R. H. (Robert Henderson) McKay.

Little pills; an army story online

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high peaked hats that I afterwards learned are the universal cos-
tumes of the Mexican people. After looking around a bit my
companion asked me if I would like to see a cock-fight. Sure
thing, of course I would, although having been raised a strict
Scotch Presbyterian I felt some qualms of conscience about wit-
nessing such an exhibition on the "Sabbath."

The amphitheater in which the exhibition was given was
without cover and enclosed by a high adobe wall. It was crowd-
ed with men and women, mostly Mexicans, in gala dress, some
very richly dressed women and some whose attire attested pov-
erty, but even these wore bright colors. The head covering was
universal but as varied in colors and quality as the fancy and
wealth of the wearers suggested. I think some of the hats of
the men must have cost a small fortune. The exhibition itself
was not very attractive to me. I could see the chickens sparring
around as though for a good opening and finally one of the cocks
would drive the gaff home with deadly effect and the people
would shout and clap their hands and exchange the money they
had wagered on the result. The management would then bring
in another pair of birds for another contest. The betting con-
sisted not only of money but all kinds of trinkets and valuables.
I saw one woman take off her white slippers handsomely orna-
mented with gold braid and spngles and bet them on the result


of the contest. The affair _was conducted in Spanish-Mexican and
I could not understand anything that was said, but they all
seemed to be delighted with the exhibition. To me it was not
only cruel but was uninteresting. We did not stay until the
finish but went out and saw some more of the town, then re-
turned to our hotel.

My newly made friend came up to my room after supper,
and spent part of the evening with me. I found his experiences
interesting. The old story of ups and downs, money to spare, and
grub-stakes furnished by some one else, to give him another start.
He gave me his address and I was very prompt in returning his
twenty dollars as soon as I got to Fort Selden, which by the way,
I borrowed from the post trader until pay-day., In answer to
my remittance I received a post card without address or date say-
ing, "You needn't have been in such a hurry." Thus ended an
acquaintance and experience that I think could not have happened
anywhere else than on the American frontier. His name was
Robert Daugherty and nothing could give me greater pleasure
than to meet him again and furnish him a "grub-stake" if he
needed it.

Santa Fe (Holy Faith, in Spanish) was an old town when the
Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. About 1606 according to
Colonel R. E. Twitchell, the best authority on the early history of
New Mexico, it was made the capital of one of the Spanish
provinces, and had been built on the site of two small Indian
pueblos. I believe if I had been dropped down in some town in
the interior of China and had found a few Americans to talk to
it would not have seemed more strange to me. The office of the
chief medical officer of the district was located in a building on
the plaza that someone told me was the old palace, but which I
thought did not look much like a palace, and which I understand
is now used as a museum in which are to be found the most re-
markable collection of archaeological specimens in America.


Monday morning I started for Fort Selden on the Rio
Grande, nearly three hundred miles away. We had a different
type of stage coach, a small affair, more like a carriage, and
drawn by two horses. Some eight or ten miles out of Santa Fe
we almost literally dropped off into a canon that widened out into
more of a valley as we continued our journey until we reached
the Rio Grande some distance above Albuquerque. This town was
at that time a straggling Mexican village of adobe houses along
the east bank of the river. Jt is now a city of considerable size
on the east side, with modern improvements and is a division
point on the Santa Fe railway and a town of commercial import-

The river was disappointing. I expected something bigger,
and it wound around from one side of the valley to the other as
though in doubt as to the best way to go. The valley was inter-
esting because of its being occupied by an altogether different
type of Indians. We had left the plains Indian at Trinidad and
from there to Santa Fe had seen only Mexicans with a fair pro-
portion of Americans whose business interests were in the coun-
try. The Plains Indian, Cheyennes, Commanches, and Kiowas
and Arapahoes, were nomadic and warlike. Here was an agri-
cultural people who lived in little villages called pueblos, a name
also attached to the Indians themselves. Their villages were lo-
cated at convenient distances apart and both men and women
went to the fields to work. The land was divided off into little
patches separated by irrigating ditches, called asacies, and there
were no fences or lines to show individual ownership. It was
seemingly a community interest, a kind of socialism. The Pueblo
Isletta was the capital and principal town and was the place of
meeting for the disposal of important questions of interest to
the tribe, and for the observance of such religious services as was
their wont. The hoe was the principal agricultural implement,
both for making ditches and for cultivating the land. The people
seemed to be kindly disposed, and in every way a contrast to the


