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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XV

Humboldt—A strange caravan—The salt plains again—The springs —An unpleasant situation—Indian camp—Children—An Indian masher—Fire bags—A game preserve—An early reveillé— Skunk Bluffs—Qu'Appelle—Lord Lansdowne—Cigars—An Indian legend—Harvest—Prairie fires—Pieapot's reserve— The great prairie—Regina—A change—Leave of absence.

On the following morning we passed the old mail station at Humboldt, where I had endured such an uncomfortable night in the preceding December. The ground was worn bare with traffic all around, and bottles, preserved meat tins, ancient forage-caps, and other martial relics denoted the spot where the Quebec (regular) cavalry had been encamped. All was deserted now, and left to the nocturnal prowling of the wolves.

A large frame-house, painted green, stood on the verge of the forest to the right of the trail, two miles ahead. This was the new telegraph and mail station, and here resided the operator and his family. Their winter existence must have been inexpressibly lonely, before the robbery of the stage in 1886, since when an outpost of mounted police has been stationed here, and at other places along the route. We halted a couple of hours for dinner. The bush fires were creeping nearer and our host was much concerned regarding his hay. Soon after our departure, we met a remarkable caravan in the shape of one of our men and his family returning to Battleford, from furlough. He was one of our "old hands," and much dwelling in the wilderness had caused

him to cast many ofthe prejudices of civilization to one side, as useless superfluities. Military smartness was evidently one of these. His wife was three parts Indian, and she reclined in a sort of mglige position on the waggon, with a dusky brood of youngsters sprawling around her.

In the trees, on the extremity of the Great Salt Plains, near the spot of nine months before, we pitched our camp to-night. No one can form any idea how the shroud of winter changes the aspect of everything out here. I hardly recognized the place again, when the inspector pointed it out to me. Indeed, I wished to argue the point, but when you are in the ranks it doesn't do to pitch argument against the wearer of a patrol jacket, with a star on the shoulder-strap. Here we had the usual yarns over our tea around the camp-fire, and the nightly pipe under the stars when blanket-time came and the owls began to cry in the woods.

We were up at dawn next day, and in a short time we were out upon the wide sea of stunted grass of the Great Salt Plains, an awful waste of grey and withered vegetation.

"Nought to relieve the aching eye, But barren earth and burning sky; And the blank horizon round and round."

The hut, standing on a slight mound in the centre, is only inhabited in winter, for the mail makes other stages in summer. A wooden cross, rising from a marshy quagmire, or muskeg, denotes "the springs." This is the only drinking-water for forty-five miles. It is strongly impregnated with iron. We camped to-night at the foot of the Touchwood Hills. Short, scrubby bush covered the wind-swept plateau which stretched away in darkening gloom to the west, where the sun was sinking in a mass of crimson fire. The watering-place was in a bad situation, the sleugh being surrounded by a thick hedge of willows. We indulged in a big feed of prairie chicken, though our camp was anything but comfortable; for a cold breeze was scampering over from the north-west.

We were off again in the moonlight of the early morn. How reluctantly does one withdraw oneself from the warm covering in the chill, frosty air, sleepy and stiff! On drawing away the blanket from my head I saw that everything was coated with frost. It is when sleeping on the prairie during this weather that one finds the benefit of a tuque pulled well down over the ears. Soon after entering the Touchwood Hills we met the mail stage, in which were seated some lady passengers. In winter we had found the Indians in huts, upon the reserve, but now they were encamped in teepes, which covered a wide hillside to the left of the trail. Some of the lodges were painted blue :—dark near the ground, but shading into turquoise at the top. There were only dogs and children about the camp. These youngsters were quite naked, and were capering about in wild gambols, in all directions. We pulled up at the Hudson Bay store, where we purchased some cigars; but halted for dinner further on. One of the teams was on the point of remaining a fixture in the sticky bottom of the sleugh when taken to water; but by frantic efforts was extricated in time. While we were engaged in disposing of our prairie chicken, ham, potatoes and tea, a young brave, on horseback, passed us with considerable pride in his port, and an extra amount of defiance in his eye. He was evidently a redskin masher, and a tip-top swell in Indian upper circles. This noble savage certainly made a nearer approach to the ideal Indian of romance than any I had yet beheld. His features were straight and regular; his facial angle being very good. His forehead was narrow ; one ofthe leading characteristics of his race. His complexion was clear, and he was really handsome. His hair of course was parted in the middle, smoothed straight down on either side, and was dressed in two long plaits which hung over each shoulder, loaded at the ends with heavy ornaments of brass. He had no cap, a buckskin shirt, fringed and beaded with rare devices, fitted his agile form like a glove. The crimson leggings and moccasins were elaborately worked with beads, blue, white, green, and scarlet, in flowers, and scrolls, and squares. His saddle-cloth, or numnah, or shabraque, was also richly embroidered with the same material. The rifle which he carried was studded with brass about the stock. The bridle on his little wiry black cayeuse was of horse-hair, with beaded fringe upon the browband. I reckoned him up, and I think—as he sat—he would be worth about five hundred dollars as a curio. His fire-bag, too, was a marvel of untutored aestheticism. It is a pouch of deerskin which hangs from the belt, and serves the same purpose as a Highland spleuchan.

