THE Montreal side of the Jacques Carrier Bridge a policeman stepped
out of a patrol car, a young blond man in a trim brown uniform.
Rolling toward him across the bridge was a blue coupe with two men
in it. In his pocket was a wire from police in Boston,
Massachusetts. Two safeblowers in a blue coupe were fleeing in his
direction: gunmen, armed and desperate.
The policeman strode to the side of the road —
erect, almost stiff, deliberate. He raised his hand. The coup6
stopped. He bent and looked in the window.
"Sergeant Brakefield-Moore, Royal Canadian
Mounted Police," he announced pleasantly. "Let's not have a scene.
I'd like to talk to you."
"Okay, Mountie," the driver said.
"Let's go downtown to my office."
"Sure," the gunmen agreed.
In the RCMP divisional office in downtown
Montreal, the sergeant informed the safeblowers that they were under
arrest. They could save him a great deal of trouble if they'd
cooperate — ? Fine. Now perhaps they wouldn't mind handing over the
loot? Excellent. Then, casually, a seeming afterthought as they left
for jail: "Oh yes, and you'd better give me your guns."
Two days later, in Montreal's Union Station, a
lone Mountie handed over the prisoners to a heavily armed posse from
Boston. Somewhat disconcerted, the Boston policemen may reasonably
have felt that this rather offhand method of handling a dangerous
arrest was unnecessarily risky, perhaps even not very smart.
It is certainly uncommon. And, typical of the
Mounties, undramatic. No roadblock. No drawn guns cocked for the
split-second shot. The Mountie does not even raise his voice. Alone,
his revolver in his holster, he walks up and arrests two men who, by
flexing a nervous finger, can kill him and drive off.
It seems foolhardy, on the face of it. Yet
Brakefield-Moore, a graduate in law, was neither unimaginative nor
given to heroics. He was well aware of the weight of psychology on
his side. As one of the gunmen said later in an attempt to explain
why he had let himself be arrested: "He just walked up to us all
alone. It takes a guy off balance."
Brakefield-Moore had assurance. He had the
confidence that comes with belief in a code of conduct. He was
bolstered by the authority of a great name. Behind him was a
tradition: of countless crises surmounted, of gallant deeds
magnified into legend. In a very real sense he was
not alone. In that critical moment when
he first approached the coupe, the men who had served before him,
who had set his standard of conduct, reinforced him with the aura of
their deeds; he personified the fame of the Royal Canadian Mounted
Police, the continuing tradition, the living legend.
DIRECTOR of Canada's Travel Bureau, D. Leo Dolan, is a shrewd
publicity man who once, in all seriousness, outlined to his
government a plan whereby retired Mounties (still relatively young
men) would be displayed strategically across Canada to enliven the
tourist season by singing arias from
"Americans are very emotional about the RCMP," Mr. Dolan explained
in Canada's House of Commons.
The politicians were not enthusiastic. The top
brass of the Mounties pretended the plan had never been broached.
Its conception is nevertheless a somewhat astonishing monument to
the fame of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
For three quarters of a century books and
magazines have extolled them, first as the North-West Mounted, the
"Riders of the Plains," then, after 1920, as a modern federal force.
Hollywood has arrayed such high-priced purveyors of romance as
Nelson Eddy, Gary Cooper and Alan Ladd in the famous crimson tunic
and the blue gold-striped breeches. The United States comic-book
press has exported the daily adventures of such stalwarts as King of
the Royal Mounted, Renfrew of the same, and Sergeant Preston of the
Yukon. Television and radio, in their ceaseless search for glamour,
dispatch yearly expeditions deep into the RCMP files. There's
scarcely a red-blooded boy from Bristol to Bangkok who doesn't
recognize "Get your man!" as the slogan of the Mounties, the famous
force that never fails, at least in literature.
The Mounties inspire such widespread faith that
a lad from Dunmanway, Cork, once sent off a letter addressed to:
c/o The Mounties,
The Commissioner's office obligingly sent the
boy a reply signed "Santa."
At the World's Fair in San Francisco, a "real
live Mountie" stole at least part of the show. He stood stiffly at
attention outside the Canadian pavilion, the pink-faced perspiring
focus for a bevy of teen-age girls who enveloped him in giggles, had
their pictures snapped beside him and plied him with such highly
personal questions as "Are you married?" "How old are you?" "How
many men have you killed?"
Even in his homeland the Mountie is a hero. When
Princess Elizabeth toured Canada just before she became Queen, Bert
Marsh of the United Press came into the Charlottetown Hotel and
spotted a small boy sitting in the lobby, obviously embarrassed but
determinedly sticking it out.
"Waiting for the Princess, son?" asked Marsh.
"Naw. I've seen her."
"The Duke, maybe?"
"Naw. Seen him too."
Marsh was curious now. "Anything I can do?"
Out it came: "I want to meet a Mountie!" And,
thanks to Marsh, he did.
The Charlottetown lad's ambition is shared by
women all over the world. In England, one Brenda Willis wrote to her
local paper, "Dear Editor: I wonder if you would be so kind as to
print my request. I would like to marry a Royal Canadian Mounted
Policeman." From Boston, four girls wrote to Canada's Travel Bureau
to say that they were planning a trip to Antigonish, Nova Scotia,
and would like to have four Mounties, "one for each of us." In
Jasper, Alberta, while filming
The Far Country, Hollywood's Ruth Roman
turned down hundreds of escorts for the opening dance at the Jasper
Park Lodge to appear on the arm of the local Mountie, Constable
The Mounties rival Niagara Falls as a national
tourist attraction and in reluctant deference to this the RCMP, in
summer, has its men patrol the mountain resorts of Jasper and Banff
clad in hot, heavy, red serge dress uniforms. One red-coated
constable, guarding the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa,
unflinchingly faced eight hundred cameras in one day.
