Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter XIII - The Return Journey

My way home lay before me as I slowly descended the eastern ridge of the mountains among which I had been roaming. Down there so far beneath my feet the pine trees on the plain looked like spear-grass. I distinctly saw the gradual fall of the prairie as .t sank from the plateau near the mountains to lower levels beyond in visibly graduated steps, as if marking the retreat of the primeval waters. The horizon was wide and blue as on the sea, and the same keen, fresh air swept over this undulating prairie ocean. Soon I left the rocky summits behind, and saw about me patches of bleached grass, with green spots, where water had gathered -n the hollows. Lower I passed through tufts of birch and copses of the balsam poplar, emerging at last upon the prairie, rich in its summer bloom. Nowhere on earth is there richer profusion of blossom. In July the roses are in full beauty, and for hundreds of miles my trail lay through masses of them, of .all shades, from palest cream to richest crimson. Every cutting and bank and scoop was filled with them. They spread a pink bloom over the land for acres. Wild lavender, red columbine, spireas, white and pink, blossomed with them ; pale yellow cactus, and the gaillardi of Scotch flower gardens grew like buttercups in the grass, and a few weeks later the lilies, rich in scarlet, added the last perfection to the year’s bloom.

Such was the Nature’s garden through which I drove for hundreds of miles, till I found myself at the Roman Catholic Mission of St. Alban’s, the headquarters of that excellent son of his church, Bishop Grandin, whose diocese is larger than Europe. During my short stay at Fort Pitt I heard him preach to his people, fluently, in four different tongues. The little colony of some thirty houses, bunt on rising ground, near a small lake and river, seemed in a flourishing condition. A fine wooden bridge spanned the river, the only structure of the kind I had seen n the country.

The Bishop’s house was a pretty white building, with a large garden attached, and adjoining it were the chapel, school, and nunnery. His lordship was absent when I called, but I found a worthy substitute in the resident priest. The Bishop's furniture was simple in the extreme, consisting chiefly of a few rough chairs. The walls were adorned with many coloured prints, amongst which were portraits of Pius IX., and of Bishop Tache of St. Boniface, with a picture representing some very substantial and pious-looking angels lifting a few merry-visaged saints out of the flames of purgatory. The school was crowded to excess, and all the work seemed successful. I must say that at this mission settlement I found the most charitable, the most admirable, and the most truly Christian work in the country. The devotion of the Roman Catholic priesthood is well known, but here there had been but lately a notable example of it. A few years before, a severe epidemic of smallpox had visited the plain country. When the attack comes on, with the burning fever, the red man finds his relief in great draughts of cold water, with the result that he soon finds permanent rest in the arms of his best friend, death. Thus the epidemic had killed the natives off by scores, when the Bishop and his staff set to work among the widely-scattered camps on the plains, and rescued from the jaws of death some eighty castaway children belonging to plague-stricken families. All these were fed, clothed, and educated in this isolated mission, the motto over whose lintel might well be, “Now abideth faith, hope, and charity, but the greatest of these is charity.” It would, however, have been too much to expect that these wild children of the prairies should at once prove themselves amenable to instruction in Christian dogma. Some of their answers to the catechist were more entertaining than accurate. But there were signs of an admirable beginning, and at least the Bishop had not been content to commend these orphans to the Fatherhood of God and pass on. Whatever be the reason, there is no doubt that the Romish clergy far excel their Protestant brethren in their missionary work and influence. One of them said to me, in the course of a friendly discussion, “You see we have no other claims on our lives. The Protestants have to think what comforts they can give their wives, and how much money they will be able to leave to their children.” Be this as it may, they certainly allow no considerations of personal danger or hardship to deter them in their work, and they have been singularly successful in teaching the people the elements of civilisation as well as religion.

Fort Edmonton stands on the north bank of the Saskatchewan. It is the chief factor’s headquarters and the most important establishment in the district. Its form is much li>e that of the other forts, a group of wooden buildings, surrounded by a high square palisade, flanked at each corner with small towers. I found that here as at the Red River many retired Company’s servants were betaking themselves to farming and building log huts along the river bank north and west of the fort. The fields of wheat were magnificent, waving in the autumn breeze and shining in the sun like gold. A single glance at the fields was sufficient to show the suitability of tbe soil for cereal-growing. It is of the same “fat” sort as that at the Red River, and of equal depth, the only soil I have as yet seen to equal it.

