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Pathfinding on Plain and Prairie
Chapter IX
Our great camp a study of native types—I attend a "wolf feast"—A disgusting orgie—Paul and I start for home—Our horses stampede—Difficult tracking— Enormous herd of buffalo—Home again and all well —Party of half-breeds from the Red River settlement at our Mission—Father returns, bringing a brother and sister from Ontario.

Is two or three days our camp grew immensely, and many distinct types of men were at hand for one to study and become acquainted with. The absorbing theme was the approaching festival. For this warriors were preparing, and many devotees were praying; for this every conjurer in the camp was making medicine, and day and night the tapping of drums and the intoning of religious songs went on. Morning and evening we also sang our hymns and held our services, and were ardently studying this new strange life—every day acquiring a better grip of the language and beginning to waken up to the largeness of its vocabulary.

One day I was invited to a "wolf feast." Being a learner I went, and was both shocked and amused at what I saw. About two dozen sat around in the large buffalo lodge, and before each one a big wooden dish of thick soup was placed. This soup was made by boiling slices of fat buffalo meat and wild lily roots together. Neither Maskepetoon nor myself took part. When each guest was served an old medicine- man began to chant in an unknown tongue, accompanying himself by swinging his rattles. By and by all who were to partake joined in the song of blessing. This over, each one drew his big bowl to him and at a signal put both hands into the hot soup, and feeling all through it for chunks of meat, pulled these to pieces and then began to cram the contents of the dish down his throat. While doing this, each one made a noise like the growling of a wolf. And now the race was fast and furious as to who should soonest swallow all that was given to him. The growling and snarling and gulping was terrible, and I was glad when it was over and one and another turned his wooden dish over. I had seen a wolf feast, but, as I told my friend the old Chief, I did not wish to see another. It was almost as nauseating as a drunken carousal amongst the cultured white men in the east! I noticed that it was only a certain class of these pagan men who thus brutalized themselves—that even in those early days the larger percentage of the Indians held aloof from such beastly orgies. Muddy Bull, mine host, laughed when I told him what I had seen, and said that only a few of his people ever thus disgraced themselves.

While the camp was all excitement in preparation for the annual festival, word was brought in that the buffalo had gone into the north between us and the Mission. This made it possible for war parties to go north also; and from what I heard in camp I began to be anxious about our folk at home. Finally I conferred with Maskepetoon and he said that it might be better for me to go in to the Mission. So I left the oxen and carts with Muddy Bull, held an evening service with our people, and then as darkness was coming on one night Paul and I left the large camp and took our course northward.

We went out in the dark because signs of the enemy had been noted, and as our party was small we did not want to be seen by those hostile to us. Steadily and in silence we rode, taking a straight course for Victoria. Some time after midnight we stopped on a hill to rest our horses. We had one horse packed with dried provisions, stored in two large saddle-bags, and unpacking and unsaddling I tied the end of the lariat which was on my horse's neck to these saddle-bags, and with my gun at hand stretched myself beside them, while our horses fed around us. The night was very cloudy and dark, and both Paul and I dozed. Suddenly our horses stampeded and made back towards the camp. Seizing our guns we ran after them, but when we could not hear the sound of their hoofs any longer we sat down and waited for daylight. Whether it was hostiles or wolves or buffalo which had stampeded our horses we could not tell; there was nothing to do but wait for daylight, and be ready for anything that might turn up in the meantime. So we sat in silence and in profound darkness, for the clouds had thickened. Soon the rain came down, and in a very short time we were completely drenched. Several times there were noises near us, but these came from buffalo who were on the move past. After what appeared an interminable time, morning broke dark and cloudy, and we began a search for our horses.

As the day grew lighter we found that great herds of buffalo had passed through the country, and it seemed as if every inch of ground was tracked up. The grass was cropped close, and for hours we walked to and fro, never far from where the last sound of our flying steeds had come. At last I caught sight of a buffalo chip which had been broken by something dragging over it, and then I found another, and concluded that my horse was dragging the saddle-bags behind him in his flight.

I signalled to Paul, and he, after examining this clue, came to the same conclusion, and slowly we followed this our only sign. Slowly from one buffalo chip to another we travelled, and when baffled one would stay with the last trace and the other go on and look for another, and finding this we continued our anxious search until about noon, when we came upon all but one of our horses. As my saddle-horse was still fast to the saddle-bags, the first thing we did was to take out some dried meat to appease our ravenous appetites. Then we retraced our way to the place we had stayed during the night. Finding our outfit intact, we saddled up and continued our journey, hoping that the one stray horse would be found later by some friendly hunters. This actually did take place, for some months later I found the horse at Edmonton, to which place he had been brought by some French half-breeds who had recognized him.

