Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Click here to learn more about MyHeritage and get free genealogy resources

Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XVIII

Life at Wood Mountain—Unseasonable snow—Delights of roughing it—A capture—Gros Ventre Indians—Dirt—The old fort —Dust—Short rations—Fine weather—Patrols—Heat—A stampede—Antelope and sage hens—A sandhill crane—A primitive meal for a hungry man—Indian spies—Sign language —On sentry—Dawn—Gambling—Field-days—Indian graves —A ranche—Cowboys—A suggestion on dress—" Toughs "— Indian depredation and a skirmish.

A plateau, running out like a promontory above the stream, was chosen as the situation for our camp, and, after unloading the waggons, we soon had the canvas streets laid out, showing white against the lofty background of green. The unwelcome sound of reveilé, rang out at six on the following morning, and, as we turned out drowsily, the dismal scene sent us in again quickly to secure cloaks. Everything was covered with a soft damp snow, and the leaden atmosphere was filled with driving sleet. After the warm weather we had recently enjoyed, it was the reverse of pleasant to stand in the slush, ankle-deep, with icy feet, and by a spluttering, hissing camp-fire to eat granite biscuit and drink lukewarm coffee in the gloom of this execrable morning. We stood stamping our feet, and sipping the muddy concoction, while the sleet slowly melted in our metal cups. This sort of weather makes men morose. Let none of my younger readers, if there should be any such, ever be tempted by any romantic ideas to leave a comfortable home, merely for the sake of " seeing life." It is all very well in the path of duty, and by all means, when called upon, let them face it bravely and cheerily. But there [is no romance about it at all. I know the prevailing idea among the rising generation is, "It must be awfully jolly,, roughing it, and that sort of thing, don't you know?" But in this case, it is distance which lends enchantment to the view.

We began now to make preparations for settling down here in earnest. The fort had to be cleaned out, and any buildings utilized that were not too ruinous. The square was deep with manure, even to the roofs. Indians, half-breeds, and horse-thieves had taken shelter here in the winter. Indeed, I have forgotten to state that a Norwegian was captured here in a snow-storm during the previous January, by a party despatched from Regina, under Inspector McGibbon. It was managed very cleverly, and he was taken completely, by surprise. This man had stolen forty-five ponies from the Gros Ventre Indians in Montana. He was escorted to Regina during the intense cold that reigned over this awful waste ; and was ultimately sentenced to a couple of years' imprisonment for bringing stolen property into Canada. The ponies were confined in a corral between two of the stables, and each fresh sentry had to count them over. One of the Gros Ventres and a half-breed came over from the American side to identify the stock. I have now a very high opinion of the Gros Ventres, and this is the reason. During his stay in our barracks, this native gentleman occupied a bed in No. 6 room, where I was quartered. Every morning he proceeded to our lavatory, and sedulously bathed his muscular, copper-hued arms and melancholy countenance. I often lent him my soap, and used to pat him on the back for his bravery. For an Indian voluntarily to wash himself, is about as revolutionary a proceeding as it would be for an archbishop to dance the can-can. The Sioux and Blackfeet bathe occasionally; the Crees, never. Big Bear's horror of the cleansing process was comic. His breech-clout had done duty for a decade, and was as black as the ace of spades, which, by the way, it rather resembled.

After this digression, it will not require many words to explain that the nomads, who had used the old fort as a Dak bungalow or caravanserai, had not left it a pattern of cleanliness and order. So the cleansing out process was our first general fatigue, and all hands were set to work with manure forks and spades. The four sides of this structure were about eight feet in height. The buildings were of logs, while poles, closely ranged together, formed the substratum of the roofs, which were flat. The top was coated with a thick layer of mud and clay. On the east, was a tall stockade of massive pieces of timber, with a couple of huge solid gates, which were now utterly useless. A long range of stables, with a flooring of poplar poles, ran along the south. The buildings on the west side were connected with the stables by a stockade in which was a wicket, or postern, opening on the wooded slope behind. The huts contiguous to this consisted of a carpenter's shop, quartermaster's store, and a small apartment with two windows, in which the troop baker was installed. The buildings on the north, at right angles to the foregoing, were in a much better condition. The windows actually possessed glass, and the floors were boarded. The corner shanty was appropriated by the sergeant major, and the one adjoining was handed over to the hospital sergeant and his pharmacopoeia. Next to this came the saddle-room, and the cook-house followed. At the eastern end was the blacksmith's shop. A comfortable log-house stood on the edge of the wood, outside the barracks. This was fitted up as officers' quarters, and here also lived the telegraph operator.