News reached me here that eight or ten thousand Sioux Indians had crossed the boundary into British territory seeking safety from the American troops. Still I resolved to make the thousand miles’ journey to Winnipeg alone. Rock was in good condition, I myself in high spirits and fears for personal safety long since forgotten.

My first stage was Fort Saskatchewan, recently established as the headquarters of the Mounted Police on the plains of the North-West. Lieutenant-Colonel Jarvis hospitably entertained me here tor a few days. I have a grateful recollection, too, of Sergeant-Major Belcher, a big, burly Englishman of fine physical proportions and apparently fitted for any emergency, as well as of Sergeant Carr, a very Jolly and good-looking Irishman who certainly ought to have been a knight of chivalry and of romance. He acted as Postmaster-General, not for the fort only but for an area quite as large as that controlled from St. Martin’s le Grand. The police force numbered one thousand men of splendid physique, and was both military and civil. Indeed it was a kind of combination of mounted infantry, artillery, transport, commissariat, and ambulance, every man of which, whether in camp, barracks, or on the trail, had to be prepared to cook, fight, carry despatches, drive a team, or break in a wild colt. They were armed with Winchester carbines and revolvers. It patrolled a country larger than Great Britain and Ireland, which has since increased by the addition of territories further west. It is impossible for me here to recount all its notable achievements in dealing with “ Sitting Bull’s” braves since last year’s massacre of Custer’s force in Wyoming. It was organized just after these great plains had been handed over by treaty to the Canadian Government, and when there was some reason to fear lest the country should lapse into anarchy.

Up till that time my Company had for two centuries kept more than merely a semblance of order among the inhabitants, and indeed some tribute is justly due to its policy towards these savages. It certainly was singularly successful in securing their confidence and goodwill. By the simple aid of the initials “H. B.” a traveller could cross the plains from Fort Garry to the Pacific in perfect safety, even in times of Indian warfare. We had a doggerel verse which ran—

“But when they see that little flag
A-stickin’ in that cart,
They just said 1 Hudson Bay, go on,
Good trader with good heart.’”

But when the plains were thrown open for settlers it was thought that strange men, with strange implements and novel machinery, might excite the fears and perhaps the dislike of the fierce Cree and Blackfeet tribes, already partially demoralised by the “fire water” which Americans were sending into the country. And thus the Mounted Police were raised.

Leaving Fort Saskatchewan 1 had continued my lonely journey for some days, when, one evening, just as I had finished supper, a procession of two Indian families walked up to my camp fire. The men, as usual, stalked on before, carrying their guns only, while the women followed behind heavily loaded with the household gods. These consisted of battered kettles, papooses, and whatever personal property either of the two possessed. Wretched-looking children in rags and crying for food straggled in the rear one by one, all starved and naked, with the bones showing painfully under the tender brown skin. One poor tattered mother carried a two-year-old son on her back along with other burdens, while a newborn infant, swaddled in a ragged shawl bagged and tied like a black pudding, surmounted the load. Poor creature, she sank to the ground exhausted, and immediately another woman squatted beside her and laid her head on her knees, whereupon she instantly set about examining her friend’s pate like a monkey at the Zoo. Never in all my experience had I come across a more tatterdemalion lot. Anything more utterly miserable than theii condition it would be impossible to imagine. Their story was a heartrending one. Sickness had overtaken them on their way to the plains. Their two ponies were killed and eaten, then their dogs, and their loads left behind on the trail. Even the tattered buffalo robes had been roasted and eaten, and the scraps of torn blankets, and the odds and ends of battered kettles and rusty traps, were all they had left. They had known the chiefs “Big Bear,” “Little Bear,” and “Lucky Man,” but they had held aloof from these, and of their own company all that death had left were the tattered few now gathered starving in my camp. Poor things, it was not their fault that their race was doomed to extinction; it was not our fault that we found better uses for their native soil than leaving it as a haunt for buffaloes, but it seemed hard that they should thus be left naked and starving. Cheerfully I handed them all the food I had, little enough, unfortunately. Indeed they were so fierce with hunger that I felt some dread lest Rock and I should furnish their larder for the next week, for the slender meal I could offer them scarcely did more than intensify their hunger. Yet it turned out to be sufficient to put them to sleep, and soon the camp was silent. The silence of these prairie nights is profound. As I lay awake I heard the occasional hoot of an owl or cry of a wolf, and the breathing of the sleeping people beside me, but besides these not a sound of life from horizon to horizon. A hush seemed to lie upon the whole wide world. Bv-and-by the Aurora borealis began to play faintly across the sky. It grew brighter as I watched it, and soon its rose-tinted waves and bars of exquisite light flashed and palpitated over the whole heavens. Up and down, out and in, the tremulous shadows wove their mazy network in threads of subtle radiance. It was like a dance of celestial spirits, and I scarcely wondered at the theory held by some that, were our ears less dull, we should hear seraphic sounds—perhaps a faint music of the spheres —accompanying this shadowy minuet of the skies.

