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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter X

Colonel Irvine departs—The fight at Duck Lake.

GREAT soft flakes of snow, whirling and eddying against a leaden background, and gently falling on the slushy ground. This was the picture presented on the morning of the 25th. The day was spent in refitting the expedition. Canards of various hues were flying around. One was to the effect that the French were just outside the town,—behind the ridge! The men suffering from snow-blindness were secluded in a darkened room, and veils of green gauze were served out to the remainder. The ground outside was simply a quagmire. The baggage had been abandoned at Humboldt in order to expedite their movements, leaving them in a sorry plight. Socks and other articles had to be purchased before they started for Fort Carlton. Their kits were destined to have a pretty rough experience, and when eventually they did arrive, in May, after running the gauntlet of the rebels in the steamboat North-cote, the perforating process had been so effective that everything was useless from bullet-holes. In the afternoon the men were ordered to take as much rest as possible, but the excitement was too keen, and the prevailing noise too loud to permit of any sleep. General orders were read at 5 p.m. Lights out was to take effect at eight o'clock, and reveille on this occasion was to sound one hour before midnight.

Time sped on somehow, and Colonel Irvine's party marched out in the brilliant starlight, for Fort Carlton. Some of our detachment were taken with them, but one smart sergeant was left. I had been unluckily promoted (or otherwise) to the staff, and was forced to remain here "in cold obstruction." Our garrison was now reduced to eight mounted police, all told. This day was devoted to cleaning up debris, and Madame Smoke came "on fatigue." A picquet of volunteers occupied our mess-room as a guard-room this night. At midnight a courier came flying in with important despatches to our officer. Ominous whisperings took place when our men were roused from bed. The officer then came in and informed us that a fight had taken place at Duck Lake, and that the mounted police and volunteers had been obliged to retreat. Three of our men were killed and nine of the Prince Albert volunteers: thirty-five had been wounded. By this time the news was flashing over many a wire, and stirring the whole Dominion from the Bay of Fundy to the Straits of San Juan de Fuca.

After the diplomatic visit of Messrs. Mitchell and McKay to the Batoche "Government," affairs at Fort Carlton remained for a few days in status quoy as Major Crozier was awaiting anxiously the arrival of Colonel Irvine before striking a decisive blow. A-good deal of forage, and a large quantity of provisions were stored in the log-houses, which belonged to Mr. Mitchell, on the wooded shore of Duck Lake. In order, if possible, to save them from falling into the grasp of the rebels, Major Crozier determined to have them carried away into a place of safety. Therefore on the morning of the 26th at four o'clock, when the stars were twinkling on the men of Colonel Irvine's command, as they threaded the dense bush en route to Carlton, the major ordered Sergeant Stewart to take a small detachment with a dozen sleighs, and remove the goods in question. Four mounted men were thrown forward as an advance-guard. With their fur collars well up over their ears in the keen frosty air, and carbines ready at the "advance," they warily moved forward, every sense on the alert, through the tall bluffs of aspen and willow that lined the trail. The patriots around the fort had once or twice been fired upon, and one ambitious redskin—a Cree, had endeavoured to throw a lasso over the head of an angry Scotsman.

The road wound in and out, over steep hillocks and through deep hollows filled with yielding sticky snow. Stewart and his sleighs followed some distance in rear. When about a mile and a half from Duck Lake, the advance-guard were seen returning at full gallop, with a number of half-breeds in pursuit. The sleighs were immediately halted and drawn up in line, and McKay, who was with them, stepped out to await the coming of the enemy. About forty Metis, mounted on ponies, with rifles of every calibre and pattern, from the long buffalo gun of the prairie to the short Winchester, galloped up. They were a long-haired and wild-looking crowd. Some were clad in suits of buckskin, and others wore cloth capotes. Gabriel Dumont was at their head in a state of frantic excitement. No doubt this reminded him somewhat of the brave days of old, when the buffalo were on the plains, and he fought for his friends, the Crees, against the painted hordes of Blackfeet. He jumped off his long-tailed horse, with many a patois oath, and deliberately loaded his rifle. Then he cocked it, and walking up to McKay with a look of savage ferocity on his ugly face, and the foam of rage on his matted beard, threatened to blow out his brains. McKay suggested that, as two could play at that interesting and absorbing pastime, it would be advisable for M. Dumont to moderate his language. The latter then sputtered forth a torrent of incoherent words, the gist of which was that Sergeant Stewart's whole party was to surrender. This very obliging offer was scornfully refused. Some of these Batoche brigands then jumped into the sleigh boxes and attempted to snatch the reins, but the police teamsters were too many for them. The renowned Gabriel then fired his rifle over their heads. As each man of the party was pretty well broken in to stand fire of this description, it did not have the intimidating effect expected. Thereupon the sleighs were permitted to return to Carlton, but without having secured the provisions or forage.