There was a single wire between here and Moosejaw, solely for Government use. We luckily were not troubled with mud, as the camp stood upon gravelly soil. The dust, however, made up for this. It drifted into the tents, and covered up your plate at meal-times, with a thick, dingy powder. We hung our tunics and jackets on the centre poles, and they soon lost their bright scarlet tint, in the insufferable dust-storm. It filled our blankets, as we unrolled them on the ground at night. The looking-glass against the pole, which we used when shaving, was always more or less opaque. Our blue cloth pants were brown in no time. We lounged about in jerseys without jackets, and when we arose from a recumbent position (there were no seats) we were enveloped in a covering of this compound. On the day after our arrival our bacon gave out. As the stove had not arrived for the cook-house, and our mess-tent had not been pitched, we took our food al fresco by the side of the bubbling creek, which was convenient for the filling of the camp kettles. When we finished we wiped our knives on the grass and stuck them in the sheath which we each wore on a strap round the waist.

Owing to the failure .of the pork supply, we were reduced to sugarless tea and hard-tack. There was no sign of old Jack Henderson and his train of supplies on the fourth day of our enforced fast, so the captain purchased a steer from the squatter, which we killed. As we had no salt, it was not much of a luxury. It was during this rigime of tea and biscuit, and while we were working like navvies, excavating the mountain of manure, that the privilege of the British soldier, to growl, was used to its full extent. After driving a double row of posts well into the ground opposite the officers' quarters, and stretching a couple of long ropes their entire length, we fastened our horses to them and placed a picquet there every night. There was a big haystack alongside, which had been put up during the previous summer. The rumbling old Red River carts with our stores, did not come creaking and wheezing into the square of the fort till twenty-one days had elapsed from the time of their departure from Moosejaw! For slowness and "pure cussedness," generally, commend me to oxen.

Pleasant, sunny days set in, the breeze came laughing gaily from the west, the green leaves rustled on tree and bush, the birds carolled in the fragrant copsewood and flashed their brilliant plumage against the azure sky; and the odour of the wolf-willow and the wild rose filled the air. The members of the staff were soon established within the stockade, the stores bundled into the dilapidated quartermaster's building, and a large mess-tent erected in the centre of the square. Our benches were simply square logs nailed upon stakes; and our table was made of planks.

The patrols from this camp, along the frontier-line, were at once set going. One party left the camp weekly, proceeding westward to the crossing of the White Mud River, near to Pinto Horse Butte, where they connected with a similar patrol from "A" Troop, which was stationed in the ravines of the Cypress Hills. Willow Bunch is a half-breed settlement, forty-five miles to the east of Wood Mountain. Here a detachment was posted, which sent one man weekly to head-quarters, and a patrol eastward to meet another from the Souris River. These expeditions are fully armed of course, and remain out upon the prairie for a week. A transport waggon is attached to each, carrying tent, bedding^ rations of tea, biscuit, bacon and oats, a spade, axe, camp-kettles and frying-pan, and wood. It is dreary work this everlasting monotonous ride, at a slow pace, over the same trail, dusty and hot, or muddy and cold, with nothing to brighten the weary view. On this eastern portion of the Boundary, there is not so much chance of meeting with any Indian adventures. Those left in charge of the post when the patrols were out, had a dull time of it; and of course each one had his share of this duty. In camp we loafed around, bathed in the creek, played cards under the sweltering canvas, sitting on the dusty ground, swept up around the horse-lines, did our turn at picquet and fatigues, smoked, yawned, slept on the grass in the shadow of the fort, or took the horses out and herded them. They were driven out every morning to graze in one of the many valleys, and brought in again for evening stables. Two men mounted and armed, were told off for this purpose each morning.

