Beyond the Call of Duty
by Marjory Bellamy
Manitoba Pageant, Summer 1975, Volume 20, Number 4
In the year 1921, I was a young nurse-in-training in my home town of Dauphin, Manitoba. One fateful morning, I was assigned to care for the post-operative patients of the day. There were several tonsillectomies slated and one listed was Joe Bellamy of the RCMP. All the while that Cst. Bellamy was recovering from his anaesthetic, he raved about the recent loss of one of the detachment’s prized horses. Constable Parsons, while on duty, was riding along the railroad tracks one night and his horse was hit by a train and killed. Bellamy’s wild eulogy in tribute to this dead horse was punctuated with loud demands as to who the heck I was and what did I think about the terrible accident. There seemed to be nothing for me to do but agree with everything he said and to assure him that I was very sorry indeed about the horse. Somehow, through this stormy tirade, I became impressed with Joe Bellamy and somehow, through the fog of anaesthetic, he must have drawn a few conclusions of his own. A week after his discharge from the hospital, the constable called to ask if I would like to go to the show with him.
I saw much of Constable Bellamy after that though his duty hours and mine, and the fact that I was still studying, didn’t make our courtship easy. Then there was the time we admitted a patient with small pox and another nurse and I volunteered to care for him in total isolationa small house on the edge of town. I saw very little of Joe in those two months. He did what he could for us, sometimes coming to the house to bring baking from my mother. But there was no sharing of the goodies over a cup of tea. We could only chat at a distance and then, when Joe left, I would go and retrieve the parcel where he had left it by the fence.
Joe and I became engaged on 5 October 1922. At that time, a Constable was required to have eleven years service in the Force before he was allowed permission to marry. As Joe had joined the Royal North-West Mounted Police only in 1919, after discharge from the Canadian Army, I wondered if I would ever become a Mountie’s wife! However, special consideration was sometimes given to those who showed a record of good standing and this Joe received in 1926. We were married exactly four years to the day after we had become engaged. The detachment at Hodgson, Manitoba became my home for the next three years and it was here I learned what it meant to become a part of the RCMP family.
Hodgson, then, was a small town at the end of a CNR branch line. Across our back lane, just behind the yard, was the well-known Peguis Indian Reserve. Joe had been stationed in Hodgson a year before we were married so that when I arrived as his bride, we were made welcome by the many good friends he had come to know. They had a banquet prepared for us and presented us with many lovely gifts.
One of the first things I was to learn about living with a Mounted Policeman was that, in the necessary order of things, a wife ranked somewhere below the horses. And when your policeman was away on patrol without them, the horses ranked first with you because they still had to be fed and watered, exercised and watched. It didn’t take me long to become acquainted with the stable routine and despite myself, I grew very fond of some of the horses.
I was used to many nursing duties but nothing had prepared me for what I had to deal with the morning we were awakened at 2 a.m. by a fisherman who had come to town that day. He stood at our door with his right arm ripped wide open, slit from his wrist almost to the shoulder. He reported that he had done it lifting a box of fish but nothing less than a broken bottle could have done such a job. We put him on the constable’s bed and, finding a bottle of liquor in his pocket, gave him a good stiff drink. Joe and Jack Cameron, the constable, held coal-oil lamps in one hand and held the man on the bed with the other while, with the few surgical supplies that I kept handy, I commenced repairing that arm. I put in thirty-nine stitches all together then dressed the wound and left the man sleeping on the constable’s bed. Months later, he came back to thank me. He had seen a doctor in Gimli who had checked his arm and re-moved the sutures. “Who fixed your arm?” he asked the fisherman. “The Mountie’s wife at Hodgson,” came the reply. “Well,” said the doctor, “if you ever see her again, tell her she sure did a beautiful job.” That was the best thanks I ever heard.
