Upon their return to the Peace Country, the Garriochs heard that Bulldog had returned to the area where he had seen Edward Armson’s mark on the tree. Finding a rotted dugout canoe and blazed trees and rotted snares, still lying where they had been set many years before, Bulldog felt he was close to a major, but tragic, discovery. More years would pass, however, before the Armsons were found again.
During those years, the Garriochs spent five years at Dunvegan Mission while the Vinings moved to Calgary. Lily finished her schooling. She had grown into a remarkable young woman – one prepared to know the secrets of her history. Having decided that she was most likely the daughter of the Armsons, the Vinings wrote to England to see if they could find out more about the vanished couple. A return letter carried only a little more information. Mr. Armson was married to the first Mrs. Armson in 1866. When she died two years later, Mr. Armson left their small son with an aunt and sailed for Canada. The aunt received a couple of letters from Armson, saying that he was married again and that he planned to try his hand at placer gold-mining in the Peace River area. That was the last she ever heard from Edward Armson.
Woodsman Louis Sizerman made slight progress with his search as well when he visited the site he and Bulldog believed to be the winter camp of the Armsons. The dugout canoe had been cracked and poorly repaired, which explained why it had been abandoned and was likely why, if the floating infant was the Armson’s baby, she had been placed on a tiny raft instead. Sizerman found more deadfalls and uncollected snares, some with the bones of martens still lying just where the animals were trapped many years ago. Now, Sizerman was sure he could find the Armsons and finally discover what had happened to them so many years ago.
In the spring, when it was easier to follow trails and other signs of long ago human habitation, Sizerman did indeed solve the mystery. He had followed an animal path that he guessed had been used by the Armsons. After a day of examining the trail very closely, he began to find trees showing the marks of human use. Tapped, stripped and cut birches suggested a home nearby. The next morning, Sizerman came to a steep hill with a grove of trees at its base. Within the trees was what remained of a rough cabin, crushed under a large spruce and smothered with willow bushes. He found tools lying about, and these helped him to dig out the entrance to the shelter. It had been built into the side of the hill. It was roomy, well-built and would have been comfortable. There was a baby rattle and some moss of the sort that was used for diapers.
We can now say for certain that Mr. And Mrs. Armson never left that hunting ground either dead or alive, because I found their bones in the ruins of their cabin; and it was touching enough to make me cry. When the tree fell, one end of the farther beam retained its position so that a small portion of that part of the roof was not crushed in, and underneath that portion was the bed, and on the bed or beside it lay the bones of Mr. and Mrs. Armson, those of the former, no doubt, as he had died – on the bed – and those of the latter – just as clearly – in the position in which she had thrown herself down upon her knees beside the bed, where, with her head touching his head, and her hands folded over his bosom, she had fallen asleep and died. And without touching anything I knew what had happened, for I had already unearthed a badly shattered gun, and now I noticed that a part of Mr. Armson’s left hand was missing.
Sizerman and Garrioch surmised that the Armsons had been doing quite well with their trapping throughout the winter, and had welcomed a baby born in the spring, at the end of March. But soon afterwards, Mr. Armson had suffered an injury to his hand, possibly a gun accident, and had been sickened with infection. Starvation followed. Knowing death was imminent, Mrs. Armson’s final hope to save her child had been to make a tiny raft and set it afloat down the river with the baby on board, not knowing whether starvation, drowning or rescue lay in store for the little one. She then settled down beside her husband to be near him until he died, and to await her own fate. The fallen spruce may have contributed to their desperate situation, or it could have crushed their shelter later. Either way it preserved the scene from predators for nearly two decades.
Hanging from a beam over the bed, Sizerman found a small parcel. He handed it over to Garrioch. Inside, well protected by three layers of tightly wrapped birch bark, were two books: a bible and a diary. Flipping to the entry for March 31st, the day the Vinings had chosen for Lily’s birthday, and the date of Garrioch’s own wedding, he found this entry:
“Born this day, a girl, perfectly formed and with vocal organs in fine working condition. It would seem that when Mrs. Armson’s glancing hatchet hit her toe at the mining camp at St. John’s (Fort St. John) she inflicted a hatchet mark in duplicate; for on the corresponding toe of her little daughter’s foot there is a perfect replica of the scar on hers.”
The gun accident was also mentioned on a later page, and, in the final entry, Armson wrote:
“May 15, 1872: I am dying – effects of an accident. My first wife died in England, leaving a son, now five. Write to legal firm Blake and Barstow, London, England. Wife and babe weak from starvation. The Lord will provide.”
It was a sad discovery, but not an unexpected one. Lily and the Vinings were told of the final piece of the puzzle. They were upset, naturally, to hear of the tragedy, but Lily’s impending marriage was of great consolation.
Little did they know there would be yet another chapter in their curious story. Please check back for the final installment of The Raft Baby.