Katherine Hughes.

Father Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur online

. (page 9 of 28)
Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 9 of 28)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

turn each walked ahead of the dogs to beat the trail,
holding deerskin mitts to screen their aching eyes.
At night they made a fire to brew some tea, but they
could not bear to look on the fire, and Father Lacombe
went to sleep rolled in a blanket holding his eyebrows
away from his inflamed eyes in hope of relief.

The following day the light was cruelly dazzling
as before, and the snow mushy by noon. Nightfall
found the travellers approaching Fort Carlton. As
they dragged themselves up the Fort hill, they met
an old Indian who told them the Bishop had left that
morning! . . . At the post Father Lacombe
found a letter from him. It was in French, in the
fine vague scrawl decipherable only by those familiar
with His Lordship's writing. The trader could not
read it, and Father Lacombe's eyes were too sore to
puzzle over it.

This was surely the refined cruelty of Fate.

What is to be done about it ? the priest asked him-
self ? Retrace his steps, and have endured the hard-
ships of that trip for nothing! The thought came
only to be dismissed. . . . He would of course
follow the Bishop.

"How far away do you think their camp will be
to-night?" he asked the master of the Fort.


The latter calculated the hour of starting and the
condition of the trails "Only twenty miles, or less,"
he returned, with perhaps hidden encouragement for
the plucky priest.

"Will you lend me fresh dogs?"

Eheu! the dogs were all out with the hunters and
the clerks. Thirty miles that day was enough for
even a good traveller and his dogs but the Bishop
was ahead on the trail, slipping over the white plains
to the Red River. . . . The tired dog-train must
push on further.

So it was that at nine o'clock Father Lacombe set
out again. The network of his snowshoes, that had
been wet all day and now was frozen, cut the tired
muscles of his feet. His poor dogs lagged, though the
track was lighter than during the sunlit day: the only
fresh creature on the trail was the Metis who had
replaced his Fort Pitt guide. . . . ("That Fort
Pitt Metis had to rest at Carlton. He was the sec-
ond man I knocked out on that big trip," Father La-
combe recalled forty years later with a smiling moue
of conscious pride.)

He was now travelling mechanically the mind
keyed to reach the goal in front and the poor body
dragged behind. He followed the trail mile after
mile doggedly, until they reached a point where it
touched the river. They confidently looked for the
camp here. But no dogs barked as they approached :
there was no debris of fallen boughs. . . . The
trail wound back from the river no camp there.


At this disappointment, coming when his eager soul
had been attuned to hear Bishop Grandin's surprised
greeting, Father Lacombe's fatigue suddenly over-
came him. He pitied his panting dogs, flung prone
on the snow for repose.

"It is enough," he said to his man. "Make a fire
here ; we go back to-morrow."

It was now after midnight.

The Metis was sympathetic, as Metis guides have
it in their nature to be: but he had heard the young
Bishop lamenting that he had missed this other Man-
of-Prayer. So when they "spelled" he encouraged
Father Lacombe to make still another effort.

"Maybe they are not half a mile ahead," he ven-

On again through the soft starlight across the plains
a mile was passed, and nearly three when in a
bluff by the river bank they came upon the camp!

The Bishop's northern dogs barked most wolfishly.
The wearied newcomers answered with fainter yelps,
as the two men slipped quietly into camp. Bishop
Grandin, throwing back his buffalo-skin coverings,
rose eagerly to meet them, crying with quick Gallic

"Is this you, Father Lacombe? Is it possible!"

He took his tired confrere into his arms, embracing
him as men of the Latin races do, and the wornout
priest let his tears come as they would. They always
did come easily to his emotional temperament.

The sinking fire was piled high again, the teakettle


swung hospitably over it, and when the entire camp
had shared in this luxury of the plains the men
dropped off to sleep, while the two priests talked long
by the fire.

The Bishop was pressing his companion to come
on to St. Boniface at daybreak, and share with him
the pleasure of meeting Bishop Tache- that charm-
ing prelate, who could be profound or stately as a
Lord Chancellor and as irresistably droll as a school-
boy. But Father Lacombe refused; neither his dogs
nor himself had strength left for the trip, he pleaded.


