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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XVI

Louis Riel in prison—The guard-room—Guard increased—Riel doomed—Duty heavy—New organization—Mud and rain—A way to take up land—A contretemps—Riel's politeness—His devotions—Apologia pro vita sua—A prophet—Pere Andrd— Riel sane—St. Peter appears to Riel—An early breakfast-Exercise—The scaffold—Patrol—The execution.

The irrepresssible ego has caused me to neglect for some time our friend Louis Riel, who was bewailing the failure of his ambitious schemes, in the seclusion of a guard-room cell at Regina. A few Indians and half-breeds, who had been sentenced to minor terms of imprisonment, were here also. Big Bear, Poundmaker, and One Arrow had been packed off to Stony Mountain Penitentiary, in Manitoba, for three years. They, along with a number of others, were amnestied in 1886.

The mounted police guard-rooms were the only prisons in the territory. The place of durance vile attached to the one in the Regina barracks had been extended a considerable distance to the rear, and a yard with a high stockade had also been added. It was a matter of common superstition that Riel would be eventually pardoned, and in all probability pensioned, so that he did not receive at first the many delicate attentions which were subsequently lavished upon him. There was only the ordinary barrack-guard on duty. Le petit Napolion used daily to go out for an hour's exercise in the square, under the escort of two constables with loaded Winchesters. These weapons of the guard were always filled with three rounds of ball cartridge. Monsieur Riel was also adorned with a ball and chain, whenever he left his cell. Now to describe, as far as my feeble ability will allow me, this terror of Red River and Saskatchewan notoriety. He was a man about five feet seven inches in height, with a pale, flabby face, dark grey eyes closely set together, restless in their expression. His nose was slightly aquiline, his hair and beard were reddish in hue, his lips were thick, and his neck long. He spoke invariably in a low and gentle tone.

The Wood Mountain Division, the men from Southern Manitoba, and all those who had been engaged in watching the International Boundary were in barracks at the end of October. Forty recruits had also arrived recently. As soon as the parties had come in from summer duty on the plains the guard was considerably increased. Things had begun to look very serious for Riel. His appeal was considered shaky; and experts had pronounced him sane. It was at last expected that, in spite of all the hysterical yelling of the French Canadians, in spite of all political thimble-rigging, that he would have to "swing." The Government was on the horns of a dilemma. The people of Ontario and the North-West clamoured for his execution, the Catholics of Lower Canada enshrined him as a martyr. However, as will be seen, he was doomed.

Duty began to be heavy now. An officer took command of the guard, and, in addition, there was a sergeant and corporal. The officer of the guard, and four troopers under a corporal, always accompanied Riel in his walks abroad. Two sentries were on duty, night and day, in the corridors of the prison, the whole length of which could be commanded from the guard-room. The reorganization of the force went on apace; and there were now three full troops, of one hundred men each, at Regina. There were continual muster and mounted parades.

On the 1st of November, 1885, the distribution of the new divisions was published. The whole muster-roll of 1000 officers and men, with the different troops to which they were posted, was affixed to the wall of the mess-room. What a rush there was to see this ukase!

A troop (as before), Maple Creek and Medicine Hat.

B troop, Regina. This was the troop to which I found myself once more transferred.

C troop, Fort Macleod.

D „ Battleford.

E „ Calgary.

F „ Prince Albert.

G „ Fort Saskatchewan. This outpost'is about eighteen miles from Edmonton, on the North Saskatchewan River.

H troop, Lethbridge. This was a new settlement, fifty miles from Fort Macleod. Coal-mines were being worked there by the North-West Coal and Navigation Company ; they had constructed a branch line to it from Dunmore, on the C.P.R. H troop left Regina for its new destination on December 1st.

K troop, Battleford.

Depot troop. This was the permanent division at Regina, and consisted of the headquarters staff and recruits, with a sprinkling of duty men. In fact, it was —as its name implies—the depot.

The weather at this season was considerably milder than that of the corresponding period in 1884. We had much rain, and the barrack square and the approaches to the stables were indescribable. A man had no need to go through the formalities laid down in the Dominion

Land Act to acquire a free grant of 160 acres of" rich argillaceous mould." He had merely to walk from the barrack-gate to his room, and he had the legalized quantity attached to each foot. You mounted guard in all the pomp and circumstance of brilliant spurs and shining boots; but when you entered the guard-room your spurs were invisible beneath the hideous geological formation on either heel. Mounted patrols were now established, and a couple of these were on duty in the daytime riding round the barracks, with orders to detain all suspicious-looking persons. This patrol was posted at reveille and was taken off at retreat. At night a perfect cordon of sentries surrounded the place.

