Boots and Saddles/Chapter 6

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 6

CHAPTER VI.

A VISIT TO THE VILLAGE OF "TWO BEARS."

A Sioux chief, called Two Bears, had the most picturesque village that we saw. The lodges were placed in circle, as this was judged the most defensive position; the ponies were herded inside the enclosure at night. This precaution was necessary, for the neighboring tribes swept down on them after dark and ran off the stock if they were not secured. As we dismounted, we saw an old man standing alone in the circle, apparently unconscious of everything, as he recounted some war tale in loud, monotonous tones. He had no listeners—all were intently watching the approaching regiment; still the venerable Sioux went on as persistently as if he were looking "upon a sea of upturned faces." He was the "medicine-man," or oracle, of the tribe, or possibly the "poet-laureate" of the village, for the guide told us he sang of the deeds of valor of his people far back in history.

Just outside of the village, the chiefs sat in a circle awaiting ns. Two Bears arose to welcome the general, and asked him to go with him to his lodge. I was asked to go also and be presented to Miss Two Bears; for she a too royal in birth to be permitted outside, and it was not in keeping with the dignity of her rank to mingle with the others, the guide afterwards explained to us.

The honor of going alone into the tepee was one that I could have forgone, for my courage was much greater if I did my Indian sight-seeing surrounded by the regiment. The general, fearing their amour propre might be offended if I declined the invitation, whispered an encouraging word, and we dipped our heads and crept into the tepee. The chief was a dignified old man, wrapped in his blanket, without the usual addition of some portion of citizen’s dress which the Indians believe adds to their grandeur. His daughter also was in complete squaw’s costume; her feet were moccosined, her legs and ankles wound round with beaded leggings, and she had on the one buckskin garment which never varies in cut thought all the tribes. A blanket drawn over her head was belted at her waist. To crown all this, however, she had an open parasol, brought to her, doubtless, as a present by some Indian returning from a council at Washington. She held it with dignity, as if it might be to her as much an insignia of state as the mace of the lord-mayor.

Fortuneately they did not ask us to sit down and partake of jerked beef, or to smoke the never-ending pipe, as we soon got through our compliments and returned to the outer entrance of the village.

Here the tribe were assembled, and evidently attired in gala-dress in our honor. We were most interested in the village belle, and the placid manner in which she permitted us to walk around her, gazing and talking her good points over, showed that the expected homage. She sat on a scarlet blanket spread on the ground, and over her, stretched from poles, was another for an awning. She was loaded with ornaments, row after row of beads about her neck, broad armlets and anklets of brass, pinchbeck rings, and a soft buckskin dress and leggings, heavily embroidered. Her ears were pierced twice—on the side as well as in the lobe—and from these holes were suspended circles of gilt. Her bright eyes, the satin smoothness of her hair, and the clear brown of the skin made a pretty picture. There was no attempt to blend into the brown the bright patch of carmine on each cheek.

Only extreme youth and its ever attractive charms can make one forget the heavy square shape of Indian faces and their coarse features. It was surprising to see all the other squaws giving up the field to this one so completely. They crouched near, with a sort of "every-dog-must-have-its-day" look, and did not even dispute her sway by making coy eyes as we spoke to them.

There were but few young men. Their absence was always excused by the same reason—they were out hunting. We know how little game there was, and surmised—what we afterwards found to be true—that they had joined the hostile tribes, and only came in to the distribution of supplies and presents in the fall, A few rods from the village a tripod of poles was set in the ground, and lashed to it the Indian's shield, made of the hide of the buffalo where it is thickest about the neck. There were rude paintings and Indian hieroglyphics covering it. The shield is an heirloom with the Indian, and the one selected to hang out in this manner has always the greatest war record. One of their superstitions is that it keeps away enemies. These nomads had some idea of luxury, for I recollect seeing some of them reclining on a kind of rest made of a framework of pliable rods, over which was stretched buckskin. Afterwards I found how comfortable such contrivances were, for one was given me. The slope is so gradual that you half recline and can read with great ease.

