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Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XXII

Life on the Souris—Flies—Mud turtles—A lovely scene—Thunderstorms and cyclones—A tent scattered—Man lost—A cloud of mosquitoes—A narrow escape from drowning—Saved by a comrade.

The Queen's birthday in 1887 was blazing hot on the banks of the Souris River. Down in the valley the trees drooped, the river murmured lazily, and up above, the prairie quivered in the blinding glare. The mosquitoes rose in noisy swarms and settled venomously on neck and hands, and their bloated bodies gleamed crimson with blood. This was a holiday over all the land, and the rumbling old waggon of a settler went creaking up the vale, the wife and family under sunshades sitting beside the sunburnt farmer, bent on a visit to some distant friend. Caio Moreau, who had followed us, paid a visit to our tents, where we lay sweltering in the shade outside engaged in an incessant fight against our insect pests. I gave him a pair of boots and received in return a fine robe of white rabbit-skins, woven like a net, with the fur covering the interstices.

I had a junior corporal and five constables to bear me company, and one transport waggon. The two tents were pitched close together, facing the river, and properly trenched. In a few days, a cooking-stove and some utensils were sent from Carlyle. At first these were set up in the open air ; and when the rain fell, as it always does here, in torrents, it was often hours before we could coax our fire to burn. Some deserted shanties were purchased by our contractor and subsequently removed to this spot, and erected by us. One we very soon put together as a kitchen, and the other was eventually got in order as a barrack-room, to be used when the cold weather commenced in the Fall. It was never destined to be inhabited, however. There was a deep sleugh in a depression of the valley, a little to the left of the camp, and, amid the long grass surrounding it, we picketed our horses as long as the feed continued good. Our supply of rations was to be sent monthly from Carlyle, and as we were unable to consume the full government allowance, we exchanged the surplus for delicacies, such as butter, and eggs, and preserves. Eggs were sold at this time at the rate of ten cents (5d.) per dozen. Our flour we sent to a settler on the plains two miles to the north, whose daughters, two strapping highland lasses, baked our bread. There was a small log-house on the opposite side of the river in a clearing amid the bush. There were no outbuildings attached to this small ranche, merely a corral for cattle and a sadly neglected garden. A stockman with his mother and sister occupied this one-roomed shanty, through the roof of which the rain would pour in streams upon the beds ; his cattle used to roam at large upon the plains, or in the deep meadows which fringed the windings of the Souris. One of us crossed the river daily to his hut for milk, which he sold at ten cents per quart. Our transit was by means of a dangerous natural bridge of driftwood, the deep river gleaming sulkily between the openings at your feet as you scrambled over. The men undertook the cooking in turn, and some brilliant attempts were made in that line.

All along the valley, ravines, or coulees, long and winding, clad in matchless verdure, led up for miles right into the heart of the prairie. Daily I used to explore these romantic gorges, on horseback. One of our men recklessly shot a deer, two days after our arrival; but the flesh was bad, being out of season. We often saw the pretty animals flitting nimbly across the open glades. The jutting rocks, the wide meadows of rich, waving grass, the masses of foliage and the clinging tendrils of the creepers, the sparkling atmosphere, the wild delight as you galloped at will over the velvety sward, the songs of the birds and flashing of the plumage, the cool waters of th& babbling rills, the magic sunsets, the hush of evening, the silvery moonlight on brake and river, the golden glory of the orange lilies, and the purple blossom of the buffalo apple, and the peaceful lowing of the cattle,—all made up a living picture that memory loves to conjure up.

Unfortunately, we were not well off for drinking-water, being reduced to use that of the river, and that was often warm. Many bottles of Eno's Fruit Salt were added during the excessive heat. A shady pool at the bend of the stream was our daily bathing-place. There were numbers of mud turtles in the Souris and its affluents, their shells being a species of checkered red and green upon a groundwork of olive. As I have said, the mosquitoes were a perfect torment, as their natural haunts, wood and water, were near; and their numbers were increased by the wet summer. We had various kinds of insects which visited us in succession. The mosquito, like the poor, was always with us. The small black flies came on the scene shortly after our arrival. They were very severe upon our poor horses, which soon had their withers bereft of hair. They hung in clusters around the eyes of the frantic animals, and we had to guard against a stampede. After swarming in dense masses for three weeks, they suddenly disappeared. Then came the bull-dog species, a huge creature that would take a comfortable bite out of you, causing the blood to spurt like an ornamental fountain, and giving a momentary sting of intense pain. This voracious brute was followed by the flying ant, who generally made for your neck, at the head of the spinal column. To wind up the procession, the house-fly came in squadrons, and continued till November.