Word soon got around the district that the Mountie’s new wife was a nurse. Calls for help came at any time and from many places. My first winter there, I made a day-long trip to Birchpoint to examine a mother and baby. To get there, we travelled first by dog teamfrom morning until supper timeand then another thirty miles across the lake by team and open cutter. After losing our way on the trail and crossing no less than three ice fissures, we arrived at the camp safely about 10 p.m. The patients were both very ill and I knew we must get them to Winnipeg and the care of the doctors there. I prepared them as best I could for the long trip to Hodgson by heated caboose and horses. We arrived at the detachment in time for me to make us breakfast and catch the train to Winnipeg. The stretcher was placed in the baggage car and I cared for the patients as best I could from the express man’s hard wooden arm chair. With a big cup of coffee and a bite of toast from the crew, I finally was able to relax. I returned home by train the following morning and the mother and baby, after making a good recovery, returned home some weeks later.
Another time, a man came for me in a horse and buggy and took me sixteen miles to Fisher Branch to be with his wife who was having a difficult labour. It was a terrible trip. I was sure the buggy wouldn’t last on those rough roads, the horse looked half dead and the mosquitoes were the worst I’d ever seen. There was so much mud in the farmer’s yard that I had to walk across single poles to reach the house and that wasn’t the worst. I entered the house to be greeted by the squeal of pigs and the cackle of chickens. The fowl were even on the kitchen table. The room where my patient lay was no better. I looked around and thought, “Dear God, what can I do here?” I could do little. The baby was stillborn and before the end of the day, I had to inform the farmer that his wife, too, was dead. I drank a cup of tea at the kitchen table among the pigs and chickens, walked back across the poles to the buggy and drove home through the same swarm of mosquitoes. Months later, the man came again. He wanted to thank me and he brought me two of his chickens. I thanked him warmly but I hadn’t been able to forget the sight of that house and knew I could never eat anything that had come out of it. The chickens were passed along to a neighbour.
During our years of detachment life, I had the privilege of assisting at over seventy births. Fortunately, none of the others were as unhappy as that one nightmarish experience.
Those years at Hodgson, I used to like to accompany Joe on his various duties around the country. I particularly enjoyed treaty time on the reserve. I would go along to take in the dancing and excitement during the day then hurry home at night to feed the horses as Joe had to stay on the reserve all night. Those were the days of the home brew troubles and much time was spent searching for well-concealed stills. The men liked to have me along. While they did their investigating, I could keep an eye on the woman of the house. I’ll never forget one such lady. Even though it was a beautiful day and her kitchen hot from the fire in her cookstove, she was wearing several dresses and four or five aprons. When finally the men had located the still, the dear old lady just smiled and gave me a loaf of home-made bread to take away with me. Another time, we were able to locate a still simply because someone reported that a certain farmer’s chickens were acting in a peculiar way. Sure enough, the men dug up a still from under the floor of the chicken house.
In 1929, we were transferred to Gypsumville to open a detachment there. We will always think of that place as ‘Mushroom Town.’ We were greeted our first day by a group of children who brought us a heaping dish panful of fresh mushrooms. They did this almost every day and we never tired of them. In fact, we still count a good feed of mushrooms a treat.
We were only to be at Gypsumville for six months as Joe was then transferred to Ottawa to work in the Fingerprint Bureau. Those were happy months and we remember still the thrill of the Christmas party; the sleigh rides to Rockcliffe. However, Joe wasn’t cut out to be a city man. He missed being out of doors and he missed the challenges of detachment life. We were moved back to ‘D’ Divison, to Emerson detachment at the border.
We were into the dirty thirties then and it wasn’t uncommon to have people at the door looking for a handout. One evening while I was alone, three men came looking for a place for the night. I was a little frightened and couldn’t think what to do. On impulse, I sent them over to the local magistrate. The men informed the magistrate that the Mountie’s wife had said he would put them up for the night I suppose he could have been angry but he didn’t let me down. He gave them a bed for the nightin the town lock-up!
