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13: Woman's Experience on the Northern Border

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The vanguard of the "Great Army" which for nearly three centuries has been hewing its pathway across the continent, may be divided into certain corps d'armťe, each of which moves on a different line, thus acting on the Napoleonic tactics, and subjugating in detail the various regions through which it passes. One corps, spreading out in broad battalions, marches across the great prairies and winding through the gorges of the Rocky mountains, encamps on the shore of Peaceful sea: another, skirting the waves of the gulfs and fording the wide rivers of the South, plants its outposts on the Rio Grande; a third cuts its way through the trackless forests on the northern border till it strikes the lakes, and then crossing these inland seas or passing round them, pauses and breathes for a season in that great expanse known as the country of the Red River of the North.

Each of these mighty pioneer divisions has its common toils, dangers, and sufferings. Each, too, has toils, dangers, and sufferings peculiar to itself. The climate is the deadly foe of the northern pioneer. The scorching air of a brief summer is followed closely by the biting frost of a long winter. The snow, piled in drifts, blocks his passage and binds him to his threshold. Sometimes by a sudden change in the temperature a thaw converts the vast frozen mass into slush. In the depth of those arctic winters sometimes fire, that necessary but dangerous serf, breaks its chains and devastates its master's dwelling; then frost allies its power to that of fire, and the household often succumbs to disaster, or barely survives it.

Fire, frost, starvation, and wild beasts made frantic by winter's hunger, are the imminent perils of the northern pioneer!

The record of woman in these regions on the northern frontier is crowded with incidents which display a heroism as stern, a hardihood as rugged, a fortitude as steadfast, as was ever shown by her sex under the most trying situations into which she is brought by the exigencies of border life.

Such a record is that of Mrs. Dalton, who spent her life from early womanhood in that region.

Naturally of a frail and delicate organization, reared in the ease and luxury of an eastern home, and possessed of those strong local attachments which are characteristic of females of her temperament, it was with the utmost reluctance that she consented to follow her husband into the wilderness. Having at last consented, she showed the greatest firmness in carrying out a resolution which involved the loss of a happy home at the place of her nativity, and consigned her to a life of hardship and danger.

Her first experience in this life was in the wilds of northern New York, her husband having purchased a small clearing and a log-cabin in that region on the banks of the Black river. She was transported thither, reaching her destination one cold rainy evening early in May, after a wearisome journey, for this was before the days of rapid transit.

Her first impressions must have been gloomy indeed. Without was pouring rain and a black sky; the forest was dark as Erebus; within no fire blazed on the hearth in the only room on the first floor of the cabin, and the flickering light of a tallow candle made the darkness but the more visible; a rude table and settles made out of rough planks, were all the furniture the cabin could boast; there was no ladder to reach the loft which was to be her sleeping room; the only window, without sash or glass, was a mere opening in the side of the cabin; the rain beat in through the cracks in the door and through the open window, and trickled through the roof, which was like a sieve, while the wind blew keenly through a hundred seams and apertures in the log walls.

The night, the cold, the storm, the dark and cheerless abode, were too much to bear; the delicate young wife threw herself upon a settle and burst into a flood of tears. This was but a momentary weakness. Rising above the depression produced by the dreary scene, the woman's genius for creating comfort out of the slenderest materials and bringing sunshine into darkness, soon began to manifest itself.

We will not detail the various trials and cares by which that forlorn cabin was transformed into a comfortable home, nor how fared Mrs. Dalton the first rather uneventful year of her life in the woods. The second spring saw her a mother, and the following autumn she became again a homeless westward wanderer. Her husband had sold the cabin and clearing in New York, and having purchased an extensive tract of forest-land a few miles south of Georgian Bay in Upper Canada, decided to move thither.

The family with their household goods took sloop on Lake Ontario late in October, and sailed to Toronto; from this place on the 15th day of November, they proceeded across the peninsula in sleighs. Their party consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Dalton and their child, and John McMurray, their hired man, and his wife.

The first forty miles of their journey lay over a well-beaten road, and through a succession of clearings, which soon began to diminish until they reached a dense forest, which rose in solemn stillness around them and cast across their path a shadow which seemed to the imagination of Mrs. Dalton an omen of coming evil.

