Trooper and Redskin In the Far North-West
Chapter XIX


Bird-life—Fireflies--Prairie fires—A surprised broncho—Sioux Indians—Indian treaties—Reserves—Agents—A Sioux beauty —Sweet grass—A lonely view—Thunderstorms—Hay-Spear grass—Winchester carbines—A mail robbery—Arrest—Sentence—A cyclone.

All through the summer a number of pretty birds filled the woods round the creek. I am not much of an ornithologist, and therefore cannot describe all ; but the catbird could be heard mewing among the branches, and the meadow lark seen soaring aloft. Myriads of fireflies in the hot nights of July sparkled like a rain of diamonds in the hollow in front of the tents.

The prairie fires came so dangerously near that we were compelled to send and warn the ranchemen at the six-mile coulee, in order that we might make a combined effort to fight the flames. There was such an amount of dry undergrowth around our post, that the old fort would most assuredly have been burnt.

The cowboys struck their camp and arrived with their band of horses and waggons in the evening, just as our herd was being driven through the creek, and the bugle was sounding "Stables."

We possessed one notorious broncho, known as " Sheep," who would never—well, hardly ever—permit himself to be tied up at night. He was as wily as a fox, though his meditative eye and classic profile gave him the guileless aspect of an ancient ewe. Hence his pastoral title. He was particularly cute this evening when it was most necessary that he should not be at large, and probably cause a stampede.

"I guess I'll fix him," said one of our allies.

In a few moments a lariat flew spinning through the air, and "Sheep" found himself fast in the noose, and lying on the ground. His astonishment was painful, and he spent a restless night in trying to work out the problem.

The prairie fire rolled away to the south, and left us undisturbed.

White Bull and his nomad band of Sioux camped on the slopes above the creek to the west of us, and remained for some time. The Sioux are refugees from the United States. In their own language, they are the mighty Dacotahs.

When this immense territory was purchased from the Hudson Bay Company, and taken over by the Government, treaties were made with the various Indian tribes, and certain areas of land set apart for their especial use, known as reserves. The negotiation and ratification of these important contracts extended over a number of years, as the noble red man is no mean diplomat. The basis of these treaties, in addition to the reserve of land, is an annual payment of five dollars a year to every man, woman, and child in the various tribes, with an additional sum for the chiefs and councillors. This money is paid annually in the autumn. The representatives of the Government are escorted by mounted police. The entire North-West is divided into Indian districts, each of which is under the supervision of an agent, who again is responsible to the Indian Department at Regina, controlled by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Farm instructors are also stationed on the reserves, to teach the redskins husbandry. Many inducements are held out to industrious Indians, but the hereditary taint is too strong to permit of many taking advantage of this. The untutored noblemen look down upon work as degrading, and leave it to the squaws. Owing to the scarcity of game, rations are issued periodically upon all the reserves.

If any Indian wishes to resign his treaty, he can do so on the recommendation of the agent that he is able to maintain himself. He then receives a patent for 640 acres of land, which he may select upon any portion of the reserve.

These Sioux visitors of ours used to receive any food that might be left from our table, and nightly would they hold a "pow-wow," when tom-toms of bull hide would be beaten and flowery speeches delivered around the fire. I can't say much for the charms of Indian music. It is rather suggestive of the soft, sad cooing of the midnight cat. The Sioux women are, as a rule, virtuous, which is more than can be said of their sisters in other tribes. One young squaw (they are all squaws, married or single) in White Bull's camp was exceedingly pretty, with great wondering dark eyes. She was attired in garments worked wonderfully with beads of every colour. Her crimson trousers and moccasins were a marvel, and her dusky arms were adorned with silver bangles of barbaric size, and a necklace of strange shells, gathered on the prairie, hung around her neck. She had earrings in her tiny ears, and her firebag was richly fringed and embroidered. I wished to secure this as a curiosity, but my efforts were in vain.

These Indians made us several articles from a species of scented grass known as sweet grass. The Sweet Grass Hills take their name from it.

I am afraid I have harped too much for the patience of my readers on the utter loneliness of these regions.

But this sense of solitude is so overpowering, it towers above all other feelings. You experienced this in its fullest intensity if you climbed to the summit of any of the hills above the camp. There, far away below, nestled the white rows of tents, the grey haystack, and the brown buildings of the fort. The silvery waters of the creek could be seen winding through the valley of withered grass. All around rose terrace upon terrace of rounded hills, silent as though no foot had trod their slopes since the Creation. Not a sound to break the stillness of the noonday heat; not a moving figure to attract the eye. The burning furnace of the quivering atmosphere was stifling, and the horizon was dimmed by a Cuyp-like haze.

Apropos of the enterprise of trade, I may just mention that a Regina storekeeper planted an agent in a small tent at Wood Mountain, who dispensed sardines at seventy-five cents a tin, while a cake of soap, worth twopence in England, was sold for thirty cents. A half-breed supplied us with milk at ten cents per quart.

