we to return to isolation and extreme pioneering life.

The wind blew the snow with force right into our teeth, as we drove and rode northward over the bleak uplands of Montana. That night we took shelter at a ranch on the Teton, and the proprietor gave us a little 7x9 shack for the night. We had a small chimney fire, and made ourselves as comfortable as. we could. During the evening one of the men to whom the shack was no doubt allotted as a sleeping-place came in and began to "redd up" a bit. Tie swept the little room, and, gathering all the debris and dirt towards the chimney, sent it in to burn. It seems that on the floor were quite a number of cartridges, and, either through ignorance or intent, he sent these into the fireplace with the accumulated dirt.

Presently the small room became the scene of some excitement. Bang! and off went a cartridge, and again another, which made the ashes and dirt fly. As we did not know how many cartridges there were, the monotony of the evening was broken by our watching for the explosions. This frontiersman was an exception in my experience. He was inhospitable. Generally the frontier life made all who came under its influence most hospitable and kind.


 


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