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