Articles

Who was the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

ALAN PHILLIPS October 1 1955
Articles

Who was the Mad Trapper of Rat River?

ALAN PHILLIPS October 1 1955

IT WAS a hot July day in 1931 when the man called Albert Johnson came floating down Peel River to begin his infamous odyssey.

He beached his raft above Fort McPherson and strode back to the settlement, a cluster of whitewashed cabins and a log trading post. To the northeast stretched the flat green delta of the Mackenzie, obscenely lush, a malevolent marsh that passed imperceptibly into 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 sensational manhunt.

On three continents newspaper readers would marvel day by day at the exploits of this ruthless adventurer. No one will ever know 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 stoop-shouldered, sun-reddened, fly-bitten—most unlikely material for romance. 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—very 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 RCMP detachment thirty miles southeast. Douglas was glad to see him; the thirty-year-old Mountie was highly regarded on the delta for his (good) humor, common sense and bushcraft.

Millen had heard of the stranger from wandering Loucheux Indians. He wanted Douglas to ( ) him more. In the Arctic, as Douglas knew, a ( ) 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 figured he’s going up Rat River, over the mountains of White Pass, down the Bell, down the Eagle and onto the Porcupine. Another reason I that way, Newt—some Loucheux passed by upriver. He asked them where he was. When they said he was on the Peel he was pretty annoyed.”

Millen digested this information. The () waters of the Peel and the Porcupine are in Yukon only a few miles apart. A man could easily mistake one for the other. But the Peel flows into the Territories, the Porcupine into Alaska.

“I better talk to him,” Millen said. “He does (not) 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 with the hostility that came seeping to the surface from some inner reservoir. "How’d you come in?” Millen asked.

 "Mackenzie River. I been working all last winter on the prairies.”

Millen knew it was a lie. Douglas had told him the stranger had come from upriver. He let it pass. "Going to stay around here long?” Millen asked. 

"Maybe. I don’t know yet.”

"If you want to trap, I can give you a license now. That will save you making a trip into Arctic Red River.”

"I haven’t made up my mind,” Johnson said evasively. "I may go over Rat River portage.”

"Alone?”

Johnson scowled. He made no answer.

"You ought to hire a guide,” Millen said evenly.

It was as if the thought had triggered some mental thermostat. Anger flooded into Johnson’s voice. "No!” he said 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 time.

Millen had been trying to tell him that one man alone could not make his way up Rat Rapids. But Johnson’s blue eyes, pale as sea ice, were filled with cold unreasoning hate.

Millen shrugged and walked away.

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 trapline 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 threatened them with a rifle.

"You’d better go up and see what it’s all about, Bunce,” said Millen to A. W. King, second constable at the RCMP detachment.

King set out by dog team the day after Christmas. He was in his late twenties, a powerful hearty man 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 it Destruction City.

On the third afternoon, with eighty miles behind them, and the hills on both sides narrowing to Rat Canyon, they swung round 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 grey 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 all approaches.

From the Hut Came an Answer

King peered in the tiny half-frosted window. A few inches away a wild-eyed face glared out at him from the gloom.

King knocked again, shouting his name and business. The man inside was silent. The Mountie cursed. He would have to trek to Aklavik and back, one hundred and sixty miles, to pick up a search warrant from A. N. Eames, the inspector in charge of the RCMP sub-district.

It was mid-morning, 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 had detailed two trustworthy men to accompany Bernard and King on the trip 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 finish this business in time to get to Bill Douglas’ New Year’s party being held at Fort McPherson.

"You stay with the dogs, Joe,” he told Bernard. "Lazarus, you scout around to the back. Jack, you cover me, will you?” McDowell edged behind a riverbank spruce.

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. Make for the brush.”

Now he heard McDowell’s rifle and King 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" ’ Lazarus asked.

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 to travel.

Through swirling ground storms 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 staved off by King’s fine condition and empty stomach, for in his hurry to get to the New Year’s party King had stopped only once the day before for food. Luck, and McDowell’s record twenty-hour run, had saved his life.