NEXT morning the Bishop took matters into his
own hands, exercising the privilege of bishops and
friends. He sent the Metis back to Fort Pitt with
the dogs and equipment, forwarding word also to St.
Paul de Cris that Father Lacombe had gone to St.
Boniface. . . . Though at St. Paul Father La-
combe, free-lance of the missions, was expected only
when he arrived!

Starting for St. Boniface, Father Lacombe was in-
vited to seat himself in the Bishop's cariole ; the latter
would travel on snowshoes. Father Lacombe pro-
tested against enjoying the comforts of the cariole,
but he was commanded in obedience to his superior
to stay there, and he did.

The pleasant motion of the cariole, as the dogs drew
it swiftly over the trail, combined with his over-
wrought muscles to produce a sleep so profound that
all day he was unconscious of his voyage and com-
panions. He slept through the noon-spell, when the
men silently prepared a meal, and when he awoke
at the night's camping-place to see Bishop Grandin
coming up to the fire with some faggots on his shoul-
der, he saluted him:

"Heh! Haven't we started yet?"



Always quick to recuperate, he was as fresh as a
chickadee next morning, and insisted upon yielding
the cariole to its owner.

From St. Boniface the Bishop went on to France
to secure fresh funds and workers for his missions.
In June Father Lacombe returned from the Red
River with Father Leduc and a party of five Grey
Nuns for the Mackenzie district "these pearls of
the world, who came as a blessing to the poor women
and children of our missions," Father Lacombe

Father Leduc, the new travelling-companion of our
missionary, was a shrewd humorous recruit to the
mission-field from Brittany, and on this trip a life-
long friendship between the two men took root.

On August 13 there appeared at St. Paul de Cris
the first brigade of carts brought over the prairies
from St. Boniface by the Company. There were
eighty-two carts a showing which quite eclipsed
Father Lacombe's modest pioneer brigade of 1862,
and two days were occupied by their passing. The
big company was five years behind the missionaries
in adopting this method of transportation, but like
all strong and conservative forces when it made the
change it did so with eclat.

Eighty-two carts! To the wide-eyed natives at St.
Paul the sight was as awe-inspiring as the steam-horse
and iron road were to be years later. And as though
this were not in itself sufficiently wonderful ten
days later there came creaking and groaning up the


trail a second brigade of thirty-two carts belonging
to the Company!

Between the fading lines of this old entry in the
Journal can be read much wonderment and much
leisure on the part of sundry dusky braves, who joyed
in counting the carts as they passed rumbling down
the trail.

One evening in October when Father Lacombe was
in a small camp of Crees he had a new experience.
The night prayer was over, but about twenty old men
lingered near the priest's tent smoking and talking
with him.

The long twilight lying in a gold fringe of light
over the prairies was a beautiful hour ; to Father La-
combe sitting among his old warriors, smoking his
pipe with long draughts, and imbibing the quaint
wisdom of the primeval races, it was particularly

Suddenly their pleasurable calm was broken into
by a rude war-chant!

"Heh! Heh! Hi-yi-ho-ho-huh I"

A band of young warriors returning from a hunt
came riding out upon the ridge of land to the west.
They advanced with the haze of orange light behind
them, their ponies darkly silhouetted against the sky,
their voices rising and falling in wild triumph.

They dashed into the encampment on panting
ponies. The old men looked up with interested en-
quiry; the women and children roused from their


tents came eagerly out to greet them, while the re-
turned warriors proudly exhibited a prisoner, a young
woman of one of the southern tribes.

When she caught sight of the priest sitting among
the old men, she slipped from her horse and threw
herself at Father Lacombe's feet, crying softly to
herself. She was clad in white deerskin tunic, and
her long dark hair was hanging loose about her. As
she lay there the young men described with enthusi-
asm a chance encounter with a small band of Sarcee
hunters, in which this woman's husband and a couple
of others were killed.

Father Lacombe tells the story.

"I heard their talk. When they finish, 'Bon/
I say. f Who owns this woman?'

" 'I do,' said one young warrior, a strong proud-
looking man.

" Well, I want you to sell her to me/

"They all laughed. 'I thought,' that young man
said, 'you Men-of -Prayer did not want women/

"I was cross then, for if you let an Indian be rude
or too familiar with you, he keeps on and you lose
all control of him.