The sun had now set, but the party still drove on through the forest-shadows; the moon having risen giving a new and strange beauty to the scenery. The infant had fallen asleep. A deep silence fell upon the party; night was above them with her mysterious stars; the ancient forest stretched around them on every side; nature lay wrapped in a snowy winding sheet; the wind was rising, and a drifting scud of clouds from the northeast passed across the moon, and gave a still more weird and somber character to the scene. A boding sadness sank into the heart of Mrs. Dalton as the sleighs drove up to the cabin in the clearing where they were to pass the night. It was occupied by an old negro and his wife, who had found in the Canadian woods a safe refuge from servitude.

Hardly had they and their horses been safely bestowed under shelter when the sky became entirely overcast, the wind rose to a gale, and a driving storm of snow and sleet filled the air. All night, and the following day the tempest raged without intermission, and on the morning of the second day the sun struggling through the clouds looked down on the vast drifts of snow, some of them nearly twenty feet in depth, completely blocking their farther passage, and enforcing a sojourn of some days in their present quarters.

During this time the babe fell ill, and grew worse so rapidly that Mr. Dalton determined to push through the snow-drifts on horseback to the nearest settlement, which lay eight miles south of them, and procure the services of a physician. He started early in the morning, expecting to return in the afternoon. But afternoon and evening passed, and still Mr. Dalton did not return. His course was a difficult one through forest and thicket, and when evening came, and night passed with its bitter cold, Mrs. Dalton's anxiety was increased to torture. Her only hope was that her husband had reached the settlement in safety, and had been induced to remain there till the following morning before undertaking to return.

Soon after the sun rose that morning, Mrs. Dalton and the hired man set out on horseback in search of the missing one. Tracing his course through the snow for four miles they at length caught sight of him standing up to his waist in a deep drift, beside his horse. His face was turned toward them. So lifelike and natural was his position that it was only when his wife grasped his cold rigid fingers that she knew the terrible truth. Her husband and the horse were statues of ice thus transformed by the deadly cold as they were endeavoring to force a passage through those immense drifts.

From the speechless, tearless trance of grief into which Mrs. Dalton was thrown by the shock of her awful loss, she was roused only by the recollection of the still critical condition of her child and the necessity that she should administer to its wants. Its recovery from illness a few days after, enabled the desolate widow to cast about her in grief and doubt, and decide what course she should pursue.

As her own marriage portion as well as the entire fortune of her late husband was embarked in the purchase of the forest tract, she concluded to continue her journey twenty miles farther to the point of her original destination, and there establish herself in the new house which had been provided for her in the almost unbroken wilderness.

A thaw which a few days after removed a large body of the snow, enabled her with her companions, the McMurrays, to reach her destination, a large and commodious cabin built of cedar-logs in a spacious clearing by the former owner of the tract.

Her first impressions of her new home were scarcely more prepossessing than those experienced upon reaching the dreary cabin on the banks of the Black river. A small lake hard by was hemmed in by a somber belt of pine-woods. The clearing was dotted by charred and blackened stumps, and covered with piles of brushwood. The snowy shroud in which lifeless nature was wrapped and the utter stillness and solitude of the scene, completed the funereal picture which Mrs. D. viewed with eyes darkened by grief and disappointment.

The cares and labors of pioneer-life are the best antidotes to the corrosion of sorrow and regret, and Mrs. Dalton soon found such a relief in the myriad toils and distractions which filled those wintry days. A thousand duties were to be discharged: a thousand wants to be provided for: night brought weariness and blessed oblivion: morning again supplied its daily tasks and labor grew to be happiness.

Midwinter was upon them with its bitter cold and drifting snows; but with abundant stores of food and fuel, Mrs. D. was thanking God nightly for his many mercies, little dreaming that a new calamity impended over her household.

One bitter day in January the two women were left alone in the cabin, McMurray having gone a mile away to fell trees for sawing into boards. Mrs. McM. had stuffed both the stoves full of light wood; the wind blowing steadily from the northwest, produced a powerful draught, and in a few moments the roaring and crackling of the fire and the suffocating smell of burning soot attracted Mrs. Dalton's attention. To her dismay, both the stoves were red hot from the front plates to the topmost pipes which passed through the plank-ceiling and projected three feet above the roof. Through these pipes the flames were roaring as if through the chimney of a blast furnace.

