Boots and Saddles/Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II.

A BLIZZARD.

After so many days in the car, we were glad to stop on an open plain about a mile from the town of Yankton, where the road ended.

The three chief considerations for a camp are wood, water, and good ground. The latter we had, but we were at some distance from the water, and neither trees nor brushwood were in sight.

The long trains were unloaded of their freight, and the plains about us seemed to swarm with men and horses. I was helped down from the Pullman car, where inlaid woods, mirrors, and plush surrounded us, to the ground, perfectly bare of every earthly comfort. The other ladies of the regiment went on to the hotel in the town. The general suggested that I should go with them, but I had been in camp so many summers it was not a formidable matter for me to remain, and fortunately for what followed I did so. The household belongings were gathered together. A family of little new puppies, some half-grown dogs, the cages of mocking-birds and canaries, were all corralled safely in a little stockade made of chests and trunks, and we set ourselves about making a temporary home. The general and a number of soldiers, composing the headquarters detail, were obliged to go at once to lay out the main camp and assign the companies to their places. Later on, when the most important work was done, our tents were to be pitched. While I sat on a chest waiting, the air grew suddenly chilly, the bright sun of the morning disappeared, and the rain began to fall. Had we been accustomed to the climate we would have known that these changes were the precursors of a snow-storm.

When we left Memphis, not a fortnight before, we wore muslin gowns and were then uncomfortably warm; it seemed impossible that even so far north there could be a returned winter in the middle of April. We were yet to realize what had been told us of the climate—that there were "eight months of winter and four of very late in the fall." On the bluffs beyond us was a signal-station, but they sent us no warning. Many years of campaigning in the Indian Territory, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska, give one an idea of what the weather can do; but each new country has its peculiarities, and it seemed we had reached one where all the others were outdone. As the afternoon of that first day advanced the wind blew colder, and I found myself eying with envy a little half-finished cabin without an enclosure, standing by itself. Years of encountering the winds of Kansas, when our tents were torn and blown down so often, had taught me to appreciate any kind of a house, even though it were built upon the sand as this one was. A dug-out, which the tornado swept over, but could not harm, was even more of a treasure. The change of climate from the extreme south to the far north had made a number of the men ill, and even the superb health of the general had suffered. He continued to superintend the camp, however, though I begged him from time to time as I saw him to give up. I felt sure he needed a shelter and some comfort at once, so I took courage to plan for myself. Before this I had always waited, as the general preferred to prepare everything for me. After he had consented that we should try for the little house, some of the kind-hearted soldiers found the owner in a distant cabin, and he rented it to us for a few days. The place was equal to a palace to me. There was no plastering, and the house seemed hardly weather-proof. It had a floor, however, and an upper story divided off by beams; over these Mary and I stretched blankets and shawls and so made two rooms. It did not take long to settle our few things, and when wood and water were brought from a distance we were quite ready for house-keeping, except that we lacked a stove and some supplies. Mary walked into the town to hire or buy a small cooking-stove, but she could not induce the merchant to bring it out that night. She was thoughtful enough to take along a basket and brought with her a little marketing. Before she had come within sight of our cabin on her return, the snow was falling so fast it was with difficulty that she found her way.

Meanwhile the general had returned completely exhausted and very ill. Without his knowledge I sent for the surgeon, who, like all of his profession in the army, came promptly. He gave me some powerful medicine to administer every hour, and forbade the general to leave his bed. It was growing dark, and we were in the midst of a Dakota blizzard. The snow was so fine that it penetrated the smallest cracks, and soon we found white lines appearing all around us, where the roof joined the walls, on the windows and under the doors. Outside the air was so thick with the whirling, tiny particles that it was almost impossible to see one's hand held out before one. The snow was fluffy and thick, like wool, and fell so rapidly, and seemingly from all directions, that it gave me a feeling of suffocation as I stood outside. Mary was not easily discouraged, and piling a few light fagots outside the door, she tried to light a fire. The wind and the muffling snow put out every little blaze that started, however, and so, giving it up, she went into the house and found the luncheon-basket we had brought from the car, in which remained some sandwiches, and these composed our supper.