Now once more we were on our journey north. During the afternoon I had a revelation given me as to the number and nomadic character of the buffalo. I had by this time spent three years on the plains in the buffalo country, had seen great herds of these wild cattle, and thought I knew something about them. My food had consisted almost altogether of their meat. My bed, travelling or at home, was over and under their robes. But that afternoon, as we steadily trotted northward across country. and ever and anon broke into a canter, I saw more buffalo than I had ever dreamed of before. The woods and plains were full of them. During the afternoon we came to a large round plain, perhaps ten miles across, and as I sat my horse on the summit of a knoll looking over this plain, it did not seem possible to pack another buffalo into the space. The whole prairie was one dense mass, and as Paul and I rode around this large herd I could not but feel that my ideas concerning buffalo and the capability of this country to sustain them were very much enlarged. I had in the three years seen hundreds of thousands of buffalo, had travelled thousands of miles over new trails, but I had seen only a small number of the great herds, and but a very small portion of the great North-West. Truly these were God's cattle upon a thousand hills, and truly this greater Canada is an immense country.

On we jogged, early and late, watching our horses carefully and taking extreme precaution against surprise. Nothing, however, occurred to disturb us, and by the evening of the third day we were in sight of home, and could see our loved ones moving in and out around the Mission premises.

Crossing the big river we found all well and delighted to have us home again. We had been away a little over a month, and as yet there was no word from father or the east country. Our isolation during those early years was complete if not "splendid." We were in a big world, but it was distinct from the ordinary. No mails or telegrams disturbed its continuous monotony —and yet our life was never really monotonous. The very bigness of our isolation made the life unique and strange, and the constant watchfulness against surprise and danger seemed to give it zest. Then the struggle for food kept us constantly busy.

One day, shortly after our return, we formed a party and made a flying horseback visit to the sister Mission at Whitefish Lake, and came back on the jump; my wife and sister being excellent horse-women, and a sixty-mile canter a common experience. In our party we had Mr. George Flett and wife. Mr. Flett at that time was post-trader for the Hudson's Bay Company. Later on he became a successful missionary in the Presbyterian Church.

Settling down for a little on our return, we went to work cutting hay. Those were the days when men swung the scythe, and muscle and wind told on the unmeasured and unfenced hay-fields of the Saskatchewan. Hard work it was from early morn until evening; but we cut a good bit of hay, and had it stacked by the time father came home.

In the meantime we were surprised and delighted by the arrival of a colony of some twenty-five or thirty families of English half- breeds, who had transplanted themselves from the valleys of the Red and Assiniboine rivers to this of the Saskatchewan. I well remember the first Sunday service after their arrival, how abashed I felt in the presence of these people who could speak both English and Cree, and some of whom had had special advantages in education. But they listened attentively to my preaching in the mother-tongue, and were regular in attendance upon all our services. Their presence, too, made us feel that we were stronger and more able to withstand the enemy than we had been. Many of these people made good neighbors, and all were kindly disposed to the Mission and its work.

In the Red River country their bane had been the intoxicating cup. Here, far from the temptation, they hoped to better their circumstances. These also were buffalo people, and this was another consideration leading to their removal west. Immediately these people went to work to put up houses in the valley to the east of the Mission. I gave them to understand that the Indians desired the land to the west. It did is good to see these humble homes being erected beside us. Mother and wife and sisters all rejoiced that in a measure our loneliness was past; that a semi-civilization at least had come to us.

Sometime in August we heard that father and party were not more than three days away, and with grateful heart I saddled up and set forth to meet them, which I did about fifty miles down the trail. Father had with him my brother David and sister Eliza. These we had left in Ontario five years before, mere boy and girl, but now they had grown into young manhood and young womanhood, and the long trip across the plains had done them a vast amount of good. My sister was rather astonished to meet her eldest brother clad as he was in leather and with long hair curling on his shoulders, but this was the western fashion, and anything else would have been singular at that time and amid those scenes.

Within a couple of days we were once more a united family and mother's joy was full. I was particularly pleased to note the manner of both my sister and brother towards my wife. The fact of her being a native did not in anywise affect the kindliness of their conduct towards her, for which I was very thankful.


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