I still enjoyed going out with the men as often as was possible. For a while we had a bad time with cigarette smugglers at the border and I pride myself in being responsible for apprehending at least three of them. I had gone out one night with Joe and Ken Coulter, the constable, while they walked the tracksa favorite spot for smugglers to hang out. They caught one man and brought him back to sit in the car with me while they went out once more. My prisoner tried to distract me with talk but as well as being aware of the fact that he was frantically stuffing cartons under the seat, I also kept an eagle eye on the road. Suddenly, I saw three men. We had previously decided that if I saw anything suspicious, I would give a low whistle. Well! I have never been very good at whistling and now that I had to do it, it was the hardest thing in the world. I rolled down the window and gave my feeble toot. Coulter responded and was able to apprehend the three men who were, indeed, smugglers. At least, I noticed all the way to the detachment that they occasionally tossed cartons out the window. I mentioned this to Ken and Joe and before long we had to stop the car and all get out to salvage some of the evidence.
One of the most nerve-wracking episodes that I endured as a Mounted Policeman’s wife, involved the harmless business of checking out the safety of the patrol car. Coulter and I had taken a woman prisoner to Winnipeg. It seemed a logical time, to him, to put the car through a necessary safety check. At the RCMP garage, I was told I could stay in the car if I wished. All went well until it came time to test the brakes. One Mountie got into the car beside me while another one stood up ahead of us in front of a big cement wall. On signal from the man up ahead, we shot forward, heading for the cement wall at a terrifying rate of speed. I was sure it would be the end of all three of us. At the last possible moment, the man we were about to run down gave us another signal and my driver slammed on the brakes. They were adequate. We stopped in time but as the years passed, I have never forgotten the terror I felt as we were hurtling toward that cement wall.
In October of 1935, we were transferred to Norway House. We travelled the length of Lake Winnipeg on the SS Keenora. October had been a beautifully warm month and I thought nothing of swimming across the river for my daily exercise. Then it turned cold suddenly and within the space of one day, people had great difficulty getting through the freezing water with their canoes. Next morning, the radio operator from the fort arrived at our door with a telegram. “How did you get across the river?” I asked him. “Walked across on the ice,” he said confidently. “It’s quite safe.” “Well,” I countered, “it might be quite safe for you but I swam across that river day before yesterday and it will be a good long time before I walk on it!”
We walked everywhere on the ice after that. The winter trails were merely paths on the frozen rivers. We either walked or travelled by dog team and occasionally one would see a horse and sleigh from one of the missions. I’m afraid I never got used to the terrific boom that often sounded right under your feet while walking on the ice.
It was at Norway House that I got acquainted with dog teams. I learned then what wonderful animals the sleigh dogs were though I never grew to trust them enough to attempt to touch one. Still, a little sadness always crept in when one grew old or sick and had to be destroyed.
The detachment quarters at Norway House was an old log building, re-covered long since with lumber siding. The huge, heavy doors and tiny square windows had been shipped over from Scotland at the time that the house was built. The police compound included a separate office and jail. We also had a huge garden which the prisoners looked after. Tubs and tubs of vegetables were harvested off our garden each year and I was kept busy canning the produce for winter. I never knew how many hungry men would be spending the winter in our jail house!
One day, I heard the prisoners complaining about their meals. It sounded an unlikely complaint as I’d made sure they were always well fed. I investigated and found that they were hungry for bannock. I gave the men what they needed and they cooked themselves a pile of bannock, baking it in an outdoor fire that they built on the rocks. I enjoyed some for my supper that night too.
Our mail came in just whenever it managed to get there. We could count on the first plane of the winter to come before Christmas. That caused great excitement. That day, I would forget the housework and simply sit on the floor going through huge bundles of mail. And we knew then that there would be weeks to wait before the mail came again.
I went for my first plane ride at Norway House. I sat in the back of the plane amid the bags of mail and freight. There was only one seat and that was for the pilot. In contrast to flying, I used to enjoy too the trips I made with Special Constable Jim McDonald and his dog team. We would often go out onto the bay to lift the net he had set under the ice. He fished in this manner to get food for the dogs.
When the time came to leave Norway House in 1938, I stayed behind for a month as the children at the fort had been ill with typhoid. I had been helping to care for them and it didn’t seem right to leave my friends while they still needed me.
Page revised: 20 July 2009