We kept an eye to our horses to-night, as these gentry have a very slight respect for the laws of meum and tuum in that line. Every turn of the winding trail showed us a chance at duck or prairie chicken ; but as the ground is sacred to the Indians we could not fire a shot. The whole reserve simply swarms with game.

We camped in a lovely spot—a gem of woodland beauty, in the rich setting of the fall. Groves .of magnificent timber climbed the slopes, while a fairy lake peeped through the tangled screen. We lay awake for some time under the starlight, smoking, and spinning yarns of bygone times.

The moon was silvering the sleeping lake and the shaggy clumps of copsewood when the inspector's voice announced reveillé. It was a bracing morning. The waggons threw long shadows on the grass, and the horses lay resting in the hollow. Each of them, when doing transport work receives a daily ration of fifteen pounds of oats.

To-day we lit our noon camp-fire on a gentle slope above a winding, sluggish creek; tall reeds fringing its muddy banks. We reached a solitary farm-house in the evening, near to which we halted for the night, and next morning, about nine, we passed Skunk Bluffs, bowling along a splendid trail towards Qu'Appelle. The scenery bore such a resemblance to a well-kept park, that I continually expected to see behind these groves of white oak some fine old moated grange. The bluffs were alive with game, and we of course never missed a chance of replenishing our larder. About half-past ten, we reached the height above the V-shaped valley in which reposes the town of Fort Qu'Appelle. What a different aspect it now wore! The grey slopes were basking in the sunshine, the Fishing Lakes glittered in the glorious light, and along the beach were moored gaily-coloured pleasure-boats. We stabled our horses down at the fort We met some old comrades, who informed us that the Governor-General—Lord Lansdowne—had visited this thriving settlement, with an escort of mounted police, on the previous day. After a welcome shave, and a change of underclothing, we lounged over to the hotel for dinner. What a refreshing experience it was to be back among the outposts of civilization! The steel engravings in oak frames upon the walls, the billiard-tables, the soft carpets on the floors, were all a novelty to us poor exiles from the wilderness. The cider, combined with the magic weather, had quite an exhilarating effect; and the cigars proffered by the bar-tender, in the fulness of his heart, were really good. I may remark that a decent cigar is a rarity in the North-West,. though excellent tobacco is provided for the police at sixty cents per pound. It is a pleasant little place, Qu'Appelle. There is an Indian legend, which throws a poetic halo around the name. A young brave was obliged suddenly to leave the teepe, in which his beautiful squaw lay sick unto death. While the paddle of his canoe was flashing by the shores of these crystal lakes, he heard his name called softly from amid the rustling leaves that shaded the splashing waves. He asked, "Who calls?" And the voice of his beloved gave out his name twice again. He shot his skiff into an overhanging arch, and searched the bushes with nimble feet; but all was still, save for a startled deer that bounded from the thicket. On returning to his tribe, he found his bride had passed away in death—at this very hour when his name was whispered— in his far-off lodge by the rolling Kisaskatchewan. The French voyageurs translated the Indian name into Qu'Appelle.

A small weekly paper is published here, and a photographer had established a "gallery." This town was General Middleton's base of operations. After a capital dinner, at which were fish, flesh, fowl, and sweets in abundance, we ascended the narrow trail which leads to Regina. Our direction was westerly, and we should pass through Pieapot's reserve. There were a number of settlers around Qu'Appelle, who appeared to have comfortable farms, and who were in the midst of harvest operations. The frosts which had touched the Saskatchewan had not reached them here. It was a cold evening when we camped in a bluff near the log-house of a young Englishman. He had been scouring the country in search of some stray cattle, and rode up to us in a state of great excitement, requesting us to be careful of our camp-fire.

Considering that it formed part of our duty to search for the originators of all prairie fires, and to stamp them out when practicable, this naive request was rather amusing. But an enormous fire was at that time raging all over the Territory. The long-service man of our party said that in all his experience he had never passed over so much burnt ground. Sparks from the railway often cause immense destruction, and these conflagrations often spring from the American side of the boundary. The Indians, of all travellers on the plains, are the most systematically" cautious in everything relating to their camp-fires ; never pitching their teepes till they make the site fireproof by treading down or burning the surrounding grass, and never leaving the embers to smoulder when they remove to fresh quarters.