A blanket snatched from the nearest bed, that stood in the kitchen, and plunged into a barrel of cold water was thrust into the stove, and a few shovels full of snow thrown upon it soon made all cool below. The two women immediately hastened to the loft and by dashing pails full of water upon the pipes, contrived to cool them down as high as the place where they passed through the roof. The wood work around the pipes showed a circle of glowing embers, the water was nearly exhausted and both the women running out of the house discovered that the roof which had been covered the day before by a heavy fall of snow, showed an area of several square feet from which the intense heat had melted the snow; the sparks falling upon the shingles had ignited them, and the rafters below were covered by a sheet of flame.

A ladder, which, for some months, had stood against the house, had been moved two days before to the barn which stood some thirty rods away; there seemed no possibility of reaching the fire. Moving out a large table and placing a chair upon it, Mrs. D. took her position upon the chair and tried to throw water upon the roof, but only succeeded in expending the last dipper full of water that remained in the boiler, without reaching the fire.

Mrs. McMurray now abandoned herself to grief and despair, screeching and tearing her hair. Mrs. D., still keeping her presence of mind, told her to run after her husband, and to the nearest house, which was a mile away, and bring help.

Mrs. McM., after a moment's remonstrance, on account of the depth of the snow, regained her courage, and, hastily putting on her husband's boots, started, shrieking "fire!" as she passed up the road, and disappeared at the head of the clearing.

Mrs. D. was now quite alone, with the house burning over her head. She gazed at the blazing roof, and, pausing for one moment, reflected what should first be done.

The house was built of cedar-logs, and the suns and winds of four years had made it as dry as tinder; the breeze was blowing briskly and all the atmospheric conditions were favorable to its speedy destruction. The cold was intense, the thermometer registering eighteen degrees below zero. The unfortunate woman thus saw herself placed between two extremes of heat and cold, and apprehended as much danger from the one as from the other.

In the bewilderment of the moment, the direful extent of the calamity never struck her, though it promised to put the finishing stroke to her misfortune, and to throw her naked and houseless upon the world.

"What shall I first save?" was the question rapidly asked, and as quickly answered. Anything to serve for warmth and shelteróbedding, clothing, to protect herself and babe from that cruel cold! All this passed her mind like a flash, and the next moment she was working with a right good will to save what she could of these essential articles from her burning house.

Springing to the loft where the embers were falling from the burning roof, she quickly threw the beds and bedding from the window, and emptying trunks and chests conveyed their contents out of reach of the flames and of the burning brands which the wind was whirling from the roof. The loft was like a furnace, and the heat soon drove her, dripping with perspiration, to the lower room, where, for twenty minutes, she strained every nerve to drag out the movables. Large pieces of burning pine began to fall through the boarded ceiling about the lower rooms, and as the babe had been placed under a large dresser in the kitchen, it now became absolutely necessary to remove it. But where? The air was so bitter that nothing but the fierce excitement and rapid motion had preserved Mrs. Dalton's hands and feet from freezing. To expose the tender nursling to that direful cold was almost as cruel as leaving it to the mercy of the fire.

A mother's wit is not long at fault where the safety of her child is concerned. Emptying out all the clothes from a large drawer which she had dragged a safe distance from the house, she lined it with blankets and placed the child inside, covering it well over with bedding, and keeping it well wrapped up till help should arrive.

The roof was now burning like a brush heap; but aid was near at hand. As she passed out of the house for the last time, dragging a heavy chest of clothes, she looked once more despairingly up the clearing and saw a man running at full speed. It was McMurray. Her burdened heart uttered a deep thanksgiving, as another and another figure came skipping over the snow towards her burning house.

She had not felt the intense cold, although without bonnet or shawl, and with hands bare and exposed to the biting air. The intense anxiety to save all she could had so diverted her thoughts from herself that she took no heed of the peril in which she stood from fire and frost. But now the reaction came; her knees trembled under her, she grew giddy and faint, and dark shadows swam before her.

The three men sprang on the roof and called for water in vain; it had long been exhausted. "Snow! snow! Hand us up pails full of snow!" they shouted.

It was bitter work filling the pails with frozen snow, but the two women (for Mrs. McMurray had now returned) scooped up pails full of snow with their bare hands and passed them to the men on the roof.

By spreading this on the roof, and on the floor of the loft, the violence of the fire was checked. The men then cast away the smoldering rafters and flung them in the snow-drifts.

