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The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter X - Two Years on the Saskatchewan Prairies


Apparently I was born to rove, and, these stirring events over, I gathered my belongings together and set out for the great prairies of the west. “You are going to have the great sensation of your life,” said a friend as he bade me farewell, and indeed it proved a true prophecy. For the first night alone on the limitless prairie is an experience never to be forgotten by any man of imagination or feeling. But of that anon. I had a few preliminary miles to travel. My outfit consisted of a horse and buggy, two guns, ammunition, a blanket, a few pounds of flour, tea, and salt. My steady horse, well named “Rock,” deserves a word to himself, for a faithful and affectionate companion he proved himself during two lonely years in the wilderness. He was brown and of ordinary height. His chief peculiarities were the depth of his chest and his large belly, excellent features in view of the work in store for him. lie trotted delightfully ten miles an hour, and walked slowly, and was most docile. His eyes were hazel, the most beautiful I have ever seen. With a last look at the white walls of the stone fort where I had spent so many stirring years, I turned my horse’s head towards Winnipeg, a town now getting notorious for its gambling houses and drinking saloons, two of which were kept by outlawed desperadoes from the States. Rowdyism was rampant, there being in the town a great number of youths from Ontario, who came with great expectations, but little inclination to hard work. To send such youths alone to a new country is merely a species of moral murder. The bulk of them never got further than the saloons or “Brown’s Bridge,” where they sat sulkily all day, dangling their legs over the parapet, and surveying their own unprepossessing reflections in the water. These are the men who do harm to a new country by sending home bad accounts of it, when they have really only themselves to blame. Then they become “remittance men,” screwing money out of their people at home. I remember one of these who persuaded the saloon-keeper to write to the long-suffering father telling him his son was dead, and asking him to send on money for the funeral. The father, probably only too glad, forwarded the required sum, thanking the writer for the care he had taken of his late boy. Shortly afterwards another letter from the “late boy ” arrived, denouncing the former communication as fraudulent, and, as usual, asking for money. The father, however, answered curtly, that having buried his son once, he declined now to have anything to do with his ghost.

But to press on with my journey. The old trail followed the left bank of the Assiniboine, passing through level land, with here and 'there cultivated fields and patches of woodland. Portage La Prairie lay sixty miles from town. Beyond it I entered a fine country, low-lying, dotted with lakes and marshes, full of wildfowl, and studded with aspen copses. Here I saw many buffalo skulls dried by age and exposure. At this point the road divided into two, the branches, which were called the north and south trails, becoming one again many miles away beyond Shoal Lake. I took the north branch, which brought me to the Little Saskatchewan River, a clear stream, the western boundary of the province of Manitoba —and of civilisation. A few mounted police are stationed there to intercept all spirituous liquors, which may not be carried beyond this point without a Government “permit.”

Here I entered the void, calm, waveless, prairie-ocean, and felt as never before what it meant to be alone. The evening was beautifully fine; not a breath of wind was stirring; the sky was deeply tinged with gold, and the atmosphere had the light purple hue associated with the sunset hour of a serene harvest or Indian summer day. The last traces of husbandry had been long left behind. Not a glimpse was now to be had of the wooded lands by which I had so long been shut in. The sun appeared a broad flash of glorious crimson light, stretching upwards to the zenith, and reflected on the small lakes, where waterfowl sported and fluttered. In the willow bushes and aspen copses birds chirped and sang. The scene to me was as new as it was impressive. In my boyhood I saw the sun drop beneath the waves of the Atlantic. In youth I saw it sink behind billowy masses of foliage. Now it went down among the undulating waves of prairie grass. The stars came out one by one, and gradually the colours melted and fused and changed till night had come, and all the array of planets ranged themselves in the dark blue heavens. The night scene when the full moon rose was so glorious that it was not possible to think at all, merely to lie sti’l and drink in sensations of exquisite pleasure. The sun appeared in the east before I was weary.

At early dawn I heard a distant noise, unearthly, weird and horrible, and far across the level prairie I saw an approaching train of Red River carts. Hundreds of them there were, covering miles of the track as they followed each other in single file. They were drawn by Red River horses and oxen, and some by milch cows, Indian ponies, American oxen, mules, an ass, and a couple of large donkeys. Horrible was the dry creak of the ungreased wooden axles. As the procession passed the groaning was appalling. Some of the carts were returning from the summer plain hunt, others from long freighting trips, lasting as long as one hundred and fifty days, to Edmonton, Fort Pitt, Green Lake, and Fort Carlton, on the Saskatchewan. The harness used was exceedingly primitive, being made of ox or buffalo hide, raw and undressed.

