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- The Arctic Prairies - 6/38 -
It's a, fine thing to get started, however late in the day, and though it was 3.20 P. M. before everything was ready, we gladly set out--Sousi, Major Jarvis, and myself--all mounted, the native leading a packhorse with provisions.
And now we had a chance to study our guide. A man's real history begins, of course, about twenty years before he is born. In the middle of the last century was a notorious old ruffian named Beaulieu. Montreal was too slow for him, so he invaded the north-west with a chosen crew of congenial spirits. His history can be got from any old resident of the north-west. I should not like to write it as it was told to me.
His alleged offspring are everywhere in the country, and most travellers on their return from this region, sound a note of warning: "Look out for every one of the name of Beaulieu. They are a queer lot." And now we had committed ourselves and our fortunes into the hands of Beaulieu's second or twenty-second son--I could not make sure which. He is a typical half-breed, of medium height, thin, swarthy, and very active, although he must be far past 60. Just how far is not known, whether 59 69 or 79, he himself seemed uncertain, but he knows there is a 9 in it. The women of Smith's Landing say 59, the men say 79 or 89.
He is clad in what might be the cast-off garments of a white tramp, except for his beaded moccasins. However sordid these people may be in other parts of their attire, I note that they always have some redeeming touch of color and beauty about the moccasins which cover their truly shapely feet. Sousi's rifle, a Winchester, also was clad in a native mode. An embroidered cover of moose leather protected it night and day, except when actually in use; of his weapons he took most scrupulous care. Unlike the founder of the family, Sousi has no children of his own. But he has reared a dozen waifs under prompting of his own kind heart. He is quite a character--does not drink or smoke, and I never heard him swear. This is not because he does not know how, for he is conversant with the vigor of all the five languages of the country, and the garment of his thought is like Joseph's coat--Ethnologically speaking, its breadth and substance are French, but it bears patches of English, with flowers and frills, strophes, and classical allusions of Cree and Chipewyan--the last being the language of his present "home circle."
There was one more peculiarity of our guide that struck me forcibly. He was forever considering his horse. Whenever the trail was very bad, and half of it was, Sousi dismounted and walked--the horse usually following freely, for the pair were close friends.
This, then, was the dark villain against whom we had been warned. How he lived up to his reputation will be seen later.
After four hours' march through a level, swampy country, forested with black and white spruce, black and white poplar, birch, willow, and tamarack, we came to Salt River, a clear, beautiful stream, but of weak, salty brine.
Not far away in the woods was a sweet spring, and here we camped for the night. Close by, on a place recently burnt over, I found the nest of a Green-winged Teal. All cover was gone and the nest much singed, but the down had protected the 10 eggs. The old one fluttered off, played lame, and tried to lead me away. I covered up the eggs and an hour later found she had returned and resumed her post.
That night, as I sat by the fire musing, I went over my life when I was a boy in Manitoba, just too late to see the Buffalo, recalling how I used to lie in some old Buffalo wallow and peer out over the prairie through the fringe of spring anemones and long to see the big brown forms on the plains. Once in those days I got a sensation, for I did see them. They turned out to be a herd of common cattle, but still I got the thrill.
Now I was on a real Buffalo hunt, some twenty-five years too late. Will it come? Am I really to see the Wild Buffalo on its native plains? It is too good to be true; too much like tipping back the sands of time.
THE BUFFALO HUNT
We left camp on Salt River at 7.45 in the morning and travelled till 11 o'clock, covering six miles. It was all through the same level country, in which willow swamps alternated with poplar and spruce ridges. At 11 it began to rain, so we camped on a slope under some fine, big white spruces till it cleared, and then continued westward. The country now undulated somewhat and was varied with openings.
Sousi says that when first he saw this region, 30 years ago, it was all open prairie, with timber only in hollows and about water. This is borne out by the facts that all the large trees are in such places, and that all the level open stretches are covered with sapling growths of aspen and fir. This will make a glorious settlement some day. In plants, trees, birds, soil, climate, and apparently all conditions, it is like Manitoba.
We found the skeleton of a cow Buffalo, apparently devoured by Wolves years ago, because all the big bones were there and the skull unbroken.
