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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XV
David and I visit Lao la Biche—High-priced seed wheat —Our party sets out for Pigeon Lake—Old Joseph --Paul Chian—Samson—Our larder depleted— We organize a hunt—Precarious living—Old Paul proves himself a skilful guide—Samson tells of a tragic murder by Blackfeet—We move cautiously—Broiled owlets as a delicacy—I shoot an elk—Little Paul's flint-lock hangs fire—Samson's brilliant hunting feats —Feasting on antlers.

JUST before the winter was breaking up, my brother David and myself made a trip to Lac la Biche to try if we could procure some seed wheat. The Roman Catholic priest was the only person who had any to dispose of, and we traded a few bushels from him, giving him pemmican pound for pound. Very dear wheat that, costing us, independent of freight, at least ten cents per pound, besides a two hundred mile tramp to get it. But we needed it, and it was good grain. The reader will notice that here was wheat grown eight hundred miles west of the Red River, and one hundred miles north of the North Saskatchewan.

The spring was now upon us, the Indians were coming in in large numbers, and the time was at hand for our going back to Pigeon Lake in accordance with our promise to the Crees and Stonies. Therefore our small party, consisting of my wife and young child, an elderly widow and her boy of some seven or eight years, and Mark and myself, bade the rest of the Mission party good-bye, and crossing the Saskatchewan just before the ice broke up, turned our faces westward on the southern trail. As food was limited, and our means of transport by no means large, we hunted on our way as much as possible, saving what dried provisions we had for future use. Ducks and rabbits formed the principal part of our fare. In due time we were at the end of the cart-road, and then packing the rest of the way we came to the new Mission, and found some Indians there already waiting for us.

Among these were old Joseph and Paul Chian, the latter a French half-breed, but a staunch Protestant. The readers of "SADDLE, SLED AND SNOWSHOE" will remember Joseph as a consistent Sabbatarian and a really plucky fellow. Paul but now comes on the scene of our narrative. He was a true man, and having embraced Christianity and espoused Protestantism, was invaluable to me. These and others heartily welcomed us, and our daily meetings were seasons of blessing.

Camp after camp came in, mountain and wood Stonies and Crees—pagans and Christians—ours was a truly cosmopolitan gathering. Gambling and conjuring, heathen feasts and our own singing and preaching and praying were interchanging exercises of day and night. When I was not holding meetings or attending councils I was hunting or fishing, or trying to garden; but as to the latter, our means were limited and seeds few.

Among the wood Crees who came to us for the first time was one called Samson. He was old Paul's son-in-law, and he and I became fast friends from the first. There was an instinctive understanding between us.

By the middle of May our nomadic congregation was scattering to the four winds. We had done what we could in sowing the seeds of truth and righteousness, as we understood it, though we were but babes ourselves in this great matter. All we could do was to leave our disappearing congregation to the Lord.

In the meantime, as provisions were low, we concluded to pitch away on a hunting expedition, some six or seven lodges accompanying us on the trip. In our party were old Paul and Samson. As ours was what might be called a wood-hunt, it would not be practicable to go in large parties; for the reason that the food supply would be a difficulty. Drying some fish to start with, we left the lake and struck eastward across Battle River, below where our present Mission is situated. Though we were constantly on guard, day and night, yet we did not apprehend that the enemy were near, knowing that the buffalo were far out on the plains and that this was not the usual season for war parties.

Our living for the first week or two was very precarious. We had with us my first cow, one I had traded from old Joseph. As there was no one left at the lake, we had to take her along with us; but as she gave no milk she was only a care and burden to the party. Rabbits, ducks, geese, owls, hawks, bear, beaver, badger, porcupine, skunk—there was certain variety in our bill of fare, but there was no certain quantity of it. Sometimes we were filled, and oftentimes we were empty, not knowing when or how we should get our next meal. Our mode of transport was on horseback or on foot. As yet there were no cart or waggon roads in or out of the Pigeon Lake country. Old Paul, who was an invalid and could move only with difficulty because of some spinal trouble, but who knew that part of the country as other men knew their quarter-sections, sat on his horse and led the way. Part of our able-bodied hunters scouted along the line of march, while the others struck out on either hand in search of game. Our whole camp, as to food supply, was communistic—we shared alike.

Weather permitting and provisions allowing it, we generally held two services in the day. In the early morn, while the dew was on the grass, we sang our hymns and knelt together in prayer. And in the evening in camp, when the hunters had come in and our horses were picketed or driven close and hobbled, again we met. I would read a few verses and comment on them, and with hymn and prayer we closed the day. And old Paul, life-long warrior and scout and hunter, what delightful sites he chose for our camp! Security, utility and beauty were sure to harmonize in his selection. Beside rippling stream or glistening lakelet, with growing grass and budding flowers and leafy foliage, with Mother Nature's breath full and fragrant of early summer, how like hallowed sanctuaries those camping spots were! Verily God blessed us as we journeyed, and souls were born again.

Samson and I were inseparable in those days. I wanted to be the friend of all, but I could not help being his friend. We became brothers in the regular native style, and cemented a bond which continues unto this day.

