Boots and Saddles/Chapter 7
ADVENTURES DURING THE LAST DAYS OF THE MARCH.
My husband and I kept up our little détours by ourselves as we neared the hour for camping each day. One day one of the officers accompanied us. We left the higher ground to go down by the water and have the luxury of wandering through the cottonwood-trees that sometimes fringed the river for several miles. As usual, we had a number of dogs leaping and racing around us. Two of them started a deer, and the general bounded after them, encouraging the others with his voice to follow. He had left his friend with me, and we rode leisurely along to see that the younger dogs did not get lost. Without the least warning, in the dead stillness of that desolate spot, we suddenly came upon a group of young Indian warriors seated in their motionless way in the underbrush. I became perfectly cold and numb with terror. My danger in connection with the Indians was twofold. I was in peril from death or capture by the savages, and liable to be killed by my own friends to prevent my capture. During the five years I had been with the regiment in Kansas I had marched many hundred miles. Sometimes I had to join my husband going across a dangerous country, and the exposure from Indians all those years had been constant. I had been a subject of conversation among the officers, being the only woman who, as a rule, followed the regiment, and, without discussing it much in my presence, the universal understanding was that any one having me in charge in an emergency where there was imminent danger of my capture should shoot me instantly. While I knew that I was defended by strong hands and brave hearts, the thought of the double danger always flashed into my mind when we were in jeopardy.
If time could have been measured by sensations, a cycle seemed to have passed in those few seconds. The Indians snatched up their guns, leaped upon their ponies, and prepared for attack. The officer with me was perfectly calm, spoke to them coolly without a change of voice, and rode quickly beside me, telling me to advance. My horse reared violently at first sight of the Indians, and started to run. Gladly would I have put him to his mettle then, except for the instinct of obedience, which any one following a regiment acquires in all that pertains to military directions. The general was just visible ascending a bluff beyond. To avoid showing fear when every nerve is strung to its utmost, and your heart leaps into your throat, requires super-human effort. I managed to check my horse and did not scream. No amount of telling over to myself what I had been told, that all the tribes on this side were peaceable and that only those on the other side of the river were warlike, could quell the throbbing of my pulses. Indians were Indians to me, and I knew well that it was a matter of no time to cross and recross on their little tub-like boats that shoot madly down the tide.
What made me sure that these warriors whom we had just met were from the fighting bands was the recollection of some significant signs we had come upon in the road a few days previous. Stakes had been set in the ground, with bits of red flannel fastened on them peculiarly. This, the guide explained, meant warnings from the tribes at war to frighten us from any further advance into their country. Whether because of the coolness of the officer, or because the warriors knew of the size of the advancing column, we were allowed to proceed unharmed. How interminable the distance seemed to where the general awaited us, unconscious of what we had encountered! I was lifted out of the saddle a very limp and unconscious thing.
Encouraged by references to other dangers I had lived through without flinching, I mounted again and followed the leader closely. He took us through some rough country, where the ambitious horses, finding that by bending their heads they could squeeze through, forgot to seek openings high enough to admit those sitting in the saddle. We crashed through underbrush, and I, with habit torn and hands scratched, was sometimes almost lifted up, Absalom-like, by the resisting branches. Often we had no path, and the general's horse, "Vic," would start straight up steep banks after we had forded streams. It never occurred to his rider, until after the ascent was made, and a faint voice arose from the valley, that all horses would not do willingly what his thorough-bred did. He finally turned to look back and tell me how to manage my horse. I abandoned the bridle when we came to those ascents, and wound my hands in the horse's mane to keep from sliding entirely off, while the animal took his own way. All this was such variety and excitement I was delighted, and forgot my terror of the morning.
We found a bit of lovely road, which only those who go hundreds of miles under a blazing sun can appreciate fully. The sunshine came flickering down through the branches of the trees and covered the short grass with checkered light and shade. Here we dawdled, and enjoyed looking up at the patches of blue sky through great grown-up tree-tops. It was like a bit of woods at home, where I never thought to be grateful for foliage, but took it as a matter of course. My husband remembered my having put some biscuit in the leather pocket on my saddle, and invited himself to luncheon at once. We dismounted, and threw ourselves on the ground to eat the very frugal fare.