Thunderstorms burst upon us in August, in all the terrific grandeur of pent-up fury. A rain of fire literally poured down from heaven in continuous streams, with streaks of chain lightning. The rattle overhead was terrific, and simultaneous with every flash.

The hay used as forage at this post was simply the long grass which grew in rank luxuriance round the sleughs. It was coarse, and filled with the spear grass, which possesses a needle-like point upon a stem * of wiry texture, curled in corkscrew shape. It is impossible to rear sheep where it grows, as it worms its way into their flesh.

During the latter part of August and in the beginning of September we were put through a course of mounted infantry drill, and we also fired the regulation amount of ammunition in the annual target practice. The Winchester repeating carbine has been pronounced a failure. The sighting of these weapons is lamentably deficient in accuracy, even at 100 yards, and the limit of their range is 500 yards. The trajectory also is very much higher than any other military arm. The initial velocity is 1234 feet per second. At 1000 yards the remaining velocity is 610 feet.

During the summer of 1886 a very impudent and extraordinary attack was made, single-handed, upon the Prince Albert mail. This involved some duty in searching the country for the daring "road agent," who was supposed to have made for that convenient refuge, Montana. As this was the first attempt at highway robbery in the Territories, it created a considerable amount of excitement, and all sorts of ridiculous stories were set afloat. One report stated that six masked men had committed the crime, and of course it was at once assumed they were American desperadoes from the Missouri. The facts, briefly, were these. It was the work of one man, who, in addition to robbing the mail, had "gone through" a party of five the same morning. When the mists were rolling away from the woodlands, they were awakened in their tent by the firing of a couple of shots outside. They were ordered out singly, and with the exception of two, tied up, one by one. This expert imitator of Dick Turpin then searched Mr. Swanston, a wealthy merchant of Prince Albert, evidently expecting to find a large sum of money upon him. Disappointed, he demanded the valuables and dollars of the other members of the party, and on receiving it he rode off, to treat the mail stage in the same way.

It was a lovely afternoon, as the light waggon, with its team of four black bronchos, came bowling along the dusty trail. Suddenly a figure appeared from a thick grove of poplars and stopped the stage, presenting a double-barrelled shot-gun. The passengers were peremptorily told to descend. They were all bound with cords, with the exception of one, who was detailed to attend to the horses. It seems astounding, that the passengers should have submitted to these arbitrary proceedings without making any show of resistance. Taking a knife for the purpose, the robber cut open the mail bags, abstracted all the registered letters, and, leaving all such articles as watches, he disappeared into the bush. The next day the driver of the mail going South found a package of opened registered letters on the trail, near the scene of the robbery. They contained cheques and vouchers, other than cash. He must have secured 260/. He took nothing belonging to the passengers, although he knew that one of them had 200 dollars in his possession. No attempt was made to disguise himself, and he evidently knew the country and the people.

On August the 18th Hart, the mail driver, called at the barracks and reported having seen the highwayman —a man named Garnett—in Prince Albert. He was at once arrested. In October he was tried at Regina, and received a sentence of fourteen years. When in the guard-room at the latter place, he confided to a fellow prisoner where he had hidden the booty. The money was buried in a can, on the south side of the South Saskatchewan, not far from the Hudson Bay Crossing. It was only by accident that one of our sergeants afterwards learnt this from a half-breed woman, but by this time Smith, the released prisoner who had secured the spoil, had escaped across the frontier.

A genuine cyclone came sweeping down upon us at Wood Mountain in September, whirling the mess-tent from its moorings in the square and hanging it, like Macbeth's banners, "on the outward walls" of the fort. These storms are not so prevalent in the western parts of the Territories as they are in Dakota, where settlers are obliged to take refuge in their cellars.

On the following morning that restless spirit, "Sheep," performed the unusual circus feat of bolting clean through a bell-tent;—rather a startling manoeuvre to the two occupants who happened to be under their blankets. Luckily they were not hurt.

The summer gently passed into autumn, and nothing beyond the usual routine of patrol duty disturbed the monotony of our life. This fall was famous for a splendid Indian summer, the glory of this prairie land, when a holy calm seems to lie upon hill, and wood, and stream. Four successive Sundays were perfect days. Then, with one fell swoop, came the advance-guard of winter. Ice settled in the early part of November on the creek and marsh, and long strings of wild fowl were daily seen and nightly heard, flying south. We had no stoves in the tents, and our sufferings from cold became keen. A small detachment were to be left in exile here, during the coming winter, with a couple of men at Willow Bunch. We now spent our time in huddling—contrary to orders—round the cook-house fire, and in hazarding surmises as to the time when we should receive the glad marching orders for Regina. They came suddenly, as usual, on the 17th of November, and we were to move at dawn on the following morning. Universal peace and good will seemed to be established in the hearty bustle and confusion which ensued. Every one was thankful to get away from this dull and spiritless existence. We had not seen the face of a white woman for seven months.


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