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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter VII

Carlton to Prince Albert—Frozen wheat—A digression—A splendid grazing country—"Johnnie Saskatchewan's" palace—Brick barracks—Freedom of social life—A look round.

We were aroused by the sleepy "boss," in a neglige sort of costume, bearing a candle, who informed us, between yawns, that it was five o'clock, and that it was "gey cauld!" One always sleeps with the blankets drawn over the head. After being fortified with some beefsteak and hot coffee, we set off upon the final stage of our toilsome trip, just as the dawn was flushing the Eastern sky. Now the country grew more open, and farms studded the landscape. Some acres of frozen wheat, standing uncut alongside the trail, did not pose as a very favourable witness to the climate of this fertile belt. The autumn's sun had gilded the ears with ripeness, when—snap !—down came the nipping frost, like the wolf on the fold, and blighted it with ruin in a single night. The Ontario Jews of Scotch extraction, who rig the land-market in Winnipeg, will doubtless endeavour to explain away these little facts.

I am induced to make the above remark by the following circumstance. A private statement of mine to a friend, that I had been under canvas when the temperature was 62° below zero, found its way into print in England. Thereupon the howl that went up from the descendants of Ananias and Sapphira, who have gathered together in Winnipeg, was heartrending. A comrade of mine sent me a cutting from Winnipeg Siftiigs, in which the gentlemanly and accomplished editor stigmatized me as a liar. I was strongly urged to reply, as every one in Regina knew my statement to be true. But I was away, out on the prairies, at the time; and when I returned, Winnipeg Siftings was defunct, the editor having been obliged to abscond. He was threatened with an action for libel by Mr. Hugh Macdonald—son of the Canadian Premier—and also with an application of rawhide by the irate relative of a slandered lady. I merely make this digression to show from what class these random contradictions come ; and I repeat my positive declaration regarding the temperature on the night of Sunday, December 21st, 1884.

A man who had resided for forty years on the Saskatchewan, informed me that he had only known wheat escape frost five times during the whole of that lengthened period. Why will those responsible for emigration indicate localities as wheat-growing, when they are nothing of the sort? Wheat is the perpetual symbol of a new El Dorado. The zone of the Saskatchewan valley is a magnificent grazing country:—why not hold it up as such?

We were now entering the white settlements around Prince Albert; A large building, painted white, with wide verandah, greeted us from an enclosure on our right. This was the Bishop's Palace. The late celebrated Dr. Maclean, sacrilegiously known as "Johnnie Saskatchewan," resided there in those days. In the days of the old rebellion at Fort Garry this prelate, then a simple parson, had the task of preparing sundry of Riel's prisoners for death. On our left lay the deep, silent valley of the North Saskatchewan. More wooden houses, painted white, peeped out from a network of bush in a hollow amphitheatre before us.

"This is Prince Albert," said the burly Prussian driving.

"Then by Jove, I'll walk," I replied. There seemed no circulation in my nether limbs at all. The two sleighs passed on ahead leaving me on foot.' The corporal, in his jumper, presently overtook me, his eyebrows and wraps white with a powdery frost. "Hello ! what's up?" "I'm going to walk, that is all.'" "Jump in, old man; you have six miles to go yet." This was the unpalatable truth which I had to swallow, for the town of Prince Albert stretches its broken length, like a disjointed snake, fully the above distance. There is about almost half a mile between each house in the "suburbs" for, in the days of "the boom," the minds of men had dreamed a magnificent dream which was never destined to emerge into reality. We passed along the main street, fronting the river, with houses rich in paint alongside dingy stores, by hotels and blacksmiths' shops, and by dreary open spaces. Two huge black stove pipes stood up against the bright blue sky and the lower line of the dark forest on the opposite shore. This was the steamboat North- West laid up in winter quarters. Then came the huge straggling buildings of the H. B. Co., with its surrounding cluster of tiny, trim, ornate cottages, shining in green and lavender paint. Here also was the inevitable flagstaff. Then more scattered houses and sparse bushes under a razor-like ridge of upland. Suddenly, while I was wrapt in thoughts of bears, and snow-shoes, and dog sleds, and all the sports of the wild North Land, we swept round the corner of a two-storied edifice of brick, and came to an abrupt stoppage before the door. Over this was a wooden balcony, decorated with many rabbits in their light fur, hanging in strings, reminding one of a game-dealer's establishment. Whitewashed log-huts, few in number, occupied the wide level in front of the barracks, while the towering form of an ugly mill overhung the shelving bank of the river. And, to the south, a fringe of spear-like trees pierced the horizon.

