Boots and Saddles/Chapter 21
From the clouds and gloom of those summer days, I walked again into the broad blaze of sunshine which my husband's blithe spirit made. I did everything I could to put out of my mind the long, anxious, lonely months. It was still pleasant enough to ride, and occasionally we went out in parties large enough to be safe, and had a jack-rabbit or wolf chase. In the autumn we went into the States on a short leave of absence. Much to our regret we had to take our prized girl-friend home. Her family begged for her return. The last good-bye to us was an appeal from the young officers to bring back another; and we did so, for while we were East we had the good-fortune to persuade another father and mother to part with their daughter.
An incident of our journey was an amusing illustration of the vicissitudes of Western life. In passing through Fargo, on the Northern Pacific Railroad, an old townsman of ours always came to see us, but invariably after dark. He had taken a claim in the very heart of the town, which was disputed by an energetic widow. If he left his place in the daytime for a few hours, he invariably returned to find his cabin occupied by the goods and chattels of the widow, and his own effects reposing on the snow outside his door. Then ensued the ejection of the interloper by one of the town authorities, and our friend would re-establish himself. After these raids were repeated a few times, he learned to keep guard during the day and steal out after dark. In vain outsiders advised him to settle the difficulty by asking a clergyman to unite the claims. His eyes turned from the widow to a young girl in his native State, who now presides unmolested over the disputed domicile, while the widow has forsaken war for the peace of another hearthstone.
The question of servants was a very serious one to those living on the borders of civilization as we did. There was never a station equal to those frozen-up regions. Should servants go out there in the fall, they were almost certain to become engaged to the soldiers and marry after the trains were taken off and no new ones could reach us. It often happened that delicate ladies had to do all kinds of menial service for a time. Except for a kind-hearted soldier now and then, who was too devoted to the wife of his company officer to see her do everything, I hardly know how army ladies would have endured their occasional domestic trials. The soldiers were especially fond of children, and knew how to amuse them; indeed, a willing heart made them quick to learn all kinds of domestic work. I think they even regretted that they could not sew, when they saw an overtaxed lady wearily moving her needle. We had no trouble, fortunately. Our colored cook not only commanded us, and as much of the post as she could, but she tyrannized over her two sisters whom she had brought from Kentucky for us. These were thought excellent servants, but Mary, invested with a "little brief authority," ruled like a despot. The youngest having been born after the emancipation proclamation, was looked down upon by her elder sister, who had been a slave. In her moments of rage the most deadly insult was to call the younger one "you worthless free nigger, you!" I think with deep gratitude of their devotion to us. As they were colored people they had not even the excitement of beaux among the enlisted men. Sometimes they sighed and longed for home. At such times Mary used to say to me, "Miss Libbie, you has the giniral, and you don' mind whar you is so long as you has him, but you can't tell what it is for us to live in a country wha' there's no festibuls, meetin'-houses, or dances."
When we reached St. Paul, on our return from leave of absence, we were generally met with telegrams from our friends at Fort Lincoln, imploring us to bring them cooks. The railroad officials were good enough to give us passes, so we could always take them without much trouble. The first time after advertising, only the young and pretty ones were selected from those who came to us at the hotel. Their almost instantaneous capitulation to the devotion of the soldiers taught us a lesson. After that we only took the middle-aged and plain. When we were fairly started on our journey, the general would look them over, chuckle to himself, and jog my elbow for me to see the ancients as tourists. He would add, under his breath, that evidently we had settled the question that time, for no soldier would look at such antediluvians. He reckoned too soon. He hardly took into consideration that after hundreds of soldiers had lived for months without seeing so much as the distant flutter of a woman's drapery, they ceased to be fastidious or critical. Without an exception these antique, parchment-faced women, in a few weeks after we had delivered them over to their mistresses, began to metamorphose. They bought tawdry ornaments at the sutler's store, and hurried after dinner to adorn themselves to meet the enlisted men, who even under adverse circumstances will "a-wooing go."
I remember well the disheartened eyes of one of our pretty young friends when she told me it was of no manner of use to try and keep a white servant. Even the ugly old female that we had brought her, and that cooked so well, was already beginning to primp and powder. By this time our dearly loved neighbor had become exhausted by the almost constant care of her two children, and with only inefficient servants to help her. Through our sympathy for the hard life she led out in that wilderness we had fallen into the way of calling her "poor Miss Annie," having known her as a girl. In the States she would have been "rich Miss Annie." With a brave, handsome husband, a distinguished father, an abundant income, and bright, healthful children, she was rich. It would not have been strange if the clouds had obscured these blessings, living the taxing, wearying life she did on the frontier. In vain the devoted husband sought to share her cares. The very climax of her troubles seemed to have arrived when she confided to me that she would soon need an experienced nurse to care for her through her coming peril. The trains had ceased running, so that one could not be sent on from St. Paul. There was no neighborly help to be expected even, for all of our ladies were young and inexperienced. There seemed to be no one to whom we could look for aid. Instead of rejoicing, as we would have done in the States over the sweet privilege of coming maternity, we cried and were almost disconsolate. There were no soft, dainty clothes to receive the little stranger, no one to take care of it when it did come; the young surgeon was wholly inexperienced in such duty, and the future looked gloomy enough. Fortunately, I remembered at last one of the camp women, who had long followed the regiment as laundress, and had led a quiet, orderly life. "Poor Miss Annie" shuddered when I spoke of her, for the woman was a Mexican, and like the rest of that hairy tribe she had so coarse and stubborn a beard that her chin had a blue look after shaving, in marked contrast to her swarthy face. She was tall, angular, awkward, and seemingly coarse, but I knew her to be tender-hearted. In days gone by I had found, when she told me her troubles, that they had softened her nature.
