Print
Parent Category: Kansas State History Articles
Category: Kansas Military History
Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

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. 


 

Who chronicles the patient, plodding, silent pioneer, who, having been crowded out of his home by too many laborers in a limited field, or, because he could no longer wring subsistence from a soil too long tilled by sire and grandsire; or possibly a returned volunteer from our war, who, finding all places he once filled closed up, was compelled to take the grant of land that the Government gives its soldiers, and begin life all over again, for the sake of wife and children! There is little in these lives to arrest the poetical fancy of those writers who put into rhyme (which is the most lasting of all history) the lives otherwise lost to the world.

How often General Custer rode up to these weary, plodding yeomen, as they turned aside their wagons to allow the column of cavalry to pass! He was interested in every detail of their lives, admired their indomitable pluck, and helped them, if he could, in their difficult journeys. Sometimes, after a summer of hardships and every sort of discouragement, we met the same people returning East, and the General could not help being amused at the grim kind of humor that led these men to write the history of their season in one word on the battered cover of the wagon--"Busted."

We were in Kansas during all the grasshopper scourge, when our Government had to issue rations to the starving farmers deprived of every source of sustenance. What a marvel that men had the courage to hold out at all, in those exasperating times, when the crops were no sooner up than every vestige of green would be stripped from the fields! Then, too, the struggle for water was great. The artesian wells that now cover the Western States were too expensive to undertake with the early settlers. The windmills that now whirl their gay wheels at every zephyr of the Plains, and water vast numbers of cattle on the farms, were then unthought of. . . . A would-be settler in Colorado, in those times of deprivation and struggle, wrote his history on a board and set it up on the trail, as a warning to others coming after him: "Toughed it out here two years. Result: Stock on hand, five towheads and seven yaller dogs. Two hundred and fifty feet down to water. Fifty miles to wood and grass. Hell all around. God bless our home."

It would be too painful to attempt to enumerate the ravages made by the Indians on the pioneer; and God alone knows how they faced life at all, working their claims with a musket beside them in the field, and the sickening dread of returning to a desolated cabin ever present in their heavy hearts. There are those I occasionally meet, who went through innumerable hardships, and overcame almost insurmountable obstacles, and who attained to distinction in that land of the setting sun; but I find they only remember the jovial side of their early days. Not long since I had the privilege of talking with the Governor of one of our Territories. He was having an interview with some Mexican Senators by means of an interpreter, and after his business was finished, he turned to our party to talk with enthusiasm of his Territory. No youth could be more sanguine than he over the prospects, the climate, the natural advantages of the new country in which he had just cast his lines. All his reminiscences of his early days in other Territories were most interesting to me. General Custer was such an enthusiast over our glorious West, that I early learned to look upon much that I would not otherwise have regarded with interest, with his buoyant feeling. . . . I must qualify this statement, and explain that I could not always see such glowing colors as did he, while we suffered from climate, and were sighing for such blessings as trees and water; but we were both heart and soul with every immigrant we came across, and I think many a half-discouraged pioneer went on his way, after encountering my husband on the westward trail, a braver and more hopeful man.

How well I remember the long wait we made on one of the staircases of the Capitol at Washington, above which hung then the great picture by Leutze, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way." We little thought then, hardly more than girl and boy as we were, that our lives would drift over the country which the admirable picture represents. The General hung round it with delight, and noted many points that he wanted me to enjoy with him. The picture made a great impression on us. How much deeper the impression, though, had we known that we were to live out the very scenes depicted!

Coming back to the Governor: I cannot take time to write his well-told story. The portion of the interesting hour that made the greatest impression on me was his saying that the happiest days of his life were those when, for fifteen hundred miles, he walked beside the wagon containing his wife and babies, and drove the team from their old home in Wisconsin to a then unsettled portion of Ohio. The honors that had come to him as senator, governor, statesman, faded beside the joys of his first venture from home into the wilderness. I saw him, in imagination, as I have often seen the pioneer, looking back to the opening made in the front of the wagon by the drawing over of the canvas cover to the puckered circle, in which were framed the woman and babies for whom he could do and dare. I fall to wondering if there is any affection like that which is enhanced or born of these sacrifices in each other's behalf. I wonder if there can be anything that would so spur a man to do heroic deeds as the feeling that he walked in front of three dependent beings, and braved Indians, starvation, floods, prairie-fire, and all those perils that beset a Western trail; and to see the bright, fond eyes of a mother, and the rosy cheeks of the little ones, looking uncomplainingly out upon the desert before them--why, what could nerve a man's arm like that? Love grows with every sacrifice, and I believe that many a youthful passion, that might have become colorless with time, has been deepened into lasting affection on those lonely tramps over the prairies.

