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In the days of the Red River Rebellion
Chapter IX
An autumn hunt—Spirit of the pioneer—My friend Susa gets a bath—Our camp entered by a war-party—My brother David's pluck—Best meat in the world—Homeward with loaded carts—We get serious word from the Mission—Father and sisters down with smallpox—A camp of the dead—Arrive at the Mission—Find father recovering—Strict quarantine—Into an ice-hole--Narrow escape from drowning—Mother's heroism in fighting the scourge.

IN the autumn we organized a party to visit the plains for the purpose of making provisions. There may have been from forty to fifty families in our company, and with us went my brother David and some men with an outfit of carts. The whole settlement was interested in our success, as the winter supply of food largely depended upon this move. We were to find buffalo, make provisions out of same, but, above all things, to keep infection, if possible, from our camp. Father said to me, "Don't let the smallpox into your camp, John; if need be, keep it out at the mouth of the gun." There being no law, we had to become a law unto ourselves. Accordingly we organized our party and crossed the big Saskatchewan, and turned our faces south-wards to the plains. Father and Mr. Tait, the Hudson's Bay Company's officer in charge at Victoria, and my youngest sister, Flora, accompanied us on the first stage of the journey, and spent the Sabbath in our camp. Those were times when men gripped each other's hands at parting with the feeling that it might be for the last time on earth, and yet this was done with 'a laugh and a cheer; such is the stuff of which the hardy pioneer is made. If he were not all full of optimism he could not exist; this life demands hope and faith, and only those surcharged with these qualities make true pioneers.

Scouts are sent out in advance and on either flank all day as we move, a full guard is posted at night, and all stock of any value gathered in the corral made by our carts and waggons. These also are encircled in turn by our buffalo-skin lodges. Thus we travelled out across the head-waters of the Vermilion, in sight of Sickness Hill and Birch Lake, on across the Battle River and east of the Nose Hill, and not until many days had elapsed did we find buffalo. Finding these we also found Indians, and it was not without some difficulty that we kept the latter out of our camp. The older and more reasonable acquiesced, but the young warriors were bound to come in, and we had to make them stay out. All this caused us a lot of trouble and constant need of extra caution.

One day an outrider brought me word of seeing an old friend of mine away to one side of our line of march, who was in great trouble and who earnestly desired to see "John." Galloping back in the direction my informant indicated, I found Susa, whom I had known for years, in a terrible condition of mind and body. He was attired in old-time mourning, a filthy robe belted around the waist, and, with the exception of a worn pair of moccasins and breech-cloth, this was all poor Susa had on. His story briefly was: "I am alone, my wife and children and friends are dead." A fine-looking, motherly woman, as I had seen her last, and several beautiful children all gone, camp broken up, and Susa with his one pony as I saw him was all that was left. I condoled with him, and then asked him if he would like to come with me. At this he jumped eagerly, so I sent him to the shore of a lake near our trail, and then went into camp and rummaged a pair of trousers and a shirt and blanket from our little store, and with these and a can of soft soap I returned to Susa. I had him strip off his filthy attire, and with gun and horse go into the lake, and with a plentiful use of soap made him wash and clean not only himself, but horse and gun as well. I kept him in the water a long time, made him swim his horse into the depths, and meanwhile made a fire on the shore and burnt his robe, line, saddle, etc., and then, re-clothing him, took my friend into my own tent. He in turn became hunter and scout and guard and servant and friend. Many a run we had together, and once it came near being Susa's last run, for just as we came up to the buffalo and he was about to pull his old flint-lock, his horse went down and the gun went off, grazing the horse's head and singeing the hair from the side of his own face. Susa pitched on to his head in such a manner that for a little we feared his neck was broken, but presently he came to and after a few days was himself again.