Morning came, and I drank the last potful of sugarless tea I was to taste for many days to come. I gave the Indians all my gunpowder and shot—for I carried a double-barrelled shot gun as well as my Winchester. This rather reckless gift nearly cost me my life. No traveller should cross the prairies without a good shot gun and plenty of loose ammunition. Big game is not within reach every day, nor even every week, and to trust only to one’s rifle for food is therefore rather risky. They had not a mouthful of food when we parted, hut there was at least the hope that the powder and shot would enable them to procure some.

For my part I travelled many days without a shot, and to my greater distress discovered at last that I was on the wrong trail. But by this time physical discomfort affected me but little. I had often known what it was to live chiefly on imagination. So I maintained a stout heart, and doggedly pursued my way, depending for food on the roots of species of wild turnip and potato.

One evening I reached the shores of an unknown lakelet just as the woods were darkening into a cold intensity of green. The smooth waters were flushed into warmth by the reflection of the sunset clouds, which spread in soft pink masses over the whole heavens. The beauty of the scene fascinated me, and I resolved to camp there for the night. Gradually the colour faded, and the grey chill of twilight crept through the air. The birds were hushed, and the loneliness and silence weighed heavily upon my spirits. Occasionally the hoot of an owl or the cry of a hungry wolf broke out of the gathering darkness. A solitary loon resting on the surface of the lake uttered its melancholy wail. Famished and cold I lay by my lonely tire, turning now one side, now the other, to its warmth, imitating with my wearied body the diurnal motion of the earth round the sun. Suddenly I heard a sound as of dogs barking. I sat up and listened eagerly. Yes, i4. was distinct and clear through the silence of the cloudless, starry night. Dogs ! That meant Indians, a camp, food, companionship, direction. In a trice Rock was harnessed, and we were off through the darkness. Straight for the sound of barking he hastened, and soon I found myself, with hardly any guidance of my own, right in the midst of an immense Indian camp. Out from every tent poured braves, with full-cocked guns and much excited talk, to find out the meaning of the intrusion. A few warning shots were fired, and all crowded round my buggy. There was something indescribably terrifying in the haste, the alarm, the excitement, and the babel of unknown speech. Seven Indian dialects I knew well, but this was merely a confusion of meaningless chatter and fierce yells. When I had time to look about me I found that I had blundered into a camp of Blackfeet, a tribe of whose language and habits I knew nothing. Fortunately it transpired that one or two of them could speak a little Cree, and by this means we soon became friends. The chief himself, “Old Sun,” a humane and wise man, conducted me to his tent, and treated me with the greatest hospitality. I even got so far as to suffer the rite of initiation into the “blood brotherhood.” Altogether I was in high favour, more so than I quite wished to be, though after my painful journey, and my weary days of cold and hunger, I was ready to plunge vigorously enough into what seemed a life of ease and luxury. There is always a great danger of reaction when those who have been famished to the verge of starvation find themselves suddenly in the midst of plenty. I simply sloughed my old vigorous self, and relapsed into a kind of torpor, interrupted with ravenous fits of overeating. The wonder is that my sorely-abused “frater corpus,” as St. Francis called his body, came out of it as it did. But it was merely a reaction, and soon the ordinary course of my nature reasserted itself, and I thought with appreciation of the wild turnip and potato soup I had lived upon so slenderly in the wilderness.