On the first appearance of these swarthy bandits Stewart had despatched one of his party to the fort, with the intelligence that he had met with resistance and that he required support. About three miles from Carlton the returning detachment met Major Crozier on his way to vindicate the law with every available man of his command, about one hundred, officers and men, and one gun. A mounted orderly had been sent to Colonel Irvine with a despatch, indicating that he had marched out to support some teams, and that in all probability help would be needed. Sergeant Stewart's detachment was ordered to return again, and the whole column, consisting of 100 police and volunteers, advanced along the trail leading towards Duck Lake, When crossing Beardy's reserve, the advance-guard reported a log-house, standing in the bluffs, to be full of Crees in their war-paint. Beardy had joined the insurgents.

Here the major fell into a great error by taking his men past this house. At the point where the events of the morning had transpired the advance-guard were again observed returning and stated that a large force of rebels were advancing. One of our men had been fired upon, and had received a bullet in his saddle. The sun was shining brightly, with full strength, upon the melting snow, which was deep and sticky upon both sides of the trail. The sleighs were drawn up in line across the road, the horses taken out and led to the rear. The ground here dipped into a narrow basin between two ridges, and a rail fence ran out of the woods upon the right flank. The house spoken of lay at the further end of this. It was a wretched position, lying in an exposed hollow and surrounded on three sides by scrubby bush, behind which the Indian loves to fight. Joe McKay, our scout, was riding beside Major Crozier. The latter said, "I will hold a parley with them, before attempting to advance."

Part of the rebels now appeared on the ridge ahead. A few were mounted, but the greater number were on foot Star Blanket, in full panoply of feathers and vermilion, came down to where the major was standing. The parley began, but the major noticed that the half-breeds and painted savages were creeping round behind the bushes on both flanks, and beginning to surround him. He at once gave the order to fire. Bullets now rained thick as hail. Puffs of smoke came from every point of the bluffs, and from behind every snow-clad hillock; the fire was murderous. Star Blanket endeavoured to snatch away McKay's rifle, and the latter emptied the contents of his revolver into him. Not a word was spoken, only the whistling "ping" of the bullets and the rattle of the musketry broke the stillness. Men lay down in the sloppy snow, and took steady aim at whatever was visible. Poor Gibson was shot dead, as he was handing out ammunition for the gun. One of the horses attached to this was killed. This useless piece of artillery was loaded ready for action, and might have been of service at first, but Major Crozier was standing in the line of fire. The depth of snow, and the fact that it was upon wheels rendered it utterly unserviceable. Before the major got out of the way, the rebels who were in front had disappeared out of danger. He turned round angrily and exclaimed, "Why don't you fire? I am only one man."

Captain Morton took his volunteers away to the right flank, where, from the house only seventy-five yards' distant, a deadly fusillade was maintained. The ambuscade was so complete that he did not know of its existence. His men were open to the concentrated volley of the Crees. Disastrous as the skirmish was, it only lasted twenty minutes. The Indian war-whoop could now be heard ringing in fiendish triumph through the woods. Amid the pauses of the dropping fire the groans of the wounded and dying were piteous in their comrades' ears. The dingy snow was crimson in places. Dr. Millar's instrument-case was struck by a bullet. When Arnold, of the police, fell, he said, "Tell the boys I died game."

Corporal Gilchrist, of ours, who had his thigh broken, exclaimed "Don't leave me for those black devils to scalp."

Constable Garrett was shot through the neck and died that night. Thus, three of our men were killed, and nine of the Prince Albert volunteers. Among the latter was Captain Morton. The number of wounded, was thirty-five, a startling percentage!