The roof was gone, but the fire was at last subdued before it had destroyed the walls. Within one week from the time of the fire the neighboring settlers built a new roof for Mrs. Dalton in spite of the intense cold, and while it was building Mrs. D. and her household were sheltered at the nearest cabin.

The warm breath of spring brought with it some halcyon days, as if to reconcile Mrs. Dalton to her life of solitude and toil. The pure beauty of the crystal waters, the august grandeur of the vast forest, and the aromatic breezes from the pines and birches, cast a magic spell upon her spirit. She soon learned the use of the rifle, the paddle, and the fishing rod. Charming hours of leisure and freedom were passed upon the water of the lake, or in rambles through the arches of the forest. In these pleasures, enhanced by the needful toils of the household or the field, the summer sped away.

August came, and the little harvest of oats and corn were all safely housed. For some days the weather had been intensely hot, although the sun was entirely obscured by a bluish haze, which seemed to render the unusual heat of the atmosphere more oppressive. Not a breath of air stirred the vast forest, and the waters of the lake took on a leaden hue.

Before the sun rose on the morning of the 12th the heavens were covered with hard looking clouds of a deep blue-black color, fading away to white at their edges, and in form resembling the long, rolling waves of a heavy sea, but with the difference that the clouds were perfectly motionless, piled in long curved lines, one above the other.

As the sun rose above the horizon, the sky presented a magnificent spectacle. Every shade of saffron, gold, rose-color, scarlet, and crimson, mottled with the deepest violet, were blended there as on some enormous tapestry. It was the storm-fiend who shook that gorgeous banner in the face of the day-god!

As the day advanced the same blue haze obscured the sun, which frowned redly through his misty veil. At ten o'clock the heat was suffocating. The thermometer in the shade ranged after midday from ninety-six to ninety-eight degrees. The babe stretched itself upon the floor of the cabin, unable to jump about or play, the dog lay panting in the shade, the fowls half-buried themselves in the dust, with open beaks and outstretched wings. All nature seemed to droop beneath the scorching heat. At three o'clock the heavens took on a sudden change. The clouds, that had before lain so still, were now in rapid motion, hurrying and chasing each other round the horizon. It was a strangely awful sight. Before a breath had been felt of the mighty blast that had already burst on the other side of the lake, branches of trees, leaves, and clouds of dust were whirled across the water, which rose in long, sharp furrows, fringed with foam, as if moved in their depths by some unseen but powerful agent.

The hurricane swept up the hill, crushing and overturning everything in its course. Mrs. Dalton, standing at the open door of her cabin, speechless and motionless, gazed at the tremendous spectacle. The babe crept to its mother's feet, its cheeks like marble, and appealed to her for protection. Mrs. McMurray, in helpless terror, had closed her eyes and ears to the storm, and sat upon a chest, muffled in a shawl.

The storm had not yet reached its acme. The clouds, in huge cumuli, were hurrying as to some great rendezvous, from which they were to be let loose for their work of destruction. The roaring of the blast and the pealing of the thunder redoubled in violence. Turning her eyes to the southwest, Mrs. Dalton now saw, far down the valley, the tops of the huge trees twisted and bowed, as if by some unseen but terrible power. A monstrous dun-colored cloud marked the course of this new storm-titan. Nearer and nearer it came, with a menacing rumble, and swifter than a race-horse.

The cabin lay directly in its track. In a moment it would be upon them. Whither should they fly? One place of safety occurred on the instant to the unfortunate woman; clasping her babe to her breast and clutching the gown of her companion, she ran to the trap-door which conducted to the cellar and raising it pushed Mrs. McMurray down the aperture and quickly following her, Mrs. Dalton closed the trap.

Not five seconds later the hurricane struck the cabin with such force that every plank, rafter, beam, and log was first dislocated and then caught up in the whirlwind and scattered over the forest in the wake of the storm. As the roar of the blast died away the rain commenced pouring in torrents accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning and loud peals of thunder.

The air in the close shallow cellar, where the women were, soon grew suffocating, and as the fury of the tempest was spent, they took courage and pushed at the trap. It stuck fast; again they both applied their shoulders to it but only succeeded in raising it far enough to see that the trunk of an enormous tree lay directly across the door.

The cellar in which they were, was little more than a large pit, eight feet by six, and served as a receptacle for their winter's stores; as it lay directly in the center of the floor which was formed of large logs split in halves and their surfaces smoothed, there was no mode of egress except by digging underneath the floor as far as the walls of the cabin and so emerging; but this was a work of extreme difficulty, owing to the fact that the soil was full of the old roots of trees which had been cut down to make room for the cabin.