This tribe, called in their own language Savakeans, I found to be the most original and interesting, and at the same time the most dignified and most rationally inclined, that I had yet come across. The men appeared of less stature than their enemies and neighbours the Crees, but were nevertheless tall, well-made, active and athletic in appearance. Their manners were mild and pleasing, an effect greatly heightened by a singular softness and melody of voice. They had clear-cut, noble features, the nose aquiline, straight or slightly Roman, and the cheekbones less prominent and lips thinner than those of any other tribe I had met with. Their dress was characteristically Indian, but unusually clean and well ordered. Both sexes were highly painted with vermilion on lips, cheeks and forehead. The women wore long gowns of buffalo skin, dressed to a beautiful softness, and dyed with yellow ochre. These robes were confined at the waist by broad belts of dressed skin, thickly studded over with highly polished, round brass buttons. The tribal instinct is strong among all these savages, and tribal jealousies and tribal wars are perpetually going on. One result of this is that intermarriage of blood relations are common, and that some of the smaller tribes have suffered from this habit to such a degree that they have become extinct. Among these Blackfeet, however, I found this evil obviated by a rude rule, by which the children of two brothers or of two sisters might not marry, while a man’s children might marry into the family of his sister. The tribe as a whole were vigorous in mind, apt to learn, quick in understanding, and sound in judgment. They had a notion of a supernatural world, of a life after death, and of the difference between right and wrong. Old traditions of visions of the unseen lingered among them, of dead relatives seen in dreams, and of assurances of beatific vision in another life. Their dead were hung in trees, with all the articles familiarly used in life. A horse was shot for their equipment in the Happy Hunting Grounds. All brass ornaments were removed, and that some portion or sign of human love might accompany them, the widow or widower chopped off a finger-joint. Many might be seen who had thus lost three or four finger-joints.

The chief “Old Sun” was a remarkably “knowing” old gentleman, and might almost have been a Piet, so “auld farrant ” was he. All his life he had been par excellence a warrior, a councillor, and a hunter, volunteering again and again for dangerous duties and positions. His wife had a strange and romantic story, quite worth relating in full.

Many years before this Piegan maiden had wandered alone from her camp to look for strayed horses. These horses had, however, been stolen by the men of Gros Ventres, a small tribe, the last remnant of which were the miserable creatures to whom I had given my ammunition earlier on my journey. Not content with securing the horses, they surrounded the maiden and carried her off. Her hands were tied behind her, and she was placed before the chief on horseback, and rode on till the middle of the following day, when he ordered a halt, and sent all his men off to hunt, he himself staying to watch the captive maiden. He became weary, however, having spent many nights without sleep, and lay down to rest. But first he tied her securely with a strong raw thong, which he attached to his own person, and placed his gun and knife under 1 im. His tomahawk, however, he left lying by his side. As soon as he was asleep the girl quietly took the tomahawk and struck him with all her night upon the temple, killing him on the spot. As in the last spasm he turned, she caught up the knife upon which he had been lying, cut the thongs which bound her limbs, and finally drove us long blade into the dead chief’s heart. After cutting scalp, tongue, and one arm from the body, and appropriating the dead man’s gun, knife, and tomahawk, she mounted his horse and rode off. She soon found herself being followed hard by her captor’s braves, who at one point were within five hundred yards of her. Yet her horse, fired by the smell of human blood, galloped with frenzied speed, and so saved her life, for she reached her camp .n safety the next day. She treasured the ghastly relics with infinite pride, keeping them as trophies of war in a leather cabinet made of a grizzly bear skin with claws on. In consequence of this act, atrocious to our ideas, and yet full of a kind of savage heroism recalling that of Jael, the wife of Heber, she was made the wife of “ Old Sun,” one of the most outstanding of the Red Men’s chiefs.

