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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter IV

Winter—Volunteers for Saskatchewan—Jumpers and moccasins— To Qu'Appelle—Intense cold—A model hotel—Tent pegs or beefsteaks?—A terrible march.

When I was returned as fit for duty, the winter had set in keenly. I had suffered from a very slight attack, so that I had not been very long upon the sick-list. Though the frost had locked the land in its powerful grasp, and sleugh and creek were bound in solid bands of ice, there was merely a slight powdering of snow upon the ground. The buckets of water in the barrack-rooms for use in case of fire were frozen over, in spite of the fact that every fire was kept going by the night-guard. There were two stoves in each of the small rooms. How can I describe this cold? If I state simple facts as to its intensity, they do not convey the least idea of the temperature that seizes upon everything, and almost annihilates existence. If any one doubts the thermometer readings I give, I refer him to the meteorological records. One night the thermometer at our barracks in Regina, in December, 1884, went down to 58° below zero ; in other words, registered 90° of frost I This brought a leading article from the Standard as to the danger to life in such a temperature. Butler says, in "The Great Lone Land," "40° below zero means so many things impossible to picture or to describe, that it would be a hopeless task to enter upon its delineation. After one has gone through the list of all those things that freeze; after one has spoken of the knife which burns the hand that would touch its blade, the tea that freezes while it is being drunk, there still remains a sense of having said nothing; a sense which may perhaps be better understood by saying that 40° below zero means just one thing more than all these items—it means death, in a period whose duration would expire in the hours of a winter's daylight, if there were no fire or means of making it on the track."

We were obliged to turn out on the barrack square to answer our names at reveille, before proceeding to stables. The air nipped with a keenness beyond all description; and the orderly corporal struggled through the long list by the feeble light of a lantern, while the stars glittered overhead.

It was rumoured, about this time, that a party of twenty men were to start for Prince Albert, a distant settlement upon the North Saskatchewan; and the report soon took definite shape by the authorities asking for volunteers. It was not a tempting prospect —a march of 300 miles over frozen waste in the depth o a rigorous winter—but I offered and was accepted.

We spent the first week in December in preparation. Sleighs were purchased, iron tent-pegs were made by the blacksmith, and a heavy requisition went in to the Quartermaster's store for camp equipment and rations. It is impossible to make long journeys in the saddle in this most excessive cold. Therefore we were each to drive a jumper, a small sleigh entirely made of wood with wooden runners. The separate parts of this fearful and wonderful structure are fastened together with strips of shaganappi. To this you hitch your broncho by a light harness. It is part of their necessary education to learn to draw a jumper.

The biting cold now forbade the use of boots, and your feet would most assuredly dissolve partnership with the rest of your body, if you continued to wear these adjuncts of civilization. Therefore the comfortable Indian moccasin is substituted. People who read of these articles fail generally to understand exactly what they are. In "Madcap Violet," one of the characters asks her, when she is setting off for an American tour, to snare him a brace of moccasins in the Rocky Mountains. I suppose William Black meant to satirise the prevailing ignorance on the subject.

In the days when I was wont to revel in the fascinating pages of Fenimore Cooper, I used to imagine these articles of wear consisted of long leggings reaching to the thigh. Nothing of the sort. We protected our feet from the dangerous attacks of the frost by first covering them with two pairs of woollen socks. Over these we drew a long pair of woollen stockings which covered our riding pants to the knee. Then we adorned our feet with moccasins. These are soft, pliable brogues of dressed deerskin (moose), of a light yellow colour, and only reach above the ankles. They are pliant as a glove, and thus there is liberty given to the foot, so that the circulation remains unimpeded.

After all our preparations were completed, the only thing to do was to wait for snow. It came with a vengeance, about the 8th of December. A rude, riotous wind arose in the north, and went forth in demon wrath from the desolate shores of the lone Lake Athabasca, and the far-off icy regions of the musk ox and reindeer. It swept across the treeless plains, and whirled the big flakes into heaped masses around the wooden huts. The vast expanse of prairie was covered with the storm-rack like a tossing sea; men struggled and fought with the blast in crossing the barrack square, and stumbled and plunged with bent head on their way to stables. After a day or two of hilarity of this description, the weather suddenly sobered, and all around lay the glittering, crystalline robe, in the still keen air under a brilliant sun.

