Boots and Saddles/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX.

OUR NEW HOME AT FORT LINCOLN.

In a few days we were ready to return to Dakota, and very glad to go, except for leaving the old parents.

The hardest trial of my husband's life was parting with his mother. Such partings were the only occasions when I ever saw him lose entire control of himself, and I always looked forward to the hour of their separation with dread.

For hours before we started, I have seen him follow his mother about, whispering some comforting word to her; or, opening the closed door of her own room, where, womanlike, she fought out her grief alone, sit beside her as long as he could endure it. She had been an invalid for so many years that each parting seemed to her the final one. Her groans and sobs were heart-rending. She clung to him every step when he started to go, and exhausted at last, was led back, half fainting, to her lounge.

The general would rush out of the house, sobbing like a child, and then throw himself into the carriage beside me completely unnerved. I could only give silent comfort. My heart bled for him, and in the long silence that followed as we journeyed on, I knew that his thoughts were with his mother. At our first stop he was out of the cars in an instant, buying fruit to send back to her. Before we were even unpacked in the hotel, where we made our first stay of any length, he had dashed off a letter. I have since seen those missives. No matter how hurriedly he wrote, they were proofs of the tenderest, most filial love, and full of the prophecies he never failed to make, of the reunion that he felt would soon come.

After long debates with her parents, we had captured a young lady who was to return with us. She was a "joy forever," and submitted without a word to the rough part of our journey. After we left St. Paul, the usual struggle for decent food began. Some of the officers returning from leave of absence had joined us, and we made as merry over our hardships as we could. When we entered the eating-houses, one young member of our party, whom we called the "butter fiend," was made the experimenter. If he found the butter too rancid to eat undisguised, he gave us a hint by saying, under his breath, "this is a double-over place." That meant that we must put a layer of bread on top of the butter to smother the taste.

The general was so sensitive when living in civilization that the heartiest appetite would desert him if an allusion to anything unpleasant or a reference to suffering was made at the table. But he never seemed to be conscious of surroundings when "roughing it." Of course I had learned to harden myself to almost anything by this time, but I can see the wide-open eyes of our girl friend when she saw us eat all around any foreign ingredients we found in our food. She nearly starved on a diet consisting of the interior of badly-baked potatoes and the inside of soggy rolls.

One of the eating-places on the road was kept in a narrow little house, built on a flat car. Two men presided, one cooking and the other waiting on the table. We were laboriously spearing our food with two tined forks, and sipping the muddy coffee with a pewter spoon, when I heard with surprise the general asking for a napkin. It seemed as foreign to the place as a finger-bowl. The waiter knew him, however, and liked him too well to refuse him anything; so he said, "I have nothing but a towel, general." "Just the thing, just the thing," repeated my husband, in his quick, jolly way. So the man tied a long crash towel under his chin, and the general ate on, too indifferent to appearances to care because the tableful of travellers smiled.

When we finally reached the termination of the road at Bismarck, another train was about starting back to St. Paul. The street was full of people, wildly expostulating and talking loudly and fiercely. It appeared that this was the last train of the season, as the cars were not to run during the winter. The passengers were mostly Bismarck citizens, whose lawless life as gamblers and murderers had so outraged the sentiments of the few law-abiding residents that they had forced them to depart. We could see these outlaws crowding at the door, hanging out of the windows, swearing and menacing, and finally firing on the retreating crowd as the cars passed out of town. I was inclined to remain a fixture in our car; to step down into such a melée was too much for my courage. The general made allowance for my fears, and we were quietly slipped out on the other side of the depot, hurried into the ambulance, and driven to the river.

The ice was already thick enough to bear our weight part way over; then came a swift rushing torrent of water which had to be crossed in a small boat. Some of the soldiers rowed, while one kept the huge cakes of floating ice from our frail boat with a long, iron-pointed pole. As I stepped into the little craft, I dropped upon the bottom and hid my eyes, and no amount of reference to dangers I had encountered before induced me to look up. The current of the Missouri is so swift it is something dreadful to encounter. We were lifted out upon the ice again, and walked to the bank. Once more on shore, I said to myself, here will I live and die, and never go on that river again.