The night had almost settled down upon us when the adjutant came for orders. Knowing the scarcity of fuel and the danger to the horses from exposure to the rigor of such weather after their removal from a warm climate, the general ordered the breaking of camp. All the soldiers were directed to take their horses and go into Yankton, and ask the citizens to give them shelter in their homes, cow-sheds, and stables. In a short time the camp was nearly deserted, only the laundresses, two or three officers, and a few dismounted soldiers remaining. The towns-people, true to the unvarying western hospitality, gave everything they could to the use of the regiment; the officers found places in the hotels. The sounds of the hoofs of the hurrying horses flying by our cabin on their way to the town had hardly died out before the black night closed in and left us alone on that wide, deserted plain. The servants, Mary and Ham, did what they could to make the room below-stairs comfortable by stopping the cracks and barricading the frail door. The thirty-six hours of our imprisonment there seems now a frightful nightmare. The wind grew higher and higher, and shrieked about the little house dismally. It was built without a foundation, and was so rickety it seemed as it rocked in a great gust of wind that it surely would be unroofed or overturned. The general was too ill for me to venture to find my usual comfort from his re-assuring voice. I dressed in my heaviest gown and jacket, and remained under the blankets as much as I could to keep warm. Occasionally I crept out to shake off the snow from the counterpane, for it sifted in between the roof and clapboards very rapidly. I hardly dared take the little phial in my benumbed fingers to drop the precious medicine for fear it would fall. I realized, as the night advanced, that we were as isolated from the town, and even the camp, not a mile distant, as if we had been on an island in the river. The doctor had intended to return to us, but his serious face and impressive injunctions made me certain that he considered the life of the general dependent on the medicine being regularly given.

During the night I was startled by hearing a dull sound, as of something falling heavily. Flying down the stairs I found the servants prying open the frozen and snow-packed door, to admit a half dozen soldiers who, becoming bewildered by the snow, had been saved by the faint light we had placed in the window. After that several came, and two were badly frozen. We were in despair of finding any way of warming them, as there was no bedding, and, of course, no fire, until I remembered the carpets which were sewed up in bundles and heaped in one corner, where the boxes were, and which we were not to use until the garrison was reached. Spreading them out, we had enough to roll up each wanderer as he came. The frozen men were in so exhausted a condition that they required immediate attention. Their sufferings were intense, and I could not forgive myself for not having something with which to revive them. The general never tasted liquor, and we were both so well always we did not even keep it for use in case of sickness.

I saw symptoms of that deadly stupor which is the sure precursor of freezing, when I fortunately remembered a bottle of alcohol which had been brought for the spirit-lamps. Mary objected to using the only means by which we could make coffee for ourselves, but the groans and exhausted and haggard faces of the men won her over, and we saw them revive under the influence of the fiery liquid. Poor fellows! They afterwards lost their feet, and some of their fingers had also to be amputated. The first soldier who had reached us unharmed, except from exhaustion, explained that they had all attempted to find their way to town, and the storm had completely overcome them. Fortunately one had clung to a bag of hard-tack, which was all they had had to eat. At last the day came, but so darkened by the snow it seemed rather a twilight. The drifts were on three sides of us like a wall. The long hours dragged themselves away, leaving the general too weak to rise, and in great need of hot, nourishing food. I grew more and more terrified at our utterly desolate condition and his continued illness, though fortunately he did not suffer. He was too ill, and I too anxious, to eat the fragments that remained in the luncheon-basket. The snow continued to come down in great swirling sheets, while the wind shook the loose window-casings and sometimes broke in the door. When night came again and the cold increased, I believed that our hours were numbered. I missed the voice of the courageous Mary, for she had sunk down in a corner exhausted for want of sleep, while Ham had been completely demoralized from the first. Occasionally I melted a little place on the frozen window-pane, and saw that the drifts were almost level with the upper windows on either side, but that the wind had swept a clear space before the door. During the night the sound of the tramping of many feet rose above the roar of the storm. A great drove of mules rushed up to the sheltered side of the house. Their brays had a sound of terror as they pushed, kicked, and crowded themselves against our little cabin. For a time they huddled together, hoping for warmth, and then despairing, they made a mad rush away, and were soon lost in the white wall of snow beyond. All night long the neigh of a distressed horse, almost human in its appeal, came to us at intervals. The door was pried open once, thinking it might be some suffering fellow-creature in distress. The strange, wild eyes of the horse peering in for help, haunted me long afterwards. Occasionally a lost dog lifted up a howl of distress under our window, but before the door could be opened to admit him he had disappeared in the darkness. When the night was nearly spent I sprang again to the window with a new horror, for no one, until he hears it for himself, can realize what varied sounds animals make in the excitement of peril. A drove of hogs, squealing and grunting, were pushing against the house, and the door which had withstood so much had to be held to keep it from being broken in.

