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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XVII

A miserable guard—Grand rounds—Riel's grave—Winter—1886— A ball—Blizzards—Their power—Electric storms—Fatalities —Newspaper amenities and fibs—Fort Macleod—Calgary— Alberta—A garden—God's country—Chinook winds—Spring —Usual rumours—Leave Regina—Moosejaw—A festive camp —Easter] Sunday—Out on the desert—Old Wives Lake—Musings—Solitude—Wood Mountain.

I mounted guard on the afternoon of Riel's execution in no very enviable frame of mind. I possessed a disagreeable cold in the head, a sore throat, and the conjunctivae of my eyes were inflamed. The colonel and the adjutant took possession of all the papers in Riel's Cell. I was on sentry at the back of the prison, where the body was still lying, when "grand rounds" came upon the scene, at 1 a.m. I was so hoarse, that the captain asked me why I had neglected to challenge. I replied I had done so.

Corporal: "Port arms! Give over your orders." An inaudible whisper crossed my lips, and floated into space.

Orderly officer: "Send this man to hospital at sick-call in the morning."

However, I waited until the guard was dismounted in the afternoon, when the surgeon placed me on the report as "off duty."

Riel's body -was quietly removed to the Catholic chapel in Regina, where it was watched by a squad of our men in plain clothes. The remains were removed to St. Boniface in a few days. Among the scanty trees, in the little cemetery, beside the small cathedral on the right bank of the Red River, opposite Fort Garry, a plain wooden cross, bearing the simple words, "Louis David Riel—1885" marks the last resting-place of that uneasy spirit who was the cause of so much trouble, and who paid the fitting penalty of his unsuccessful treason.

The winter of 1885-6 glided over in the usual monotony of these far-off regions. The robe of spotless snow lay once more upon the prairie; and the icy winds howled around the wooden buildings, and piled the wreaths in fantastic shapes against the stables and barracks. In the early part of 1886 we gave a ball in the mess-room, which was tastefully adorned with lances, and trophies of arms, and mottoes. We sent the regimental sleighs down to Regina for our guests; all the rank and beauty of this sparse settlement attended, and officers' wives danced with men in the ranks.

In January also, a tearing, riotous blizzard swept across the desolate plains, and the night picquet was relieved every half-hour. The sentry-boxes were filled with snow, and, as no sane person would attempt to venture far, the shelter of the wash-house was used. The blizzard is a storm peculiar to the prairie regions, almost indescribable in its deathly power. It is the most terrible wind that rages upon earth; a cloud burst of powdered ice, accompanied by a violent hurricane, with the thermometer away below zero. I am utterly impotent to describe the cold. During one blizzard in 1884 the thermometer in barracks showed thirty-seven degrees below zero, or sixty-nine degrees of frost, and the velocity of the wind—as measured by the anemometer on the top of the quartermaster's store—was fifty-five miles an hour! I refer the sceptical to the Canadian Meteorological Society. They give no warning.

Suddenly a small black cloud rises in a sky of brilliant blue, and the whole force of the storm is upon you in a few minutes.

These extraordinary storms are electric in origin, no doubt. During a blizzard in Regina in 1887, the stove and stovepipes in the guard-room and the iron bars in the prison emitted sparks when touched. One man received an electric shock when he lifted the poker. But the atmosphere in the North-West is often charged with electricity. I believe Lord Dunraven mentions this also in his book of travels, but I have not seen it for years.

In these terrible tempests, settlers have been known to have gone to feed their oxen in the stables, just a few yards from their own door; and have been seen no more, alive. Some have been discovered when spring has lifted the shroud of winter; their bones picked clean by the coyotes. Oxen have been frozen in their tracks. But any one can read the annual tale of devastation which is cabled across the Atlantic. It is utterly useless for the authors of emigration pamphlets to deny them. They do recur, and will continue to do so, in all the prairie lands, though in the dim future the increase of population may mitigate their severity.