" 'Ha, you are a brave man!' I said. *You make
a weak woman a prisoner: now you come and say a
thing so stupide to me. You know well why I want
to buy this woman.'

" 'I know,' the man said then ashamed at my voice.
'But I do not want to sell her. I want her.'


"He looked at her, when he said that: she was a
fine young woman, you know. 'I want a wife,' he
said, 'and I have nothing to buy one.'

" 'Well, if you will sell this one now, I will give
you a horse ; and I will give you goods from the Fort
a new coat and shirt and leggings for yourself,
and some tea and tobacco.'

"I speak this all slowly, and I add to it because
he did not look willing at first ; but when I had finish
he said quickly:

" 'Ha! you may take her. You offer much for

"He was so quick at the last I think maybe he was
afraid I would change my mind about paying so

"Then I say to the young woman: 'You are my
property now, you see' and I put my hand on her
head and speak severely: 'You must do what I tell
you and go only where I tell you.' I was afraid she
might take up with another young Cree warrior by-
and-bye, and the two run away from the camp.

"And I had my mind made up already to take that
girl back to her people: Oh, I was planning a grand

"She told me she was a Sarcee girl and that she
knew my face when she rode in to the camp. She
had seen me once when I was down with the Blackfeet
and her own people, who are of allied nations. She
prayed me now to protect her.

"I gave her in charge of a good Christian family


until we brought her up to the Sisters at St. Al-

The Sarcee girl had now reached a haven in the
little log convent, where during the winter she learned
a little English together with the white women's ways.
Next spring we shall see her figuring again rather
dramatically in Father Lacombe's history.

After leaving the girl at St. Albert Father La-
combe returned to St. Paul and evidently had a hard
time for several weeks, because the journal like old
Hudson's Bay journals in northern posts records
little else but cold, sickness and trouble. There were
few fish to be had; the wolves ate his horses; Indians
about the mission fell ill, and the little house was
turned into a hospital with as many as ten patients
at once.

In November Alexis the famous was sent to St.
Albert for horses. The Journal relates with obvious
pathos that after being a very long time away from
the mission, because of severe weather, Alexis re-
turned with only one horse! And of what use was
one horse for the new surprising enterprise which
Father Lacombe planned?

During the past summer he had designed a house-
tent and his heart was set upon celebrating Midnight
Mass for his Indians in this ambulant chapel; but it
was too heavy for the dogs to haul to the prairies.
Father Lacombe finally succeeded in buying another
horse from an Indian, and he and Alexis set out
proudly for the plains. The Journal's meagre entry


for the rest of December was a note of severe cold
and snowstorms.

But the simply-worded and more lengthy entry for
January, 1868, is pitiful in what it conveys between
the lines. Like all the other items of this smoke-
stained Journal it is in French and reads:

"January, 1868.

"This voyage and mission of Pere Lacombe have
been very trying, not because of so much work among
the Indians but chiefly for the great Fast which he
and his companions endured during twenty * days :
they having nothing but some mouthfuls of dirty and
disgusting nourishment to eat, and that only at night
after having tramped all day in snow, sometimes
above the knees.

"Notwithstanding these adversities the Father was
able to visit and see all the Christians of this mission.
They were found scattered at different points of the
prairie in the hope of falling in with buffalo and
these were not numerous this year. ... It was
opposite the Nose Hill that the Father made this mis-
sion. ...

"The house-tent went well enough the Father
being able to accommodate fifty to sixty people in it
for the services."

At the outset Father Lacombe's mind was greatly
occupied by his house-tent, the newest idea evolved

i These twenty days included fourteen days on the trip out to find the
first encampment and six days later while again looking for other camp?
of the Crees.


from his fertile brain and one with which he hoped
to astonish and delight his nomads.

For years the French priests in the west had
plodded along as best they could with nothing better
than a skin tepee. But if there was a brisk wind it
was often impossible to celebrate Mass in a tepee, be-
cause the smoke circled about the lodge half-way up
and filled the throat of a man standing.

Once Father Lacombe had to celebrate Mass on
his knees to avoid the smoke. Another day at the
elevation his crucifix hanging to the tent above his
head plunged into the chalice.

