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Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

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

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building would never fill up from the slow rate at
which our belongings increased. This army regu-
lation, to which I have elsewhere referred, was
then new to me. The manner in which the Gov-
ernment sees fit to arrange quarters is still amusing
to me, but I suppose no better plan has ever been
thought out. In the beginning of a well-built
post, there is but little choice. It is the aim to
make the houses, except that of the commanding
officer, exactly alike. From time to time new
quarters are built. The original plan is not fol-
lowed; possibly a few improvements are added to
the newer houses. Ah ! then the disturbance en-
sues ! Fort Vancouver, in Washington Territory,
is one of the old posts, quite interesting from the
heterogeneous collection of quarters added



'RANKING OUT.



373



through fifty years. I was spending a day or two,
in 1875, with my husband's niece, whose husband
was some distance down on the list, and conse-
quently occupied a low log building, that dated
back no one knows how far. Even in that little
cabin they w r ere insecure, for in reply to my ques-
tion, " Surely you are permanently fixed, and won't
be moved," they pathetically answered: " Not by
any means ! We live from hour to hour in uncer-
tainty, and there are worse quarters than these,

which we walk by daily with dread, as

ranks us, and he is going to be married, so out
we go ! "

Assigning quarters according to rank goes on
smoothly for a time, but occasionally an officer re-
ports for duty who ranks everyone. Not long
ago this happened at a distant post, and the whole
line went down like a row of bricks, as eight
officers' families were ousted by his arrival, the
lowest in rank having to move out one of the non-
commissioned officers who had lived in a little
cabin with two rooms. If possible, in choosing a
time to visit our frontier posts, let this climax of
affairs be avoided. Where there is little to vary
life the monotony is apt to be deeply stirred by
private rages, which would blow away in smoke if
there was anything else to think of. It is rather
harrowing to know that some one has an eye on



3 74 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

the home you have furnished with your own
means. I could hardly blame a man I knew, who,
in an outburst of wrath concerning an officer who
had at last uprooted him, secretly rejoiced that a
small room that had been the object of envy,
having been built at the impoverished post of
refuse lumber from the stables, was unendurable
on a warm day; and the new possessor was left to
find it out when he had settled himself in the
coveted house.

After our quarters were chosen by the Colonel,
we took another house, of moderate size, bought
a few pieces of furniture of an officer leaving the
post, and began to live our first home-like life.
The arrival of the new officers was for a time our
only excitement. Most of them had been in the
volunteer service, and knew nothing of the regular
army. There was no one to play practical jokes
on the first comers ; but they had made some
ridiculous errors in dress and deportment, when
reporting at first, and they longed to take out
their mortification at these harmless mistakes, by
laying pit-falls for the verdant ones who were
constantly arriving. The discipline of the regular
army, and the punctilious observance compelling
the wearing of the uniform, was something totally
new to men who had known little of parades in
their fighting days in the tented field. If it was




375



376 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

possible to intimidate a new officer by tales of the
strictness of the commanding officer regarding the
personal appearance of his regiment, they did
so. One by one, those who had preceded the last
comer called in to pay their compliments ; but by
previous agreement they one and all dwelt upon
the necessity of his making a careful toilet before
he approached the august presence of the Lieuten-
ant-colonel. Then one or two offered carelessly
to help him get himself up for the occasion. Our
brother Tom had arrived by this time, but there
was nothing to be made out of him, for he had
served a few months with a regular regiment be-
fore being transferred to ours. He was therefore
sent one day to prepare me for the call of an officer
who had been assisted into his new uniform by
the mischievous knot of men who had been longest
with us. If I had known to what test I was to be
put to keep my face straight, or had dreamed
what a gullible creature had come into their ro-
guish hands, I would not have consented to re-
ceive him. But it was one of the imperative rules
that each officer, after reporting for duty, must
pay a formal visit to the commanding officer and
his family. I went into the parlor to find a large
and at that time awkward man, in full uniform,
which was undeniably a tight fit for his rather
portly figure. He wore cavalry boots, the first



