Boots and Saddles/Chapter 10

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 10

CHAPTER X.

INCIDENTS OF EVERY-DAY LIFE.

The companies each gave a ball in turn during the winter, and the preparations were begun long in advance. There was no place to buy anything, save the sutler’s store and the shops in the little town of Bismarck, but they were well ransacked for materials for the supper. The bunks where the soldiers slept were removed from the barracks, and flags festooned around the room. Arms were stacked and guidons arranged in groups. A few pictures of distinguished men were wreathed in imitation laurel leaves cut out of green paper. Chandeliers and side brackets carved out of cracker-box boards into fantastic shapes were filled with candles, while at either end of the long room great logs in the wide fire-places threw out a cheerful light.

The ball opened, headed by the first-sergeant. After this the officers and their wives were invited to form a set at one end of the room, and we danced several times. One of the men whose voice was clear and loud sang the calls. He was a comical genius, and improvised new ways of calling off. When the place came in the quadrille to “Turn your partners,” his voice rose above the music, in the notes of the old song, “Oh swing those girls, those pretty little girls, those girls you left behind you!” This was such an inspiration to the fun-lovers that the swinging usually ended in our being whirled in the air by the privileged members of our family.

The soldiers were a superb lot of men physically. The out-door life had developed them into perfect specimens of vigorons manhood. After the company tailor had cut over their uniforms, they were often the perfection of good fitting. The older soldiers wore, on the sleeves of thieir coats, the rows of braid that designate the number of years in the service. Some had the army badges of the corps in which they fought during the war, while an occasional foreign decoration showed that they had been brave soldiers in the fatherland. We were escorted out to the supper-room in the company-kitchen in advance of the enlisted men. The general delighted the hearts of the sergeant and ball-managers by sitting down to a great dish of potato-salad. It was always well-flavored with the onion, as rare out there, and more appreciated than pomegranates are in New York. We ladies took cake, of course, but sparingly, for it was also a great luxury.

When we returned to watch the dancing, the general was on nettles for fear we should be wanting in tact, and show our amusement by laughing at the costumes of the women. There was but a sprinkling of them; several from Bismarck and a few white servants of the officers. Each company was allowed but three or four laundresses. The soldier was obliged to ask permission to marry, and his engagement was a weary waiting sometimes. In order to get a vacancy for his sweetheart, he had to await the discharge of some other soldier from the company, whose wife held the appointment of laundress. These women were at the ball in full force, and each one brought her baby. When we removed our wraps in the room of the first-sergeant we usually found his bed quite full of curly-headed infants sleeping, while the laundress mothers danced. The toilets of these women were something marvellous in construction. In low neck and short sleeves, their round, red arms and well-developed figures wheeled around the barracks all night long. Even the tall Mexican laundress, hereafter specially mentioned, would deck herself in pink tarletan and false curls, and notwithstanding her height and colossal anatomy, she had constant partners.

The little Dutch woman, who loved her husband more devotedly after each beating, and did not dance with any one else, was never absent from the balls. Her tiny little figure was suspended between heaven and earth while her tall soldier whirled her around the long hall in the endless German waltz. Some officer would whisper slyly in my ear, as she bowed and smiled in passing, “Do you see the get-up of ‘Old Trooble Agin?’” She had long before earned this sobriquet, when coming to me for help out of her misfortunes, beginning each story of woe with “Trooble agin,” Wherever we were, when the ordere were issued for a campaign, she soon appeared claiming sympathy. No one could feel at such a time more than I the truth of her preface, for if we were to be left behind, it was, indeed, “Trouble again.”

The pack of hounds were an endless source of delight to the general. We had about forty; the stag-hounds that run by sight, and are on the whole the fleetest and most enduring dogs in the world, and the fox-hounds that follow the trail with their noses close to the ground. The first rarely bark, but the latter are very noisy. The general and I used to listen with amusement to their attempts to strike the key-note of the bugler when he sounded the calls summoning the men to guard mount, stables, or retreat. It rather destroyed the military effect to see, beside his soldierly figure, a hound sitting down absorbed in imitation. With lifted head and rolling eyes there issued from tho broad mouth notes so doleful they would have answered for a misericordia.

The fox-hounds were of the most use in the winter, for the hunting was generally in the underbrush and timber along the river. I never tired of watching the start for the hunt. The general was a figure that would have fixed attention anywhere. He had marked individuality of appearance, and a certain unstudied carelessness in the wearing of his costume that gave a picturesque effect, not the least out of place on the frontier. He wore troop-boots reaching to his knees, buckskin breeches fringed on the sides, a dark navy blue shirt with a broad collar, a red necktie, whose ends floated over his shoulder exactly as they did when he and his entire division of cavalry had worn them during the war. On the broad felt hat, that was almost a sombrero, was fastened a slight mark of his rank.

