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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter IX

An unwelcome prisoner—Riel busy—Seditious meetings—Threats —The Metis—Louis David Riel—A prophet—A council of State—The provisional government—A new religion—Red tape—Urgent despatches—Carlton strengthened—A convenient eclipse—Arrival of arms—The volunteers—Scouts—A man who wanted gore—A meddling official—The rebellion inaugurated—Officials imprisoned—A Batoche farce—Arrival of Colonel Irvine—Frostbite—Snow blindness.

The days glided on in monotonous succession, and towards the end of February the weather showed some few signs of increasing mildness. The windows of our rooms were coated with a cake of frost, which still remained opaque in spite of the warmth within. The sky continued cloudless, and the whiteness still lay unblemished over the land. We had one solitary prisoner now, whose presence necessitated the mounting of a continual guard, so that our captive was by no means a welcome guest. He was daily used in woodcutting, which saved us some fatigue duty. This man had been receiving wages at the rate of six dollars (twenty-four shillings) per diem as driver of the engine at the H.B. Company's flour-mill, yet he preferred enduring two months' confinement to paying the value of a miserable mongrel dog—the property of a neighbour— which he had shot.

Meanwhile, Riel had been steadily at work in all directions, sounding the dispositions of the Indians, and promising untold wealth and glory to his. own beloved Metis. This, of course, stripped of ornate imagery, meant unlimited facilities for plunder, and drink, and debauchery. He had emissaries among the Blackfeet, but Crowfoot was too old a bird to be caught. Poundmaker and his tribe of Stonies, among the Eagle Hills, were (like a Tipperary Irishman) always ready for a row.

In the beginning of March, strange rumours came in, as to the doings of "the FrenchY" for by this title were the Metis invariably known to the white settlers. This vague Gallic nationality had been holding meetings at Batoche and St. Laurent, and fulminating threats towards every representative of law and order. Their political leanings and animosities were summed up in the historic dictum of that son of Erin who declared, "Oi'm agin the Government, anyway!" They had sold their land on the margin of the Red River, on the advent of settlement, in the days of the Winnipeg "boom," and had migrated to their present holdings, when there were still buffalo among the grassy hills and wide parks that stretch along the course of the " Kissas-katchewan." Some had crossed Lake Winnipeg in boats and made their way up stream from Cedar Lake. Others had gathered their Lares and Penates into Red River carts, and had toiled over the great plains, hunting by the way. They were to receive their share of land up here, they stated, and the Government was slow in granting their demands ; so of course they would make things particularly lively, if that Government did not stump out. And they reasoned, probably, the powers that be would give them an additional bribe to remain quiet. That really, in plain language, was the essence of all the protests, and despatches to Ottawa, and long-winded harangues at the scattered log shanties and in the schoolrooms of the villages.

It is no use here entering into a long disquisition as to what should have been done, or what ought not to have taken place. I do not wish to pose as a very knowing individual. I have neither space nor inclination, and it does not become one serving in the ranks, to criticize his superiors. I have only to recount facts,

Louis David Riel—saint and martyr in the French-Canadian calendar—was the prime agitator, having with him about a dozen other spirits more wicked than himself, such as Garnot, Maxime Lepine, Gabriel Dumont, and the renegade Jackson.

Jackson was the son of a Yorkshireman, and ambitious. Gabriel Dumont was an expert shot, and a mighty hunter; and, in addition, was that which Ferdinand Mendez Pinto was said to be,—-a liar of the first magnitude. As for Riel, he was, in my humble opinion, a fanatic, who having begun by taking in others, ended by deluding himself. His previous Red River escapade, when he fled on hearing of the arrival of the 6oth Rifles under Wolseley, had been no warning to him. He had been educated for the priesthood, and therefore no one could say he was deficient in average intelligence.

I venture to think the Canadian Government were wrong in ever permitting this firebrand to return from exile. But they were still more to blame in ever paying him an "indemnity." I don't want to attempt a psychological analysis of this man's character, though— as will be seen subsequently—I had abundance of special opportunity to study him. I verily believe he imagined he was created to be the saviour of the half-breeds, and the founder of a new nation that was to be established between the Saskatchewan, and the Missouri. His visionary schemes had taken such a grasp upon his superstitious mind, that he had worked himself into a full belief of their feasibility.