The system of patrols, leaving this outpost, was as follows:—One of us two corporals, with two men, left camp for Winlaw, near the Manitoba Boundary, every Thursday. It was twenty-eight miles to the east, and consisted of a solitary post-office. The Souris was crossed at the ford on the Boundary Commission trail; and this patrol returned upon the following day. Another party set out, every Monday, for the west, meeting the patrol from Wood End at some springs, thirty miles distant. The mid-day halt was at the Hill of the Murdered Scout. Our post-office was named Boscurvis, a lonely farm on the prairie, ten miles westward, and the limit of settlement in that direction. Beyond this, as far as the Rocky Mountains, lay the desert. No habitations, save the camps of the Mounted Police.

In the early part of June my camp was aroused at midnight by a mounted constable from Moosomin. He brought me a telegram from headquarters, which informed me that a settler had been murdered by four half-breed desperadoes near Wolsely. The whole country was scoured by our men ; and there was a great deal of excitement, as two other farmers were also murdered at the same time and in the same locality. I sent a mounted man with a despatch to the officer commanding at Wood End, and stationed a vedette daily on the high ground above the camp, where he commanded a view of the ford and the surrounding prairie. I also scouted the country myself, and made inquiries among the few scattered settlers. It was reported that the murderers had made their escape by way of Moose Mountain, and the whole of our detachment were turned out to search that neighbourhood, while special patrols from Wood Mountain scoured the country along the boundary-line as far as Deloraine; and one of the parties went south to the Turtle Mountain district, but without success. These patrols were recalled at the end of June. Two ofthe criminals were eventually arrested by the United States Marshal at Fort Shaw in Montana. They were handed over to us, and executed at Regina on the 13th of June, 1888.

During the whole of this summer we experienced a succession of terrific thunderstorms, accompanied by cyclones and torrents of rain. These visitations came every other night at first, and arose without the slightest warning. Not a breath would stir the groves, while the birds were hushed in the rich green of the foliage, and the drowsy hum of the insects alone murmured in the deep ravine, and on the grassy plain. The sun would set in a blaze, flooding the broad valley, the slumbering woods, and peaceful river with a stream of ruby light. Then the wan and mystic gloaming would steal down among the hills, and the world would seem at rest. At first we never thought of pegging down the curtains of our tents, until we became wary by experience. You are never safe from the vagaries of the climate in the north-west. It is a land of surprises and the French proverb, about the unexpected happening, holds good here. This general uncertainty has a good deal to do with the wily character of the aborigines. We turned in to roost in unsuspicious innocence, and were rudely awakened about midnight by all the tumult of a first-rate' storm. Now, a thunderstorm in Ontario is a fearful thing; but a thunderstorm on the prairies bears the same relation to one in Ontario, as the phenomenon in Ontario does to one of ours in England. It is indescribable in its grandeur. The black darkness is illuminated by a ceaseless, quivering fire of crimson and purple, which seems to rain from heaven. Every few minutes, sometimes seconds, a bolt of steely blue comes down and shivers this burning cataract in two. Thunder rattles and rolls, and shakes the earth in awful bursts of sound. The wind roars with an eldritch shriek, and the rain splashes down in one sheet, as though a sea were falling.

