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Note: This is Chapter 16 of the Book Tenting on the Plains or General Custer in Kansas and Texas, by Elizabeth B. Custer. (originally published 1895) can download this book at the Project Gutenberg website. 


It is a source of regret, as these pages grow daily under my hand, that I have not the power to place before the country the sacrifices and noble courage endured by the officers and soldiers of our army in their pioneer work. I can only portray, in the simplest manner, what I saw them endure unmurmuringly, as I was permitted to follow in the marches and campaigns of our regiment. I find that it is impossible to make the life clear to citizens, even when they ask me to describe personally something of frontier days, unless they may have been over the Plains in their journeys to and from the Pacific coast. Even then, they look from the windows of the Pullman car on to the desert, white with alkali, over which the heat rises in waves, and upon earth that struggles to give even life to the hardy cactus or sage-brush. Then I find their attention is called to our army, and I sometimes hear a sympathetic tone in their voices as they say, "Ah! Mrs. Custer, when I rode over that God-forgotten land, I began to see what none of us at the East ever realize--the terrible life that our army leads on the Plains." And only lately, while I was in the West, a citizen described to me seeing a company of cavalry, that had made a terrific march, come in to the railroad at some point in Arizona. He told me of their blistered faces, their bloodshot, inflamed eyes--the result of the constant cloud of alkali dust through which they marched--the exhaustion in every limb, so noticeable in men of splendid vigor, with their broad chests, deep throats, and muscular build, because it told what a fearful strain it must have been to have reduced such stalwart athletes to weakness. What effect it would have to introduce a body of such indomitable men in the midst of an Eastern city, tired, travel-stained, but invincible!

After all, if we who try to be their champions should succeed in making this transfer by some act of necromancy, the men would be silent about their sufferings. Among the few officers who have written of Plains life, there is scarcely a mention of hardships endured. As I read over my husband's magazine articles for the first time in many years, I find scarcely a reference to the scorching sun, the stinging cold, the bleak winds. His narrative reads like the story of men who marched always in sunshine, coming across clear streams of running water and shady woods in which to encamp. I have been there; through and through the breezy, buoyant tale I see the background--a treeless, arid plain, brackish, muddy water, sandy, sterile soil. The faces of our gallant men come up to me in retrospection, blistered and swollen, the eyes streaming with moisture from the inflaming dust, the parched lips cracked with fever of unquenched thirst, the hands, even, puffed and fiery with the sun-rays, day after day.

It seems heartless to smile in the midst of this vision, recalled to me of what I myself have seen, but I hear some civilian say, as they have often asked me equally inconsistent questions, "Well, why didn't they wear gloves?" Where all the possessions of a man are carried on the saddle, and the food and forage on pack-mules, it would be impossible to take along gloves to last from early spring till the stinging cold of late autumn. Thirst is an unconquerable foe. It is one of those enemies that may be vanquished on one field and come up, supported by legions of fresh desires, the very next day. I know nothing but the ever-present selfishness of our natures that requires such persistent fighting. Just fancy, for a moment, the joy of reaching a river or a stream on the Plains! How easy the march seemed beside its banks! At any moment one could descend, fill the canteen, and rejoin the column. It is true the quality of the water was not of the best, but there comes a time, out there, when quantity triumphs. It seems so good to have enough of _anything_, for the stinted supplies of all sorts make life seem always meagre in a country with no natural resources. But woe be to the man who puts his faith in a Western stream! They used to take themselves suddenly out of sight, down somewhere into the bowels of the earth, and leave the bed dry as dust, winding its tortuous way for miles, aggravating us by the constant reminder of where water ought to be, but where it unfortunately was not. This sudden disappearance of water is supposed to be due to the depression of the rocky beds of the streams. A deep sand absorbs the moisture from the surface, and draws down into its depths all the stream. When the bed again rises nearer the surface, the stream comes to sight once more. Whoever, after the water disappeared, found that he must drink or die, was obliged to stop and dig away at the dry bed of the river until he found moisture. It was a desperate man that attempted it; one whose throat had become voiceless, whose mouth and lips ached with the swelling veins of overheated blood; for, if one delayed behind the column for ever so short a time, he was reminded of his insecurity by a flash from a pile of stones or a bunch of sage-bush on the summit of a low divide. The wily foe that lurks in the rear of a marching column has no equal in vigilance.