Soon after we crossed the Battle River, one beautiful morning, bright and early, Samson and old Paul's son, whom we called "little Paul," and myself left our camp to come slowly on, while we set out on a scouting and hunting trip in advance. Steadily we jogged over hill and plain, through a lovely park-like country, Sam- on quietly regaling us with hunting and war exploits. On the brow of a mossy knoll, which still showed the travois markings which proved it to have been an old Blackfoot trail, Samson paused, and pointing to a spot just in front of us said: "Right here one of the bravest of our men was slain. Crowds were in ambush for him, and, knowing the man, did not give him the slightest chance to resist. He was a Mountain Stony and an old friend of mine. He was one of that kind who know no fear. Men or beasts, it was all the same. Here lie died, and the Blackfeet say that while they killed him he smiled upon them. He was one of those who listened to the first praying men." As we rode along past the spot where the brave man had died, one could not help but grip his gun and keep a sharp look-out, for the same conditions still governed this whole country.

As we had set out without a mouthful of provision, and now had ridden some hours, I began to feel hungry. Fortunately about noon we came athwart an owl's nest, one of the largest kind, and though it was up in the top of a tall tree, we could see that the owlets were large. Little Paul climbed the tree and brought them down. There was one apiece, and in a very little time they were roasting on willow "broiling sticks" before a quick fire. The birds were fat and juicy, and most agreeably eased the pangs of hunger, after which we proceeded with better spirits. Our course was straight out toward the big plains. We did not see any game, nor did we stop to hunt, as Samson desired to travel a certain distance in order to determine if possible the presence or non-presence of hostile camps.

Late in the evening we camped in a secluded spot. Little Paul drew the load from his flintlock, and putting in small charges of powder and shot, killed some rabbits, which we roasted for our supper. Tethering our horses close, little Paul and I stood guard the first part of the night. After midnight Samson went on guard while we slept, and with the first peep of day he woke us; but before we were fairly astir he said, "If we do not meet during the day, we will meet at this place to-night," and he was away. Little Paul and I saddled up and started out on our own line. We rode quietly, listening intently for a shot from Samson's gun. Presently as the sun was freshly gilding the hills, making millions of crystal dew-drops to reflect his rays, I caught sight of something over the brow of a knoll at the edge of some timber. We cautiously scouted for a closer view, and there before us were two large buck elk feeding on the browse and leaves.

"Now, John, this is your chance," whispered my companion, and alighting from our horses we fastened them and crawled towards the elk. When we could see them plainly, we found that one was much larger than the other, and little Paul said to me, "You fire at the big fellow, and I will take the other." We were now at the end of our cover, and rising up I let drive at the larger of the two. But when little Paul attempted to shoot, his treacherous old flint-lock hung fire, and both man and beast had moved before it went off. Both elk jumped into the thicket, and reloading we rushed in after them. We soon came upon mine, still standing, but badly hurt. I let him have another shot, and this finished him. The other was gone on the jump through the woods.

My companion and I straightened the dead elk for skinning, and then went for our horses. Having done this we began to skin and cut up our game, of course keeping watch all the time. Samson's blood-curdling facts, related so recently, made us more than ordinarily watchful, for we knew that our three shots fired in quick succession would be heard a long way in the clear morning air.

We had scarcely got started at the work of skinning the elk, when the uneasiness of our horses indicated some movement in sight. We seized our guns and sprang to see what it was, when to our delight Samson rode up. "Well. what luck?" he asked. We showed him our "kill," and told him of the other elk. He said he had killed a large jumping deer, but that hearing our shots he had galloped to see what was the matter. "And now I am here," he added, "I will leave my horse with you and go on the track of the elk." Saying which, away he sprang into the thicket oil the trail of the flying beast.

We were not half through with our task when we heard a shot, and presently Samson was back with us to report the death of the other elk. "Now," said he, "the carcase is about half way from here to where my deer lies. Let us pack this one over to his comrade, and then have our breakfast, after which we can cache the meat of the three animals and take the hides and part of the meat and strike back to camp."

As he was the captain of our hunt this was done. We had breakfast on elk horn and bits of tripe and the marrow of the shank bones. Then we made a temporary staging in the shade and packed our meat on it, taking care to secure it against the tireless wolverine. We also covered the meat with boughs laden with fresh leaves, and then with a hide on each saddle and a supply of meat we started back and found our people camped not far from where we had fared so sumptuously the day before on broiled owlets.

The next day, while our camp moved steadily out, little Paul led a party of one from each lodge to bring in the meat from our cache. Samson went the other way on foot into a dense hill of timber which was situate vest of us, and in the evening after we had camped he came in with the nose of a moose and some other titbits on his back. We were now beginning to live 1 The next day I went with Samson for the meat of the moose. We found this in a forest on the bank of a beautiful fresh-water lake. We lunched beside the carcase, and when we were through our meal Samson said, "You do not need me to take the meat home. I will take a turn through the timber." The result was that in the evening he brought in another moose nose, this time that of a big buck. Both moose and elk were in the season when their antlers were growing and were covered by a kind of plush or velvet which was considered very good eating. We would cut the antlers from the head and throw them into the fire, when the plush would singe off and each antler point split open in the process of cooking. The portion which split open, and all the skin covering on the antler, were thought good food.

It seemed passing strange that the enormous antlers of both moose and elk should be of but a few months' growth. Nevertheless this was a fact, as on this trip I saw the horns or antlers in various stages of growth, and later on in complete condition.


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