When Dakota receives a visitation of this sort, Canadian editors flap their wings (non-angelic), and give forth a wild crow of exultation, and point to their own North-West, the great wheat-growing oasis, the magnificent, fertile belt, unvisited by blizzards at all. When this same North-West is enveloped in a whirlwind of this description, the Winnipeg or Toronto newspaper-man is silent, and is deeply absorbed in Fishery Treaties, or the affairs of Europe. Now is the time for him of Dakota to pile on the agony, and he whoops like a Sioux on the war-path. No storms like these visit the American garden of Eden, which was the onginal cradle of mankind. This absurd farce of trying to screech each other down, like a couple of pugnacious washerwomen, does no good to either country. Blizzards are just as severe in one place as the other. The reason that so few lives are lost, comparatively, north of the 49th parallel of latitude, is that the population is not there to suffer, and that is a very simple solution of the problem.

While one of these hurricanes was raging we had to wrap ourselves in buffalo coats to run a few yards to the lavatory. On your return your towel was as stiff as an iron target.

Fort Macleod is situated on the Old Man's River, and near the Porcupine Hills, whose rounded forms, scattered about, look like so many mole-heaps, against the towering grandeur of the snow-capped Rockies. The mounted police marched here, across the uninhabited plains, in 1875, and founded the fort, living for the first winter in "dug outs" in the ground. The present site of the post is on an elevated plateau commanding a superb view of the mountains. South of the town are the extensive reserves of the Blood and Piegan Indians; members ofthe Blackfeet nation. Calgary is considered the queen city of the far, far west, and is by far the most prosperous and lively place in the Territories.

It stands, or reposes, in a basin; which is walled in by precipitous banks, and appears to be surrounded by a couple of foaming, rushing, and tumbling torrents of purest glacier water; namely, the Bow and Elbow Rivers, which here unite. A decade has not passed since the buffalo grazed in the valley ; and now there are stone buildings, theatre, rink, town-hall, churches, and banks, and many costly and comfortable residences. Near here is the Blackfeet reserve, with a population of 2200.

There is not the least doubt that the district of Alberta, in which these places are situated, is the garden of the North-West. It is peerless among the cattle countries of the world. I can unhesitatingly advise any one to go there. The class of settlers, too, is immensely superior to that in Assiniboia and Saskatchewan. This region was familiarly known as "God's country" amongst us.

Fort Macleod and Calgary were the two favourite stations of the mounted police ; as in these favoured localities the winters are shorter in duration, and considerably milder in temperature. The warm Chinook breezes, racing through the clefts in the mountain-wall from their home in the balmy Pacific Ocean, melt the snow as if by the touch of a magic wand. These winds receive their name from the Chinook, or Flathead, Indians of the western coast and blow periodically during the winter and spring. Fifty, forty, and sixty days have been the respective periods of the last three winters in Alberta ; and these days of cold were not consecutive. The nearer you journey to the Rockies, the milder becomes the climate. Men leaving Regina to reinforce the western posts, in the heavy furs of winter uniform, have discovered their comrades at Maple Creek wearing scarlet serges and forage caps ; and engaged in playing cricket, in March!

Spring came rapidly upon us at Regina, in 1886, after a comparatively mild winter. At the end of March, the brown of the prairie mud was everywhere in evidence; and the Wascana Creek was filled with its annual supply of turbid, yellow waters. The usual eruption of vivid scarlet and white, and yellow, with glittering brass and steel broke out upon the land; as men swaggered off to town in the evening, or paraded on the square. The yearly rumours of intended movements were bartered

round, as soon as the first breath of the zephyrs began to waft their spices over the plains.

"The Blackfeet have risen," whispers one mysterious gentleman who is known to have a friend in the cabinet, otherwise orderly-room. Another party draws a fable from the myth-mine in his brain, and states it as a fact that the sergeant-major has informed him that "B" troop is going to Southern Manitoba. Some of these legends are constructed with a skill that would do credit to a Yankee editor, or a Russian chargt-daffaires. But they all end in smoke, for the unexpected invariably happens. As a matter of fact, the Blackfeet nation generally do give trouble in the spring, owing to the feverish restlessness of the younger braves, who are ' anxious to distinguish themselves in some predatory raid upon the Gros Ventres across the frontier. But they are merely individual cases of crime, confined to a few of the mauvais sujets, and not an organized opposition to lawful authority.