On learning that I was bound for the Saskatchewan country the wagoners put their hands to their mouths—the., gesture of dismay—and one of them exclaimed, “There arc so many Sioux Indians along your path. You will be killed sure.”

“Only once,” I replied, and drove on into the unknown.

Prairie chicken were abundant along the trail, and love of sport, I must admit, sometimes tempted me to shoot more than my extraordinarily vigorous appetite could consume—three brace being the daily apportionment. After crossing the Little Saskatchewan I could see that the country was gradually attaining a greater elevation. Riding Mountain, running east and west on the north side of this plateau, is an excellent natural protection from the Arctic winds. The soil is a rich black loam, very fertile. I saw in it, as I drove along, a future “garden of the west.” Yet these lands develop slowly. It was not till the end of April, 1871, that the first batch of immigrants reached Winnipeg, and though many have arrived since then, they too often return disgusted with the country and its droughts, floods, and pests of grasshoppers and locusts. These seem to have been worse ever since the year of Riel’s rebellion—worse, certainly, than during my years in Fort Garry. Yet in one way I regard this as a blessing, because it gave the country time to recover gradually from its period of unrest. In fact, an immediate “boom” in immigration would have been a serious embarrassment. It took my Company some seven years to secure a cash return for its trade in furs. An immigrant would, in the then state of the country, have to allow four years before he could hope for food return from his farm. Happily Nature docs not work for her own destruction as men and nations seem at times to do. Yet if those who were “disgusted with the country” had gone on as far as these Saskatchewan prairies I think they would have shared my enthusiasm.

The prairies were gay with flowers, even at th e season of my journey. Across the stretches of blue gentianella I saw a solitary Indian tent, standing at some distance from the trail. Rock saw it too, and wearier than I of the solitude, was soon at the door. There I found myself warmly greeted by one of my former Salteaux Indians, whose nomadic instinct had urged him forth, and left him for the moment lodged here in the wilderness. He entertained me royally, and having hobbled Rock, we feasted together on ducks, geese and prairie grouse.

Then off again over the endless prairie, each day like the former, yet without monotony. Crossing the Assiniboia about three miles above Fort Ellis, I left it to the right, and travelled for many days still through rich park land. Game was truly abundant. Lakes and pools swarmed with ducks and geese, and the prairie grouse filled the copses beside my path and covered the trail itself. Touchwood Hill, the Great Salt Plain, and the Wolverine Hills passed, I encamped at the foot of Spathanaw Watchi, a hill well known to travellers on the route, with a cross and a lonely grave on the top, from which five hundred miles of horizon view is obtainable.

It was late in October when I crossed the south branch of the Saskatchewan, here a stream of one hundred yards wide, flowing in a deep valley, with steep and wooded sides, cut into the level, sandy plain. The next day I reached Prince Albert’s Mission Settlement, on the North Saskatchewan. The place is heralded by signs of quiet rather than activity. A rustic bridal procession was wandering vaguely to one of its places of worship as we entered the sleepy place, the happy couple marching in front. Then the parents of those culprits came behind arm in arm, and blushing at their position. I had travelled six hundred miles, and my steady and never-failing Rock was as fresh as when he started. In these regions a good horse in summer and good dogs in winter are the traveller’s greatest boon.

Prince Albert’s Settlement stood on the south side of the river, on the two lowest levels of its terraced bank, below the high slopes which long ago confined the stream before it had dug its channel so deeply. This North Saskatchewan is rather larger than the South branch, which joins it some thirty miles further on, but its general character and appearance are similar. The sources of these mighty streams are many hundred miles apart, high up among the Rockies, but the rivers have dug deep channels (sometimes three hundred feet down), and after some nine hundred miles each join their muddy waters for the final sweep eastward, through a deep gorge and into Lake Winnipeg, thence to reach eventually Hudson Bay. Beyond the northern branch is the vast forest which stretches right on to the barren ground near the Arctic circle. Beyond the southern lies the illimitable prairie, extending away into the Mississippi Valley. All the river lands, as I have said. I found rich and fertile in soil, as the luxuriant growth of wild pea-grass abundantly showed. As the welcome signs of husbandry and semi-civilisation came into view I felt that I had reached my winter quarters in this vast and silent land.