All this trip we had the buffalo in small lots, and only by having good horses and with extra skill did we secure meat. However, the work of making provisions steadily went on, and the cold weather came on also, sometimes in good big samples, and when one is a hundred or two miles away from timber it becomes a serious matter. One evening, coming into camp in advance of our hunting party, I found the camp in a state of excitement, being outnumbered by a war-party of Plain Crees who were already within our corral and in the shelter of the carts, and who without so much as "by your leave" had taken of the wood from our carts and had made a big fire. I stopped their taking any more wood and expostulated with them as to making a fire within our corral, but not knowing who were behind me, they were quite impudent. However, in a little while in came our crowd, and it was a surprise to these Sons of the plain when my brother David jumped from his horse into their midst and kicked in every direction the fire around which they were sitting, and pulling the logs out of the blaze flung them into the frosted grass to smoulder and go out. With rifle in hand he asked them by what right had they thus touched what was not their own. Seeing the stern faces of our party, these high- strung warriors meekly enough pleaded guilty, and then it was my part to step in and tell them we had a spare lodge, large and roomy, and would lend them poles and give them some wood and meat, and if they quietly behaved themselves during the night we would let them go next morning, but we would not let them enter our tents nor visit in our camps. If they did not wish to accept this they might move on right now. It being a bitterly cold night they were glad to accept what I offered, and our party put on a double guard and a special watch over these unwelcome guests. Early next morning they were on their way, and we broke camp and moved farther afield. A day or two afterwards another party attempted to come into our camp, but we met them some distance out and forbade their doing so, and I explained our reasons for thus acting. We did not wish to quarrel with them, but we did not purpose run- fling any risk from infection. They had gone forth from infected camps, and into infected country, and doubtless had stolen infected horses, and we would not let them enter our camp. While I was talking to the crowd I noticed two young braves steal away on the one horse towards our camp. Presently they were on the jump, when I told my brother and one Charles Whitford to bring them back either dead or alive, and in a few minutes Dave had his gun poking into the faces of both, and he and Charles rounded the scamps up and brought them into the camp in short order. I then told the party it was no use discussing this matter. We did not seek a quarrel with them, but we were in dead earnest, so they had better go on; and on they went. Time and time again we had thus to do with these parties who through the years had been our own allies, but now in the presence of the greater enemy, the smallpox, we, because of our families and also carrying out our instructions, had to refuse any relations with them. So, carefully camping always on new ground and scouting in advance, we moved on and out and up even to the Hand Hills, on the bank of the Red Deer, and all the while were falling in with small herds of buffalo and loading up our carts and waggons with dried meat, pemmican, etc. And such dried meat as the flesh of those cows made! Even as I write, my mouth waters for some of it. Never did we wish for bread or vegetables or anything else in the way of food when we had such dried meat as was made in the autumn hunts of the period I am describing. The suns and rains of centuries had produced wonderful grasses, which in turn had produced a quality of meat which from our standpoint had never been surpassed, perhaps never equalled.

As we circled westward and north toward the timber, for everyday admonished us that winter was near, there came to view a scene I have never forgotten. We were on the high lands between Battle River and Red Deer, and about south-east of Buffalo Lake, when the weather cleared and the sky and atmosphere became wonderfully transparent, and presently the mountains appeared in view. We were fully two hundred miles away from them, and yet they seemed near, and I would judge that two hundred miles of the range was in sight. Most gorgeous was the vision, and many were the exclamations of delight and wonder from our party. While almost all were natives, yet many had never seen the mountains until that time. Again I thought of the wonderful future there must be in store for this country through which we were now travelling.

And now our carts were creaking with their loads. Providence had smiled upon us; our party was intact; there was no infection in our camp, and with thankful hearts we began our journey northward and homeward. It behooved us to still continue to avoid both living and dead objects of infection. Remember, we had no doctor, nor yet any medicine to speak of; we had no government to come to the rescue; we were entirely dependent on Providence and on local and very simple and humble remedies. Several cold storms began to hurry us timber- wards. One day we nooned at the bend of the Battle River. All this time no word from the Mission or forts in the north had come to us, though two months and better had elapsed, but as we pulled up the northern side of the valley of the river towards Flag hill, we discovered people away east of us, and hoping these might have news of our friends, a few of our party on horseback bore down on them. They, seeing us coming, formed their carts into a barricade, and fastening their horses came out to meet and stop our charge, for these men at once concluded we were enemies. However, as we approached each other we found they were our friends from Victoria now out on a fresh meat hunt. From these we heard the sad news that the smallpox was in the Mission house, and that two of our sisters were dead and buried and others of the Mission supposed to be dying when this party left; that father had quarantined himself and family from the inside of the stockade and forbade any one to approach the place. These sorrowful tidings quite upset us for the moment, but at once we began to plan to help if possible, and galloping back to our party my brother and Susa started at once with relays of horses to go to father's assistance; they, having had the smallpox, might be considered immune. By travelling night and day it would take them three days to reach the Mission.