It has also been my good fortune lately to recall our Western life with an ex-governor of another Territory, a friend of my husband's in those Kansas days. What can I say in admiration of the pluck of those Western men? Even in the midst of his luxuriant New York life, he loves better to dwell on the early days of his checkered career, when at seven years of age he was taken by his parents to the land of the then great unknown. He had made a fortune in California, for he was a Forty-niner, and returned East to enjoy it. But as he lost his all soon afterward, there was nothing left for him to do but to start out again. His wife could have remained in comfort and security with her friends, but she preferred to share the danger and discomforts of her husband's life. Their first trip over the old trail to Denver (our stamping-ground afterward) was a journey from Missouri, the outfitting place at the termination of the last railway going West, taking sixty-four days to accomplish. The wife, brave as she was, fell ill, and lay on the hard wagon-bed the whole distance. The invincible father took entire care of her and of his children, cooking for the party of eleven on the whole route, and did guard duty a portion of every night. The Indians were hovering in front and in rear. Two of the party were too old to walk and carry a musket, so that on the five men devolved the guarding of their little train. Nine times afterward he and his wife crossed that long stretch of country before the railroad was completed, always in peril, and never knowing from hour to hour when a band of hostiles would sweep down upon them. He taught his children the use of fire-arms as soon as they were large enough to hold a pistol. His daughter learned, as well as his sons, to be an accurate marksman, and shot from the pony's back when he scampered at full speed over the prairies. For years and years, all his family were obliged to be constantly vigilant. They lived out a long portion of their lives on the alert for a foe that they knew well how to dread.

But the humorous comes in, even in the midst of such tragic days! How I enjoyed and appreciated the feelings of the Governor's wife, whom I had known as a girl, when she rebelled at his exercising his heretofore valuable accomplishment as cook, after he became Governor. How like a woman, and how dear such whimsicalities are, sandwiched in among the many admirable qualities with which such strong characters as hers are endowed! It seems that on some journey over the Plains they entertained a party of guests the entire distance. The cook was a failure, and as the route of travel out there is not lined with intelligence-offices, the only thing left to do for the new-made Governor, rather than see his wife so taxed, was to doff his coat and recall the culinary gifts acquired in pioneer life. The madame thought her husband, now a Governor, might keep in secrecy his gifts at getting up a dinner. But he persisted, saying that it was still a question whether he would make a good Governor, and as he was pretty certain he was a good cook, he thought it as well to impress that one gift, of which he was sure, upon his constituents.

The next letter from the expedition brought me such good news, that I counted all the frights of the past few weeks as nothing, compared with the opportunity that being in Fort Riley gave me of joining my husband. He wrote that the cavalry had been detached from the main body of the command, and ordered to scout the stage-route from Fort Hays to Fort McPherson, then the most invested with savages. A camp was to be established temporarily, and scouting parties sent out from Fort Hays. To my joy, my husband said in his letter that I might embrace any safe opportunity to join him there. General Sherman proved to be the direct answer to my prayers, for he arrived soon after I had begun to look confidently for a chance to leave for Fort Hays.

With the grave question of the summer campaign in his mind, it probably did not occur to him that he was acting as the envoy extraordinary of Divine Providence to a very anxious, lonely woman. While he talked with me occasionally of the country, about which he was an enthusiast--and, oh, how his predictions of its prosperity have come true already!--I made out to reply coherently, but I kept up a very vehement, enthusiastic set of inner thoughts and grateful ejaculations, blessing him for every breath he drew, blessing and thanking Providence that he had given the commander-in-chief of our forces a heart so fresh and warm he could feel for others, and a soul so loyal and affectionate for his own wife and family that he knew what it was to endure suspense and separation. He had with him some delightful girls, whom we enjoyed very much. I cannot remember whether, in my anxiety to go to my husband, my conversation led up to the subject--doubtless it did, for I was then at that youthful stage of existence when the mouth speaketh out of the fullness of the heart--but I do remember that the heart in me nearly leaped out of my body when he invited me to go in his car to Fort Harker, for the railroad had been completed to that next post.

