Boots and Saddles/Chapter 8

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII.

SEPARATION AND REUNION.

The day at last came for our march of five hundred miles to terminate. A rickety old ferryboat that took us over the river made a halt near Fort Rice, and there we established ourselves. Strange to say, the river was no narrower there than it was so many hundred miles below, where we started. Muddy and full of sand-bars as it was, we began bravely to drink the water, when the glass had been filled long enough for the sediment partially to settle, and to take our bath in what at first seemed liquid mud. We learned after a time to settle the water with alum, and we finally became accustomed to the taste.

The commandant at Fort Rice was most hospitable, and his wife charming. The quarters were very ordinary frame buildings, with no modern improvements. They were painted a funereal tint, but one warranted to last. The interior showed the presence of a tasteful woman. She met us as cheerfully as if she were in the luxurious home from which we knew she had gone as a girl to follow a soldier’s life. Contrast often helps us to endure, and Dakota was not so bad as their last station in Arizona. The dinner was excellent, and our entertainers were the happy possessors of a good cook. Rarely do army people have two good servants at the same time on the frontier. Our host and hostess made no apologies, but quietly waited on the table themselves, and a merry time we had over the blunders of the head of the house, who was a distinguished general, in his endeavors to find necessary dishes in the china closet.

A steamer that arrived a day or two after we had reached Fort Rice brought the regimental property, consisting of everything that was not used on the march. Our household effects and trunks were delivered to us in a very sorry condition. They had been carelessly stored on the wharf at Yankton, near the government warehouse, without any covering, during all the storms that drenched us coming up the river. Almost everything was mildewed and ruined. We tried to dry our clothing in the sun. Many a little bit of silken finery that we had cherished since our marriage days, feeling sure that we should never attain to such grandeur again, was suspended from the tent-ropes, stained and dull. Our sister’s husband helped her to unpack her clothes and his own soaked uniform. He was dignified and reserved by nature, but on that occasion the barriers were broken. I heard him ask Margaret to excuse him while he went outside the tent to make some remarks to himself that he felt the occasion demanded. There were furious people on all sides, and savage speeches about the thoughtlessness of those who had left our property exposed to snow and rain, when we were no longer there to care for it. I endured everything until my pretty wedding-dress was taken out, crushed and spotted with mildew. My husband had great control over himself in the small annoyances of life, and was able to repeat again the proverb he had adopted in his boyhood, “Never cry for spilled milk.” How he could submit so quietly, when he took out his prized books and the few pictures I knew that he valued, was a mystery.

All thought began now to centre on the coming events of the summer. It was decided that the regiment was to go out to guard the engineers of the Northern Pacific Railroad while they surveyed the route from Bismarck to the Yellowstone River. The ladies necessarily were to be left behind. Now begun the summer of my discontent. I longed to remain in Dakota, for I knew it would take much longer for our letters to reach us if we went East. Besides, it was far more comforting to stay at a military post, where every one was interested in the expedition, and talked about it as the chief topic of concern. I remembered when I had gone East before, during a summer when our regiment was fighting Indians, and my idea was that the whole country would be almost as absorbed as we were, how shocked I was to be asked, when I spoke of the regiment, “Ah, is there a campaign, and for what purpose has it gone out?”

I was willing to live in a tent alone at the post, but there were not even tents to be had. Then we all looked with envious eyes at the quarters at Fort Rice. The post was small, and there were no vacant rooms except in the bachelor quarters. These are so called when the unmarried men take rooms in the same house and mess together. No opportunity was given us to wheedle them into offering us a place. Our officers hinted to them, but they seemed to be completely intimidated regarding women. They received an honest and emphatic “no” when they asked if the ladies of the 7th Cavalry quarrelled. Even then these wary men said “they did not dare to offer to take in any women.” They added that there were but three in the post, and no two of them spoke to each other. They thought if we were asked to remain it might be the history of the Kilkenny cats repeated, and they were obdurate.

There was nothing left for us, then, but to go home. It was a sore disappointment. We were put on the steamer that was to take us to Bismarck, a heart-broken little group, I hated Dakota, the ugly river, and even my native land. We were nearly devoured with mosquitoes at once. Only the strongest ammonia on our faces and hands served to alleviate the torment. The journey was wretchedness itself. I had thrown myself on the berth in one of the little suffocating state-rooms, exhausted with weeping, and too utterly overcome with the anguish of parting to know much of the surroundings. I was roused by the gentle hand of a woman, who had forgotten her own troubles to come to me. Ah, even now, when the tears rain down my face at the remembrance of those agonizing good-byes, which were like death each time, and which grew harder with each separation, I think of the sympathy shown me. The sweet, tender eyes of the wives of officers come to me now, and I feel the soft touch of their hands as they came to comfort me, even when their own hearts were wrung. Grief is so selfish, I wonder now that they could have been such ministering angels.

