Boots and Saddles/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII.

A DAY OF ANXIETY AND TERROR.

When the air became milder it was a delight, after our long housing, to be able to dawdle on the piazza. The valley below us was beginning to show a tinge of verdure. Several hundred mules belonging to the supply-wagon train dotted the turf and nibbled as best they could the sprouting grass. Half a dozen citizens lounged on the sod, sleepily guarding the herd, for these mules were hired by the Government from a contractor. One morning we were walking back and forth, looking, as we never tired of doing, down the long, level plain, when we were startled by shouts. We ran to the edge of the piazza, and saw the prisoners, who had been working outside the post, and the guard who had them in charge, coming in at a double-quick. A hatless and breathless herder dashed up to the officer on an unsaddled mule. With blanched face and protruding eyeballs he called out that the Indians were running off the herd.

The general came hastily out, just in time to see a cloud of dust rising through a gap in the bluffs, marking the direction taken by the stampeded mules. Instantly he shouted with his clear voice to the bugler to sound the call, "Boots and saddles," and keep it up until he told him to stop. The first notes of the trumpet had hardly sounded before the porches of the company quarters and the parade were alive with men. Every one, without stopping to question, rushed from the barracks and officers' quarters to the stables. The men threw their saddles on their horses and galloped out to the parade-ground. Soldiers who were solely on garrison duty, and to whom no horse was assigned, stole whatever ones they could find, even those of the messengers tied to the hitching-posts. Others vaulted on to mules barebacked. Some were in jackets, others in their flannel shirt-sleeves. Many were hatless, and occasionally a head was tied up with a handkerchief. It was anything but a military-looking crowd, but every one was ready for action, and such spirited-looking creatures it is rarely one's lot to see. Finding the reason for the hasty summons when they all gathered together, they could hardly brook even a few moments' delay.

The general did not tarry to give any but brief directions. He detailed an officer to remain in charge of the garrison, and left him some hurried instructions. He stopped to caution me again not to go outside the post, and with a hasty good-bye flung himself into the saddle and was off. The command spurred their horses towards the opening in the bluff, not a quarter of a mile away, through which the last mules had passed. In twenty minutes from the first alarm the garrison was emptied, and we women stood watching the cloud of dust that the hoofs of the regimental horses had stirred as they hurled themselves through the cleft in the hills.

We had hardly collected our senses before we found that we were almost deserted. As a rule, there are enough soldiers on garrison duty, who do not go on scouts, to protect the post, but in the mad haste of the morning, and impelled by indignant fury at having the herd swept away from under their very noses as it were, all this home-guard had precipitately left without permission. Fortunately for them, and his own peace of mind regarding our safety, the general did not know of this until he returned. Besides, the officers never dreamed the pursuit would last for more than a mile or so, as they had been so quick in preparing to follow.

After our gasping and wild heart-beating had subsided a little, we realized that, in addition to our anxiety for those who had just left us, we were in peril ourselves. The women, with one instinct, gathered together. Though Indians rarely attack a post directly, the pickets that were stationed on the low hills at the rear of the garrison had been fired upon previously. We also feared that the buildings would be set on fire by the wily, creeping savages. It was even thought that the running off of the herd was but a ruse to get the garrison out, in order to attack the post. Of course we knew that only a portion of the Indians had produced the stampede, and we feared that the remainder were waiting to continue the depredations, and were aware of our depleted numbers.

Huddled together in an inner room, we first tried to devise schemes for secreting ourselves. The hastily-built quarters had then no cellars. How we regretted that a cave had not been prepared in the hill back of us for hiding the women in emergencies. Our means of escape by the river were uncertain, as the ferry-boat was in a shocking condition; besides, the citizens in charge would very naturally detain the boat upon some pretext on the safe side of the river. Finally, nervous and trembling over these conferences, we returned to the piazza, and tried to think that it was time for the return of the regiment. Our house being the last in the line, and commanding an extended view of the valley, we kept our lookout there. Each of us took turns in mounting the porch railing, and, held there in place by the others, fixed the field-glass on the little spot of earth through which the command had vanished. With a plaintive little laugh, one of our number called out the inquiry that has symbolized all beleaguered women from time immemorial, "Sister Anne, do you see any one coming?"

All of us scanned the horizon unflaggingly. We knew the Indian mode of taking observation. They pile a few stones on the brow of the hill after dark; before dawn they creep up stealthily from the farther side, and hiding behind the slight protection, watch all day long with unwearying patience. These little picket posts of theirs were scattered all along the bluffs. We scarcely allowed ourselves to take our eyes off them. Once in a while one of our group on watch called out that something was moving behind the rocks. Chairs were brought out and placed beside her, in order that a second pair of eyes might confirm the statement. This threw our little shivering group into new panics.

