Boots and Saddles/Chapter 20

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 20

CHAPTER XX.

THE SUMMER OF THE BLACK HILLS EXPEDITION.

I used to be thankful that ours was a mounted regiment on on account: if we had belonged to the infantry, the regiment would have been sent out much sooner. The horses were too valuable to have their lives endangered by encountering a blizzard, while it was believed that an enlisted man had enough pluck and endurance to bring him out of a storm in one way or another. Tardy as the spring was up there, the grass began at last to be suitable for grazing, and preparations for an expedition to the Black Hills were being carried on. I had found accidentally that my husband was fitting up an ambulance for travelling, and as he never rode in one himself, nor arranged to take one for his own comfort, I decided at once that he was planning to take me with him. Mary and I had lived in such close quarters that she counted on going also, and went to the general to petition. To keep her from knowing that he intended to take us, he argued that we could not get along with so little room; that there was only to be allowed half a wagon for the camp outfit of the head-quarters mess. “Yon dun’ know better’n that, giniral?” she replied; “me and Miss Libbie could keep house in a flour-barr’l.”

At the very last, news came through Indian scouts that the summer might be full of danger, and my heart was almost broken at finding that the general did not dare to take me with him. Whatever peril might be awaiting me on the expedition, nothing could be equal to the suffering of suspense at home.

The black hour came again, and with it the terrible parting which seemed a foreshadowing of the most intense anguish that our Heavenly Father can send to his children. When I resumed my life, and tried to portion off the day with occupations, in order that the time should fly faster, I found that the one silver thread running through the dark woof of the dragging hours was the hope of the letters we were promised. Scouts were to be sent back four times during the absence of the regiment.

The infantry came to garrison our post. In the event of attack, my husband left a Gatling gun on the hills at the rear of the camp. It is a small cannon, which is discharged by turning a crank that scatters the shot in all directions, and is especially serviceable at short range. A detachment of soldiers was stationed on the bluff back of us, that commanded the most extended view of the country. The voice of the sentinel calling, at regular intervals during the night, “All’s well,” often closed our anxious eyes. Out there one slept lightly, and any unusual noise was attributed to an attack on our pickets, and caused us many a wakeful hour. With what relief we looked up daily to the little group of tents, when we finally realized that we were alone.

The officer who commanded this little station was an old bachelor who did not believe in marriage in the army. Not knowing this, we told him, with some enthusiasm, how safe and thankful we felt in having him for our defender. Ho quite checked our enthusiasm by replying, briefly, “that in case of attack, his duty was to protect Government property; the defence of women came last.” This was the first instance I had ever known of an officer who did not believe a woman was God’s best gift to man.

We were not effectually suppressed, for the only safe place in which we could walk was along the beat of the sentry, on the brow of the hill, near the tent of this zoological specimen. Here we resorted every evening at twilight to try and get cool, for the sun burns fiercely during the short Northern summer. With the hot weather the mosquito war began—Fort Lincoln was celebrated as the worst place in the United States for these pests. The inundations recurring each spring opposite us, brought later in the year myriads of the insects; those I had known on the Red River of the South were nothing in comparison. If the wind was in a certain direction, they tormented us all day long. I can see now how we women looked, taking our evening stroll: a little procession of fluttering females, with scarfs and over-dresses drawn over our heads, whisking handkerchiefs and beating the air with fans. It required constant activity to keep off the swarms of those wretched little insects that annoyed us every moment during our airing. In the evening we became almost desperate. It seemed very hard, after our long winter’s imprisonment, to miss a single hour out-of-doors during the short summer.

We had petitioned that in the rebuilding of our house the piazza around it should be made wide, like those we enjoyed in the South. On this delightful gallery we assembled every evening. We were obliged to make special toilets for our protection, and they were far from picturesque or becoming. Some one discovered that wrapping newspapers around our ankles and feet, and drawing the stocking over, would protect down to he slipper; then, after tucking our skirts closely around us, we fixed ourselves in a chair, not daring to move.