After resting, we gave ourselves the privilege of a swift gallop over the stretch of smooth ground before us. We were laughing and talking so busily I never noticed the surroundings until I found we were almost in the midst of an Indian village, quite hidden under a bluff. My heart literally stood still. I watched the general furtively. He was as usual perfectly unmoved, and yet he well knew that this was the country where it was hardly considered that the Indian was overburdened with hospitality. Oh, how I wished ourselves safely with the column, now so far away! There were but few occupants of the village, but they glowered and growled, and I could see the venomous glances they cast on us as I meekly followed. I trembled so I could barely keep my seat as we slowly advanced, for the general even slackened his speed, to demonstrate to them, I suppose, that we felt ourselves perfectly at home. He said "How," of course, which was his usual salutation to them. An echoing "how" beside him proved that I still had power of utterance. When we came to one Indian, who looked menacingly at us and doggedly stood in our road, the officer with us declared that I accompanied my "how" with a salaam so deep that it bent my head down to the pommel of my saddle! At all events, I meant, if politeness would propitiate, not to be deficient in that quality at such a critical moment.
In a few moments, which seemed however a lifetime, we saw the reason why the village appeared so empty. Men, women, and children had gone nearly to the top of the bluff, and there, with their bodies hidden, were looking off at a faint cloud of dust in the distance.
My husband, appreciating my terror, quickly assured me it was the 7th Cavalry. Even then, what a stretch of country it seemed between us and that blessed veil of sand, through which we perceived dimly that succor was at hand.
My horse was rather given to snuggling, and pressed so against the general that he made his leg very uncomfortable sometimes. But then, in my terror, it seemed to me an ocean of space was dividing us. I longed for the old Puritan days, when a wife rode on a pillion behind her liege as a matter of course.
I found courage to look back at last. The bluff was crowned with little irregularities, so still they seemed like tufts of grass or stones. They represented many pairs of bead-like eyes, that peered over the country at the advancing troops.
The next day the general thought I might rather not go with him than run the risk of such frights; but I well knew there was something far worse than fears for my own personal safety. It is infinitely worse to be left behind, a prey to all the horrors of imagining what may be happening to one we love. You eat your heart slowly out with anxiety, and to endure such suspense is simply the hardest of all trials that come to the soldier's wife.
I gladly consented to be taken along every day, but there never seemed a time when it was not necessary to get accustomed to some new terror. However, it is only the getting used to it that is so bad. It is the unexpected things that require fresh relays of courage. When a woman has come out of danger, she is too utterly a coward by nature not to dread enduring the same thing again; but it is something to know that she is equal to it. Though she may tremble and grow faint in anticipation, having once been through it, she can count on rising to the situation when the hour actually comes.
The rattlesnakes were so numerous on this march that all Texas and Kansas experience seemed to dwarf in contrast. My horse was over sixteen hands high, but I would gladly have exchanged him for a camelopard when I rode suddenly almost upon a snake coiled in the grass, and looked down into the eyes of the upraised head. We counted those we encountered in one day's journey until we were tired. The men became very expert and systematic in clearing the camp of these reptiles. If we halted at night in the underbrush, they cut and tore away the reeds and grass, and began at once to beat the ground and kill the snakes. When I say that as many as forty were killed in one night, some literal person may ask if I actually saw the bodies of all those "lately slain!" It is not an exaggerated story, however, and one only needs to see hundreds of men pounding and clearing such a place to realize that many snakes could be disposed of in a short time. After that, when the ground was selected for our camp in the low part of the valley, I was loath to lie down and sleep until the soldiers had come up to prepare the ground. My husband used to indulge this little prejudice of mine against making my head a reproduction of Medusa's, and we often sought the high ground for a rest until the command came up.
