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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XI

Prince Albert after the fight—Settlers summoned together—Church fortified—Scenes within the stockade—Exalted warriors— Inside the church—A sortie for grub—A flutter in the dove-cot —The burning of Fort Carlton—A retreat—An excited Scotsman and an astonished parade—A false alarm—Inaction— Colonel Irvine.

As soon as the news of the Duck Lake catastrophe reached Prince Albert, measures of defence were immediately taken. There was no knowing how soon the exultant bands of the "Dictator" might sweep down upon the unprotected town. The despatch ordered our officer to warn all the surrounding settlers and summon them to a place of rendezvous. Steps were to be taken to fortify a central place of retreat. The Presbyterian church and manse were pitched upon as the most commodious and convenient for the purpose, and a stockade of cordwood, nine feet high, was erected around them. This was finished between 1 a.m. and daylight. The civilians worked splendidly. Many a house was mourning, and many a tearful eye was seen upon the streets. It was a day of unparalleled brilliancy. The warm sun beat down from a cloudless sky ; the snow was giving way in places to frothy pools, and here and there a brown patch of earth showed through the ragged robe of winter.

We were engaged in taking cartridges, and ice, and necessary stores of all descriptions, into the improvised citadel in the centre of the town ; and sleighs kept plying backward and forward between the church and and barracks. Sleigh-loads of women and children came hurrying in from the Carrot River district; and from many a lonely homestead, hidden away among the bluffs. Every house in the town itself was very soon vacant, the inhabitants all taking sanctuary in the church precincts. We abandoned the barracks at noon; the sergeant and I being the last to leave. I carried the Union Jack under my regimental fur coat. We left everything else behind us as they were; locking all the doors. The scene inside the stockade was one of the most uncomfortable that can be imagined. The entrance was narrow, and blocked with curious members of the fair sex, straining their necks as though they expected to see the enemy walk calmly up and ring the bell.

The mud was almost unfathomable, and of the consistency of "coaguline," or any of the other compounds, with impossible names, which are advertised for the healing of broken china. Our horses sank to their hocks, and could hardly extricate their feet. On the top of the cord wood rampart, on each side, were four civilian sentries, with fixed bayonets and lofty bearing, pacing rapidly from point to point, and looking like warders of the middle ages expecting a challenge trumpet to blow beyond the moat beneath. They were about as much use there as the wooden soldiers which delight the martial-minded youngster. Vedettes were posted on every hill ; and many people were still congregated outside "the walls." But these proud defenders marched erect and defiant, little conscious of the merriment they were causing to the few initiated. However, it evidently afforded them satisfaction, and did no harm to any one else.

A zealous sergeant of volunteers was marching and countermarching a squad behind the church. Every open window of the large brick manse was filled with anxious women's faces, the eyes of many being dim with tears. A man with field-glasses, scanning every inch of the horizon, was perched upon the flat roof. There was much noise of hammering and the clatter of falling boards. Lumber was being hauled in, and a long, covered species of barrack was being rapidly run up. The enclosure was filled with sleighs, and a restless, surging throng. At the entrance-door of the church was a large square tent, containing a cooking range, at which a detachment of male cooks were at work preparing the everlasting bacon for the refugees. A Gargantuan feed of beans was bubbling and bobbing in two huge boilers. The interior of the ecclesiastical edifice was simply a vast nursery of noisy children and screaming females. Infants were squalling, and a sound as of loud applause occasionally announced that some mutinous youngster was receiving condign castigation. Some were " ministering " to the young fellow of ours whose feet were frozen, and who was laid on a sort of dais near the pulpit. Two long tables, covered with plates, cups, knives, and forks, stretched the entire length of "the kirk," with benches on each side. Here the hungry ones were demolishing a varied assortment of viands. It was a strange sight. Some were apparently unable to restrain their risible faculties over the whole picnic. Some Scotch half-breed girls were of this number. One strong man was weeping piteously for the loss of his brother in the recent fight. There were the faces of men and women worn with anxiety and dread. Stalwart settlers lounged about with determined looks. On going out again, I found the sleighs were pouring in from every quarter. There was my old friend, the hostess of the caravanserai between here and Carlton, calling sturdily, "Where is ma mon? Ha'e ony o' ye seen ma mon, Jock?" in the broadest of "braid Scots."