On the 1st of April, 1886, Colonel Irvine resigned his post as Commissioner of the North-West Mounted Police, to the regret of all. He was succeeded by Mr. Lawrence Herchmer, who had been Indian agent at Birtle, in Manitoba, and who, at one time, had served as a subaltern in H.M. 46th foot. At this time the mounted infantry system of drill, for all field movements, and purposes of organization, was ordered to be adopted throughout the force.

It began now to be generally known that our troop was to proceed to the International Boundary, with headquarters at Wood Mountain. This abandoned post was 100 miles to the south of Moosejaw, and twenty miles from the frontier-line, in the midst of a wild region, devoid of settlement, and near the haunts of the most notorious Western, horse-thieves. It was formerly one of the principal stations of the police, indeed one of the most important, for it was here that Sitting Bull and his braves, with all the squaws and children of the Sioux, had encamped after their massacre of General Custer and his command, and their flight for protection to British soil.

The log buildings of the old fort were ruinous now, but it was a great place for " high old times/' when the teepes ofthe feathered and painted warriors were grouped around the walls. Major Walsh was commandant then. It was only after a good deal of correspondence with the Department at Ottawa that this summer rendezvous was fixed upon. A member of the N.W.M.P. can never lay any plans for his future. We had actually paraded on the barrack square, in full marching order,— baggage on waggons and bedding rolled up—for Battleford, when we were suddenly dismissed. And now, our destination was 500 miles in the other direction. Verily ' a policeman's life is not happy." A new scheme to defeat the contrabandists along the boundary was being inaugurated. Four troops were to be engaged in patrolling the whole extent of the United States frontier from Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains—a distance of 700 miles—during the ensuing summer. Permanent camps were to be established, at intervals, along this line. Parties, armed and mounted, were to leave these weekly, and meet at certain places on stated days. They were to arrest all horse-thieves, and " study the disposition of the half-breeds and Indians on both sides of the line."

The couldes and wooded ranges of the Missouri Valley were haunts of the most lawless desperadoes, who endeavoured to run their contraband cargoes of horseflesh into the Territory. It is, in the first place, a crime to bring stolen property into Canada, and, moreover, there is a duty of twenty per cent, ad valorem on all horses, ponies, and cattle. Both these laws the freebooters try to evade. And the American Indians were also suspected of intended inroads. There were a good many disaffected redskins along the Missouri Valley, in Montana. Many had fled thither after the rising on the Saskatchewan. In addition, there were the half-breed settlements, which had been reinforced by Gabriel Dumont, Dumais, and other firebrands who had escaped from Batoche. Dumont was known to be stirring up the feelings of the excitable Metis in every direction.

Thursday, April 2nd, the day of our marching out, arrived in the warmth of brilliant sunshine. All around the prairie grass was springing green, and the trails were dry and firm. We paraded at 2 p.m., and went through the ordeal of inspection by the new commissioner. I wonder how many different horses I have ridden in the N.W.M.P. I could never keep a good trooper long, somehow, owing to my continued oscillation between duty and staff work. I was a sort of general utility man for the troop, and was pitchforked into the quartermaster sergeant's berth when he was on the sick-list, or given charge of the hospital, with the utmost impartiality. And still, the fourfold chevron never adorned my arm.

On our departure for Wood Mountain, I was mounted on a gigantic grey, a most ungainly brute from Ontario, whose back was more adapted for a howdah than a saddle. The barrack square was lined with officers, their wives, families and servants, and our comrades of the depot, to see us march out into the desert, for an exile of seven months.

Our advance-guard had reached the canteen, when one of the men composing it was thrown violently from the young broncho which he was riding, upon the back of his head, and was carried insensible to the hospital, suffering from concussion of the brain. He lost the sight of his right eye by the fall, and was afterwards invalided, with a pension of seventy-five cents per diem.

Our march westward was slow. The waggons were all heavily laden, as they carried, in addition to our baggage and rations for the journey, the complete equipment for the summer-camp. And these ships of the American desert toiled slowly on. The " prairie schooner" is almost a thing of the past. It consisted of three waggons lashed together, and drawn by a string of as many as twenty oxen, the drivers of which were known as bull-whackers. The prairie west of Regina, over which our route lay, is flat and hideously monotonous. The trail ran along the northern side of the railway.

