R. H. (Robert Henderson) McKay.

Little pills; an army story online

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had gone to the post trader's to get my mail and upon my return
I found the odor in my quarters so pronounced that I investigated
and found that Sandy had killed a skunk in the kitchen. He ex-
plained by saying that he had tried to drive it out and could not
do so and that he had killed it. I told him to open up all the
windows and doors and scrub the kitchen floor and I went back
to the sutler's store in self protection. I did not return until late
when I found the odor worse than ever and Sandy explained the
matter this time by saying another skunk came in and had made
its way into my bed-room and got under the wardrobe and he
could not get it out and was compelled to kill it. This he did
by punching it to death. The result can be imagined, but not
very well described. I slept on a cot in the front room for some
time afterwards and found hunting and out-door exercise more
interesting than remaining in my quarters.

The sand storms at Fort Craig were something to remember,
or rather I should say impossible to forget. They are simply a
straight wind blowing with terrific force and loaded with fine
sand and dust and very fine gravel. I remember particularly one


that came up one day when the steward and I were making out
the monthly reports at the hospital. The windows and doors were
closed and everything made as snug as possible, yet when the
storm was over one made tracks when walking across the floor
as visible as he would have made walking along a sandy highway.
It was a serious matter to be out in one of them, for unless the
face was covered one would suffer severely from the stinging sand
and fine gravel, and everything a short distance away was shut
out from sight. There are also some pleasant things to remem-
ber of my experience at this post. The hunting, particularly of
wild fowl, was very good, the ducks remaining late in the spring
and returning early in the fall. The sunsets were beautiful be-
yond my power of description. It was my first summer in a rari-
fied atmosphere and I imagined at times I could see objects mov-
ing* along the mountain range some thirty miles away. I remem-
ber one evening when Doctor Seguin was visiting a few days with
me on his return from Fort Selden to New York, having left the
service, we were out for a walk together and were up on a little
mound just west of the post as the sun went down and his at-
tention was called to the beautiful cloud effects. He remarked
that he had never seen anything more beautiful in Italy. The
doctor was a Frenchman by birth ; his father was a medical man
of distinction, and while most of his life had been spent in this
country he had traveled extensively abroad and his education,
particularly in medicine, had been acquired in Europe. He was
now returning to New York to take up his work as a lecturer on
nervous diseases in the College of Physicians and Surgeons.

" While the doctor was visiting with me we went up to San
Marcial to witness the games on St. John's day, June 24th. San
Marcial was at that time a small straggling Mexican village of one
street with adobe houses on each side and all told maybe had one
hundred inhabitants. We did not go into any of the houses and
only witness one game of any interest, it was a rough-and-tumble
affair and excited great interest among the Mexicans. A rooster
with its legs tied would be buried in a little mound of sand in the
middle of the street, leaving only its head and neck sticking above
the mound. The game was for the horsemen to form in line


some distance up the street and come at full speed swooping
down from the saddle, grab the chicken by the head, and then
the battle was on for the chicken. The possessor of the unfortun-
ate chicken would strike* out over adobe walls and across irrigat-
ing ditches, anywhere to get out of the way of his pursuers and
when at last he would be cornered, or surrounded, a battle royal
would follow. I could not determine how the matter was de-
cided but when the game was over they would come back and
repeat the performance. There were many misses in their efforts
to pick up the rooster, but a few of the contestants were more
expert than the others and several succeeded in swinging down
and retrieving the rooster from the mound of sand. We left
while the game was still in progress. In all the games I witnessed
among the Mexicans there appeared the element of cruelty in
some form or other.