The strategic position of a certain house was not deemed the correct thing, in professional eyes, and it was ordered to be pulled to pieces. This was some work for us. Nolin—one of Riel's Government—had come in and surrendered. He was not placed in durance vile; and I was ordered to attend on him in his walks abroad. He was a stout man, about six feet in height, with flabby, unprepossessing features. We took the guard on the gate over from the volunteers this evening. I was utterly worn out from work, excitement, and want of sleep for sixty-two hours! I placed nine cartridges in the magazine of my Winchester, and lay down with it in my hand. The Rev. Messrs. Wright and Hilton, English clergymen, were on either side of me; if they should ever see these pages, they will remember.

I slept the sleep of the just, for material and spiritual support was very handy. I arose stiff and unrefreshed, from my comfortless couch of hard boards, amid the mephitic atmosphere of this overcrowded house of prayer. Of course it was quite impossible to wash. Food had, literally, to be fought for.

The sergeant and I discussed the situation. The result of our deliberations was that we asked for and obtained leave to make a reconnoissance in the direction of the barracks. Ostensibly, this was put down to our zeal to see if the T^ton Sioux were quiet, and everything all right down there. In reality, we had registered a vow to enjoy a "square meal" at any cost. No one was visible as we rode down the deserted street. On the summit of the ridge we could observe our vedettes pacing along, against the sky-line. A solitary employe of the Hudson Bay Company, who had been left in charge, unbarred the ponderous door of the store at our summons. From this extremely obliging person we purchased quite a quantity of edible luxuries, which we took with us on our steeds to barracks. Having stabled the horses, we unlocked the door. Everything remained undisturbed, and the great empty building re-echoed to the clank of our spurs and the strange sound of our voices. We lit a fire in the mess-room, and soon enjoyed a rattling feed, after which we returned to the stockade and reported everything all correct.

On entering the stockade a gentleman with a black beard clutched me wildly by the arm, and pointed frantically to a moving speck on the horizon. Murmurs were heard among the crowd, and nervous women kept telling each other that "it" was the "French." Scouts were seen to be galloping in the direction indicated by the hysterical store-keeper. I believe "it" turned out to be one of Riel's scouts, who was chased for some distance.

Disquieting rumours filled the air this afternoon, and one of our fellows told me that bad news had been received from Carlton. About four o'clock the look-out, on the roof of the minister's residence, signalled that he had some communication to make. It was to the effect that two mounted policemen were visible on the trail to the westward, advancing very slowly in the direction of the town. Their horses had the appearance of being jaded and played out. There was an immediate flutter in the dove-cot, every coign of vantage was occupied, and an eager crowd awaited their coming. In a little while they rode up to the gate of the stockade, and the people pressed upon them on every side. Their bronchos were completely tired out with long and hard riding, and the men were worn and haggard. They seemed to droop in the saddle, and rubbed their bloodshot eyes, sore from the brilliant reflection of the sun. They dismounted stiffly, and made their report, handing despatches from their wallets to our officer. Fort Carlton had been burnt to the ground—a heap of charred ashes—and the main body, with Colonel Irvine and Major Crozier, were an hour's march in their rear. We took charge of their horses, and they soon brightened up under the cheering influence of some much-needed refreshment. Then they told their tale.

After the events of Thursday, it had been decided to evacuate Fort Carlton. From its strategic position it was quite untenable. Colonel Irvine had determined to concentrate his forces at Prince Albert for the defence of this populous district, and to await the action of the Dominion Government. This was thought to be more prudent than to risk defeat. The protection of the settlers was the principal object, and already their lives and property were considered to be in great danger.