On Friday, the 12th, our expedition paraded before the Colonel. There was a foot parade at first, in furs ; and then the jumpers were given a spin round the square. Some of the bronchos indulged in various freaks, of a very lively description at first; but luckily there were no accidents or spills, and they settled down to a steady gait. The intended journey was of a somewhat exceptional character, and in consequence, there were issued to us one extra pair of blankets, a muffler, a driving-whip, and a pair of smoked goggles each: these last were fastened round the head by a string of elastic.

These protective specs are of no earthly use whatever. In fact, your eyes do not require the services of any screen until the sun begins to gain power; when it beats back from the glassy surface of the melting snow with a blinding glare. A veil of green gauze, or lampblack smeared under the eyes and upon the nose, are much better preventives of conjunctivitis. The buckskin mitts, supplied by Government, only have a forefinger, so as to admit of the carbine being handled. This finger invariably becomes frozen in the extreme cold of mid-winter, if these mitts are worn. Each of us had, therefore, two pairs of mitts without fingers at all. One pair were of wool, knitted, and one pair of unlined buckskin to draw over the former. But the only thing to assure any comfort to the hands in this climate are fur gauntlets, with an ordinary pair of woollen knitted gloves underneath. Thus, if you have occasion to fix a buckle or loose a strap, on removing the outer covering, your fingers are at liberty without exposure.

And it is to be remembered, that to expose the surface of the skin, for a few moments, means a frostbite; and to touch metal is to bring away the skin. The bits of the horses are of celluloid. When they are not so, the poor animals suffer terribly.

On Saturday morning at eight o'clock, the main party pulled out, under a sergeant; each jumper was devoted to one man with his kit. A waggon box, on bob sleighs, with a pair of horses, carried the heavy impedimenta. The morning was clear, but the thermometer registered 370 below zero, with a breeze. Where the cunning Pieapot has his reserve upon the grassy slopes which dip to the fair valley of the Qu'Appelle, is a dense growth of birch and aspen and poplar. Upon the edge of this bush, about twenty-eight miles from Regina, they were to camp that night, reaching Qu'Appelle on the following day.

As I was detained by special duty, I did not start until Sunday, the 14th December, accompanying the officer and his wife, who travelled to Troy (now Qu'Appelle Station) by train. His servant, with baggage, and myself, were driven to town by a French Canadian teamster in the afternoon. I had my first touch of frostbite on this occasion ; it felt as if a battery of red-hot needles were being applied to the interior lining of my nostril. The train did not pass Regina until midnight, so we patronized the Palmer House for supper; the piece de resistance was pie, of occult ingredients, handed round by angular damsels, with a pronounced nasal twang, and brief dresses of extensive pattern.

My friend, the batman, was a recent pilgrim from London, who had the fixed idea that every one knew all the purlieus of his pet village as accurately as a detective from Scotland Yard. Not to know every obscure region which he introduced into his narrative was to incur his lasting contempt.

On boarding the train, I found every car full of hulking navvies of every nationality, who had been working as construction gangs in the Rocky Mountains, and who were now going east to spend their "little pile," either in Winnipeg or Chicago. We reached Troy Station in about two hours after leaving Regina. Two of the mounted police were stationed at Troy, inhabiting a diminutive hut, which was dignified by the name of barracks. This stood upon a wooded knoll, half a mile from the station, and, after redeeming our respective rolls of bedding (each about 60 lbs in weight), we shouldered these uncouth bundles, and trudged off through the snow under the starlight. The officer and his wife went to the hotel. The two representatives of the law were both out of bed, more wood was banged into the stove, and we spread out our blankets for a few hours' snooze.