After my idle existence had fairly had time to pall upon me, I fell eagerly to planning how best to resume my journey, and when, with a fresh supply of gunpowder and shot in my possession, I said good-bye to my kind friends and shook up Rock’s reins once more, I felt like a schoolboy just let out of school. Although thick smoke eddied from a hole at the top of the tent, it was most painful to my eyes, and I had been truly slowly “cured ” in smoke. I rejoiced to be again out in the open alone. There is not much variety in the prairie, but in its wide solitary freedom I found ray deepest instincts satisfied. There is no more misleading saying of antiquity than that which says, “A little while is enough to view the world in ; it signifies not a farthing whether a man stands gazing here a hundred or a hundred thousand years, for all he gets by it is to see the same sights so much the oftener.” This may be true of the man who never grows and never learns. The genuine observer finds no sameness. If it is possible to pore over some great poet again and again, and to find new meaning and beauty every time, how much more is il possible in studying that supreme poem, the Universe? How I searched it! How it searched me! I said to myself, “It is good to be here,” and I would fain have built my tabernacle there in the great solitude.

But I had to press on, and day after day passed in steady, uneventful progress till the Eagle Hills—near which I had killed the black bear five months before—were passed. One evening, observing the moon to be in its first quarter, I resolved to travel on until it disappeared from sight. But as I looked upwards 1 saw a black spot gathering on the face of a crystal sky, high in the zenith. Just so had I noticed the first indication of a prairie thunderstorm, and now I judged it best to look for a suitable camping ground before the torrents descended. The blackness rapidly spread itself over the vault of heaven, and out of it came first a few flashes of sheet lightning, and afterwards—not torrents of rain, but a living mass of voracious flies, blacker and somewhat larger than mosquitoes, and armed with long fangs. Had not Rock been already in harness when the fly-cloud burst, he would surely have been devoured. He and I alike were well nigh choked ; mouth and nostrils were filled in an instant if we opened either. And as we were thirty miles from the open prairie, my only hope of safety lay in driving Rock at his best—which was about ten miles an hour—in order to draw air suction, for the night was as calm as death. In three hours he brought me into the open country, how, I scarcely know, as I was under layers and layers of flies, while he, poor animal, was covered all over some six inches deep, as I found on rubbing him with grass. A blessed breeze had sprung up from the east, and, driving to a high hillock, I quickly set tire to the grass. Rock stood in the flames doggedly, apparently resolved to be burned to death rather than have the life sucked out of him by the torturing insects. To me it was the most unique experience I had met. I had heard from Indians of such things, but had never seen anything of the kind before.

The severe bleeding so weakened my brave horse that it became necessary to get a companion for him, partly to inspirit him, and partly to ease his burden. And, indeed, the Blackie I eventually procured proved a wonderful encouragement, and soon Rock became his old self again.

Crossing the South Saskatchewan at Batoche’s scow ferry, I found myself on the old trail over which I had passed two years before—then westward bound to a terra incognita, now eastward set for home. Once again at the foot of the well-known hill, the solitary landmark of this lonely wilderness, Spa-thanaw Watchi, on the top of which stands the cross over the solitary grave, I lingered, pondering over all that had befallen me since last I rested there. Something in the wide, unpeopled solitude recalled the words of Rabelais, “ Go, friends, in the protection of that intellectual sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere, which we call God. Everywhere, in the world, in the motion of the planets, in the wondrous mechanism of the body, we find the works of the Divine Hand, the design of the Divine Hand, but to all prayers, to all cries, all yearnings, there is silence.’’ Nay, that God had not been silent to me, that God had been near to me in my lonely wanderings during these two years, I am a witness. Thus, I beg to differ from the French satirist and priest. Full of humour and wit as he was, he was deficient in that delicacy without which genius may sparkle for a moment, but can never shine with pure undiminished lustre. Yet Nature is physical, and p;tiless in her reign of unrelenting law, neither nurse nor mother, but a field for labour and a grave. And not until these primitive conditions have been modified and some modest degree of culture attained, can a higher conception of the world and its spiritual meaning be obtained by man.

