Boots and Saddles/Chapter 16



Long after the flowers were blooming in the States, the tardy spring began to appear in the far North. The snow slowly melted, and the ice commenced to thaw on the river. For a moment it would be a pleasure to imagine the privilege of again walking out on the sod without peril of freezing. The next instant the dread of the coming campaign, which summer is almost certain to bring to a cavalry command, filled every thought, and made me wish that our future life could be spent where the thermometer not only went down to twenty degrees below zero but remained there.

When I spied the first tiny blade of grass, I used to find myself acting like a child and grinding the innocent green with my heel, back from where it sprang. The first bunch of flowers that the soldiers brought me, long before the ground had begun to take on even a faint emerald tint, were a variety of anemone, a bit of blue set deep down in a cup of outer petals of gray. These were so thick and fuzzy they looked like a surrounding of gray blanket. And well the flowers needed such protection on the bleak hills where they grew. They were a great novelty, and I wanted to go and seek them myself, but my husband gave me the strictest injunction in reply not to step outside the garrison limits. We had received warning only a short time before that the Indians had crawled out of their winter tepees, and we knew ourselves to be so surrounded that it became necessary to station pickets on the high ground at the rear of the post.

On the first mild day my husband and I rode over to the opposite bank of the river, which was considered the safe side. Thinking ourselves secure from danger there, we kept on further than we realized. A magnificent black-tailed deer, startled by our voices and laughter, and yet too well hidden by the underbrush to see us, resorted to a device habitual with deer when they wish to see over an extent of country. He made a leap straight into the air, his superb head turned to us searchingly. He seemed hardly to touch the earth as he bounded away. It was too great a temptation to resist. We did not follow far though, for we had neither dogs nor gun.

Scarcely any time elapsed before an officer and a detachment of men riding over the ground where we had started the deer, but obliged to pursue their way further up the valley as they were on duty, came to a horrible sight. The body of a white man was staked out on the ground and disembowelled. There yet remained the embers of the smouldering fire that consumed him. If the Indians are hurried for time, and cannot stay to witness the prolonged torture of their victim, it is their custom to pinion the captive and place hot coals on his vitals.

The horror and fright this gave us women lasted for a time, and rendered unnecessary the continued warnings of our husbands about walking outside the line of the pickets. Even with all the admonitions, we began to grow desperate, and chafed under the imprisonment that confined us to a little square of earth month in and month out. One day temptation came suddenly upon us as three of us were loitering on the outskirts of the post. The soldier who drove our travelling-wagon, the imperturbable Burkman, came near. We cajoled him into letting us get in and take ever so short a turn down the valley. Delighted to have our freedom again, we wheedled the good-natured man to go a "little and a little further." At last even he, amiable as he was, refused to be coaxed any longer, and he turned around. We realized then how far away we were; but we were not so far that we could not plainly discover a group of officers on the veranda at our quarters. They were gesticulating wildly, and beckoning to us with all their might. As we drove nearer we could almost see by a certain movement of the lower jaw that the word being framed was one that seems to be used in all climates for extreme cases of aggravation. They were all provoked, and caught us out of the carriage and set us down, after a little salute, for all the world like mothers I have seen who receive their children from narrow escapes with alternate shakings and hugs. It seemed hard to tell whether anger or delight predominated. In vain we made excuses, when order was restored and we could all speak articulately. We were then solemnly sworn, each one separately, never to do such a foolhardy thing again.

The Government had made a special appropriation for rations to be distributed, through the officers, to the suffering farmers throughout Minnesota and Dakota whose crops had been destroyed by grasshoppers. As we were on the side of the river with the warlike Indians, we knew of but one ranch near us. It was owned by an old man who had been several times to the general for assistance. He was a man of extraordinary courage, for he had located his claim too far away from any one to be able to obtain assistance if he needed it. He never left his home except to bring into market the skins that he had trapped, or his crops, when the season was profitable. He was so quaint and peculiar, and so very grateful for the help given him, that my husband wanted me to hear him express his thanks. The next time he came, the door into our room was left open, in order that I might listen to what otherwise he would have been too shy to utter. He blessed the general in the most touching and solemn manner. The tears were in his eyes, and answering ones rose in my husband's, for no old person failed to appeal to his sympathies and recall his own aged parents. Referring to some domestic troubles that he had previously confided to the general, he spoke of their having driven him beyond the pale of civilization when he was old and feeble, and compelled him to take his "dinner of herbs" in a deserted spot. At this point in his narrative the door was significantly shut, and I was thus made aware that the gratitude part was all that I was to be permitted to hear. My husband considered his confidence sacred. We knew that the old man lived a hermit's life, entirely alone the year through. In the blizzards he could not leave his door-step without being in danger of freezing to death. Some time after this a scout brought word that during the spring he had passed the ranch, and nothing was to be seen of the old man. The general suspected something wrong, and took a company himself to go to the place. He found that the Indians had been there, had dismantled and robbed the house, driven off the cattle and horses, and strewn the road with plunder. On the stable floor lay the body of the harmless old man, his silvery hair lying in a pool of blood, where he had been beaten to death. They were obliged to return and leave his death unavenged, for by the time the first news reached us the murderers were far away.