This little Napoleon, as he was styled by his former Red River admirers, had once more come over from his exile in the United States, and had taken up his abode in 1884, near Batoche. Some said that he had made the territory of Montana too hot to hold him, and, if so, his warmth-kindling capabilities must have been of no mean order, for Montana is a perfect hotbed of the hardest of "hard seeds." At least, it was in those days. Every second man you met on the Upper Missouri and the Yellowstone was at one time an outlaw. However, he had landed amongst the excitable Metis of the Saskatchewan, many of whom had been under him before.

Now, these ignorant half-castes inherit all the love of dramatic incident, all the grotesque affection for stage effect, which is the characteristic of both their Gallic and redskin ancestors.

By wily scheming and an unlimited flow of sophistry, and gas, M. Riel prepared the minds of the whole French settlement, around St. Laurent and Batoche to receive his doctrine. He was a prophet, he told them, and had enjoyed visions of the saints and revelations from on high. The same old game from Mohammed to the Mahdi! All this time, he was being watched, and reports went down from Fort Carlton to Regina regarding his movements. It is whispered that these documents were relegated at once to the seclusion of a pigeon-hole in the headquarters orderly-room. Thus having laid the foundation of his sovereignty, the "dictator" proceeded to form a "Council of State" and a "Provisional Government." He also entrusted Garnot with the formation of a Cabinet, and went in for all the mock solemnity of a real state. He had a staff of secretaries, and, of course, he himself was the President of the new republic. He even took the church to himself, and repudiated the authority of Rome. Pere Andre poured out the vials of his wrath with many anathemas, but this did not disturb Riel's serenity in the least. He had been sent by Heaven to create a new church. It was a pity such a broad farce was destined to end in such grim reality!

Everything now was approaching a crisis. Indeed we of the rank and file used to talk in quite a familiar way, in the barrack-room, of the coming rebellion as a matter of course. We even had the date fixed. I remember our corporal singing out from his bed, "Well, boys, old Riel will be starting in on the 18th." (The speaker had his thigh broken by a shot, at Duck Lake, on the 26th.) A civilian—an Englishman—who had been a guest for some little time of our commanding officer, came over to take his leave of me in the early part of March. "Good-bye, old man," he said; "I want to get through before this rebellion begins."

It was therefore openly spoken of, yet the Government pretended that it came upon them like a bolt , from the blue ! Nothing was done, and no arrests were made because every one in authority on the Saskatchewan was tied up in red tape.

Matters had grown manifestly worse since the third of March, on which day Riel had ordered the half-breeds to attend a meeting at Batoche under arms. Those who came he kept there as a garrison and would not permit to return to their homes. As prophet and chief priest of his new religion he had baptized Jackson (whose brother had a drug store at Prince Albert), and in honour of the occasion had held a mighty feast. On the 16th of March, Major Crozier came over from Fort Carlton to confer with the principal citizens as to the serious turn which affairs had taken, and to form a corps of volunteers. He also had an interview with Pere André, whom he requested to use his influence in the way of mediation. This reverend father always reminded me of those mendicant priests of the Greek church whom one sees hanging around the wharves at Galata. He wore a lofty cap of beaver, and a greasy cassock very much the worse for wear. In addition he sported an uncared-for beard of iron-grey. His reverence could not undertake to act as peacemaker, because the little Napoleon had set up a rival establishment of his own, and had intimated metaphorically that he did not care a snap for the whole College of Cardinals. After the major had held a council of war with the officer commanding here, and others, he took his departure for Fort Carlton to await the outbreak of the tmeute. Urgent telegrams and despatches had already been sent to Regina and Ottawa, and the garrison at Carlton had been secretly strengthened. A party had arrived there from Battleford under cover of night, bringing with them one gun, a brass nine-pounder.

A partial eclipse of the sun was visible over the whole of Northern America on the date of Major Crozier's visit. The weather had suddenly grown very much more springlike in character; indeed on the 15th we had been treated to a shower of rain. On the day of the eclipse Riel was displaying his eloquence to a blanketed and painted gathering of Indians, for many tribes had sent warriors to attend the summons of this red-bearded chief who was to inaugurate a new era of unlimited grub and tobacco for the red man. The education of this crafty imitator of other like adventurers had given him an immense superiority over his followers, but never had it stood him in such good stead as now. The almanack had heralded to all the world the approach of the coming shadow over the face of the god of day. In the most telling part of his address, Riel informed these benighted savages that in order to sanctify his words to them, the Great Spirit would throw a darkness over the sun. And the superstitious aborigines squatting in a circle were stricken with a great awe, when the eclipse began, and forthwith Monsieur Louis David Riel was the embodiment of big medicine to them. A man who was so thoroughly en rapport with the Manitou must be believed in and obeyed implicitly.