AN ELABORA TE TOILET 377

singularity I noticed, for they had such expanse of
top I could not help seeing them. They are of
course out of order with a dress coat. The red
sash, which was then en rtgle for all officers, was
spread from up under his arms to as far below the
waist line as its elastic silk could be stretched.
The sword-belt, with sabre attached, surrounded
this ; and, folded over the wide red front, were
his large hands, encased in white cotton gloves.
He never moved them ; nor did he move an eye-
lash, so far as I could discover, though it seems he
was full of internal tremors, for the officers had told
him on no account to remove his regulation hat.
At this he demurred, and told them I would surely
think he was no gentleman ; but they assured him
I placed military etiquette far above any ordinary
rule for manners in the presence of ladies, while
the truth was I was rather indifferent as to military
rules of dress. As this poor man sat there, I could
think of nothing but a child who is so carefully
dressed in new furbelows that it sits as if it were
carved out of wood, for fear of disarranging the
finished toilet. Diana made almost an instant
excuse to leave the room. The General's mus-
tache quivered, and he moved restlessly around,
even coming again to shake hands with the autom-
aton and bid him welcome to the regiment ; but
finally he dashed out of the door to enjoy the out-



3 78 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

burst of mirth that he could no longer control. I
was thus left to meet the situation as best I could,
but was not as fortunate as the General, who had
a friendly mustache to curtain the quiver in his
mouth. The .poor victim apparently recalled to
himself the martial attitude of Washington cross-
ing the Delaware, or Napoleon at Waterloo, and
did not alter the first position he had assumed. In
trying to prevent him from seeing my confusion,
I redoubled my efforts to entertain him, and suc-
ceeded only too well, for when he slowly moved
out of the door I found myself tired out, and full
of wrath toward my returning family. I never
could remember that these little spurts of rage
were the primest fun for my people. The poor
officer who had been so guyed did not gratify his
tormentors by getting angry, but fell to planning
new mischief for the next arrival. He lost no
time in begging my pardon for the hat, and
though I never saw much of him afterward, he
left only pleasant impressions on my mind of a
kind-hearted man, and one of those rare beings
who knew how to take a joke.

We derived great pleasure from our horses and
dogs during the autumn. A very pretty sorrel
horse was selected for Diana, but we had little
opportunity to have her for a companion. The
young officers engaged her a week in advance,



A SNUGGLING HORSE. 379

and about all we sa*v of her riding was an ava-
lanche of flying curls as she galloped off beside
some dashing cavalier. I remember once, when
she was engaged otherwise, and my horse tempo-
rarily disabled, I took hers, and my husband kept
begging me to guide the animal better, for it was
nettling his fiery beast by insisting upon too close
proximity. It finally dawned upon us that the
little horse was a constitutional snuggler, and we
gave up trying to teach him new tricks. But how
the General shouted, and bent himself forward
and back in his saddle, after the horse had almost
crushed his leg and nothing would keep him at a
distance. He could hardly wait to get back to
garrison, and when we did, he walked into the
midst of a collection of the beaux and told the
whole story of how dreadfully demoralized a
cavalry horse in good and regular standing could
become, in the hands of a belle. The girl blushed,
and the officers joined in the laughter, and yet
every one of them had doubtless been busy in
teaching that little tell-tale animal this new de-
velopment of character.

It was delightful ground to ride over about Fort
Riley. Ah ! what happy days they were, for at
that time I had not the slightest realization of what
Indian warfare was, and consequently no dread.
We knew that the country they infested was many



380 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

miles away, and we could rkle in any direction we
chose. The dogs would be aroused from the
deepest sleep at the very sight of our riding cos-
tumes, and by the time we were well into them
and whip in hand, they leaped and sprang about
the room, tore out on the gallery, and tumbled
over one another and the furniture in racing back,
and such a din of barking and joyful whining as
they set up the noisier the better for my husband.
He snapped his English whip to incite them, and
bounded around crying out, "Whoop 'em up!
whoop 'em up !" adding to the melee by a toot
on the dog-horn he had brought from the Texas
deer-hunts. All this excited the horses, and when
I was tossed into the saddle amidst this turmoi
with the dogs leaping around the horses' heads, I
hardly knew whether I was myself or the ven-
turesome young woman who spends her life in
taking airy flights through paper-covered circles
in a saw-dust ring. It took some years for me to
accustom myself to the wild din and hubbub of
our starting for a ride or a hunt. As I have said
before, I had lived quietly at home, and my dec-
orous, suppressed father and mother never even
spoke above a certain tone. The General's father,
on the contrary, had rallied his sons with a hallo
and resounding shouts from their boyhood. So
the hullaballoo of all our merry startings was a'



A SPRINGY TURF. 381

thing of my husband's early days, and added zest
to every sport he undertook.