One night a strange officer came to see us, and taking his place among the group of huddled-up women, he tried not to smile. I discovered him taking in my tout ensemble, however, and realized myself what an incongruity I was on that lovely gallery and in the broad moonlight. I had adopted a head-net: they are little tarlatan bags, gathered at one end and just large enough to slip over the head; rattans are run round these to prevent their touching the face—they look like dolls’ crinolines, and would make a seraph seem ugly. In desperation I had added a waterproof cloak, buckskin gauntlets, and forgot to hide under my gown the tips of the general’s riding-boots! Tucked up like a mummy, I was something at which no one could resist laughing. The stranger beat off the mosquitoes until there lay on the floor before him a black semi-circle of those he had slain. He acknowledged later that all vanity regarding personal appearance would be apt to disappear before the attacks to which we were subjected. We fought in succession five varieties of mosquitoes; the last that came were the most vicious. They were so small they slid easily through the ordinary bar, and we had to put an inside layer of tarlatan on doors and windows. We did not venture to light a lamp in the evening, and at five o’clock the netting was let down over the beds, and doors and windows closed. When it came time to retire we removed our garments in another room, and grew skilful in making sudden sallies into the sleeping-room and quick plunges under the bar.

The cattle and horses suffered pitiably during the reign of the mosquitoes. They need to push their way into the underbrush to try if a thicket would afford them protection; if a fire were lighted for their relief, they huddled together on the side towards which the wind blew the smoke. As it was down by the river, they were worse off than ever. The cattle grew thin, for there were days when it was impossible for them to graze. We knew of their being driven mad and dying of exhaustion after a long season of torment. The poor dogs dug deep holes in the side of the hills, where they half smothered in their attempt to escape.

The Missouri River at the point where we had to cross sometimes represented a lifetime of terror to me. We were occasionally compelled to go to the town of Bismarck, four miles back on the other side. I could not escape the journey, for it was the termination of the railroad, and officers and their families coming from the East were often detained there; while waiting for the steamer to take them to their posts they were compelled to stay in the untidy, uncomfortable little hotel. If I sent for them they declined to come to us, fearing they might make extra trouble; if I went for them in the post ambulance, I rarely made a fruitless errand. Even when elated with the prospect of a little outing at St. Paul, I so dreaded that terrible river that we most cross going and coming, it almost destroyed my pleasure for a time. The current was so swift that it was almost impossible for the strongest swimmer to save himself if once he fell in: the mud settled on him instantly, clogged his movements, and bore him under. Some of the soldiers had been drowned in attempting to cross, in frail, insecure skiffs, to the drinking-huts opposite. As I looked into this roaring torrent, whose current rushes on at the rate of six miles an hour, I rarely failed to picture to myself the upturned faces of these lost men.

The river is very crooked, and full of sand-bars, the channel changing every year. The banks are so honeycombed by the force of the water that great portions are constantly caving in. They used to fall with a loud thud into the river, seeming to unsettle the very foundations of the earth. In consequence, it was hard work for the ferry-boat to make a landing, and more difficult to keep tied up, when once there.

The boat we were obliged to use was owned by some citizens who had contracted with the Government to do the work at that point. In honor of its new duty they renamed it The Union. The Western word “ramshackly” described it. It was too large and unwieldy for the purpose, and it had been condemned as unsafe farther down the river, where citizens value life more highly. The wheezing and groaning of the old machinery told plainly how great an effort it was to propel the boat at all. The road down to the plank was so steep, cut deep into the bank as it was, that even with the brakes on, the ambulance seemed to be turning a somersault over the four mules. They kicked and straggled, and opposed going on the boat at all. We struck suddenly at the foot of the incline, with a thump that threw us off the seat of the ambulance. The “hi-yis” of the driver, the creak of the iron brake, and the expressive remarks of the boatman in malediction upon the mules, made it all seem like a descent into Hades, and the river Styx an enviable river in contrast. The ambulance was placed on deck, where we could see the patched boiler, and through the chinks and seams of the furnaces we watched the fire, expecting an explosion momentarily.