There was a window in the servants' room at the rear of the house, to and from which we ascended and descended all day long. I do not think the actual fear of death was thought of so much as the all-absorbing terror of capture. Our regiment had rescued some white women from captivity in Kansas, and we never forgot their stories. One of our number became so convinced that their fate awaited us, that she called a resolute woman one side to implore her to promise that, when the Indians came into the post, she would put a bullet through her heart, before she carried out her determination to shoot herself. We sincerely discussed whether, in extreme danger, we could be counted upon to load and fire a carbine.

It would be expected that army women would know a great deal about fire-arms; I knew but few who did. I never even went into the corner of my husband's library, where he kept his stand of unloaded arms, if I could help it. I am compelled to confess that the holster of a pistol gave me a shiver. One of our ladies, however, had a little of the Mollie Pitcher spirit. She had shot at a mark, and she promised to teach us to put in the cartridges and discharge the piece. We were filled with envy because she produced a tiny Remington pistol that heretofore she had carried in her pocket when travelling in the States. It was not much larger than a lead-pencil, and we could not help doubting its power to damage. She did not insist that it would kill, but even at such a time we had to laugh at the vehement manner in which she declared that she could disable the leg of an enemy. She seemed to think that sufficient pluck would be left to finish him afterwards. The officer who had remained in command was obliged to see that the few troopers left were armed, and afterwards he visited the pickets. Then he came to us and tried to quiet our fears, and from that time his life became a burden.

We questioned twenty times his idea as to where he thought the command had gone, when it would come back, and such other aimless queries as only the ingenuity of frightened women can devise. He was driven almost desperate. In assuring us that he hoped there was no immediate danger, he asked us to remember that the infantry post was near enough to give assistance if we needed it. Alas, that post seemed miles away, and we believed the gulleys that intervened between the two garrisons would be filled with Indians. After a prolonged season of this experience, the officer tried to escape and go to his quarters. We were really so anxious and alarmed that he had not the heart to resist our appeals to him to remain near.

And so that long day dragged away. About five o'clock in the afternoon a faint haze arose on the horizon. We could hardly restrain our uneasy feet. We wanted to run up over the bluff to discover what it meant. We regretted that we had given our word of honor that we would not leave the limits of the post. Soon after the mules appeared, travelling wearily back through the same opening in the bluffs through which so many hours before they had rushed headlong. We were bitterly disappointed to find only a few soldiers driving them, and they gave but little news. When the regiment overtook the stock these men had been detailed to return with the recaptured animals to the garrison; the command had pushed on in pursuit of the Indians.

The night set in, and still we were in suspense. We made a poor attempt to eat dinner; we knew that none of the regiment had taken rations with them, and several of the officers had not even breakfasted. There was nothing for us to do but to remain together for the night.

From this miserable frame of mind we were thrown into a new excitement, but fortunately not of fear: we heard the sound of the band ringing out on the still evening air. Every woman was instantly on the piazza. From an entirely different direction from that in which they had left, the regiment appeared, marching to the familiar notes of "Garryowen."

Such a welcome as met them! The relief from the anxiety of that unending day was inexpressible. When the regiment was nearing the post, the general had sent in an orderly to bring the band out to meet them. He cautioned him to secrecy, because he wished us to have a joyous release from the suspense he knew we had endured.

The regiment had ridden twenty miles out, as hard as the speed of the horses would allow. The general, and one other officer mounted like himself on a Kentucky thorough-bred, found themselves far in advance, and almost up to some of the Indians. They seeing themselves so closely pressed, resorted to the cunning of their race to escape. They threw themselves from their ponies, and plunged into the underbrush of a deep ravine where no horse could follow. The ponies were captured, but it was useless to try any further pursuit. All the horses were fagged, and the officers and men suffering from the want of food and water.

When the herders were questioned next day, it was found that the Indians had started the stampede by riding suddenly up from the river where they had been concealed. Uttering the wildest yells, they each swung a buffalo robe about the ears of the easily excited mules.

An astonishing collection of maimed and halt appeared the next morning; neither men nor officers had been in the saddle during the winter. This sudden ride of so many miles, without preparation, had so bruised and stiffened their joints and flesh that they could scarcely move naturally. When they sat down it was with the groans of old men. When they rose they declared they would stand perpetually until they were again limber and their injuries healed.

As to the officer who had been left behind, he insisted that their fate was infinitely preferable to his. We heard that he said to the others in confidence, that should he ever be detailed to command a garrison where agitated women were left, he would protest and beg for active duty, no matter if his life itself were in jeopardy.