The Uncollected Prose of Pauline Johnson

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The Battleford Trail

The Northwestern Territories have never looked so glorious as in this last year of Grace 1902. Never were there such turquoise skies, such golden brown acres of prairie grass billowing away to the four points of the compass. The crisp October air caught us with the first hint of autumn as we emerged from the comfortable warmth of a drowsy sleeping car, and stepped on to the station platform at Saskatoon, where the lordly old Saskatchewan river rolls away northwards and where memories crowd about you at the very mention of the town. Dear little Saskatoon, that during those tempestuous days of the '85 Rebellion, stretched out its arms and took the sick and wounded, the dying and the dead, right into its tiny village heart; for was it not the Hospital town after the Batoche and Duck Lake affairs—and has not our sweet Canadian songstress Agnes Maule Machar immortalized it in verse? Saskatchewan wears her laurels well, and they do not fade with the years, for when some old-timer gets his pipe and his recollections into activity, he will sit by the fire and tell you of those stormy days when the little settlement was a refuge for

“The boatman on the river,
The hunter on the plain.”

We breakfasted, and got our luggage into shape for the long drive into the interior, and then there was a clatter of horses and wheels outside. The crack of the “blacksnake” whip, a dash, then a halt, and “All aboard for Battleford” rang out the driver's voice, and the stage with His Majesty's Mails was at the door. The crowd “bunched” up to wish us “bon voyage.” Rough looking western men with kindly hearts and open hands, speculators, ranchers, grain buyers, land seekers, one and all wished us “good luck” as the sturdy little roadsters Dan and Fox lifted their noses, wheeled up into the wind, and “hit the trail” for Battleford. And what a trail—velvety, dark, soft prairie sod, devoid of stones or ruts, or hills, or hollows. The early morning sun was yellow and gleaming, the October sky cloudless, the whole world was large and limitless. At last, this was the mighty unbroken West, with the town and the railroad dropping behind us and one hundred miles of prairie between us and the little historic romance-crowned settlement of Battleford. The wild breath of the Great West got into our blood. Ye Gods! how delicious it was to be dashing away, away from everything. We felt in touch with Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Capt. Crawford—all the wild border adventurers. I leaned forward and asked our gallant stage-driver his name. He said it was George, plain everyday 1902 George Wilson. It was a shock. I could at last sympathize with Mark Twain when he discovered his French guide to be A. Billfinger. What a come-down to be driven through the heart of the Wild West of rebellion historic fame—by a man named George. We told George he would not do, it would look so awful in the papers, we could never go back East and confess that the custodian of the King's Mails for the overland hundred mile trail was only a “George”. No, we would call him Alkali Pete, and by this name he is now known throughout the territory of Saskatchewan.

The first thing to arrest our attention was the life that teemed on all sides, the myriads of living things that thronged the prairie reaches that fresh October morning. The game laws so stringently enforced the last five years in the Territories are surely reaping a well merited reward. Seven years ago, when I first visited the West, prairie chickens were just about “shot out”. Old settlers solemnly shook their heads and declared that it was the same old tale as that of the buffalo. But the government at Regina foresaw the coming extinction, and came down upon the populace with a hand of steel, gloved in pleasantly reading, but rigidly enforced game laws. The result is, chickens and partridge literally throng the prairies. Flocks of eighteen and twenty rose from the trail a score of times during the day. They winged perhaps fifty yards away then settled quietly again to their rose bud diet, and their grain gleanings, and such birds! fat plump and tender, for many a one found its way to our willing plates, browned and appetizing as only the prairie bred folk can cook game. Mallard and teal mantled every “slough”, uncountable clouds of them fed and paddled about, and flocks of great wild geese honked overhead “V-ing” to their feeding grounds without fear. But the royal old Buffalo? Never. Oh, to see just one herd of these erstwhile Princes of the plains, galloping out of the pearly horizon, until the ground thundered and trembled in response to their thousand hoofs. You look out over the far far leagues of wind swept prairie. Your eyes ache and blur in their hopeless search; against all tradition you yet have the unspoken dream of seeing one, just one kingly animal that has cheated the greed of the hunter's gun, but your eyes mark only the disused runways, those swaying buffalo trails that all the tempests of years have not effaced. And anon, a circling hollow zoned about some huge boulder marks the historic “stamping stones” where the monarch bulls, leaders of two mighty herds met, challenged, and with hoarse bellowings attacked horn to horn, shoulder to shoulder, 'round and 'round until the sod was broken and beaten down, down, down, a hollow moat, five times as deep as the ring made by performing horses at a country circus. The herds stood aside, watching the gladiators, until one in his giant strength roared forth the conqueror's cry—the alliance of the two herds was then a brief matter, and in one immense colony they followed the victor of the “stamping stone”.

We passed many of these battle grounds, where the everlasting rocks like Saturn in his rings mark a definite constellation in the prairie's firmament.

No, the great tragedian of the West has gone. His little brother, that irresistible comedian, the gopher reigns in his stead. What a merry little saucy eyed fellow he is. What friskings and scamperings to escape from the horse's hoofs, how gracefully he assumes his rabbit-like pose, sitting upright, his tiny forepaws drooping downward, his beady eyes dancing with merriment—and far off in the still lying “sloughs” his cousin the muskrat is building his winter quarters, high basket worked roofs, that loom like islands amongst the reeds.

We were absorbed with watching all the rare wild things, when Alkali Pete, to make a short cut, drove across a strip of field containing flax. It nearly proved our ending. A black bearded irate rancher, carrying a pitch fork and swearing in high [unclear] far after us.

“Get off my flax you —— —— —— ——” he yelled, lunging at our horses with his pitchfork. Alkali drove on.

“I'll have you arrested you —— —— —— ——” he stormed.

Alkali smiled cooly and drove on. The black bearded rancher ran sputtering after us, cursing our bodies and souls, our parents and our ancestors—Alkali Pete grew dignified. “I dare you to stop me. Make way for His Majesty's Mails” he roared dramatically. The situation was interesting, but Fox and Dan being fleet of foot distanced the “man with the hoe”. We were safe.

We afterwards heard the rancher hitched up at once, drove into Saskatoon, to “lay information” against Alkali, and the powers that be questioned him thus:

“So you tried to stop the stage crossing your flax field?”


“You held up the driver with a pitchfork?”

“I did.”

“Do you know you can be arrested and ‘jugged’ for stopping the course of His Majesty's Mails?”

“What's that!”

“You had better go home and keep quiet. If I hear of you ‘holding up’ the mail again I will—”

But the rancher had made good his escape.

We halted for dinner at “The Badger,” a neat little sod roofed shack kept by two American women of rather wide experience. We dined off exquisite Japanese china, for the West is a place of surprises and incongruities. Of the sixty thousand Americans that have settled in our North West this year there are two classes, those anxious to swear allegiance to the King and become good British subjects, and those—most numerous alas!—who flaunt their hatred of us, and yet come to us to earn a dollar they cannot get in their own country. Our hostesses evidently belonged to this latter class, for during the meal hour one said to me “When next you come here you will see the Stars and Strips flying over this shack.”

In jest I replied, “If I do, I will empty a shot gun into it.”

She lifted her head proudly, and said “We can stand it, it won't be the first time the American flag has been shot at.”

“No,” I said “nor the first time it has been shot at by an Indian. Did you ever hear of an Indian shooting at the Union Jack?”

She turned the conversation.

It must have been own brother to this lady, who wrote to the Calgary papers demanding that American history be taught in the public schools in Alberta, as the American settlers did not desire their children to study English history. And yet there are people in the Territories who declare against that rare, though unconscious humorist the Doukhobor, who seeks the Messiah in Winnipeg. The Doukhobor will never harm us—but one shudders to think what this American element that we are taking into the veins of our Territories, will some day develop into. Last Dominion Day a good “Canuck” in the town of Lacombe flung forth the Union Jack and fired off one dozen rockets. On the 4th of July, the sky was crimson with Stars and Stripes, and four hundred dollars worth of fireworks blared over our little British town. The blood of more than one Britisher boiled—What is to be the outcome of this poison we are absorbing?

We left the Yankee hostess and her strident sentiments far behind us, our great Canadian prairie was a sweeter thing to contemplate. Along the trail numbers of freighters were encamped for their midday meal. Great heavy wagons, strongly built horses, muscular brawny men. Little camp fires glimmered palely under the blinding sun. The inevitable pot of tea so dear to the nor'western tongue, steeped among the coals, and we caught a whiff of its fragrance as we approached. It takes a good five days when the trails are in excellent condition to freight from Saskatoon to Battleford, a vast improvement on the old days when the nearest railway was at St. Cloud, Minnesota, and later on, the thousand mile trail from Winnipeg to Edmonton took three months of the sturdy freighters' time to cover.