Plains Indian whose women do the work while the men do the
hunting and fighting. They enter their houses by way of the
roof, climbing a ladder from the ground to the roof and pulling
the ladder up after them, then descending by way of an opening
in the room to the room or rooms below. No doors, and only
little peep-holes for windows, sometimes covered with a thin cloth
of muslin. I suppose this was done in the first place as a protec-
tion against the Mountain Indians (Utes and Navajos) who in
early times raided the valley and carried ff anything they could
lay their hands on. The valley was sparcely wooded except here
and there when we would come to great groves or boscas as they
were called, of immense cotton-wood trees which were very beau-
tiful. The valley as described above was the same all the way
down to Fort Selden.

After leaving the Pueblo settlements we came to a country
occupied nearly altogether by Mexicans. The commercial interests
were conducted by so-called foreigners : Americans, Germans and
Jews, the latter predominating, but the population was principal-
yl Mexican. Stock raising and farming were the principal in-
dustries, the latter in a very primitive way. They had no mod-
ern farm implements, such as plows, harrows, wagons, etc., and
only such improved tools as they could construct from the scant
material at hand. I saw at one place a man driving a yoke of
cattle attached to what appeared to be the limb of a tree with
a projecting prong entering the ground, and at the other end,
which bent up something like a handle, was another man holding
it. They were going back and forth making little ditches or fur-
rows but not turning the ground over as our plows do. It looked
primitive indeed and reminded me of a picture I saw in an
almanac when a kid, representing the Egyptian plowing.
Stock business was more promising. A good many cattle were
reported on the range and I was told the sheep numbered many
thousands scattered all along the mountain range to the west.
Soccorro was the principal town, typically Mexican, but a place
of some business importance. There were small villages at fre-
quent intervals all the way to Para j a, the last town near the
river before crossing the Jornada del Muerto (or "Journey of


Death'* in Spanish) which extends from Paraja (pronounced
Paraha, j having the sound of h in Spanish) to Fort Selden,
nearly one hundred miles across, a desert properly named and
that has some pitiful associations in my memory. It was what
was known as the Apache Indian country and grewsome stories
are related concerning it. Death by Indians, famishing for want
of water, etc., etc. I must tell a legend concerning it and the
desert country to the east and north. Near Paraja and rising
bluff from the river's edge is a high bit of mountain, hardly
worth the name of range, on the top of which lying in a re-
cumbent position is as perfect profile of a face and bust as you
could imagine. You get a fine view of it from Fort Craig and
for a great distance to the northwest and northeast. The legend
is that a friar, Christobal by name, and for whom the mountain
or range was named, was traveling through the country on his
work for the souls of men when he perished from thirst. Some
supernatural agency brought his body to this mountain top
where it hardened into stone and remains to this day a monu-
ment commemorating a tragedy, and a land mark and guide to
the weary and thirsty traveler pointing the way to where he may
find water.

We left Paraja and the river and valley at night after a good
supper, havins supplied oureslves with water enough for the trip,
expecting to get breakfast at a place about half-way across, called
the Alaman (Allemand) literally meaning "Dutchman" where it
was reported a German had been found some years before, killed
and scalped by Indians. There had been repeated efforts made
to find water on this desert. General Pope when a young officer
of the service had spent a large amount of government money
digging for water. Finally a man by the name of Martin, a
Scotchman, who furnished the meat supply at Fort Selden, was
so persistent with the commanding officer in asserting his ability
to find water, that he was furnished a body of soldiers as an
escort and guard and commissary supplies for the undertaking.
He had been working faithfully and persistently for some months
He had also put some adobe rooms and had them furnished, his
hauling his water supply from a spring in a canon some six or


