Boots and Saddles/Chapter 25
BREAKING UP OF THE MISSOURI.
The day of the final breaking up of the ice in the Missouri was one of great excitement to us. The roar and crash of the ice-fields could be heard a great distance. The sound of the tremendous report was the signal for the whole garrison to go out on the hill near the infantry post and watch the grand sight. Just above us was a bend in the river, and around this curve great floes of ice rushed, heaping up in huge masses as they swept down the furious current. All the lowlands that lay between Bismarck and the river were inundated, and the shore far in covered with blocks of ice that the force of the water had thrown there. Just across the river from us was a wretched little collection of huts, occupied by outlaws, into which the soldiers were decoyed to drink and gamble. The law forbidding liquor to be sold on the reservation was so strict that whiskey venders did not dare set foot on the Government land. The reservation was too large to permit them to place themselves on its other boundaries; they would have been at such a distance from the post that it would not have been worth while. Just on the water's edge opposite, these human fiends had perched to watch and entice the enlisted men. Over their rude cabins they had painted elaborate and romantically expressed signs. In the midst of bleak surroundings rose an untidy canvas-covered cabin, called "My Lady's Bower," or over the door of a rough log-hut was a sign of the "Dew Drop Inn" (Do drop in).
These shanties were placed on a little rise of ground, with a precautionary thought of the usual spring floods. The day of the first ice-breaking we saw the water rise to such a height that cabin after cabin was abandoned. The occupants dragged their property as best they could to the little rise where one or two, more cautious than the rest, had built. On this narrow neck of land huddled together the whole of the group, in desperate peril. No one on our side of the river could help them, for the water was the maddest of whirlpools, while on the other side the overflow had made a great lake, cutting them off from Bismarck. As we watched them scrambling on the little knoll, like drowning men clinging to the upturned keel of a boat, we suffered real distress at our powerlessness to help them. The company commanders, remembering how they had been the cause of the demoralization of some of their best soldiers, openly avowed at first their relief that the whole wretched lot were about to drown; but as the peril increased, not one of the officers' hearts remained unsoftened. They forgot what an utterly abandoned, lawless company it was, and wished that some means might be found by which they could be saved.
We women had discovered through the field-glasses a few of our own sex among them, and were alarmed at their danger; for no matter what they were, the helplessness of women at such a time makes one forget everything, save that their lives hang in the balance. At last one of them stepped into the only small boat they had been able to retain, and standing bravely at the side of the one man at the bow, they were swept down the river out of sight among the gorge of ice-blocks and never again heard from. It was too exhausting watching these imperilled beings, knowing how incapable we were of helping them, and we went back to our quarters to spend hours of suspense. We could not set ourselves about doing anything while the lives of human beings so near us were in jeopardy. As day began to close, word came for our relief that the water was subsiding; not, alas, until some of them had been borne to their last home. Those that were left waded back to their huts, and, unheeding the warning of that fearful day, began again their same miserable existence.
Of all our happy days, the happiest had now come to us at Fort Lincoln. I never knew more united married people than those of our regiment. It will be easily understood that in the close companionship involved in the intimate relationships of that life, either uncontrollable hatred or increasing affection must ensue. If a desperate attack of incompatibility set in out there, the climate, fine as it was, simply had to disagree with the wife, for it was next to madness for both of them if they did not escape from a life where almost every hour is spent with each other. The wife had the privilege of becoming the comrade of her husband in that isolated existence, and the officers seemed to feel that every amusement was heightened if shared by the other sex. That perpetual intimacy was a crucial test of the genuineness of the affection. My husband used to quote a line or two from one of Mrs. Stowe's books that we had read together. The new husband is asked why he knows that he loves his wife: "Because she never tires me; she never makes me nervous." He believed that if husbands and wives bore that proof successfully as time advanced, they might count on a happy future.
Life grew more enjoyable every day as we realized the blessings of our home. When the winter was finally gone there was not an hour that we would not have recalled. I have seen my husband with all the abandon of a boy throw himself on a rug in front of the fire and enumerate his blessings with real gratitude. Speaking of his regiment first, his district (for he then had five posts under his command), the hunting, his dogs and horses, and his own room, which was an unceasing delight, he used to declare to me that he would not exchange places with any one—not even a friend in civil life who stood at the head of his profession as a journalist, who had wealth and youth, and who lived in almost princely luxury. My husband used to tell me that he believed he was the happiest man on earth, and I cannot help thinking that he was. For with all the vicissitudes of those twelve eventful years, I never knew him to have an hour's depression. The presence of so many of his family about him was an unceasing pleasure. There was an abiding fondness between his brother, Colonel Tom, and himself. This brother was scarcely more than a lad when he joined us. The general said to some Eastern friends when he was in the States the last time, "To prove to you how I value and admire my brother as a soldier, I think that he should be the general and I the captain."
