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The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter XII - A Trip to the Further West


Last summer I traversed the wide plains of the South Saskatchewan. This year I resolved to explore the north branch to its source. In the third week in April the earth began to soften; the evergreen firs had the fragrance of last year’s leaves and this year’s buds; the rills began to break the frozen silence. The earth was rich with the delicious odours of spring, and after the scentless winter I breathed them with delight. Mackerel clouds floated slowly northward in the sunshine on the wings of a soft south wind. Every lakelet was alive with ducks and geese fluttering eagerly in happy anticipation of early nesting. Every grassy knoll echoed in the early morning with the joyous drumming of the prairie partridge. The S ask atom berry bush was in bud, and already certain spots were blue with anemones. The desolation of the snow-clad winter wTas gone. Immense flocks of birds passed northwards continually; the sound of their wings went on all night, well-nigh preventing sleep.

At first I travelled alone through a rich and fertile country, sometimes wooded, sometimes merely a rolling prairie studded with lakelets. When I reached the “Elbow” I found seven sons of “Uncle Sam” there encamped. They were from Montana, and were herding a large number of fine-looking ponies which they had brought to sell to the Indians and half-breeds. They knew that in consequence of recent political developments a good many Canadian dollars would be in the hands of these people this summer, and—well, your American does not lack shrewdness.

They received me hospitably, and had many stories to relate of Sioux, buffaloes, bears, and even of their own ponies. Their conversation was a mine of strange experiences and amusing anecdotes. I had one stroke of luck while in their company. I was driving leisurely along the top of a high ridge in the Eagle Hills when a two-year-old black bear crossed the trail about thirty yards in front. My ritle was at my side—I never moved without it since my former lesson. I took a hurried aim at the animal’s nose as he was running towards the river, and to my surprise he dropped, the bullet taking him on the hind quarters. He roared tremendously, and before I could gather the reins Rock was off full speed ;n the opposite direction. A shot through the head from my Colt put an end to his sufferings, and, the Americans arriving on the scene, we had the most delicious black steak we ever tasted—for it is only here the pleasure of eating is truly appreciated.

I continued my journey alone as far as Battleford, where the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Governor, the Hon. David Laird, resided. It was but a small cluster of rude wooden buildings, though described as “ the capital of the North-West.” Here I joined a party of traders—a huge caravan, bound for the farther West. The weather continued beautifully fine, and I was still struck by the fertility of the country, the rich black loamy soil, the picturesque clumps of poplar and birch trees, and the plentifulness of wild fowl about the lakes. Everything seemed to promise the land a great future. Fort Pitt stood, like Fort Carlton, on the flat below the high old bank of the river Saskatchewan, but was smaller in extent and in its buildings. It lay within the country of the Blackfeet Indians, and dealing wholly with this tribe, it furnished the largest quantity of pemmican and dried meat for the posts more remote from the plains. The little farming done about the place seemed very productive. I saw potatoes of an immense size, and excellent vegetables of all kinds. Wheat, too, would do well if there were any inducement to sow it. Continuing our way, wre reached Bear Creek, so called from the number of grizzlies that frequent the thickets on the banks. It is an almost dry gully, with banks so high that it took the caravan two days to get over them. The first day I strolled through many of these thickets, but I disturbed nothing, and nothing disturbed me. On the second day I strolled a little farther afield, and when about two miles from the camp, I observed a wet trail leading from a pond in the bed of the creek.

I followed this up to a point on a sandy patch where enormous footprints were plainly marked. Neglecting all precautions in my eagerness, I followed the trace as far as the edge of a closely grown thicket, through which a large opening had been made evidently quite recently.