He was at this time thirty-five years of age, weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, and was nearly six feet in height. His eyes were clear blue and deeply set, his hair short, wavy, and golden in tint. His mustache was long and tawny in color; his complexion was florid, except where his forehead was shaded by his hat, for the sun always burned his skin ruthlessly.

He was the most agile, active man I ever knew, and so very strong and in such perfect physical condition that he rarely knew even an hour’s indisposition.

Horse and man seemed one when the general vaulted into the saddle. His body was so lightly poised and so full of swinging, undulating motion, it almost seemed I that the wind moved him as it blew over the plain. Yet every nerve was alert and like finely tempered steel, for the muscles and sinews that seemed so pliable were equal to the curbing of the most fiery animal. I do not think that he sat his horse with more grace than the other officers, for they rode superbly, but it was accounted by others almost an impossibility to dislodge the general from the saddle, no matter how vicious the horse might prove. He threw his feet out of the stirrups the moment the animal began to show his inclination for war, and with his knees dug into the sides of the plunging brute, he fought and always conquered. With his own horses he needed neither spur nor whip. They were such friends of his, and his voice seemed so attuned to their natures, they knew as well by its inflections as by the slight pressure of the bridle on their necks what he wanted. By the merest inclination on the general’s part, they either sped on the wings of the wind or adapted their spirited steps to the slow movement of the march. It was a delight to see them together, they were so in unison, and when he talked to them, as thongh they had been human beings, thier intelligent eyes seemed to reply.

As an example of his horsemanship he had a way of escaping from the stagnation of the dull march, when it was not dangerous to do so, by riding a short distance in advance of the column over a divide, throwing himself on one side of his horse so as to be entirely out of sight from the other direction, giving a signal that the animal understood, and tearing off at the best speed that could be made. The horse entered into the frolic with all the zest of his master, and after the race the animal’s beautiful, distended nostrils glowed blood-red as he tossed his head and danced with delight.

In hunting, the general rode either Vic or Dandy. Tho dogs were so fond of the latter, they seemed to have little talks with him. The general’s favorite dog, Blücher, would leap up to him in the saddle, and jump fairly over the horse in starting. The spirited horses, mounted by officers who sat them so well, the sound of the horn used for the purpose of calling the dogs, their answering bay, the glad voices, and “whoop-la” to the hounds as the party galloped down tho valley, are impressions ineffaceable from my memory. They often started a deer within sound of the bugle at the post. In a few hours their shouts outside would call me to the window, and there, drooping across the back of one of the orderlies’ horses, would be a magnificent black-tailed deer. We had a saddle of venison hanging on the wood-house almost constantly during the winter. The officers’, and even the soldiers’, tables had this rarity to vary the monotony of the inevitable beef. After these hunts the dogs had often to be cared for. They would be lame, or cut in the chase, through the tangle of vines and branches. These were so dense it was a constant wonder to the general how the deer could press through with its spreading antlers. The English hounds, unacquainted with our game, used to begin with a porcupine sometimes. It was pitiful, though for a moment at first sight amusing, to see their noses and lips looking like animated pin-cushions. There was nothing for us to do after such an encounter but to begin surgery at once. The general would not take time to get off his hunting-clothes nor go near the fire until lie had called the dog into his room and extracted the painful quills with the tweezers from his invaluable knife. I sat on the dog and held his paws, but quivered even when I kept my head averted. The quills being barbed cannot be withdrawn, but must be pulled through in the same direction in which they entered. The gums, lips, and roof of the mouth were full of little wounds, but the dogs were extremely sagacious and held very still. When the painful operation was over they were very grateful, licking the general’s hand as he praised them for their pluck.

Sometimes, when the weather was moderate, and I rode after the fox-hounds, one of them separated himself from the pack, and came shaking his great, velvet ears and wagging his cumbrous tail beside my horse. The general would call my attention to him, and tell me that it was our latest surgical patient, paying us his bill in gratitude, “which is the exchequer of the poor,”

Among the pack was an old hound that had occasional fits. When he felt the symptoms of an attack he left the kennel at the rear of the house, came round to the front-door, and barked or scratched to get in. My husband knew at once that the dog was going to suffer, and that instinct had taught him to come to us for help. Rover would lie down beside the general until his hour of distress, and then solicit the ever-ready sympathy with his mournful eyes. The general rubbed and cared for him, while the dog writhed and foamed at the mouth. He was always greatly touched to see the old hound, when he began to revive, try to lift the tip of his tail in gratitude.