After leaving the great salt plain behind, and as I entered the West Touchwood Hills, my attention was suddenly arrested by some strange object on the road before me. Behind me lay a gloomy sky, which lent but little clearness to the vision, but presently the darkness gave way to a cheerful blue, out of which the brilliant autumn sunshine burst forth. Then I saw that the strange object was a caravan coming to meet me. Who could it be invading the wilderness in such a fashion ? A thousand conjectures ran through my mind as a horseman rode forward to meet me. It turned -out to be Mrs. Laird, wife of the Lieutenant-Governor, escorted by a great retinue en route to join her husband at Battle-ford. As I was the latest arrival from there I must be prepared to be fully catechised. We had never met before, but when people encounter each other in the middle of the prairies they do not wait for introductions. She shook hands with me, and after a few preliminaries I took my position in front of a glowing camp fire, she all eagerness to question, I equally ready to answer, and the business of the evening began.

“You have come from Battleford, Mr. Campbell. How is my husband? Do you think I shall ever see him again? As you know, numbers of these wild American Sioux have crossed the boundary. What shall we do? Oh, my dear husband, were I only near him ! Are the Indians wild at Battleford? Did any of them fire at you during your long travels amongst them ? Where is your party? How daring of you to travel as you do without a companion!”

“Timor facet I)eos,” I put in.

“True, Mr. Campbell, but not in our time, when the Sioux Indians are acting so cruelly.” Upon being informed that I had travelled alone from the Upper Saskatchewan, she almost fainted away with amazement. By-and-by she resumed, “You are foolhardy, Mr. Campbell, and may yet rue the day you risked so much. There are many Sioux Indian camps lying south of your trail, so beware. We have to keep watch every night, and even through the day we are scarcely safe. Did you hear how these same heartless savages cut down General Custer and his soldiers to a man? The General’s wife was not with him—which was a mercy in one way —but I am going to join my husband to suffer with him, should the Fates serve him in such a way.”

Truly, I thought, what a priceless treasure is a true woman, that one can trust alike far away and at home!

It was quite evident, however, that I must consider my own safety; and as a man's first duty is to himself, and I was never good at angling for favour, I drove away, and was soon lost to view among the hills. I thought with some amusement of my recent position under the fire of Mrs. Laird’s kindly cross questioning. Still, as I drove on, I kept a sharp lookout, feeling that any clump of trees might hold a lurking foe, whose rifle might empty my saddle at any moment. My noble Rock was still alive, doing his two yokes to Blackie’s one without a murmur. And the score was steadily running in his favour, for already Blackie was beginning to show signs of wearing out. Very few horses could have borne the strain of repeated double yokes at the rate I had travelled from the South Saskatchewan—-sixty-five miles a day. Apparently Rock felt that he was being imposed upon, for as I awoke one morning I espied him hobbling himself and his companion into a dense thicket, evidently hiding to evade an early yoke. I watched the manoeuvre with interest while drinking the inevitable black, strong, sugarless tea, and picking what flesh remained on the bones of a prairie chicken, which constituted the early morning’s repast. Had 1 not seen them enter I could not possibly have discovered them, as they packed themselves side by side as closely as herrings in a barrel to avoid being discovered.

It was evening when I emerged from the long range of Touchwood Hills, which in days gone by supplied shelter and hiding places for Crees and Assiniboines in time of war. Under this cover they manoeuvred their forces in preparation for their stealthy, early morning attacks. Just as I was about to squat on the greensward to enioy a meal preparatory to a moonlight drive over the long “pheasant plain,” I suddenly espied a solitary Indian approaching, carrying a long gun on his shoulder. He had evidently emerged out of a swamp or thicket hard by. I awaited his approach, and after the usual preliminary savage greeting we shook hands. He was gaudily dressed, but gaunt in appearance, and stood before me straight and dignified as a soldier before his superior officer. He had regular features, a sallow complexion, and an unvarying smile. As he cast a scrutinizing glance at me, my horses, my buggy, my Winchester, and breech-loading shot-gun which lay in it, his face for a moment assumed a hard, defiant expression, which I shall not easily forget. It was only a flash, however, and the next instant there was nothing but the perfect calm and cunning composure of his race. His movements were remarkably quick, and betrayed his southern origin. At first he professed not to understand Cree, but after drinking a pot of strong tea, and picking the bones of two large ducks, he changed his mind, and began to converse freely in that language, though with a strange accent. As we squatted on the grass together I found myself distrusting my savage visitor more and mere, but I showed nothing, and kept outwardly as cool as a cucumber. I was quite conscious, however, that although a few miles nearer civilisation than I had been recently, I still carried my life in my hand, and the slightest mistake might deprive me of it.

