A Mounted Policeman relates a story of the old Canadian North West.
I was not much the worse for my experience of the previous day, but the more I thought over the matter, the more bewildered and astonished I became.
A Strange Adventure.
FOR some years after the advent of the North West Mounted Police into the western portion of the then Prince Rupert’s land, and to-day known as the North West Territories, the newness, and also the strangeness, of the country, were a source of unfailing interest to us, who belonged to that force. Game of all kinds abounded throughout the country and as we came to the foot hills of the Rockies, bear, elk and moose were often to be seen. This class of game was little molested by the tribe of Blackfeet Indians, whose home was out on the plains, and who lived altogether on the buffalo, which animals supplied them not only with meat, but nearly everything, either directly or indirectly, that they required. The streams were full of fish of many kinds, trout being the most plentiful, and near the mountains, salmon trout which often weighed fifteen to eighteen pounds were easily to be caught.
In the summer of 1875 I determined to take a trip from the fort on Old Man river to the foot hills of the mountains, and up that river about 40 miles for the purpose of fishing, also intending to give one day to deer hunting. Deer of two kinds were always to be found in the patches of brush and timber along the river bottom, called black and white tail by the hunters of the west. These were not a very large species, but the venison was excellent, and made a welcome addition to our mess, as a continuous course of buffalo meat was found monotonous after a while.
I took with me a pack horse, together with my blankets a few cooking utensils, and an Indian rubber boat which was made to be inflated, and when so filled was very buoyant and impossible, to overturn. It would only hold one man, who could sit comfortably in the bottom with a gun and a rod. A couple of short paddles, one for each hand, was enough to guide the light boat away from any rocks or to the shore when required. This rolled into a small compass, was packed on the top of the blankets. I took an Indian with me, as I intended after a day’s shooting to return to the fort by water, and the Indian would take back the horses with any game we might shoot.
The Blackfeet were very friendly with us, and I expected to come across one of their camps up the river, as I had been told some Indians had gone up towards the mountains intending to cut lodge poles, which they did every summer, never using the same poles for more than one year.
We made a quick ride up the river about thirty miles, that being far enough to come down by boat in one day, which I should have to do, not being able to carry any blankets or cooking utensils. The distance by water would be about double that by land owing to the winding of the channel, and I was not at all sure that there might not be rapids or even falls between there and the fort.
We shot only two deer, myself and the Indian one each. The one I killed was altogether by chance, as in walking down a buffalo path through a patch of wood, I thought I saw something stir in the brush to my right. I was passing on when I thought I would fire a shot in that direction, which I did, without any apparent result. Still I had an idea that I had seen something move, and on walking through the brush in that direction I had gone about fifty yards, when in drawing back a bush to make my way through I almost fell over a fine buck lying dead. On examining him I found that my bullet had severed his jugular, and he had dropped without a sound. He had a splendid pair of horns, which, together with the meat, were taken down by the Indian to the fort on the following day.
We made a pleasant camp that night in a clump of wood near the river, and having caught some trout, they, together with some steaks cut from one of the deer, made a first-class supper, to which we did ample justice. On the following morning we packed the deer and our camp outfit on the two spare horses, and the Indian made an early start with them for the fort. I remained with the boat ready to go down by the river, keeping only my gun and a light overcoat, with a bite of cold meat and bread for lunch.
I made good way down the river during the morning, which was fine and warm, only once having any trouble, at a rather nasty rapid, in the middle of which I stuck on a flat rock. In getting off the boat upset, and I got a thorough ducking before I could catch it again. The gun which was fastened by a cord to the side of the cushion, was not lost, although rendered useless for the time by water. I, therefore, camped early for dinner, eating the bread and meat, which, although rather sodden, was better than nothing. I got my clothes partially dried in the sun. All my matches were wet, and a fire was not to be had.
While camped about noon the weather began to look threatening, heavy banks of clouds gathering in the north, and now and then the growl of thunder in the distance could be heard. As I was not more than half way, I started again on my downward journey as soon as possible, but the farther I went the darker it grew, and I soon saw that I was in for a heavy storm, which, to say the least, was by no means pleasant. The thunderstorms along the mountains, although seldom of long duration, were often very severe while they lasted, and by the look of things, I was in for one of the worst. I however made my way steadily down the river, and after a while the storm came down with a vengeance. There was a heavy wind, with hail, rain, and perpetual lightning, followed by deafening peals of thunder, seemingly right overhead. I found it difficult with such a light boat to make any progress, as the heavy wind would drive me from one shore to the other, and the river was lashed into quite heavy waves, so that, although the boat could not sink. I was sitting in water up to my waist, and sometimes sheets of water would be blown right over me. As it was getting quite dark, although not more than four o’clock in the afternoon, I found it impossible to make my way, and I determined to land and wait until the storm was over.