And then, what a generous being a soldier is! How often I have seen them pass the precious nectar--it seemed so then, in spite of its being warm and alkaline; and I speak from experience, for they have given me a chance also--flavored with poor whiskey sometimes, as that old tin receptacle which Government furnishes holds coffee, whiskey or water, whichever is attainable. I fear that, had I scratched and dug slowly into the soil with the point of a sabre, and scooped up a minimum of water, my eye on the bluff near, watching and in fear of an Indian, I should have remembered my own parched throat and let the whole American army go thirsty. But I am thankful to say the soldier is made of different stuff. It is enough to weld strongest bonds of friendship, like those in our army, when it is share and share alike; and I am reminded of a stanza of soldier poetry:

    "There are bonds of all sorts in this world of ours, Fetters of friendship and ties of flowers, And true-lover's knots, I ween; The boy and the girl are bound by a kiss, But there's never a bond of old friends like this--We have drunk from the same canteen."

I have, among our Plains photographs, a picture of one of the Western rivers, with no sort of tree or green thing growing on its banks. It is the dreariest picture I ever saw, and as it appears among the old photographs of merry groups taken in camp or on porches covered with our garrison family, it gives me a shudder even now. Among the photographs of the bright side of our life, this is the skeleton at the feast which comes up so persistently.

Since all rivers and streams in the States are fringed with trees, it is difficult to describe how strange some of our Western water-ways appeared without so much as a border of shrubs or reeds. In looking over the country, as we ascended to a divide higher than the rest, the stream lay before us, winding on in the curving lines of our own Eastern rivers, but for miles and miles not a vestige of green bordered the banks. It seemed to me for all the world like an eye without an eyelash. It was strange, unnatural, weird. The white alkali was the only border, and that spread on into the scorched brown grass, too short to protect the traveler from the glare that was heightened by the sun in a cloudless sky. A tree was often a landmark, and was mentioned on the insufficient maps of the country, such as "Thousand-mile Tree," a name telling its own story; or, "Lone Tree," known as the only one within eighty miles, as was the one in Dakota, where so many Indians buried their dead.

What made those thirsty marches a thousand times worse was the alluring, aggravating mirage. This constantly deceived even old campaigners, and produced the most harrowing sort of illusions. Such a will-o'-the-wisp, too! for, as we believed ourselves approaching the blessed water, imagined the air was fresher, looked eagerly and expectantly for the brown, shriveled grass to grow green, off floated the deluding water farther and farther away.

As I try to write something of the sacrifices of the soldier, who will not speak of himself, and for whom so few have spoken, there comes to me another class of heroes, for whom my husband had such genuine admiration, and in whose behalf he gave up his life--our Western pioneer. A desperate sort of impatience overcomes me when I realize how incapable I am of paying them proper tribute. And yet how fast they are passing away, with no historians! and hordes of settlers are sweeping into the western States and Territories, quite unmindful of the soldiers and frontiersmen, who fought, step by step, to make room for the coming of the over-crowded population of the East. My otherwise charming journeys West now are sometimes marred by the desire I feel for calling the attention of the travelers, who are borne by steam swiftly over the Plains, to the places where so short a time since men toilsomely traveled in pursuit of homes. I want to ask those who journey for pleasure or for a new home, if they realize what men those were who took their lives in their hands and prepared the way.[H] Their privations are forgotten, or carelessly ignored, by those who now go in and possess the land. The graphic pens of Bret Harte and others, who have written of the frontier, arrest the attention of the Eastern man, and save from oblivion some of the noble characters of those early days. Still, these poets naturally seized for portraiture the picturesque, romantic characters who were miners or scouts--the isolated instances of desperate men who had gone West from love of adventure, or because of some tragic history in the States, that drove them to seek forgetfulness in a wild, unfettered existence beyond the pale of civilization.