Boots and Saddles/Chapter 5

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 5

CHAPTER V.

CAMPING AMOUNG THE SIOUX.

Our march took us throught the grounds set apart by the Government for the use of the Sioux Indians at peace with our country. We had not made much progress before we began to see their graves. They do not bury their dead, but place them on boards lashed to the limbs of trees, or on high platforms raised from the ground by four poles perhaps twenty feet. The body is wound round and round with clothing or blankets, like a mummy, and inside the layers are placed fire-arms, tobacco, and jerked beef, to supply them on the imaginary journey to the happy hunting-grounds. In the early morning, when it was not quite light, as we filed by these solitary sepulchres, it was uncanny and weird, and the sun, when it came, was doubly welcome. Our first visitor from Agency Indians was Fool-dog, a Sioux chief. He was tall, commanding, and had really a fine face. When he was ready to go home he invited us to come to his village before we left on our nest march. At twilight my husband and I walked over. The village was a collection of tepees of all sizes, the largest being what is called the Medicine Lodge, where the councils are held. It was formed of tanned buffalo-hides, sewed together with buckskin thongs and stretched over a collection of thirty-six poles. These poles are of great value to the Indians, for in a sparsely timbered country like Dakota it is difficult to find suitable trees. It is necessary to go a great distance to procure the kind of sapling that is light and pliable and yet sufficiently strong for the purpose. The poles are lashed together at the tops and radiate in a circle below. The smoke was pouring out of the opening above, and the only entrance to the tepee was a round aperture near the ground, sufficiently large to allow a person to crawl in. Around the lodge were poles from which were suspended rags; in these were tied their medicines of roots and herbs, supposed to be a charm to keep off evil spirits. The sound of music came from within; I crept tremblingly in after the general, not entirely quieted by his keeping my hand in his, and whispering something to calm my fears as I sat on the buffalo robe beside him. In the first place, I knew how resolute the Indians were in never admitting one of their own women to council, and their curious eyes and forbidding expressions towards me did not add to my comfort. The dust, smoke, and noise in the fading light were not reassuring. Fool-dog arose from the circle of what composed their nobility, and solemnly shook hands with the general; those next in rank followed his example. The pipe was then smoked, and the general had to take a whiff when it came his turn. Fortunately we escaped the speeches, for we had not brought an interpreter.

Coming out of the light into this semi-darkness, with the grotesque figures of the plebeians, as they danced around their chiefs and contorted their bodies to the sound of the Indian drum and minor notes of the singers, made it something unearthly in appearance; their painted faces, grunts and grins of serious mirth as they wheeled around the tepee, made me shiver. How relieved I felt when the final pipe was smoked and the good-bye said! The curious eyes of the squaws, who stood in the vicinity of the lodge, followed us, as they watched me clinging to the general’s arm while we disappeared, in the direction of camp, through the thickening gloom.

As we went farther north the twilights became longer, and I was greatly deceived by having so much daylight. Every morning, when the reveille sounded, in attempting to obey its summons I found myself actually mystified from excessive drowsiness, and I announced my resolve to go to bed at dark—as was often my custom on previous marches—when I was informed that we had marched into a land where daylight continues into the night hours. The general, who was always looking at the curious effects in the heavens, delighted in the clearness of the atmosphere and the myriads of stars that seemed to far outnumber all we had ever seen in other skies. All the strange phenomena of northern climes revealed themselves to us day by day. The sun and moon dogs, the lunar rainbows, and sometimes three perfect arcs of brilliant color formed directly above us in the heavens as we made our day’s march through spring showers. The storms came down in great belts of rain sometimes, and if the country were level enough we could look ahead on the plain and see where the storm was crossing. This enabled us to halt in time to escape a perfect sheet of pouring rain which fell like a wall of water directly before us. Once we found ourselves in the midst of it, and not knowing then the peculiarities of such storms, we took our drenching philosophically, and believed that it was like too many others that had kept us soaked to the skin for hours. Seeing the sun shining in advance on the plain, the general and I put spurs to our horses and rode out of the storm to perfectly dry ground. The sun came down on us so hotly that we were soon enveloped in a halo of steam from our drying clothes.

The history of one day's march was that of many; they were varied by small misfortunes over which we amused ourselves, but which were very serious affairs to the melancholy Ham. He had cooked by fireplaces in Kentucky, but never having lived out-doors before, he gained his experience by hard trials. The little sheet-iron cooking-stove which we considered such a treasure, was placed in the kitchen-tent on stormy nights, and the bit of pipe, put through a hole in the canvas, had an elbow so that it could be turned according to the direction of the wind.

