Boots and Saddles/Chapter 3

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 3

CHAPTER III.

WESTERN HOSPITALITY.

The citizens of Yankton, endeavoring to make up for the inhospitable reception the weather had given us, vied with one another in trying to make the regiment welcome. The hotel was filled with the families of the officers, and after the duties of the day were over in camp, the married men went into town. We were called upon, asked to dine, and finally tendered a ball. It was given in the public hall of the town, which, being decorated with flags and ornamented with all the military paraphernalia that could be used effectively, was really very attractive. We had left gas far behind us, and we had not the mellow, becoming light of wax-candles, but those Western people were generous about lamps, as they are about everything else, and the hall was very bright.

The ladies had many trials in endeavoring to make themselves presentable. We burrowed in the depths of trunks for those bits of finery that we had supposed would not be needed again for years. We knew the officers would do us credit. Through all the sudden changes of fashion, which leave an army lady when she goes into the territories quite an antediluvian in toilet after a few months, the officer can be entirely serene. He can be conscious that he looks his best in a perfectly fitting uniform, and that he is never out of date.

The general and I went into the hotel and took a room for the night of the ball. Such good-humor, confusion, and jolly preparations as we had, for the young officers came to borrow the corner of our glass to put on the finishing touches, carrying their neckties, studs, sleeve-buttons, and gloves in their hands. The aigret had been taken from the helmet and placed across their broad chests, brightening still more their shining new uniforms. I remember with what pride the "plebs" called our attention to the double row of buttons which the change in the uniform now gave to all, without regard to rank. The lieutenants had heretofore only been allowed one row of buttons, and they declared that an Apollo even could not do justice to his figure with a coat fastened in so monotonous and straight up-and-down a manner.

Yankton, like all new towns, was chiefly settled with newly-married people, who ornamented their bits of front yards with shining new perambulators. The mothers had little afternoon parades, proud enough to trundle their own babies. If any one's father ever came from the States to a Western town, we all felt at liberty to welcome his gray hairs. There were but few young girls, but that night must have been a memorable one for them. All the town, and even the country people, came to the ball. The mayor and common council received us, and the governor opened the festivities. We crossed to the hotel to our supper. We were asked to sit down to the table, and the abundance of substantials proved that our hosts did not expect us to nibble. The general was, of course, taken possession of by the city fathers and mothers, Finding among them a woman he knew I would appreciate, he placed me beside her at supper. I had but little time to eat, for she was not only clever and brave, but very interesting in her description of the dangers and hardships she had endured during the ten years of her pioneering. The railroad had been completed but a, short time, and before that the life was wild enough. She sat quietly among these people in her simple stuff gown, honored and looked up to. Though not even elderly, she was still almost the oldest citizen and an authority in the history of the country. All classes and conditions came to the ball, for Yankton was not yet large enough to be divided into cliques; besides, the rough and hazardous life these people had shared endeared them to one another.

The days after this passed very rapidly. The officers were already getting the command into condition to begin the long march of five hundred miles that lay before us. Before we left, the general, desiring to return some of the civilities of the citizens, gave the governor and his staff a review. The wide plain on which our camp was located was admirably adapted to the display of troops. My heart swelled with pride to see our grand regiment all together once more and in such fine condition. When the review was closing, and that part came where the officers leave their companies and, joining, ride abreast to salute the commanding officer, the general could hardly maintain the stereotyped, motionless quiet of the soldier—the approach of this fine body of men made him so proud of his command.

All were well mounted; the two years’ station in the South had given them rare opportunities to purchase horses. The general, being considered an excellent judge, had, at the request of the officers, bought several from the stables of his Kentucky friends. He told me that if a colt failed a quarter of a second in making certain time expected, the owner was disappointed and willing to sell him at a merely nominal sum. So it came about that even the lieutenants, with their meagre pay, owned horses whose pedigree was unending. There were three officers belonging to each of the twelve companies; some were detailed on duty elsewhere, but those remaining, with the adjutant, surgeon, quarter-master, and commissary, made a long line of brilliantly caparisoned and magnificently formed men mounted on blood-horses. No wonder that the moment they saluted the general, he jumped from the saddle to congratulate them, and show them his pride in their soldierly appearance.

The governor and his staff were not chary in their expressions of admiration. It was a great event in the lives of the citizens, and the whole town was present, Every sort of vehicle used on the frontier came out, filled to overflowing, and many persons walked. The music of the band, the sun lighting up the polished steel of the arms and equipments, the hundreds of spirited horses going through the variety of evolutions which belong to a mounted regiment, made a memorable scene for these isolated people. Besides, they felt the sensation of possession when they know that these troops had come to open the country and protect those more adventurous spirits who were already finding that a place into which the railroad ran was too far East for them.

One day we were all invited to take luncheon on board the steamer that had been chartered to take the regimental property up the river to Bismarck. The owner of the boat was very hospitable, and champagne flowed freely as he proposed old-fashioned toasts. The officers and ladies of the regiment received with pleasure all this politeness, and since those occasions were rare in the lives of those of us who lived always on the outskirts of civilization, we were reluctant to go home. My horse had been sent away by some mistake, and the general accepted the offer of the host to drive me out to camp, he riding for a time beside the carriage, and then, with his usual restlessness, giving rein to his horse for a brisk gallop. It was not long before I discovered that the uncertain swaying of the vehicle from side to side, and the hazardous manner in which we skirted the deep gullies, was due to the fact that our friend was overcome with hospitality.

Trying to talk intelligently, and to appear not to notice the vagaries of the driver, and at the same time to control my wandering eyes as they espied from afar a dangerous bit of road, I spent a very uncomfortable hour. Fortunately the "dear Polly" was most demure in harness, and possibly having been left before that to find her own way under similar circumstances, she did not attempt to leap with the carriage over ditches, as her gay owner invited her to do. When we came up within shouting distance of the general, I cried out, in I what I meant to seem like playful menace; but he had taken in the situation, and seeing that Polly was to be trusted, he mischievously laughed back at me and flew over the country. Finally we neared our little cabin, and my last fear came upon me, Mary had spread the clothes-line far and wide; it was at the rear of the house, but my escort saw no door, and Polly soon wound us hopelessly up in the line and two weeks' washing, while she quietly tried to kick her way through the packing-boxes and wood-piles! Mary and Ham extricated me, and started the old nag on the road homeward, and I waved a relieved good-bye to the retreating carriage.

Only such impossible wives as one reads of in Sunday-school books would have lost the opportunity for a few wrathful words, I was not dangerous, though, and the peals of laughter from my husband, as he described my wild eyes peering out from the side of the carriage, soon put me into a good-humor. Next day I was called to the steps, and found that Polly's owner had discovered that we had a door. He said an off-hand "How d'ye?" and presented a peace-offering, adding, "My wife tells me that I was hardly in a condition to deliver a temperance lecture yesterday. As what she says is always true, I bring my apologies." Ham carried in the hamper, and though I urged our guest to remain, he did not seem quite at ease and drove away.

While we were at Yankton, something happened that filled us with wonder. The Indians from the reservation near brought in reports that came through other tribes of the Modoc disasters. It was a marvel to the general to find that at that distance north news could come to us through Indian runners in advance of that we received by the telegraph.