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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter XVII
Our camp visited by a band of Mountain Stonies—My schooling in the university of frontier life—Back to our Mission again—Limited cuisine—Home-made agricultural implements—We visit Victoria—Off to Fort Canton for Mission supplies—Inquisitive Chippewyans—My eldest sister married to Mr. Hardisty, of the Hudson's Bay Company—The honeymoon trip to Mountain House—Rival sportsmen—Charging a flock of wild geese at full gallop—Return to Pigeon Lake—Our work extending.

WHILE we were near Spotted Lake we fell in with some five or six lodges of Mountain Stonies, who were so overjoyed to see us that they moved over and camped beside us for a time. Among them were the two young fellows who came to our camp at the bend of Battle River during the autumn of 1863, as readers of "SADDLE, SLED AND SNOWSHOE" may remember.

This was our first meeting since that time, and we were naturally pleased. Here was my opportunity as a missionary, and I seized it with eagerness. In the tent, on the hunt, at our services, Sunday and Monday and all the week, we were watching our opportunities and preaching the gospel of peace and good-will, of a present and eternal salvation. What a school to be placed in by the order of God's providence!

For the work I had to do I must acquire an actual knowledge of the country, I must gain the confidence of the people, I must learn their language and mode of life, I must become familiar with their history, their religion, and their idioms of thought; and here amongst these Crees and Stonies, living with them in their own way and in their own country, I was being educated for the work God had in hand for me to do.

A short time ago, in one of the favored cities of older Canada, a prominent lawyer asked me at the close of the service one Sunday morning, "What university did you graduate from, Mr. McDougall?" The largest on earth," I answered; all out of doors, amid the varied experiences of frontier life." "Certainly," said the lawyer, "it was a grand schooling, and you have profited by it." Thus God was training me. My teachers were Samson and Paul, Cree and Stony, Blackfoot and Blood, Piegan and Sarcee, and every Hudson's Bay Company officer and employee, every cultivated traveller and hardy pioneer and wild western empire foundation layer; and along with these the grand pages of the older Bible, as written upon the mountains and plains and forests and streams of this big new country. I was learning every day some needed lesson.

Our Sundays were busy times. When the weather permitted we held three open-air meetings. When it rained we went from lodge to lodge. Mrs. McDougall sang well and rendered effective aid. The Indians generally take to singing, and as some of the translations we used were full of the very pith of the gospel message, their hearts were reached; the men cried out for salvation, and through Jesus found it.
For some two weeks the Stonies remained with us, we doing what we could for them in instruction in religious matters, as also awakening within them a desire for knowledge as to the world and things in general. When they left us to go back to the mountains we began to move northward, and I concluded to leave with Samson what horses of mine were still without loads, and move straight on to the lake, for the time was drawing near when other parties might visit the Mission.

Accordingly we started, travelling as fast as our cow could keep pace. While we had open country we kept the calf on an ordinary travois, but when we came to the woods near Pigeon Lake, we made a narrower one to suit the more limited space of the bridle-path. Mrs. McDougall and our baby, old Maria and her boy, and myself constituted the party. Travelling as we did, we reached the Mission on the fifth day, and were glad to be at home once more. Our little one-roomed house seemed a palace beside the smoky lodge of our pilgrimage.

We found everything as we left it. Apparently we were the first to come in to the Mission, but in a day or two others from the west and north came straggling in, and our work was ready to hand. In a couple of weeks Samson arrived with more dried meat, having killed several elk and moose after we had left him. The reader will be astonished at the amount of meat we got through with, but one must remember that our diet in those days was for the most part of the time "meat straight" or "fish straight," with duck and rabbit for an occasional change. It was one thing or the other; there were no courses at our meals. Not only, however, were we without variety of food, but we were as badly off for a change of dishes. Indeed, our outfit for household purposes was small, and unique of its kind. But our neighbors were even more poorly provided than we. Often when invited to a feast by some successful friend, the shout would come from the door of his lodge, "John, come along and bring your dish with you." And I would take my dish or plate with me as I went.

As we contemplated wintering at this point, I took Samson and went to work making hay. Our implements were of the crudest sort. We had scythes with improvised handles and wooden pitchforks, and when stacking we carried the haycocks in between us on two poles. Samson had never swung a scythe before, and he soon broke his, but fortunately I had a spare one. He was apt, however, and learned quickly. We worked hard and "made hay while the sun shone," and when it rained we went hunting. When we had several good-sized stacks made and strongly fenced, the time was come to journey down to the older Mission, as per arrangement with our Chairman when we left there last spring.

Our migratory people—for here well as preacher were itinerants—had scattered, some for the mountains, others into the northern forests, and quite a few to join the autumn hunt on the plains. And as my wife and I were owners of three wooden carts and three sets of rawhide cart harness, and a few cayuses, we concluded to let old Paul's wife have a cart and horse on shares for this "plain hunt." If the hunt was successful the outfit would bring us some provisions for the coming winter.