Colonel Tom always lived with us, and the brothers played incessant jokes on each other. Both of them honored and liked women extremely. Colonel Tom used to pay visits of an unconscionable length to ladies of the garrison, and no amount of teasing on his brother's part would induce him to shorten them. He never knew, when he started to go home from these visits, but that he would find on the young lady's door-mat his trunk, portmanteau, and satchel—this as a little hint from the general that he was overtaxing the lady's patience. I used to think my husband too severe with his brother, for in his anxiety not to show favoritism he noticed the smallest misdemeanor. If, in visiting with the young ladies in our parlor, he overstayed the hour he was due at the stables or drill, the general's eye noticed it, and perhaps overlooked others in the room who were erring in the same manner. I knew that a reprimand would be sent from the adjutant's office in the morning if I did not invent some way to warn the offender, so I learned the bugle-call for stables, and hovering around Colonel Tom, hummed it in his ear, which the voice of the charmer had dulled to the trumpet-call. When the sound penetrated, he would make a plunge for his hat and belt, and tear out of the house, thus escaping reproof.
When spring came again, it is impossible to express the joy I felt that there was to be no summer campaign; and for the first time in many years I saw the grass grow without a shudder. The general began the improvement of the post with fresh energy, and from the drill-ground came the click of the horses' hoofs and the note of the bugles repeating the commands of the officers. As soon as it was warm enough, several charming girls came out from the States to our garrison to visit us. They gave every one pleasure, and effectually turned the heads of the young officers.
We had supposed that when travelling from the Gulf of Mexico almost to the border of the British possessions, we could safely call ourselves "West;" but we found that there was a post fifteen hundred miles beyond us, on the Missouri River. The steamers were constantly taking officers and their families from Bismarck into Montana. Sometimes the delay of the boats in starting gave us the privilege of entertaining them. I remember going down to bid good-bye to a family who had gone on board a steamer at our landing. The officer was returning from an infantry recruiting detail in the States. He had eight children and a dog. These, with a lieutenant's pay, constituted his riches. He disappeared into a state-room and brought out the new baby, exhibiting it with as much pride as if it had been the first-born! They told me afterwards that during all that slow, wearisome journey of fifteen hundred miles, on a boat that needs be seen to be appreciated, the mother was placid and happy. There were no guards around the deck, so she tied the children separately to the different articles of stationary furniture, and let them play out to the limits of their tethers.
Almost our only exercise on summer evenings was walking on the outskirts of the garrison surrounded by the dogs. It was dangerous to go far, but we could walk with safety in the direction of the huts of the Indian scouts. Their life always interested us, and by degrees they became so accustomed to our presence that they went on with all their occupations without heeding us.
There was a variety of articles among the litter tossed down in front of these Indian quarters; lariates, saddles, and worn-out robes were heaped about an arrangement for conveying their property from place to place. The construction was simple, and rendered wheels unnecessary. About midway on two long saplings, placed a short distance apart, is a foundation of leather thongs. Upon this the effects belonging to an Indian family are lashed. Two pole ends are attached to either side of a rude harness on the pony, while the other two drag on the ground. In following an Indian trail, the indentation made by the poles, as they are pulled over the ground, traces the course of travel unmistakably.
Some of their boats lay upturned about the door. They were perfectly round, like a great bowl, and composed of a wicker frame over which buffalo hide was tightly drawn. The primitive shape and construction dates back to the ancient Egyptians, and these boats were called coracles in olden times. They seemed barely large enough to hold two Indians, who were obliged to crouch down as they paddled their way with short, awkward oars through the rapid current of the Missouri.
Bloody Knife was naturally mournful; his face still looked sad when he put on the presents given him. He was a perfect child about gifts, and the general studied to bring him something from the East that no other Indian had.