In rounding a bend in the river I saw on the south bank a good clump of timber, and determined to take shelter in it. I made for that shore, and as I approached the fury of the storm for a moment lulled, and in the stillness I could plainly hear the drums beating in an Indian camp, and the sound of the Indian “Hi-ya” mingling with it.
The sounds came from beyond the clump of trees, and I congratulated myself upon meeting with an Indian camp where I could take shelter from such a storm. I concluded that this was the camp I had been told had gone up the river. I therefore landed and drew up the boat into the brush, tying it securely, and, taking my gun, made as quickly as possible through the wood towards the point from which the sounds could now be plainly heard. The storm had now come down worse than ever, and the lighting was almost blinding. I made my way through the timber as fast as possible, it not being any too safe in such close proximity to the trees, and coming out into an open glade of quite an extent, I saw before me the Indian camp not more than two hundred yards away. I could see men and women, and even children, moving about among the lodges, and what struck me as strange was the fact that the fires in the centre of many of the tents shone through the entrances, which were open. This surprised me, as you do not often find the Indians moving about in the wet if they can help it. They generally keep their lodges well closed during a thunder storm, of which they are very much afraid. They look upon thunder as being the noise made by one of their deities called the “Old Man,” while throwing great boulders from the mountains. There were, I should consider, about twenty lodges in the camp, and a band of horses could be seen grazing not far off on the other side of the camp.
I stood for a few seconds watching and considering which lodge to make for, and had taken a few steps towards the one nearest me, when I seemed to be surrounded by a blaze of lightning, and at the same time a crash of thunder followed that fairly stunned me for nearly a minute, and sent me on my back. A large tree not far off was struck. I could hear the rending of the wood, and it was afterwards found nearly riven in half. Some of the electric fluid had partly stunned and thrown me down. I was fortunate to have escaped with my life, and, as it was, it was a few minutes before I was able to rise and look around. I looked towards the place where the camp stood, but to my unutterable astonishment as well as terror, it was not there.
It was quite light, although still storming heavily, and was not much after four o’clock. A few minutes before not only a large Indian camp had stood there, and the voices of the Indians could be distinctly heard, but now all had suddenly disappeared, even to the band of horses that were quietly grazing there only a few minutes before.
I stood for a moment almost dumb with astonishment, seeing and hearing nothing, when suddenly an overwhelming sense of terror seemed to seize me, and almost without knowing what I did, I ran towards the bank overlooking the river, which was about a quarter of a mile away, dropping my gun as I ran. I did not stop until I reached the top of the bank, and there I had to rest for want of breath. Here I managed to gather my wits together, and to think of what had taken place.
The open place where the camp had stood was in plain sight from where I was, with the clump of trees behind towards the river, but it was empty, and not a tent or human being in sight. There was nothing but the trees tossed by the storm and the driving rain, and now and then a flash of lightning. I could even then hardly believe my eyes, but there was no doubt about it, and I did not remain long in sight of that spot, and being afraid to go down to my boat, I determined to walk down the river bank to the fort, which must have been a good fifteen miles away. It was one of the hardest journeys I ever undertook. What with the shock from being thrown down, and then the most astonishing and inexplicable disappearance of the camp, and also being soaked to the skin, I was in a most uncomfortable condition. The storm continued until night, when it cleared up, and I made my way into the fort at about midnight, completely fagged out, turning into bed at once, with no explanation to anyone.
In the morning I told my story at breakfast to my three brother officers. I was not much the worse for my experience of the previous day, but the more I thought over the matter, the more bewildered and astonished I became. As I expected, I was only laughed at by my companions, who called it imagination. But this I am firmly convinced it was not.
I was not unduly excited when I first heard the Indian drums. I did not expect to find a camp there, but when I emerged from the wood and saw the camp before me, everything seemed perfectly natural, and in no way out of the ordinary. But the sudden and complete vanishing of the camp I could in no wise explain. I however determined to again proceed to the spot that morning, and bring down my boat and gun.
I therefore took an Indian and our Blackfoot interpreter with me. We found the place without trouble, but it was vacant, and look as we could no sign of any recent camp was to be seen. A few rings of stone partly overgrown with grass showed where an old camp had been many years ago, and on questioning the Indian, he stated that the Blackfeet had surprised and slaughtered a camp of Cree Indians at that place many years ago, and in fact we came across two bleached skulls lying in the grass.
The Indian did not seem to have any superstitions regarding that place. We found where a tree had been struck by lightning, and the boat and gun we brought away.
I have, until now, but seldom mentioned this circumstance, but I am to-day as firmly convinced as ever that the Indian camp, together with the men, women, and the horses, was most certainly there, and that I suffered under no hallucination whatever, but account for it I cannot, and look upon it as one of those inexplicable riddles which cannot be solved.
—Capt. C. E. Denny of the R.N.W.M.P, The Riders of the Plains (1905).
Capt. Cecil E. Denny.