Our brother, Colonel Tom, met us, and drove us to our new home. In the dim light I could see the great post of Fort Lincoln, where only a few months before we had left a barren plain. Our quarters were lighted, and as we approached, the regimental band played "Home, Sweet Home," followed by the general's favorite, "Garryowen."

The general had completely settled the house before he left for the East, but he had kept this fact secret, as a surprise. Our friends had lighted it all, and built fires in the fireplaces. The garrison had gathered to welcome us, and Mary had a grand supper ready. How we chattered and gloried over the regiment having a home at last. It seemed too good to believe that the 7th Cavalry had a post of its own, with room for the half of the regiment assigned to duty there. In other garrisons, when we had come in late in the fall from campaigns, the officers, in order to get places for themselves, had been obliged to turn some one else out. There is a disagreeable, though probably necessary law in the army regulations, which directs officers to take their quarters according to rank.

Fort Lincoln was built with quarters for six companies. The barracks for the soldiers were on the side of the parade-ground nearest the river, while seven detached houses for officers faced the river opposite. On the left of the parade-ground was the long granary and the little military prison, called the "guard-house." Opposite, completing the square, were the quartermaster and commissary storehouses for supplies and the adjutant's office. Outside the garrison proper, near the river, were the stables for six hundred horses. Still farther beyond were the quarters for the laundresses, easily traced by the swinging clothes-lines in front, and dubbed for this reason "Suds Row." Some distance on from there were the log-huts of the Indian scouts and their families, while on the same side also was the level plain used for parades and drill. On the left of the post was the sutler's store, with a billiard-room attached. Soon after the general arrived he permitted a citizen to put up a barber-shop, and afterwards another built a little cabin of cotton-wood, with canvas roof for a photographer's establishment.

The post was located in a valley, while just back of us stretched a long chain of bluffs. On the summit of a hill, nearly a mile to the left, was a small infantry garrison, which had been established some time, and now belonged to our post. When we went to return the visits of the infantry ladies, the mules dragged the ambulance up the steep hill with difficulty. We found living in this bleak place—in small, shabbily built quarters, such as a day-laborer would consider hardly good enough for his family—delicate women and children, who, as usual, made no complaint about their life. Afterwards we were much indebted to one of the ladies, who, determined to conquer fate, varied our lives and gave us something to look forward to, by organizing a reading-club that met every week. She had sent to the East, before the trains ceased running, for the new books.

This little post had been built before the railroad was completed, and the houses were put together with as few materials as possible. There was no plastering, but the ceilings and partitions were of thick paper made for the purpose. When narrow mouldings of wood were tacked over the joined places, and all of it painted, the effect was very pretty. When it was torn and ragged it looked poverty-stricken enough. In one set of quarters there chanced to be so many children and so little room that the parents had invented a three-story bed, where the little ones could be all stowed at night. While we were calling there one day, I sat talking with the cheerful little mother, and wondering how she could be so bright. Everything in garrison life was, of course, new to my girl friend, and I discovered she was trying to smother a laugh. She commanded a view of the inner door. One of the children, who had been beating the wall and crying to enter, had finally made preliminary preparations. She had thrust through a hole in the paper partition each article of her little wardrobe, even to her shoes, and was putting the first rosy foot through after them. When the mother discovered this she laughed heartily, and gave us thus an opportunity to join her.