Diana crowded what of her apparel she could into her trunk, and I had a valise, but the largest part of our luggage was a roll of bedding, which I remember blushing over as it was handed into the special coach, for there was no baggage-car. It looked very strange to see such an ungainly bundle as part of the belongings of two young women, and though I was perfectly willing to sleep on the ground in camp, as I had done in Virginia and Texas, I did not wish to court hardships when I knew a way to avoid them. Though we went over a most interesting country, General Sherman did not seem to care much for the outside world. He sat in the midst of us, and entered into all our fun; told stories to match ours, joined in our songs, and was the Grand Mogul of our circle. One of the young girls was so captivating, even in her disloyalty, that it amused us all immensely. When we sang war-songs, she looked silently out of the window. If we talked of the danger we might encounter with Indians, General Sherman said, slyly, he would make her departure from earth as easy as possible, for he would honor her with a military funeral. She knew that she must, in such a case, be wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, and he did not neglect to tell her that honor awaited her if she died, but she vehemently refused the honor. All this, which would have been trying from a grown person, was nothing but amusement to us from a chit of a girl, who doubtless took her coloring, as the chameleon-like creatures of that age do, from her latest Confederate sweetheart.

In retrospection, I like to think of the tact and tolerance of General Sherman, in those days of furious feeling on both sides, and the quiet manner in which he heard the Southern people decry the Yankees. He knew of their impoverished and desolated homes, and realized, living among them as he did in St. Louis, what sacrifices they had made; more than all, his sympathetic soul saw into the darkened lives of mothers, wives and sisters who had given, with their idea of patriotism, their loved ones to their country. The truth is, he was back again among those people of whom he had been so fond, and no turbulent expressions of hatred and revenge could unsettle the underlying affection. Besides, he has always been a far-seeing man. Who keeps in front in our country's progress as does this war hero? Is he not a statesman as well as a soldier? And never have the interests of our land been narrowed down to any prescribed post where he may have been stationed, or his life been belittled by any temporary isolation or division from the rest of mankind. Every public scheme for our advancement as a nation meets his enthusiastic welcome. This spirit enabled him to see, at the close of the war, that, after the violence of wrath should have subsided, the South would find themselves more prosperous, and capable, in the new order of affairs, of immense strides in progress of all kinds.

I remember a Southern woman, who came to stay with relatives in our garrison, telling me of her first encounter with General Sherman after the war. He had been a valued friend for many years; but it was too much when, on his return to St. Louis, he came, as a matter of course, to see his old friends. Smarting with the wrongs of her beloved South, she would not even send a message by the maid; she ran to the head of the stairs, and in an excited tone, asked if he for one moment expected she would speak, so much as speak, to a Yankee? The General went on his peaceful way, as unharmed by this peppery assault as a foe who is out of reach of our short-range Government carbines, and I can recall with what cordiality she came to greet him later in the year or two that followed. No one could maintain wrath long against such imperturbable good-nature as General Sherman exhibited. He remembered a maxim that we all are apt to forget, "Put yourself in his place." 


 

Along the line of the railroad were the deserted towns, and we even saw a whole village moving on flat cars. The portable houses of one story and the canvas rolls of tents, which would soon be set up to form a street of saloons, were piled up as high as was safe, and made the strangest sort of freight train. The spots from which they had been removed were absolutely the dreariest of sights. A few poles, broken kegs, short chimneys made in rude masonry of small round stones, heaps of tin cans everywhere, broken bottles strewing the ground, while great square holes yawned empty where, a short time before, a canvas roof covered a room stored with clumsy shelves laden with liquor. Here and there a smoke-stained barrel protruded from the ground. They were the chimneys of some former dug-outs. I cannot describe how startled I was when I first came near one of these improvised chimneys, and saw smoke pouring out, without any other evidence that I was walking over the home of a frontier citizen. The roof of a flat dug-out is level with the earth, and as no grass consents to grow in these temporary villages, there is nothing to distinguish the upturned soil that has been used as a covering for the beams of the roof of a dwelling from any of the rest of the immediate vicinity. A portion of this moving village had already reached the end in the railroad, and named itself Ellsworth, with streets called by various high-sounding appellations, but marked only by stakes in the ground.