Their status is unquestioned, as the story of
Bruno shows. Bruno was a bear, a pet that belonged to a Mountie in
Banff, Sergeant "Casey" Oliver. About 3
a.m. one warm night Bruno took French
leave of the sergeant and wandered into a downtown hotel. The night
clerk was dozing. Bruno strolled upstairs. He padded down the
corridor and through a guest's open door.
The guest, awakening suddenly, screamed and
reached for the telephone. "Help!" he cried. "Quick! A bear in my
room! Quick! Help!"
"Come now, sir," said the night clerk as Bruno,
upset by such stridency, was trying to force his great bulk under
the bed. "I'm afraid you've had too much to drink."
The bed collapsed with a crash. The night clerk
hastily called the Mounties. Sergeant Oliver, resplendent in red
serge, arrived on the double to find the hotel in an uproar. From
behind every door, terrified but curious tourists peeped out as he
stalked past and into the room with the bear.
"You!" they heard him bellow. "What are you
doing here? How dare you come in this hotel? Get out!"
A large black bear came cowering out of the room
and slunk downstairs. The sergeant followed, straight-backed, stern,
indomitable. As he marched off, an astounded guest exclaimed: "Isn't
that wonderful? Think of it! Even the wild beasts obey the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police."
The whole world knows the Mountie. He's a
bachelor, handsome, young and six feet tall. At the drop of a clue
he will leap on his horse or hitch up his huskies and hit the trail
to rescue the heroine. He fights his way over mountain passes
through avalanches of snow with only his Boy Scout hat to protect
him against the elements. Singlehanded, he tracks down gangs of fur
poachers, rustlers and hijackers. And he never shoots unless the bad
guys fire first. He's fair and square, the clean-cut protector of
the young, the aged, the innocent and all beautiful damsels in
distress. As a lover, it's true he's a bit on the backward side
(partly modesty and partly all those rules and regulations), but not
since the days of King Arthur has there been such a chivalrous
Francis Dickens of the North-West Mounted Police, third son of the
great English novelist, was a taciturn, morose man known to his
family as "Chicken-stalker." Asked why he didn't write books like
his father, Chickenstalker morosely replied that the only book he
would ever write would be about the prohibition-dry Northwest
Territories. He would call it
Thirty Years without Beer. In other
words, life could be arid even in the Mounties; the glamour was in
the eye of the beholder. Dickens's remark — made in the good old
days of the 1870's — suggests that already legend and fact were
heading in different directions.
The distance they had traveled apart by the
mid-twentieth century has been high-lighted by the shenanigans of an
American citizen, one Clifford Dixon Lancaster. A carnival pitchman
by trade, Mr. Lancaster decided that the field of education held
greater rewards. Accordingly, he bought a pair of riding boots, blue
gold-striped breeches, a crimson coat and a Stetson hat. Then as
"Constable King of the Royal Mounted" he toured Midwestern schopls
recounting how he tracked his man across the trackless tundra.
The children were fascinated — all but one, a
Canadian boy attending school at Royal Oak, Michigan. His amusement
lasted all the way home, where he shared it with his parents. They
laughed and called the FBI, who attended King's performance. They,
too, were captivated — but not for as long as Mr. Lancaster.
The ending is not as surprising as our carnival
pitchman's success. He had never seen a Mountie. He had never been
north of Dakota. Yet he hoodwinked hundreds of teachers and state
educators for two months. Where had he done his research? At the
movies. His impersonation was drawn entirely from Hollywood's
conception of a Mountie in the days of Sitting Bull.
Movies to the contrary, it has been years since
a red-coated Mountie went galloping after a criminal. No Mountie
rides a horse in the line of duty any more, unless he's assigned to
the Musical Ride. When the King and Queen came to Windsor in 1939
the RCMP detachment who paraded in their honor had to borrow their
mounts from Detroit's city police. The celebrated red coats are
brought out today only to brighten ceremonies, courtrooms and
tourist resorts. The Mounties chase their criminals in a tunic of
chocolate brown, in a black-and-white patrol car with siren,
spotlight and radiotelephone.
Individually, they are not all lithe
six-footers. The popular impression of the tall, broad-shouldered
Mountie is a leftover from the days when he had to be able to kick
down a bolted door and break up a barroom brawl. By taking only big
men the RCMP found they were getting too much brawn and too few
brains. They consulted an anthropologist on the height of the
average Canadian. "Just under five feet, eight inches," he reported.
So five feet, eight inches became the minimum height required to
enter the RCMP. They're the smallest police in the Western world.
Neither are they all young and handsome. Many
reach middle age and look it. They ride too much in cars and do too
little walking. Unless they are careful their chests slip gradually
downward to form what is sometimes called "Milwaukee goiter" or
They worry. Often they lie awake at night
wondering what to do on a case. Stress raises their blood pressure.
An uncommonly large number die in their forties and fifties from the
Mounted Policeman's occupational illness, heart disease.