The first danger, however, was from suffocation; to meet this Mrs. Dalton and her companion pried open the door as far as the fallen trunk would allow, and kept it in position by means of a large chip which they found in the pit. This gave them sufficient air through a chink three inches in width; and they next looked about them for means of egress. After trying in vain to dislodge one of the floor logs, they proceeded to dig a passage through the earth underneath the floor. Discouraged by the slowness of their progress in this undertaking, and drenched with the rain which poured in through the crevice in the door, they began to give themselves up for lost. Their only hope was that McMurray or some one of the neighbors would come to their relief.

The rain lasted only one hour, and the sun soon made its appearance. This was after six o'clock, as the prisoners judged from the shadows cast over the ruins of the cabin. The shades of evening fell and at last utter darkness; still no one came. No sound was borne to the ears of the women in their earthly dungeon save that of the rushing waters of the creek and the mournful howling of wolves who, like jackals, were prowling in the track of the tempest. Several of these animals, attracted by the infant's cries, came and put their noses at the door of the pit and finding that it held prey, paced the floor above it all night: but with the first light of morning they scampered away into the woods.

Meanwhile the women resumed their efforts to burrow their way out, taking turns in working all night. By daybreak the passage lacked only four feet of the point where an outlet could be had. Ere noon, if their strength held out, they would reach the open air.

But after four hours more of severe toil they met an unexpected obstacle: their progress was blocked by a huge boulder embedded in the soil. Weary with their protracted toil and loss of sleep, and faint from want of food, they desisted from further efforts and sat down upon the damp earth of that dungeon which now promised to be their tomb.

Sinking upon her knees Mrs. Dalton lifted her heart to God in prayer that he might save her babe, her faithful domestic and herself from the doom which, threatened them. Hardly had she risen from her knees, when, as if a messenger had been sent in answer to her prayer, voices were heard and steps sounded upon the floor above them. The party had come from a neighboring settlement for the express purpose of relieving the sufferers from the recent storm. A few blows with an axe and the prisoners were free. Recognizing their preservation as a direct answer to prayer, and with deep gratitude both of the women fell on their knees and lifted up their hearts in humble thanksgiving to that God who had saved them by an act of his providence from an awful death. When all hope was gone His hand was stretched forth, making his strength manifest in the weakness of those hapless women and that helpless babe.

Before the first of October a new cabin had been built for Mrs. D. by her generous neighbors, and the other ravages of the storm had been repaired. Once more fortune, so often adverse, turned a smiling face upon the household. Two weeks sped away and then the fickle goddess frowned again upon this much enduring family.

A long continued drought had parched the fields and woods until but a spark was needed to kindle a conflagration. Two parties of hunters on the 16th of October, had rested one noon on opposite sides of Mrs. Dalton's clearing and carelessly dropped sparks from their pipes into the dried herbage. Two hours after their departure, the flames, fanned by a gentle breeze, had formed a junction and encircled the cabin with a wall of fire. A dense canopy of smoke hung over the clearing, and as it lifted, tongues of flame could be seen licking the branches of the tall pines. Showers of sparks fell upon the roof. The atmosphere grew suffocating with the pitchy smoke and it became a choice of deaths, either that of choking or that of burning.

Only one avenue of escape was left open to the family; if they could reach the lake and embark in the canoe which lay moored near the shore they would be safe: a single passage conducted to the water, and that was a burning lane lined with trees and bushes which were bursting into fiercer flames every moment as they gazed down it.

Nearer and nearer crept the fire, and hotter and hotter grew the choking air. There was no other choice. McMurray threw water on the gowns of his wife and Mrs. Dalton until they were drenched; then wrapping the baby in a blanket and enveloping their heads in shawls, the whole party abandoned their house to destruction, and ran the gauntlet of the flames. They passed the spot of ordeal in safety, reached the canoe and embarking pushed off into the lake. From this point of security they caught glimpses of the element as it crept steadily on its way towards the cabin. Through the rifts in the smoke they saw the fiery tongues licking the lower timbers and darting themselves into the cracks between the logs like some gluttonous monster preparing to gorge himself. The women clasped their hands and looked up. Both were supplicating the Father of All that their home might be spared.

