Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

Tenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas online

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sun, and with the insufficient food and long water-

The old reliability of a mule-team is the off-
wheeler. It is his leathery sides that can be most
readily reached by the whip called a " black-
snake," and when the descent is made into a
stream with muddy bed, the cut is given to this
faithful beast, and on his powerful muscles depends
the wrench that jerks the old schooner out of a
slough. The nigh or saddle mule does his part
in such an emergency, but he soon reasons that,
because he carries the driver, not much more is
expected of him.

The General and I took great interest in the



names given to the animals that pulled our trav-
eling-wagon or hauled the supplies. As we rode
by, the voice of the driver bringing out the name
he had chosen, and sometimes affectionately, made
us sure that the woman for whom the beast was
christened was the sweetheart of the apparently
prosaic teamster. I was avowedly romantic, and
the General was equally so, though, after the
fashion of men, he did not proclaim it. Our place
at the head of the column was sometimes vacant,
either because we delayed for our luncheon, or
because my husband remained behind to help the
quartermaster or the head teamster get the train
over a stream. It was then that we had the ad-
vantage of hearing the names conferred on the
mules. They took in a wide range of female
nomenclature, and we found it great fun to watch
the family life of one human being and his six
beasts. My husband had the utmost respect for
a mule's sense. When I looked upon them as
dull, half-alive animals, he bade me watch how
deceitful were appearances, as they showed such
cunning, and evinced the wisdom of a quick-witted
thoroughbred, when apparently they were unob-
serving, sleepy brutes. It was the General who
made me notice the skill and rapidity with which
a group of six mules would straighten out what
seemed to be a hopeless tangle of chains and har-


ness, into which they had kicked themselves when
there was a disturbance among them. One crack
of the whip from the driver who had tethered
them after a march, accompanied by a plain state-
ment of his opinion of such " fools," would send
the whole collection wide apart, and it was but a
twinkling before they extricated themselves from
what I thought a hopeless mess. No chains or
straps were broken, and a meek, subdued look
pervading the group, left not a trace of the active
heels that a moment before had filled the air.
" There," the General used to say, "don't ever
flatter yourself again that a mule hasn't sense.
He's got more wisdom than half the horses in the
line." It took a good while to convince me, as a
more loggy looking animal can hardly be found
than the army mule, which never in his existence
is expected to go off from a walk, or to vary his
life, from the day he is first harnessed, until he
drops by the way, old or exhausted.

At the time we were first on the Plains, many
of the teamsters were Mexicans, short, swarthy,
dull, and hardly a grade above the animal. The
only ambition of these creatures seemed to be to
vie with one another as to who could snap the
huge "black-snake" the loudest. They learned
to whisk the thong at the end around the ears of
a shirking off leader, and crack the lash with such


an explosive sound that I never got over jumping
in my whole Plains life. I am sorry to say my
high-strung horse usually responded with a spring
that sent me into thin air anywhere between his
ears and his tail, with a good deal of uncertainty
as to where I should alight. I suspect it was an
innocent little amusement of the drivers, when
occasionally we remained behind at nooning, and
had to ride swiftly by the long train to reach the
head of the column.

The prairie-schooner disappeared with the ad-
vancing railroad ; but I am glad to see that
General Meigs has perpetuated its memory, by
causing this old means of transportation to be
made one of the designs in the beautiful frieze
carved around the outside of the Pension Office
at Washington. Ungainly and cumbersome as
these wagons were, they merit some such monu-
ment, as part of the history of the early days of
frontier life in our country. We were in the
West several years before the railroad was com-
pleted to Denver, and the overland trains became
an every-day sight to us. Citizens used oxen a
great deal for transportation, and there is no
picture that represents the weariness and laggard
progress of life like an ox-train bound for Santa
Fe or Denver. The prairie-schooner might set
out freshly painted, or perhaps washed in a creek,