They're not supermen. They don't always "get
their man." That isn't their motto, and never was. And although
they've acquired a world-wide reputation as manhunters, the North
hasn't seen a true manhunt since 1932, when Albert Johnson, "the Mad
Trapper of Rat River," was tracked across the divide between the
Yukon and the Northwest Territories where the Bishop of the Yukon,
Isaac Stringer, staved off starvation thirty years before by eating
This was the most sensational hunt in the
history of the North. It illuminates the gap between reality and
legend, for this wasn't a lone Mountie chasing a dozen badmen but a
lone badman chased by a Mountie-led posse of eleven.
WAS a hot July day in 1931 when the man called Albert Johnson came
floating out of the Yukon down Peel River to Fort McPherson.
He beached his raft and strode along the steep
earthbank to the settlement, a cluster of whitewashed cabins and a
log trading post. To the northeast stretched the flat, spruce-green
delta of the Mackenzie, a malevolent maze of channels writhing
toward the Arctic sea. Westward rose the foothills of the
continent's northernmost mountains, and beyond them the ice-crowned
peaks veined red with iron through which he was soon to lead the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada's most widely publicized
On three continents newspaper readers would
marvel day by day at the fortitude of this ruthless adventurer. No
one knows his real name but he will live in memory by the name the
papers gave him, the Mad Trapper of Rat River — though trapping was
only an incidental skill and he wasn't mad, except in the sense of
harboring hatred. On the contrary, he was as shrewd, resourceful and
resolute a killer as the North has ever known.
He came into the trading post at Fort McPherson,
brusquely shouldering past lounging Indians — a medium-sized man,
thirty-five to forty, slightly stoopshouldered, sun-reddened,
flybitten — a most unlikely hero for an epic. Bill Douglas, the
factor, sized him up as a "loner." He had obviously lived alone in
the wilderness for months; yet he curtly parried questions, keeping
his tension bottled inside him. He spoke only to order supplies.
In the next ten days he spent fourteen hundred
dollars with Douglas. He said he was getting an outfit together to
trap in Rat River country. He was carrying several thousand dollars
— strange, since a trapper usually sends his money outside. And his
outfit wasn't that of a man who intends to winter in one place.
He had nearly completed his outfitting when a
very tall lean man in a khaki shirt and stiff-brimmed Stetson came
paddling into the post. Constable Edgar Millen, widely known as
"Newt," was on a routine patrol from Arctic Red River, an RCMP
detachment thirty miles southeast. Douglas was glad to see him; the
thirty-year-old Mountie was held in high regard for his bushcraft,
common sense and good humor.
Millen had heard of the stranger from wandering
Lou-cheux Indians. He wanted Douglas to tell him more. In the
Arctic, as Douglas knew, a man's life often depends on the knowledge
the Mounties have of his habits and movements.
"He's bought a nine-foot canoe from an Indian,"
Douglas said. "The questions he asked me, I figure he's going up Rat
River, over the mountains at White Pass, down the Bell, down the
Eagle and onto the Porcupine. Another reason I figure it that way,
Newt — some Loucheux passed him up-river. He asked them where he
was. When they said he was on the Peel he was pretty annoyed."
Millen digested this information. The headwaters
of the Peel and of the Porcupine are in the Yukon, only a few milea
apart. A man could easily mistake one for the other. But the Peel
flows into the Territories, the Porcupine into Alaska.
"I'd better talk to him," Millen said. "He
doesn't know the Rat."
Millen found Johnson down on the steamboat
landing assembling his gear. The Mountie introduced himself. Johnson
shook hands reluctantly.
"Anything I can do for you?" Millen asked.
"No, no," Johnson said hurriedly. "I'm just
pulling out." From his accent Millen tabbed him as a Swede from the
northern States. He had an upturned nose in a broad flat face and
his features were curiously stiff, as if he were constantly
struggling to mask his hostility.
"How'd you come in?" Millen asked.
"Mackenzie River. I been working all last winter
on the prairies."
Millen knew that was a lie; the Loucheux had
seen the stranger upriver. He let it pass. "Going to stay around
"Maybe. I don't'know yet."
"If you want to trap, I can give you a license
now. It'll save you a trip into Arctic Red River."
"I haven't made up my mind," Johnson said
evasively. "I may go over Rat River Portage."
Johnson scowled. He made no answer.
"You ought to hire a guide," Millen said evenly.
Anger flooded into Johnson's face. It was as if
the thought had triggered some mental thermostat. "No!" he told
Millen violently. "I don't want people bothering me. I like to live
alone. You police just cause me trouble. I don't want nothing to do
with you." He recovered himself and a hint of shrewdness came into
his voice. "You want to know all about me? All right. I'm not
staying here. If I'm not staying here you don't have to know all
about me, eh?" He met Millen's suddenly sharpened gaze for the first
Millen had been trying to tell him that one man
alone could not get up Rat Rapids. But Johnson's blue eyes, pale as
sea ice, were filled with unreasoning hate. Millen shrugged and
Just before Christmas the big snows came and the
Loucheux, a nomadic tribe, came straggling into Arctic Red River to
celebrate Yuletide. The Indians were frightened and incensed. The
strange white man called Albert Johnson had failed to get up Rat
Rapids. He was wintering at the mouth of Rat Canyon. He had built
his cabin near a trap line used by the Loucheux for centuries and
was springing their traps, flinging them into trees, sometimes
substituting his own. When they went to his cabin to reason with
him, the Indians told Millen, Johnson had threatened them with a
"You'd better go up and see what it's all about,
Bunce," Millen told A. W. King, second constable at the RCMP
King set out by dog team the day after
Christmas. He was a powerful, hearty man, still in his twenties,
with a red, round, puckish face. With him went Joe Bernard, an
Indian employed by the police. They knew the cabin site. During the
Yukon gold rush, hundreds of prospectors, shipwrecked on Rat Rapids,
had wintered there and died of scurvy. They had named the place
On the third afternoon, with eighty miles behind
them, and the hills on both sides narrowing to Rat Canyon, they
rounded a bend in the frozen river and sighted Johnson's cabin. It
stood in a clump of willow and spruce on the snow-covered flats of
the left bank, square and squat — only three or four logs showed
above the drifted snow. In the gray half-light of the Arctic day it
seemed oddly sinister.