On the night of the 14th of June I went under my blankets in all confidence, beguiled by the glamour of a summer's night. My bed in this permanent camp consisted of four thick stakes driven into the ground, to which were nailed poles, making a parallelogram. This was covered with the staves of a biscuit barrel, the concave sides being uppermost. These were beautifully adapted to the shape of the body, and were nailed upon the poles at the side. Upon these my palliasse was laid, filled with dried grass. The other corporal and I shared one of the tents, but upon this occasion he was absent on duty. Between our beds was a rough deal table, which we had made ourselves. On this were a couple of small reading-lamps, a few books, and writing materials. Underneath was a tin box filled with official stationery, and certain forms,— offered monthly as a sacrifice to the god, Red Tape. Our clothes were hung around the centre pole, and our arms fastened against it. On the ground was stacked a supply of flour, tea, bacon, butter, bread, sugar, and other rations. All our other property was lying about the tent, and our valises and bags were open. Tobacco, pipes, and matches lay exposed upon the table. A bull terrier of ferocious aspect, the property of one of the detachment, used to reside principally in this tent also. The camp, as I have said, was trenched according to the "custom of \yar in like cases," but I am afraid on this night I had forgotten to slacken the guy-ropes before retiring. About half past twelve I awoke. The interior of my canvas dwelling was filled with a lurid light that danced and tremulously vibrated. A river was rushing with arrowy speed across the floor, and a heavy shower was pouring from the roof. The roaring patter ofthe streaming rain was hideous. I could hear . also the trees crashing by the river. The earth was trembling under the deafening noise of continual .shocks of thunder. Peal upon peal followed each other almost instantly. I looked around, under the lifted curtain the gleams of the chain lightning were almost blinding in their intensity and nearness. Poor Sweep was sitting on his haunches in the moving lake of water, shivering and wretched. The tent was swaying to and fro. I was simply wearing shirt and drawers, my cloak was over the foot of my bed. Presently the pole went down, as the whole canvas covering was lifted and whirled away by the cyclone. I wrapped my cloak hurriedly around me and hurried through the pitiless, drifting cataract to the other tent. I was nearly blown through the soaking canvas. The other fellows were sitting in boots and cloaks upon their respective rolls of bedding in the water. The floor of this tent was a pond, and the canvas above was dripping like the well at Knaresborough. How we dragged through that beastly night, I do not know. We could only sit with our elbows on our knees, and our chins in our hands, looking savage, though we laughed and jested as though it were a lively spree. In the morning the sun came bounding over the wooded spurs with fiery heat, and sent his fierce rays beating down on the steaming valley, and upon an almost comic scene of desolation. Fragments of my chum's correspondence lay scattered in skirmishing order all around, every sheet of paper blurred and illegible. The fugitive tent was in the bushes by the river. The provisions were in a state of juice. Lamps and table were smashed and hurled to the ground.

Upon a similar evening of deceptive loveliness one of the men set off for a pleasant ramble over the prairie, where the mosquitoes were not quite so thick. He was wrapt in reverie and time stole upon him, unconscious of its course. Night came down and he was on the measureless plain bewildered. He had lost his bearings. Then came a thunderstorm, with all its accessories, in full force. But it is the simplest thing in the world to get lost on the prairie in broad daylight. You may even get turned upon a trail, and be utterly unaware that you are retracing your steps. At four o'clock in the morning, this unlucky wight found himself fortunately at a settler's house in Dakota, twelve miles south of the line ! We were scouring the country in search of him when he came tramping up the valley, having been driven some distance in the kindly farmer's buckboard. We neglected to take a tent upon one of our patrols to the springs. Our camping place at night was upon a hill. We lit our camp fire and consumed our regulation supper, as the sun was sinking low down in the west. Then we laid our blankets beneath the waggon. But in the twilight the plague arose. Clouds of mosquitoes that darkened the sky came from every direction and assailed us. We made fires of damp grass, but to no purpose. These are called smudges and we were obliged to have one in our tent every night before retiring to rest. Every aperture was closed, and as soon as our enemies had been suffocated by the smoke, we withdrew the smudge, and dived rapidly in, fastening up the door quickly lest our tormentors should follow us. On this night torrents of rain fell before morning, and we rode back thirty miles to camp in no very enviable frame of mind. This is merely one of the small delights incidental to " roughing it."

Upon Thursday, June 23rd, I left our camp at 8 a.m. in charge of the patrol to the Manitoba boundary. It was a glorious morning, and the air was balmy and laden with the odour of blossoming shrub and prairie flower. The sun gilded the quivering leaves of the trees and waving grass, as we moved down to the ford. There were only three of us; I was mounted on Chocolate George, and a teamster and dismounted man occupied the waggon with the bedding and grub. On reaching the crossing the waters were yellow and muddy, but they did not seem to have risen much above the average level. We got through all right with a few slight inconveniences. My long boots were full of water, and the waggon box was swept by the rushing stream. One roll of bedding floated out, but was recovered. Our rations, of course, were rendered worthless. But we laughed it off as usual, and chatted gaily, and lit our pipes as we jogged along the level prairie, the surface of which was shimmering in the heat. Here and there a solitary homestead was lifted up in air by the mirage. We halted at a settler's for dinner, which consisted of greasy bacon, eggs fried to an abnormal hardness, and green tea. All Canadians of the rural class go in for green tea. How miserably dirty are the log-houses of these settlers from Ontario ! The one room in the interior possesses a rickety table, a few unreliable chairs, and a broken stove. The bed is usually in a state of frowsy disorganization, and a few hideous prints begrimed with smoke adorn the dingy walls : of course there are exceptions, but this is the general state of affairs. I have a high admiration for the Canadians, but I cannot say I care for the Ontario backwoodsman, who of course is not a representative specimen of this nation.

