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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter VIII

1885—Inspection—Our surroundings—Clear Sky Land—Rabbits and lynx—Easy routine—A whisky desperado—Precious snow —North-west liquor law—Curling—Skating—Dog trains— An Indian swell—Mother Smoke—Night picquet—A night scene—Night thoughts.

New-Year's Day, 1885,—most memorable year upon the Saskatchewan,—came upon us in all the splendour of glorious sun, glittering snowscape, and intense frost. The thermometer was — 49º, with an air as still as death.

Major Crozier—a tall, fine-looking man, the very beau-ideal of a soldier—had arrived from Battleford (160 miles west) to inspect us. He was in command of the whole Northern Division. We had a short parade in the snow in front of the quarters ; and our kits were laid out on the beds upstairs. He promoted our corporal to the rank of sergeant; and expressed himself pleased with all he saw.

Before we come to the stirring time of the rebellion, I should like to say something about winter life, far away in this lonely settlement. The barracks of the detachment, built of brick, were originally intended for an hotel. They were situated on the extreme eastern verge of Prince Albert; in the suburb that is known by the scriptural name of Goshen. There is only the width of the roadway between the building and the river, which here forms almost a lake, with bays, and promontories, and islands. The primeval forest rose on the opposite shore. Scattered houses dotted the flat expanse around; and the ridge clothed with timber bounded the horizon to the east and south. The Hudson Bay Post was about half-a-mile to the westward. The weather continued clear and bright, but with a terrible cold. Strange to say, I did not feel it, here, so much as I subsequently have done on the prairie with a higher temperature. The thermometer averaged — 40° for six weeks. But this was my first winter; and consequently I was better enabled to withstand it. The stillness of the atmosphere here is intense ; and strangely clear. You can hear sounds at an immense distance. It was once my luck to witness two waterspouts and a thunderstorm at work in the gut of Gibraltar.

"There's always some sort of weather here," said the mate.

Such is the case on the open prairie ; there is always wind; a perpetual vibration of the air. We had a succession of lovely days. The sun shone with dazzling brilliancy upon the sparkling snow ; the broad river lay silent, and robed in white ; the Great Forest on the northern bank, stood dark and still. Amid its sombre boughs the smoke from a few lodges of Teton Sioux curled up into the crystal air. A few snow-birds hopped about the ground. There was a large island not far off, which swarmed with rabbits. These we snared, or shot, and they were a welcome addition to our mess. Our balcony was always draped with frozen bunnies. Of course, I need hardly say that this species do not burrow, as ours do. The rabbits in the Territories are almost totally exterminated, every seven years, by throat disease. And at the same period there is a corresponding decrease of lynx. For the guidance of sportsmen of the future, I beg to state that the next visitation of this kind will take place in 1894.

The routine at this outpost was very easy. In fact the two short months we enjoyed previous to the outbreak were very pleasant, in spite of the terrible isolation. The settlement girls used to drive their showy cutters down past our quarters daily ; and the skating rink was the big attraction at night. We only had eleven horses in our stables; and these did not take up much of our time. Twice daily a hole on the Saskatchewan was cut open with our axes, and thither we rode our steeds to water. One of them was always at the disposal of any one who wished to ride into the town. There were no parades, and little fatigue duty, except when the manure was drawn away on Saturday. One or two expeditions went out after whisky; and we captured one notorious gentleman, who had intimated his intention of "doing for" any one who came to take him. Like most gasconading outlaws he simply did nothing at all; but accepted his fate with sensible resignation. Whisky hunting is not popular in the corps; and a man who persistently prosecutes for this offence is looked upon with contempt. But large traders of contraband liquor may expect no mercy; and a man who supplies an Indian with intoxicating drink, will, if discovered, catch it pretty severely. The Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Territory has the power to grant periodical permits, to enable people to have a certain quantity of liquor in their possession for domestic or medicinal use. By the exercise of his prerogative, the present Lieutenant-Governor, Mr. Royal, has allowed the sale of beer containing alcohol to the maximum of 4 per cent. The Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, in his annual report for 1887, says :—