On the night following, a supply of snider rifles and ammunition arrived at our barracks for the Prince Albert volunteers. They were conveyed in, under a heavy mounted escort in charge of a sergeant, doing the fifty miles in eight hours. We were roused from our beds, and turned out in the darkness where the steaming horses and tired troopers were standing drawn up in front ofthe doorway. We carried the rifles, and rolled the kegs of cartridges into our mess-room. Sentries were at once posted around the barracks. Joe McKay, our best and most famous scout, accompanied this party. He wore a fur cap and a buckskin jacket richly adorned with fringes and bead-work. A few scouts and interpreters are attached to each troop, receiving an allowance of rations and quarters, with pay at the rate of seventy-five dollars per month. Joe was a Scotch half-breed, the whole of whose family had been, or were, valued servants in the employ of the H.B. Company. He was a good-looking young fellow with dark complexion, active in build, and strongly knit together.

He was always courteous and gentlemanly in manner. After attending to their horses and the wants of the inner man, the members of the escort unrolled their blankets upon the floor of the mess-room and lay down to rest. I happened to look in upon the recumbent figures, as they were stretched in various attitudes under the struggling light of a single oil lamp. All were engaged in smoking and indulging in a desultory fire of remarks regarding the "French." I heard Joe, in reply to some one who asked for a match, say loudly as he handed over the required article, "What I want is gore ! I've been kept out of bed for four nights by those black sons of, and I want gore!"

He eventually got it, for he emptied his revolver at Duck Lake into the chief "Star Blanket/' completely perforating that feathered and painted individual. The Carlton party departed on the morning of the i8th, taking with them a corporal and seven men.

The sum of history is made up of very trifling incidents, when one goes behind the scenes; and I believe an ingenious Frenchman once wrote a treatise on the influence of the cuisine upon diplomacy. A battle has been lost, or a kingdom dismembered because, say, a salmis de faisan truffes has disagreed with a certain illustrious personage. Thus, a few thoughtless words, hastily spoken, in this case, brought the simmering Metis volcano into active eruption. I have never seen an allusion to this little matter in print, because, in the North-West, it does not do to throw too strong a light upon certain people. But, about this time, the " Hon." Lawrence Clarke was returning from Eastern Canada, and on his way to his painted wooden villa, he was obliged to pass Batoche. He was here asked by the rebel leader what reply the Government intended to despatch to his "Bill of Rights," and if there were a probability of the half-breeds' demands being granted soon.

"The reply will be 500 mounted police," said his Factorship, and drove on. Now, up to this, I believe Riel had been playing a game of bluff. He had been hanging back for a bribe; but he now resolved to go ahead. He would burn his boats with theatrical accompaniments, and on the 18th the final act of the drama was begun. His Metis troops cut the telegraph wires at Batoche, seized upon a quantity of freight destined forthe H.B. Company sacked the store of Messrs. Walters and Baker at Batoche, and imprisoned Hannafin, the clerk. The establishment of Kerr Brothers at St. Laurent was also raided, the Indian agent, Lash, Astley the surveyor, Tompkins the telegraph operator, and other Government officials, were taken prisoners. On the receipt of these tidings vedettes and scouts were thrown out in all directions around Prince Albert Couriers arrived through the night from Carlton with cipher despatches; a picquet was posted to watch the trail at the forks of the road, where it diverges towards Batoche; the muster-roll of the Prince Albert volunteers had been instantaneously filled up. These citizen soldiers, under Colonel Sproat, paraded in front of our barracks, and each man was marched through into our mess-room, where a rifle and sword-bayonet was issued to him. A Teton Sioux, a magnificent specimen of the Indian, who had been the principal recipient of our bounty from the kitchen, showed his fidelity on this occasion by parading, on the flank, in full war-paint. The majority of these newly fledged militaires were fine-looking, hardy men, destined in a few days to prove their pluck and, some of them, to consecrate the soil with their blood.