It was almost unbearable to hear the groans of the soldiers over their swollen and painful feet, and know that we could do nothing to ease them. To be in the midst of such suffering, and yet have no way of ameliorating it; to have shelter, and yet to be surrounded by dumb beasts appealing to us for help, was simply terrible. Every minute seemed a day; every hour a year. When daylight came I dropped into an exhausted slumber, and was awakened by Mary standing over our bed with a tray of hot breakfast. I asked if help had come, and finding it had not, of course, I could not understand the smoking food. She told me that feeling the necessity of the general's eating, it had come to her in the night-watches that she would cut up the large candles she had pilfered from the cars, and try if she could cook over the many short pieces placed close together, so as to make a large flame. The result was hot coffee and some bits of the steak she had brought from town, fried with a few slices of potatoes. She could not resist telling me how much better she could have done had I not given away the alcohol to the frozen men!

The breakfast revived the general so much that he began to make light of danger in order to quiet me. The snow had ceased to fall, but for all that it still seemed that we were castaways and forgotten, hidden under the drifts that nearly surrounded us. Help was really near at hand, however, at even this darkest hour. A knock at the door, and the cheery voices of men came up to our ears. Some citizens of Yankton had at last found their way to our relief, and the officers, who neither knew the way nor how to travel over such a country, had gladly followed. They told us that they had made several attempts to get out to us, but the snow was so soft and light that they could make no headway. They floundered and sank down almost out of sight, even in the streets of the town. Of course no horse could travel, but they told me of their intense anxiety, and said that fearing I might be in need of immediate help they had dragged a cutter over the drifts, which now had a crust of ice formed from the sleet and the moisture of the damp night air. Of course I declined to go without the general, but I was more touched than I could express by their thought of me. I made some excuse to go up-stairs, where, with my head buried in the shawl partition, I tried to smother the sobs that had been suppressed during the terrors of our desolation. Here the general found me, and though comforting me by tender words, he still reminded me that he would not like any one to know that I had lost my pluck when all the danger I had passed through was really ended.

The officers made their way over to camp, for they were anxious and uncertain as to what might have happened to the few persons remaining there. I had been extremely troubled, for each of the soldiers for whom we had been caring had, with a trooper's usual love of the sensational, told us of frozen men and of the birth of babies to the laundresses. These stories had reached town through stragglers, until we imagined from the exaggeration that enough newly-born children might be found to start a small orphan asylum. The officers soon returned with the story reduced to one little stranger who had come safely into this world in the stormy night, sheltered by a tent only. No men were frozen, fortunately, though all had suffered. The soldier detailed to take care of the general's horses found his way back with them, and in his solemn voice told us that in spite of every effort, sharing his blankets and holding the little things through the storm, the thorough-bred puppies had frozen one by one. There was one little box-stove in camp which the officers brought back, accompanied by its owner, an old and somewhat infirm officer.