Mine host, Mr. A. Campbell, a dear brother, who had served the Company for many years, is an accomplished Indian linguist. When I visited him in his isolated post, he was not long married. His wife, nee Miss Mary McKay, though a native, claimed descent through her Scottish grandfather from the head of the clan, Lord Reay. The settlement owed its origin to the late Rev. James Nisbet, a Presbyterian minister, who had established a mission station there in 1865 for the benefit of the Indians, and had named it after the late Prince Consort. Very soon afterwards many families, both Scotch and Scotch half-breeds, moved westwards from the Red River to the new settlement. At the time I visited it, however, the little Indian mission, set there in the wilderness for the ingathering of the heathen to Christ, had become so large as to include representatives of all the nations of Europe >n its population. I could hardly believe my own ears when I heard the number of different dialects and tongues that were spoken in this the northernmost settlement on the continent.

“Pray how did you get so far north, and what do you expect to take back when you return to the old country?” I asked of a rather untidy Irish itinerant, whom I chanced to find basking in the sun.

“Sure, your honour, if the North Pole be found out to-day, it’s plenty of Irish and Scotch will be there to-morrow,” was his reply.

As might be expected, the autumn frosts are the chief enemy of agriculture in this latitude, and the wheat crops occasionally suffer. But when the grain escapes the keenness of the night air, it is not—at least so far as I examined it—a whit behind the best grown in the Red River country : indeed it is a trifle heavier, with the same golden hue. The community had at that time reached the number of a thousand souls, and was daily increasing. One remarkable thing was that all comers, young and old, seemed to be allowed by Nature to remain for an indefinite time. In a whole year no death had occurred.

The settlers had adopted the old Red River custom of running their lots two miles out from the river. Scotch settlers I found taking the leading place there as in so many other colonies. There seems no question but that the Scotch make first-rate colonists. Their courage, shrewdness, perseverance and sagacity tell with excellent effect in their battle with a new soil.

In one respect this colony differed greatly from that at the Red River. It was conducted on strictly temperance principles. This no doubt explained the extraordinary health and longevity of the community. But it must be admitted that the quantity of black Congou tea consumed was appalling. It was so strong and dense that the spoon might almost have stood upright in the cup. And under the influence of this decoction a night rarely passed without a ball or a wedding being announced in the place. The Red River custom of “fiddling and dancing and serving the devil” still survived, though under reformed conditions, which robbed the double shuffle and stamp dance of much of its vigour.

The community had plenty of wheat in store, but for the converting of it into flour they depended solely upon one rather Dutch-looking windmill which stood upon the river bank waiting patiently for days and even weeks for a puff of wind to turn its sails and give the people bread. But bread or no bread, they were ready to dance and be merry. A happy, careless life they led, planted there in the midst of a great continent, buried sometimes in five feet of snow, with the ground frozen other five feet below it and a wind of sixty degrees below zero whistling overhead. And the dances went on merrily all the time.

There were two churches and two schools, so that the settlers had a fair choice, not merely as to their own special route heavenwards, but as to whether their children should learn the Catechism of Prayer Book or the Westminster Divines. A few years before the time of which I write the Church Missionary Society had followed the example of the founders of the mission and sent an agent here, a Scotchman, the Rev. J. McLean, whom I have already mentioned. He had been a Presbyterian minister, perhaps one of those ambitious Scots whose aims even on earth soar high, for he ultimately attained the rank of a colonial Bishop. He was an erudite man and a notable orator—probably the finest in the continent, certainly in the Dominion. The Anglican Church was unquestionably to be congratulated on the possession of such a man. The Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Hugh McKellar, was an earnest, sincere and pious young man, with pretensions and no other aim but to preach Christ and Him crucified to his flock. One consequence, already visible, of the rapid growth of the settlement was the disappearance of buffalo from the neighbourhood. They used to be found in countless numbers within a week’s travel from the mission during the whole winter. This year we heard that they were far afield, in the prairie land between the two branches of the river, but far westward near the Rockies. Early in spring a party of us set out westwards from the mission. We were interrupted after the first ten miles, as the cart of one of my companions suddenly turned topsy-turvy, nearly suffocating the unfortunate Indian pony, which, confined by harness and shafts, was nearly buried in a mixture of water, snow and mud. Drying the load of furs and restoring the pony to its normal condition delayed us a few days—amid plenty of shooting. The lakes were full of ducks and the hillocks alive with running or with dancing grouse. This curious habit of dancing enabled us to secure a good many brace with very little trouble, as they are so engrossed in their steps that the approach of the hunter is not noticed. Every spring they assemble at sunset and sunrise in parties of three or four dozen at some favourite spot, generally a rising ground. They group themselves opposite each other, open their wings, place both feet together and hop solemnly back and forward like birds in a pantomime. Prairie grouse do not usually hop, so the effect is all the more ludicrous. Their places of rendezvous are recognisable at once from the flattened grass, beaten down or worn away in a circular patch by the constant tread. The Indians place their snares ;n this circular ball-room and catch the dancers by the dozen. I watched them one evening assembling for the social hop, and proceeding to their steps to music of their own. I am afraid I broke up the ball in rather sanguinary fashion, perhaps excusable after lying in the cold and damp of the long pea-grass. Their crops were always full of a large blue flower, a kind of anemone which was in bloom at the time, and of which they ate greedily.