The skulking system of tactics, so dear to the heart of the redskin, was throughout adopted by the rebels. One of the mounted police kept pegging away for some time at an Indian head-dress and blanket which appeared above the snow, the owner of which was ten yards away, deliberately picking off his victim. There was no possibility of an advance owing to the state of the ground and the density of the undergrowth. The police were sheltered by the breastwork of sleighs in some measure. Six of the rebels were known to have been killed, and Gabriel Dumont received a severe scalp-wound. Riel himself was never visible: he went about among his men bearing a crucifix, and exhorting them with much florid eloquence, to make short work of the redcoats. The greatest mistake of Major Crozier was in holding a parley. The treacherous leader of the insurgents, with low cunning, took advantage of this to send his forces round in extended order under cover of the buttes, and nearly succeeded in surrounding and capturing the whole party.

The major ordered his men to retire before it was too late. The horses were placed in the sleighs under fire; and the retreat was managed in a most orderly manner. The dead had to be abandoned. One wounded Englishman was left unnoticed: when the Indians came upon him, they were for clubbing him to death ; he put up his hands to shield his face, and they broke his knuckles. Some half-breeds intervened, and saved his life. The dastardly Crees perpetrated ail sorts of indignities upon the bodies, and battered in the faces of the brave men who had died to protect their hearths and homes. Captain Moore, as he was mounting into a sleigh, had his leg shattered with a bullet, and it eventually had to be amputated.

In the afternoon, about four o'clock, as the setting sun was flooding the lone valley of the Saskatchewan with its golden rays, and the windows of the fort were flashing back its brightness, the little force so sadly broken, and bringing dying and wounded in their midst, descended the wooded slopes to Carlton. Colonel Irvine and his command arrived an hour later.

Major Crozier, from past experience in dealing with disaffected redskins, was not prepared for such an encounter as this had been. He imagined that a display of moral force would have the same salutary effect which had hitherto resulted. The Indian population of this wild and limitless region had been held in cheek by five hundred mounted police; who had combined the elements of both civil and military Government. The law had been well and fairly administered. It had been the same for the redskin as the white settler. The former saw this, and in consequence respected its representatives.

Times without number, a handful of troopers had entered Indian camps, and, by coolness and nerve, had taken away their prisoners from the midst of the feathered braves, without bloodshed. This had happened on Poundmaker's reserve in 1884, while he and all his tribe were standing around with menacing gestures, in full war-paint, with loaded weapons. The ability of the police in handling the natives had frequently elicited admiration from American officers; who had to despatch a regiment for the capture of a murderer or a whisky trader, and never accomplished it without the loss of life.

There were fully thirty thousand Indians scattered about the Territories ; and the danger which now presented itself was that the whole of these nomadic tribes would rise and massacre and burn without compunction. Settlements would be laid waste, and the budding promise of future prosperity be blighted. Major Crozier was led into the unfortunate trap, while smarting under the repeated insults hurled at him by Riel. The latter now sent his runners to all the tribes, even at a distance of hundreds of miles ; to the Assiniboines and Sioux on the boundary of Manitoba ; to the Chipweyans in the far north; and to the Black feet, Picgans, Sarcees, and Bloods away beside the Rockies.

Poundmaker and Big Bear, around Battleford and Fort Pitt, did not need much coaxing, but jumped at the chance of murder, plunder, and debauchery. Big Bear was an old and seasoned sinner of the first water, Mistawasis near Carlton, Chicastafasin (another Star Blanket) at Snake Plains, Moosomin and others left their reserves to escape being drawn into the trouble. Crowfoot, head-chief of the Blackfeet, sent a loyal letter to the Lieutenant-Governor and remained staunch to the Great Mother throughout.

The spirit of the whole Canadian people rose at once on receipt of the tidings of the Duck Lake affair. Every province was in arms, and an expedition of 3000 men, under Major-General Middleton was at once despatched to relieve the beleaguered garrisons at Fort Pitt, Battle-ford, and Prince Albert. The utmost enthusiam was shown over all the land. The streets of Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg, of Halifax and Quebec, and many a backwoods town, were filled with martial music as "the boys" marched away. Ladies' Aid Societies were formed for the relief of the wounded; and the ubiquitous newspaper correspondent pocketed his notebook and hied him to the once Lone Land.

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