When we had reached camp and were taking our afternoon siesta the same day, with the tent walls raised for air, we were roused by the sound of music. Looking off over the bluffs we saw a large body of Indians approaching on ponies, while squaws and children ran beside them. It was the prompt response of Two Bears to the general’s invitation to return his call. The warriors stopped near camp, and dismounting advanced towards us. The squaws unbridled and picketed the ponies, and made themselves comfortable by arranging impromptu shades of the bright blankets. They staked down two corners closely to the ground, and propped up the others with poles stuck in the sod.

When the Indians came up to us, the council was, as usual, begun. The pipe being smoked, Two Bears gave us a eulogy of himself. He then demanded, in behalf of the tribe, payment for the use of the ground on which we were encamped, and also for the grass consumed, though it was too short to get more than an occasional tuft. He ended, as they all do, with a request for food. The general in reply vaguely referred them to the Great Father in payment for the use of their land, but presented them with a beef in return for their hospitality. Only half satisfied, they stalked away one by one. We watched them at a distance kill and divide the beef. It surprised us to see how they despatched it, and that hardly a vestige of it was left.

Many of the Indians coming from reservations carried papers which they valued and carefully guarded. After burrowing under robe and shirt, something was produced wrapped in layers of soiled cotton cloth. It was a recommendation of them obtained from some officer or Indian agent. This was presented on entering, as their letter of introduction. Most of those papers read very much the same way. Giving the Indian's name, it stated that he had been living on the reservation for a certain length of time, that he was friendly to the whites, etc.

One of onr guests that day carried something a little different. He was called "Medicine Jo." Lingering behind the rest, he presented his letter with perfect good faith and great pomposity. Some wag had composed it, and it read something like this:

"Medicine Jo says he is a good Indian, that you can trust him. If he is, he is the first I have ever seen, and in my opinion he, like all the rest, will bear watching."

It was all the general could do to keep his face straight as he handed back to the unconscious owner this little libel on himself.

The interpreter kept constantly before us the fine post that we were approaching, and the last day before we reached there it was visible for a long distance. The atmosphere of Dakota was so deceptive that we imagined ourselves within a few miles of the garrison, when, in reality, there was a march of twenty-nine long miles before us.

Our road led up from the river valley on the high bluffs, and sometimes followed along the backbone of hills from which on either side we looked down a great distance. There was barely room for the travelling- wagon. Occasionally I had been obliged to take refuge from the cold for a little while and drive. Onr lead- mules were tiny, quick-moving little dots, and I soon discovered that they were completely demoralized at the sight of an Indian. They could see one in advance long before the driver could. A sudden shying and quick turning of these agile little brutes, a general tan- gle of themselves in the harness and legs of the wheelers, loud shouts of the driver, and a quick downfall of his foot on the brake, to keep us from overturning, made an exciting mêlée.

Nothing would get them righted and started again. They would have to be unharnessed, and the rebellious pair tied to the rear of the wagon until we had gone far beyond the object of terror. Part of the day that we were following the wanderings of the road alongside hills and over the narrow, smooth level of the hill-tops, I was compelled to drive, and I watched anxiously the ears of these wretched little beasts to see if they ex- pressed any sentiment of fright. We came to such steep descents, the brake holding the wheels seemed of no use. Looking down from the wagon on to the mules below us, we appeared to be in the position of flies on a wall.

As we came to one descent more awful than the rest, the general, who was always near, rode up to the carriage and fold me not to be afraid, for he would order the wheels manned. The head-quarters escort of over a hundred men, dismounting, attached ropes to the wheels, and held on with all their strength while I went down the steepest declivity I had ever descended. After that I begged to get out, and the general carried me to a bank and set me down where I could watch the repairing of the road.