He had proved himself such an invaluable scout to the general that they often had long interviews. Seated on the grass, the dogs lying about them, they talked over portions of the country that the general had never seen, the scout drawing excellent maps in the sand with a pointed stick. He was sometimes petulant, often moody, and it required the utmost patience on my husband's part to submit to his humors; but his fidelity and cleverness made it worth while to yield to his tempers.
I was always interested in the one pretty squaw among them, called Et-nah-wah-ruchta, which means Medicine Mother. Her husband was young, and she was devoted to him. I have seen him lounging on the floor of the hut while she made his toilet, combing and plaiting his hair, cutting and oiling the bangs which were trimmed to cover his forehead, and plucking the few scattered hairs from his chin—for they do not consider it an honor to have a suspicion of a beard. She strapped on his leggings, buckled his belt, and finally lighted his pipe. Once the war bonnet of her lord had to be rearranged. He deigned to put it on her head, readjusted the eagle feathers, and then gave it to her to fasten them in securely. The faithful slave even used to accompany him to his bath. Indians do bathe—at long intervals. I was not ambitious to know if she actually performed the ablutions. However, I have seen him, at a distance, running along the river bank on his return, his wife waving a blanket behind him to keep off the mosquitoes!
If the Indians kill any game, they return home, order the squaws to take the ponies and bring back what they have killed, and then throw themselves down to sleep among the sprawling Indian babies, tailless dogs, and general filth. The squaws do all the labor, and every skin is tanned by their busy fingers. I never knew but one Indian who worked. He was an object of interest to me, though he kept himself within the gloom of the cabin, and skulked around the fire when he cooked. This was the occupation forced upon him by the others. He had lacked the courage to endure the torture of the sun-dance; for when strips of flexible wood had been drawn through the gashes in his back, and he was hung up by these, the poor creature had fainted. On reviving he begged to be cut down, and ever after was an object of scorn. He was condemned to wear squaw's clothing from that time on. They mocked and taunted him, and he led as separate an existence as if he were in a desert alone. The squaws disdained to notice him, except to heap work upon his already burdened shoulders.
Once my husband and I, in walking, came suddenly upon a queer little mound, that we concluded we would observe at a distance. An Indian was seen carrying buckets and creeping with difficulty into the small aperture. It was about six feet in diameter, and proved to be a kind of steam-bath, which they consider great medicine. A hole is first dug in the ground and filled with stones; a fire is kindled upon them long before, and they are heated red-hot. The round framework of saplings over these is covered with layer upon layer of blankets and robes, so that no air can penetrate. The Indians, almost stripped of their clothing, crouch round them, while the one acting as servant brings water to pour on the heated rocks. The steam has no escape, and the Indians are thoroughly roasted. While we were looking at this curious bath-house a small Indian boy crept out from under the edges of the blankets, and ashamed to have given in before the rest, drew his almost parboiled little body into a hiding-place. Ever ambitious, like small boys of all nationalities, he had at first believed experience better than hearsay.
We went one day into a tepee that was placed by itself to see an Indian who was only slightly ill. His father and friends were talking to him of his death as a certainty, and making all the plans in advance. They even took his measure for a coffin, assuring him that they would honor him by putting him in a box in imitation of the white man. The general used to listen wonderingly when they referred to their dead in the speeches in council. It was always in some roundabout way, never directly.
The Indians all seemed a melancholy people. They sometimes ask embarrassing questions. Perhaps, when some young girl accompanied us, they spoke to my husband in the sign language, in which he was versed. Once they inquired if the young lady was his other wife. The blush of the girl so amused us that our laugh rang out among them, and seemed to be a sound they knew nothing of. They sat on the ground for hours, gambling for iron, brass and silver rings, but always glum and taciturn. The tallest Indian of them all, Long Soldier, grew to be very cunning when he learned what a curiosity he was. He would crouch down at our approach, and only at the sight of a coin as a "tip" would he draw up his seven feet of height.
The Ree scouts entertained their chief, Star-of-the-North, during the summer. We were all asked to the feast, and all formally presented to the distinguished stranger, who could not comprehend why he was expected to shake hands with women. After going through what he found was courtesy among the whites, he offered us a place around the circle. Taking a bone from the meat broiling before the fire he offered it to the general. My husband, after getting some salt, had the courage to eat it. It was want of tact on my part to decline, but my heart failed me when I recognized the master of ceremonies for the evening. As he proffered me some meat, I found him to be the ferocious-looking savage who had killed his enemy from another tribe and eaten his heart warm.