The heat, during the summer of 1886, was most intense, and never a cloud flecked the brazen sky. The ground was riven into gaping cracks, the prairie grass lay withered and dead, and a shimmering glare quivered on the surface of the yellow earth. A favourite walk of mine, in the cool of the evening, was away up among the hills, following the lean poles of the telegraph wire. About two miles from camp, was a deep coulie, clad in a dense undergrowth of bush, and surmounted by poplar and oak. The sides of this ravine were a perfect blaze of wild roses, for a time, and the air was heavy with their delicious fragrance. An awful solitude hung around as the wan light of the gloaming softly fell upon the scene. It was like living in a magic world.

A few of us were sitting upon a fallen log outside the gate of the fort one still evening, puffing away at our short pipes, and making casual remarks as we watched the antics of a pet spaniel, when a waggon, full of people, emerged from the hollow of the creek. It was a police party; and several dejected-looking men were sitting upon a pile of baggage, with legs dangling down over the sides. The sergeant sat, in front beside the driver. These forlorn and sheepish individuals were the members of the White Mud patrol, which had left camp a few days previously. All their horses, with the exception of the team, had stampeded, and gone off into Montana. These stampedes arise from various causes. One restless animal may start an entire herd. A thunderstorm of unusual severity, mosquitoes, "bulldog" flies, or coyotes will each cause horses to break away from their picket-pins.

It was exceedingly lucky that the men had been left with means of transport, as this trail is deficient in water, and at the time they were eighty miles from camp. The sergeant in charge, was in a sad way. He used to parade daily with a broken hopple, which he vehemently declared was the fons et origo of the whole calamity. Luckily some horse-traders, white men, en route from Fort Belknap, found the missing bronchos and brought them into Wood Mountain. They were discovered sixty miles south of the frontier!

The land in the White Mud River district is very poor, covered with cactus plants and wild sage. Out here, we once managed to shoot a few sage hens. They are larger than prairie chicken, to which I prefer them, and are strongly flavoured with sage. We also bagged a quantity of antelope during the season; until we became tired of venison. It is a pretty little animal, weighing on an average 40 lbs. They are easily secured, by displaying a white flag; for, while they are gazing at this strange object, you can generally manage to stalk them and pick them off.

One of our fellows shot a sandhill crane, on one occasion, while herding the horses. He brought this immense ornithological specimen to camp, when he came in to dinner, leaving his comrade in charge of the stud of troopers. This latter individual was the most ferocious gourmand in the troop; and was in a chronic state of famine. When the other returned, and he was at liberty to have his innings, he mounted, and galloped off at full speed, with joyous anticipations of dinner. After tying up his horse, he strode with his usual swagger (he had a pair of fierce black moustaches) to the kitchen.

"By the rock of Cashel, boys, I'm mighty hungry! Say, Dan, shure where's my dinner, at all?"

"Oh, we saw you coming, Dub. You'll find it over in the tent."

Dub vanished with fiery expectation glowing in his breast. What was his surprise, on entering the canvas dining-room, tp find the gigantic bird, feathers and all, with wings outspread, on a clean table, with a knife and fork at either end ! And what was worse,—there was nothing else! He never forgave that cruel joke.

Towards the end of the month of June many rumours were circulated regarding the movements of the Indians on the American side. Daily, scouting parties were sent out towards the frontier-line, proceeding by the Cart Coulde and Poplar River trails. A detachment of U.S. Infantry was stationed at Wolf Point, where the Poplar River joins the Missouri. Their commanding officer paid us a visit at Wood Mountain, and I heard him mention the distance as 120 miles.