Our officer was now continually receiving orders at all hours of the day and night. Groups of excited citizens gathered in stores, and on the street, eagerly canvassing the latest intelligence. The mail-driver had been obliged to return, and had luckily managed to bring back his bags. A message was sent to Colonel Irvine, who had set out with a strong force from Regina, warning him to avoid Batoche, where an ambuscade was laid for him. This was carried on snow-shoes by an intrepid Englishman named Gordon, who went direct across country, and traversing the trackless wilds, prairies, lake, and bush, found the colonel and his column crossing the desolate Salt Plains. Major Crozier had written for reinforcements from Prince Albert, and, on the 20th, forty of the volunteers, under Captains Moore and Young, departed in sleighs. We had a cordon of sentries all around the Government reserve, upon which the barracks were situated. Of course, as the mail had ceased to run, we were now completely cut off from the outer world. From the 18th of March until May 12th we were unable to receive or send a scrap of correspondence. Nor, in all this time, did we see a newspaper. The most absurd yarns were evolved from the inner consciousness of every quidnune. At the corner of the roadway leading up to the Presbyterian Church, and on the street facing the river, was a millinery establishment. Here were a trio of damsels, presided over by an antique maiden who employed them in the recondite mysteries of female dress. These young ladies, I know, used nightly to retire to rest attired in the most bewitching of blanket costumes, with knowing tuques on their dainty heads, and revolvers stuck in their gorgeous sashes ! The days glided slowly on at Prince Albert, while the following scene was being enacted at the theatre of Batoche. If such serious issues had not been involved, one could style it a screaming farce.

Riel had sent a letter couched in magniloquent language, demanding the immediate surrender of Fort Carlton with its garrison, the latter to have "all the usages of war." This came to the hands of Major Crozier through Mr. Mitchell, who was the owner of a store at Duck Lake. The major at once sent Thomas McKay, a fine, bluff specimen of the English half-breed who was supposed to possess much influence in these parts, to the assembled brigands on the South Branch, in order to persuade them to disperse. Mitchell and he arrived at Walters and Baker s store on the north side of the river, early on the morning of the 21st. Here they were met with all the formality of a German Grand Duchy. A guard was in waiting to escort them across the river to the Council Chamber, which Riel had established in the Catholic Church. There was, apparently, a good deal of Cromwell about him, in his manner of using ecclesiastical buildings. This description simply follows McKay's sworn account of the interview, and clearly demonstrates the fact that this miniature Napoleon was fully determined on the shedding of blood. Had he not ordered Thomas Scott to execution years ago, and nothing had been done to him ? Mitchell introduced Major Crozier's ambassador, who was at once promised protection as the bearer of correspondence. The same had been previously guaranteed to Mr. Mitchell. After these preliminaries had been gone through, McKay remarked, "There seems to be great excitement here, Mr. Riel?"

"Oh, no," replied the latter; "there is no excitement at all. It is simply that the people are trying to redress their grievances, as they had asked repeatedly for their rights."

Thereupon McKay quietly hinted that a resort to arms was a somewhat dangerous proceeding. The budding dictator rejoined that he had been waiting fifteen long years, that his people had been imposed upon, and that it was time now that the pauvres Metis should have what they asked for. McKay ventured to dispute his wisdom, and advised him to adopt more lawful measures. Riel then accused McKay of having neglected the half-breeds. But the latter told him that he had certainly taken an interest in them, his stake in the country being the same as theirs, and that, time and again, he had so advised them. He also retorted that Riel himself must have neglected them a very long time, although he professed such a deep interest in the matter. Riel jumped up in great agitation, gesticulating wildly.

"You do not know what we are after. It is blood, blood; we want blood; it is a war of extermination. Everybody that is against us is to be driven out of the country. There are two curses in the country—the Government and the Hudson Bay Company." He then wheeled round upon McKay with a tirade of furious abuse. He told him he was a traitor to his (M. Louis Riel's) Government; that he was a speculator and a scoundrel, a robber and a thief. He finally ended this display of Billingsgate oratory, by declaring it was blood, and the first blood they wanted was his. There were some small dishes upon the table; for the Council of State often deliberated over their national bouillon. Riel grabbed a spoon ; and, tragically holding it up to McKay's face, he pointed to it. "You have no blood, you are a traitor to your people, all your blood is frozen, and all the little blood you have will be there in five minutes."

To this threatening harangue, McKay replied, "If you think you are benefiting your cause by taking my blood, you are quite welcome to it."