1 paused to see to my ritle and to brace up my nerves, and then moved cautiously towards the back of the thicket. Soon I became aware of two glittering eyes, shining like balls of fire out of the dense undergrowth. There was no mistaking these eyes. It would take a good deal of mesmeric power to dim them. Still they were very little guide to me. A great Indian hunter once told me never to fire at a bear between the eyes, the ball being apt to glance off on either side without, as he phrased it, “ doing its duty.” But for this hint I should have lost patience and fired. I moved round the skirt of the bush, but it was so thick that I could not see his body, and a tremor of impatience and irritation ran through my whole frame at seeing no means of getting a shot in. As I walked round he began to get restless, too, and turned, watching my movements, and coming towards the opening. I thought I had aimed at his side, and I fired. A report and a roar that echoed through the valley followed almost simultaneously, but my aim had been nervous, and my battle was not yet won. Now was my opportunity to fulfil Napoleon’s definition of a truly great man, “ one who can command the situation he creates.” We were on the second terrace above the bed of the creek. My foe leaped from the thicket quick as lightning, dragging a broken hind leg. Thankful I was to be light of foot, and so to have some advantage over my huge, shaggy antagonist. A clump of thorns hard by was my salvation. I took up my position and waited. I shall never forget the ferocious expression of that grizzly bear as he approached the side of the bush while I planted a bullet in his broad chest. This brought him to his knees, the huge jaws sputtering blood and foam. But even yet he was not conquered. In an instant he was up on his hind legs, with his mouth wide open, ready to challenge a last grip. Fortunately I was above him, and seeing it to be his last effort, I drove the barrel of my riile down his throat, and dx awing my knife, plunged it to the hilt behind the fore shoulder. Then at last I felt that I had conquered. Yet his death was terrible. He rolled on his back, his enormous paws in the air, and tore Irmself with his claws in a last delirium of agony. Suddenly there was a shriek, a shiver, a quiver, and the monster lay motionless and dead. “Mihi frigidus horror membra qualit.”

Many thrilling stories have been related of the giant grizzly of the Rockies, some of them highly coloured, nay, savouring of the miraculous, as hunters’ tales are apt to be. But those who have themselves hunted can easily distinguish between truth and fiction. Be that as it may, there is no question as to the strength and ferocity of this giant, for even among the Indians there are few indeed who will follow him alone to his lair. Were his activity equal to his strength, he would be the most dangerous animal on the face of the earth. The “king of beasts” himself would be no more before the grizzly than a rabbit. The fact is that the grizzly, like Napoleon, has not merely prestige worth a hundred thousand men, but a reserve of vitality and strength beyond any other animal, and his fighting is not of the blustering description, but rather of the persistent, tense sort, which too often wears out the endurance of the hunter.

As I stood surveying my fallen adversary I heard a low noise behind me. Turning quickly, I found an Indian brave almost at my side. Putting his hand to his mouth, he exclaimed, “Ohoo, Ohoo, Jowa, keea-winn eesaa gaytchi mwea-koow, 0 atim moos” (“My friend, you have killed the big bear, the dog”). Thereupon he approached dead Bruin and discharged the contents of his gun into the animal’s head. After this exploit he approached me, and we cordially shook hands. When he learned that I could speak his language he was in an ecstacy.

“What was your reason for firing at the dead animal?” I asked.

“Because he killed both my father and my grandfather, and they have never been revenged,” was his reply.

Presently two half-clad, miserable-looking women appeared, each carrying a baby and sundry other articles on her back, and one wild, starved-looking boy, carrying an old gun. What share of the household goods was not on the backs of the women was carried, or rather dragged, by three skeleton dogs, harnessed to the triangle of wooden poles sometimes used by Indians instead of a cart. The apex of the triangle rests upon the back of the dog; the base drags along the ground, the baggage being tied to a series of crossbars. The contrivance is called travoises or travailles. The condition of an Indian dog is always the best test of his food supply. Fat dogs speak of plenty, thin dogs of scarcity, no dogs of absolute starvation. Only in the last extremity are the dogs killed and eaten. The women, draped in a network of tattered buffalo robes and other rags, squatted upon the grass, scrutinising the bear and myself alternately and laughing heartily at the prospect of an early feast, as well as at the phenomenon of a white man who understood their own speech. After cutting out a number of the long claws, I left the starved family to enjoy a glorious repast, worth the world to them just then, while I myself returned to camp.

I found Rock tied to the wheel of the buggy, the caravan having moved on many hours before. The “untiring” had many hours’ hard trotting to do before we overtook the others.

