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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter V

The bear—Touchwood Hills—A native gentleman—The great salt plains—Sixty-two below zero—Played out—A rest—Humboldt —Timber wolves—Hoodoo—Christmas day.

shortly after midnight a huge black form came bounding through the rug we had fixed over the window, landing upon the recumbent form of the gentleman from Middlesex, who wildly shrieked, "A bear! a bear!" No doubt, he imagined, in his semi-somnolent state, that the whole menagerie from the surrounding bush had turned out to make a night of it. It was, however, only a train dog of the Huskie breed, in the service of the fort, who was attracted by the gleam of our pine logs. He made himself at home, after the storm of abuse had passed over.

As usual we were roused before dawn, had our morning meal, and stowed our fry-pans and baggage into their respective places. Our game bronchos held up their little heads bravely as we rattled off. We were to reach the mail station on the Salt Plains that night, a distance of forty-three miles. The saffron hues of dawn soon spread and brightened into the morning splendour of sunrise. We were now in the heart of the Touchwood Hills—in summer very beautiful with lake and wood—and the vast plain stretching to the westward. Game is very abundant, but, as it is on an Indian reserve, fur and feather is sacred to the native gentlemen. Muskowequahn and Day Star are the two chiefs who hold sway. The whole Indian population amounts to an aggregrate of five hundred and eighty-three on these reserves.

We were following the mail route by the line of telegraph poles, reaching from the railway to Prince Albert. Of course in winter the trail takes a number of short cuts, which are impossible in summer, and you are enabled by the frost to take cognizance of the fact, that two sides of a triangle are together greater than the third. Sunday, December 2ist, was the coldest day on record in the North-West. The thermometer, on the Saskatchewan, registered minus 62° Fahrenheit; or ninety-four degrees of frost I As we passed the lonely hut, in which resided the telegraph operator, the mercury was frozen at minus 450, in the sun.

The atmosphere was clear and bright, but cutting as the keenest steel. We kept up our circulation as well as we could, by running alongside the sleighs ; this was no easy task in deep snow, with our weight of furs and underclothing. We passed a weasen-faced old Indian, seated in state in his jumper, with a great rabbit-skin robe around him ; his squaw trudged alongside, and kept hammering the cayeuse. We drove by the door of the Indian agent's house, round which were a collection of painted squaws and braves in all the finery of many-coloured blankets. Here our sleighs were piled with a supply of wood, for, right before us, stretching from the foot of the hills, lay the grey expanse of the Great Salt Plains. Dream-like in immensity, there they were; hazy and indistinct; no tree nor bush upon their desert surface. From Wolverine Creek on the West, to where the Red Deer River, of Lake Winipegoisis, bends to the Pasquia Hills, they stretch their mournful length, which in the afternoon sunlight of that December Sunday, appeared grim and forbidding. The telegraph poles cross a narrow arm, about forty-five miles from timber to timber, and we followed their guidance. The sergeant pointing ahead, said to me,—

"Do you see that? No more shelter there, than in Mid-Atlantic!"

The grinding of our runners over the frozen snow was the only sound in that hideous stillness. We were to make for the log-hut, in which a man was kept at Government expense, and which was a halting-place for the mail. The stars sparkled overhead ; and away along the low horizon they twinkled with deceptive lustre; for each one, of the first magnitude, that shone through the deathly haze was taken to mark our goal. We were enduring all the pangs of hunger, and a dangerous drowsiness seemed to seize one, every now and again ; for the circulation could barely be maintained. I cannot describe the sensations of that winter night. We were only a small band in a ,lone land, fighting in the icy grasp of a fatal cold. Ninety-four degrees of frost! I leave it to my readers to imagine what it means. And in this temperature, in the blackness of a mid-winter night, we were to pitch tents on a treeless waste ! When, at length, worn out and silent—painfully silent—we found our destination, it was with thankful hearts. A dim light shone through the panes of a small frost-coated window. We almost ran against the low canvas dwellings of some half-breed freighters who were here encamped. Their train consisted of about 100 ponies. Had it not been for their welcome aid, I do not see how we should have managed to rig up our camp. Every one was completely numbed. As for me, everything seemed spinning round; and I should have fallen into the sleep which knows no waking had 1 not been able to secure some warmth and shelter. An incident occured by which I was permitted to get inside the mail station. A fine big fellow of ours, from Stirling in Scotland, had fallen down insensible. We at once pulled him up; but he was quite delirious. We took him into the. hut, which was crowded with a heterogeneous lot of people; and here some good Samaritan pulled out some forbidden cognac, which was given our comrade in spoonfuls. None had been issued to us for medical purposes. He did not come to his senses for some considerable time. His face, head, and hands were fearfully frozen. On the following morning we were compelled to leave him in these lonely and comfortless quarters; when he had recovered sufficiently he returned to Regina by stage. I do not think he ever quite got over the shock of that night. Another man was also left behind at this place, too frost-bitten to proceed.

The little room of the station was only twelve feet square ; with two bunks against the far wall, one above the other. In these two women were lying, and a child. One of them was taking her husband's body from Prince Albert to Montreal for interment. A weird journey! The sleigh in which they travelled. was covered with canvas, and had a stove. There were a few white freighters in here also. This mail station stands on a slight eminence, about twenty-seven miles from the north edge of the plains. Pierre, Jean, Baptiste and Company had lent a willing hand, and soon our tents rose beside those of the dusky Metis. A third member of our party was so thoroughly benumbed that two of us, kneeling beside him in the tent, had to chafe him for some time. The ladies of our party stood it bravely. We simply turned our horses loose, to rustle for themselves. They found sufficient forage in a stack of hay which stood alongside; and when morning broke they were all grouped around it, as fresh as paint.