“Where is your camp?” I began.

“I don’t know. I lost my way, being in a strange country,” was his answer.

“Do you know the chiefs Red Cloud and Sitting Bull?” I queried.

“I have heard of them,” was the curt reply.

“Did you know of the battle the latter fought with the Whites last year?”

He shook his head, indicative of ignorance and innocence alike. But upon my pressing him he admitted, under my promise not to betray him or single him out for punishment in any way, that he had taken a prominent part in the battle of Rosebud Valley. Still he pointed out diplomatically, that if it was aggressive in form it was defensive in essence, being in defence of their wives and children. The reader will recall the account already given of that atrocious event. It only added to my horror at the recollection of it when my savage guest (possibly desiring to unnerve and terrify me) exhibited the fabric of an inner garment composed entirely of the scalps of his slain foes. Little did 1 guess that he was even then counting on adding mine to his collection.

We parted on the best of terms, shaking hands most amicably, and I drove off, feeling somewhat glad to be rid of him. I was barely twenty yards away—when, whiz! and my wide felt hat fell down before me with a bullet-hole in the brim. Drawing rein quick as lightning, I grasped my Winchester, and turned just in time to see my treacherous foe disappear among the tall reeds in the little hollow out of which 1 had drawn the water for the tea which we had drunk together. Instinctively, and without a thought, I put my rifle to my shoulder, and planted three consecutive bullets into the spot where he had disappeared, and drove on as if nothing had happened. So much for the ingenuous native who had assured me that he had not so much as a single charge of ammunition in his possession. I felt the more indignant at his ingratitude that I had always had reason to regard myself as in a somewhat special degree the friend of the Indians. I had taken a very great interest in them, had made a constant practice of treating them kindly, and had secured the regard and affection of many individuals, and I think the confidence of the tribes generally. Perhaps it is most charitable to suppose that this particular savage, being of a southern tribe, did not know me. But the reader will scarcely blame me in the circumstances for putting it out of his power to mend his faulty aim.

I had considerable cause for anxiety as I pursued my way on that memorable night. For one thing, there was the risk of being followed by other braves who had been ambushed close by. For another, I soon became aware that a tremendous prairie fire was raging across the whole face of the Pheasant Plains. It rolled before a gale of wind almost athwart the trail, and lit up the whole heavens with a burning glow. There was no need to ask myself which danger I feared most. Nobody who had ever seen a prairie fire would have any doubt about that.

It rushed across the plain, swifter than a racehorse, rolling now sky high, now low down, seizing on everything that came in its way, high dry reeds, withered long grass, bushes, everything, consuming all with crackling and roaring. A prairie fire always reminded me of the Scriptural scene when Abraham “looked towards Sodom and Gomorrah, and lo! the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace.” I hastily set fire to a hillock, and when that had burnt over the top, there I took up my position with my buggy and my two horses. By lying down flat on my face with a wet blanket over my head, I managed miraculously to escape suffocation.

Such are the joys of travelling. I do not imagine they would appeal to everybody, or even to many. The traveller, like the poet, must be born, not made. And even of those who fancy they would like to travel, most will find their best satisfaction in doing so in a good library, with plenty of maps and a comfortable armchair.

At 12.30 a.m. the wind dropped suddenly, and ‘n the dead calm the fire subsided. I spent the flight rifle in hand, listening with a beating heart for footsteps. I would have travelled all night, but in the haste and confusion of securing myself against the fire I had entirely lost the trail, and could not even remember on which side of the hillock it lay. It was a long and anxious night, the most eventful of all my carcer, and at the first streak of dawn I gladly left the scene of my lonely vigil, not even waiting to brew myself a pot of tea,—that most excellent Souchong imported by my Company, and unequalled outside of the Celestial Empire itself. I drove on in haste, and reached Musk Rat Creek without further incident.