A couple of tall, bony Assiniboine Indians rode slowly into camp one sunny afternoon. They were clad in dirty white blanket coats with tasseled hoods, and wore the usual leggings and moccasins; their heads were devoid of any covering, as is their custom. It is only on the war-path that the redskin adorns his head. Silently they moved across the Creek and pitched their teepe upon an eminence opposite to us. They had come from the reserve at Indian Head, and had had five "sleeps" upon the way; for by this method the noble red man calculates the length of his journeys. The language of each Indian tribe is totally distinct from the other. A Sioux cannot understand a Cree, or a Blackfoot, nor can any of them understand a Chipweyan or an Assiniboine. But they have a sign language/known to them all from the Athabasca to the Rio Grande. Thus by laying the head in the attitude of slumber upon the palm of the hand, they convey the idea of night. There are two tribes of the Assiniboines— or Stonies;—those ofthe plains and those ofthe mountains. The latter have been driven into these fastnesses by the Crees, and are expert hunters and splendid guides. Our two visitors drove a packhorse before them; it carried the teepe poles, skins, and provisions. They were fine specimens of the savage, and brought credentials to the officer commanding from the Big Chief at headquarters. The fact of the matter was, these two gentlemen were being sent over to the Missouri as spies, to discover, if possible, what truth there was in the persistent statements as to an intended raid. In ten days they returned, and reported all quiet in the camps which they had visited. Little Poplar, the bloodthirsty son of Big Bear, had been shot dead, in a fight with a half-breed near Fort Belknap. It is supposed that he was wilfully drawn into a quarrel so that there might be an excuse to get rid of such a nuisance.

On June 28th the Canadian Pacific Railway was opened from Quebec to Vancouver, a total distance of 3065 miles!

Sentry duty at night is always, more or less, lonely, except upon the well-lighted gate of a barrack at home, where there are generally incidents enough to keep one's interest alive. But here the feeling of solitude weighed upon you incessantly. You turned out with cloak and sidearms and carbine, for three hours and a half at a stretch, and felt yourself the central figure in a sleeping world. Every one was wrapped in slumber but yourself. The tents stood grey and ghostly in the darkness. The outline of the hills rose black, and solemn, and silent, against the sky. Not a sound save the movement of some horse upon the lines or the far-off lazy murmur of the Creek. Sometimes the wild howl, and diabolic laughter of some prowling coyote would startle you, pealing suddenly from the darksome valley. One would wonder, often, in this far-away seclusion of the night watches, if there actually existed a busy world. Was it really a fact that, far away beyond that dismal barrier of lone and silent hills, the sun was shining on the gay life of glittering cities, on park and boulevard ? Could it be possible that even then ; as you were wheeling round to go over the beaten track once more ; in some other quarter of the globe, dazzling ball-rooms were gay with dancers, and theatres were all ablaze with jewelry and bright eyes? One seemed to have died, and to be walking in a spirit-land of dreams.

How often have I watched the day break here ! The morning star would gleam alone, like some precious stone suspended in the deep vault that sprang its arch from behind the curved ridge in the range of hills, a little to the North of East. Then it would grow pale, and fade away in the saffron light that came stealing up so softly, and a strange emerald tint would mingle with it, and rest upon the horizon. Then great bars of orange and crimson and amethyst would give place to a rosy blush all over the sky, and spears of light would flash around, and up would come, in splendour, the orb of day. The birds would twitter in the groves, and the waters flash into myriads of crystal gems.

After evening stables, when not on patrol, we amused ourselves in various ways. Quoits and gymnastics on the horizontal bar took up the time of many, while others went in for the subtle seductions of poker. Money is always plentiful in a camp like Wood Mountain, and many neophytes took to gambling, merely pour passer le temps. I have known a constable lose one hundred dollars at a sitting. Of course, it is prohibited, but—quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Those of a contemplative turn of mind went for a stroll up the lonely valleys, all wrapped in the glamour of the glowing eventide. The dryness of the season and the heat were too much for the mosquitoes, and we were comparatively free from these pests.