Coming from Michigan, where there is a liberal
dispensation of swamp and quagmire, having been
taught by dear experience that Virginia had
quicksands and sloughs into which one could dis-
appear with great rapidity, and finally having
experienced Texas with its bayous, baked with a
deceiving crust of mud, and its rivers with quick-
sand beds, very naturally I guided my horse
around any lands that had even a depression.
Indeed, he spoke volumes with his sensitive ears,
as the turf darkened in hollows, and was ready
enough to be guided by the rein on his satin-like
^eck, to the safer ground. It was a long time
before I realized that all the Plains were safe. We
chose no path, and stopped at no suspicion of a
slough. Without a check on the rein, we flew
over divide after divide, and it is beyond my pen
to describe the wild sense of freedom that takes
possession of one in the first buoyant knowledge
that no impediment, seemingly, lies between you
and the setting sun. After one has ridden over
conventional highways, the beaten path marked
out by fences, hedges, bridges, etc., it is simply an
impossibility to describe how the blood bounds in
the veins at the freedom of an illimitable sea.
No spongy, uncertain ground checks the course



382 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

over the Plains ; it is seldom even damp, and the
air is so exhilarating one feels as if he had never
breathed a full breath before. Almost the first
words General Sherman said to me out there
were, " Child, you'll find the air of the Plains is
like champagne," and so it surely was. Oh, the
joy of taking in air without a taint of the city, or
even the country, as we know it in farm life ! As
we rode on, speaking enthusiastically of the fra-
grance and purity of the atmosphere, our horses
neighed and whinnied to each other, and snuffed
the air, as if approving all that was said of that
" land of the free." My husband could hardly
breathe, from the very ecstasy of realizing that
nothing trammeled him. He scarcely left the
garrison behind him, where he was bound by
chains of form and ceremony the inevitable lot
of an officer, where all his acts are under surveil-
lance, where he is obliged to know that every
hour in the day he is setting an example be-
fore he became the wildest and most frolicsome
of light-hearted boys. His horse and he were one,
not only as he sat in the saddle a part of the ani-
mal, swayed by every motion of the active,
graceful beast, but such unison of spirit took
possession of each, it was hard to believe that a
human heart did not beat under the broad,
splendid chest of the high-strung animal.



A FEARLESS HOUSEMAN. 385

It were well if human hearts responded to our
fondness, and came instantly to be en rapport
with us, as did those dear animals when they flew
with us out to freedom and frolic, over the di-
vides that screened us from the conventional
proprieties. My husband's horse had almost
human ways of talking with him, as he leaned far
out of the saddle and laid his face on the gallant
animal's head, and there was a gleam in the eye r
a proud little toss of the head, speaking back a
whole world of affection. The General could ride
hanging quite out of sight from the opposite side,
one foot caught in the stirrup, his hand on the
mane ; and it made no difference to his beloved
friend, he took any mode that his master chose to
cling to him as a matter of course, and curvetted
and pranced in the loftiest, proudest way. His
manner said as plainly as speech, " See what we
two can do ! " I rarely knew him have a horse
that did not soon become so pervaded with his
spirit that they appeared to be absolutely one in
feeling. I was obliged, usually, to submit to some
bantering slur on my splendid Custis Lee. Per-
haps a dash at first would carry the General and
the dogs somewhat in advance. My side had a
trick of aching if we started off on a gallop, and I
was obliged to keep a tight rein on Custis Lee at
first, as he champed at the bit, tossed his impa-