I was away on special service under a sergeant one evening, and I returned, leading his horse, at one o'clock in the morning. I was in a rough " costume," wearing a slouch hat. On my approach I was challenged by three sentries at once. The led horse and the head-gear, looming through the darkness, looked very fishy. Evidently I was a " breed," from Montana, who had turned up to aid Riel to escape. I could just see the gleam of the barrels as the carbines came to the "ready."

"Halt! Who comes there?"


"Stand, friend, and give the countersign."

"Hang the countersign! Haven't got it. Policeman on duty. Call the non-com."

"Halt! "

How this contretemps might have ended I know not, for some zealous youth might have potted me. However, some one on the guard-room verandah recognized my voice, and I was allowed to advance.

I was now on continuous duty ; when not on mounted patrol, on guard. The barrack-guard mounted at 2 p.m., and I only enjoyed the luxury of going to bed every second night. The sentries were posted, as the guard numbered off. Thus the even numbers would find themselves placed inside the prison one day; and probably the odd numbers the next. It was very frequently my lot to find myself stationed inside.

My first experience of taking care of the rebel leader was as follows. I was marched into the corridor, and given my orders by the corporal. Then the provost sergeant, who is responsible for the discipline of the prison, came to me, and impressed upon me that I was tc keep a particular eye upon Riel, and see that, under no circumstances did he communicate with, or speak to, any of the other prisoners.

"He is sitting warming himself by the stove just now, and you can turn him into his cell after a little while."

The stove stood in the centre, between two blocks of cells. The passages ran down the front of the cells from both sides of the guard-room. Every door could be fastened simultaneously by a lever worked from the latter place. Each of the little apartments possessed an open grating in the centre of its wooden door, which was the only space through which light could penetrate. There were windows along the opposite walls, which at night were hung with lamps with powerful reflectors.

I found Riel clad in a dark tweed suit, wearing a blue knitted tuque upon his head. There were a number of other prisoners, including a few troopers, "in" for breaches of discipline, standing around him. He was sitting on a wooden stool, with his feet up against the stove. It was necessary for him to move, that I might pass. " Excuse me, Mr. Riel, I wish to pass ; sorry to trouble you."

"Oh ! no troo-bell at all. If that was all the troo-bell, it would be well."

This was said with a pleasant smile, French accent, and a soft tone of voice. He was always most studiously polite, and painfully deferential.

He occupied the cell next to the guard-room, on the left-hand side. Writing was his continual employment, when he was not praying or at exercise. A shelf formed his bed, and a small table stood alongside. In front of him was a metal statuette of St. Joseph; and when he was telling his beads he would carry this little image in his hands, and hug it. His countenance usually displayed a calm composure, and his grey eyes were nearly always bent on the ground, as though he were wrapt in contemplation and study. The literary work on which he was engaged was supposed to be a sort of Apologia pro vita sua. He commenced spouting French vigorously, one night, when all was still; reading aloud from his manuscript. This brought the sergeant very briskly to the wickethe ordered me to "tell Riel to stop that racket! "

I did so, and after he had subsided into silence, he came to his peep-hole and beckoned to me.

"I tell you—but, for the others—No!" he exclaimed in a hurried staccato. "I must read. The Spirit tells me,--1 must. I tell you—for fifteen years—it is since— that I have been a prophet on the Saskatchewan." This of course was a fable, and I knew it.

His confessor, Pere André, was a constant visitor, with his unkempt beard and greasy cassock. This priest had left Brittany when quite young, to lead a hard life of exile amid far-off savages. His manners had become abrupt from much contact with the wily redskins. He was the very antithesis to the courtly abb£, of the glowing land of his youth.

A Medical Commission had been appointed to examine Riel as to the insanity alleged by his friends. When these gentlemen arrived, he was marched daily to the orderly-room, where the inquiry was conducted in private. Every one knows the result. I was standing by the open door of the cell, when Dr. Jukes, the principal medical officer of the mounted police, had a protracted interview with him. The doctor sat beside him for fully an hour, listening with exemplary patience to a random list of visions vouchsafed to this Metis apostle, which utterly eclipsed any of the mystic ecstasies of any ascetic of the Middle Ages. The doctor cross-examined him with considerable acumen; and it was amusing to note his skill in inveigling the astute Riel into contradictions. The arch-rebel, among a host of similar revelations, stated that St. Peter had appeared to him in the church of St. James at Washington, District of Columbia, and had ordered him to undertake his mission. This I heard him say.