After we were once out in the channel the real trouble began. I never knew, when I started for Bismarck, whether we would not land at Yankton, five hundred miles below. The wheel often refused to revolve more than half-way, the boat would turn about, and we would shoot down the river at a mad rate. I used to receive elaborate nautical explanations from the confused old captain why that happened. My intellect was slow to take in any other thought than the terrifying one—that he had lost control of the boat. I never felt tranquil, even when the difficulty was righted, until I set my foot on the shore, though the ground itself was insecure from being honeycombed by the current. The captain doubtless heard my pæan of thanks when I turned my back on his old craft, for once afterwards I received from him a crumpled, soiled letter, with curious spelling and cramped hand, in which he addressed me as “highly honored lady,” and in lofty-sounding terms proceeded to praise his boat, assuring me that if I would deign to confer on hm the honor of my presence, he would prove it to be quite safe, and as “peert” a steamer as sailed. With a great flourish, he ended, “for The Union must and shall he preserved,” and signed himself my I most humble admirer.

We were told, when the expedition started, that we might expect our first letters in two weeks. The mail was delayed, unfortunately, and each day after the fortnight had expired seemed a month. In spite of all my efforts to be busy, there was little heart in any occupation. The women met together every day and read aloud in turn. Every one set to work to make a present for the absent ones with which to surprise them on their return. We played croquet. This was tame sport, however, for no one dared to vary the hum-drum diversion by a brisk little quarrel, which is the usual accompaniment of that game. We feared to disagree even over trifles, for if we did it might end in our losing our only companionship.

We knew that we could not expect, in that climate, that the freshness of summer would last for more than a short time after the sun had come to its supremest in the way of heat. The drouth was unbroken; the dews were hardly perceptible. That year even our brief enjoyment of the verdure was cut short. A sirocco came up suddenly. The sky became copper-colored, and the air murky and stifling; the slightest touch of metal, or even the door-handles, almost blistered the fingers. The strong wind that blew seemed to shrivel the skin as it touched us. The grass was burned down into the roots, and we had no more of it that season, This wind lasted for two hours, and we could not keep back apprehensions at the strange occurrence. After that, during the summer, as we walked over the little space allowed us, our shoes were cut by the crisp brown stubble, and the sod was dry and unyielding under our feet. As far as we could see, the scorched earth sent up over its surface floating waves of heated atmosphere. No green thing was left. The only flowers that bad not been scorched out of existence were the soap plants, which have a sword-like stalk, out of which grow the thick, creamy petals of its flower. The roots that extend for many feet in all directions near the surface of the soil, enable it to secure moisture sufficient to keep it alive. The only other flower was the blue-bell, which dotted a hill where we were accustomed to climb in order to command a better view of the country in our efforts to discover the scouts with the mail. One can scarcely imagine how hungrily we gazed at those little blossoms. They swung lightly on their cunningly fashioned stems, that swayed and tossed the tiny azure cups, but withstood the strongest wind. I cannot see even a sketch of that flower now without thinking how grateful we were for them out there in that stripped and almost “God-forgotten” land. When we threw ourselves on the turf among them, the little bells almost seemed to us to ring out a tiny sound, as if they were saying, in flowery cadence, “The hand that made us is divine.”

Some of our eyes seemed to be perpetually strained, watching the horizon for the longed-for scouts. At dawn one morning—which is at three o’clock in summer in Dakota—I was awakened by strange sounds at the door. When I drew the curtain, there were the Ree scouts, and on their ponies the mail-bag, marked by some facetions hand, “Black Hills Express.” It took but a second to fling on a wrapper and fairly tumble down the steps. The Indians made the sign of long hair and called “Ouches,” which is the word denoting that in their language. (The general had borne this name with them for some time.) I was too impatient to wait their tardy movements, and tried to loosen the mail-bag. The Indian, always pompous and important if he carries despatches, wafted me away. I understood enough, to be sure, that no one would receive the mail but the officer in command. As the scouts slowly moved down the line towards his quarters, other impatient female figures with flying hair came dancing restlessly out on the porches. Every woman soon knew that news had come. Even the cooks, scantily attired, ran out to stand beside their mistresses and wave their fat arms to the Indians to hurry them on. Our faithful soldier, Keevan, whom my husband had left to care for us, hearing the commotion, came to ask what he could do. I sent him to bring back the letters. He, in his turn, thinking only to serve me, made an effort to open the mail-bag, but the watchful Indian suppressed him quickly. The old fellow’s face beamed with delight when he placed the great official envelope, crowded with closely-written pages, in my hand. How soon they were devoured, though, and what a blank there seemed in the day when we knew that we had nothing more to expect!