We did not turn out till daylight on this occasion, and we were a set of haggard-looking objects, as we gazed into each other's dull and bloodshot eyes. I managed to get some breakfast at the mail station. I told McLeod to charge any sum he pleased. He only charged fifty cents ; but I would have willingly paid him five dollars, had he asked it, for the greasy bacon, black tea and slap-jack. The civilians had all folded

"Their tents like the Arabs, And as silently stole away,"

long before dawn. It was determined by the officer to leave the men on the sick-list where they were; and we were to proceed to the "Edge of the Plain!" as the outer fringe of bush to the northward was termed. When we had gained this shelter, we were to camp for a rest, as we were all pretty well played out. My left heel had been frost-bitten during the night, in spite of all covering. We broke camp and pushed ahead about ten o'clock. We got across this infernal desert by half-past three in the afternoon, and pitched our tents in a lovely grove of poplar. We soon had our stoves going, made ourselves comfortable, and forgot the tribulations of the previous day. How we enjoyed our supper this evening, as the crimson blush of sunset glowed through the branches to the west! Then pipes were lit, and songs trolled out by manly throats. "The Midshipmite," "Ehren on the Rhine," and the well-worn camp song known as the "Spanish Cavalier."

Our horses were picketed among the trees in a sheltered spot; and the sergeant fed them at night. It is a pity there are so few non-coms, like him. He was a smart-looking fellow, with keen features and bright yellow moustache. Having been on leave, he was wearing a long coat of raccoon skin. He had spent ten years in exile in the wilds of Saskatchewan. The usual coyote came prowling around at night, but his respect for his own skin kept him at a distance. He is a cowardly beast, and only wanted to lift our rations. We heard the bells of some freighters passing about midnight. These men travel at all hours, only making a halt when they consider it necessary for their cattle. Each of their horses wears a bell, as they leave them entirely to their own devices when they camp. We were all very much the better for our splendid rest; and when the considerate bearer of the triple chevron awoke us at 5 a.m., he also imparted the cheerful intelligence that our horses were fed and the kettle boiling. He had done all this himself. More power to your elbow, Harry K-, wherever you may be! But there is one very good thing in the North-West Mounted Police, officers and non-commissioned officers alike share the hardships of the men; and all join together in lending a hand when out upon the plains. This day we had a pleasant and short march of twenty-five miles to Humboldt, through woods full of prairie chicken. These birds roost on trees, and don't show the least alarm at the approach of a vehicle. Thus you can always secure a shot at them from a buck-board. We were now approaching the habitat of the ptarmigan, plenty of which are to be had on the North Saskatchewan.

Humboldt is another mail station, and at that time consisted of a couple of log-huts, in one of which dwelt the telegraph operator. In some of the more out-of-the-way places, the winter exile of these men is terrible beyond expression. They become victims to a most depressing ennui. There was a Dundee Scotsman, in charge here, who informed me that he had killed five timber wolves in the adjoining bush. The timber wolf is a different animal from the pusillanimous coyote. The former will attack a man; whereas the latter contents himself with squatting on his haunches, and gazing from a reasonably safe distance. We took up our lodgings for the night in the mail hut, which would have held our small party in comfort; but a squad of unsavoury freighters landed at dusk, and we all occupied the floor, in layers, like sardines. A range of long, low stables stood between the two houses, and into the dim recesses of this building our teamster was mysteriously invited by a huge civilian in an ancient buffalo coat, and long stockings of felt. This bearded habitant of the wilds opened his shaggy capote and produced a black bottle of well-known shape.

"This is some of the genuine stingo you bet." But the whisky was frozenl So much for the contraband nectar of the Territories. And our man departed into the silence of the night, tearfully. On the following day we were treated to an icy wind from the north-west which searched through your very bones. A stretch of desolate rolling prairie lay upon our way, its billowy hillocks presenting a breadth of fifteen miles. We passed by two dogs standing frozen in their tracks. At two o'clock in the afternoon the sun shone out gloriously upon thicket, and lake, and the distant range of the Birch Hills. We had crossed our last patch of prairie, and here before us was the mail station of Hoodoo ; amid clumps of birch that fringe a number of pretty little lakes.

The acme of dirt and discomfort was exhibited in the interior of the house at this place; and we reversed our usual plan with regard to our arrangements for sleeping quarters. We pitched two tents for our married superiors, and inhabited H.M. Post-office ourselves. It was a most abominable hole in which to spend a Christmas Eve; but as usual we made ourselves as merry as we could. The worst of it was, the charge-d'affaires at this post—an Ontario backwoodsman— would persist in singing execrable ditties of a very depressing type, till he was summarily shut up. Then he began a fearfully amorous yarn of still more melancholy import, to the libretto of which we added a chorus of groans.

It was a strange Christmas Eve, and as we smoked our pipes before going to sleep, we thought of all the doings at home. At least I know my mind wandered far away to a certain cosy room, where the holly berries would be shining scarlet over the fireplace; to the dear valley wrapt in its mantle- of snow; the dark firs under the grand old hills ; the village church with snow-clad roof; and all the seasonable mirth of my beloved borderland. And I thought too of my comrades, and envied them, in distant barracks across the frozen plains.

We slept upon the floor as well as we were able. A disreputable crowd we looked on the following morning! Our fur coats were ornamented with hay seeds and straws. Our chins, noses, and cheeks were raw with frostbites, and smeared with vasseline. One man was dyed purple; another blue, and a third was brown. A beard of a fortnight's growth did not add to the many fascinations of our appearance. The ladies entered the hovel to wish us all a very Merry Christmas; and we seemed to afford considerable merriment to them. We all blushed like a lot of idiotic school-boys; and such was our plight on Christmas Day.

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