eight miles away and had built an adobe wall around his camp.
He had also put some adobe rooms and had them furnished, his
wife being an important assistant in the undertaking, and he
was still sinking his well deeper and expressing an abiding faith
in the result. It must be a glorious feeling to be vindicated in
such an undertaking. It was rumored along the overland route
that; Jack Martin had found water but not enough, and upon our
arrival we found that he not only had water but had an abund-
ance of it and our stage was the first to arrive after he struck it.
After eating a late breakfast, which was a very good one, we
started for Fort Selden still some fifty miles away. This part
of the trip was uneventful as we only stopped once to feed and
water the team, having carried the necessary supplies with us.
We arrived at Fort Selden in the evening. All the way from
Santa Fe down I frequently noticed little piles of stone by the
wayside, sometimes with little hand-made wooden crosses stand-
ing up in the center marking the place where someone had met
a violent death, maybe by Indians or maybe at the hands of some
renegade Mexicans. It is the custom among the Mexican people
in passing to toss another stone on the pile and in this way some
of them became of considerable size, the size of the pile indicat-
ing in a way the time that had elapsed since the murder had been

I reported to the commanding officer at the post and the
following day was assigned to duty. By invitation I took dinner
with one of the officers the evening of my arrival. Among other
good things we had a choice roast of beef which they informed
me was from their very choice and only milk cow. It seems the
herders were not sufficiently on guard and this animal had be-
come separated from the herd but in rounding up the herd in
the evening it was discovered that this particular cow had an
Indian arrow in her side and on examination it was thought best
some small timber and underbrush along the streams affording
to kill her. The good woman did not have much appetite for
beef but grieved over the loss of her favorite cow. There was
a good hiding place for sneaking Apaches who might be disposed
to commit depredations. It was the rule at this post that when


the officers' wives wanted to take an airing to send an escort
along with the ambulance as a protection against the Indians.

It was a two company post and the duties of the medical
officer were light; so much so as to become a little monotonous,
but was sometimes varied by a trip to Las Cruces or Messilla,
some fifteen or eighteen miles distant. These towns were at one
time separated by the river but some years before an unusual
flood had swept down the valley and the river had made a new
channel leaving the towns close neighbors. Even in those days
they were places of some importance.

While stationed at this post I made my first acquaintance
with gambling. It did not take me long to learn that it was
the universal custom in the country. The Sutler's or Post Trad-
er's store wa sa favorite resort for those who indulged in the
various games. I remember an old man camping not far from
the post who made it his business. He remained there for some
time and in conversation one day I expressed my surprise at the
universal custom and he informed me that he had rather bet his
money on Monte than loan it out at ten per cent interest, and
yet his dress and camping outfit did not indicate a man of

One of the most interesting incidents of my experience here
was one Sunday morning after inspection when a group of
officers were standing out on the parade grounds talking on
various subjects when one of them was attracted by something
at our feet and called attention to it. Upon closer investigation
we discovered it to be the outlines of a human skull, the top of
which had been worn away by the trampling of many feet over
the parade ground. The post commander ordered the dirt re-
moved from around it and thus unearthed a complete human
skeleton except where the top of the head had been worn away.
It was in a sitting position with the knees flexed up close to the
chin but the bones crumbled upon being exposed to the air. There
was no evidence of shroud or other covering to the body. What
race of people buried their dead that way? How long had it
been in its resting place?


This post at that time was about seven hundred miles from
the railroad. I doubt if there is a place in the United States
today outside of Alaska or our insular possession where one could
go and be seven hundred miles from a railroad.