“You May as Well Give Up”

The news of King’s shooting spread quickly through Aklavik, 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 Knud Lang. They figured Johnson was more likely to give himself up to a party that included 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 some dynamite to breach the walls of the cabin which King had described— rather 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 grey 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 dead.”

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 earth.

The police party were shooting in woolen gloves, their outer mitts dangling by a thong 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 kill him.”

The dynamite, exploding in the open, had no effect. At midnight Knud Lang said, "Maybe if I could get up on the roof I could stun him with a big charge.” Eames agreed.

Running a gantlet 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 crouching on the floor, a sawed-off shotgun in one hand, a revolver in the other. The two men stared into each other’s eyes. Then Johnson snapped a shot. Lang jumped back and dodged to the riverbank. He knew now that Johnson had a shotgun, a revolver and two rifles, probably a .22 and a 30-30 Savage.

They threw flares. In the flickering light they tried to glimpse Johnson between logs where the chinking had been blasted out by 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.

At 3 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. Dead-white patches of frostbite showed on some. Cold and spasmodic excitement had drained their strength. They needed rest and food and he had only one day’s supplies left.

The inspector hurried his posse, angry and frustrated, back to Aklavik where he arranged for more supplies and men. Two ingenious army signalmen, Sergeants Frank Riddell and F. H. "Heps” Hersey, fashioned crude grenades and homemade gas bombs —beer bottles filled with sulphur 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 some crime lay on his conscience. 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 so successfully defied the famous Mounted Police.

Constable Millen and Karl Gardlund returned to the battleground in advance of the main party. Hoarfrost lay unbroken over the trampled snow and upon the half-smashed door. An unmistakable air of desertion clung to the dwelling.

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 of tracks.

Eames and his posse arrived two days later, January 17. They had set up a 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 most 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 Riddell.

In pairs the quartet stalked their quarry through the scrub of the creek beds. 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 which 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 hard-packed wind-swept ridges between. At night he would trek up a stream bed, 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. Beyond the mountains, across the narrow neck of the Yukon little more than a hundred miles, lay Alaska.

The Quarry in Their Sights

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 better go back and get Newt.”

Next morning the four men peered from the lip 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 roots?”

"I don’t like it,” Millen muttered, strangely preoccupied. The others glanced at each other; Millen was a man who took risk lightly; his greatest fault was his sense of personal invulnerability.

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 creek bank. 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 hurt.”

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.

Death in the Snow

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 caught the light and gleamed metallically. "Look out!” Riddell yelled and dodged behind a poplar.

A shot ripped bark from the trunk and 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, kneeling, was coolly 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 motionless.

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 grey, the eyes open, staring. A small stain darkened his khaki parka over the 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 heard the killer coughing only a few yards away. They debated what to do. It was no longer an adventure. Death with its terrible finality had sobered them. It was incredible that Millen was dead.

They could see no way of capturing Johnson. They tied spruce branches over Millen’s face to keep the ravens from pecking his eyes and hoisted the body up on the bank where weasels would be less likely to find it. Gardlund and Verville agreed to watch Johnson while Riddell went back to tell Eames.

Millen’s murder, broadcast over UZK, brought angry trappers from all over the delta to Aklavik. On February 4, Inspector Eames and a posse of ten picked men surrounded the scene of Millen’s death. They were met by Gardlund who told them ruefully that Johnson had slipped away in the night. "We haven’t a clue which way he went. The only place he left tracks is where he looked at Millen’s body.”

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 pilot was Captain W. R. May, better known as Wop, a superb bush pilot, the World War 1 ace who dueled till his guns jammed with the 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 history’s first pilot to give direct aid in a manhunt.

At great risk, for winds were swirling 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 ahead, saw where Johnson had climbed a high spur, studied the cloud-wreathed peaks,then had 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’ 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 wind-swept eastern face of the continent’s least-known mountains. 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 there was neither game nor wood. They would find him dead, the Indians said.

At nightfall, Constable W. S. May (no relation to Wop 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 made by big snowshoes with a queer twist to one frame — short - spaced tracks, as if the man who made them was tired. They led down Bell River and they were fresh.