"The enforcement of the North-West prohibitory law is more difficult than ever, the sympathy of many of the settlers being generally against us in this matter. Large quantities of liquor have been seized and spilt, but a great deal more illicit liquor has undoubtedly been used under the cloak of the permit system. Liquor is run into the country in every conceivable manner, in barrels of sugar, salt, and as ginger ale, and even in neatly constructed imitation eggs; and respectable people, who otherwise are honest, will resort to every device to evade the liquor laws, and when caught they generally have the quantity covered by their permits. It is really curious the length of time some holders of permits can keep their liquor.

"The permit system should be done away with in the first place, if the law is to be enforced; and the law itself should be cleared of the technicalities that have enabled so many to escape punishment this last year.'

"The importation and manufacture of a good article of lager beer, under stringent Inland Revenue regulations, would, in my opinion, greatly assist the satisfactory settlement of this vexed question. Nearly all the opprobrium that has been cast upon the Police, generally, and my management in particular, can be directly traced to public sentiment on the attempt to enforce this law.

"Although it has been stated by parties interested in free liquor, that great facilities for drunkenness occur, I can say that there has been no crime of any consequence during the year in this country attributable to whisky, and that the towns and villages throughout the Territories are as quiet and orderly and free from outrages as any place of the same size in the world, which is saying a great deal when it is taken into consideration that we have the usual amount of unsettled population common to all new and frontier countries."

When any whisky which had been confiscated at Prince Albert was spilled, and any of the natives witnessed the operation, the half-breeds and Indians would reverently gather up the precious snow and devour it eagerly.

Prince Albert consists of a long, straggling settlement, stretching along the right bank of the North Branch, beginning at a distance of thirty miles from the Forks of the Saskatchewan. A trail passes from the town through a country rich in grassy hollows, lakelets, and clumps of trees, to the Hudson Bay Ferry on the South Branch, about twelve miles distant. There is a considerable population of Scotch half-breeds on the outskirts, and the first germ of this colony was a Presbyterian mission. The women are excellent laundresses, though their charges would strike astonishment into the minds of the female professors of the art at home. The uniform settled rate is ten cents for each article that passes through their hands, whether it be a sheet or a pocket handkerchief. A large lumber-mill now stands here, and logs are rafted down the stream. The residence of the Hon. L. Clarke, the Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Company, was a many-gabled house of painted frame-work, with a wide verandah, standing in an enclosure, which could scarcely by any stretch of courtesy be termed "grounds." Near to this, by the river, rose the glittering tin spire of the church, attached to the Convent and the Roman Catholic Mission. A long straggling street of wooden stores fronted the wide Saskatchewan, which at this point is studded with lovely islands. The Presbyterian Church and manse were built of brick; there is a theological college in connection with the Church of England. The skating rink was in the centre of the town, and a band frequently discoursed music to the gliding throng. Wherever you find Scotchmen, you are sure of a curling club, unless you are frizzling under the torrid zone. As the Caledonian element was very strong .here, there were two clubs, one in the town and the other at Goshen. After any exciting match, the winning team would drive round the settlement in sleighs, with brooms at "the carry," and give periodic whoops. The Hudson Bay Store displayed a varied assortment of English goods, ranging from electro-plated silver ware down to G.B.D. briar pipes. Some of the latter were assessed at as much as five dollars. Many of the "moccasin aristocracy "—as we dubbed the French half-breeds, in barrack parlance—lived in huts for the winter, on the north side of the river, a quarter which was named Chicago. When the warmth of spring enabled them to emerge from their foul-smelling dens, they migrated in canoes, with tent and teepe, to the open spaces in the town, and went in for mild labour, such as a little wood-chopping, for the citizens. There was also a camp of thirty lodges of Teton Sioux, in a glade of the forest on the northern side. As they were simply refugees from the United States, after the Custer massacre, they were not treaty Indians. That is to say, they received nothing from the Dominion Government in consideration of lands surrendered by them. They were consequently in winter often on the very verge of famine. After a donation of scraps from the barrack-kitchen, they would indulge in a pow-wow of wild hilarity, and the beating of the tom-tom, mingled with piercing yells would sound across the snow-robed river far into the night, and their strange forms would be seen dancing round the ruddy camp-fire. The tradesmen of Prince Albert were principally from Ontario, who had been lured to speculate here by the imagined course of the Canadian Pacific line. They were not a pleasant class of people by any means, and did not compare favourably with the civilians of other posts. At the skating-rink were frequent carnival nights, when the band would play, and every one appear in fancy dress. I have seen some very good and costly costumes here, and some very ingenious ones also. One stout party, I remember, personated Bottled Beer, and the familiar red triangle shielded his portly stomach. There was, of course, generally a flaming Mephistopheles, and the inevitable young lady dressed as Night. Unlike a European masquerade, the Red Indian was conspicuous by his absence. There was no romance about him here. The musicians generally struck up rattling tunes, under a wooden shed, where a stove gave the necessary warmth. The skaters whirled round and round upon the ice, under the sparkling stars; for there was no roof but that of heaven, and the enclosure was surrounded with a tall palisading.

