Boots and Saddles/Chapter 18

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII.

IMPROVEMENTS AT THE POST, AND GARDENING.

The general began, as soon as the snow was off the ground, to improve the post. Young cotton-wood trees—the only variety that would grow in that soil—were trans-planted from the river bank. They are so full of sap that I have seen the leaves come out on the logs that had been cut some time and were in use as the frame-work of our camp-huts. This vitality, even when the roots were dying, deceived us into building hopes that all the trees we planted would live. We soon found by experience, however, that it was not safe to regard a few new leaves as a sure augury of the long life of these trees. It would have been difficult to estimate how many barrels of water were poured around their roots during the summer. A few of them survived, even during the dry season, and we watched them with great interest.

One day my husband called me to the door, with a warning finger to come softly. He whispered to me to observe a bird perched on a branch, and trying to get under the shade of two or three tiny leaflets that were struggling to live. Such a harbinger of hope made us full of bright anticipations of the day when our trees would cast a broad shadow.

No one who has not experienced it can dream what it is to live so many years in a glare as we did. Many of the officers were almost blind from time to time, owing to the reflection of the sand over which they marched, and with which they were surrounded in camp and garrison. I once asked a friend who had crossed the plains several times, what she would prefer above everything else on the march. When she replied, “a tree,” I agreed with her that nothing else could have been such a blessing.

My husband felt that any amount of care spent on the poor little saplings would be labor well bestowed. If we were ordered away, he knew that others coming after us, stationed in that dreary waste, would derive the benefit. Several years afterwards I was assured that some one was reaping his sowing, for a large leaf was enclosed to me in an envelope, and a word added to explain that it was from the tree in front of our quarters.

On the opposite side of the Missouri River, except for the scattered underbrush along the banks, there was a stretch of country for eighty miles eastward without a tree, and with hardly a bush. The only one I knew of, on our side of the river, I could not help calling a genuine ancestral tree. It was a burying-place for the Indians. We counted seventeen of them that were lashed to boards and laid across the main branches, and there securely fastened, so that a tornado could not dislodge them. Much as we longed to enjoy what had become by its rarity a novelty, the sitting under the shade of green trees, and hearing the sound of the wind through the foliage, not one of us could be induced to tarry under those sepulchral boughs.

The struggles to make the grass grow on the sandy parade-ground were unesnsing. Not only would it have been an improvement to the post, in its general appearance, but it would certainly have added materially to our comfort. How we longed to escape from the clouds of dust that the unceasing wind took up in straight whirling eddies and then wafted in great sheets of murky yellow into our doors and windows, making our eyes smart and throats raw and parched, as alkali sand can do so effectually.

The general sent East for grass-seed, which, with oats, were sown over and over again. Our referee on all agricultural questions assured us that the oats sprouted so soon, the oncoming blades of grass would be protected. He was so enthusiastically in earnest that he seemed to be studying the soil at all hours of the day to detect a verdant tinge.

One moonlight night we were attracted to the gallery by seeing him stalking slowly back and forth, waving his arms in apparent gesticulation of speech as he traversed the length of the parade-ground. Some said, in explanation, that the moon was at that stage when reason totters on her throne most readily; another declared that, having become tired of the career of a Mars, ho had resumed his old rôle as a statesman, and was practising, addressing his imaginary constituents. All were wrong. The faithful promoter of the general good was sowing oats again, doubtless hoping that the witchery of the moonlight would be a potent spell to induce their growth. Even after such indefatigable efforts, the soil refused to encourage the sprouting of more than occasional patches of pallid green.

A portion of ground near the river was assigned the companies for their gardens, and there were enough soldiers looking forward to the result who counted it no hardship to plant, dig, and weed. All this tilling of the soil inspired our energies, and a corner of our own yard was prepared. A high fence was put up so that the stag-hounds, which make such incredible leaps, could not scale the enclosure. The household even gathered about the general to see him drop the seed, so full of interest were we all. Long before it was time to look for sprouting, we made daily pilgrimages to the corner and peered through the fence.