One day, after camp was re-established, the general saw the smoke pouring out of the opening of the kitchen-tent, and hurried to see what was the matter. It was one of those days when the Dakota winds, like those of Kansas, blow in all directions; poor Ham was barely visible in the dense smoke inside the tent. "Why don't you turn the pipe?" tho general called, above the tempest; and Ham shouted back, "Giniril, I did; see whar she's p'intiu' now?" His master's sides shook with laughter, for sure enough the pipe would have been right if there had been any uniformity in the course of the wind. The general was hungry, but he did not stop to complain; he found a place somewhat sheltered, and digging a hole in the ground, taught the discouraged darkey how to build a fire outside. At last we sat down to a burned, smoky meal, and had to go to bed hungry.

Another day, when there was a small tornado, we began to wonder why dinner was delayed; we looked out, to find the cook-tent blown flat to the ground. The general ran to the rescue, and found Ham interred, as the old-time child stories buried their heroes, "in a pot of grease." He had been thrown among skillets and kettles, and the half-cooked dinner was scattered over him. The general helped him out, and was too much exhausted with laughter over the old fellow's exasperated remarks about "such a low-down country," to mind the delay of the dinner. Indeed, he soothed him by telling him to wait and begin again when the wind went down, as it usually does when the sun sets.

One day we caught sight of our American flag on the other side of the river, floating over a little group of buildings inside a stockade. When they told me that it was a military post, I could hardly believe it possible; it seemed that no spot could be more utterly desolate. Then I remembered having met an officer at Yankton who had told me that was his station. As I looked at his fine face and figure, I could not help thinking how thoroughly some woman would appreciate him. Thinking aloud, I said that I hoped he had "improved each shining hour" of his leave of absence, and was already engaged. He replied that I would see his post as we went up the river, and then might comprehend why he did not dare ask any woman to be his wife. I argued that if some girl grew fond of him, it would little matter to her where she went, if it were only by her husband's side. I confess, however, that when I saw that lonely place, I thought that it would require extraordinary devotion to follow him there. It was an infantry station, and the soldiers' barracks, officers' quarters, and storehouses were huddled together inside a wall made of logs placed perpendicularly and about fifteen feet high. The sand was so deep about this spot that nothing could be made to grow. Constant gusts of wind over the unprotected plain kept little clouds of fine alkaline dust whirling in the air and filling the eyes and month; not a tree was near, as the Missouri—that most uncertain of rivers—kept constantly changing its channel, and the advancing water washed away great hollows in the banks. The post would then have to be moved farther back for safety. The soldiers would be obliged to take up the stockade, and bury the logs as deep as they could to keep them from blowing over. The frail buildings, "built upon the sand," rocked and swayed in the wind.

Beside the forlorn situation of this garrison, no one could go outside to ride or hunt without peril. The warlike Indians considered that side of the river theirs, and roamed up and down it at will. They came incessantly to the small sliding panel in the gates of the stockade, and made demands, which, if not consented to, were followed by howls of rage and threatening gestures. All that the handful of men could do was to conciliate them as best they could. The company was not full, and possibly, all told, there were but fifty white men against hundreds of Indians. The only variety in their lives was the passing of an occasional steamer in the brief summer. Then settled down the pitiless winter, burying them in snow which never left the ground until late in the spring. The mail only reached them at irregular intervals. They were compelled to live almost entirely on commissary stores, for though living in the midst of game it was too hazardous to attempt to hunt. When we found that one regiment had been seven years on the river, and some of the officers had never taken leave of absence, it seems strange that any one stationed at such a post had not gone stark mad. It makes me proud of women when I recall the fact that the wife of an officer did live in that wretched little post afterwards, and did not complain. The cavalry, turning to look their last at that garrison, thanked the good-fortune that had placed them in a branch of the service where there was the active duty of campaigns to vary a life otherwise so monotonous.