I must say his conduct in prison was most exemplary, and he gave no trouble. Every request he made was most courteously worded. At 1.30 a.m., upon a certain Saturday, he requested me to endeavour to procure him some meat. Up till midnight he had fasted, as it was un jour maigre. Now, to look for meat in a prison during the small hours is about as forlorn a hope as to expect to find holy water in an Orange Lodge. However, I foraged among the cupboards in the corridor, and discovered a plate of hash, which I suppose had been put away by some unfortunate to serve as a bonne bouche at some needed moment.

On the Sunday previous to his execution I was on guard, and formed one of the escort when he was taken out for exercise. On this occasion we proceeded to the square patch of ground between the orderly room and the guard-room. The officer strolled about on the sidewalk, while we stood at ease, one at each corner. Riel walked between us in a diagonal direction. A covered-in platform had been put up in the yard, at the rear of the prison, with all the grim accessories of the coming ceremony. Presently he asked me, pointing,—

"Is that the scaffold?"

I said it was.

"Thank God!" he exclaimed theatrically, "I do not fear the scaffold." .

Then he grew excited, and appealed to the officer to send a telegram to his wife, who was at St. Boniface, the French suburb of Winnipeg. I remember the scene well: the figure holding the ball and chain on one arm, and gesticulating wildly with the disengaged hand.

Mass had been said every Sunday at a temporary altar in the prison; Riel and the other Metis were always present. The guard at this time was very strict, and the walls of the place were hung with boards, each bearing a whole string of commands. The guard-room was terribly overcrowded every night, after the picquet mounted. It was very small, and resembled any other such building anywhere. There were guard-beds on either side, with racks for the carbines at their head. A stove was in the centre. A table stood opposite the entrance, with pen and ink, and a book to record the visits of the orderly officer and the surgeon. Above the table was a shelf, and over the latter ticked an ancient clock, which was a perpetual curse to all the watches in barracks. The bugler sounded the calls by this official timepiece, which either lost or gained one hour in the twenty-four.

The steeds which we were obliged to ride on patrol at this time were execrable. They were a lot about to be cast. We were not allowed to take our own troopers, and every man had a fresh mount on each succeeding occasion. At last the date of the execution was definitely fixed, and extraordinary precautions to prevent an expected rescue were taken. Dismounted bodies of men marched round the barracks at stated intervals through the night. Strong patrols, mounted, were continually scouring the surrounding prairie. The date of this historical event was set down as the 16th of November, 1885.

I was relieved from guard at 2 p.m. on the 15th. Two hours afterwards I was warned for a special mounted patrol at four o'clock on the following morning, —the 16th—and I was also informed that I should be for barrack-guard at 2 p.m. on the same day. It was not a bright prospect to a worn-out man. My eyes were sore and bloodshot. I was haggard, and, in fact, just properly done up, and of course I grumbled and growled as every good soldier does. Growling is his especial privilege. Did not "our army in Flanders" swear terribly, and is not a trooper supposed to be a past-master in this art? This particular patrol, for which I was detailed, was to consist of one corporal and three men.

It was most bitterly cold and densely dark when we turned out at half-past three on the eventful morning, and stumbled over half-asleep to the stables, where a dingy lantern was flashing about. We saddled our horses in silence. Early as it was, Colonel Irvine was here to inspect us, after we had mounted. The only road from the town, now, came past the rear of Government House, as the other bridge had been destroyed. We were ordered to proceed to Mr. Dewdney's residence and take up our station on the trail at that point, and to allow no one to approach the barracks who did not possess a pass properly signed. We rode in half-sections past the guard-room and out into the gloom of the prairie. On our way to the bridge across the creek, we met the two priests, who were to attend upon Riel during his last moments, driving from town in a buckboard. The frost was very keen this morning, and Our feet, in boots and spurs, suffered severely. When dawn stole gently over the plain, everything was white with hoar-frost. It was a magnificent sunrise ! And on this heavenly morning, Louis David Riel was to look his last upon these prairies which he had loved so well. We rode quietly up and down, and whenever any object appeared we made it an excuse for a stirring gallop. When the sun had risen, we could see the polished arms of the sentries—a perfect ring,—around the barracks. Scouts were out in every direction, trotting off in the distance. Bugle-calls rang out in the clear air. An inner cordon of fifty men was posted around the guard-room at seven, and at the same hour a party of forty men, mounted, drew up at the end of the bridge opposite to us.