The guide rode often at the head of the column, and we found him full of information about the country. We began also to listen for a new domestic disclosure every time we approached an Indian village. He was the most married of any man I ever saw, for in every tribe he had a wife. Still this superfluity did not burden him, for the ceremony of tying a marital knot in the far West is simple, and the wives support themselves. Sometimes he gave us new points about making ourselves comfortable in camp. One day I was very grateful to him. We were far in advance of the wagon-train containing the tents; the sun was scorching; not a tree, nor even a clump of bushes was near. In a brief time, however, the guide had returned from the stream, where he had cut some willow saplings, and sticking them in the ground made what he called "wik-a-up." He wove the ends loosely together on top, and over this oval cover he threw the saddle blankets. There was just room enough to crawl into this oven-like place, but it was an escape from the heat of the sun, and I was soon asleep. After I emerged the general took my place. When he had taken his nap the dogs crept in; so a very grateful family thanked the guide for teaching us that new device.
The bends in the Missouri River are sometimes so long that the steamer with supplies would have to make a journey of sixty miles while we had perhaps only five to march across the peninsula. All the soldiers, officers' servants, teamsters, and other citizen employés took that time to wash their clothes, for we were two days in camp. The creek on which we halted was lined with bending figures, their arms moving vigorously back and forth as they wrung out each article. Later on the camp looked like an animated laundry. From every tent-rope and bush floated the apparel. I had only a small valise for my summer's outfit, but Mary had soon taken out our few things, and around the kitchen-tent was suspended the family linen. As soon as this was dry she folded and pressed it as best she could, and laid it between the mattresses as a substitute for ironing.
All the way up the river the guide was constantly interviewed as to the chances for fishing. He held out promises that were to be realized upon reaching Choteau Creek. We arrived there on one of the resting-days, and camp was no sooner made, and food and water brought, than a great exodus took place.
The general called me to the tent-door to see the deserted camp, and wondered how the soldiers could all have disappeared so quickly. Another problem was, where the fishing-tackle came from! Some had brought rods, even in the restricted space allotted them, but many cut them from the bushes along the river, attaching hooks and lines, while some bent pins and tied them to strings. The soldiers shared so generously with one another that one pole was loaned about while the idle ones watched. I never cared for fishing, but my husband begged me to go with him always, and carried my book and work. I sat under a bush near him, which he covered with a shawl to protect me from the sun, and there we stayed for hours. Officers and men competed alike for the best places by the quiet pools. The general could hardly pay attention to his line, he was so interested watching the men and enjoying their pleasure. His keen sense of the ludicrous took in the comical figures as far as we could see. In cramped and uncomfortable positions, with earnest eyes fixed steadily in one place for hours, they nearly fell into the water with excitement if they chanced to draw out a tiny fish. The other men came from all along the bank to observe if any one was successful.
One of the men near us was a member of the band. He was a perfect reproduction of the old prints of Izaak Walton. The fixedness of his gaze—his whole soul in his eyes—while he was utterly unconscious of any one being near, was too much for the general's equanimity. He put his head under the canopy made by my shawl, not daring to laugh aloud, for fear he might be heard by the man, and said it was more fun to see that soldier fish than to hear him play on the violin. No wonder the men enjoyed the sport, for even these little bull-fish, fairly gritty from the muddy water in which they lived, were a great addition to their pork and hard-tack fare.
For once the sun overcame me, and I knew the ignominy of being compelled to own that I was dizzy and faint. I had not been long in military life before I was as much ashamed of being ill as if I had been a real soldier. The troops pride themselves on being invulnerable to bodily ailments. I was obliged to submit to being helped back to camp, and in the cool of the evening watched the return of the fishers, who were as proud of the strings of ugly little things they carried as if they had been pickerel or bass. Then the blue flame and soft smoke began to ascend from the evening fires, and the odor from the frying supper rose on the air.
In my indolent, weak condition I never knew how I was able to perform such agile pirouettes as I did; but hearing a peculiar sound, I looked down and saw a huge rattlesnake gliding towards me. I had long ago learned to suppress shrieks, but I forgot all such self-control then. How I wished myself the Indian baby we had seen the day before—the veritable "baby in the tree-top," for it was tied by buckskin thongs to a limb! There I thought I could rest in peace. The snake was soon despatched. The men had left camp so hurriedly in the morning that the usual beating of the ground was omitted, and so I had this unwelcome visitor.