At Fort Harker we found a forlorn little post--a few log houses bare of every comfort, and no trees to cast a shade on the low roofs. The best of the quarters, belonging to the bachelor commanding officer, were offered to General Sherman and his party. We five women had one of the only two rooms. It seems like an abuse of hospitality, even after all these years, to say that the floor of uneven boards was almost ready for agricultural purposes, as the wind had sifted the prairie sand in between the roughly laid logs, and even the most careful housewife would have found herself outwitted if she had tried to keep a tidy floor. I only remember it because I was so amused to see the dainty women stepping around the little space left in the room between the cots, to find a place to kneel and say their prayers. I had given up, and gone to bed, as often before I had been compelled to tell my thanks to the Heavenly Father on my pillow, for already in the marches I had encountered serious obstacles to kneeling. The perplexed but devout women finally gave up attempting a devotional attitude, turned their faces to the rough wall, and held their rosaries in their fingers, while they sent up orisons for protection and guidance. They were reverential in their petitions; but I could not help imagining how strange it must seem to these luxuriously raised girls, to find themselves in a country where not even a little prayer could be said as one would wish. It must have been for exigencies of our life that Montgomery wrote the comforting definition that "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire," "The upward lifting of an eye," etc., and so set the heart at rest about how and where the supplication of the soul could be offered.

[Illustration: A MATCH BUFFALO HUNT.]

At Fort Harker we bade good-by to our delightful party, the frolic and light-heartedness departed, and the serious side of existence appeared. I had but little realization that every foot of our coming march of eighty miles was dangerous. We had an ambulance lent us, and accompanied a party that had an escort. There were stage-stations every ten or fifteen miles, consisting of rude log or stone huts, huddled together for safety in case of attack. The stables for the relays of horses were furnished with strong doors of rough-hewn timber, and the windows closed with shutters of similar pattern. The stablemen and relays of drivers lived in no better quarters than the horses. They were, of course, intrepid men, and there was no stint in arming them with good rifles and abundance of ammunition. They were prepared for attack, and could have defended themselves behind the strong doors--indeed, sustained a siege, for the supplies were kept inside their quarters--had not the Indians used prepared arrows that could be shot into the hay and thus set the stables on fire. These Plainsmen all had "dug-outs" as places of retreat in case of fire. They were very near the stables, and connected by an underground passage. They were about four feet deep. The roof was of timbers strong enough to hold four or five feet of earth, and in these retreats a dozen men could defend themselves, by firing from loopholes that were left under the roof-beams. Some of the stage-stations had no regular buildings. We came upon them without being prepared by any signs of human life, for the dug-outs were excavated from the sloping banks of the creeks. A few holes in the side-hill, as openings for man and beast, some short chimneys on the level ground, were all the evidence of the dreary, Columbarium homes. Here these men lived, facing death every hour rather than earn a living in the monotonous pursuit of some trade or commonplace business in the States. And at that time there were always desperadoes who would pursue any calling that kept them beyond the reach of the law.

This dreary eighty miles over a monotonous country, varied only by the undulations that rolled away to Big Creek, was over at last, and Fort Hays was finally visible--another small post of log huts like Fort Harker, treeless and desolate, but the stream beyond was lined with white canvas, which meant the tents of the Seventh Cavalry.

[Illustration: GATHERING AND COUNTING THE TONGUES.]

Again it seemed to me the end of all the troubles that would ever enter into my life had come, when I was lifted out of the ambulance into my husband's tent. What a blessing it is that there is a halcyon time in sanguine youth, when each difficulty vanquished seems absolutely the last that will ever come, and when one trouble ends, the stone is rolled against its sepulchre with the conviction that nothing will ever open wide the door again. We had much to talk about in camp. The first campaign of a regiment is always important to them, and in this case, also, the council, the Indian village, and its final destruction, were really significant events. A match hunt they had carried out was a subject of interest, and each side took one ear in turn, to explain why they won, or the reasons they lost. Mr. Theodore Davis, the artist whom the Harpers sent out for the summer, was drawing sketches in our tent, while we advised or commented. It seemed well, from the discussions that followed, that rules for the hunt had been drawn up in advance. It was quite a ranking affair, when two full majors conducted the sides. As only one day was given to each side, the one remaining in camp watched vigilantly that the party going out held to the rule, and refrained from starting till sunrise, while the same jealous eyes noticed that sunset saw all of them in camp again. One of the rules was, that no shots should be counted that were fired when the man was dismounted. This alone was a hard task, as at that time the splendid racing of the horse at breakneck speed, with his bridle free on his neck, and both hands busy with the gun, was not an accomplished feat. The horses were all novices at buffalo-hunting, also, and the game was thin at that season--so thin that a bison got over a great deal of territory in a short time. I remember the General's telling me what an art it was, even after the game was shot, to learn to cut out the tongue. It was wonderful that there was such success with so much to encounter. The winning party kept their twelve tongues very securely hidden until the second day, when the losers produced the eleven they had supposed would not be outdone. My husband was greatly amused at one of our officers, who hovered about the camp-fires of the opposite party and craftily put questions to ascertain what was the result of the first day.