At last the slow, wearisome journey was over, and we went into the little town of Bismarck to take the cars. The Department Commander, returning to his head-quarters, had offered to take charge of us to St. Paul, and was kind enough to share with us the car of the President of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which had been placed at his disposal. There were seven of us and his own personal staff. Another five hundred miles were before us, but in such luxury it hardly seemed that my sister and I were the same two who had been “roughing it” on the march a few days before.

The journey was very quiet and over an uninteresting country, but we ladies had something to occupy our time, as we began to prepare some of our meals, for the untidy eating-houses on the road were almost unendurable. The staff of the Commanding General went out at the stations and foraged for what food they could find to add to our bill of fare. At St. Paul we bade them all good-bye, and soon found ourselves welcomed by dear father and mother Custer, at Monroe, Their hearts were ever with the absent ones.

For several slow, irksome months I did little else than wait for the tardy mails, and count each day that passed a gain. I had very interesting letters from my husband, sometimes thirty and forty pages in length. He wrote of his delight at having again his whole regiment with him, his interest in the country, his hunting exploits, and the renewal of his friendship with General Rosser. The 7th Cavalry were sent out to guard the engineers of the Northern Pacific, while they surveyed the route to the Yellowstone. This party of citizens joined the command a few days out from Fort Rice, The general wrote me that he was lying on the buffolo-robe in his tent, resting after the march, when he heard a voice outside asking the sentinel which was General Custer’s tent. The general called out, “Halloo, old fellow! I haven’t heard that voice in thirteen years, but I know it. Come in and welcome!”

General Rosser walked in, and such a reunion as they had! These two had been classmates and warm friends at West Point, and parted with sorrow when General Rosser went into the Southern army. Afterwards they had fought each other in the Shenandoah Valley time and time again. Both of them lay on the robe for hours talking over the campaigns in Virginia. In the varying fortunes of war, sometimes one had got possession of the wagon-train belonging to the other, I knew of several occasions when they had captured each other’s head-quarters wagons with the private luggage. If one drove the other back in retreat, before he went into camp he wrote a note addressing the other as “dear friend,” and saying, “you may have made me take a few steps this way to-day, but I’ll be even with you tomorrow. Please accept my good-wishes and this little gift.” These notes and presents were left at the house of some Southern woman, as they retreated out of the village.

Once General Custer took all of his friend’s luggage, and found in it a new uniform coat of Confederate gray. He wrote a humorous letter that night thanking General Rosser for setting him up in so many new things, but audaciously asking if he “would direct his tailor to make the coat-tails of his next uniform a little shorter” as there was a difference in the height of the two men. General Custer captured his herd of cattle at one time, but he was so hotly pursued hb General Rosser that he had to dismount, cut a whip, and drive them himself until they were secured.

To return to the Yellowstone expedition. The hour for starting never varied more than a few moments during the summer, and it was so early the civilians connected with the engineering party could not become reconciled to it. In the afternoon my husband sometimes walked out on the outskirts of camp, and threw himself down in the grass to rest with his dogs beside him.

It was a source of amusement to him if he accidentally overheard the grnmbling. His campaigning dress was so like that of an enlisted man, and his insignia of rank so unnoticeable, that the tongues ran on, indifferent to his presence. Sometimes, in their growling, the civilians accused him of having something on his conscience, and declared that, not being able to sleep himself, he woke every one else to an unearthly reveille. At this he choked with laughter, and to their dismay they discovered who he was.

I remember his telling me of another occasion, when he unavoidably heard a soldier exclaim, “There goes taps, and before we get a mouthful to eat, reveille will sound, and ‘Old Curley’ will hike us out for the march.” The soldier was slightly discomfited to find the subject of his remarks was within hearing.

The enlisted men were constantly finding new names for the general, which I would never have known—thereby losing some amusement—if Mary had not occasionally told me of them. A favorite was “Jack,” the letters G. A. C. on his valise having served as a suggestion.

When the expedition returned from the Yellowstone, a despatch came to me in Michigan, saying the regiment had reached Fort Lincoln in safety. Another soon followed, informing me that my husband was on his way home. The relief from constant anxiety and suspense, together with all the excitement into which I was thrown, made me almost unfit to make preparation to meet him. There was to be an army reunion in the city nearest us, and in my impatience I took the first train, thinking to reach there in advance of General Custer. As I walked along the street, looking into shop-windows, I felt, rather than saw, a sudden rush from a door, and I was taken off my feet and set dancing in air. Before I could resent what I thought was an indignity, I discovered that it was my husband, who seemed utterly regardless of the passers-by. He was sunburnt and mottled, for the flesh was quite fair where he had cut his beard, the growth of the summer, he told me the officers with whom he had travelled in the Pullman car had teased him, and declared that no man would shave in a car going at forty miles an hour, except to prepare to meet his sweetheart. I was deeply grateful, though, for I knew the fiery tint of the beard, and infinitely preferred the variegated flesh tints of his sunburnt face.