About two in the afternoon we came up a 200-foot rise to a beautiful upland country, in which the forests were diversified with open glades, and which everywhere showed a most singular feature. The ground is pitted all over with funnel-shaped holes, from 6 to 40 feet deep, and of equal width across the rim; none of them contained water. I saw one 100 feet across and about 50 feet deep; some expose limestone; in one place we saw granite.
At first I took these for extinct geysers, but later I learned that the whole plateau called Salt Mountain is pitted over with them. Brine is running out of the mountain in great quantities, which means that the upper strata are being undermined as the salt washes out, and, as these crack, the funnels are formed no doubt by the loose deposits settling.
In the dry woods Bear tracks became extremely numerous; the whole country, indeed, was marked with the various signs. Practically every big tree has bearclaw markings on it, and every few yards there is evidence that the diet of the bears just now is chiefly berries of Uva ursi.
As we rode along Sousi prattled cheerfully in his various tongues; but his steady flow of conversation abruptly ended when, about 2 P. M., we came suddenly on some Buffalo tracks, days old, but still Buffalo tracks. All at once and completely he was the hunter. He leaped from his horse and led away like a hound.
Ere long, of course, the trail was crossed by two fresher ones; then we found some dry wallows and several very fresh tracks. We tied up the horses in an old funnel pit and set about an elaborate hunt. Jarvis minded the stock, I set out with Sousi, after he had tried the wind by tossing up some grass. But he stopped, drew a finger-nail sharply across my canvas coat, so that it gave a little shriek, and said "Va pa," which is "Cela ne va pas" reduced to its bony framework. I doffed the offending coat and we went forward as shown on the map. The horses were left at A; the wind was east. First we circled a little to eastward, tossing grass at intervals, but, finding plenty of new sign, went northerly and westward till most of the new sign was east of us. Sousi then led for C, telling me to step in his tracks and make no noise. I did so for long, but at length a stick cracked under my foot; he turned and looked reproachfully at me. Then a stick cracked under his foot; I gave him a poke in the ribs. When we got to the land between the lake at D, Sousi pointed and said, "They are here." We sneaked with the utmost caution that way--it was impossible to follow any one trail--and in 200 yards Sousi sank to the ground gasping out, "La! la! maintenon faites son portrait au taut que vous voudrez." I crawled forward and saw, not one, but half a dozen Buffalo. "I must be nearer," I said, and, lying flat on my breast, crawled, toes and elbows, up to a bush within 75 yards, where I made shot No. 1, and saw here that there were 8 or 9 Buffalo, one an immense bull.
Sousi now cocked his rifle-I said emphatically: "Stop! you must not fire." "No?" he said in astonished tones that were full of story and comment. "What did we come for?" Now I saw that by backing out and crawling to another bunch of herbage I could get within 50 yards.
"It is not possible," he gasped.
"Watch me and see," I replied. Gathering all the near vines and twisting them around my neck, I covered my head with leaves and creeping plants, then proceeded to show that it was possible, while Sousi followed. I reached the cover and found it was a bed of spring anemones on the far side of an old Buffalo wallow, and there in that wallow I lay for a moment revelling in the sight. All at once it came to me: Now, indeed, was fulfilled the long-deferred dream of my youth, for in shelter of those flowers of my youth, I was gazing on a herd of wild Buffalo. Then slowly I rose above the cover and took my second picture.
But the watchful creatures, more shy than Moose here, saw the rising mass of herbage, or may have caught the wind, rose lightly and went off. I noticed now, for the first time, a little red calf; ten Buffalo in all I counted. Sousi, standing up, counted 13. At the edge of the woods they stopped and looked around, but gave no third shot for the camera.
I shook Sousi's hand with all my heart, and he, good old fellow, said: "Ah! it was for this I prayed last night; without doubt it was in answer to my prayer that the Good God has sent me this great happiness."
Then back at camp, 200 yards away, the old man's tongue was loosed, and he told me how the chiefs in conference, and every one at the Fort, had ridiculed him and his Englishmen--"who thought they could walk up to Buffalo and take their pictures."
We had not been long in camp when Sousi went off to get some water, but at once came running back, shouting excitedly, "My rifle, my rifle!" Jarvis handed it to him; he rushed off to the woods. I followed in time to see him shoot an old Bear and two cubs out of
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