In the evening we pitched our camp on the South Antler, in a lovely spot. A pretty house stood in a grove above the creek. It was built of cement, and nestled among the trees. The limpid waters babbled and prattled through fields of the richest green, and bushes were mirrored in the pools. The house was of two storeys with large windows, and each apartment was a picture of old-world comfort. This settler hailed from Dumfries in Scotland, and his wife was a bonnie, fresh-looking, kindly Scotswoman. Pleasant it was to hear the Lowland accents bidding the red-coats welcome. They would not hear of us camping outside, and we all sat down to a table furnished with toothsome luxuries and a snowy cloth. Part of the surrounding land was enclosed in a wire fence, there was a flourishing garden, and everything around showed solid industry, backed up by capital. Had it not been for the mosquitoes, one might have fancied oneself on some picturesque farm in Scotland. There were cows in well-ventilated byres, calves in the folds, sheep on the slopes, and poultry around the barns. The garden was hidden in the dense bush, through which led wpll-ordered paths. On our return to the Souris, at the edge of the ford the teamster drew up his horses, blocking the narrow trail.

"The river has risen a little, shall I go in?" he asked.

"Go on," I replied.

I observed that both men lifted their feet upon the dashboard in front. I followed immediately after them.

I saw the body of the waggon sink, and the bux leave the bolsters, floating for a moment on the swollen tide. Then both the occupants were striking out with lusty sinews. They were heavily handicapped with ammunition, revolvers, tight pants and long boots, and I was in the same predicament. I saw the broncho team—game little beggars—swimming down the stream, and over towards the tangled brake opposite. My horse, being an arrant fool, would not swim, but plunged and reared and made frantic struggles in the water. This came out in evidence afterwards, when an inquiry was held into the loss of the Government property. All this time we had been drifting down the current, which was very strong, and on either hand were steep banks with overhanging branches. I received a blow, somehow, and was knocked completely under my trooper in thirteen feet of water, and when in that position my face and head were cut open in many places by his shoes. The others, who had gained land, were watching the antics of Chocolate George, and Constable Drummond swam over to my assistance. When I came to the surface, almost helpless, he clutched me, but we sank again at once. However, on once more rising, he held me bravely, and brought me to the edge, holding by a bough till I was helped ashore. To him I owe my life. Never shall I forget that scene, and the solemn silence that, but for the sound of our breath, reigned in that leafy arcade, as we struggled for life, in the surge and eddy of the sweeping torrent. The sun was sending shafts of golden glory athwart the river. All nature seemed hushed at the contest between man and the treacherous Souris. In the meantime the camp had been alarmed. All the horses had reached the side. Men swam in, cut the traces, and released the team. Chocolate George was entangled in a screen of undergrowth, his bridle was caught by a branch, holding his mouth open, and he was nearly in extremis, swallowing water rapidly. Three carbines were lost—mine was washed off the saddle— and a great deal more Government property. The majority of this was afterwards recovered by a settler in Dakota, but our bedding was never brought to light. A board of officers held an inquiry into the matter, and I was acquitted of blame. But I should not like to state what the decision would have been had any of the horses perished. There was no apparent cause for this sudden flood, which continued for days, and we had to swim the river for our supply of milk. When I was assisted out of the water my face was streaming with blood; Chocolate George has left his sign-manual on my cheek. These North-West rivers are a constant source of danger, as there are no bridges. A settler was drowned, six miles higher up the Souris, a few days after the above occurrence.

In July, I received orders to proceed to Wood End, as the camp on Long Creek was named, and report for duty, as another non-commissioned officer was needed at that post. Two men, also, were to accompany me.

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