In the midst of all this excitement, and the reaction from the danger, I could not suppress my sense of the ludicrous when I saw the daintiest and most exquisite officer of "ours," whom last I remembered careering on his perfectly equipped and prancing steed before the admiring eyes of the Memphis belles, now wound up with scarfs and impromptu leggings of flannel; his hat tied down with a woollen comforter; buffalo gloves on his hands; and clasping a stove-pipe, necessary for the precious stove.

Some of the officers had brought out parcels containing food, while our brother, Colonel Tom Custer, had struggled with a large basket of supplies. In a short time another officer appeared at our door with a face full of anxiety about our welfare. He did not tell us what we afterwards learned from others, that, fearing the citizens would give up going to us, and knowing that he could not find the way alone over a country from which the snow had obliterated every landmark, he had started to go the whole distance on the railroad. Coming to a long bridge he found the track so covered with ice that it was a dangerous footing; the wind blew the sleet and snow in his face, almost blinding him, but nothing daunted, he crawled over on his hands and knees, and continuing to use the track as his guide, stopped when he thought he might be opposite our cabin, and ploughed his way with difficulty through the drifts.

When the officers had returned to town, we made a fire in the little stove which had been put up-stairs, as the pipe was so short. We ensconced our visitor, to whom the stove belonged, near by. He was a capital fireman; we divided our bedding with him, and put it on the floor, as close as possible to the fire. The shawl and blanket partition separated our rooms, but did not seem to deaden sound, and at night I only lost consciousness of the audible sleeping of our guest after I had dropped the point of a finger in my ear. He was the one among us who, being the oldest of our circle, and having had a varied experience, was an authority on many subjects. He had peculiar and extreme ideas on some questions. We listened out of respect, but we all drew the line at following some of his advice, and over one topic there was general revolt. He disbelieved entirely in the external or internal use of water, and living as we did in countries where the rivers were flowing mud, and the smaller streams dried up under the blazing sun, his would have been a convenient system, to say the least. Unfortunately, our prejudices in favor of cleanliness increased with the scarcity of water. Bathing became one of the luxuries as well as one of the absolute necessities of life. From being compelled to do with very little water, we had learned almost to take a bath in a thimble, and to this day I find myself pouring the water out of a pitcher in a most gingerly manner, so strong is the power of habit—even now with the generous rush of the unstinted Croton at my disposal. The theory of our venerable friend on the danger of bathing was fortified with many an earnest argument, and the advantages of his improved system of dry rubbing set out elaborately in his best rhetoric. Nevertheless, taking a bath with the palm of the hand was combated to the last by his hearers. When I had heard him arguing previously I had rather believed it to be the vagary of the hour. I had proof to the contrary the next morning after the storm, for I was awakened by a noise of vigorous friction and violent breathing, as of some one laboring diligently. I suddenly remembered the doctrine of our guest, and realized that he was putting theory into practice. As softly as I awakened my husband, and tried to whisper to him, he was on nettles instantly, hearing the quiver of laughter in my voice. He feared I might be heard, and that the feelings of the man for whom he had such regard might be wounded. He promptly requested me to smother my laughter in the blankets, and there I shook with merriment, perhaps even greater because of the relief I experienced in finding something to counteract the gloom of the preceding hours. And if I owned to telling afterwards that the old officer's theory and practice were one, it could not be called a great breach of hospitality, for he gloried in what he called advanced ideas, and strove to wear the martyr's crown that all pioneers in new and extreme beliefs crowd on their heads.

Our friend remained with us until the camp was inhabitable and the regular order of military duties was resumed. Paths and roads were made through the snow, and it was a great relief to be again in the scenes of busy life. We did not soon forget our introduction to Dakota. After that we understood why the frontiersman builds his stable near the house; we also comprehended then when they told us that they did not dare to cross in a blizzard from the house to the stable-door without keeping hold of a rope tied fast to the latch as a guide for their safe return when the stock was fed. Afterwards, when even our cool-headed soldiers lost their way and wandered aimlessly near their quarters, and when found were dazed in speech and look, the remembrance of that first storm, with the density of the down-coming snow, was a solution to us of their bewilderment.