[Illustration: SUPPER GIVEN BY THE VANQUISHED TO THE VICTORS OF THE MATCH BUFFALO HUNT.]

All this was told us with great glee. Diana's interests were centred in the success of that party with whom her best beloved, for the time, hunted. The officers regretted our absence at their great "feed," as they termed it, and it must, indeed, have been a great treat to have for once, in that starving summer, something palatable. Two wall-tents were put together so that the table, made of rough boards, stretching through both, was large enough for all. Victors and vanquished toasted each other in champagne, and though the scene was the plainest order of banquet, lighted by tallow candles set in rude brackets sawed out of cracker-box boards and fastened to the tent-poles, and the only draping a few cavalry guidons, the evening brightened up many a dreary day that followed. Gallant Captain Louis McLane Hamilton, who afterward fell in the battle of the Washita, was the hero of the hour, and bore his honors with his usual modesty. Four out of twelve buffaloes was a record that might have set a less boastful tongue wagging over the confidences of the evening camp-fire. I do not think he would have permitted Mr. Davis to put his picture in the illustration if he could have helped it. He was gifted with his pencil also; he drew caricatures admirably, and after a harmless laugh had gone the rounds, he managed, with the utmost adroitness, to get possession of the picture and destroy it, thus taking away the sting of ridicule, which constant sight of the caricature might produce. How I came into possession of one little drawing is still a mystery, but it is very clever. Among our officers was one who had crossed the Plains as a citizen a year or two previous, and his habit of revealing mines of frontier lore obtained on this one trip was somewhat tiresome to our still inexperienced officers. At last, after all had tried chasing antelope, and been more and more impressed in their failures with the fleetness of that winged animal, Captain Hamilton made a sketch representing the boaster as shooting antelope with the shot-gun. The speck on the horizon was all that was seen of the game, but the booted and spurred man kneeling on the prairie was admirable. It silenced one of the stories, certainly, and we often wished the pencil could protect us further from subsequent statements airily made on the strength of the one stage-journey.

I had arrived in the rainy season, and such an emptying of the heavens was a further development of what Kansas could do. But nothing damped my ardor; no amount of soakings could make me think that camping-ground was not an Elysian field. The General had made our tent as comfortable as possible with his few belongings, and the officers had sent in to him, for me, any comfort that they might have chanced to bring along on the march. I was, it seemed, to be especially honored with a display of what the elements could do at night when it was too dark to grope about and protect our tent. The wind blew a tornado, and the flashes of lightning illumined the tent and revealed the pole swaying ominously back and forth. A fly is an outer strip of canvas which is stretched over the tent to prevent the rain from penetrating, as well as to protect us in the daytime from the sun. This flapped and rattled and swung loose at one end, beating on the canvas roof like a trip-hammer, for it was loaded with moisture; and the wet ropes attached to it, and used to guy it down, were now loose, and lashed our rag house in an angry, vindictive manner. My husband, accustomed to the pyrotechnic display of the elements, slept soundly through the early part of the storm. But lightning "murders sleep" with me, and, consequently, he was awakened by a conjugal joggle, and on asking, "What is it?" was informed, "It lightens!" Often as this statement was made to him in his sudden awakenings, I do not remember his ever meeting it with any but a teasing, laughing reply, like: "Ah! indeed; I am pleased to be informed of so important a fact. This news is quite unexpected," and so on, or "When, may I inquire, did you learn this?" On this occasion, however, there was no attempt to quiet me or delay precautions. Feeling sure that we were in for it for the night, he unfastened the straps that secured the tent in front, and crept out to hammer down the tent-pins and tether the ropes. But it was of no earthly use. After fruitless efforts of his own, he called the guard from their tents, and they went energetically to work with the light of our lantern. Ropes wrenched themselves away from the tent-pins, straps broke, whole corners of the tent were torn out, even while the men were hanging with all their might to the upright poles to try and keep the ridge-pole steady, and clinging to the ropes to keep them from loosening entirely and sailing off in the air with the canvas.

In the midst of this fracas, with the shouts of the soldiers calling to one another in the inky darkness, the crash of thunder and the howling of the tempest, the wife of a brave soldier was hiding her head under the blankets, and not one sound emerged from this temporary retreat. The great joy of getting out to camp at last was too fresh to extract one word, one whimper of fear from under the bedding. The sunniest day at Fort Riley could not be exchanged, could not even be mentioned in the same breath, with that tornado of wind and rain.