but it soon became gray with layer upon layer of
alkali dust. The oxen well, nothing save a snail
can move more slowly and the exhaustion of
these beasts, after weeks of uninterrupted travel,
was pitiful. Imagine, also, the unending vigil when
the trains were insecurely guarded ; for in those
days there was an immense unprotected frontier,
and seemingly only a handful of cavalry. The
regiments looked well on the roster, but there
were in reality but few men. A regiment should
number twelve hundred enlisted men ; but at no
time, unless during the war, does the recruiting
officer attempt to fill it to the maximum ; seventy
men to a company is a large number. The de-
sertions during the first years of the reorganiza-
tion of the army after the war thinned the ranks
constantly. Recruits could not be sent out fast
enough to fill up the companies. The conse-
quence was, that all those many hundred miles of
trail where the Government undertook to protect
citizens who carried supplies to settlements and
the mines, as well as its own trains of material for
building new posts, and commissary and quarter-
master's stores for troops, were terribly exposed
and very poorly protected.

" The Indians were, unfortunately, located on the
great highway of Western travel; and commerce,
not less than emigration, demanded their removal."



There are many conflicting opinions as to the
course pursued to clear the way ; but I only wish
to speak now of the impression the trains made
upon me, as we constantly saw the long, dusty,
exhausted-looking column wending its serpentine
way over the sun-baked earth. A group of cav-
alry, with their drooping horses, rode in front and
at the rear. The wagon-master was usually the
very quintessence of valor. It is true he formed
such a habit of shooting that he grew indiscrimi-
nate, and should any of the lawless desperadoes
whom he hired as teamsters or trainmen ruffle his
blood, kept up to boiling-heat by suspense, physi-
cal exposure, and exasperating employees, he
knew no way of settling troubles except the
effectual quietus that a bullet secures. I well
remember my husband and Tom, who dearly
loved to raise my indignation, and create signs of
horror and detestation at their tales, walking
me down to the Government train to see a wagon-
master who had shot five men. He had emi-
grated from the spot where he bade fair to establish
a private cemetery with his victims. No one
needed a reason for his sudden appearance after
the number of his slain was known. And yet no
questions were put as to his past. He made a
capital wagon-master ; he was obedient to his
superiors, faithful, and on time every morning,


and the prestige of his past record answered so
well with the citizen employees, that his pistol
remained unused in the holster.

It seemed to be expected that the train-master
would be a villain. Whatever was their record as
to the manner of arranging private disputes, a
braver class of men never followed a trail, and
some of them were far superior to their chance
lot. Their tender care of women who crossed in
these slow-moving ox-trains, to join their hus-
bands, ought to be commemorated. I have some-
where read one of their remarks when a girl, going
to her mother, had been secreted in a private
wagon and there was no knowledge of her pres-
ence until the Indians were discovered to be near.
" Tain't no time to be teamin' women folks over
the trail, with sech a fearsom sperit for Injuns as I
be." He, like some of the bravest men I have
known, spoke of himself as timid, while he knew
no fear. It certainly unnerved the most valiant
man when Indians were lurking near, to realize
the fate that hung over women entrusted to their
care. In a later portion of my story occurs an
instance of an officer hiding the woman whose
husband had asked him to take her into the States,
even before firing a shot at the adversary, as he
knew with what redoubled ferocity the savage
would fight, at sight of the white face of a


woman. It makes the heart beat, even to look at
a picture of the old mode of traversing the high-
way of Western travel. The sight of the pictured
train, seemingly so peacefully lumbering on its
sleepy way, the scarcely revolving wheels, creak-
ing out a protest against even that effort, recalls
the agony, the suspense, the horror, with which
every inch of that long route has been made. The
heaps of stones by the way-side, or the buffalo
bones, collected to mark the spot where some man
fell from an Indian arrow, are now disappearing.
The hurricanes beating upon the hastily prepared
memorials have scattered the bleached bones of
the bison, and rolled into the tufted grass the few
stones with which the train-men, at risk of their
own lives, have delayed long enough to mark their
comrade's grave.