We passed the Beaver Hills, where it is still possible to see the traces of a beaver dam. The beaver race has for many years been gradually retreating northwards, like a defeated army. This retreat was planned and conducted in most orderly fashion, as I saw on comparing my observations with those of my last year’s travel in the South. There was a time when the beaver’s soft dark skin was of greater value than it has been recently. The silkworm has stolen his market to a great extent. But his skill as an architect and his diligence as a worker, regarding which I have already spoken in an earlier chapter, deserve to be remembered. His cunning surpasses that of the fox, while the spider cannot be compared with him in patience and endurance. The honeycomb of the bee is less wonderful than his log-and-mud house under water. In hard labour he has no rival, for he can by his toil turn aside the course of great streams and alter the whole face of the country. He can cut down forest trees and build bridges to admiration, and has his house divided into rooms, with a common hall and a neat doorway, through which he issues for his morning bath with a regularity that would put his Indian fellow-countrymen to shame.

In felling a tree, he can work so as to make it fall in any required direction, and when he has lopped off its branches he can carry it on his back to wherever he wants it to go. They work in divisions, each having a master beaver in control, and any idler or shirker is ignominiously expelled from the ranks. In conducting their long retreat northwards, they have shown an extraordinary faculty for choosing the best and safest localities in little-known streams and silent waters far from the ordinary beat of the trader or traveller. Thus they have been able to keep the invader at bay longer than many a trained army. Still the enemy finds them out, and at the time of which I write (1877) from sixty to seventy thousand beaver skins were despatched to 1, Lime Street, London, every year. Man is their chief enemy, and their dread of him is great. Their chief means of defence is their extraordinarily acute sense of smell. I have studied beavers from Hudson’s Bay to the recesses of the Rocky Mountains, and have observed this peculiarity in all parts.

One evening I lay in hiding close to a beaver village, enclosing an area of some four acres of deep, clear water. The animals had dammed up the river, so as to form an artificial pond. Nothing was stirring in the deep solitude of the river bank, shut in by rocky walls rising perpendicularly to the very heavens, as it seemed, on looking upwards. The twilight was just beginning to gather over the lonely scene, when I saw a seal-like object raise itself out of the water at the farther end of the pond, glance round for a single second, and disappear. Again it appeared, and again, each time a little nearer, and each time showing a smaller portion of its body as it snuffed the air and looked sharply round in its reconnaissance. This went on until it was within thirty yards of me, when only the tip of its nose appeared, vanishing again instantly with a peculiar splash. It appeared no more.

I was discovered, and that splash was a note of warning, reporting the presence of the enemy, and sending the whole army back to their burrows beneath the bank. No animal is so hard to approach, unless it be the mountain sheep, whose fleetness of foot and power of taking the most impossible-looking leaps are simply miraculous. But these are much hunted, especially the big-horn, or monton gris, and also the monton blanc, as their flesh is delicious.

I shall never forget the neighbourhood of the Rockies, the stillness, the endless loneliness. The occasional sound of a shot died away in vast canons, leaving the sense of silence only the more intense. From a distance of two hundred miles the great rampart can be seen rising from the prairies like a wall. There is nothing in the world to compare with it. And among the mountains themselves the sight of the billowy sea of peaks, tossed in great masses north and south and east and west, above and behind each other, is truly awe-inspiring. It is futile to attempt to describe such a scene. It cannot be painted ; it cannot be communicated; nay, it cannot even be shared. The scene of mountains is one of those enjoyments which can only be properly tasted when alone. Shut in these awesome solitudes, with snow and ice, canon and chasm, grey peaks and infinite blue for prospect, with roar of torrent and thunder of avalanche for music, with the unseen Companion for all-sufficient society, the soul truly becomes in a quite astonishing manner audible to itself. The whole of nature seems to expand under the influence of the majestic surroundings.

Yet these sharp fantastic spires, these barren, snow-clad peaks, where no grass grows, where no herd feeds, and which stand apart dreaming eternal dreams, apparently aloof from all sentient life and every human interest, are not so useless as they seem. The “practical man” must recognise their value. For it is their very height and solitude that makes them the source and means of the practical industries of a continent. It is they that largely control the weather ; it is they that furnish the water supply. Up in these altitudes they drink in the moisture of the elements to give it forth again in streams to fertilise the thirsty land below. Nature’s problem was how to store against the heat and drought of summer water sufficient for all the land. So she lifted these masses up through the clouds, and among them stored her rains as solid ice, ready to melt and fill the channels of the river fuller and fuller as the days were hotter. Thus from a height which gives them an incalculable force and driving power great streams flow over the whole land. The Yellowstone, the fateful Rosebud, the Missouri, the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico and the St. Lawrence; the Bow, the Red Deer, and the two Saskatchewans to Hudson’s Bay; the Athabasca and Mackenzie to the Arctic Ocean; and the Yukon, the Fraser, the Columbia, the Thompson, the Snake, and the Humboldt to the Pacific,— what a simple yet superb piece of engineering they represent! It is impossible to contemplate these huge, everlasting grey and white masses, with their glacier systems and their snows, without marvelling at the provision of Nature for the flat world below.