Thereupon this petty despot waxed exceeding wroth. At once, he wished to put McKay on trial for his life; and called incoherently upon the members of his council and his people. Philippe Garnot (of the Restaurant Batoche) went over to the table with a sheet of paper. Gabriel Dumont, the War Minister and Commander-in-Chief, took his seat upon a keg of molasses. The solemn court-martial had begun! Riel was the first witness himself, and stated that McKay was a liar. Then he flew off at a tangent and began to address the crowd. Emmanuel Champagne next rose, and spoke in McKay's favour. Then McKay—who a few minutes before had been guaranteed safe conduct—told the people who had come in that Riel was threatening his life; and added, "If you think by taking my life, you will benefit your cause, you are welcome to do so."

Champagne denied that any one wished anything of the kind; they wanted to redress their wrongs in a constitutional way. Riel then got up abruptly, muttered something about a committee meeting upstairs, and went of the scene. McKay addressed the unkempt, motley assemblage for some time. Riel came down at intervals, and popped his head through the doorway. He informed them that the committee was being disturbed in its deliberations by the noise. When McKay had finished his speech, he asked for some refreshment, as he was pretty hungry. After he had eaten, he lay down upon a pile of blankets in the corner until Mitchell was ready. As soon as the latter appeared, they prepared to leave for Fort Carlton. Riel also presently entered and apologized to McKay. He said he had no desire to harm him, and that it was not too late for him to join the true cause of the half-breeds. He entertained great respect for Mr. McKay. This was Major Crozier's last opportunity of averting bloodshed, and that, unless he surrendered Fort Carlton an attack would be made at noon.

We, in Prince Albert, were now daily expecting the arrival of Colonel Irvine. On the afternoon of the 24th three of us went down to Captain Moore's house to bring up a band of native ponies for use on vedette duty, and for scouting purposes. We were extremely short of horse-flesh at the barracks. We found the little wiry, shaggy cayeuses in a large corral beside a wood of poplars, and we each selected one, mounted our choice without saddle or bridle, and drove the others up before us, over the dirty snow. The sun had now gained the ascendency in the daytime; but the frost was bitterly keen at night. On our return, I was told off for night picquet. Just at guard-mounting a couple of scouts came galloping in, wild with haste, bearing tidings that Colonel Irvine, with 150 men, was at the Hudson Bay crossing on the North Branch. These irregular horsemen were drawn from the ranks of the civilians, and were got up in all sorts of fantastic garbs, suggestive of stage bandits. Immense revolvers were in their belts, and Winchester carbines slung horizontally across the saddle-bow. I was on sentry between the barracks and the stables, when I heard the far-away roaring sound made by the sleigh runners over the hardened trail. It increased in volume, coming nearer and nearer; for of course, there was an immensely long string of transport sleighs. Then came faint cheering, which also gathered strength as the column neared us. The populace were frantically enthusiastic ; every place of vantage was crowded with yelling throngs. All would be at an end now, folk imagined, Riel arrested, and the current of life flow smoothly once again. Lhomme propose, mais Dieu dispose : the whole Dominion of Canada was yet to ring with tales of massacre and bloodshed. Presently the advance-guard, in fur coats with carbines at "the carry," swept round the corner. "On the outer flank —right form! Eyes right! Dress! Eyes front!" Then a sergeant rode up to me to ask for information regarding the stables.

It was now growing dark; but every window in our quarters had been illuminated, by order, so as to throw a flood of light upon the wide, open space in front. The long array of sleighs was drawn up in double lines. The rear-guard followed, through the gloom. Then the parade was dismissed by the colonel, and a scene of bustle and confusion ensued. Lanterns went dancing about in all directions. The march had been hurried and trying. All were bronzed with the sun and wind; and the majority were more or less frost-bitten. One young fellow was carried into the barracks with both feet a huge black mass; and his toes had afterwards to be amputated. He had persisted in remaining in the sleigh, and wearing boots, probably too lazy to run alongside, and he was now paying the penalty of his own folly. But snow-blindness had done its work : one sergeant had to be led by the hand,—he was totally blind. There were also a corporal and a dozen men on the sick-list, suffering in a lesser degree.

The mess-room resembled one of those lodging-houses which Mr. Samuel Weller, junior, describes so graphically, and which were characteristic of his earlier reminiscences. And after the unshaved and unwashed troopers had been refreshed with tea and meat, all their toils and hardships were forgotten, and the light heart of the soldier rose buoyant as it is wont. Pipes were lit, and sitting around against the walls, on rolls of bedding, songs were joyfully given out. But by-and-by weariness conquered, a rude bed was shaken down, and one by one dropped off into slumber.

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