The general, Colonel Tom, and I watered, weeded, and watched the little bit of earth; the cook and house-maid took our places and resumed our work when we ceased. Never was a patch of terra firma so guarded and cared for! At last Mary became impatient, and even turned the tiny sprouts upside down, putting the plants back after examining the roots. Her watch was more vigilant than ours, and she actually surprised the general one morning by putting beside him a glass of radishes. It was really a sensation in our lives to have raised them ourselves, and we could not help recalling the pitiful statement of a dear friend, who also belonged to a mounted regiment, that she had planted gardens for twelve successive springs, but had never been stationed long enough in one place to reap the benefit of a single attempt. Of course, being naturally so sanguine as a family, we began in imagination almost to taste the oncoming beets, turnips, etc. We reckoned too hastily, however, for a perfect army of grasshoppers appeared one day. They came in swarms, and when we looked up at the sun we seemed to be gazing through clouded air. Absorbed in this curious sight we forgot our precious garden; but Colonel Tom remembered, and insisted upon trying an experiment recommended in print by a Minnesota farmer. Seizing some tins from the kitchen, and followed by the servants and their mistress, all armed in the same manner, we adopted the advice of the newspaper paragraph, and beat the metal with perfectly deafening noise around the small enclosure. Had grasshoppers been sensitive to sound, it would have ended in our triumph. As it was, they went on peacefully and stubbornly, eating every twig in our sight. Having finished everything, they soared away, carrying on their departing wings our dreams of radishes and young beets! The company gardens were demolished in the same manner, and every one returned for another year to the tiresome diet of canned vegetables.

I remember the look of amazement that came into the face of a luxurious citizen when I told him that we gave a dinner at once if we had the good-fortune to get anything rare. “And, pray, what did you call a rarity?” he responded. I was obliged to own that over a plebeian cabbage we have had a real feast. Once in a great while one was reluctantly sold us in Bismarck for a dollar and a half.

We used condensed milk, and as for eggs, they were the greatest of luxuries. In the autumn we bought from St. Paul several cases, but five hundred miles of jostling made great havoc with them.

The receipt-books were exasperating. They invariably called for cream and fresh eggs, and made the cook furious. It seemed to me that some officer’s servant on the frontier must have given the receipt for waffles, for it bears the indefinite tone of the darky: “Eggs just as yon haz ’em, honey; a sprinklin’ of flour as you can hold in your hand; milk! well, ’cordin’ to what you has.”

The crystallized eggs, put up in cans and being air-tight, kept a long time, and were of more use to us than any invention of the day. In drying the egg, the yolks and whites were mixed together, and nothing could be made of this preparation when the two parts were required to be used separately. It made very good batter-cakes, however, and at first it seemed that we could never get enough.

In the spring, when it was no longer safe to hunt, we bad to return to beef, as we had no other kind of meat. My husband never seemed to tire of it, however, and suggested to one of our friends who had the hackneyed motto in his dining-room, that she change it to “Give us this day our daily beef.”

Once only, in all those years of frontier life, I had strawberries. They were brought to me as a present from St. Paul. The day they came there were, as usual, a number of our friends on the piazza. I carefully counted noses first, and hastily went in before any one else should come, to divide the small supply into infinitesimal portions. I sent the tray out by the maid, I and was delayed a moment before following her. My I husband stepped inside, his face as pleased as a child over the surprise, but at the same time his eyes hastily scanning the buttery shelves for more berries. When I found that in that brief delay another officer had come upon the porch, and that the general had given him his dish, I was greatly disappointed. In vain my husband assured me, in response to my unanswerable appeal, asking him why he had not kept them himself, that it was hardly his idea of hospitality. I was only conscious of the fact that having been denied them all these years, he had, after all, lost his only strawberry feast.

Tins doubtless seems like a very trifling circumstance to chronicle, and much less to have grieved over, but there are those who, having ventured “eight miles from a lemon,” have gained some faint idea what temporary deprivations are.

When such a life goes on year after year, and one forgets even the taste of fruit and fresh vegetables, it becomes an event when they do appear.