Our own post was somewhat sheltered by the bluffs behind; but though our quarters were plastered, the unseasoned lumber warped, and it was a struggle to keep warm. The wood with which we were provided was far from dry, and much of it of that kind that burns quickly but sends out little heat. It seemed to require the entire time of one man to keep up the fires. It was thus a blessed thing for the poor fellow whose duty it was, for he had never been able to remain long with his company at a time. He had an uncontrollable habit of drinking. Most of the time he belonged to the band of prisoners who are taken out of the guard-house every day, under a sentinel, to police the garrison and cut the wood. Mary gave them the coffee and whatever else was left from the table every day. This seemingly worthless fellow told Mary that he believed he could "keep straight" if Mrs. Custer would get the general to remit his sentence and let him come to us to keep the fires. So he came, and was occasionally sober for some time. He learned to go through the house with his arms full of wood when he was quite drunk. He really had too much heart to cause me trouble, and used to say, "Mary, I am pretty full, but don't let Mrs. Custer know it, for I told her I would not do so again, and I don't like to make her feel bad." So Mary spied out the land before him and opened his doors. After he had tried her patience long, she finally lost her temper on finding that he had swallowed all the Worcestershire sauce and her bottle of pain-killer. She held out the can of kerosene oil to him, and asked if he would not add that to his dram, and began such a berating that he hurried off to escape from the violence of her tongue.

The soldiers asked the general's permission to put up a place in which they could have entertainments, and he gave them every assistance he could. They prepared the lumber in the saw-mill that belonged to the post. The building was an ungainly looking structure, but large enough to hold them all. The unseasoned cotton-wood warped even while the house was being built, but by patching and lining with old torn tents, they managed to keep out the storm. The scenery was painted on condemned canvas stretched on a frame-work, and was lifted on and off as the plays required. The foot-lights in front of the rude stage were tallow-candles that smoked and sputtered inside the clumsily cobbled casing of tin. The seats were narrow benches, without backs. The officers and ladies were always invited to take the front row at every new performance, and after they entered, the house filled up with soldiers. Some of the enlisted men played very well, and used great ingenuity in getting up their costumes. The general accepted every invitation, and enjoyed it all greatly. The clog-dancing and negro character songs between the acts were excellent. Indeed, we sometimes had professionals, who, having been stranded in the States, had enlisted.

A regiment is recruited from all classes and conditions of men. Occasionally accident revealed the secret that there were fugitives from justice in the ranks. If they changed their names, they found no place where they were so hidden from every one they ever knew as in a regiment that is always on duty in the territories. It came to pass sometimes that a man of title, who had "left his country for his country's good," wore the government blue as a disguise, and served as a trooper for want of anything better to do. Among the men who sent word they would be glad to help me about the house when we were settling—either as a carpenter, a saddler to sew carpets, or a blacksmith to put up stoves—there were several with histories. Though they were strictly military with the general, observing the rule of never speaking unless spoken to, they sought the first opportunity to tell me their troubles. These were invariably domestic difficulties, until I began to think our regiment was "a city of refuge" for outraged husbands. It would eventually be found out that these men had run away and enlisted under assumed names, when driven desperate by the scoldings of a turbulent wife. Time, and the loneliness of a soldier's life, would soften their woes, and they began at last to sigh even for the high-pitched voice of the deserted woman. The general felt as badly as I did when I carried their stories to him, begging him to get them discharged. He had a little fashion, however, of asking me to remember that about this, as about every other subject that we ever discussed, "there were always two sides to a question." My sympathy for the soldiers in trouble was of little avail, for the law compelling them to serve the five years out was irrevocable. All I could do was to write letters at their solicitation, revealing their identity and asking for a reconciliation.

My husband's duties extended over a wide range. If the laundresses had a serious difficulty, he was asked to settle it. They had many pugilists among them, and the least infringement of their rights provoked a battle in which wood and other missiles filled the air. Bandaged and bruised, they brought their wrongs to our house, where both sides had a hearing. The general had occasionally to listen and arbitrate between husband and wife, when the laundress and her soldier husband could not agree. I was banished from the room, while he heard their story and gave them counsel. In the same way he listened to whatever complaints the soldiers made. Some of them came into our quarters on one occasion with a tin cup of coffee for the general to taste, and determine whether he agreed with them that it was too poor to drink. From that time on, after every Sunday morning inspection, the general went with all the officers to visit the kitchens, as well as the barracks of each company, and every troop commander was called upon to pass criticisms on the cleanliness of the quarters and the wholesomeness of the food.