To avoid any such accidents he had designed his
house-tent of leather. He bought fifty tanned buf-
falo skins from Indians at St. Paul. With twenty
poles as big as his wrist in circumference and with
iron pegs got from the Company's blacksmith at Fort
Edmonton he contrived to pin the frame of his house
together and then fasten the peaked roof upon it.
The dimensions of the house-tent were 25 feet by 15.

The buffalo skins were shaped to make a deep cov-
ering secured about the base with banks of snow.
This last convenience served two purposes it held
down the walls and kept out the thieving Indian dogs,
which were he gravely stated once "just bands of
devils." He had with him besides a small camp-
stove as heater.

With Alexis and all this paraphernalia he started
out on December 4, 1867, from St. Paul, his two


horses drawing the equipment and an aged, destitute
Blackf oot woman who had been thrown on their mercy
at the mission. Under her tuition Father Lacombe
hoped that winter on the prairie to increase his knowl-
edge of the Blackfoot tongue.

He had a fresh reason for this study : he was plan-
ning for the next summer a coup d'Etat to be fol-
lowed by a vigorous campaign of Christianity among
all the warlike, stubborn southern tribes.

Provisions formed but a small part of the equip-
ment on leaving St. Paul, for the supplies there had
been about consumed by the sick Indians maintained
through the autumn. They had some frozen fish and
pemmican enough in all to last them a couple of
days on their journey to a camp of Crees near the
Battle River. .

There was no trail broken; the snow was deep and
progress was slow. The second night, as they were
deciding to camp, they saw a thin smoke rising from
a clump of trees nearby. They went to it, and found
a group of eighteen miserable Indians men, women
arid children "only skin and bones, almost starved.
For many days not a mouthful of food poor people I
Mon Dieu, but they were miserdbles so thin, and
the children too weak to play or cry!"

They answered listlessly to Father Lacombe's ques-
tions but their very looks seemed to ask him what he
would do for them. They had come down from the
wooded country, where they had had no luck all


autumn. Neither fur nor food had been found in
any quantity, and they were looking for their kinsmen
on the plains. They had eaten their horses and dogs.
They were now at the end of human endurance.


THERE was only one thing for Father Lacombe to
do. First he ordered Alexis to pitch camp beside

"Now, Alexis, and you, Suzanne, have you the
courage to risk having nothing to eat for three days!"
he asked his companions. "For my part, I am will-

"Yes," each agreed simply; and "I have often
starved before," the squaw added. So, too, had
Alexis, but he was more sparing of words.

Then Alexis gave out the tea and pemmican, and
five or six fish all they had, altogether insufficient
and rapidly devoured. As for Father Lacombe and
his party they might be the proud guardians of the
finest tent in the northwest but they went to bed
that night without supper, and with little prospect
of breakfast.

Next morning the journey was resumed, the priest
and his party leading the way to break the road for
the famished company straggling behind.

"Try and follow us," he told them. "But I have
no more food, and I do not want to kill my horses yet.
I need them too badly this winter."

The poor Crees taking heart from his sympathy
dragged themselves along the beaten trail. All that



day the travellers found only one rabbit and a
partridge. A mouthful for twenty persons! These
morsels were cooked and given to the children.

That night they camped in a big snowstorm. The
next day and still the next there was nothing but
snow and cold, and the sad little section of humanity
dragged its way slowly across the wide plains. Their
stomachs shrank with the gnawing hunger-ache.
Their tired hearts panted sickly forward to the camp-
fires of their tribe.

The clamour of dogs and children, the smoky lit-
tered tepees, the rank steaming kettles had some-
times been repulsive to him, but Father Lacombe in
his heart now felt he would never despise an Indian
tepee again, even at its worst of dogs and vermin
and dirt.

On the fifth day out they approached the rendez-
vous indicated by the courier at St. Paul. . . .
They came up to it before dusk but to find the bit-
terest disappointment awaiting them.

The Crees had pitched off to another point. The
skeleton frames of their tepees were standing that
was all; and the wanderers felt even Hope desert
them as they looked on these chilly witnesses of the
vanished cheer.

A heavy snowfall had covered up the trail their
tribe had taken. . . .