Slowly and like a. funeral procession our string of carts and waggons wound up the valley that afternoon. All were quiet, for all were sad. We had hoped when we left the settlement that the worst was over, but now the disease is still awaiting us. Perhaps others by this time were dead, for many days had intervened since our informants had started out. Loved ones whom we had left in youth's bloom and beauty had succumbed to the loathsome disease. One of my little daughters was with her grandparents in this quarantined and, humanly speaking, almost helpless home. How I longed to gallop in with my brother and faithful Susa, but my instructions were, "Keep with your people; save that camp from infection," and I dare not yet leave my post of duty. To break the weight of sorrow on my heart I rode up to "Old John," who with rifle in hand was leading the party, and asked where he intended to camp that night; and he, divining my need, said, On the ridge yonder is a fine little lake. If not already occupied, there is where I want to camp to-night, but you had better ride on carefully and scout." Action was what I needed, and away on up the gentle slopes of the long climb I galloped, keeping a sharp lookout for signs of human presence. David and Susa had already passed to the east of our course, therefore I did not very much dread that side, and keeping a little westerly presently I found tracks of horses and people, not very fresh, yet sufficiently new to make me careful. Then I saw flights of carrion birds, and again I met troops of wolves, and I said, "It is either an abandoned pound or a death camp," and soon I saw the waving earflaps of many lodges. Were all dead or were there any still living? Keeping under cover and well to the windward I scouted nearer and nearer, and as I approached, a desolate and awful scene met my view. This camp of some forty lodges had been stricken with the dread scourge, and the few survivors had taken the horses of the camp and fled; but the mass was here before me, putrid and decayed. I saw that they were either Sarcees or Blackfeet—certainly not Crees, the lodges and travois and saddles being clear indications of this. There they lay in the lodges and outside of them, and the wolves and carrion birds and all manner of wild animals were feasting on human flesh. Of course, for the time being I forgot my own woe in the presence of this great multiplication of woes, and as I sat on my horse and looked upon this fearful scene the tragedy and pathos of it grew upon me. Old men and little children, nursing mothers and suckling babes, the wild, arrogant, impudent warrior, and the gentle native man were all here under the same lash. Having seen all that was necessary in the case, but sufficient to make it impossible for us to camp anywhere near the lake where John had planned, I rode back and reported; then making a big detour to windward, we travelled late into the night to another watering place.

With our heavy loads and heavier hearts the days seemed short and the distance long, but we kept steadily at it, and while watchful and careful and constantly busy, still our thoughts often wandered ahead to the Mission and to our loved ones there. By this time the smaller lakes and creeks were frozen over, and on the hard ground our progress became slower, for if we travelled fast our cart breakage increased and caused more delay. When within some forty-five or fifty miles of the Saskatchewan we met an Indian called "Rabbit," who had just come from the Mission. He told us that another of my sisters was dead, and that father was said to be dying. Hearing this I at once arranged to leave my party and ride on. I took two horses and kept on the steady jump, or as fast as unshod horses could go over frozen, slippery ground. It was coming dusk when I rode down the hill to the river's brink. Almost at once I was seen by my watchful brother-in-law, Hardisty, who ran down with some poles to try the ice on the river, which had but now made fast, and as yet had not been crossed over. With the skill and caution of experience be succeeded by a very circuitous route in reaching my side. We gripped hands as those do who, coming out of big risks, again meet and are unspeakably thankful. The first question was, "How is father?" and with joy I heard the answer, "He is better, he is recovering; I have just come from speaking to him. He has already seen you and is thankful." I tethered my horses in as good a place as I could find for them and crossed with Hardisty, who went on to the Hudson's Bay fort to tell my sister and others of my arrival and of the welfare and success of my party, for all were very anxious concerning us. David and Susa had at once gone into quarantine, for father had kept this UI) most rigidly, and there had been little communication with them.

Telling Hardisty I would be over for the night, I walked on up to the Mission stockade, and as I approached the place some one spoke out of the darkness, "Is that you, John?" I at once recognized father's voice, though it was much weakened by disease. "Yes, father," I answered. "Thank God" came back the quick response, and then the command, "Come no nearer," and for a few minutes in darkness and cold we exchanged experiences and, saying "Good-night," parted. I heard father's short, weak, staggering steps as he returned to the house, then took a look through the gloom to the spot in the garden where with a gentle wave of his hand he had said, "We laid them there," and then turned away on the run across to the fort to be welcomed by my sister and her husband and to once more camp for a night under the shelter of shingles. Hardisty gave me the last eastern news, only two months old, but to me as fresh as this evening's Telegram. I in turn gave him some of our hunting and quarantine episodes, and then we slept.

