Boots and Saddles/Chapter 28

CHAPTER XXVIII.

A WINTER’S JOURNEY ACROSS THE PLAINS.

When we reached St. Paul the prospect before us was dismal, as the trains were not to begin running until April, at the soonest. The railroad officials, mindful of what the general had done for them in protecting their advance workers in the building of the road, came and offered to open the route. Sending us through on a special train was a great undertaking, and we had to wait some time for the preparations to be completed. One of the officers of the road took an engine out some distance to investigate, and it looked discouraging enough when he sprang down from the cab on his return in a complete coating of ice.

The train on which we finally started was an immense one, and certainly a curiosity. There were two snow-ploughs and three enormous engines; freight-cars with coal supplies and baggage; several cattle-cars, with stock belonging to the Black Hills miners who filled the passenger-coaches. There was an eating-house, looming up above everything, built on a flat car. In this car the forty employés of the road, who were taken to shovel snow, etc., were fed. There were several day-coaches, with army recruits and a few passengers, and last of all the paymaster's car, which my husband and I occupied. This had a kitchen and a sitting-room. At first everything went smoothly. The cook on our car gave us excellent things to eat, and we slept soundly. It was intensely cold, but the little stove in the sitting-room was kept filled constantly. Sometimes we came to drifts, and the train would stop with a violent jerk, start again, and once more come to a stand-still, with such force that the dishes would fall from the table. The train-men were ordered out, and after energetic work by the stalwart arms the track was again clear and we went on. One day we seemed to be creeping; the engines whistled, and we shot on finely. The speed was checked so suddenly that the little stove fairly danced, and our belongings flew through the car from end to end. After this there was an exodus from the cars; every one went to inquire as to the ominous stop. Before our train there seemed to be a perfect wall of ice; we had come to a gully which was almost filled with drifts. The cars were all backed down some distance and detached; the snow-ploughs and engines having thus full sweep, all the steam possible was put on, and they began what they called "bucking the drifts." This did a little good at first, and we made some progress through the gully. After one tremendous dash, however, the ploughs and one engine were so deeply embedded that they could not be withdrawn. The employés dug and shovelled until they were exhausted. The Black Hills miners relieved them as long as they could endure it; then the officers and recruits worked until they could do no more. The impenetrable bank of snow was the accumulation of the whole winter, first snowing, then freezing, until there were successive layers of ice and snow. It was the most dispiriting and forlorn situation.

Night was descending, and my husband, after restlessly going in and out to the next car, showed me that he had some perplexity on his mind. He described to me the discomfort of the officers and Bismarck citizens in the other coach in not having any place to sleep. His meaning penetrated at last, and I said, "You are waiting for me to invite them all to room with us?" His "exactly" assured me it was precisely what he intended me to do. So he hurried out to give them my compliments and the invitation. The officers are generally prepared for emergencies, and they brought in their blankets; the citizens left themselves to the general's planning. In order to make the car-blankets go further, he made two of the folding-beds into one broad one. Two little berths on each side, and rolls of bedding on the floor, left only room for the stove, always heated to the last degree. I was invited to take the farthest place towards the wall, in the large bed; then came my husband. After that I burrowed my head in my pillow, and the servant blew out some of the candles and brought in our guests. It is unnecessary for me to say that I did not see the order in which they appeared. The audible sleeping in our bed, however, through the long nights that followed, convinced me that the general had assigned those places to the oldest, fattest, and ranking civilians. Every morning I awoke to find the room empty and all the beds folded away. The general brought me a tin basin with ice-water, and helped me to make a quick toilet; our eleven visitors waited in the other coach, to return to breakfast with us in the same room. Every one made the best of the situation, and my husband was as rollicking as ever. Though I tried to conceal it, I soon lost heart entirely, and it cost me great effort to join with the rest in conversation.

The days seemed to stretch on endlessly; the snow was heaped up about us and falling steadily. All we could see was the trackless waste of white on every side. The wind whistled and moaned around the cars, and great gusts rocked our frail little refuge from side to side. The snow that had begun to fall with a few scattered flakes now came down more thickly. I made the best effort I could to be brave, and deceived them as to my real terrors—I had no other idea than that we must die there. We tried to be merry at our meals, and made light of the deficiencies that occurred each time we sat down. The increase at the table quickly diminished our stores, and I knew by the careful manner in which the wood was husbanded that it was nearly exhausted. The general, always cool and never daunted by anything, was even more blithe, to keep me from knowing that there was anything alarming in the situation. If I could have worked as the men did, even though it was at the hopeless snow-drifts, the time would not have seemed so long. Of course I had needle-work, but at such a time any industry that admits of thinking is of little use as a distraction. During those anxious days it used to seem strange to hear a dinner-bell through the air, muffled with snow. For an instant I was deluded into the thought that by some strange necromancy we had been spirited on to a station, and that this was the clang of the eating-house bell. It was only the call from the car where the employés were fed. The lowing of the cattle and howling of our dogs in the forward cars were the only other sounds we heard. Finally the situation became desperate, and with all their efforts the officers could no longer conceal from me their concern for our safety.