There is no undressing here. You must learn to sleep in your clothes when on a journey in out-of-the-way regions of the Wild West. During this trip, I wore my uniform for thirteen days and nights. The two constables here, as indeed at all the out-posts along the Canadian Pacific Railway, take their meals at the principal hotel. On emerging from our shelter, in the morning sunlight, to proceed to the Queen's, the cold was terrible. It went through mitts and buffalo coat, and caught your nose every now and again with a stinging bite that made you wince. This was only a foretaste of what was to come. A man coming fresh from England, is always able to endure the first winter in the North-West better than any of the succeeding ones.

Troy was surrounded on all sides by pleasant trees, the bare boughs of which wore a coat of sparkling silver this winter's morning, like the mythical branches in some fairy tale. In spite of two stoves in the dining-hall, the Arctic temperature clung around you. The officer and his wife were already seated at one of the small tables, with blue fingers and red noses. The hostess was the most loquacious member of the loquacious sex whom I have ever met. As one of our fellows expressed it, "she would talk the boots off your feet."

The distance from Troy to Fort Qu'Appelle, where the real labour of our march would commence, is eighteen miles. Two constables with sleighs had driven over from the fort, to transport us thither. One of these, stamping about in moccasins, and muffled to the eyes in furs, was waiting at the station, and was kicking up a boisterous shindy because I was not there with the luggage checks. However, we soon bundled the mountain of luggage into the sleigh, and T--and

I took our seats. The keen air seemed to act as a stimulus to our horses, and away they went at a gallop up the village—(I beg pardon, three houses constitute a city)—street. Clumps of willow and poplar—or bluffs— lined the trail on either side, the lace-like tracery of their interwoven branches flashing with myriads of diamonds. The sun shone with a frigid glare from a cloudless sky of steely blue. Mr. T--sported his goggles, which elicited a question from the old hand who was driving, if he were suffering from myopia, whereupon that verdant youth from far Cockaigne put them aside. I imagine he found the rims a little too hot for him.

We overtook the doctor of the settlement a little way out of town; he was luxuriating in a closed carriage of strange aspect, the only one I ever saw during my four years' experience of these regions. The scenery continued to present the same features as we sped along ; undulating hillocks, crowned with groves of bushes, and cup-like hollows, in which lay ice-bound, snow-clad lakelets.

Upon the summit of a wind-swept, bleak, and treeless ridge, about nine miles from Troy, stood a solitary farm. This ugly-looking homestead was known as the " halfway house," and it seemed the recognized custom for every one passing to hitch up their horses to a convenient post, enter unceremoniously, take a seat, and spread their legs-out to the grateful warmth of the stove. On entering, we found two or three more travellers puffing solemnly at well-seasoned pipes. The settler and his wife did not resent this abrupt invasion ; but, on the contrary, welcomed us with effusive hospitality. Presently came the doctor from his caravan, and quite a flow of lively repartee set in between him and our driver, whom I found to be a well-known character in the force.

Then, as the weather is the one overpowering topic wherever the English language is spoken, bets ensued as to the precise spot to which the spirit had sunk in the thermometer. Jehu said —37°; and AEsculapius was positive it was —48°. The wager was to be decided by the Fahrenheit thermometer at Smith's hotel, on our arrival at the Fort. After a short rest we buttoned up our heavy coats, muffled up our noses, and set off again to face the music. Past more bush and frozen ponds, with a cutting breeze whose fearful edge you warded off as best you could with uplifted arm and bent head. Our son of Nimshi drove furiously, and we were not long in reaching the edge of the Qu'Appelle valley.

The town lies at the foot of the wooded hills, the houses clustering by the margin of two fair lakes. It is a charming valley. The trail winds down a very steep descent; but away dashed our driver at break-neck speed through snowdrifts and over stumps; while I held on like grim death, with icy hands. The doctor, who was following, remarked afterwards at the hotel, that he was disappointed in not having had an opportunity to earn a fee. Perhaps it was his knowledge of the dare-devil who held the reins, which made him so considerate in following so closely in our rear.

The hotel here is a superior sort of building, and was kept by an Englishman, and furnished in English'style with a view to comfort.

The doctor lost his bet as to the temperature, the instrument hanging outside the door showing —38°, or 70° of frost.