He took off his coat and joined the soldiers in carrying logs and shovelling earth, for they were obliged to fill up the soft bed of the stream before the command could cross. It took a long time and much patience; but the general enjoyed it all, and often helped when the crossings needed to he prepared. When the logs were all laid, I had to laugh at the energy he showed in cracking a whip he borrowed from a teamster, and shouting to the mules to urge them to pull through where there was danger of their stalling. When the road was completed, I was ready to mount my horse, for it seemed to me preferable to die from accident, surrounded with friends, than to expire alone in the mule-wagon. The ascent was rendered so wet and slippery, the general feared my saddle would turn, and I was once more shut in by myself. The soldiers again manned the wheels to prevent the carriage sliding hack, the mules scrambled, and with the aid of language prepared expressly for them, we reached the summit.

The driver had named the lead-mules Bettie and Jane, and when they were over their tempers he petted and caressed them. Their repeated rebellion at last wore out even his patience. One morning I noticed new leaders, but the imperturbable face of tbe driver gave no hint of his successful plotting. Mary told me, however, that ho was worn out with his struggles, and bad gone after dark into the herd of mules with Bettie and Jane, and, as he expressed it, "lost them." He selected two more from among those belonging to the wagon-train, and returned triumphant over his premeditated exchange. He carefully reclipped their manes and tails, and disguised them still further with blotches of black paint, to give them a mottled appearance. When the other teamster prepared to harness in the morning, of course be discovered the fraud perpetrated on him. There was no redress then, and he bad to take out his wrath in language more forcible than elegant, which the teamsters have adapted expressly for extreme occasions. Our driver told Mary, with a chuckle, that with a command of many hundred men waiting for a teamster to harness, he found "no time for swapping horses,"

Burkman, the soldier who took care of our horses, was a middle-aged man, so deliberate in speech and slow in his movements, be seemed as incongruous among the spirited cavalrymen as would be an old-time farmer. Early in the march I had heard him coughing as be groomed the horses. When I asked if he had done anything for his cold, be replied, "Bottle after bottle of stuff, mum, but it don't do no good," so I begged the surgeon to look more carefully into his case. He made an examination, and told me, as the result, that the man must have only light work and nourishing food. After that I asked Mary to save everything for Burkman and make his recovery her especial care. The officers made fun of me, as they were rather incredulous, and thought a bit of shamming was being practised on me, but I knew better. They never failed to comment and smile when they saw the old defender of his country coming out of the kitchen-tent, his jaws working and his month full, while be carried all the food his hands would bold. To tell the truth, he kept up this prescription of nourishing food long after he bad quite recovered.

It became the delight of my husband and the officers to chaff me about "Old Nutriment," for such was the sobriquet they gave him. At last, even Mary began to narrate how hie swept everything before him with voracious, convalescing appetite. "Why, Miss Libbie," she said to me one day, "I thought I'd try him with a can of raw tomatoes, and set them before him, asking if he was fond of them. And he just drawled out, 'Always was,' and the tomatoes were gone in no time." His laconic answer passed into a proverb with us all, when invited to partake of anything we liked.

Such a tender heart as that old soldier had! I had noticed this first in Kentucky. My horse, which I prized above all that I have ever ridden, died during my temporary absence from home. I was too greatly grieved to ask many questions about him, but one day, some time afterwards, when we were riding through a charming bit of country, Burkman approached me from the place where he usually rode behind us, and said, "I'd like to tell Mrs. Custer there's whar poor Phil lies I picked the purtiest place I could find for him.” And he had indeed, for the green valley under wide-spreading trees would have gone far to reconcile many a weary human heart to be placed under the sod.

We thought we had made the first step towards savage life when Burkman brought the mother of the one baby of our regiment the dried vertebra of a rattlesnake that he killed, because he had heard that it was the best of anything on which the infant could cut its teeth!