The next day I succeeded in getting my horses across, and we virtually opened up traffic for the season with the other side of the river. Through the windows I saw mother and sisters and my own little girl, Ruth. David and Susa and I talked over the fence, and amongst us we planned to keep my party still in isolation. I was to return to them, but instead of coming in on the usual road, we were to take the west side of the Egg Lake Creek, and were to camp in the woods on the south side of the river opposite the Mission. There was to be no promiscuous intercourse until we were as sure as we could be that the disease was stamped out. Thus instructed I left on the second day and returned to my party and did as we had planned, for all saw the reasonableness of this and were only too willing to be thus guided. During the day the men that could be spared from guarding camp went across and worked on the houses and stables being made ready for occupancy when the time might come.

And now winter arrived in real earnest. As we hoped, the intense frost helped to cleanse the country of the disease germs, and thankfully we noted that most of this disease had occurred practically out of doors in the fresh air. There were few houses to be disinfected, and Nature herself came to our rescue all over this big land, and the process of cleansing went on as the degree of frost went lower and the fresh canopy of snow fell upon the land. In twenty days it was thought prudent for all of those whose homes had not been entered by disease to return again to them. The lodges were now very cold, and the migration of nearly all my party took place. In the breaking up of camp my responsibility was removed, and once again I was a free man.

The Mission was all this time under strict quarantine. Father would allow no one in or out, but meanwhile was using every measure to induce disinfection. David and Susa and all the household were incessantly at work, burning and cleaning and scouring and making wholesome the old house, but still the pall of isolation was on the place. No meetings or gatherings of any kind were held. At a distance men hailed each other and passed on. One evening Hardisty and I were walking around the Mission stockade, and knowing full well what had gone on inside and about the place, suddenly we determined to break quarantine. Quietly in our moccasined feet we slipped into the kitchen and on into the hail of the home. The inmates were in the dining-room at supper, and before they had noticed us we were beside them, and father gave in and let us have our way, and thus the break was made. What a joyful reunion of friends for months separated under most trying circumstances! The next day being Saturday, we organized a big game of shinty on the ice before the Mission, and announced meeting for Sunday in the church. Hardisty rode one way and I the other to bring the people together, and the satisfaction of all was sublime. The old and the young came to the game on Saturday afternoon, and all took sides, some on skates and others on foot. Away went the ball, and some one "swiped" it across the river under the towering and almost perpendicular bank which cast a deep shade over the ice, and in my rush after the ball I did not see the open hole and swift, silent current until too late. I sheered off, but only to cut through the thin ice, and in I went. I grabbed the stronger ice as I took the plunge feet foremost, and with most vigorous swimming with both legs and one hand I managed to keep from going under. I knew I could not hold out very long, but presently was aware that Hardisty, who had been at the other end of the field, was now stretched out on the ice and was holding his shinty stick to me. This I gripped for life, and felt I was saved from present drowning. It was now my turn to take command, and I called to Charles Whitford to lie down and take Mr. Hardisty by the feet; then I shouted to others to take hold of Charles and pull us out, all of which was done in a minute. I ran off up to the house and changed my clothes, and was in the game again in a little while, but perhaps never in my many glimpses of the possibility of sudden death was I nearer the actual than that afternoon. Once under the ice no power on earth could have saved Inc. We marked that spot and religiously kept away from it during the rest of our play.

The next day, Sunday, was a great day in our history. With hearts and voices we sang the doxology, and the old, old story came new upon our ears and sympathies, and there was general rejoicing amongst all the people in the settlement. We mourned, but not as those without hope. Father had literally buried his own dead. David was with him at the last burial, and could not but give expression to his burden by saying, "Father, it's hard to bury our own dead." Many another one's dead had we handled that season; we were familiar with death, and yet the personal experience of it came hard. Mother had worked like a Trojan, had nursed and watched and mourned up to the last, and then fell into a swoon and utterly collapsed, and for some time her life was despaired of. But now her vigorous constitution had prevailed and she was about again, to our great joy. In. other parts of the country the disease still lingered, and it was thought not wise to travel for a time, so that Christmas and the New Year found us in the vicinity of Victoria. During these holidays we had special meetings and special games, and did what we could to break from out the cloud of woe and sorrow and trouble which had hung over us, in common with so many, during the past months.


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