A crowd of people could now be seen advancing along the level plain from Regina, whose white houses were bright in the sunshine. Men on foot, on horseback, in buckboards, buggies, and " democrats," hurried along. There were visitors from Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Winnipeg, and even from British Columbia. Those who were without passports were turned back, and we drew our horses across the trail, while the non-com. examined the papers. There was a good deal of pleasant chaff, and the voice of the great Nicholas Flood Davin, now Member for Assiniboia, in the Dominion House,—more power to his elbow!—was heard in the land ; the brogue of the emerald isle sounding rich and racy. After the crowd had cleared away, a great silence seemed to have filled the air, save for the horses champing their bits and pawing the hard ground.

The Regina Leader gave the most minute description of the final scene in this drama, which has been of such importance in the history of the young Dominion.

Mr. Gibson, the deputy-sheriff, entered the condemned cell a few minutes before eight, and informed Riel that his hour had come. The latter turned ashy pale as soon as he realized his position, but braced himself together as well as he could. The procession was now formed. Riel was placed between Father McWilliams, who was first, and P&re Andr£, who was behind him. Mr. Gibson led the way. After this, Mr. White Fraser, who was our orderly officer, and ten men of the guard followed. Colonel Irvine and other officers of the mounted police, Dr. Jukes, and four members of the press brought up the rear. They ascended by steps to a room above the guard-room, which ran the entire length of the building. At the far end was a window, and through this was the scaffold. As they passed along, Riel exclaimed, "Courage, mon pfrel"

The hangman was Jack Henderson, who had been a former prisoner of Riel at Fort Garry in 1869. Verily the tables were turned with a vengeance! He was waiting on the platform. Before stepping out upon this, the priests and the prisoner knelt down in prayer; all, except the guard, removing their hats. Riel made the responses in a firm voice. His whole demeanour betokened suppressed excitement; his brow was covered with beads of perspiration, while he held a crucifix which had been lent to him by Madame Forget, the wife of the clerk to the N.W. Council. At twenty-five minutes past eight, the deputy-sheriff touched Father McWilliams on the shoulder, as an intimation that the time was up. Pere Andr6 told Riel that they must cease. They all rose, and P£re Andre asked the doomed man if he were at peace with all men. Riel answered in the affirmative.

"Do you forgive all your enemies?"


Riel then asked if he might speak, but he was advised not to do so. He then received the kiss of peace from both priests, and Father Andre exclaimed,—

" lors, allez an ciel! "

While the conversation was in progress, Henderson had been engaged in pinioning the prisoner's arms. Dr. Jukes, Colonel Irvine, with the two priests, and two of the newspaper-men went out upon the platform. Riel was placed upon the drop, where his legs were pinioned and the rope adjusted. His last words were to say good-bye to Dr. Jukes and to thank him for his kindness, and, just before the white cap was pulled over his face, he said,—

"Remerciez Madame Forget."

While he was praying the trap was pulled. Death was instantaneous. His pulse ceased beating four minutes after the trap-door fell. Thus ended the man who had inaugurated and carried out two rebellions. As for the wild outburst of political frenzy that swept over the province of Quebec after the execution, is it not written in the books of the chronicles of the time?

Bugle-calls, the movements of men, and the returning tide of visitors apprised us that the tragedy was over. We fondly cherished a hope that now we should be relieved, and that some welcome coffee and breakfast would be waiting to cheer us over at the barracks. Nothing of the sort! We were ordered to fall in with the troop, and were kept marching and counter-marching, merely to suit the whims of some one who was muddle-headed enough to imagine it was of use. It was not the colonel's wish, I am sure. He, and Lord Boyle, and Colonel McLeod, C.M.G., were breakfasting together in his quarters.

At length came the order, "Leading-section, right!" And we went straight to the barrack-yard. "Form half-sections! Rear, halt! Half-sections, right! Halt! Prepare to dismount! Dismount! File to your stables" —and we trudged off with our reins upon our arms. As we were removing our saddles, the merry call to "stables" sounded, and consequently we had to wait until dinner-time to break our fast.

Now all these trivial details may not be of much interest to the ordinary reader. But it is the continual succession of such incidents that forms the reality of a soldier's life, and the wear and tear, and constant irritation therein. All is not beer and skittles. The whole duty of man in the ranks, is not simply to "slap your thigh with your cane and wink at the girls." And nowhere is the gilt so ruthlessly stripped off the gingerbread as in the North-West.

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