The Mountie left Bernard with the dogs in the
shelter of the riverbank and walked on his snowshoes through twenty
feet of brush to the cabin. Beside the door stood a pair of homemade
snowshoes, strips of caribou hide strung on bent willow frames.
King rapped. "Mr. Johnson!" he called.
Smoke plumed up from the stovepipe but there was
no reply. He walked around the cabin. About eight by ten, he judged.
It seemed to be sunk three or four feet into the gravel bank, a
strange thing when ordinarily a man's first concern is warmth. The
roof was of poles reinforced with sod frozen nearly as hard as
concrete. There was sod between the heavy logs of the walls. Then he
noticed the holes. They were at every corner, driven through the
frozen sod just above the drifted snow: rifle loopholes, commanding
King peered in the tiny half-frosted window,
then jerked back. Out of the gloom, a few inches away, a wild-eyed
face was glaring.
King knocked again, shouting his name and
business. The man inside was silent. The Mountie cursed. They would
have to trek to Aklavik and back, one hundred and sixty miles, to
get a search warrant from Alex Eames, the inspector in charge of the
It was midmorning, December 31, when King once
more pulled up his dogs on the bare river ice below Johnson's cabin.
Inspector Eames had at first been angry at all this needless work.
He had sobered as King described the cabin, and he detailed two
trustworthy men to accompany King and Bernard back: Constable R. G.
McDowell, a handsome, quiet twenty-two-year-old, and a tall
pleasant-faced Loucheux, Lazarus Sittichiulis. They'd been driving
hard: King was impatient to settle this business in time to get to
Bill Douglas's New Year's party at Fort McPherson.
"You stay with the dogs, Joe," King told
Bernard. "Lazarus, you scout around to the back." He turned to
McDowell. "Cover me, will you, Mac?" McDowell edged behind a
King strode toward the cabin. The wind was
rising, whipping away the smoke that still came from the chimney. He
hammered hard on the door. "Are you there, Mr. Johnson?"
He thought he heard movement inside. "Mr.
Johnson!" he called again, testing the door with his shoulder. "I
have a search warrant. Open up or I'll have to break the door down.
There was no answer. Again he bunted the door.
It gave a little. Then he felt himself hurled to the snow by a
smashing blow in the chest; he heard a shot — it seemed to come from
very far away. Bullets came splintering through the door and went
whining overhead. He heard McDowell calling, "King! Can you crawl?
Crawl away from the cabin!"
Now King heard McDowell's rifle and got to his
feet, staggered into the brush and collapsed. McDowell was still
shooting, drawing the fire of the man inside. King began to crawl.
Then Lazarus was helping him down the bank.
His head cleared as they bandaged his bleeding
side, fumbling, hurried by the 45°-below-zero cold. They bundled him
in eiderdowns and lashed him to the toboggan.
"You want me to go back and shoot 'um now?"
McDowell shook his head. "We'll get Bunce fixed
up first." McDowell was trying hard to be reassuring. But the bullet
had smashed through King's ribs, a blizzard was coming up, the dogs
were already weary from the long trip out and they had eighty miles
Through swirling groundstorms, McDowell and the
two Indians broke trail most of the day and night, easing King's
heavy body down the portages. Their thighs were numb as they carried
the wounded Mountie into Aklavik's Anglican mission hospital.
"The bullet's pierced his stomach," the resident
doctor, J. A. Urquhart, said. "It missed his heart by an inch and
his lungs by less." Peritonitis, the doctor said, had been avoided
only by King's fine condition and empty stomach, for in his hurry to
get through work before the New Year's party, King had stopped only
once the day before for food. Luck, and the record twenty-hour run,
had saved his life.
The news of King's shooting spread quickly
through Akla-vik, then a town of some two hundred natives and thirty
whites. Inspector Eames, a forceful official of forty-five, had no
trouble picking a posse: himself, McDowell, Sittichiulis, Bernard,
and three trappers in town for New Year's: Ernest Sutherland, Karl
Gardlund and Knut Lang. Johnson, they figured, was more likely to
give himself up to a party that in-eluded some of his own kind; they
still thought of the man as a bush-crazy trapper.
As soon as the RCMP dogs had recuperated they
set out, packing dynamite to breach the walls of the cabin which
King had described — imaginatively, they thought — as a fortress.
Camping at the mouth of the Rat they were joined by Newt Millen; he
had picked up a radio message from UZK Aklavik, "Voice of the
Northern Lights," an amateur station run by Army signalers.
Inspector Eames decided that the winding
willow-fringed Rat offered Johnson too many chances for ambush; he
hired an Indian guide to take them overland. In darkness and storm
the Indian overshot the trail to Rat Rapids. They were eight days
out, with only two days' dog food left, when they worked down the
rim of Rat Canyon onto the flats below.
It was noon but the light was gray as dawn. The
storm raged less furiously here. Eames strung out his men behind the
chest-high riverbank that bent around the cabin on two sides. They
crouched, listening, the sweat from their morning's march congealing
clammily inside their parkas.