Along in the first part of May of that year I received orders
from the chief medical officer of the district to exchange places
with Dr. Seguin, post surgeon at Fort Craig. General Grover
was the commanding officer at Fort Craig and was considered a
good deal of a Martinet. As explained to me by Doctor Seguin,
it seems that Mrs. Grover wanted something from the hospital
which the doctor declined to send her and General Grover there-
upon ordered it sent. The doctor disobeyed the order and the
matter was carried to district headquarters and probably higher
up for it involved the question of military discipline and also the
rights of medical officers under army regulations. It is well
enough here to say that the medical corps is a corps to itself,
distinct from any other branch of the service, and orders come
through the medical officers from the surgeon general down to
the divisions ; departments and districts, and yet at the military
post the commanding officer is supposed to be "monarch of all
he surveys" os you see there was a chance for controversy. Any
way it was settled by Doctor Seguin being ordered to Fort Selden
to take my place and I to his place at Fort Carig.

General Grover was a severe looking man past middle age,
and had seen service on the frontier before the Civil War. He
was a strict disciplinarian and held himself aloof from every-
thing around. I have seen him walking down the line of officers'
quarters straight as an arrow, maybe with hands elapsed behind
his back and an orderly walking the proper distance behind. He
never entered an officer's quarters but if he wanted anything he
would send his orderly to the officer with "the General's com-
pliments and would like to see you." The officer then walked out
to where the general was standing and at the proper distance
stopped, stood at attention and saluted and waited for such com-
munications as the general would make. He then saluted again
and returned to his quarters and the general went on his way.


Mrs. Grover was confined soon after my arrival at the post
and gave birth to a daughter. When the general was called in
to see the new arrival he merely looked at it, gave a grunt, or
"huh," and then turned and walked out. Mrs. Grover was the
most queenly looking woman I ever saw ; a magnificent physique ;
a commanding presence and a dignified and gracious manner.
She seemed to possess all the qualities my imagination had con-
jured up as befitting a queen. She was the daughter of Dr.
Austin Flint, Sr., whom I mentioned in an earlier chapter, and a
sister of Dr. Austin Flint, Jr., the eminent physiologist. I was
frequently called to their quarters to see the baby, not I thought,
that it needed anything, but that the mother wanted someone
to talk with. The general was civil enough to me but never
cordial. I think it was not his nature to be so. He invited me
occasionally to go with him in his carriage to places away from
the post, say to Para j a ^ome twelve miles away, or perhaps just
for a ride, a courtesy he never extended to other officers of the
post. On these little excursions I found that the general was an
interesting talker, mostly with reference to his experiences on
the frontier before the war. The war itself and the army since
the war was never mentioned that I remember. He had been
a major general during the war and was now a colonel and it was
thought by most of the officers that he felt humiliated by being
assigned to a negro regiment, the twenty-fourth v infantry. I
was invited to their quarters one morning for breakfast and
maybe one or two other meals during the summer but as I
remember them now they were rather formal and uninteresting.

Fort Craig was a walled fort, made so in early days as a pro-
tection against Indians. It was typical of most of the posts at
which I served in being built in the form of a square. The parade
ground being a square plot varying in size at different posts,
around which are located the buildings. The officers occupying
one side of the square ; the barracks being directly opposite and
the commissary and quarter master department generally occu-
pying one side and the commanding officer's quarters and post
headquarters and adjutant's office occupying the other side. At
Fort Craig just outside of these buildings was an adobe wall


about ten feet high. Next to the guardhouse was an opening
large enough for wagons to enter the parade ground with heavy
gates to close at night, and there were some small openings in
the wall for other purposes, one being near the hospital. The
walls of the buildings were of adobe with heavy timbers across to
support the roof of dirt. The floors were what the Mexicans
called "Jaspa" (pronounced Haspa), a kind of cement made of
gypsum or lime sulphate which is found in great beds through a
great portion of New Mexico. It is quarried or blasted out,
heated to drive out the water or crystalization, then ground into
a powder and when mixed with sand and water makes a pretty
fair quality of cement. It was used altogether in the floors for
the military posts along the Rio Grande.