The dogs had almost as hard a time to become accustomed to the vagaries of a Dakota climate as we did. We had to be their nurses and surgeons. In our large pack of hounds there were many that had marked individuality of character. Not many days could he passed in their company before we were noticing new peculiarities not previously observed. Tbe general had a droll fashion, as we rode along, of putting words into their mouths when they got into trouble, fought among themselves, or tried to lord it over one another. One of them had been given us, and had been called by her former owner "Lucy Stone." In vain did we try, out of respect for the life of the useful woman for whom she was named, to rechristen the dog. She would neither listen nor obey if called anything else. I can see her now, sitting deliberately down in the road directly in front of us, and holding up a paw full of cactus thorns. The general would say, "There sits Lucy Stone, and she is saying, 'If you please, sir, since you chose to bring me into a land of bristling earth like this, will you please get down immediately and attend to my foot?'" Her howls and upturned eyes meant an appeal, certainly, and her master would leap to the ground, sit down in the road, and taking the old creature in his arms, begin the surgery. He carried one of those knives that had many adjuncts, and with the tweezers he worked tenderly and long to extract the tormenting cactus needles, Lucy was a complaining old dame, and when the general saw her sit down, like some fat old woman, he used to say that the old madam was telling him that she "would like to drive a bit, if you please." So it often happened that my travelling-wagon was the hospital for an ill or foot-sore dog. The general had to stop very often to attend to the wounded paws, but experience taught the dogs to make their way very skilfully where the cactus grew. A dancing-master, tripping the steps of instruction, could not have moved more lightly than did they. If there were no one near to whom they could appeal in the human way those dumb things have, they learned to draw out the offending thorns with their teeth.

While we were all getting accustomed to the new climate, it was of no use to try to keep the dogs out of my tent. They stood around, and eyed me with such reproachful looks if I attempted to tie up the entrance to the tent and leave them out. If it were very cold when I returned from the dining-tent, I found dogs under and on the camp-bed, and so thickly scattered over the floor that I had to step carefully over them to avoid hurting feet or tails. If I secured a place in the bed I was fortunate. Sometimes, when it had rained, and all of them were wet, I rebelled. The steam from their shaggy coats was stifling; but the general begged so hard for them that I taught myself to endure the air at last. I never questioned the right of the half-grown puppies to everything. Our struggles to raise them, and to avoid the distemper which goes so much harder with blooded than with our dogs, endeared them to us. When I let the little ones in, it was really comical to hear my husband's arguments and cunningly-devised reasons why the older dogs should follow. A plea was put up for "the hound that had fits;" there was always another that "had been hurt in hunting;" and so on until the tent would hold no more. Fortunately, in pleasant weather, I was let off with only the ill or injured ones for perpetual companions. We were so surrounded with dogs when they were resting after the march, and they slept so soundly from fatigue, that it was difficult to walk about without stepping on them.

My favorite, a great cream-colored stag-hound, was named "Cardigan." He never gave up trying to be my lap-dog. He was enormous, and yet seemingly unconscious of his size. He kept up a perpetual struggle and scramble on his hind-legs to get his whole body up on my lap. If I pieced myself out with a camp-stool to support him, he closed his eyes in a beatific state and sighed in content while I held him, until my foot went to sleep and I was cramped with his weight. One thing that made me so fond of him was that on one occasion, when he was put in the kennel after an absence, he was almost torn to pieces by the other dogs. He was a brave hound, but he was at fearful odds against so many. Great slices of flesh were torn from his sides, and gaping wounds made by the fang-like teeth showed through his shaggy coat. It was many months before they healed.

Though the stag-hound is gentle with human beings he is a terrible fighter. They stand on their hind-legs and, facing each other, claw and tear like demons. It was always necessary to watch them closely when a new dog, or one that they had not seen for some time, was put in their midst.

I will anticipate a moment and speak of the final fate of Cardigan. When I left Fort Lincoln I asked some one to look out for his welfare, and send him, as soon as possible, to a clergyman who had been my husband's friend. My request was complied with, and afterwards, when the poor old dog died, his new master honored him by having his body set up by the taxidermist, and a place was given him in one of the public buildings in Minneapolis. I cannot help thinking that he was worthy of the tribute, not only because of the testimony thus given to the friendship of the people for his master, but because he was the bravest and most faithful of animals.

Most of the country passed over in our route belonged to the Indian Reservations, and the Government was endeavoring to teach the tribes settled there to cultivate the soil. They had hunted off most of the game; an occasional jack-rabbit, the plover, and a few wild ducks were all that were left. I must not forget the maddening curlew. It was not good eating, but it was always exciting to see one. There never was a more exasperating bird to shoot. Time and again a successful shot was prophesied, and I was called to bo a witness, only to see finally the surprise of the general when the wily bird soared calmly away. I believe no person was able to bring one down during the entire trip.

As we approached an Indian village, the chiefs came out to receive us. There were many high-sounding words of welcome, translated by our guide, who, having lived among them many years, knew the different dialects. The Government had built some comfortable log-homes for them, in many of which I would have lived gladly. The Indians did not care for them, complaining that they had coughs if they occupied a house. A tepee was put up alongside, in which one or two families lived, while little low lodges, looking like the soldiers’ shelter-tents, were used for the young men of the circle to sleep in. The tools and stores given by the Government were packed away in the otherwise empty houses.