The faded photographs or the old prints of those
overland trains speak to me but one story. In-
stantly I recall the hourly vigilance, the restless
eyes scanning the horizon, the breathless suspense,
when the pioneers or soldiers knew from unmis-
takable signs that the Indian was lying in wait.
In what contrast to the dull, logy, scarcely moving
oxen were these keen-eyed heroes, with every
nerve strained, every sense on the alert. And
how they were maddened by the fate that con-
signed them, at such moments, to the mercy of


" dull, driven cattle." When I have seen officers
and soldiers lay their hands lovingly on the neck
of their favorite horse, and perhaps, when no one
was near to scoff at sentiment, say to me, " He
saved my life," I knew well what a man felt when
his horse took fire at knowledge of danger to his
rider and sped on the wings of the wind, till he was
lost to his pursuers, a tiny black speck on the hori-
zon. The pathos of a soldier's parting with his
horse moved us to quick sympathy. It often hap-
pens that a trooper retains the same animal through
his entire enlistment, and it comes to be his most
intimate friend. There is nothing he will not do
to provide him with food ; if the forage runs low
or the grazing is insufficient, stealing for his horse
is reckoned a virtue among soldiers. Imagine,
then, the anxiety, the real suffering, w T ith which a
soldier watches his faithful beast growing weaker
day by day, from exhaustion or partial starvation.
He walks beside him to spare his strength, and
finally, when it is no longer possible to keep up
with the column, and the soldier knows how fatal
the least delay may be in an Indian country, it is
more pitiful than almost any sight I recall, the
sadness of his departure from the skeleton, whose
eyes follow his master in wondering affection,
as he walks away with the saddle and accou-
trements. It is the most merciful farewell if a


bullet is lodged in the brain of the famished or
exhausted beast, but some one else than his sor-
rowing master has to do the trying deed.

This is not the last act in the harrowing scene.
The soldier overtakes the column, loaded down
with his saddle, if the train is too far away to de-
posit it in the company wagon. Then begins a
tirade of annoying comments to this man, still
grieving over the parting with his best friend.
No one can conceive what sarcasm and wit can
proceed from a column of cavalry. Many of the
men are Irish, and their reputation for humor is
world-wide. " Hullo, there ! joined the doe-boys,
eh?" "How do you like hoofing it?" are tame
specimens of the remarks from these tormenting
tongues ; such a fusillade of sneers is followed
not long after by perhaps the one most gibing of
all flinging himself off from his horse, and giving
his mount to the one he has done his best to stir
into wrath. A cavalry man hates, beyond any
telling, enforced pedestrianism, and " Share and
share alike " is a motto that our Western soldiers
keep in use.

If the wagons held merchandise only, by which
the pioneer hoped to grow rich, the risk and sus-
pense attending these endless marches were not
worth commemorating ; but the bulk of the freight
was the actual necessities of life. Conceive, if


you can, how these brave men felt themselves
chained, as they drove or guarded the food for
those living far in advance. There were not
enough to admit of a charge on the enemy, and
the defensive is an exasperating position for a
soldier or frontiersman. He longs to advance on
the foe ; but no such privilege was allowed them,
for in these toilsome journeys they had often to
use precautions to hide themselves. If Indians
were discovered to be roaming near, the camp
was established, trains coralled, animals secured
inside a temporary stockade ; the fires for coffee
were forbidden, for smoke rises like a funnel, and
hangs out an instant signal in that clear air. Even
the consoling pipe was smoked under a sage-bush
or in a hollow, if there happened to be a depres-
sion of the ground. Few words were spoken, the
loud oaths sunk into low mutterings, and the bray
of a hungry mule, the clank of wagon-chains, or
the stamping of cattle on the baked earth,
sounded like thunder in the ears of the anxious,
expectant men.