Three times after that we had letters. They were meet interesting, with descriptions of the charm of travelling over ground no white feet had ever before touched. My family could not avoid, even at that distance, studying up little plans to tease me. After describing their discovery and entrance into a large and almost hidden cave, my husband said that Colonel Tom and he had come upon the bones of a white man, doubtless the only one who had ever set foot in that portion of the world. Beside him lay a tin cup, some buttons from his coat, and a rusty, ancient flint-lock musket. All were marked with his initials. They were the same as those of one of the friends whom I had known when a little romping girl of seventeen. “This,” they said, in the language of a dime novel, “explains the mysterious disappearance of your old love. Rather than meet such a fate as awaited him in marrying you, old lady, he has chosen to seek out solitude in a cavern, and there die.” Of course I thought even the story of the finding of the cave a fabrication for my benefit. I enjoyed it hugely, and thought what ingenuity they had employed to invent such a tale. When they came back at the end of the summer, and brought the musket and other mementos, with the very initials rusting in the metal, and declared on honor that they had found the skeleton, I was compelled to believe them. Not that the remains of the unfortunate man were those of my early friend, who was soon afterwards accounted for, but that some unhappy man had actually wandered into that dismal place and died a tragic death alone.

When the day of their return came, I was simply wild with joy. I hid behind the door as the command rode into garrison, ashamed to be seen crying and laughing and dancing up and down with excitement. I tried to remain there and receive the general, screened from the eyes of outsiders. It was impossible, I was down the steps and beside my husband without being conscious of how I got there. I was recalled to my senses and overwhelmed with confusion by a great cheer from the soldiers, who, I had forgotten, were lookers-on. Regular soldiers rarely cheer, and the unusual sound, together with the embarrassment into which I had unconsciously plunged myself, made the few steps back to the house seem a mile.

When we could take time to look every one over, they were all amusing enough. Some wives did not know their husbands, and looked indignant enough when caught in an embrace by an apparent stranger. Many, like the general, had grown heavy beards. All were sun-burnt, their hair faded, and their clothes so patched that the original blue of the uniform was scarcely visible. Of course there had been nothing on the expedition save pieces of white canvas with which to reinforce the riding-breeches, put new elbows on sleeves, and replace the worn knees.

The boots were out at the toes, and the clothing of some were so beyond repairing that the officers wanted to escape observation by slipping, with their tattered rags, into the kitchen-door. The instruments of the band were jammed and tarnished, but they still produced enough music for us to recognize the old tone of “Garryowen,” to which the regiment always returned.

By-and-by the long wagon-train appeared. Many of the covers had elk horns strapped to them, until they looked like strange bristling animals as they drew near. Some of the antlers were brought to us as presents. Besides them we had skins, specimens of gold and mica, and petrified shells of iridescent colors, snake rattles, pressed flowers, and petrified wood. My husband brought me a keg of the most delicious water from a mountain-stream. It was almost my only look at clear water for years, as most of the streams west of the Missouri are muddy.

As soon as the column appeared in sight, the old soldier who had served me with such fidelity all summer went to Mary to tell her the news. He also said that as long as the general had put Mrs. Custer in his charge he knew how to behave. Now, being no longer on honor, he added, “I intend to celebrate their return by going on a tremendous ‘bum.’ ” How any one could get drunk in so short a time was a mystery. The general had hardly removed his buckskin-coat before the old fellow stumbled up the steps and nearly fell in the door, with his arms full of puppies that had arrived during the summer. The rejoicing was too general for misdemeanors to be noticed. The man was thanked for his watchful care over me during the months past, and advised to find a place to go to sleep in as soon as possible.