Search was made throughout all the train to find if there was a man who understood anything about telegraphy, for among the fittings stowed away in the car a tiny battery had been found, with a pocket-relay. A man was finally discovered who knew something of operating, and it was decided to cut the main wire. Then the wires of the pocket-relay were carried out of our car and fastened to either end of the cut wire outside, so making an unbroken circuit between us and our Lincoln friends, besides uniting us with Fargo station. In a little while the general had an answer from Colonel Tom, most characteristic: "Shall I come out for you? You say nothing about the old lady; is she with you?" The "old lady" begged the privilege of framing the reply. I regretted that the telegram could not be underscored—a woman's only way of emphasizing—for I emphatically forbade him to come. On this occasion I dared to assume a show of authority. The stories of the risk and suffering of our mail-carriers during the two previous winters were too fresh in my memory for me to consent that Colonel Tom should encounter so much for our sake.

After that we kept the wires busy, talking with our friends and devising plans for our relief. We only succeeded in suppressing our headlong brother temporarily. Against our direct refusal he made all his preparations, and only telegraphed, when it was too late to receive an answer, that he was leaving garrison. Then our situation was forgotten in our solicitude about him. The time seemed to move on leaden wings, and yet it was in reality not long. He went to Bismarck, and looked up the best stage-driver in all the territory, and hired him. This driver was cool, intrepid, and inured to every peril. At an old stage-station along the route he found relays of mules that belonged to the mail-sleigh.

At last a great whoop and yell, such as was peculiar to the Custers, was answered by the general, and made me aware for the first time that Colonel Tom was outside. I scolded him for coming before I thanked him, but he made light of the danger and hurried us to get ready, fearing a coming blizzard. His arms were full of wraps, and his pockets crowded with mufflers and wraps the ladies had sent out to me. We did ourselves up in everything we had, while the three hounds were being placed in the sleigh. The drifts were too deep to drive near the cars, so my husband carried me over the snow and deposited me in the straw with the dogs. They were such strangers they growled at being crowded. Then the two brothers followed, and thus packed in we began that terrible ride, amid the cheers of those we were leaving. It was understood that we were to send back help to those we left.

The suspense and alarm in the car had been great, but that journey through the drifts was simply terrible. I tried to be courageous, and did manage to keep still; but every time we plunged into what appeared to be a bottomless white abyss, I believed that we were to be buried there. And so we would have been, I firmly believe, had it not been for the experience and tenacity of will shown by the old driver. He had a peculiar yell that he reserved for supreme moments, and that always incited the floundering mules to new efforts. The sleigh was covered, but I could look out in front and see the plucky creatures scrambling up a bank after they had extricated us from the great drift at the bottom of the gully. If there had been a tree to guide us, or had it been daytime, it would not have seemed so hopeless a journey. The moon was waning, and the clouds obscured it entirely from time to time. There was nothing to serve as guide-posts except the telegraph-poles. Sometimes we had to leave them to find a road where the sleigh could be pulled through, and I believed we never would reach them again. Divide after divide stretched before us, like the illimitable waves of a great white sea. The snow never ceased falling, and I knew too much of the Dakota blizzard not to fear hourly that it would settle into that driving, blinding, whirling atmosphere through which no eyes can penetrate and no foot progress. It is fortunate that such hours of suspense come to an end before one is driven distracted.

When at last I saw the light shining out of our door at Fort Lincoln I could not speak for joy and gratitude at our release from such peril. Our friends gathered about us around the great log-fire in the general's room. No light ever seemed so bright, no haven ever so blessed, as our own fireside. The train remained in the spot where we had left it until the sun of the next spring melted down the great ice banks and set free the buried engines. All the help that Bismarck could give was sent out at once, and even the few cattle that survived were at last driven over that long distance, and shelter found for them in the town.

Hardly had we arrived before a despatch came recalling the general to the East. I had no thought but that I would be allowed to accompany him, and went at once to repack my things. My husband found me thus employed, and took my breath away by telling me he could not endure the anxiety of having me go through such peril again. In vain I pleaded, and asked him to remember that I had summoned sufficient self-control not to utter a word about my fears; I promised more courage the next time. It was of no avail, I had to submit.

Not the shadow of an anxiety, nor the faintest sign of dread of the coming journey over the snow again came into his face. He left me with the same words with which he always comforted me: "Be sure, Libbie, it's all for the best; you know we always find it so in the end." With these farewell words he stepped into the sleigh—which he knew well might be his tomb.

It is not possible for me to speak in detail of the days that followed. Life seemed insupportable until I received a despatch saying that my husband had again passed safely over that two hundred and fifty miles of country where every hour life is in jeopardy.