This was decisively arranged on the evening of Friday, the 27th. The fort was in a miserably exposed situation. Sharpshooters, stationed in the overhanging bush, could easily pick off any one attempting to cross the square. I am astonished that Riel did not march upon Prince Albert in the interval, and devastate the entire settlement. There was nothing whatever to prevent his making a rapid sweep upon the defenceless town. His intelligence department was incomparably better than ours at that time. In other respects, no doubt, he was weaker than we imagined him to be.

On Friday evening the men at Fort Carlton were told that they could go into the Hudson Bay store and help themselves. They were given carte blanche, and the whole place was looted. Suits of clothing, underclothing, blankets, tobacco, pipes, and even perfumes, were taken possession of. There was no respect of rank. One plethoric bearer of the triple chevron, whom we called " Daddy," was fain to content himself with a bottle of bergamot and some of Fry's chocolate. Barrels and bags of flour and biscuit, and big packages of bacon, in sacking, were taken out and saturated with coal-oil, to prevent their being of any service to the rebels. Tins of preserves, of lobsters, of sardines, and boxes of fancy biscuits were carried off to the rooms; and there was a general picnic on the beds. At midnight the "alarm" rang out in the frosty darkness.

A strange ruddy light flamed from the sergeant-major's quarters, and a thick smoke arose that obscured the twinkling stars. This was above the archway and next the hospital. The buildings had taken fire, and a frightful scene ensued. Bugle-calls were sounding, officers hurrying around with hoarse words of command, and the men, half-asleep, were bewildered. Volunteers and red-coats were mixed up indiscriminately. The wounded were removed at once, down the narrow stairs, out of danger into the cold outside, suffering the most excruciating agony. Our corporal, with his shattered thigh, gave vent to the most heartrending cries. Some who were engaged in the humane work of rescue were terribly burned about the face.—Poor Gilchrist! I helped to carry his wounded form from the sleigh at Prince Albert, and nine months afterwards I assisted to put his lifeless clay into the coffin at Regina.—The horses were infected with the prevailing excitement, and it was no easy task saddling them, while the transport teams were hastily harnessed up. Every atom of baggage, kits, bedding, and "plunder" were left behind. Everything had to be abandoned; cherished letters from loved ones far away, and photos, and private papers.

Women and children (friendly half-breed refugees) were placed in the sleighs, crying and shrieking. The whole fort, every building on every side of the square, was now a lurid blaze, which shed its vivid light on the broad snow-clad river, on dark trees and lofty slopes. The last sleigh and the mounted rear-guard just managed to escape from this fiery furnace in time. The groans of the wounded, the jingle of the horses' trappings, the crackling roar of the flames, and the deep voices of command all mingled in one bewildering sound. The place burned like tinder. Then commenced a hurried and a trying march. The summit of the precipitous heights had to be gained, by a narrow trail winding among thick bush. This path seemed designed as a splendid ambuscade,—a regular trap for massacre. Every moment the weird war-whoop of the savage might peal from the impenetrable gloom. Below the struggling troops, the scene was one of infinite grandeur, baffling the word-painter's skill. Riel once more missed his chance of annihilating his detested foes. The men were completely knocked up, from constant patrols, picquets, guards, marching and fighting, and fell asleep in the saddle or on the sleighs. The "Pines" (dreaded by all) was traversed by the long, thin column in grim silence, where a handful of Metis or Indians could have butchered every man. Every one breathed more freely once through this dark and gloomy defile. So, Prince Albert was once more reached by about five o'clock on Saturday evening. Loud cheers came from the citizens on the stockade; and women, with eyes full of tears, cheered feebly too. The wounded waved out signs of greeting, from where they lay covered in the sleighs; and many a woman's kiss—sweet and long—welcomed a dear one home. Our troopers sat in the saddle, their lined faces bent down with fatigue ; too much done up to sit erect, when "halt!" sounded on the bugle. The brass field-piece was in the centre of the line. The wounded were distributed at once among the private houses. "D" troop was stationed in the completed shed, within the palisade; "B" troop was marched down to Goshen. We of the old detachment were ordered to our former quarters. The civil population were informed that they might return to their respective homes ; but were to reassemble at the church upon the bell tolling. No one was destined to enjoy much rest this night, as will be seen presently. A Metis prisoner had been brought in from Carlton, and he and Nolin were taken down to barracks with us. I had the honour to escort these two unsavoury gentlemen of the new nationality. The latest addition was about twenty years of age, and had attempted to commit suicide in his cell at Carlton. All the way down, this dingy youth kept asking Blight, "Ah, sergeant! just von leetle bullet you give me? von leetle bullet, sergeant?" His very mild request was refused, with a smiling shake of the head.