The water supply at Fort Craig was obtained from the Rio
Grande river and there were times about June when the snows
mented in the mountains that it answered very well to a descrip-
tion I once read of the Missouri river water, "Too thick to drink
and too thin to cultivate." This was a great bother to us during
the summer rise for it was persistent for more than a month. I
conceived the idea of making a filter by making a good sized ball
of jaspa and charcoal which I held together by mixing a little
cotton batting carefully in the mortar and kneeding it into a very
stiff paste. After it hardened I bored a hole in the ball and in-
serted a rubber tube and then, put the ball in a, "Tana j a," a large
ungalvanized earthen jar holding eight or ten gallons of the
muddy water. This jar was put in an army blanket and was
swung in the hallway. The jar being porus would let enough
water through to keep the< blanket damp, which cooled the water.
By swinging another tanaja just below the first and having it
blanketed in the same way, and having a rubber tube connecting
the two, I had a filter that furnished clear, sparking, cool water.
I put one in the hospital and they became quite the vogue at the

The wood supply was brought from the mountains some
thirty miles away. Trains comprising several wagons would be
sent out in charge of a wagonmaster with men enough to load
them promptly and by starting early and returning late they


sometimes made the round trip in two days, but generally they
were three days out.

For a month or more I was in the officers' mess, consisting
only of single men or those whose families were away. The meals
were rather stately affairs and to me seemed a little tinged with
the ridiculous in that far-away place. There was a colored man
standing behind each officer's chair dressed in the proper toggery
to do his duty and to give him every attention. I never saw any
more perfect service at any hotel and the table was the best the
commissary department and the surrounding country would pro-

Prices outside the commissary were much higher than we
had then in Iowa. Eggs .were fifty cents a dozen; butter a dollar
and a quarter a pound. I paid these prices regularly when I
started my own mess. I had what was called a student's lamp
in those days and paid five dollars a gallon for coal 'oil, as it was
then called. Of course that was before oil tanks were known and
it was carried across the plains in barrels, maybe in hot weather,
and on slow moving ox trains, being months on the way. The
evaporation would necessarily be very great, and by the time
the sutler's store got its percent of profit (probably one hundred
percent or more) one could easily see that fifty cent oil in Iowa
could easily be five dollars in New Mexico. Some years later at
Fort McRae, further down the river, we got it for two dollars
and a half; per gallon by sending a five gallon can to Santa Fe to
be filled.

Thinking that I was a fixture at Fort Craig for some time
I wrote my wife and asked her to join me after her visit in the
East was over. In view of her coming I started a mess of my
own and had a little colored drummer boy detailed as servant and
cook. He was as black as night and I called him Sandy. To start
with I laid in a pretty good supply of commissaries, among them
ten pounds of cut loaf sugar. I had my first dinner on Saturday
and the following Monday morning I asked Sandy if anything was
needed. "Yas sah, Doctor, we needs some moah sugar." Why
Sandy, I said, we got ten pounds of each kind on Saturday, which
kind do you want? "We needs some moah cut loaf sugar, sah,"


he said. What, cut loaf sugar? "Yas sah, Doctor, it takes a
powerful sight 'o sugar for deserts." Well all right Sandy, I said,
I'll see about it. I thought it was going pretty fast for only two
dinners so I stopped on my way back from the hospital at Major
Sweet's quarters and asked Mrs. Sweet how much cut loaf sugar
they used. She was bright and quick as a flash, and wished to
know, while trying to look serious, why I asked such a question.
Finally she broke out into a jolly rippling laugh and said, "I
know what's the matter, Sandy has been carrying your sugar off
to the laundresses." I told Sandy when I returned to my quart-
ers that I did not mind his having all the sugar he wanted him-
self but I did not want to feed all the laundresses at the post on
cut loaf sugar. He did better afterwards but I still think the
laundresses got some sugar.

There is no other part of the country so far as I know where
skunks were so plentiful as in New Mexico. They were a nuisance
at all the posts at which I served in that territory, but if pos-
sible were worse at Fort Craig than elsewhere. One evening I

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Online LibraryR. H. (Robert Henderson) McKayLittle pills; an army story → online text (page 2 of 11)