Our compatriot became very friendly, on finding we were police, and offered us the hospitality of his shanty, but we preferred the open air. We were very merry— on this occasion—over the crackling blaze, for we hoped to be living in barracks on the morrow. However charming an occasional picnic maybe-; with the popping of champagne corks, lobster salad, and the arch eyes of beauty to add a charm to the sylvan scene, it is apt to become monotonous when it is the normal state of existence, without any of the above pleasing accessories.

After breakfast, we passed through Pieapot's reserve, which is buried in the bush, on the edge of the plains. A few Cree braves and leering squaws were to be observed moving about, and one truculent-looking savage stalked across the trail with a rifle. These are the dirtiest and most immoral Indians in the Territories. We emerged from the woods about ten o'clock, and there stretched before us once more—in all its withered desolation—the Great Prairie.

We crossed Boggy Creek, and neared the clustering houses of Regina, standing in the midst of the flat expanse. Over the railway, to the east of the station, some smart red-coats were passing up Broad Street. It was like coming home, to see these troopers in all the glory of scarlet and yellow. What trim swells these fellows looked in contrast to us grimy objects. Triumphal arches, laden with agricultural produce, in honour of Lord Lansdowne, spanned South Railway Street as we drove along. There was a mighty change in this microscopic midget of a capital of 2,600,000 square miles. Stores, with plate-glass windows, displayed the newest goods. There were many hotels in all the splendour of gilded carving, and dazzling mirrors. Broad side-walks had supplanted the ravines and ponds of the year before. Telegraph and telephone wires ran in all directions. Dainty, toylike dwelling-houses had sprung up as if by magic. The Park, unfortunately, showed only a row of naked, blighted trees. These will only grow from the seed, in this climate; so that arboriculture is attended with great difficulty. We recrossed the railway, where we met a well-known Prince Albert face. The barracks were all life and bustle. Two field-pieces were drawn up, under the broad folds of the Union Jack. A feeling of pride thrills through one as one gazes at that old rag ; whether by the blue Mediterranean, in sweltering India, in the Antipodes, or away in the Far West. The "morning drum-beat that encircles the world " is no silly fable now.

Between each block of buildings was a large square tent for the accommodation of the increased number of men ; for the strength of the force had now been raised to 1000. A huge new barrack-room had been run up, near the guard-room, and the recreation-room removed to the prairie beyond. Horses were tied up in lines, in the stable-square. Recruits were drilling under an Irish sergeant with stentorian lungs. The place swarmed with fine strapping young fellows, but all the faces were strange. We drew the concentrated gaze of every one upon us by our uncouth appearance, among all this purple and fine linen. I observed the eye of the adjutant fixed upon us with horror, and I almost guessed the result. I knew he nursed a rooted objection to men from the north being around headquarters. All the escorts who had brought down prisoners had been ordered to camp outside, and had thence been relegated to exile again. The free-and-easy manners of the wild camps did not suit the rigid discipline of this post, where a charge " in that he was improperly dressed" was sure to meet with severe punishment. I at once went to the quarters which the orderly sergeant informed me I was to take up; and I took good care forthwith to don my most irreproachable warpaint. But the fiat had gone forth ! In half an hour the orderly returned, with his fist full of the usual batch t>f papers without which no orderly apparently can move, and said,—

"You go to Battleford to-night."

I suppose my face would be what painters style "a study," but I immediately saw the inspector, who interviewed Major Crozier. The latter was in command here, as Colonel Irvine was with Lord Lansdowne at Calgary. The major was pleased to countermand the order, which he designated "preposterous." So I escaped being transported again to the dreary Saskatchewan. To show how unpopular this region was with men who had once been there, I may state that all sorts of dodges, sick-list, &c., were adopted to avoid being banished there.

No one troubled me to do any duty, as I belonged to "D" troop; so I made a pilgrimage to town. I found a new road had been laid out past the Lieutenant-Governor's residence, or Government House. This was a species of wooden bungalow, painted white, and surrounded with the universal verandah. There was a lawn in front, decorated with a flagstaff. The new road past this official dwelling was dignified by the title of Dewdney Street, after the Lieutenant-Governor.

But Victoria Square was only a patch of prairie ; Dewdney Street only contains this building, and that is two miles from town. At the other end were the chambers sacred to the deliberations of the North-West Council, the Parliament of the Territories. This has been now replaced by a Legislative Assembly. Here also were the offices of the Indian Department.

It seemed I was to await the return of our colonel, for promotion; I missed it however by obtaining a pass and taking a trip to Brandon. When I returned I was too late, as some more fortunate individual, who was on the spot, obtained the billet. However, my absence enabled me to avoid being included in a reinforcement of 100 men who were being sent to that abomination of desolation, Battleford. I was now quartered in the large barrack-room among a crowd of recruits, and commenced to perform the usual routine of duties, such as guard, stable orderly, fatigue, and parade.

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