Fortunately, our journey in these trains was not
at once forced upon us at Leavenworth. The
Kansas Pacific Railroad, projected to Denver, was
built within ten miles of Fort Riley, and it was to
be the future duty of the Seventh Cavalry, to guard
the engineers in building the remainder of the


road out to the Rocky Mountains. It did not take
us long to purchase an outfit in the shops, for as
usual our finances were low, and consequently
our wants were curtailed. We had the sense to
listen to a hint from some practical officer who
had been far beyond railroads, and buy a cook-
stove the first thing, and this proved to be the
most important of our possessions when we
reached our post, so far from the land of shops.
Not many hours after we left Leavenworth, the
settlements became farther and farther apart, and
we began to realize that we were actual pioneers !
Kansas City was then but a small town, seemingly
with a hopeless future, as the bluffs rose so steeply
from the river, and even when the summit was
reached, the ups and downs of the streets were
discouraging. It seemed, then, as if it would never
be worth while to use it as a site for a town ; there
would be a life-time of grading. It is very easy
to become a city forefather in such a town, for in
the twenty-one years since then, it has grown into
a city of over 132,000 inhabitants but they are
still grading. The lots which we could have had
almost for the asking, sell now for $1,000 a front
foot. Topeka, the capital, showed no evidence
of its importance, except the little circle of stars
that surrounded it on our atlas. There were but
three towns beyond Fort Riley then, and those


were built, if I may so express it, of canvas and

Our railroad journey came to an end about ten
miles from Fort Riley. The laborers were laying
track from that point. It had been a sort of gala
day, for General Sherman, on one of his tours of
inspection of the frontier posts, had been asked
by railroad officials to drive the final spike of the
division of the road then finished. We found a
wagon waiting for our luggage, and an ambulance
to carry us the rest of the journey. These
vehicles are not uncomfortable, when the long
seats on either side are so arranged that they
make a bed for the ill or wounded by spreading
them out, but as traveling conveyances I could
not call them a success. The seats are narrow,
with no back to speak of, and covered with car-
riage-cloth, which can keep you occupied, if the
country is rough, in regaining the slippery surface
for any number of miles at a stretch. Fort Riley
came in sight when we were pretty well tired out.
It was my first view of a frontier post. I had
either been afraid to confess my ignorance, or so
assured there was but one variety of fort, and the
subject needed no investigation, that Fort Riley
came upon me as a great surprise. I supposed, of
course, it would be exactly like Fortress Monroe,
with stone walls, turrets for the sentinels, and a


deep moat. As I had heard more and more about
Indians since reaching Kansas, a vision of the en-
closure where we would eventually live was a
great comfort to me. I could scarcely believe
that the buildings, a story and a half high, placed
around a parade ground, were all there was of
Fort Riley. The sutler's store, the quartermaster
and commissary storehouses, and the stables for
the cavalry horses, were outside the square, near
the post, and that was all. No trees, and hardly
any signs of vegetation except the buffalo-grass
that curled its sweet blades close to the ground,
as if to protect the nourishment it held from the
blazing sun. The post was beautifully situated
on a wide plateau, at the junction of the Republi-
can and Smoky Hill rivers. The Plains, as they
waved away on all sides of us like the surface of
a vast ocean, had the charm of great novelty, and
the absence of trees was at first forgotten, in the
fascination of seeing such an immense stretch of
country, with the soft undulations of green turf
rolling on, seemingly, to the setting sun. The eye
was relieved by the fringe of cotton-wood that
bordered the rivers below us.

Though we came afterward to know, on toil-
some marches under the sweltering sun, when
that orb was sometimes not even hidden for one
moment in the day by a grateful cloud, but the


sky was spread over as a vast canopy of dazzling
blue, that enthusiasm would not outlast such trials;
still, a rarely exultant feeling takes possession of
one in the gallops over the Plains, when in early
spring they are a trackless sea of soft verdure.
And the enthusiasm returns when the campaign
for the summer is over, and riding is taken up for
pleasure. My husband was full of delight over
the exquisite haze that covered the land with
a faint purple light, and exclaimed, "Now I
begin to realize what all that transparent veil of
faint color means in Bierstadt's paintings of the
Rocky Mountains and the West." But we had
little time to take in atmospheric effects, as even-
ing was coming on and we were yet to be housed,
while servants, horses, dogs and all of us were
hungry, after our long drive. The General halted
the wagon outside the post, and left us, to go and
report to the commanding officer.