When she first came to our regiment she was married to a trooper, who, to all appearances, was good to her. My first knowledge of her was in Kentucky. She was our laundress, and when she brought the linen home, it was fluted and frilled so daintily that I considered her a treasure. She always came at night, and when I went out to pay her she was very shy, and kept a veil pinned about the lower part of her face. The cook told me one day that she was sick and in trouble, and I went to see her. It seemed the poor thing had accumulated several hundred dollars by washing, baking pies for the soldiers, and sewing the clothes for them that had been refitted by the tailor. Her husband had obtained possession of the money and had deserted. She told me that she had lived a rough life before coming to the 7th, even dressing as a man in order to support herself by driving the ox-teams over the plains to New Mexico. The railroads had replaced that mode of transporting freight, and she was thrown out of employment. Finding the life as a laundress easier, she had resumed her woman's dress and entered the army, and thinking to make her place more secure, had accepted the hand of the man whose desertion she was now mourning. It was not long after this, however, before "Old Nash" (for through everything she kept her first husband's name) consoled herself. Without going through the ceremony or expense of a divorce, she married another soldier, and had come with us out to Dakota. Of course her husband was obliged to march with his company. It was a hard life for her, camping out with the other laundresses, as they are limited for room, and several are obliged to share a tent together. In the daytime they ride in an army wagon, huddled in with children and baggage. After all the rough summer out-of-doors, it was a great boon to her to get a little cabin in Laundress Row, at our post. Another trouble came to her, however: her new husband succeeded in stealing her savings and deserting like the first. "Old Nash" mourned her money a short time, but soon found solace in going to the soldiers' balls dressed in gauzy, low-necked gowns. Notwithstanding her architectural build and massive features, she had no sooner accumulated another bank account than her hand was solicited for the third time. Again ignoring the law, and thinking divorce a superfluous luxury, she captured the handsomest soldier in his company. He was Colonel Tom's own man, and when we were riding we often admired the admirably fitting uniform his wife had made over, and which displayed to advantage his well-proportioned figure. It was certainly a mariage de convenance. Fortunes are comparative; a few hundred dollars out there was quite equal to many thousands in New York. The trooper thought he had done a very good thing for himself, for notwithstanding his wife was no longer young, and was undeniably homely, she could cook well and spared him from eating with his company, and she was a good investment, for she earned so much by her industry. In addition to all these traits, she was already that most desirable creature in all walks of life—"a woman of means."
The bride and groom returned from the ceremony performed by the Bismarck clergyman, and began house-keeping in the little quarters "Old Nash" had refurbished for the occasion. When "Miss Annie" and I went down to see her and make our petitions, we found the little place shining. The bed was hung with pink cambric, and on some shelves she showed us silk and woollen stuffs for gowns; bits of carpet were on the floor, and the dresser, improvised out of a packing-box, shone with polished tins. Outside we were presented to some chickens, which were riches indeed out there in that Nova Zemblian climate. She was very gentle with our friend when we told our errand, and gave her needful advice in her broken Mexican tongue. After listening to her tribute to the goodness of her husband, we made such pitiful entreaties that we at last prevailed on her to leave him. She insisted upon the promise that she might come home every evening and cook her "manny manny's supper." We learned from her that her own two children had died in Mexico, and that she had learned midwifery from her mother, and confirmed, what I had previously heard, that she had constant practice among the camp women. "Old Nash" appeared at the required hour, and was as skilful a physician as she was a nurse. My friend used to whisper to me that when she watched her moving about in the dim light of the sick-room, she thought with a shiver sometimes how like a man she seemed. Occasionally she came to the bed, and in her harsh voice asked, "Are you comph?"—meaning comfortable. The gentle, dexterous manner in which she lifted and cared for the little woman quieted her dread of this great giraffe. By degrees I was promoted to the duty of bathing and dressing the little new-comer, the young mother giving directions from the pillow. When "Old Nash" was no longer absolutely necessary she went back to her husband—a richer woman by much gratitude and a great deal of money.
Her past life of hardship and exposure told on her in time, and she became ailing and rheumatic. Finally, after we had left Dakota, we heard that when death approached, she made an appeal to the camp women who surrounded her and had nursed her through her illness; she implored them to put her in her coffin just as she was when she died and bury her at once. They, thinking such a course would not be paying proper attention to the dead, broke their promise. The mystery which the old creature had guarded for so many years, through a life always public and conspicuous, was revealed: "Old Nash," years before, becoming weary of the laborious life of a man, had assumed the disguise of a woman, and hoped to carry the secret into the grave. The surgeon's certificate, stating the sex of "Old Nash," together with the simple record of a laundress in the regiment for ten years, was all the brief history ever known. After enduring the gibes and scoffs of his comrades for a few days, life became unbearable to the handsome soldier who had played the part of husband in order to gain possession of his wife's savings and vary the plain fare of the soldier with good suppers; he went into one of the company's stables when no one was there and shot himself. When our friend, whom the old creature had so carefully nursed, read the newspaper paragraph describing the death, her only comment was a reference to the Mexican's oft-repeated question to her, "Poor old thing, I hope she is 'comph' at last."