I engaged Samson to go with us to Victoria, and when we left the lake old Paul and Samson's wife and children were the only residents of the Mission. Reaching Victoria, I found that father wanted me to take charge of the transports from Whitefish Lake and Victoria Missions and go with these to Fort Canton, to bring from that point the supplies needed for these lissions; it having been arranged that the Hudson's Bay Company should bring these supplies to Canton, but no farther.

The party from the sister Mission joined forces with ours some little distance below Saddle Lake, and we journeyed on as fast as was consistent with conserving the strength of our stock for the return journey. I was glad to find my old friend Peter Erasmus in charge of the carts from Whitefish Lake Mission, and in great harmony and good-fellowship we journeyed eastward. My friend Samson was a decided acquisition on such a trip. He was dead sure on stock, up early and late, and was ever an inspiration to the rest of our Indian drivers. We made long days, and in short time compassed the three hundred and more miles to Fort Carlton.

I camped my party on the north side of the river, at the foot of the high bank of the Saskatchewan, and crossing over I met the Chief Factor, who had just come across the plains from Fort Garry, and who told me that our supplies had not yet reached Canton. This was a disappointment, but I at once asked him to give us Hudson's Bay Company freight instead, and have them bring ours on later, to which he at once acceded. Within an hour of our arrival we were carting H. B. C. freight from their storehouse within the fort to the river bank, and crossing this in a small boat and loading it into our own carts on the north side.

It was while rushing this work that a small party of Chippewyans from the north were looking on as we worked, and speculating as to who I was. Was he a Hudson's Bay Company clerk, a free trader, or a traveller bent on sport?

Who is this fellow, anyway?" was the question which engaged their attention just then. Presently the "Solon" of the party, doubtless wishing to evidence the fact that the East had not a monopoly of wisdom, said, "I will tell you what he is," and stepping up to me he offered to shake hands, and in doing so, turned up the palm of my hand and saw the marks of blisters, for I had been working hard. Seeing the condition of my hand, he turned to his fellows and said, "He is only a common fellow." Like many another man who lives under more favorable conditions, his judgment of men was peculiar.

Early the next day we were on the road westward, and with incidents no more exciting than breaking axles and splitting felloes and snapping dowel-pins and handling balky horses, and in my own case fighting a wretched toothache, we very soon rolled into the valley at Victoria, and were complimented by my father on having made an uncommonly quick trip.

We remained at Victoria until the Hudson's Bay Company brought along father's outfit. Helping in all matters around the Mission kept us busy with hands and head and heart. While we were at Victoria my eldest sister, Eliza, was married to Richard Hardisty, of the Hudson's Bay Company's service, who was then in charge of the Mountain House. Immediately after the marriage they and Nellie, one of my younger sisters, started on their long overland trip to the distant trading-post. Some of us accompanied them out for a few miles, enjoying some good shooting by the way, for the fowl were now starting south. Hardisty and Philip Tait, another Hudson's Bay Company officer, challenged my brother David and myself as to size and quality of our several hunts, and we kept about even up to almost the last minute, when David and I luckily saw a flock of geese light in a shallow swamp at some distance from us. There was no cover whatever to aid our approach, so I said to David, "Let us separate and charge that swamp at full speed from two sides. Perhaps we will bamboozle those geese by so doing." This we proceeded to do, and urging our steeds to full speed, we came upon the birds so suddenly that they did not know what to do. When they rose on David's side he knocked two down; that sent them over to me, and I was equally successful, so that we were thus put four birds ahead of our competitors. This sport gave us a good time in giving our newly-married friends a "send-off" on their honeymoon trip. Away up at the foot of the Rockies, among the wild tribes of the mountains, my sisters were to make their home for a time; but we all had great faith in our new brother, so we wished them a hearty God-speed and returned to Victoria. When the goods came, father helped us all he could, and we soon were on the way back to Pigeon Lake. As I hoped to build a small church, I took with me an English half-breed, Francis Whitford by name, a handy fellow with an axe and saw, to aid in the building operations.

It was now late in September, and we had a house to build for my man, and a stable for a couple of oxen I had secured and for the calf, whose mother we found had committed suicide while we were away! The foolish old thing had started off in search of a mate, and despairing of finding one, went into a miry lake some thirty-five miles from home and there died.

And now that our Mission was permanently established, the Indians came from long distances to sojourn for a little time with us, to attend our meetings and listen to our message. Stonies and Crees and mixed bloods, pagan and Roman Catholic and Protestant, all came to us and were eager to learn. We were busy all day long and on into the night, when by the light of the camp or chimney fire we preached and lectured and sang and prayed, till out of the old life and old faith men and women came into the light of the Gospel and into the life that is born of the kingdom of Christ.


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