At Portage La Prairie I passed under a triumphal arch, erected by the people in honour of the first visit of Canada’s Governor-General, the Earl of Duiffern, to this virgin province of the prairies. His Excellency was in a most humorous mood when I heard him, and I recollect the enjoyment—and the brogue—with which he told a story of the days of his wooing. One evening he employed a carman—a fellow-countryman—to drive him to Captain Hamilton’s residence. On the way he chatted with the man, and heard, to his great amusement, that pretty Miss Hamilton, bejabbers, was soon to be married to an “ uncommonly ugly man with a glass eye.” “Ochone, ochone, it’s meself that’s sorry,” said Patrick, Both Lord and Lady Duffern evidently thoroughly enjoyed the reminiscence.

It was at Portage La Prairie that Blackie showed signs of giving out. Taken by himself, he was negatively good, but by the side of the untiring Rock he was positively bad, for a quick and long journey. Indeed, a few miles further on, his abandonment became inevitable. Not so with noble Rock, for his last day he covered sixty miles, having apparently abundant stamina left.

I arrived in Winnipeg early in October, after an unusually circuitous journey lasting two years, one month, and thirteen days, having travelled the last six hundred miles in eight and a half days, and thus broken the record. During all this time I had lived as a primitive nomad. Out of the seven hundred and seventy-six days and nights, three hundred and ninety-three were passed in the open air, with only the heavens for shelter. And of the eighteen years which I passed in the country, six and three-quarters were passed in this manner. Summer and winter temperatures vary very considerably, from 8o° below zero to 120° above it. But owing to the dryness of the air there is comparatively little discomfort experienced, even when the temperature is very low. The cold certainly strikes one much more by its effect on the thermometer than on the human frame. I do not vaunt any special physical powers of mine in rough endurance. The circumstances merely show how fully man can adapt himself to circumstances, and even vie with the wild animals, provided he accepts the proper conditions. Nor have I suffered any special inconvenience in health—indeed, a healthier man it would be hard to find in any place or any country, thank God!

The stride that Winnipeg had made in my absence was to me simply marvellous. Until a short time ago the country was unknown to geographers, unknown, in fact, to all except a few stray hunters and trappers in the employ of my Company. Now civilization had fairly laid hold upon the east, and was beginning her westward progress. It is said that “trade follows the flag”; and the fact that our aims are neither territorial, nor military, nor political, but economic and commercial, seems difficult for foreign nations to grasp. The truth of Napoleon's phrase, “a nation of shopkeepers,” is borne upon us as we study the expansion of our Empire. Gold digging and sheep farming laid the foundations of our colonies in Australia and South Africa. India is ours through concessions to a trading company. And last, but not least, our transatlantic dominion had its germ in the fur-trading industry of my own Company. In the Canadian prairies in which I roamed there is room for at least one hundred million souls to live and thrive in peace. From Winnipeg in the east to the fort of the Rocky Mountains is a distance of one thousand miles, and from the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the watershed of the North Saskatchewan about three hundred and sixty miles, the area thus included amounting to three hundred and thirty thousand square miles, or two hundred and ten millions acres. The greater part of this enormous area offers no impediment to immediate cultivation, being open prairie and ready for the plough. For countless generations it has been the haunt of buffalo, and the soil is rich in animal and other manure. It is indeed a poor man’s country. The Rocky Mountains form a natural wall dividing the rich mining districts of the western sea-board from the central pla*'ns, which offer the best source of the country’s food supply. West of the mountains the soil is untamable by the plough ; east, although there are rich coal deposits, the chief use of the land is in the raising of wheat and other food produce. With capital and labour uniting to open up its wealth, there is no limit to the productiveness and prosperity to which the North-West may hopefully look forward. During all those years, it is but fair to add, I was tenacious of life as well as of purpose. After deliberate consideration I severed my connection with my honourable Company when I thought I had exhausted its possibilities, i.e., promotions similar to those given to the old Company, no longer in existence.

Au revoir, but not adieu, to all my old comrades. After playing for eighteen years my part in this little drama, I considered it my sacred duty throughout the business to display my full share of the wisdom of the serpent. On the great hospitality and gentlemanly bearing they have always displayed towards myself personally, there is no need to descant.

Henceforth, ‘‘the condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it.” For truly, I look upon it thus, that the more strength and magnanimity one displays at such a time, the more one desists from uneasy insistence in drawing comrades and friends back to old remembrance—in short, the better able we show ourselves to live without it, the more our friends and comrades will be drawn towards us in after years.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus