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Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

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night, when the fury of the hunt was passed and
darkness put an end to the toil of the women, the
scene was still beautiful, day lingering long above the
purple-black expanse of the plains. Then he tells
us:

"Seated on the fresh grass, with the vaulted skies
sown with stars for our House of adoration, silence
falls the ravens and the little birds are asleep, but
man keeps watch. It is then our songs of good-night



1865 FATHER LACOMBE 115

are sung to the Great Spirit and how beautiful seem
these hymns of the children of the wilderness!

"And there amidst them, happy in his lot, see this
man in a soutane. How eloquent and fine it seems
to him to say to them in their own language taught
by these fierce warriors 'Go, and sleep tranquilly,
my children. May the Great Spirit bless you. Au
revoir till morning.' '



Father Lacombe, desirous of dividing his new min-
istry impartially between the Blackfoot nation and
the Crees, directed his way south toward a large camp
of the former in October. He stayed some time with
the Piegans and Bloods in the vicinity of the Red
Deer River after he left St. Albert on October 23:
then moved on to the camp of Chief Natous near
Three Ponds, 1 where he arrived at the close of No-
vember. He was unaccompanied by Alexis and by
a mere chance his young brother Gaspard was not
with him.

Father Lacombe had already undergone many
hardships of the trail. He was now to realise the
crowning hazard of Indian life "a terrible accident,
which," as Father Andre wrote in a letter 2 of Octo-
ber 26, 1866, to Father LeFloch, "came near remov-
ing one of the most courageous and intrepid of our
missionaries . . . Pere Lacombe."

iThe scene of this battle was near the Battle River, some miles east
of the present town of Hobbema.

2 This letter is published in Vol. IV of the Quebec Rapports, in that
portion devoted to chronicles of St. Boniface diocese.



XI

FOOD having become scarce in the south, Natous
with other Blackfoot chiefs had led his band to the
extreme northern boundary of their hunting ground.
Camped a short distance away were two other bands
of his nation, which Father Lacombe planned to visit
when he had concluded his mission to the band of
Natous. The possibility of any warlike interruption
to his plans did not occur to him. He was, however,
to have his entire plans for the winter upset by a re-
newal of the war between the Crees and Blackfeet.

This battle took place on the night of December
the fourth. Father Lacombe was quartered in the
lodge of Chief Natous. He and his savage host
slumbered soundly on buffalo robes, their feet to the
fire. . . . Suddenly harsh sounds forced them-
selves to the chief's consciousness. Natous leaped to
his feet.

"Assinaw! Assinaw!" The Crees! The Crees!
he cried instantly. His old wife rushed with him
from the tent, Natous hastily priming his musket.
In the darkness outside a deadly round of musketry
crackled, then thundered, while weird lights quivered
through the inky blackness : the Crees had come pre-
pared for slaughter. Father Lacombe was shocked
into rigidity for an instant: outside the voice of

116



1865 FATHER LACOMBE 117

Natous rose rallying his warriors to the defense of
their camp.

The firelit lodge of the chief made a clear target
for the enemy. Suddenly two poles snapped with
the impact of balls that whizzed past Father
Lacombe. As one in a stupor he noted smoking gun-
wads fall near him. The soutane he had removed
for the night, he now hastily threw on over his deer
skin garments; snatching up the surplice and stole,
and reverently kissing the cross of his Order before
putting it in his belt, he prepared to move.

In accordance with the discipline of religious
Orders he paused to make a brief, generous offering
of his life to his Maker, from whom death or life
might come that night. Then he was himself again,
alert and fearless. A small sack containing the holy
oils he hung at his side. Taking up his Red Cross
flag he went out of the tent. Outside, he found him-
self in a hell of darkness and uncertainty and lust for
blood. Many of the young Blackfoot warriors were
away hunting buffalo, but those who remained under
Natous fought on recklessly.

Above the din rose the voice of Natous animating
his followers and defying the enemy. Father
Lacombe, incensed by the treacherous attack, shouted
an indignant command to the Crees to withdraw.
Some of them were Christian, he felt, and would obey
him. . . .

His voice rang out from a chest strong and deep
as a Viking's. In the hideous din of the carnage it



118 FATHER LACOMBE 1865

was entirely lost. The old warriors were crying out
encouragement and advice to the young men. Some
of the braves had raised wild war-chants, and on both
sides came the fiendish yells of unbridled passion.
Father Lacombe abandoned his futile effort.

The women, feverishly trying with knives and
hands to dig trenches wherein to hide their children
and themselves, raised their voices from time to time
in lamentation. Within the camp in the darkness
the living fell over the dead, and the wounded pleaded
for help.

To make the night more appalling, the frenzied
barking of the dogs rose hideously, blended with the
pitiful whinnies of frightened or dying horses. The
night was profoundly dark, unlit by moon or stars.
Only the sinister flash of the musketry lit the painful
scene.

Father Lacombe traversed the camping-ground over
and over again, inspiring the warriors to their bravest
efforts. He sought out the wounded, when he could
find them in the darkness. A woman standing
near him at the door of her lodge fell pierced by a
bullet; he baptized her and prayed with her till she
died.

Next morning she was found scalped; a daring
enemy had come into the lodge at some time through
the night and carried off the coveted trophy. A
thieving Assinaboine in the act of pillaging the chief's
tent was pierced by a ball and fell across the pile of
robes grasping Father Lacombe's breviary. Back



1865 FATHER LACOMBE 119

and forward through the darkness an intermittent
rain of balls fell. Father Lacombe, moving contin-
ually with words of encouragement to the warriors,
seemed to bear a charmed life.

At last, drawn by the sound of the battle, the Black-
foot warriors of the other bands came to the rescue,
though not before the enemy had practically com-
pleted sacking the camp.

One party of the rescuers was led by Crowfoot, a
young man already for his wisdom and bravery made
a chief among his people. In the darkness he came
up to Father Lacombe. A flash from a gun lit up
his face, showing it still and strong.

"Who are you?" the priest asked, for the face was
new to him.

"Crowfoot/' the warrior replied, and Father
Lacombe, rejoicing in the arrival of the noted young
warrior, urged him to do his best for the safety of
his people.

Three times that night the Crees and their Assina-
boine recruits were repulsed from the hillock behind
which the Elackfeet had secured cover, but dawn still
found them fighting. Before this, twenty-five lodges
about half of the camp had been destroyed.

Grateful for returning day, the Man of Prayer,
in stole and surplice dingy with the smoke of battle,
raising his crucifix in one hand and the Red Cross
flag in the other, now called on his Blackfoot hosts
to cease firing. Astounded at his actions, they com-
plied and watched him walk deliberately out from the



120 FATHER LACOMBE 1865

broken circle of tents toward the enemy, holding his
crucifix aloft and waving his white and red flag.

The Indian warriors, trained to ambush in battle,
marvelled at his bravery. Their Man-of-the-Good-
Heart had always been to them a great medicine-man.
Now he seemed a god come to their defence as he
moved slowly through the mist, advancing directly
upon the concealed enemy. The heroism of the action
was unconscious, characteristic, superb.

"Here! you Crees. Kamiyo-atchakwe speaks!





He called aloud again and again, but his Crees did
not hear him; and a fog, heavy with low-lying battle-
smoke, hung like a curtain shutting him out from
their vision.

He called to the unseen enemy; he waved his flag,
but his efforts were unavailing. The irregular fire
continued, bullets whizzed past his head and ploughed
in the ground beside him. The Blackfeet called out
to him, begging him to return, when suddenly a ball,
which had already touched the earth, rebounded to
his shoulder and glancing off struck his forehead.
The wound was a mere scratch, but the shock was so
great he staggered and lost his footing.

The Blackfeet believed him wounded and a new
wave of anger swept over their hearts. . . . The
Crees had killed their friend, Arsous-kitsi-rarpi!
the Man-of-the-Good-Heart who had nursed them
through the typhoid and who was a hundred times
endeared to them now by his unique bravery.



1865 FATHER LACOMBE 121

"Hee-yi-ho!" they raised their war-cry; and flung
themselves out upon the Crees no longer repulsing
attacks but driving one home to the heart of the
enemy. From tepee to bluff to coulee, they slipped
over the thin snow, the Crees advancing and retreat-
ing, pursuing the same tactics. The battle lingered
while the fog lay on the land, and it was long after
dawn before a Blackfoot warrior who lay near the
enemy cried out to them with scorn in a lull of firing:

"You have wounded your Blackrobe, Dogs! Have
you not done enough?"

When this startling word ran through the ranks
of the Crees, the firing ceased. . . . Was it true
that they had killed their father, the Man of Prayer,
the friend of Rowand and of Christie, the big white
chiefs ?

The battle received a sudden check, and the Crees
did not wait to meet their Blackrobe, but speedily
withdrew in confusion.

The engagement had lasted seven or eight hours,
for the greater part of the time a disorderly skirmish.
Of the Blackfeet, Chief Natous was badly wounded,
about twelve persons were killed, two children stolen,
and fifteen men and women wounded, some fatally.
The camp had been pillaged of meat and robes, and
twenty-five lodges destroyed. Their enemies carried
ten dead warriors away from the snowy battlefield,
while fully fifteen others were wounded.

The following day, notwithstanding their fatigue
and the ills of the wounded, the Chiefs ordered the



FATHER LACOMBE 1865

camp moved; ponies, human beings and dogs were
soon in line of march over the snowy trails to another
and larger camp of their nation twenty miles away.

Father Lacombe, like many of his Blackfoot
friends, had lost in the battle all but what was on
his person and the rescued breviary. Fully two
hundred horses had been killed or stolen by the Crees,
among them the two owned by Father Lacombe.
The Indians, who at least never lacked in hospitality
or generosity, gave him robes to keep him warm and
lent him a horse to continue his journey.

He stayed with Natous' band about ten days
longer, consoling them and caring for the wounded.
Then, with three Indians as companions, he set out
for Rocky Mountain House, whither he had sent a
courier in the autumn to make a rendezvous with the
Indians for Christmas.

It was a journey of several days during severe
weather and over bad trails. The food of the little
party consisted of an occasional partridge or rabbit,
a few leathery pieces of dried meat, gnawed at by
day, and at night boiled in snow-water. The last
day found them fasting.

When the little cavalcade finally drew up before
the gates of the post, Father Lacombe emerged from
his buffalo robe, disfigured with stains and dirt, and
stepped from his horse fairly into the arms of his
astonished friend, Richard Hardisty. 1

i The late Richard Hardisty (later Chief Factor Hardisty) was a
member of a family long connected with the service of the Company in



1865 FATHER LACOMBB

Shocked at finding Father Lacombe in this guise,
the warm-hearted trader began to make queries in a
startled voice when the other, with his irrepressible
humour bubbling up again, reassured him :

"Don't cry, don't cry, my frien'. I've been to war;
but now you see I am back."

There was reason, however, for Mr. Hardisty's
alarm. Father Lacombe was about at the end of his
resources and his friend set about restoring them.

"Richard Hardisty treated me like a brother that
day. I felt so sick and tired and hungry when I
got to Mountain House that I was ready to lie down
in the snow and die. But he took our miserable party
in before his big fire, and warmed and fed us and
clothed me, and I always feel since then that he saved
my life," Father Lacombe recalls,

We will leave him there happily seated before the
blazing chimney-fire of Meekoostakwan (the Man-
with-the-Red-Hair) . The glowing blaze, like a warm
soul in a homely person, beautified the whole dingy
interior of the post the smoky dark rafters, the log
walls and rude woodland furnishings.

the Southern district, and was for several years in charge of Edmonton
district He was a brother of Lady Strathcona.



XII

IT was Christmas week at Fort Edmonton in the
year 1865, and within the snowy quadrangle of the
Fort preparations for the home- joys of Christmas
were under way.

Outside the gates were some Cree teepees whose
owners had brought a rumour of Father Lacombe
being killed in a battle near Three Ponds. They
even showed a capot like his taken out of his tent,
they said, and with several bullet-holes in it. The
rumour was too terrible to be given credence, how-
ever, and was set down as an Indian yarn.

At the Big House, straying half-breed children
found the kitchen for the time converted to a Para-
dise of good dishes and savoury odours with Murdo
MacKenzie, the cook from "bonny Stornaway," pre-
siding. Elsewhere the steward Malcolm Groat
saw to it that extra rations of fish and buffalo meat
and grease were portioned out, and to this some grog
added to drink the Factor's health. In her own
quarters, Mrs. Christie, the granddaughter of fine old
"Credo" Sinclair of York Factory, planned a Santa
Claus for her little ones.

A dog-cariole drawn at a merry trot by good dogs
and followed by two sleds with their drivers came
through the valley across the river. It was too cold

184



1865 FATHER LACOMBE 125

then for men to linger on the gossip-benches by the
flagstaff outside the southern gate, but the dog-train
was awaited with curiosity by those within the Fort.

Several traders had already arrived from the out-
posts and no one else was likely to make the Fort
for Christmas but Richard Hardisty of Mountain
House. One of the runners resembled him. . . .
But who did he have comfortably wrapped in buf-
falo-robes in the cariole?

"You never know what you will meet around the
bend " is a proverb of the voyageur by land or
water trail; and "You never know who will turn up
next" might well be the word of the masters of Hud-
son's Bay posts.

When the dog-train drew up at the Fort and
Father Lacombe stepped out of the robes and wrap-
pings, there was boisterous delight in the greetings
of his friends. ... Was ever an arrival more
timely ?

Mr. Christie ushered the two arrivals into the Big
House and the little knot of people dispersed to their
quarters. Darkness fell; the big gates were clanged
to, and the bell was rung for the evening meal and
issuing of rations.

. .

That Christmas Eve the brown spaciousness of the
mess-room quivered with interest, and the centre of
it all Murdo MacKenzie 1 relates was the worn

* When I met him forty-five years after this Christmas Eve, still out
of the range of modern Progress, still a cook in the employ of the big
Company in its Peace River district.



126 FATHER LACOMBE 1865

young priest in the ragged greasy soutane, who
looked as though he had known hardships in plenty
since he departed.

The Gentlemen's mess-room of the Big House,
where this dinner was given, was a fine room noted
alike for spaciousness and hospitality. Every one
who visited Edmonton House from Paul Kane's time
onward recorded its rugged pretentiousness. There
was nothing finer in the west, except the old Coun-
cil-room of Norway House.

Time, for their isolated kingdom, was regulated
by the great clock which hung on the mess-room wall.
Pictures hung there, too, good pictures, and swords
from the Old Land, and buffalo-horns and moose-
heads from the plains and forest of the New. There
was a cavernous fireplace and heavy mantel, about
which for close on to fifty years the gentlemen of
Edmonton House had lingered in chat after dinner.

At one side was a table laden with the brass candle-
sticks Murdo MacKenzie kept in polished array to
light the dinner-table each night. Two immense
heaters brought from England by way of the Hudson
Bay were required to heat the room.

"Ah, it was a grand place altogether," Murdo
recalls.

On this Christmas Eve, while the Gentlemen
listened, Mr. Christie plied his friends with questions,
and Murdo lingered as he passed about the dishes.
He recalls Father Lacombe telling how a bullet
whizzed over his head as he bent to lift an object



1866 FATHER LACOMBE 127

from the floor of the camp, and showing where that
reflected bullet struck his shoulder.

To most that night would have seemed a terrifying
experience, yet as we read in his letter to his Superior-
General, Monsignor Fabre, Father Lacombe could
say:

"I was never less afraid than I was during this
combat."

But even as he talked the Star of Peace and Good-
will was on the hills with the old message the angels
sang to the shepherds. . . . The story-telling
and the dinner ended, and Father Lacombe and
Father Andre made their way to the confessional,
where the quick-tempered, child-hearted but now sub-
dued, voyageurs waited to ease their minds and make
their hearts ready for the coming of the Child.

At midnight the bell pealed Yuletide greetings, and
almost every one in the Fort came together in the
church. The congregation listened there to the story
of the Child-King told in English, French and Cree.
They were wholesome western men, vigorous crea-
tures of strong passions and ready faith, and they
accepted happily the mysterious union of weakness
and omnipotence, the tale of Love stooping to earth
to win it otherwise than by force.



During the year 1866 work went on more or less
steadily at St. Paul de Cris. Again a small crop
was put in and the shelter thrown up in 1865 im-



128 FATHER LACOMBE 1866

proved. The mission became a stopping-place for
priests to and from their missions.

In the spring Gaspard Lacombe, who with the
miners, Little and Filer, had tired of gold-mining on
the Saskatchewan, bade good-bye to his brother, rid-
ing through St. Paul de Cris on his way to St. Boni-
face.

Father Lacombe asked him if he felt any desire to
join him in mission work. The young fellow half
laughed, half shuddered at the idea. To live day
after day in garments infested with vermin; to exist
for weeks on dry meat or pemmican without tea
nothing in the world, he felt, could tie him to it, and
he had no supernatural impulse to impel him.

So away he went to resume a life of fruitless con-
tented wandering from the Red River to Mexico,
from the Mississippi to the coast.

Most of the year of 1866 was spent by Father
Lacombe on the prairies with his Indians. With a
few weeks of rest at St. Albert after his eventful
trip to the Blackfeet, he set out by dog-train for St.
Paul de Cris. His only companion was a quaint
little Irish- American called Jimmy-from-Cork, who
had drifted into Fort Edmonton and was now anxious
to make his way to the Red River. This man
Jimmy McCarthy who was to make himself con-
spicuous at Fort Garry in 1870 had even then a
varied and sombre career behind him.

Sam Livingstone and Jimmy Gibbons, the Forty-
niners, standing on the river-bank near Victoria, one



1866 FATHER LACOMBE 129

day in January, 1866, as Father Lacombe came trot-
ting behind his dog-train, were astounded to find that
the little man snugly wrapped in robes in Father
Lacombe's dog-cariole was Jimmy-from-Cork!

The hospitable miners called out an invitation to
the travellers to share their mid-day meal with them.
Father Lacombe his clumsy soutane tucked up
about his leather trousers, as it always was when he
travelled behind dogs busied himself first with food
for the animals. But his genial little companion,
Gibbons recalls, stepped out of the cariole and pat-
ting the priest on the shoulder, said airily to his hosts :

"We've had a good trip, boys. Father Lacombe
is a damn good runner, and he knows that Jimmy-
from-Cork's legs are too short to run."

Assuredly fraternal charity and the frontier brings
strange bed-fellows together!

Jimmy was, however, but a ship-in-the-night in
Father Lacombe's life one never hailed again and
in this unlike his hosts who remained his friends for
theix lifetime. Livingstone interested him greatly as
one of the most picturesque figures he had met in the
west. The son of an Anglican rector in Ireland
and born in the Vale of Avoca, he had drifted through
the United States to the Saskatchewan.

He was a fine-looking man, brimful of Celtic fire,
with grizzled white hair worn long, down on his shoul-
ders after the fashion of his old friend, Dr. John
McLoughlin, the ruler of Oregon. Leather trousers
and red shirt, and a gay handkerchief knotted about



130 FATHER LACOMBE 1866

his throat with another on his wide sombrero con>
pleted in Sam Livingstone a striking picture of the
frontiersman.

In February of this year Father Lacombe, going
out from St. Paul with Alexis, made a trip north to
meet some bands of wood-Crees. Following the
direction of moans that broke the quiet of their camp
one night, they found an Indian woman who had fled
from her husband's tent when he brought another
wife there, and after wandering all night and day
found herself again at the abandoned camp of her
people.

Her forces were exhausted, her feet frozen. Mis-
ery and hardship had dried her breast, and when her
infant hungered there his cries pierced her numbing
senses, prompting her vain search for help. Disap-
pointed, she had lain down by the ashes of a camp-fire
with a prayer to the Master of Life to spare her child.

Her people had only changed camp that day, and
by hard travelling on the following day Father
Lacombe came up to them. The worthless husband
refused to take his wife or child to his tent again, but
he scurried there himself with the lash of the Black-
robe's scorn shaming him before his people. The
woman was taken in a dog-sleigh to St. Albert, where
the Sisters took herself and child into their home.

This year again on the prairies in the camps of
the Crees as in previous seasons Father Lacombe met
with Wihaskokiseyin (Sweet-Grass), the interesting
pagan Indian. Father Lacombe describes him at



1867 FATHER LACOMBE

this period as being unusually short for an Indian
warrior and hunter. His bronzed features were fine,
his body agile, his manner pleasant and rather grace-
ful and though not of the stature of a great warrior
he carried himself as a man who was every inch a chief
and leader of men.

Toward the close of this year an Indian courier
from the North brought Father Lacombe a letter
from Bishop Grandin, appointed coadjutor to
Bishop Tache in 1857. The Bishop was about to
come south and establish a See at St. Albert leav-
ing the Athabasca-Mackenzie vicariate to the newly-
consecrated Bishop Faraud.

He asked Father Lacombe to meet him at Carlton.
He was naturally anxious to see the most noted of
the workers in his new charge. Father Lacombe,
equally desirous to meet one of the apostles of the
Arctic missions planned to combine business with
pleasure. He proposed to secure for St. Paul de Cris
an allocation as a mission, with a resident priest and
an annual grant from the Propagation funds for the
diocese to make of it, in fact, another St. Albert.

Leaving his flocks on the plains in March he hired
"a good tough Indian" as guide, and with his own
dogs they made Fort Pitt in four days. Here he
hired a new guide, the first pleading fatigue.

Some Indians at the Fort begged him to spend a
day or two with them before they left for the prairies,
and Father Lacombe could not refuse.

The morning after they left Pitt they woke to a



FATHER LACOMBE 1867

head wind and mild weather. The snow thawing
burdened their snowshoes and the sun, dazzling on
the white plains, hurt their eyes.

On the last day named by the Bishop for the meet-
ing at Carlton, the post was still 65 miles away. In



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