It was at Prince Albert that I first beheld a train of dogs. These animals are harnessed by a padded collar to a light flat sleigh, of skins stretched across a frame of thin wood, called a toboggan. A dog is supposed to be capable of drawing 100 lbs. Each train consists of from four to six of these useful quadrupeds. They travel almost incredible distances, with deerskin boots as a protection to the feet. One frozen fish each, at the end of the day, is their regulation allowance of food. A halt-breed drives them, running alongside with ready whip. With many a loud and vehement sacrement, he unmercifully leathers his panting charge. They have been educated to the use of strange oaths and Metis blasphemy from puppyhood. One glorious February afternoon, I was riding along the bank of the Saskatchewan. Down the broad frozen reach of the river were speeding three trains of dogs with laden sleds. Suddenly, there came upon my ears, a most unearthly wail. The driver, in blue capote and scarlet sash, was castigating a refractory bow-wow in the front team, and thereupon every other dog in the whole menagerie struck work, and, squatting on his haunches, gave voice to these most hideous lamentations, in sympathy. It was ludicrous beyond measure.

In winter, when the rigid grasp of ice has locked in its stern embrace lake and stream, and the canoe and boat are useless, this is the only mode of transport in the far regions north of the Saskatchewan from the desolate shores of Athabasca to James' Bay. When a Chipweyan from the Peace River made his appearance at Prince Albert, his astonishment was great, on first casting his eyes upon a horse. He considered that the "medicine" of the white man must be great, when it could evolve such a gigantic breed of dogs ! We had many bears also around the settlement.

The red-coats were always welcome to the many dances which the Scotch half-breeds gave in their houses at the west end. Some of our fellows were regular habiluts of these assemblies. The white people gave no entertainments, and we did not take the initiative in the matter here. We were generally celebrated for the hops which we gave, all over the Territories. The Hudson Bay store was the principal rendezvous of the Indians. One pompous chief was always on view there, like one of Madame Tussaud's inanimate celebrities. He was a stately being, with a melancholy expression of countenance, and always reminded me of Fennimore Cooper's Chingachook. He had a square emblem, worked in beads, upon his breast, like unto the phylactery of a Pharisee. The ground-work was of blue, and upon this a black bull's head. He wore his blanket with dignity ; as the Roman senator is supposed to have habitually worn his toga. The crimson leggings and moccasins of this aristocratic savage were a marvel. He carried a tomahawk (blunt), and a calumet. His stoical reserve was wonderful to behold, for the Indian in reality is no stoic. I should like to have bought that specimen of a dying race. I believe he was known in the councils of his nation and the family circle, as "the Crow."