384 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

tient head, and showed every sign of ignominious
shame. The General, as usual, called out, " Come
on, old lady ! Chug up that old plug of yours ;
IVe got one orderly ; don't want another " this
because the soldier in attendance is instructed to
ride at a certain distance in the rear. After a
spurt of tremendous speed, back flew the master
to beg me to excuse him ; he was ready now to
ride slowly till " that side of mine came round to
time," which it quickly did, and then I revenged
the insult on my swift Lee, and the maligner at
last called out, " That's not so bad a nag, after all."
The horses bounded from the springy turf as if
they really hated the necessity of touching the
sod at all. They were very well matched in
speed, and as on we flew we were " neck by neck,
stride by stride, never changing our place." Breath-
less at last, horses, dogs and ourselves made a
halt. The orderly with his slow troop horse was
a speck in the distance. Of course I had gone to
pieces little by little, between the mad speed and
rushing through the wind of the Plains. Those
were ignominious days for women thank fortune
they are over ! Custom made it necessary to dis-
figure ourselves with the awkward water-fall, and,
no matter how luxuriant the hair, it seemed a
necessity to still pile up more. With many a
wrathful opinion regarding the fashion, the General



HORSES AS COMPANIONS. 385

took the hairpins, net and switch, and thrust them
into the breast of his coat, as he said, " to clear the
decks for action for another race." It was enough
that he offered to carry these barbarities of civiliza-
tion for me, without my bantering him about his
ridiculousness if some accidental opening of his
coat in the presence of the officers, who were then
strangers, revealed what he scoffingly called " dead
women's hair."

A fresh repinning, an ignoring of hairpins this
time,regirting of saddles, some proud patting of the
horses' quivering flanks, passing of the hand over
the full veins of their necks, praise of the beautiful
distended, blood-red nostrils, and up we leap for
another race. If spur or whip had been used in
speeding our horses, it would have spoiled the
sport for me, as the effort and strain looks so
cruelly like work ; but the animals were as im-
patient for a run as we were to start them. It
must be a rare moment of pleasure to all horse-
lovers, to watch an animal flying over the ground,
without an incentive save the love of motion born
in the beast. When we came to certain smooth
stretches on the road, where we were accustomed
to give the horse the rein, they grew excited and
impatient, and teased for the run if we chanced
to be earnestly talking and forgot to take it. How
fortunate is one who can ride a mythological



386 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

Pegasus as well as a veritable horse ! There is
nothing left for the less gifted but to use others'
words for our own enthusiasm.

"Now we're off, like the winds, to the plains whence they came;
And the rapture of motion is thrilling my frame !
On, on, speeds my courser, scarce printing the sod,
Scarce crushing a daisy to mark where we trod;
On, on, like a deer when the hounds' early bay
Awakes the wild echoes, away and away!
Still faster, still farther, he leaps at my cheer,
Till the rush of the startled air whirs in my ear!"

Buchanan Read not only made General Sheri-
dan's splendid black horse immortal, but his grate-
ful owner kept that faithful beast, when it was
disabled, in a paddock at Leavenworth, and then,
when age and old wounds ended his life, he per-
petuated his memory by having the taxidermist
set him up in the Military Museum at Governor's
Island, that the boys of this day, to whom the war
is only history, may remember what a splendid
part a horse took in those days, when soldiers
were not the only heroes. I thank a poet for
having written thus for us to whom the horse is
almost human.

" I tell thee, stranger, that unto me
The plunge of a fiery steed
Is a noble thought to the brave and free
It is music, and breath, and majesty
'Tis the life of a noble deed ;
And the heart and the mind are in spirit allied
In the charm of a morning's glorious ride."




A SUSPENDED EQUESTRIENNE.
387



388 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

There was a long, smooth stretch of land be-
yond Fort Riley, where we used to speed our
horses, and it even now seems one of the fair spots
of earth, it is so marked by happy hours. In real-
ity it was a level plain without a tree, and the
dried buffalo-grass had then scarcely a tinge of
green. This neutral-tinted, monotonous surface
continued for many unvarying miles. We could
do as we chose after we had passed out of sight of
the garrison, and our orderly, if he happened to
have a decent horse, kept drawing the muscles of
his face into a soldierly expression, trying not to be
so undignified as to laugh at the gamesomeness,
the frolic, of his commanding officer. What a re-
lief for the poor fellow, in his uneventful life, to
get a look at these pranks ! I can see him now,
trying to keep his head away and look unconscious,
but his eyes turned in their sockets in spite of him
and caught it all. Those eyes were wild with
terror one day, when our horses were going full
tilt, and the General with one powerful arm, lifted
me out of my saddle and held me poised in the
air for a moment. Our horses were so evenly
matched in speed they were neck and neck, keep-
ing close to each other, seemingly regardless of
anything except the delight at the speed with
which they left the country behind them. In the
brief moment that I found myself suspended be-