We passed the station of Grand Coulde, a water-tank and a house painted brown, above a ravine with smooth and verdant slopes, where we made a short halt, and reclined upon the turf with our bridles in our hands. We encamped for the night at Pense, where there is a station, and a ramshackle store of" miscellaneous notions," about seventeen miles from Regina. The waggons were drawn round, and a corral constructed, inside which we fastened up our horses; a guard-tent was pitched, the others were soon standing in a double row. The glare of the camp-fire lit up the darkness, and figures in cloaks and boots and spurs stood in silhouette against the ruddy blaze. The picquet was posted, and we lay down upon the ground beneath the canvas, and slept the sleep of the weary. Reveille sounded amid the slumbering tents at 5 a.m., and after a breakfast of tea and biscuit the bugle called us into the saddle again. A fresh scampering breeze came gaily over the wide expanse of waving grass. The horses tossed their heads with glee, the jingling of the bridles and accoutrements made pleasant music, and every one felt the blood coursing rapturously through his veins, with the joyous exhilaration of the spring. I was given another steed to-day whose elephantine proportions had secured him the name of Jumbo. I must say Jumbo was the most delightful horse to sit, at the trot, I ever bestrode. His great fat form, of a dark bay tint, was soft and easy as an armchair. The same flat plain lay all around us, but we chatted and sung and joked as we went along. The freedom of the prairies was before us, where the saddle is one's home, and where a stirring gallop is worth a king's ransom. Only beware of gopher holes! The Ontario horse is never safe, but the wiry little broncho avoids them with the nimbleness of a sword-dancer. Give him his head, do not attempt to guide him, or you will pull him in, and over you go! We interviewed a camp of half-breeds, beside the railway, to-day. Massive piles of buffalo bone adorned the vicinity of their dingy, ragged tents, where unkempt women and children, in various degrees of nudity, were visible through the smoke. The men were engaged in gathering the collection of bone into Red River carts, bringing it to the line for shipment to the States, where it is supposed to be used in the adulteration of fine, white, powdered sugar. These children of the wilds receive about four cents a pound for it. Thousands of tons of this substance lie bleaching on the plains. At 3 p.m. we forded the dark Moosejaw Creek, a stream which brawled and foamed over a pebbly bed, between banks fringed with willows. The town of Moosejaw lies in a hollow of the prairie, and is the end of a section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Here is a round house for engines. The population is 500, and there is the usual scattering of hotels and stores, standing at intervals upon the unromantic flat. Ugly square objects all of them, without the slightest pretence to architectural beauty. A prairie town is a more depressing object than a burnt forest.

We pitched our tents on the western outskirts, on a piece of level ground near the creek, and made the regulation corral with our waggons. To my great-chagrin, I found myself on picquet to-night, first relief, and I was thereby prevented from enjoying the luxury of a "square meal" in town, as I had anticipated. At nine o'clock, there was a general disturbance all along the horse lines, owing to the high spirits of a few juvenile bronchos. It was a species of impromptu circus, and several steeds were tied up in their ropes in a manner which might have puzzled Messrs. Maskelyne and Cooke. The camp was deserted, and I did not care to disturb the other men of the guard, who were asleep. I set to work to free the struggling brutes, and my muttered prayers and benedictions brought out the captain. It was dark as pitch, and my lantern had been sent flying sky high by the heels of one unmanageable animal. The corporal of the guard was summoned from the tent, and as the orderly sergeant was unaccountably absent, our "centurion" suddenly gave the order to call the roll. This was a very simple proceeding, as no one was present but the picquet!

The captain retired, and by-and-by the men returned in half sections, or rather in skirmishing order, in a manner unprovided for by the articles of war. The ginger wine of the Moosejaw saloons and various other blandishments of the hospitable inhabitants had evidently been too much for the weak nerves of our troopers. A battery of the Canadian Artillery was, at this time, stationed here, and the two branches of the service had been fraternizing. In addition, there were a number of lodges of Sioux, to which many had repaired to study the manners and customs of the natives.