They are rich, too, in their store of precious metals and jewels. Throughout the whole of the mountamous region, really a continuation of the Californian and Montana ranges of the United States, the presence of valuable minerals has been demonstrated at so many points as to lead to the opinion that rich metalliferous beds run through the range from end to end, an area of some fifteen thousand square miles.

The prairie tableland rises from an elevation at Winnipeg of seven hundred feet above sea level to four thousand feet in the pastoral uplands at the base of the Rockies. During the spring I saw wild strawberries and raspberries, and English and other European wild flowers and flowering shrubs in profusion. Cinerarias were abundant of every shade of blue, an immense variety of composite species, many roses, tiger-lilies, orchids, and vetch, and a flower like the lychnis, with sepals of brilliant scarlet.

During the whole spring and summer not a buffalo was to be seen, which shows how closely the few herds that remain are hunted. Once the prairie contained tens of millions of those animals; now, looking eastwards over the great empty ocean of grass, I am speechless at the thought of what this means to the red man. The skin gave him a house, the robe a blanket and bed, the undressed hide a boat, the curved horn a powder flask, the flesh his daily food, the sinew a bow-string and thread to sew his shoes and clothes, the leather a saddle, bridle, rein, and bit, and a lariat for his horse. They supplied his every want from infancy to old age, and after life was over it was in a buffalo robe that he was wrapped to dream of the happy hunting fields. It is scarcely to be wondered at that my sympathies go out very fully to the Indians, considering how much I saw of them and their ways.

In Baffin Land in 1859 I came in contact with the Eskimos, 2,000 miles from the point I had now reached. On the western shores of Hudson's Bay I found the Swampie Indians, and on the first steppe I made the acquaintance of the Salteaux of Lake Winnipeg and the lower Red River of the north. East of Lake Winnipeg I found the Cranes and Ojibways; west, on the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle,the once powerful tribe of the Assiniboines. Between tnis river and the Saskatchewan I travelled among the Plain Crees, whose language is the root speech of all the tribal dialects, as Latin is of the Romance languages of Europe. The country between the two branches of the Saskatchewan, where I spent many adventurous days, is claimed by the warlike Blackfeet, the finest specimens of humanity among them. North of this were the Wood Crees, the Chippewayans, and the “Slavs”; south, towards the Missouri, lived the fierce Sioux. In the neighbourhood of the Rockies were many smaller tribes differentiated only in name : Shushwapps, Sarciers, Stonies, and Sicanies. Having mixed with and talked with all in their various dialects, I learned to know their characteristics, their distinctive habits and ways of life, and to honour them for much which we, who assume lordship over them, might do well to imitate. Who can tell the origin of these tribes, or set a time when first they hunted the buffalo upon these plains ? Many attempts have been made, all to end in vague theories, little better than admissions of failure. The 30,000 feet in depth of Argoic rock reveals the New World to be older than the Old. Long before Abram departed out of Haran these tr ibes may have been wandering over the limitless prairie. Good Father Andre believed, and contended vigorously, that they were the lost tribes of Israel. Ethnologists find in them the lineaments of Norse, Celtic, Tartar, and Egyptian ancestry. And after all nothing is known either of whence or when or how they came, or of their past history in the land. Only their future is certain and somewhat sorrowful, for the fiat has gone forth, and they must sicken and die before the breath of civilisation. What then ? What is there to say ? Nothing at all. They and we alike are creatures of a day. Races and individuals arise, and run their course, and disappear. We are the children of Nature, and of God.

So then I had realised my boyish hopes. I had seen the great New World, and spoken with Indians, and shot grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains. And now I had reached the limit of my journeying. The rest was to be but coming back. I was, and am, satisfied, amply satisfied. I wandered a last time among the great scaurs and tumbled cliffs, then turned away eastward with the memory of it in my heart, to think of it and dream of it ad finem. What a dreamland, to be sure, for Celtic imagination!


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