A rescue was coming from an unlooked for source. While Mrs. Dalton's face was upturned to heaven in silent prayer, a large drop splashed upon her brow; another followedóthe first glad heralds of a pouring rain which extinguished the fire just as it had begun to feed on that unlucky habitation.

After such an almost unbroken series of disasters and losses, we might well inquire whether the subsequent life of Mrs. Dalton was saddened and darkened by similar experiences.

"Every cloud has a silver lining." The hardest and saddest lives have their hours of softness, their gleams of sunshine. It is a wise and beautiful arrangement in the economy of Divine Providence that the law of physical and moral compensation is always operating to equalize the pains and the pleasures, the hardships and the comforts, the joys and the sorrows of human life. Before continuous, patient, and conscientious endeavors, the obstacles that fill the pathway of the pioneer through the wilderness are surmounted, the rough places are made smooth, and the last days of the dwellers in the desert and forest become like the latter days of the patriarch, "more blessed than the beginning."

We may truly say of Mrs. Dalton, that her "latter days were more blessed than the beginning." A happy marriage which she entered into the following spring, and a long life of prosperity and peace after her escape from the last great danger, as we have narrated, were the fitting reward of the courage, diligence, and devotion displayed during the two first summers and winters which she passed in the northern wilderness.

The wide region, lying between the sources of the Mississippi and the bends of the Missouri in Dakota, and stretching thence far up to the Saskatchewan in the north, has been appropriately styled "the happy hunting ground." The rendezvous to which the mighty nimrods of the northwest return from the chase are huge cabins, built to stand before the howling blasts, and give shelter against the arctic regions of the winter. In these abodes dwell the wives and children of many of those rugged men, and create even there, by their devoted toils and gentle companionship, at least the semblance of a home. Almost whelmed in the snow, and when even the mercury freezes in the bulb of the thermometer, these anxious and loving housewives feed the lamp and keep the fire burning on the hearth. Dressing the skins of the deer, they keep their husbands well shod and clothed. The long winter of eight months passes monotonously away; the men, accustomed to a life of excitement, chafe and grow surly under their enforced imprisonment; but the women, by their kind offices and sweet words, act as a constant sedative upon these morose outbreaks. The hunters, it is said, grow softer in their manners as the winter wanes. They are unconscious scholars in the refining school of woman.

Among the diversions which serve to while away the tediousness of those winter nights are included the narration of personal adventures passed through by the different hunters in their wild life. Tales of narrow escapes, of Indian fights, of desperate encounters with beasts of the forests; and through the rough texture of these narratives now and then appears a pathetic incident in which woman is the prominent figure. Sometimes it is a hunter's wife who is the heroine, and again the scene is laid in the home of the settler, where woman faces some dreadful danger for her loved ones, or endures extraordinary suffering faithfully to the end. Such an incident as the following was preserved in the memory of a hunter, who recently communicated the essential facts to the writer.

Minnesota well deserves the name of the pioneer's paradise. Occupying as it does that high table-land out of which gush into the pure bracing air, the thousand fountains of the Father of waters and of the majestic Red river; studded with lakes that glisten like molten silver in the sunshine; shadowed by primeval forests; now stretching out in prairies which lose themselves in the horizon; now undulating with hills and dales dotted with groves and copses, nature here, like some bounteous and imperial mother, seems to have prepared with lavish hand a royal park within which her roving sons and daughters may find a permanent abode.

The country through which the Red river flows from Otter Tail lake towards Richville, is unsurpassed for rural beauty. Trending northward it then passes along towards Pembina, a border town on our northern boundary, through a plain of vast extent, dotted with groves of oak planted as if by hand. Voyaging down this noble river in midsummer, between its banks embowered with wild roses we breathe an air loaded with perfume and view a scene of wild but enchanting loveliness. Here summer celebrates her brief but splendid reign, then lingering for a while in the lap of dreamy, balmy autumn, flies at length into southern exile, abdicating her throne to winter, which stalks from the frozen zone and rules the region with undisputed and rigorous sway.