A clatter of kitchen utensils came to them
clearly on the wind. Eames lifted his voice in a drill-square
bellow: "Johnson! This is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Come
out. There's no serious charge against you. The man you shot isn't
There was no sound but the wail of the wind.
"Come out!" Eames shouted again. "You may as
well give up. There's eight of us here — three trappers. Don't make
it tough for yourself."
No answer came from the lightless cabin
squatting among the trees.
Eames passed the word to the crouching men. They
clambered up over the bank. Gunfire streaked from the cabin
loopholes. The police party dropped to the snow, inching forward
from bush to tree, firing at the loopholes that continued to spit
flame. Two men got to the door, half smashing it in with their rifle
butts. A fusillade drove them back.
They huddled behind the riverbank. Eames tried
persuasion again. Johnson answered with a shot. The inspector knew
now, by a fleeting glimpse when his men had broken the door, that
Johnson was lying shielded by a double barrier of logs sunk at least
three feet in the frozen earth.
The police party were shooting in woolen gloves,
their outer mitts dangling by thongs from their necks; some had
their hands frostbitten. Leaving two men on watch, Eames withdrew
down the river, put up tents and kindled fires. "Let's get the
dynamite thawed out," he said. "We'll throw in a few small charges
and try and open a hole in the wall. Not too big — we don't want to
The dynamite, exploding in the open, had no
effect. At midnight Knut Lang said, "Maybe if I could get up on the
roof I could stun him with a big charge." Eames agreed.
Running a gauntlet of fire, Lang made the roof,
scrambled up, lit the fuse, flattened out for the blast — then
kneeled and peered down the jagged hole. Through a swirl of acrid
smoke he saw Johnson crouched on the floor, a sawed-off shotgun in
one hand, a pistol in the other. Their eyes met and held. Then
Johnson snapped a shot. Lang jumped back and dodged to the
riverbank. Now they knew the extent of Johnson's arsenal: a shotgun,
a revolver, and two rifles Millen had noted, a .22 and a .30-30
They threw flares. In the flickering light they
tried to glimpse Johnson between logs where the chinking had been
blasted out by the dynamite. Johnson stayed out of sight. Eames had
the posse fake a rush while Millen moved stealthily in. The crunch
of his snowshoes gave him away and Johnson's guns forced him back.
a.m. Eames hurled the last of his
dynamite against the front of the cabin. In the aftermath of its
violence he ran for the half-shattered door, Gardlund running beside
him holding a flashlight to spot the target. A few yards from the
door Gardlund switched on the light. It was smashed from his hand by
a bullet from Johnson's rifle. Johnson had the advantage of what
little light there was. They retired to the riverbank.
The inspector studied the drawn bearded faces of
his posse. It was fifty degrees below zero. The faces of some of the
men showed dead-white patches of frostbite. Cold and spasmodic
excitement had drained their strength. They needed rest and food and
Eames had only one day's supplies left.
The inspector hurried his angry, frustrated
posse back to Aklavik, where he arranged for more supplies and men.
Two ingenious Army signalmen, Sergeants Frank Riddell and "Heps"
Hersey, fashioned crude gunpowder grenades and homemade gas bombs —
beer bottles filled with sulfur and gunpowder. Eames still intended
to take Johnson alive if possible but he no longer thought him a
half-crazed hermit. Either he was a fugitive or a man with a haunted
The amateur radio station alerted all trappers.
Far to the south, newspapers were headlining the story of the
unknown gunman, the Mad Trapper of Rat River, who from his Arctic
fortress had successfully defied the famous Mounted Police.
Constable Millen and Karl Gardlund returned to
the battleground ahead of Eames's main party. Hoarfrost lay unbroken
over the trampled snow and upon the half-smashed door. The cabin was
They opened the door and stared down in
amazement. The floor was a series of bunkers, exactly body-size,
hacked from the glass-hard gravel in front of each loophole. They
were lined with spruce boughs and fires had been built against the
wall at the rear to reflect heat into them.
A careful search revealed no furs, no papers.
There was only a litter of empty shells, some half-raw caribou
scraps. Outside, the waning windstorm had swept the river ice clear
Eames and his posse arrived two days later,
January 17. They had set up base camp at the mouth of Rat River.
They agreed that Johnson would not go far in such weather. He had no
dogs to pack supplies; he would have to hunt or trap as he traveled.
Somewhere in the snow-laden brush of the canyon floor above, half a
mile wide with walls rising six hundred feet in places, somewhere
along the willow-lined creeks that gullied out from the canyon, he
would be hiding.
They combed the canyon for four days. Johnson
had vanished. Eames withdrew the bulk of his men so that he could
leave nine days' rations with Constable Millen and three of the best
shots and bushmen, trappers Karl Gardlund and
Noel Verville and Army Signals Sergeant Frank
In pairs the quartet stalked their quarry
through the scrub of the creekbeds. Half circling, working ever
deeper into high country, they prowled tensely through thickets that
might shelter hare and ptarmigan, the game Johnson needed to stay
alive. They found two caches of caribou that Johnson had killed in
the fall and watched them for several days through field glasses.
Johnson did not return.
Occasionally, in a creek bottom, they picked up
his trail in deep snow, lost it, cut across a ridge and found it
again. His technique was clear. He traveled the glare ice along the
creeks and along the high, hardpacked, windswept ridges between. At
night he would trek up a streambed, pick a campsite, circle around
it, backtrack, and bed down just off his trail, where he could
ambush his pursuers. Slowly but surely he was heading for the
divide. And beyond the mountains, across the narrow neck of the
Yukon, little more than a hundred miles away, lay Alaska.