At that time I knew nothing of the hospitality
of a frontier post, and I begged to remain in the
wagon until our quarters were assigned us in the
garrison. Up to this time we had all been in
splendid spirits ; the novelty, the lovely day and
exhilarating air, and all the possibilities of a future
with a house of our own, or, rather, one lent to
us by Uncle Sam, seemed to fill up a delightful
cup to the brim. We sat outside the post so long


at least it seemed so to us and grew hungrier and
thirstier, that there were evident signs of mutiny.
The truth is, whenever the General was with us,
with his determination of thinking that nothing
could exceed his surroundings, it was almost im-
possible to look upon anything except in the light
that he did. He gave color to everything, with
his hopeful views. Eliza sat on the seat with the
driver, and both muttered occasional hungry
words, but our Diana and I had the worst of it. We
had bumped over the country, sometimes violently
jammed against the framework of the canvas
cover, and most of the time sliding off from the
slippery cushions upon the insulted dogs for of
course the General had begged a place for two of
them. He had kept them in order all the way
from the termination of the railroad ; but now that
he was absent, Turk and Byron renewed hostilities,
and in the narrow space they scrambled and
snarled and sprang at each other. When the
General came back, he found the little hands of
our curly-headed girl clenched over the collar of
Byron at one end of the ambulance, while Turk
sat on my lap, swelling with rage because my
fingers were twisted in the chain that held him, as
I sat at the door shaking with terror. It was
quick work to jerk the burly brute out of the door,
and end our troubles for the time ; but the General,


after quieting our panic, threw us into a new one
by saying we must make up our minds to be the
guests of the commanding officer. Tired, travel-
stained, and unaccustomed to what afterward be-
came comparatively easy, we w r ere driven to one
of the quarters and made our entrance among
strangers. I then realized, for the first time, that
we had reached a spot where the comforts of life
could not be had for love or money.

It is a strange sensation to arrive at a place
where money is of little use in providing shelter,
and here we were beyond even the commonest
railroad hotel. Mrs. Gibbs, who received us, was
put to a severe test that night. Already a room
in her small house had been prepared for General
Sherman, who had arrived earlier in the day, and
now there were five of us bearing down upon her.
I told her how I had begged to be allowed to go
into quarters, even though there were no prepara-
tions, not even a fire-place where Eliza could have
cooked us food enough over the coals to stay
hunger ; but she assured me that, having been on
the Plains before the war, she was quite accus-
tomed to a state of affairs where there was nothing
to do but quarter yourself upon strangers ; and
then gave up her own room to our use. From
that night which was a real trial to me, because I
felt so keenly the trouble we caused them all


dates the beginning of a friendship that has lasted
through the darkest as well as the brightest hours
of my life. I used to try to remember after-
ward, when for nine years we received and enter-
tained strangers who had nowhere else to go, the
example of undisturbed hospitality shown me by
my first friend on the frontier.

The next day my husband assumed command
of the garrison, and our few effects were moved
into a large double house built for the command-
ing officer. There were parlors on one side, whose
huge folding doors w r ere flung open, and made our
few articles of furniture look lonely and meagre.
We had but six wooden chairs to begin with, and
when, a few miles more of the railroad being com-
pleted, a party of one hundred and fifty excur-
sionists arrived, I seated six of them yes, seven,
for one was tired enough to sit on a trunk and
then concluded I would own up that in the larger
rooms of the house, into which they looked sig-
nificantly, there were no more chairs concealed.
I had done my best, and tried to make up for not
seating or feeding them by very busy talking.
Meanwhile there were incessant inquiries for the
General. It seems that he had begun that little
trick of hiding from strangers, even then. He
had seen the advancing column of tourists, and
fled. One of the servants finally unearthed him,


and after they had gone and he found that I had
been so troubled to think I could do nothing for
the citizens, and so worried because he was non
est, he did not leave me in such strait again until
I had learned to adapt myself to the customs of
the country where the maxim that " every man's
house is his castle " is a fallacy.

The officers who had garrisoned the post began
to move out as our own Seventh Cavalry officers
reported for duty. The colonel of the regiment
arrived, and ranked us out of our quarters, in this
instance much to our relief, as the barrack of a

Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 20 of 39)