Any satisfactory solution of the food question down at the barracks was out of the question, therefore a chum and I made our way to a boarding-house kept by a very clean, tidy, Scotch half-breed woman, who was married to a man from Suffolk. Several very respectable civilians used to patronize this establishment, and some were seated, pegging away at the pile of solids on the table, when we entered. We were taking our first cup of tea when the others rose hurriedly, made a rush for their rifles, and vanished through the doorway. Our buxom hostess—fair, fat, and forty, with big blue eyes —entered with the stereotyped information that "the French" were coming; and that the church bell was ringing for the people to gather. I am afraid I muttered "bosh;" for excessive familiarity had made me learn to despise this continual cry of "wolf!" We quietly finished our meal, and went out. A man who lived opposite was loading his sleigh with household goods, and as soon as his ancestral clock had been deposited upon the top, he lashed out at his horses and started off at a panic speed. As we turned the corner of our quarters we suddenly came upon a full parade, on foot, the colonel addressing the men. I made a rush and secured my arms. On going down the supernumerary rank a sergeant told me to fall in on the left; which unnecessary order I complied with. Then, without warning, rang out the "wild courser's hoofs of fear," and a frenzied figure, mounted on a black cayeuse, shot wildly past the building, and nearly came charging through the astonished ranks.

"Turn oot! Turn oot! Th' Indians are on us! Gie us a rifle, ane o' ye chaps," he yelled out frantically, and without a pause, in the richest Doric. He was an employe of the H.B. Company, and hailed from the pleasant little town of Kelso, on the Tweed. This apparition nearly demoralized the whole parade with laughter.

"Steady, men!" said the colonel, though his own risible faculties were hardly under control.

Owing to the alarm we were kept on the qui-vive till morning, when it turned out to be the exaggerated idea of some hasty brain. Some scouts at the forks of the road had observed a large party of Indians in war-paint advancing. They were, in reality, on their way to Batoche; but without waiting to watch the direction of their line of march, these civilian scouts at once jumped to the conclusion that they were Riel's advance-guard, and setting spurs to their horses flew into Prince Albert with the news of an approaching attack.

Now ensued a period of soulless inaction, every one waiting in Micawber-like expectation of something turning up. To us of the rank and file this unsatisfactory-state of suspense was trying. Why we did not march out, and attack the rebels, was the daily—nay, hourly— subject of speculation. All things are plain now, but then, of course, one saw darkly. There were so many-wheels within wheels at Prince Albert, so many conflicting interests at stake, that I presume any offensive movement was not deemed expedient. I have a very high opinion of Colonel Irvine, and a good deal of mud has been thrown at him by people who deal in that commodity, because he remained shut up in this town. I am glad to be able to wield even a feeble pen in his favour, though it is merely the record of a trooper in the ranks. His sensitive regard for the feelings of others let him be swayed too easily by men who never allowed themselves to be actuated by any like motive. He was a man who I verily believe thought no wrong of any one, and he was utterly unfitted to deal with the unscrupulous citizens around him. His courage no one can call in question. He has spoken in his own defence; but this gentlemanly respect of his for others has led him to remain silent on many cardinal points of controversy. I deem myself happy to have the opportunity to stick up (in however humble a way) for my old chief.

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