A cutting blast came sweeping down the V-shaped gorge, through which flows the Qu'Appelle river, and laying bare the ice upon the string of lakes. This valley is always considered colder in winter than the surrounding heights. The old fort is on the north side ; and was at one time the headquarters of the Mounted Police. The situation is one of the most romantic in the Territory. There is a flagstaff in front of the police buildings flying a tattered Union Jack. The Hudson Bay Company's store here was at one time one of their principal trading posts between the country of the Assiniboines to the east, and the Crees to the west. Many a wild orgie and scene of bloodshed was witnessed, in the old days when the mighty buffalo roamed these wilds, and • glittering beads and gaudy trinkets were traded for the valuable robes, taken from this monarch of the plains. The town also gives a title to a colonial bishopric. At the time of writing, the Hon. Dr. Anson —brother of Lord Lichfield—is the occupant of the See. There is also an agricutural college, under the superintendence of his lordship.

The officer ordered me to have my dinner at the hotel. He and his wife, his servant, and myself all sat down together at the same table. This anomalous state of affairs would not be quite the thing in the British service; but such mixing of ranks in social and military life is quite common out here; nor is it at all subversive of discipline. The rank and file of course are of somewhat different material to the average linesman. We enjoyed a very good dinner; ministered to by most attentive and pretty waitresses, in bewitchingly clean costumes, who deftly handed round the dainty dishes. All the waiting is done by girls in Canadian hotels. But there are no barmaids. Society is not sufficiently educated for them.

After smoking a digestive cigar, presented by the proprietor, we fought our way over to the fort. It was, literally, a fight against the piercing wind. My recollection of that day's sufferings stands out in bold relief. Fancy the concentrated essence of cold (the thermometer — 38°) coming scampering wildly with resistless energy down a narrow ravine, and across a broad field of ice ! Buffalo coat with high collar up, the eyes only peeping out above the muffler; fur cap well down over the ears ; and double mitts appeared to be no protection/ Ever and again you had to turn your back to its fury and rest from the fight.

Arrived at the log buildings under the shelter of the northern side of the valley, we found the party which* had preceded us from Regina ; packed like herrings in a barrel, in a small, stuffy apartment. They looked a most dilapidated crew; their cheeks and noses were frozen; and, as the dye had come off their variegated mufflers, they would have stricken envy into the soul of any aesthetic aborigine who wished to excel in a new and artistic style of war-paint.

Several circumstances conspired to detain us in Qu'Appelle for four days. Our stay at the ramshackle old fort was of the most uncomfortable description. We unrolled our blankets at night upon the floor; washing was out of the question, and our grub consisted entirely of greasy bacon salted to the nth\ power, with hard tack and tea. Tobacco was our only solace; going out to feed and water our horses, our only occupation. The watering-hole, out on the lake, had to be reopened with an axe each time we required it.

It is useless speaking of men indulging in outdoor pastimes in such weather as this. Such cold paralyzes every energy and makes you grumpy and unsociable. We became dirty, unkempt and red-eyed; as though we had been sitting up nightly, on a prolonged "burst."

One of the causes of our delay was a telegram from headquarters ordering us to remain where we were, until the cold snap was over. Had this been carried out we should have adorned society at Qu'Appelle till March. Then we found we were to wait for a sergeant, who had been on leave; and who was bringing up a wife from Manitoba; and the two ladies under our escort were to travel in a covered sleigh, with an abundance of robes of buffalo and rabbit skin. The rabbit-skin robe is white, and pretty in appearance. A rabbit-skin worn inside a moccasin, with the fur against the sold 5f the foot, is wonderfully warm.

Upon Friday, 19th December, we set out upon our march of .240 miles through the frozen wilderness.

Observed Mr. M--'s servant about to deposit a sack, whose contents rattled suspiciously in the sleigh containing our supply of forage. Therefore I spoke.

"Look here, T--.don't put those tent-pegs beside the oats. They'll poke their points through the bag, knock a hole in the corn sacks ; there'll be a leak, and the deuce to pay."

Saith he, looking at me with disdain,— "Those ain't tent-pegs—they's beefsteaks!" So they were, cut ready for use by our commander on the line of march. As a curiosity, I may say that I have seen milk carried in nets. Those of my readers who have spent a winter on the Saskatchewan will bear me out.