Occasionally we were treated to a field-day, when we were put through the usual skirmishing drill of mounted infantry. And we would march away far into the heart of solitary glens and wooded couties, never before visited by white men. Strange fantastic turns these miniature mountains take. They have the contour of a gigantic range of cloud-capped summits, and yet they are mere mole-hills of gravel, in comparison, even with the Cleveland or Cotswold Hills.

Numbers of Indian graves were to be seen around the camp. Each burial place consists of four lofty poles, supporting a platform of boughs. Upon it, the body is laid, tied up in buffalo robes with shagannappi. Gun and ammunition are placed alongside to help the brave in the happy hunting-grounds. Upon a lofty ridge, to the right of the fort, rose the sepulchre of a squaw, who had been killed because she had given birth to twins. The medicine-men had pronounced this untoward circumstance as " bad medicine," and the unhappy woman was executed accordingly, and the papooses buried with her. The husband could not interfere.

The papoose of a Sioux squaw had died here in 1885. The little body was hung up among the branches of some trees beside the creek. When the Sioux camped near us, this summer, the face of the tiny corpse was reverently coloured with vermilion, every week; just as we should deposit a wreath to show our affection.

Colonel Scheetz, representing the Home Cattle Company of St. Louis, Missouri, arrived at Wood Mountain about the 8th of June, accompanied by an American officer and some cowboys, to establish headquarters, and make the necessary arrangements for their ranche, which was to be established in the immediate vicinity of our post. Scheetz was a tall fine-looking man, with long, dark moustache. He was clad in a suit of brown courderoy. Each of the party wore huge white sombreros of buckskin, and each was armed with a revolver, carried in a leather holster, attached to a cartridge belt. The Colonel's weapon possessed an elegant ivory handle, inlaid with silver. The cavalcade was mounted on splendid bronchos, and was accompanied by a large covered spring waggon drawn by a team of four magnificent bays.

En route from Helena* Montana, were 7000 head of cattle, belonging to this company, which were to be followed in a short time, by an additional 10,000. They proposed to bring in a total of 26,000 head, and had secured a lease of 700,000 acres for twenty-one years.

These cowboys are quite at home in the saddle, and ride with a perfectly straight leg. They are very expert with a lariat and running noose, sending it whirling through the air at full gallop, and catching the wildest steer deftly by the foot. The lariat is attached to the high pommel of their Californian saddles, which are lined with steel to stand the strain, and their horses are trained to a nicety -to plant their four sturdy legs firmly out, at a given moment.

Now these "cowpunchers," as they are sometimes called, are written down by Eastern editors as desperadoes. The newspaper man, "down East," invests them with a thick haze of fiction. He pictures them as generally engaged in revolver practice in drinking-bars, and in the artistic occupation known as "painting the town red." He imagines them to have been suckled by rattlesnakes, and to live, in maturer age, on whisky and ground glass. This educator of the public intelligence thinks he has hit off an irresistible idea when he pens such an item as the following. "The body of a man was discovered on West Twenty-Fourth Street this morning. As nothing was found upon him, but a six-shooter, a deck of cards, and a plug of tobacco, we are right in surmising he was a cowboy." I am really almost ashamed to have to use such language, but I can only characterize the above as arrant bosh. Does my Oriental inkslinger know, I wonder, that on some ranches there are schools, and reading-rooms. These types of Western life, are, as a rule, quiet and unassuming, though full of a reckless courage; warm-hearted and generous to a fault; and given to the most unbounded hospitality. They must of necessity lead a life of hardship, and often it is a life of danger.

A huge, soft-brimmed hat shades their sunburnt features, their legs are cased in chaparajos (or " shaps ")— overalls of calf-skin—and they wear huge Mexican spurs, with jingling pendants. They are invariably armed, owing to the exigences of a nomad life in a wild country. During this summer a band of them were encamped in the six-mile coulee, and we fraternized the whole time. They were some of the best-hearted fellows I ever came across.