I had made some scarlet flannel shirts for my husband’s use on the summer campaign, and he was as much pleased as possible, beginning at once to wear them. Not many days’ march proved to me what an error I had made. The bright red color could be seen for miles, when the form itself was almost lost on the horizon. I had to coax to get them away again and replace them with the dark blue that be usually wore. Though I triumphed, I was met with a perfect fusillade of teasing when I presented the red shirts to Burkman. The officers, of course, hearing all the discussion over the subject—as no trifle was too small to interest us in one another’s affairs—attacked me at once. If I had been so anxious to protect the general from wearing anything that would attract the far-seeing eye of the vigilant Indian on the coming campaign, why should I be so willing to sacrifice the life of “Old Nutriment?” They made no impression on me, however, for they knew as well as I did that the soldier, though so faithful, was not made of that stuff that seeks to lead a Balaklava charge.

My husband and I were so attached to him, and appreciated so deeply his fidelity, we could not thank the good-fortune enough that gave us one so loyal to our interests.

Before we reached the post we were approaching, the commandant sent out ice for our use, and the despatches of the Associated Press. The general was greatly delighted to get news of events that had occurred all over the world, in this far distant land. We found afterwards that the officers joined in paying for the despatches. The Indians had such a superstition about molesting the wires, that the lines ran through even the most dangerous country. I can hardly say how good it seemed to us to see a telegraph-pole again.

We were not surprised, after seeing the other posts below on the river, that the guide had praised Port Sully. It was the head-quarters of one of the infantry regiments, and the commanding officer had been at the post long enough to put it in excellent order. It was situated on an open plateau, from which there was an extensive view. Below in the valley the companies had gardens, and they also kept cows, pigs, and chickens. We looked upon all this as an El Dorado, and the thought of remaining long enough at one fort to get any good out of a garden was simply unknown in our vagrant existence.

Our camp was very near the post, on the same open plain, without trees or shelter. We were received with genuine hospitality, and finally all of us invited to luncheon. The ladies came up from the steamer, and the large house was filled with happy people. The post band played outside on the parade-ground while we lunched. We had nine kinds of game on the table. Some of it was new to us—the beaver tail, for instance—but it was so like pork and so fat I could only taste it. We had, in addition, antelope, elk, buffalo tongue, wild turkey, black-tailed deer, wild goose, plover, and duck. The goose was a sort of "fatted calf" for us. The soldiers had caught it while young, and by constantly clipping its wings, had kept it from joining the flocks which its cries often brought circling around the post. At last it began to make the life of the chickens a burden to them, and we arrived in time to enjoy the delicious bird served with jelly made from the tart, wild "bullberries" that grew near the river. The home-made bread, delightful cake, tender ham of the garrison's own curing, and the sweets made with cream, fresh butter, and eggs—three unheard-of luxuries with us—proved that it is possible for army people to live in comfort if they do not belong to a mounted regiment. Still, though they had a band and a good library belonging to the regiment, the thought of being walled in with snow, and completely isolated for eight months of the year, made me shudder. The post was midway between Yankton and Bismarck, each the termination of a railroad, and each two hundred and fifty miles away.

The wife of the commanding officer was known throughout the department for her lovely Christian character, and the contented life she led under all circumstances. I was much amused at her account of her repeated trials in trying to secure a permanent governess. She said all the posts along the river seemed to know intuitively when a new one arrived from the East. The young officers found more imperative duties calling them to Fort Sully than they had dreamed of in a year. Before long the governess began to be abstracted, and watch longingly for the mails, A ring would next appear on the significant first finger, and be the forerunner of a request to allow her to resign her place. This had happened four times when I met our hostess, and though she was glad to furnish the officers with wives, she rather sighed for a woman who, though possessing every accomplishment, might still be so antiquated and ugly that she could be sure to keep her for a time at least.

The commandant had some fine greyhounds, and joining the general with his packs of stag and fox hounds, they had several hunts in the few days that remained. Of course, after so bright a visit and such a feast, it was hard to begin again on the march with baking-powder biscuit and tough beef. The cattle that supplied us with meat were driven along on the march, and killed every other day, and could not be expected to be in very good condition. The interest of our journey, however, made us soon forget all deprivations. Grateful sentiments towards those who had been so kind to us as strangers remained as a memory.