The order of our procession was as follows. In front was a transport sleigh and pair of horses, containing tents, camp stoves, and other equipment, as well as our rations. Then came our line of jumpers, each driven by one of us in winter uniform. The officer followed us in a superior sort of jumper, a kind of aristocratic box, with varnished sides and high back, in which he could recline at ease. The canvas-covered sleigh, containing the ladies, drawn by a team, brought up the rear.

The latest specimen of the equine tribe, which had been entrusted to my care, was a black of uncertain temper and ominous name. He was christened Satan. On our way out of the valley, as I was walking alongside fixing my muffler around my face, he took it into his head to bolt at full gallop. He cannoned against every obstacle to his progress, wildly scattering everything like chaff before the wind, distributing my kit into various inaccessible parts of the bush, and smashing the jumper into lucifer matches; in honour, I suppose, of his namesake. The officer pronounced a benediction; —nay several benedictions. The anathemas of the Pope, in the Ingoldsby legends, were as the crooning of an infant compared to them.

I helped to gather up the fragments, which we placed in the foremost sleigh. His Satanic majesty was hitched in the team; liberating a little bay mare who was allowed to run behind. Even with the heavy load behind him, and the incline in front, the fiery black was difficult to hold, and this, Sergeant K-, who was driving, confessed. One of the men was riding the officer's charger, a stubborn animal which we nicknamed "Pig." He soon had to leave the saddle, half frozen.

We felt the weather considerably milder on reaching the plateau above, and snow was falling heavily. The thermometer was only io° below zero, with an easterly wind. The country to the north of the Qu'Appelle valley is fairly well stocked with timber and game. We passed several half-breeds in charge of a long string of jumpers, drawn by their hardy ponies. Each of them wore a long blue overcoat, with capuchin or hood, bound round the waist with a gaudy sash, upon the head a tuque or a cap of beaver skin. They were almost as swarthy as their maternal ancestors.

We also passed one or two white freighters, who carried goods from Qu'Appelle to the Saskatchewan at a charge then of four cents per pound. Their sufferings during these winter journeys are intense. One would think the game is not worth the candle, but men must endure bravely to make a living in a climate such as this.

Tall, slender poplars sheltered our trail the entire ten miles which lie between the Fort and Skunk Bluffs. As this was a station on the Prince Albert mail route, there was a house of call kept by one O'Brien. Its comforts, of course, were reserved for our superiors and their wives.

We soon had led our horses into the stable, and rubbed them down. The pain in my hands, as circulation began to return to the benumbed fingers, was excruciating. Molten lead seemed to be tingling in every vein. We now went to work with our shovels and cleared the snow from a sheltered space in the bluff, where we pitched our tents. Each tent was provided with a small stove. Then we made a raid on the O'Briens' haystack, and placed armfuls of fodder upon the ground inside. We banked up the outside of the curtain with snow, and made fires in the stoves, while our cook had the camp kettle over a blazing pile outside. Some steaming tea, with the usual accompaniment of " rattlesnake pork " and hard-tack, made us feel more comfortable.

This meal we took sitting on our rolls of bedding, under canvas. Each bell-tent felt very cosy that night, Then we unrolled our blankets, crept in beneath them, and lit our pipes. We did not remove any article of our dress, which was as follows: undershirt, next the skin, of knitted wool; and drawers of the same material; overshirt of flannel, socks two pairs, stockings one pair, and moccasins; blue cloth riding pants Cardigan waistcoat, and jacket of scarlet serge. Over these, a brown jacket of duck ; and overalls of the same ; to crown all was a buffalo overcoat and fur cap. At night we substituted a woollen tuque for the latter. We watched our fire in turns during the night until the sergeant sounded reveilld at the unholy hour of 4 a.m. by bawling outside the tents,—

"Now then, boys, turn out and feed your horses/' Oh, the lengthened sigh one heaved on turning out upon the starlit snow ! Half asleep we tumbled over to the stable, and with smarting finger tips gave our bronchos hay and oats. They were only watered twice daily in winter, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Then the everlasting tea, hard-tack, and sowbelly. Try every variation you like on those three words, and you have our daily bill of fare.