I regret to say that this ranche had to be abandoned because the Dominion Government was unable to remit the duty of twenty per cent, upon the proposed importation of cattle. In addition to the duty, there is also a charge of ten cents per head to be paid to the Government Veterinary Inspector, who examines all stock entering the Territory. Many large herds passed our camp during the summer, the cowboys riding in rear and hovering on the flanks of the dusty column, with long whips of raw hide. This was owing to the prevalence of immense prairie fires south of the Boundary, which rendered it necessary to bring cattle into Canada in order to drive them from Dakota to Montana. They were taken care of by the patrols, and handed over from one outpost to the other.

Our horses suffered severely from thirst during the intense heat, and actually, on the trail between Wood Mountain and Moosejaw, there was a distance of sixty miles between water, owing to the dryness of the season. As a rule, one of our waggons was despatched weekly to the latter place for supplies and mail, but our letters were uncertain. There was usually great excitement on the arrival of the mail, and when the team was expected we used to mount the roof of the fort, and eagerly scan the horizon with field-glasses. Bets would be made as to the exact time the waggon would reach the post.

On these patrols the bipeds suffered from want of decent drinking-water as well as the quadrupeds. This stuff had to be taken from brackish sleughs and carried in bottles or kegs, and became warm and sickening in the blazing heat of the sun. Our cavalry forage caps were utterly useless out on the burning plains. They afford no protection whatever to the eyes, and to wear them habitually injures the sight. The white helmets were far too heavy ; nothing at all like those in use in India. Therefore we purchased slouch hats, at our own expense. I think the Government should issue a dress for summer duty on the prairie, something after the fashion of that worn by the Cape Mounted Police. Major Jarvis has recommended a suit of dark brown cord, or velveteen breeches, long boots and spurs, a heavy blue flannel shirt, and a broad-brimmed hat of soft felt to complete the outfit. Certainly our scarlet and blue was utterly ruined after a little work round a camp fire.

We were not much troubled with horse-thieves in our section of the country, although a few "tough" looking customers were brought in by the patrols, and detained until the account which they gave of themselves was verified by telegraphic inquiries. A "tough " in Western parlance is akin to a "rough" at home; only the former is a more finished ruffian, and conducts his operations on an extensive scale. Holding up a train and robbing the express car of its valuables, or riding into a frontier town and clearing out the bank, in broad daylight, are the exploits which this type delights in. Montana and Wyoming at one time swarmed with such outlaws.

A few half-breeds occasionally pitched their torn and blackened tents beside us and paid duty upon sundry bands of ponies. These cayeuses were generally purchased from the Gros Ventres, and the average declared value was thirteen dollars each. A patrol of "A" Troop, —our neighbours to the West—suddenly pounced upon a couple of horse-thieves in a deep valley of long waving grass, known as Davis' Coulee, in the remote recesses of the Cypress range. These two were sitting by their camp fire, smoking, in the gloaming of a summer evening, with their stolen herd grazing quietly around the verdant slopes of the lone glen, when our fellows rode down upon them, and told them to throw up their hands. They were moving arsenals, each of them having a couple of Smith and Wesson six-shooters, and a Win Chester repeating rifle as well.

An outpost in the Cypress Mountains under Corporal Ritchie discovered a band of American Indians squatting by a camp fire a few miles from their quarters. On proceeding to the wooded hollow where the Indians were, the latter rose and cocked their weapons. The corporal asked them their business in the Territories, and for an answer received a shower of bullets, which fortunately flew wide of the mark. Ritchie at once ordered his men to dismount and fire, and one Indian dropped. The redskins surrounded their wounded companion, and, making for their ponies, succeeded in carrying him off. Shots were now frequently exchanged, and the chase kept up for some time, but the timber is dense in places among these hills, and the trail was lost.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.