A sleigh in winter, and a four-in-hand stage in summer, brought us the mail, weekly, from Troy. The fare for the whole distance of 240 miles was twenty-five dollars. As the mail stations were closed in summer on '' this route, the passengers were obliged to provide their own grub, and camp out nightly.

An ancient half-breed of the female gender, a gem of the first water, assisted by her daughter, of an uncertain age, visited the barracks weekly, and, by combining their forces, used to scrub out our quarters in a day ; for the "moccasin aristocracy " do not love to work. It was impossible to guess the age of this unlovely hag; for she was wrinkled and seamed and blear-eyed, and her skin was as dry as that of Rameses I, in his case in the Bloomsbury district. She was known amongst us by the sobriquet of Mother Smoke ; both on account of her inordinate predilection for tobacco, and because, owing to a chronic kleptomania, she used to secrete in the mysterious folds of her garment every decent pipe she could "snaffle." Therefore, on Saturdays, all cherished briars and well-coloured clays were carefully "cached" from the evil eye of this weird sister. Sophie —la fille—was a heavy-featured, sulky-looking " breed," with as much virtue as the rest, and as taciturn as the Hyde Park statue of Achilles. Joe, our French Canadian cook, was, I think, first favourite with this dusky Lalage, and our caterer (an Englishman), who entered for the same stakes, was nowhere. Consequently, the diplomatic relations between mess-waiter and cook were slightly strained. Joe one day confided to me the fact that,—

"Q is mad vit Sophie, because she not lofe him."

Old Smoke—madame la mfre—had also an insatiable appetite for fiery liquids. I verily believe she would have thrived on mustang liniment, the fierce potency of which may be algebraically expressed by x. She would have done anything for a bottle of pain-killer, which is a forbidden fluid to the copper-hued subjects of her Majesty. One day I gave this pre-adamite fossil about a wine-glassful of sulphuric ether—neat! She had pointed with interrogatory grimaces at the bottle, which was standing beside my cleaning things. She swallowed my libation unmoved, then gave a satisfied grunt, rubbed gleefully her mesenteric region, and uttered the one word me-wa-sin; which is Cree for " good," with emphatic content. I merely recite this fact to illustrate the habitual longing for intoxicants in the soul of the natives and the armour-plated nature of their stomachs.

Our night picquet at this outpost was not severe by any means. Each turn for duty arrived every eighth night. The first relief went to the guard-room at 6.30 p.m., taking his blankets and a book. He had previously lighted a fire in the stove, and could amuse himself as it suited his taste; but of course could not indulge in a nap, unless he wished to become a fixture there for a month. He was supposed to visit the stables every half-hour ; and also keep the fires going in the quarters. Half an hour after midnight he called the second relief, who in turn, roused the barracks at 6.30 a.m. We had no bugler here at that time. The second relief was exempt from all parades, until evening stables at 4.30 p.m. How brilliant were these midnight skies on that far-off Saskatchewan! The stars, the waving arch of the mysterious aurora, with its myriad hues and the immaculate robe of snow beneath—all hushed in a weird silence, save when, in the intense frost, the giant trees in the great sub-arctic forest would crack and rend. Wrapped in furs though one always was, the cold was too great to admit of much meditation in the open air. But the mysterious stillness brought strange fancies ; often one's thoughts flashed across the vast space between the lonely sentry and home. Across the frozen prairie, far over the Kitchi Gami (Lake Superior), away beyond the pines—over the sleeping cities and misty ocean—a phantom view would rise before me of a certain bonnie glen, hidden in my own romantic borderland ; the clustering village houses, the purple slopes and rugged crags; the waving bracken and the tasselled firs; and the grey ruins above the brown waters of the brawling trout-stream.

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