After this came the disagreeable labour of striking the tents, loading the sleighs, and harnessing the horses. There was always much growling on leaving camp, and the atmosphere was generally blue with cuss-words. Men grow savage in such cold as this ; especially when there is a march of forty miles ahead. The wind this day was keen, and full in our teeth, as we mounted some bare uplands. Every now and then you had to jump down and run. You cannot smoke, for the juice freezes in the pipe stem. Old Munchausen's yarn about the bugle was not such a gigantic fib after all. Every moment you are exposed to this terrible atmosphere is one of suffering. People have shielded their faces with masks of buffalo hide, and yet have had them frozen. I know very likely there may be a roaring cataract of contradictions to these statements, from people who know nothing whatever of the matter. Emigration jugglers will be upon the war-path at once. I am only stating stubborn facts; and I can appeal to men who have faced the real thing for corroboration. After the sun had risen we made a halt at a sleugh, and cut a hole in the ice to water the horses. In using a bucket for this purpose, in less than five minutes one half the depth of the bucket is solid ice, and the sides are caked with it. In the afternoon we entered the picturesque Touchwood Hills. These abound with game, and many a lovely spot and charming lake nestles amid their winding glens. The sun set in a great flame of crimson and scarlet, orange and amethyst, behind the verge of the great desolate prairie, that stretched away to the westward from the foot of these elevations. It was a gorgeous sight, but the sense of gloomy desolation brought a feeling of sadness and awe. Darkness hemmed us in, while yet a good way from our intended destination. We had to trust to the sagacity of our horses to keep the trail. No sound broke upon the ear save the crunching of the snow beneath the line of sleighs.

Suddenly, in turning a corner, I, who was sitting on the edge of the sleigh-box, kicking my feet together to keep them from freezing, described a rapid parabola through the air, and took a lively header into a snowdrift. I was not missed from my perch of course; and when I recovered my scattered senses, it was some time before I overtook the vanishing jumpers.

Our sergeant was a man who had spent the whole of his long years of service upon the Saskatchewan, but he was completely at sea in the darkness. However, we caught a glimpse of a light twinkling through the branches which was as welcome as any long-looked-for harbour light to storm-tossed mariners. I was suffering intensely from the pain brought on by exposure in such a cramped position. We soon gladly found ourselves drawn up in front of the Hudson Bay factor's house at Touchwood.

These posts are in wild, lonely spots, and generally consist of a rude collection of log-huts around an open space. The larger forts boast of a rough wall of palisades. They possess also a flagstaff upon which they sometimes sport the Company's flag, which bears the letters H.B.C. upon a field of flowery device. Tradition says that a Yankee skipper, sailing the clear waters of Lake Superior, once upon a time came to anchor off the mouth of the Kaministiquia. On seeing this emblem floating proudly above the congregatibn of shanties at Fort William, he shut up his glass with a snap, and ejaculated, "Here Before Christ! Wall, judging by the look of the hull blamed consarn, I guess they were I"

The officer, sergeant, and ladies billeted themselves in the factor's residence, whence the cheerful blaze of a log fire sent a ruddy glare upon the snow outside. The stables were ruinous, great holes gaping through the worn timber of which they were constructed. Here we made our horses as comfortable as we could in such a breezy home. We were quartered in a dilapidated, ancient "shack," near the stables, on the edge of a darksome wood. It was weary work, carrying our bedding and grub through the deep drifts. We stumbled, and plunged, and fell again and again. There was a cantonment of redskins and half-breeds in the next-door compartment to us. One tall, blanketed savage came out, and stalked weirdly away, his grey figure appeared ghost-like in the wan glamour of the winter's night. Our temporary resting-place was not inviting. There was no glass in the antique window-frame. The floor had yielded to decay, in places forming many pitfalls for the unwary. The walls were full of yawning holes, admitting every breath of air. We had a wretched night, in spite of our weariness, but after smoking the consolatory calumet, we all fell into an uneasy slumber.

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