In the month of March, 1863, a party of four hunters set out from Pembina, where they had passed the winter, and undertook to reach Shyenne, a small trading post on the west bank of the Red river, in the territory of Dakota. A partial thaw, followed by a cold snap, had coated the river in many places with ice, and by the alternate aid of skates and snow-shoes, they reached on the third evening after their departure, Red Lake river in Minnesota, some eighty miles distant from Pembina. Clearing away the snow in a copse, they scooped a shallow trench in the frozen soil with their hatchets, and kindling a fire so as to cover the length and breadth of the excavation, they prepared their frugal repast of hunters' fare. Then removing the fire to the foot of the trench and piling logs upon it, they lay down side by side on the warmed soil, and wrapping their blankets around them slept soundly through the still cold night, until the sun's edge showed itself above the rim of the vast plain that stretched to the east. As the hunters rose from their earthy couch and stretched their cramped limbs, casting their eyes hither and thither over the boundless expanse, they descried upon the edge of a copse some quarter of a mile to the south a bright-red object, apparently a living thing, crouched upon the snow as if sunning itself. Rising simultaneously and with awakened curiosity they approached the spot. Before they had taken many steps the object disappeared suddenly. Fixing their eyes steadily on the point of its last appearance, they slowly advanced with cocked rifles until they reached a large tree with arching roots, around which were the traces of small shoeless feet. An orifice barely large enough to admit a man showed them beneath the tree a cave. One of the hunters, peering through the aperture, spied within, a girl of ten years crouched in the farthest corner of the recess, covered with a thick red flannel cloak, and shivering with cold and terror. Speaking kind words to the little stranger they succeeded at length in reassuring her. She came out from her hiding-place, and the hunters with rugged kindness wrapped her feet and limbs in their coats and bore her to the fire. The first words she uttered were, "mother! go for mother!" She had gone away to shoot game the night before, the little girl said, and had not returned.

Two of the hunters hastened back and succeeded in tracing the mother's course a mile up the river to a thicket; there, covered thinly with leaves and with her rifle in her stiffened hand, they found the hapless wanderer, but alas! cold in death. Her set and calm features, her pinched and wasted face, her scantily robed form, mutely but eloquently told a tale of fearful suffering borne with unflinching fortitude. Weak and weary, the deadly cold had stolen upon her in the darkness and with its icy grip had stilled for ever the beating of her brave true heart. Excavating a grave in the snow they decently straightened her limbs, and piling logs and brush upon her remains to keep them from the beasts of prey, silently and sorrowfully left the scene.

Who were these lonely wanderers in that wild and wintry waste! The presence of the rifle and of the large high boots which she wore, together with other circumstances, were evidences which enabled the shrewd hunters to guess a part of their story. It appeared that the family must have consisted originally of three persons, a man and wife, with the child now the sole survivor of the party. Voyaging down the Red river during the preceding summer and autumn; lured onward by the fatal beauty of the region, and deluded by the ease with which their wants could be supplied, they had evidently neglected to provide against the winter, which at length burst upon them all unprepared to encounter its rigors.

The rest of this heart-rending story was gathered from the lips of their little protege. Her father, mother, and herself had started from Otter Tail lake in September, 1862, after the quelling of the Sioux outbreak, and voyaged down the Red river in a canoe, intending to settle in the wild-rice region a few miles southeast of the spot where they then were. Their canoe with most of their household goods had broken from its moorings in November, one night while they were encamped on the shore. The father had gone to bring it back, and being overtaken by a terrible snow-storm, had never returned. [His body was found the following spring.] The mother had managed to procure barely sufficient game during the winter to keep herself and her child alive. The cave, their only shelter, was strewed with the beaks and feathers of birds, and with the teeth and claws of small animals; all the other portions of the game she had shot had been devoured in the extremity to which hunger had reduced them. Her mother, the little girl said, was very weak the last day, and could hardly walk. "I begged to go with her when she took her gun and went out to shoot something for supper, but she told me I must stay at home and keep warm." Home! could that wretched shelter be a home for the hapless mother and her child? Tears were wrung from those rugged sons of the wilderness, and coursed down their iron cheeks when they visited the spot where parental tenderness had striven to shield the object of its affection from the bitter blast. The snow banked about the roots of the tree and showing the marks of her numbed fingers, the crevices stuffed with moss, the bed of dried leaves and the bedding which she had stripped from her own person to cover her child, were proofs and tokens of the love which would have created comfort in the midst of desolation and given even that miserable nook in winter's dreary domain the semblance of a home. In the heart of that frozen waste, far from human fellowship, with hunger gnawing at her vitals and the frost curdling the genial current in her veins, still burned brightly in that poor lonely heart the pure and deathless flame of maternal love.


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