Presently a mob of troopers came tumbling down the bare, narrow staircase, and took possession of horse and sleigh. I went up as directed, with aching limbs, into a long, well-lighted, plastered and whitewashed barrack-room, with lofty ceiling.

I at once made for the stove, and endeavoured to infuse some heat into my chilled bones, feeling as if it would take two years in the tropics to warm me.

There was one constable at the far end of the room, when I entered, who came up to me with offers of every kindness, and the fullest expression of sympathy.

My comrades of the corps were more like a band of brothers than merely a chance medley of individual atoms, thrown together to serve a stated term, and then to fly apart again. This feeling is doubtless fostered in a great measure by the fact, that we were in exile together, and in danger often by ourselves, far from any extraneous aid. So the sense of interdependence became dominant. We were a type after General Lord Wolseley's own heart, inasmuch as we nurtured a most thorough contempt for civilians. This was wrong no doubt, as we should all have to drift into civil life ourselves, by-and-by. I know, at present, that I myself nurse a feeling far from contempt for my publishers, for instance. The far-away, isolated posts we held, begot a sensation of loneliness, which only obtained relief in mutual confidences and sympathetic actions. Hence also the affection for the canine tribe that reigned in the breasts of all of us. The veriest mongrel and pariah was sure of a home in barracks, if he pleaded with mute eyes of sorrow, and tail reversed. And I myself can speak of the tacit understanding that exists, on the lone prairie, between man and horse.

Thus was that fifteen days' march from Regina brought to a close. We had left headquarters on the 14th, and we reached Prince Albert on December 29th. Our tribulations and hardships have been passed over lightly, because my pen is too feeble to describe them adequately; but every minute of exposure in that intense cold was one of pain. If it did not catch our nose, it was in our feet. If our knees felt all right, you may be sure it tingled in our fingers. Many in Regina, when the thermometer fell with such a startling drop (it was —58° there), were of opinion that we should not be able to complete the journey. The majority of us were new to the country, simply " tenderfeet." It was one of the most severe ever taken by men in the force, because it must be remembered, that this winter was unparalleled in its severity. The Arctic climate, in winter, is the one drawback to this magnificent land. Out-door work is impossible, and freighting or lumber cutting are the only occupations which can be indulged in by the idle farmer. Even our sentries have to dispense with their carbines as the metal would freeze their hands. Men grow old before their time. A worn look comes into the features ploughed with furrows by the piercing air—

"As if the man had fixed his face, In many a solitary place, Against the wind and open sky."

It is impossible to hold yourself erect, you must shield your head in your high fur collar, while your heavy clothing weighs you down. So that, in spring, there is an annual period of "setting up" drill, devoted in a great measure, to what is known in the red book as extension notions.

With the first warm breath of the vernal season, a transformation scene takes place over all the land. Forage caps are stuck jauntily on three hairs. Scarlet jackets are bright against the budding green, leaves are rustling in a wealth of foliage in three days from their birth, birds of brilliant plumage flash in the sunshine, and the prairie blossoms with embroidery of flower and waving grass. The luscious perfume of wolf-willow and wild rose, and all the healthy ozone of this sunset land, comes scampering on the western breeze. And a load seems lifted from the shoulders of mankind.

My first night was spent in a tour of inspection, under the guidance of Corporal Mac— from Carlton. As a matter of course, the streets of these western cities were unlighted in those days. Calgary now boasts of the electric light. I found that the side-walks of Prince Albert came to an abrupt conclusion, every ten yards or so, above a deep abyss, and great caution was requisite in navigating the public promenades after dark. There were a couple of saloons in the principal thoroughfare, where the most villainous hop beer was retailed at ten cents a glass, and billiard-balls of uncertain colour knocked about upon rickety tables. In all western towns, you generally find the chief politician, seated on a keg of molasses, in one of these establishments, holding forth to an audience of open-mouthed settlers, who express their adherence to his views by muttering "You bet!" and "Thet's so!" A man must wager his life or his "sweet socks," on any questio vexata here. "Bet yer life!" or "bet yer sweet socks!" is the strongest affirmative in support of an assertion. Your boots are also a commodity in the speculative market* With regard to the free and easy habits of society, in these remote settlements, I may state that I have seen the leading barrister in Prince Albert, sitting in his shirtsleeves on the side-walk (in summer), talking to an officer of police!

My new chums I found to be a very jovial crew all round. One of them had been formerly an officer in the 17th Foot, and A.D.C. to a certain general in India. He showed me correspondence, which proved the fact. Two other constables were sons of English officers, while the father of another was Minister of Public Works in the Quebec Government. The whole of our detachment consisted of one officer and twenty non-commissioned officers and men. The subaltern, who was transferred to a fresh station, handed over his command on December 31st.

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