A SUDDEN ELEVATION. 389

Iween heaven and earth, I thought, with lightning
rapidity, that I must cling to my bridle and keep
control of my flying horse, and trust to good for-
tune whether I alighted on his ear or his tail.
The moment I was thus held aloft was an hour in
uncertainty, but nothing happened, and it taught
me to prepare for sudden raids of the commanding
officer after that. I read of this feat in some novel,
but was incredulous until it was successfully prac-
ticed on me. The Custer men were given to what
their Maryland father called " toting " us around.
I've seen them pick up their mother and carry her
over the house as if she weighed fifty instead of one
hundred and fifty pounds. There was no chance
for dignified anger with them. No matter how r
indignant I might be, or how loftily I might
answer back, or try one of those eloquent silences
to which we women sometimes resort in moments
of wrath, I was snatched up by either my husband
or Tom, and had a chance to commune with the
ceiling in my airy flight up and down stairs and
through the rooms.

One of our rides marked a day with me, for it
was the occasion of a very successful exchange of
horses. My husband used laughingly to refer to
the transaction as unfortunate for him ; but as it
was at his suggestion, I clung with pertinacity to
the bargain. My horse, Custis Lee, being a pacer,



390 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

my husband felt in the fascination of that smooth,
swift gait I might be so wedded to it I could never
endure anything else ; so he suggested, while we
were far out on our evening ride, that we change
saddles and try each other's horse. I objected, for
though I could ride a spirited horse when I had
come to know him, I dreaded the early stages of
acquaintance. Besides, Phil was a high -strung
colt, and it was a venturesome experiment to try
him with a long riding-skirt, loaded with shot,
knocking about his legs. At that time the safe
fashion of short habits was not in vogue, and the
high winds of Kansas left no alternative to load-
ing our skirts. We kept opening the hern and in-
serting the little shot-bags as long as we lived
there. Fortunately for me, I was persuaded into
trying the colt. As soon as he broke into a long
swinging trot, I was so enchanted and so hilarious
with the motion, that I mentally resolved never to
yield the honor temporarily conferred upon me.
It was the beginning of an eternal vigilance for my
husband. The animal was so high-strung, so
quick, notwithstanding he was so large, that he
sprang from one side of the road to the other on
all fours, without the slightest warning. After I
had checked him and recovered my breath, we
looked about for a cause for this fright, and found
only the dark earth where slight moisture had re-



'PHIL" CHANGES HANDS.



391



mained from a shower. In order to get the
smoothest trotting- out of him, I rode with a
snaffle, and I never knew the General's eyes to be
off him for more than an instant. The officers
protested, and implored my husband to change
back and give me the pacer. But his pride was
up, and he enjoyed seeing the animal on fire with
delight at doing his best under a light weight, and
he had genuine love for the brute that, though so
hard to manage in his hands, responded to my
lightest touch or to my voice.

As time advanced and our regiment gained
better and better horseflesh, it was a favorite
scheme to pit Phil against new-comers. We all
started out, a gay cavalcade of noisy, happy
people, and the stranger was given the post of
honor next to the wife of the commanding officer.
Of course he thought nothing of this, as he had
been at the right of the hostess at dinner. The
other officers saw him take his place as if it were
the most natural thing in the world, but in reality
it was a deep-laid plot. Phil started off with so
little effort that our visitor thought nothing of
keeping pace for a while, and then he began to
use his spurs. As my colt took longer and longer
strides, there was triumph in the faces of the offi-
cers, and a big gleam of delight in the General's
eye. Then came the perplexity in my guest's face



392 TENTING ON THE PLAINS.

at a trotter outdoing the most splendid specimen
of a loping horse, as he thought. A little glance
from my husband, which incited me to give a sign
and a low word or two that only Phil and I under-



Online LibraryElizabeth Bacon CusterTenting on the plains, or, General Custer in Kansas and Texas → online text (page 21 of 39)