With the stag-hounds, hunting was so bred in the bone that they sometimes went off by themselves, and even the half-grown puppies followed, I have seen them returning from such a hunt, the one who led the pack holding proudly in his month a jack-rabbit.

The wolves in their desperate hunger used to come up on the bluffs almost within a stone’s-throw of our quarters. It was far from pleasant to look out of the window and see them prowling about. Once when the stag-hounds were let out of the kennel for exercise, they flew like the winds over the hills after a coyote. The soldier who took care of them could only follow on foot, as the crust on the snow would not bear the weight of a horse. After a long, cold walk he found the dogs standing over the wolf they had killed. When he had dragged it back to our wood-shed he sent in to ask if the general would come and see what the dogs had done unaided and alone, for he was very proud of them.

As the family all stood talking over the size of the coyote and its fur, I said, triumphantly, “Now, I shall have a robe!” It was enough for them, and they made no end of sport about my planning a robe out of one small skin. After we had all gone into the house, the soldier, who was not accustomed to hear such badgering, went in to Mary, and indignantly exclaimed, “Be jabers, and they’ll not tease her about that long!” After that, during the winter, he walked frequently over the plain with the dogs, and when they bad started a trail and run almost out of sight, he patiently followed until he reached the spot where they had brought down the game. Even in that bitter winter be brought in enough foxes, swifts, and coyotes to make me a large robe. When it was made up, I triumphantly placed myself on it, and reminded my family of their teasing, and the time, so lately past, when I had been an object of jest to them.

The weather seemed to grow colder and colder as the winter advanced—from 20° to 30° below zero was ordinary weather. The officers were energetic enough to get up sleighs, even with all the difficulties they had to encounter. There was no lumber at the post except unseasoned cotton-wood. The man who could get a packing-box for the body of his sleigh was a Crœsus. The carpenter cut and sawed the edges into scallops and curves; the rudest bobs were ironed by the company blacksmith; and the huge tongue of an army wagon was attached to the frail egg-shell. The wood-work was painted black, and really the color and shape reminded one of a little baby hearse. Sister Margaret and I disliked sleighing even under favorable circumstances, but that made no sort of difference; we were expected to go twice a day, and try in turn each new sleigh.

My husband found a sketch in some of the illustrated papers, which he thought such a fitting representation of us that he added some lines and drew some applicable features to the picture, and wrote underneath, “Margaret and Libbie enjoying a sleigh-ride!” (two wretched, shivering beings, wrapped in furs, sit with their feet in a tub of ice-water, while a servant rings a dinner-bell over their heads). When we were thus taken out, as a sacrifice we were enveloped in so many wraps we had literally to be carried and dropped into the sleigh, and after hot bricks were adjusted to our feet, we assumed the martyr look that women understand how to take on when persuaded against their will, and off we flew. It made no impression if we were speechless—the dearth of women made the men far from critical. Sometimes we went to the Hart River, which empties into the Missouri, and which we were not afraid to drive over, as it was frozen solid. And yet it should be understood that we preferred to go and be frozen rather than stay at home and be comfortable, for we were a band of friends sharing the same isolation, and each took comfort in contributing to the enjoyment of the rest.

One sort of sleighing we really did enjoy. One of the officers got up a long sleigh, using the bed of an army wagon for the box. He was his own coachman, and stood in front driving an excellent four-in-hand. We all placed ourselves in the straw and robes, and nothing of the whole party was visible except two rows of “tip tilted,” rosy-tinted noses peeping out from under fur caps and gay mufflers. If any one rashly left a seat to play some prank it was never regained. The space closed up instantly, and it was a choice of standing for the rest of the distance, or uncomfortably sitting on the spurs, arctics, or buffalo over-shoes of the others. Another of our number tried driving tandem; and as his horses were very fleet and his sleigh very frail, it was a study from first to last how soon we should gather up the fragments of our scattered selves from the white plain over which we flew at eagle speed.

When the thermometer went down to 45° below zero, the utmost vigilance was exercised to prevent the men from being frozen. The general took off all the sentinels but two, and those were encased in buffalo overcoats and shoes, and required to walk their beat but fifteen minutes at a time. There were no wells or cisterns, and the quartermaster had no means of supplying the post with water, except with a water-wagon that required six mules to haul it around the garrison. The hole in the river through which the water was drawn was cut through five feet of ice. It was simply dreadful on those bitter days to see the poor men whose duty it was to distribute the supply. My husband used to turn away with a shudder from the window when they came in sight, and beg me not to talk of a matter that he was powerless to remedy. The two barrels at the kitchen-door were all that we could have, and on some days the men and wagon could not go around at all. We husbanded every drop, and borrowed from a neighbor, if any neighbor was fortunate enough not to have used all his supply.