The disappointment was agony, and the torment
of their hunger returned tenfold. The starving com-
pany were free on the trackless prairie yet their very


freedom mocked them as the blindest impasse might
have done. And above and beyond every other feel-
ing was their hunger. They had not eaten at all that

Father Lacombe sent Alexis off with his gun to
search for food : the others were past that effort. For
his part he fastened snowshoes on and went to look
out from a hill in hope of some guidance. There
was nothing for him; and he, too, like the others was
failing with weakness. . . . His sight was con-
fused; his neck seemed to totter under the weight of
his head. He was not racked any longer with hun-
ger, but the faintness of death was on him. He ral-
lied, and caught his mind wandering as if he were in

Yesterday they had eaten and drank a bouillon
made of the skins of old sacks, cords of sinews and
old pieces of moccasins!

At nightfall they had scraped off the snow and
were camped for the night when the priest heard
the creaking of Alexis' snowshoes, and by the sound
of his steps felt sure he carried a burden. They all
pricked up their ears at the sound, and when Alexis
came into camp went eagerly out to meet him.

He had a burden some pieces of meat from a buf-
falo bull he had killed, as he found it diseased and
dying, abandoned by the herd.

The emaciated Indians threw pieces of the meat
into boiling water and gladly ate their disgusting
portion and drank the bouillon, but the sight and


smell of it only filled Father Lacombe with nausea.
He tried the repulsive stuff; his offended stomach re-
fused to retain it.

That night the great lights of the north rose in
such splendour that even Father Lacombe in his ex-
haustion could not forbear to marvel at them. To
the Indians bred in the belief that these were the
spirits of their ancestors, the ghostly white lights
shooting across the sky were as spirits beckoning in-
sistently from their skyey realms to the sickened,
hopeless group of humanity huddled about the green-
wood fire on the trail that led Nowhere.

For fourteen days in all this blind search and pain-
ful walking, with the griping fast continued. In all
that time the disgusting meat that Alexis brought
and an occasional rabbit or prairie-chicken was all
that stood between the wayfarers and utter starva-

"But, Oh, those horses getting weak and those
people dragging themselves behind!" ,- ,^u : *u;

In that heart-wrung exclamation of the old mis-
sionary decades later can be seen the whole painful
picture that made so cruel a blot on the white prairies.
Had the Master of Life no thought then for his chil-
dren? The birds of the air were sybarites compared
to these.

"My dear friends and you who seat yourselves at
tables covered with appetizing food whenever you
need it, let me tell you," Father Lacombe wrote of
this to the Forets, "how painful and torturing it is to


know hunger in circumstances like these ! Up to that
time in my sermons and instructions to the Indians
some of them lazy I had said many times, I had
proclaimed, that those who did not want to work
should not eat.

"But now, after such an experience, I have changed
my ideas, and I have taken the resolution to share
my last mouthful with anyone who is hungry. After
experiencing such hardship from hunger how clearly
one understands these words of the Father of the
Poor: 'I was hungry, and you gave me not to
eat.'" . . .

The starving band had reached the last point of
endurance, though all were still living. The horses
were growing weak from the continual wandering
and difficulty to paw down to the grass under the deep

As a last resource Father Lacombe one night told
the camp he was resolved to kill his horses one by one.
He had made the resolution before, but had neither
expressed it nor carried it out. The following morn-
ing this was Sunday, as he recalls it fresh hope
came to him with returning light. He told Alexis
they would put off killing the horse until night.
;^V . They could endure one day longer.

But the horse was never killed.

Two hours after midnight, the innocent prodigals
came upon the hearth fires of their people. There
was joy on both sides better still, plenty to eat in
the camp. This was something of which the new-


comers would hastily assure themselves, but their peo-
ple wise from similar experience gave them at first
only bouillon with tiny pieces of buffalo-meat chopped
in it.

Food, fire and the sense of Home was theirs: that
was Heaven after the cold and pitiless uncertainty
of the plains.

In three or four days they had begun to eat solid
food and live like their brethren which for that sea-
son and in that particular camp meant living very
well, with dried meat in abundance, fresh pieces of
rib-meat and buffalo hump. What more could the
heart of the plainsman desire?

It was now Christmas Eve Ka-nipa-ayam-itiak
(The-time-we-pray-at-night). Although still weak
Father Lacombe had to bestir himself. He had spent
the first days in the lodge of Chief Sweet-Grass, but

Online LibraryKatherine HughesFather Lacombe : the black-robe voyageur → online text (page 9 of 28)