Johnson had crossed the Divide.

Next day, February 13, 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, in spite of fog, to get aloft for an hour’s reconnaissance.

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 great herd of migrating caribou.

By February 15, when Constable May and his posse of eight reached La Pierre House, Johnson had a four-day start. A huge white-haired trapper, an old - timer named Frank Jackson, showed them portages that took them fifteen miles down the Eagle by evening of February 16. Here they picked up Johnson’s trail where it left the caribou herd. It was no more than thirty-six hours old.

At twelve o’clock on the following day, with snow clouds thick overhead, they were strung out along the Eagle, between high willow-fringed banks. Signalman Heps Hersey, Olympic boxer and Fredericton track star, urged his lead team round a bend and saw a man walking toward him. It was Johnson, backtracking.

Both men stopped, astonished. Johnson drew on snowshoes and ran to one side out of sight. Hersey snatched his rifle from his toboggan and rushed forward for a clear view. Johnson was trying to climb the steep south bank, trying to make the shelter of the brush.

Hersey dropped to one knee and fired. Verville fired from behind him. Johnson whirled and snapped a shot. Hersey toppled over.

Verville ran to Hersey’s side. The others were coming up now, spreading out along both banks, passing back the word to Eames and Riddell far in the rear, "It’s Johnson! Johnson’s up ahead!”

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 gun sights at him from the deep snow of mid-river, from the thick brush of the banks alongside and above him.

"Johnson!” Eames called. "This is your last chance to give up!”

Eames’ voice rolled emptily out across the frozen white stream. A trapper shifted position and Johnson fired. Grimly the posse poured out a volley.

Johnson squirmed as the bullets struck. At ten past twelve he was still, one spot of black in a white waste of snow.

Constable May approached warily. "He’s dead!” he called to the others. A bullet had severed Johnson’s spine as he was 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 realized yet that he was shot in the chest and was hemorrhaging steadily.

Wop May gave Hersey a sedative and they lifted him into the plane. Riddell and Jack Bowen, the plane’s mechanic, held him still. May took off into clouds like grey syrup. At treetop height he roared at full speed down the twisting river, his fingers like feathers on the controls.

The plane sliced through the buffeting winds of Bell Pass and rocketed down the canyons, wing tips almost shaving the rock walls. In less than two hours following the shooting, Dr. Urquhart in Aklavik was tying off Hersey’s broken arteries.

"You got here just in time,” he told May. "He’ll live.”

Back on the river, the posse gathered round the corpse in the snow, the husk of the man called Albert Johnson. For weeks their life had centred in this elusive figure. He had loomed in epic stature in their minds, a man whose fierce unyielding self-destructive tenacity would 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 the wispy sweat-soaked hair. His pale eyes stared from dark fatigue-swollen caverns. The fury that had sustained his will had remained with him to the end, stretching back his lips 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, fishhooks, wax, matches, nails, axe, pocket compass, 119 shells, a knife made from an old trap spring—all in neatly sewn moosehide cases; five freshwater pearls, some gold dust, $2,410 in bills, and two pieces of gold bridgework, not his own.

"I wonder whose mouth they came out of,” a trapper mused darkly.

On the Trail of a Dead Man

The question was never answered, though several hundred people in Europe, the United States and Canada wrote the RCMP that they knew who Johnson was: an escaped criminal 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 RCMP investigated each claim. They sent the dead killer’s fingerprints and photograph to the central bureaus of federal police in Washington, Stockholm and London. They traced his weapons and bank notes; the leads came to a dead end—all except one:

In British Columbia in 1925, a man who called himself Arthur Nelson was trapping along the Nelson River. He moved northward into the Yukon. Here he vanishes. 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 farm boy from North Dakota.

The forces of romance moved into the vacuum. It was said that Johnson had knowledge of a secret mine that kept his pockets filled with gold. It was 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 luck. It was said that the death of an Eskimo girl had driven him wild with grief.

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 him apart from his fellow men and impelled him to write in blood on the snows of the northland the legend of the Mad Trapper of Rat River.