When we camped near a village, the Indians soon appeared. Groups of half a dozen on ponies, with children running after, would come. The ponies were, most of them, dull and sway-backed. It was no wonder, for I have seen four persons on one pony—an Indian and three half-grown boys. No horse could keep its shape loaded down, as those of the Indians usually are, with game and property. These visitors grew to be great trials, for they were inveterate beggars. One day an old Indian, called "The-Man-with-the-Broken-Ear," came riding in, elaborately decorated and on a shapely pony. He demanded to see the chief. The general appeared, assisted him to dismount, and seated him in my camp-chair. The savage leaned back in a grand sort of manner and calmly surveyed us all. I was soon in agonies of anxiety, for Colonel Tom and the young officers lounging near entered the tent. They bowed low, took the hand of the old fellow with profound deference, and, smiling benignly, addressed him. In just as suave a voice as if their words had been genuine flattery, they said, "You confounded old galoot, why are you here begging and thieving, when your wretched old hands are hardly dry from some murder, and your miserable mouth still red from eating the heart of your enemy?" Each one saluted him, and each vied with the other in pouring forth a tirade of forcible expletives, to which he bowed in acknowledgment and shook hands. My terror was that he might understand, for we often found these people as cunning as foxes, sitting stolid and stupid, pretending not to know a word, while they understood the gist of much that was said.
The officers gave this chief tobacco—Perique I think it is called—and so strong that, though I was accustomed to all kinds, I rather avoided the odor of it. We had no whiskey, but if we had kept it, the general obeyed the law of the reservation too strictly to allow it to be given away. He was called to the office-tent a few moments, and in a trice one of the others had emptied the alcohol from the spirit-lamp and offered the cup to the distinguished guest. Putting the great square of Perique into his mouth, with a biscuit beside, he washed it all down with gulps of the burning fluid. His eyes, heretofore dull, sparkled at the sight of the fire-water. The officers said, "How," and he replied, "How." This did not surprise me, for that one word is the Indian toast, and all tribes know it. But my breath almost went out of my body when they asked him if he would have more, and he replied, "You bet." I was sure then that he had understood all the railing speeches and that he would plan a revenge. Loud cries of laughter greeted his reply; but matching their cunning against his, they eventually found that he knew no more English. He had learned these words, without understanding their meaning, at the trader's store on the reservation. He waited around in the tent, hoping for more alcohol, until I was weary of the sight of him; but I was too much afraid of him, limp as he then was, to look bored.
Finally he was lifted out, a tumbled up, disorganized heap of drooping feathers, trailing blanket, and demoralized legs. When once, however, one drunken old foot was lifted over the pony for him, he swung himself into the saddle, and though swaying uncertainly, he managed to ride away.
During the last days of our march we came upon another premonitory warning from the Indians. A pole was found stuck in the trail before us, with a red flag, to which were fastened locks of hair. It was a challenge, and when interpreted meant, that if we persisted in advancing, the hostiles were ready to meet the soldiers and fight them. The officers paid little attention to this, but my heart was like lead for days afterwards.
We encamped that night near what the Indians call "Medicine Rock;" my husband and I walked out to see it. It was a large stone, showing on the flat surface the impress of hands and feet made ages ago, before the clay was petrified. The Indians had tied bags of their herb medicine on poles about the rock, believing that virtue would enter into articles left in the vicinity of this proof of the marvels or miracles of the Great Spirit. Tin cans, spoons, and forks, that they had bought at the Agency, on account of the brightness of the metal, were left there as offerings to an unseen God.
Everything pertaining to the Indians was new and interesting to me. While we were in Kansas the tribes were at war, and we had not the opportunity to see their daily life as we did while passing through the Sioux reservations on the march.
I regretted each day that brought us nearer to the conclusion of our journey, for though I had been frightened by Indians, and though we had encountered cold, storms, and rough life, the pleasures of the trip overbalanced the discomforts.