The stalwart arms of the soldiers failed at last. Their brawny chests were of no more use, thrust against the tent-poles, than so many needles. Over went the canvas in a heap, the General and his men hanging on to the ridge-pole to clear it from the camp bed and save any accident.

The voices of officers in an adjoining tent called out to come over to them. One, half dressed, groped his way to us and said there was yet room for more in his place, and, besides, he had a floor. It was a Sibley, which, having no corners with which those Kansas breezes can toy, is much more secure. I was rolled in the blankets and carried through the blinding rain to our hospitable neighbors'. The end of a tallow dip gave me a glimpse only of many silent forms rolled in blankets and radiating from the centre like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The officer owning this tent had taken the precaution, while at Leavenworth, to have a floor made in sections, so that it could be easily stowed away in the bottom of a prairie-schooner in marching.

My husband laid me down, and we were soon two more spokes in the human wheel, and asleep in a trice. Next morning I wakened to find myself alone, with a tin basin of water and a towel for my toilet beside me. My husband had to dress me in his underclothing, for everything I had was soaked. My shoes were hopeless, so I was dropped into a pair of cavalry boots, and in this unpicturesque costume, which I covered as best I could with my wet dress, I was carried through the mud to the dining-tent, and enthroned _Ã  la_ Turk, on a board which the cook produced from some hiding-place, where he had kept it for kindlings. There were not a few repetitions of this stormy reception in the years that followed, for Kansas continued its weather vagaries with unceasing persistency, but this, being my first, is as fresh in my mind as if it occurred but yesterday.

The tent might go down nightly for all I cared then. Every thought of separation departed, and I gave myself up to the happiest hours, clamping about the tent in those old troop boots, indifferent whether my shoes _ever_ dried. The hours flew too fast, though, for very soon preparations began for a scout, which my husband was to command. It took a great deal of comforting to reconcile me to remaining behind. The General, as usual, had to beg me to remember how blessed we were to have been permitted to rejoin each other so early in the summer. He told me, over and over again, that there was nothing, he felt, that I would not encounter to come to him, and that if he was detained, he would send for me. Eliza and a faithful soldier were to be left to care for us. The cavalry departed, and again the days lengthened out longer and longer, until each one seemed forty-eight hours from sun to sun. We could scarcely take a short walk in safety. The Indians were all about us, and daily the sentinels were driven in, or attempts were made to stampede the horses and mules grazing about the post. The few officers remaining, in whose care we were placed, came or sent every day to our tents, which were up the creek a short distance, to inquire what they could do for our comfort. Mrs. Gibbs, with her boys, had joined her husband, and we were their neighbors.

It seemed, sometimes, as if we _must_ get outside of our prescribed limits, the rolling bluffs beyond, tinged with green and beginning to have prairie flowers, looked so tempting. One evening we beguiled an officer, who was sitting under our tent fly, which was stretched in front for a shade, to take us for a little walk. Like many another man in the temporary possession of wheedling women, he went with us a little, and "just a little farther." Diana would have driven all thought of everything else save herself out of the gravest head. At last our escort saw the dark coming on so fast he insisted upon going home, and we reluctantly turned. As we came toward the post, the shadows were deepening in the twilight, and the figures of the sentinels were not visible. A flash, followed by a sound past our ears, that old campaigners describe as never to be forgotten when first heard, was the warning that we three were taken for Indians and fired upon by the sentinel. Another flash, but we stood rooted to the spot, stunned by surprise. The whizz and zip of the bullet seemed to be only a few inches from my ear. Still we were dazed, and had not the officer gained his senses our fate would have been then and there decided. The recruit, probably himself terrified, kept on sending those deadly little missives, with the terrible sound cutting the air around us. Our escort shouted, but it was too far for his voice to carry. Then he told us to run for our lives to a slight depression in the ground, and throw ourselves on our faces. I was coward enough to burrow mine in the prairie-grass, and for once in my life was devoutly grateful for being slender. Still, as I lay there quaking with terror, my body seemed to rise above the earth in such a monstrous heap that the dullest marksman, if he tried, might easily perforate me with bullets. What ages it seemed while we waited in this prostrate position, commanded by our escort not to move! The rain of bullets at last ceased, and blessed quiet came, but not peace of mind. The officer told us he would creep on his hands and knees through the hollow portions of the plain about the post, approach by the creek side, and inform the sentinels along the line, and as soon as they all knew who we were he would return for us. With smothered voices issuing from the grass where our faces were still crushed as low as we could get them, we implored to be allowed to creep on with him. We prayed him not to leave us out in the darkness alone. We begged him to tell us how he could ever find us again, if once he left us on ground that had no distinctive features by which he could trace his way back. But he was adamant: we must remain; and the ring of authority in his tone, besides the culprit feeling we had for having endangered his life, kept us still at last. As we lay there, our hearts' thumping seemed to lift us up in air and imperil anew our wretched existence. The pretty, rounded contour of the girl, which she had naturally taken such delight in, was now a source of agony to her, and she moaned out, "Oh! how high I seem to be above you! Oh, Libbie, do you think I lie as flat to the ground as you do?" and so on, with all the foolish talk of frightened women.