January 28 was windless. Riddell picked up the
week-old trail, lost it as usual, and was laboring over a ridge when
he sighted a faint blue haze rising out of the gorge beyond, the
only sign of life in a landscape as cold and dead as the moon.
Excitedly he signaled to Verville a couple of ridges away and the
two men crawled to the cliff edge and gazed down.
Fifty feet below in a thicket of brush a man sat
tending a campfire. Little trails ran out from his fire like spokes
in a wheel but no tracks led in or out of the thicket. "He snares
what he needs right there," Verville whispered.
Riddell was mystified by one trail; it led
behind the gravel-clotted roots of an upturned spruce. He raised his
rifle, sighted, then lowered it. "I don't think we could place our
shots in this light," he said. "We might kill him if we shoot."
"I don't want to be brought up on a manslaughter
charge," Verville said. "We're not policemen. Eames didn't swear us
in. We'd better go back and get Newt."
Next morning the four men gazed from the rim of
the gorge on a smoldering fire. Johnson was not in sight. "He must
be sleeping," Riddell said. "I wonder why the trail behind those
"I don't like it," Millen muttered, strangely
preoccupied. The others glanced at each other. This was not like
Millen, whose greatest fault was a tendency to recklessness.
The mood passed. "Frank," Millen said to
Riddell, "you and Karl circle the ridge, get down in those willows —
just behind him there on the creekbank. As soon as Noel and I see
you're set, we'll slide down in front." To their left the sheer drop
eased off into a slope. "If he comes out and starts shooting at us,
you guys pick him off. If he doesn't lift his gun he won't get
From their screen of willows Riddell and
Gardlund stared down their gun barrels into the tiny campsite only
twenty yards away. They heard the Mountie and Verville come crashing
down the slope, breaking bushes, talking loudly. They caught a
blurred glimpse of Johnson as he flung himself into the snow trench
that led behind the roots of the upturned spruce. Too late to warn
Millen, they realized that the gravel-matted roots formed a natural
barricade. Johnson had picked his second battleground.
In the frosty silence they heard Johnson cough
and check his rifle. Then Millen's voice:
"Johnson! Cut out the shooting. You can't get
away. Put down that rifle before you kill someone."
Johnson said nothing. They glimpsed Millen and
Verville edging forward, then Johnson's gun cracked twice. Gardlund,
waiting, fired at the stabs of flame.
The silence settled again. "I think maybe I hit
him," Gardlund whispered. Riddell crawled over to join Millen. They
listened, then climbed the bank.
Slowly they waded through waist-high snow toward
the barricade. Something was wrong, Riddell thought. What looked
like a stick protruding through the roots of the barricade caught
the light and gleamed metallically. "Look out!" Riddell yelled and
dodged behind a poplar.
A shot ripped bark from the trunk, stung his
cheek. He leaped for the bank and slid over in a blinding flurry of
snow as Johnson fired twice more and Millen answered.
Riddell looked back up. Millen was kneeling,
cooly aiming toward the blue-black gun barrel that jutted through
the barricade. The gun barrel flamed. Slowly, Millen rose, spun, and
fell face down in the snow.
Riddell fired at the rifle barrel and Johnson
jerked it back. "Are you hurt bad, Newt?" called Riddell. Millen lay
Gardlund and Verville came crawling over. They
all climbed the bank. Riddell and Verville opened fire and Gardlund
slithered through the snow to where Millen lay. He unfastened
Millen's moccasin laces, tied them to make a handle, and dragged
Millen back over the bank.
Millen's face was gray, the eyes open, staring.
A small stain darkened the khaki parka over his heart. The body had
already begun to freeze. They checked Millen's rifle. "Look at
this!" Riddell said. A missing screw had caused it to jam.
Night was falling. They huddled around the
corpse beneath the bank in the gathering dusk and debated what to
do. A few yards away they heard the killer coughing. This was no
longer an adventure. The finality of death had sobered them. It
seemed incredible that Millen was dead.
They could see no way of capturing Johnson. They
tied spruce branches over Millen's face to keep ravens from pecking
his eyes and hoisted the body up on the bank where the weasels were
less likely to molest it. Gardlund and Verville agreed to watch
Johnson while Riddell went back to tell Eames.
Millen's murder, broadcast over UZK, brought
angry trappers into Aklavik from all over the delta. On February 4,
Inspector Eames and a posse of ten picked men surrounded the scene
of Millen's death.
They were met by Gardlund. "Johnson slipped away
in the night," he told them ruefully. "We haven't a clue which way
he went. The only place he left tracks is where he looked at
For three days Johnson eluded them, backtracking
cleverly, sometimes reversing his snowshoes. Eames was once more low
on supplies when he heard a distant drone and a ski-equipped
monoplane came swooping low over the camp, waggled its wings and
made a perilous landing a few miles west high on a mountainside.
The flyer was the superb bush pilot "Wop" May,
the World War I ace who dueled till his guns jammed with the great
German ace von Richthofen, whom May then decoyed to his death by a
fellow Canadian, Roy Brown. Now, summoned by Eames from Edmonton,
thirteen hundred miles south, May became the first pilot to give
direct aid in a manhunt.
At great risk, since the wind swirled snow a
thousand feet in the air, May solved the problem of supply that
plagues all Arctic police work. On February 11 the sky cleared for
an hour and May, scouting far in advance, saw where Johnson had
climbed a high spur, studied the cloud-wreathed crags ahead, then
struck out unerringly for Bell Pass. He had made his break. He was
heading for Alaska, traveling fast and straight at last.