Two of my companions were of the Bois-brule variety and prided themselves not a little on combining in their veins the blood of six races—Scotch, French, English, Cree, Salteaux and Ojibway. We came across Chief Beardy, who also prides himself on his mixed descent, claiming a connection with the Scottish Highlands through an ancestor named Sutherland, one of the Company’s servants, and so much of a Nimrod as to outdo the Indians themselves in hunting and so to be elevated to the chief-ship with the usual endowment of six wives. Undoubtedly it was he who first conceived the idea of impounding buffalo herds. The men, unlike other tribes, have all very respectable beards, a distinction which they attribute to their white blood and of which they are inordinately vain, wearing them as proudly as cockades. Chief Beardy was a fine-looking fellow, dressed in a spangled shirt, a cap covered with many coloured feathers and ribbons, and elaborately worked leggings and medicine bag. He proved to be a born orator, and pointing to me as the only white man present, he rose and made an oration in the Cree language. Pie delivered himself with the greatest ease and fluency, never hesitating for a word. He carried his head high and his gestures were graceful and dignified. The speach was full of references to “my poor country,” "my poor buffalo,” “both taken away from us,” “What shall we do?” “What shall we eat?”

We travelled many days before we came upon the herd of buffalo, far away between the two great rivers, and nearly one thousand miles from my starting-point. When I first came to the country the buffalo herd reached eastwards to the Red River, close to Fort Garry, and westward to the Rocky Mountains, and was scattered north and south from Lake La Biche to the Mississippi Valley, an area of a thousand miles each way. Within this space there lived some thirty thousand savages, all vigorously hunting buffalo for their sustenance. Yet the number killed for food was insignificant, compared to the number slaughtered for their robes and skins. My Company, I am able to say, acquired ;n a year as many as one hundred thousand robes. Half as many more would be accounted for by other traders, Indian requirements and waste. From boyhood it had been my ambition to see the great prairie herd, but I found only the fag end of it. I was told that the decrease was producing disastrous effects on the trade of the plains. But to the savages the extermination of their principal means of life must be the greatest disaster of all.

The herd we now encountered was large. All the party but myself rode old, well-seasoned buffalo runners. Rock had never seen a herd before, and I had trained him for trotting, not for running. Besides, he was only ten hands high, while I weighed fourteen stones. However, I joined the others, and girths being tightened and guns examined, we moved forward at a foot’s pace, many filling their mouths with bullets. Our captain in the centre, we rode in a line, and gradually our pace became a canter till within one hundred and fifty yards. Then, hurrah! allez! Away we went helter-skelter in a mad charge. I brought up the rear on little Rock, and as we closed with the herd it broke up into little bands of five, six or eight. A quick succession of shots and the slaughter had begun. Each man followed his own choice, leaving the dead animals to be Identified after the run was over. An exciting chase undoubtedly. A handful of powder let fall from the powder-horn .nlo the gun-barrel, a bullet dropped from the mouth into its muzzle, a tap with the butt end of the firelock on the saddle to cause the powder to adhere to the moistened bullet, and all the time galloping hard after the lumbering heavy animate w ith their humps and shaggy manes, their long beards and fringed dewlaps swaying from side to side, their keen, small black eyes rolling viciously as they glanced out of their mass of tossing hair, now under one shoulder, now the other, at the foe behind them. Considering the reckless nature of the sport, the heedless cross-firing, and the treacherous badgers’ holes, it was remarkable how few accidents occurred, though indeed many horses and their riders have come to a violent end on these very prairies. The badgers’ holes were the worst danger, and were indeed a kind of provision of Nature for the protection of the buffalo, for often the fear of them held back the rider, and allowed the prey to escape.