When at last our deliverer came, my relief at such an escape was almost forgotten in the mortification I felt at having made so much trouble; and I thought, with chagrin, how quickly the General's gratitude to find we had escaped the bullets would be followed by temporary suspension of faith regarding my following out his instructions not to run risks of danger and wander away from the post. I wrote him an abject account of our hazardous performance. I renewed every promise. I asked to be trusted again, and from that time there were no more walks outside the beat of the sentinel.

An intense disappointment awaited me at this time, and took away the one hope that had kept up my spirits. I was watching, from day to day, an opportunity to go to my husband at Fort McPherson, for he had said I could come if any chance offered. I was so lonely and anxious, I would gladly have gone with the scout who took despatches and mail, though he had to travel at night and lie in the ravines all day to elude the sharp eyes of the Indians. I remember watching Wild Bill, as he reported at the commanding officer's tent to get despatches for my husband, and wishing with all my heart that I could go with him. I know this must seem strange to people in the States, whose ideas of scouts are made up from stories of shooting affrays, gambling, lynching and outlawry. I should have felt myself safe to go any distance with those men whom my husband employed as bearers of despatches. I have never known women treated with such reverence as those whom they honored. They were touched to see us out there, for they measured well every danger of that country; and the class that followed the moving railroad towns were their only idea of women, except as they caught glimpses of us in camp or on the march. In those border-towns, as we were sometimes compelled to walk a short distance from the depot to our ambulance, the rough characters in whom people had ceased to look for good were transformed in their very attitude as we approached. Of course, they all knew and sincerely admired the General, and, removing their hats, they stepped off the walk and cast such looks at me as if I had been little lower than the angels. When these men so looked at me, my husband was as proud as if a President had manifested pleasure at sight of his wife, and amused himself immensely because I said to him, after we were well by, that the outlaws had seemed to think me possessed of every good attribute, while to myself my faults and deficiencies appeared to rise mountains high. I felt that if there was a Christian grace that my mother had not striven to implant in me, I would cultivate it now, and try to live up to the frontier citizen's impression of us as women.

I think the General would have put me in the care of any scout that served him, just as readily as to place me in the keeping of the best officer we had. There was not a trust he reposed in them that they did not fulfill. Oh, how hard it was for me to see them at that time, when starting with despatches to my husband, swing themselves into the saddle and disappear over the divide! I feel certain, with such an end in view as I had, and with the good health that the toughening of our campaigns had given me, I could have ridden all night and slept on the horse-blanket in the ravines daytimes, for a great distance. Had I been given the opportunity to join my husband by putting myself in their charge, there would not have been one moment's hesitation on my part. I knew well that when "off duty" the scout is often in affrays where lynching and outlawry are every-day events of the Western towns; but that had no effect upon these men's sense of honor when an officer had reposed a trust in them. Wild Bill, California Joe, Buffalo Bill, Comstock, Charlie Reynolds, and a group of intrepid men besides, who from time to time served under my husband, would have defended any of us women put in their charge with their lives.

I remember with distinctness what genuine admiration and gratitude filled my heart as these intrepid men rode up to my husband's tent to receive orders and despatches. From my woman's standpoint, it required far more and a vastly higher order of courage to undertake their journeys than to charge in battle. With women, every duty or task seems easier when shared by others. The most cowardly of us might be so impressionable, so sympathetic, in a great cause that we saw others preparing to defend, that it would become our own; and it is not improbable that enthusiasm might take even a timid woman into battle, excited and incited by the daring of others, the bray of drums, the clash of arms, the call of the trumpet. But I doubt if there are many who could go off on a scout of hundreds of miles, and face death alone. It still seems to me supreme courage. Imagine, then, my gratitude, my genuine admiration, when my husband sent scouts with letters to us, and we saw them in returning swing lightly into the saddle and gallop off, apparently unconcerned, freighted with our messages of affection.