The Indian trackers in Eames's posse were
certain that no man could cross the divide alone on foot in a storm
— certainly, no man ever had. Johnson was fighting the windswept
eastern face of the continent's largest and least-known mountain
range. He had no dogs; he was backpacking a kit heavy with guns and
ammunition. He had no food and no way to warm himself, for above the
treeline was neither game nor wood. They would find him dead, the
At nightfall, Constable Sidney May from the
lonely RCMP detachment at Old Crow, near Alaska, mushed in with an
Indian guide. He handed Eames a letter from the trader at La Pierre
House on the other side of the mountains. Indians hunting moose had
seen strange tracks, big snow-shoes with a queer twist to one frame,
short-spaced tracks as
if the man who made them was tired. They were
heading down Bell River and they were fresh. Johnson had crossed the
Next day, February 13, pilot Wop May landed
Inspector Eames, Sergeant Riddell and trapper Karl Gardlund on the
deep snow of Bell River in front of La Pierre House. The following
afternoon May managed, despite fog, to get aloft for an hour's
On these windless western slopes the snow lay
deep and soft; Johnson's tracks were in plain sight along the Bell.
At the mouth of the Eagle River they disappeared. He had taken his
snowshoes off and stepped along in the maze of tracks left by a herd
of migrating caribou.
By the fifteenth, when Constable May and the
eight other volunteers reached La Pierre House by dog team, Johnson
had four days' start. But a huge white-haired trapper, an old-timer
named Frank Jackson, led the posse over portages that took them
fifteen miles down the Eagle by the evening of February 16. Here
they picked up Johnson's trail where it left the caribou herd. It
was now no more than thirty-six hours old.
At twelve o'clock on the following day, with
snowclouds thick overhead, they were strung out along the Eagle,
between steep winding banks. As Signalman Heps Hersey, onetime
Olympic boxer, urged his lead team round a bend, he saw a man
walking toward him. It was Johnson, backtracking.
Both men stopped, astonished. Johnson stooped,
drew on snowshoes, and ran to one side out of sight. Hersey snatched
the rifle off his toboggan and dashed ahead for a clear view.
Johnson was trying to climb the steep south
bank, trying to make the shelter of the tangled brush at the top.
Hersey dropped to one knee and fired. Verville
fired from behind him. Johnson whirled and snapped a shot. Hersey
Verville ran to Hersey's side. The others were
coming up now, spreading out along both banks, passing back word to
Eames and Riddell far in the rear, "It's Johnson! Johnson's up
Johnson, unable to climb the south bank, was
running back up his trail toward an easier slope on the north bank,
stopping to fire, reloading as he ran. He was drawing away from the
posse, who were shooting and calling, "Surrender!" when he stumbled
as if hit in the leg. He wriggled out of his pack, flattened out in
the snow behind it and opened rapid fire.
All around him now was the posse, working into
position. They stared through their gunsights at him from the deep
snow of mid-river, from the thick brush of the banks alongside and
"Johnson!" Eames shouted. "This is your last
chance to give up!"
Eames's voice rolled emptily out across the
frozen white stream. A trapper shifted position and Johnson fired.
Grimly the posse poured in a volley.
Johnson squirmed as the bullets struck. At ten
past twelve he was still, a scrap of black in a waste of snow.
Constable May approached warily. "He's dead!" he
called to the others. A bullet had severed Johnson's spine in the
act of reloading his rifle. Five other bullets had hit him but he
had uttered no cry. From beginning to end the renegade of Rat River
had kept his silence.
The plane had appeared in the sky as Johnson
died. It taxied to within a few yards of where Hersey lay writhing,
cursing a shattered elbow. Johnson's bullet had ripped across his
left knee, entered his elbow, had come out his upper arm, smashed
two ribs and pierced his lungs. He had not yet realized that he was
shot in the chest and was hemorrhaging steadily.
Wop May gave him a sedative and they lifted him
into the plane. Riddell and Jack Bowen, the plane's mechanic, held
him still. May took off into scudding mist. Flying at treetop height
he roared full speed down the twisting river, sliced through the
buffeting winds of Bell Pass and rocketed down the canyons, wingtips
almost shaving the walls. In less than two hours from the shooting,
Dr. Urquhart in Aklavik was tying off Hersey's broken arteries.
"You got here just in time," he told May. "He'll
Back on the river the posse gathered round the
corpse in the snow, the husk of the man called Albert Johnson. For
weeks their lives had centered in this elusive figure. He had loomed
in epic stature in their minds, a man whose fierce unyielding
self-destructive tenacity was to pass into folk tale and folk song.
Lying limp in the snow he was far from heroic.
The seven-week chase had drawn all surplus fat from his body, never
large. His head already resembled a skull, its contours shaped by
wisps of sweat-soaked hair. His pale eyes stared from caverns dug by
fatigue. The fury that had sustained his will had remained with him
to the end, stretching his lips away from his teeth in a wolfish
smile of hate.
Eames and Constable May laid out the contents of
his pack: razor, comb, mirror, needle, thread, oily rag, fish hooks,
wax, matches, nails, ax, pocket compass, 119 shells, a knife made
from an old trap spring — all in neatly sewn moosehide cases; five
freshwater pearls, some gold dust, $2410 in bills, and two pieces of
gold bridgework, not his own.
"I wonder whose mouth they came out of," a
trapper mused darkly.