In the morning, I obtained a pass for the day, and enjoyed myself in town, after breakfast at an hotel. The whole command was up before the captain at eleven ; and when asked to account for their absence, on the preceding evening, they each and all declared that they were asleep beneath the waggons, as they could not think of sleeping in tents during such mild weather!

In an abominable drizzle in the raw, leaden dawn of Easter morning, we left Moosejaw and its seductions, and bid farewell to human habitations for months. I was now mounted on horse No. 3, and Jumbo ornamented the off side of a waggon pole. South of the town, the lonely prairie is "rolling," or broken into low hillocks with shallow coulees. No house is visible on its surface. You may travel to the mighty Missouri and see no sign of man. We passed a long string of Red River carts and waggons, on the trail, bound for Wood Mountain with our stores, which were provided by a contractor in Regina. These were drawn by oxen, under the charge of Riel's executioner. We had our dinner by the shores of Rush Lake,, which is nothing else than a sedgy pool, haunted by wild fowl, in the breeding season. A fierce sun shone out in the afternoon, though a keen wind was blowing. Not a sight nor sound to relieve the desolation of this lone land ! In the evening our white tents were ranged by the silent shores of Old Wives Lake—an immense sheet of water —behind the solitary waves of which the sun was setting in a blaze of crimson glory. The rosy light tinged ripple and island with a mystic hue; adding a strange glamour to the dream-like scene. A wild region, truly. To-night, as I lay smoking my pipe, and looked around the camp, in the stillness of this far-off coulee, my mind went back to the olden days, when first the rude adventurers pushed their way into the wilderness, the days of Da Soto and the rest.

What anticipations of the future filled the mind of the soldiers, of the bygone time, as they thus stood looking out upon the threshold of the Unknown? What visions of the El Dorado in the enchanted mountains beyond, must have thrilled their daring souls! What tales to tell on the marble quays of Genoa, and beneath the splendours of the throne of Spain! What riches would they carry to show to that old man, tottering about among his gardens and fountains at Versailles? And we, what a mere handful we seemed on these vast rolling plains ! Yet it was only a day's march from the prosaic railway-cars. How must the giants of old have felt, when thousands of miles from their towering galleons? Or the intrepid French blackrobes, a thousand miles from the canoes that would carry them to Mont Royal or Hochelaga?

Old Wives Lake is of great area, and we could not see the opposite shore. A few grey gulls flew screaming over the unhealthy waters, which are undrinkable. It is useless describing the petty incidents of this lonely march. There was the same solitude, the same brown trail always visible, running like a ribbon for miles ahead, the same hillocks and the same silent lakes. The desert lay all around us, as we slowly marched southward. We saw the blue barrier of Wood Mountain rising through the haze, like a wall in front, along the horizon while yet far off. We passed the Thirty Mile Lake on our left, its green waters frothy with alkaline foam. It lay in a deep cup, with bare sides of seamed earth, rising sheer, like ramparts all around. It looked a haunted spot. We found ourselves among the hills on the third day. They were scarped and terraced and riven into ghastly chasms. Tier upon tier rose like giant stairs, in places, where the waters of this once mighty sea had left their mark as they subsided. Strange shells are still found upon the summits, and on the crumbling slopes. Green valleys here and there repose, deep and hidden, with bushes lining the crystal brooks that bubble through them.

It was a fine afternoon, as we descended into the broad valley where the old Mounted Police post lay. Far away below us, Mosquito Creek, like a silver thread, wound through between emerald slopes, while upon a level sweep of verdure, surrounded by a dense mass of bush, stood some long, low, grey log-buildings in the form of a square. This was the fort. Some cattle were grazing among the hills, and down in the lone meadows a few ponies were browsing. An ex-trooper of the force had married a Sioux squaw, built himself a hut, and squatted here. He made some money in the summer by bringing horses over from Montana, and disposing of them in Moosejaw, and, in addition, he was sometimes employed as a scout and guide, for Jim spoke Sioux to perfection. When we reached the ruinous barracks the view was very pretty. Behind, was a gently-sloping bank covered with a delightful grove of trees, through which many footpaths led to the creek. A wide vale ran up between the hills in front, and all around, except in front, were trees ; above which rose the rounded summits of the mountains, as they were termed, though but pigmies in comparison with any known range.

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