My luck was poor. Rock completely lost his head in the excitement. The sight of the huge monsters careering madly along with fiery eyes and tosvsing manes, followed sometimes by an eagle-feathered savage, mounted on a strangely decked-out pony, with the scalp of his latest enemy flying behind him, utterly demoralised my steady-going, faithful nag, and he ran away with me down a steep brae, in spite of all my efforts, pitched me headlong against an enormous granite block, and himself fled madly over the prairie. Beneath the shadow of this boulder I lay in a semi-conscious state I know not how long, but I was roused at last by the sight of a large herd of buffalo coming full gallop over the crest of the hill above me, and making straight in my direction, followed by feathered Indians and hatless half-breeds, tiring wildly from ail directions and sending dozens of bullets whistling about my ears till I was deafened with the sharp sound. I got hold of my rifle, a repeating Winchester, took aim, and planted a patent paciticating pill in an immense bull, but alas! not so as to kill him. As he turned upon me I arose and ran round my boulder, he after me, and so we chased each other for life and death. A bullet from the flint-lock gun of one of the savages hit the boulder and sent a splinter into my hand, leaving a wound of which I still carry the trace. Scarcely knowing I was hit, I ran on till my breath was almost gone, and I felt that in a few moments I should drop and be tossed and trampled by my infuriated foe. Suddenly a thought struck me. By this time I was chasing him, rather than he me—in fact I was close behind him. I raised my rifle as he swished his tail round, placed the muzzle against the soft skin, and drew the trigger with my last ounce of strength. I had won, and my already wounded enemy dropped dead. At least it had not ended as many such encounters do, when in a last paroxysm the wounded monster turns and tosses horse and rider into the air like dry chips, tearing them with his horns, stamping them to death with a dying effort, and then falling dead upon his victims.

About two hundred animals were vshot down in that race. One of the Bois-brules identified twenty-three of his own shooting. The slaughter went on for many days, till the piles of refuse at each lodge door were as large as haycocks, and the air was so contaminated that we had to change camp into a clean spot. Although the Indians had twice as much meat in hand as they could properly cure, the savage instinct of the chase was now so strong upon them that they could not let a herd pass the camp without leaping to their ponies to pursue it. Scores of animals were left untouched upon the ground, for the wolf and the worm. Truly,

I thought, the time was coming when these wild races would sigh for the flesh-pots of Egypt in vain.

The climate was delightful. We lived in the open air under a cloudless sky, in the finest and most bracing atmosphere in the world, and for once the weather formed a topic of conversation in the camp. These prairie thunderclouds do not, as a rule, begin to gather from below the horizon, as is the case near the sea, but in the zenith. A black spot appears in the neighbourhood of the sun, and quickly increasing in size, soon covers the whole canopy of heaven. Occasionally the black cloud fades away without refreshing the arid land beneath. In that case the medicine-man and conjurer order out a large number of braves and cause repeated volleys to be fired towards the disobedient cloud. This had been going on for several days, and the blacks who had been grumbling shortly before at the terrible heat—120° in the sun—were now complaining with equal bitterness of the lack of sunshine, the lowering skies, the heavy atmosphere, and the ever-threatening never-bursting cloud. Undoubtedly such weather is trying, and brings on headaches and smart attacks of pessimism. Even such past masters in the art of philosophic indifference as the medicine-man and conjurer yielded to the soporific influence of the atmosphere, and kept patients waiting for their awakening. But at last the storm burst—a record storm—and torrents of tropical force descended upon our camp. In the midst of thunder, lightning, and lashing rain the savages were out in full cry after a passing herd of buffalo. Yet not one of the slain animals was touched, for it is against their traditions to use meat killed at such a time. The sport of killing, however, was irresistible.

Having taken part in the hunt, I began to bethink myself of my further journey. I was sorry to leave them, ferocious and lawiess as they were. The Indians seemed to have shared the uncontrolled spirit of the herds among whom they had lived for centuries, and the half-breeds have drunk of the same wild freedom, paid little heed to the ministrations of good Father Andre of the Oblate Fathers, who accompanied them on this expedition. I could not but marvel a little at that good man’s presence. He could do but little good. Perhaps he sought a means of self-discipline, ad majorem Dei gloriam.


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