The question was never answered, though the RCMP
received letters from several hundred people in Europe, the United
States and Canada declaring that they knew who Johnson was: an
escaped convict called the Blueberry Kid, a murderer from Michigan,
a World War I sniper, an ex-provincial policeman. Women claimed him
as husband, father, brother, son.
The Mounties investigated each claim. They sent
the dead killer's fingerprints and photograph to police
identification bureaus in Washington, Stockholm and London. They
traced his weapons and banknotes; all leads came to a dead end — all
In 1925, a man who called himself Arthur Nelson
was trapping the Nelson River in British Columbia. He moved
northward into the Yukon. Here he vanished. The man called Albert
Johnson appears. His description, skills and temperament tally with
Nelson's. Indians see him with another white man around Peel River
headwaters. Then, a hundred miles downriver, they see him alone. The
Indians dub him Albert Johnson, after a man who once trapped on the
Peel. No more is known except that Arthur Nelson once described
himself as a Swedish-American farmboy from North Dakota.
The myth makers moved into the vacuum. They said
that Johnson had knowledge of a secret mine that kept his pockets
filled with gold. They said that the death of a beautiful Eskimo
bride had driven him wild with grief. They said that he was a
big-city gangster who had cached his loot in the Arctic, and in 1934
a band of treasure hunters searched the Rat River region without
A less fanciful supposition is that the man
called Albert Johnson killed his Yukon partner — the owner of the
gold teeth — and feared that the Mounties suspected him. But no one
will ever know for sure what dark and guilty knowledge set this man
apart from his fellow men and impelled him upon his infamous
Mad Trapper had his revenge. His last stand sold newspaper extras in
three languages, and several commented caustically on the time it
had taken the Mounties to get their man. "It is clear now why the
Mounties wear those Boy Scout hats with the pinched crowns," one
French-language paper declaimed. "It is to cover up their pointed
heads." Being a legend in one's own time has its drawbacks.
When a highly touted performer fails to live up
to his billing, a disillusioned public is apt to be nasty.
It does seem an unromantic story. The hero is
the scrawny, flybitten, balding criminal. And the Mountie with the
main role, Newt Millen, gets himself killed.
For eighty years the disillusioning facts have
been reported with reasonable accuracy. There was Almighty Voice, a
dauntless young Cree born thirty years too late, who escaped from
the Mounties at Duck Lake Barracks in 1895. He killed a sergeant,
eluded capture for eighteen months; then, entrenched on a wooded
hill, supported by two companions who shared his nostalgia for the
past, he held a hundred men at bay till the Mounties brought up
And there was Kid Cashel, the icy-nerved
gun-toting twenty-year-old who modeled his life on the violent
career of fast-drawing Jesse James and wouldn't admit that times had
changed. On the eve of his execution he gave the Mounties the slip
and sent them mocking postcards till they finally cornered him by
using every man in district. Long after they hanged him the redcoats
Yet the legend endures. Despite error, despite
modern efficiency, it glitters as brightly as ever. It cannot be
punctured. It does not tarnish. Only one conclusion is possible. It
is neither hollow nor false. It lasts because, in one way, it is
true. Reality may prove legend false on the surface, but there is
another, deeper, truth.
A legend is folk art, created by people out of a
need to believe. They seize promising material like a scarlet-coated
horseman and create a hero simply by believing him to be so. They
believe him to be so because they want him to be so;
it is how they themselves would like to be. The
Mountie of the legend is a creature shaped by a vast underground
current of aspiration.
Like all young careerists, this legendary figure
was concerned overmuch with appearance in the beginning; he did not
dare appear without proper attire. But with success and acceptance,
concern with the surface has waned. The Mounties can hang up their
red coats and belief is undisturbed. Belief, overgrown with fact and
fancy, remains intact at the core. It dwells no longer in surface
facts but in their significance, in the kind of man the Mountie
In this light, and considering the details, the
story of the Mad Trapper is no longer disillusioning. We see why it
did the legend no real damage. People do not really believe that the
Mounties are supermen. The superman concept is part of the surface,
not part of the inner belief.
Indeed, if the trappers who helped track Johnson
had thought the Mounties were supermen, they would scarcely have
felt any need to volunteer. They would more than likely have said,
"If they're so good, let them bloody well do it alone." But they
left their trap lines, a costly decision, and risked their lives to
help. Inspector Eames, we realize, must have had their respect. He
must have been a man of character.
And Millen? What of Constable Millen, who knelt
in the snow in plain sight with only the barrel of the killer's
rifle to aim at? Why didn't Millen play it safe? Why did he not
shoot Johnson from above, from the canyon rim? Why did he risk his
life simply to see if Johnson would give up?
Millen, assuredly, was no superman. But from
others in that posse we know that he felt he was Johnson's match,
either in bushcraft or with a gun. So it was pride. But only in
part, for there was also his job.
Millen's view of his job was clear. He knew that
it was more difficult than simply killing a man. His job was to
bring Johnson to justice. That was the way he was taught and he died
fulfilling this unwritten law.
These are the moments that make up the
tradition, not the lives of a few outstanding men but the moments of
many — moments of crisis, moments of decision, when man shows who he
is and what he believes. And these are also the moments that make up
the legend, when the man of flesh and blood measures up to the
ideal. In these moments, tradition and legend are one, fiction is
welded to truth, belief is confirmed, and we understand what the
legend symbolizes: faith that man
can live up to his aspirations.
What these aspirations are — the kind of man our
society in its wishdreams wants to be — is revealed in the character
of the force, in the acts and ideals that keep the legend alive.