 

Something better than such a journey awaited me, it seemed, when two of our Seventh Cavalry officers, Captain Samuel Robbins and Colonel William W. Cook, appeared in camp at the head of a detachment of cavalry and a small train of wagons for supplies. The General had told them to bring me back, and an ambulance was with the wagons, in which I was to ride. It did not take me long to put our roll of bedding and my valise in order; and to say anything about the heart in me leaping for joy is even a tame expression to describe the delight that ran through every vein in my body. To ascend such heights of joy means a corresponding capability of descent into a region of suffering, about which I do not, even now, like to think, for the memory of my disappointment has not departed after all these years. The commanding officer of the department was at the post temporarily, and forbade my going. There is a hateful clause in the Army Regulations which gives him control of all camp-followers as well as troops. I ran the whole gamut of insubordination, mutiny, and revolt, as I threw myself alone on the little camp-bed of our tent. This stormy, rebellious season, fought out by myself, ended, of course, as everything must that gives itself into military jurisdiction, as I was left behind in spite of myself; but I might have been enlisted as a soldier for five years, and not have been more helpless. I put my fingers into my ears, not to hear the call "Boots and Saddles!" as the troops mounted and rode away. I only felt one relief; the officers would tell the General that nothing but the all-powerful command forbidding them to take me had prevented my doing what he knew I would do if it was in my power. I had time also to use my husband as a safety-valve, and pour out my vials of wrath against the officer detaining me, in a long letter filling pages with regret that I was prevented going to him.

The Indians were then at their worst. They roamed up and down the route of travel, burning the stations, running off stock, and attacking the stages. General Hancock had given up all aggressive measures. The plan was, to defend the route taken for supplies, and protect the stage company's property so far as possible. The railroad building was almost entirely abandoned. As our officers and their detachment were for a time allowed to proceed quietly on their march to McPherson, they rather flattered themselves they would see nothing of the enemy. Still, every eye watched the long ravines that intersect the Plains and form such fastnesses for the wily foe. There is so little to prepare you for these cuts in the smooth surface of the plain, that an unguarded traveler comes almost upon a deep fissure in the earth, before dreaming that the lay of the land was not all the seeming level that stretches on to sunset. These ravines have small clumps of sturdy trees, kept alive in the drought of that arid climate by the slight moisture from what is often a buried stream at the base. The Indians know them by heart, and not only lie in wait in them, but escape by these gullies, that often run on, growing deeper and deeper till the bed of a river is reached.

In one of these ravines, six hundred savages in full war-dress were in ambush, awaiting the train of supplies, and sprang out from their hiding-place with horrible yells as our detachment of less than fifty men approached. Neither officer lost his head at a sight that was then new to him. Their courage was inborn. They directed the troops to form a circle about the wagons, and in this way the little band of valiant men defended themselves against attack after attack. Not a soldier flinched, nor did a teamster lose control of his mules, though the effort to stampede them was incessant. This running fight lasted for three hours, when suddenly the Indians withdrew. They, with their experienced eyes, first saw the reinforcements coming to the relief of our brave fellows, and gave up the attack.

The first time I saw Colonel Cook after this affair, he said: "The moment I found the Indians were on us, and we were in for a fight, I thought of you, and said to myself, 'If she were in the ambulance, before giving an order I would ride up and shoot her.'" "Would you have given me no chance for life," I replied, "in case the battle had gone in your favor?" "Not one," he said. "I should have been unnerved by the thought of the fate that awaited you, and I have promised the General not to take any chances, but to kill you before anything worse could happen." Already, in these early days of the regiment's history, the accounts of Indian atrocities perpetrated on the women of the frontier ranches, had curdled the blood of our men, and over the camp-fire at night, when these stories were discussed, my husband had said to the officers that he should take every opportunity to have me with him, but there was but one course he wished pursued; if I was put in charge of any one in the regiment, he asked them to kill me if Indians should attack the camp or the escort on the march. I have referred in general terms to this understanding, but it was on this occasion that the seriousness with which the General's request was considered by his brother officers first came home to me.

FOOTNOTE:

[H] My father went to Michigan early in 1800, and his long journey was made by stage, canal-boat and schooner. He was not only a great while in making the trip, but subject to privations, illness and fatigue, even when using the only means of travel in those early days. The man who went over the old California trail fared far worse. His life was in peril from Indians all the distance, besides his having to endure innumerable hardships. Those who pioneer in a Pullman car little know what the unbeaten track held for the first comers.

 

powered by social2s