During the summer of 1869 while stationed at this post I
went to Paraja to see the Penitentes parade. I don't know why
it was called a parade for it was an exhibition of cruelty that
I have never at any other time in my life seen equaled. It was
supposed to be a religious ceremony but consisted of a proces-
sion in single file of those who had committed great crimes or
sins. The one in front carried a great wooden cross, the cross-
bar of which rested on his neck and shoulders, he carrying it in
a somewhat stooped position. It was of an enormous size, the
cross-bar extending as I estimated it, at least eight feet in length
and the stem in proportion. It had been made of dry cotton-
wood logs and hewn out to probably eight or ten inches square
and was a crude looking affair, but was probably not as heavy as
it looked. The one bearing this cross took the lead and was
naked to the waist and from there down wore only a single cotton
garment, pants-like in shape, but very full, something like a skirt,
and all those following were dressed in a similar way. All were
bare-footed and there were probably twenty or more of them.
Each carried thongs with which he struck the man in front of
him on the bare back, all acting in something like uniformity as
to time and repeating in unison and in a drone like voice some-
thing in Spanish that I could not understand. Before the pro-


cession ended the backs of most of the participants were notably
bloody and some of them very much so. Para j a is located liter-
ally in a bed of sand and I wondered how they could stand it that
hot August day in their bare feet and the bloody work of the
thongs left the impression on my mind of being a most brutal
performance. But they were sincere and no doubt believed they
were atoning for sins committed. What kind of a God is it who
would accept such an atonment or approve of its offering? The
faces of the participants were mostly of a brutal type and they
looked as though they were capable of committing almost any
crime. This exhibition did not impress me as in any way religi-
ous but on the contrary as exceedingly barbarious and supersti-

By act of Congress during the winter of 1868 and 1869 the
army was ordered reduced, which to me was a serious matter as
it rendered improbable any convening of a medical board for
examination of medical officers for promotion, at least for some
years to come. As I remember such line officers as wished to
resign could do so with the privilege of a year's additional pay,
and enough others would be dropped from the service to bring
the number down to the required standard, also with a year's ad-
ditional pay. The only difference being that of resigning or being
dropped from the service. Quite a number of line officers pre-
ferred resigning. Among those who did so was Lieutenant Page
of the twenty-fourth infantry at Fort Craig. He proposed selling
me his cow and I proposed trading him my pistol for it. He
thought the matter over and said that he proposed locating on a
farm in Missouri and the pistol might come very handy, so we
made the exchange. He came to visit me at Girard, Kansas, after
I had quit the service and gave me a farther history of the pistol.
He had missed a good deal of corn from his fields and watched
for the thieves and shot one of them quite seriously. The matter
got into the courts and being so soon aftei< the War the factional
feeling had not died out, and the long litigation that followed
almost bankrupted Mr. Page, rather a disreputable record for a
pistol to make, but I imagine that there have been comparatively
few occasions where pistols were used in personal encounters,


that it would not have been better if they had never been made.
I expected my wife in September. In the meantime Captain
Lawson had returned from a leave of absence and joined my mess
until his wife should come. Just before I expected by wife to
start on her trip to join me, a command came up from Texas, an
exchange of regiments had been ordered. The fifteenth infantry
went to the Department of the Missouri, and the twenty-fourth
infantry to the Department of Texas, and I was ordered to ac-
company, a part of the fifteenth infantry from Fort Craig to Fort
Wingate, New Mex. I at once wrote my wife to await develop-
ments. She had already started and got as far as Fort Wallace,
Kans., near the terminus of the railroad when word reached her
from Fort Wingate that I was to go with one company of the
fifteenth infantry to Fort Dodge, Kans., and she could meet me
at Fort Lyon, Colo., which would be on my way to Fort Dodge.


Fort Wingate is a post about one hundred and fifty miles
west and a little north of Albuquerque and in the mountains in
what was then called the Navajo country. While there I saw one
of the squaws making a Navajo blanket. I supposed it would be
called weaving but was unlike any weaving I ever saw, yet when
a lad I was quite familiar with the looms and spinning wheels
of the times, and the making of cloth. The blanket making ap-
peared to be a very tedious process, the warp being held taut by
stakes in the ground and the filling or woof worked in under and
over the threads forming the warp and pressed in place by a
little flat piece of wood passing between the threads of the warp.
I could more readily understand why the blankets were so ex-

We remained at Wingate probably two weeks. I was a guest
of Doctor Vickery, the post surgeon. He was a most charming
host and all-around good fellow. He gave me a little handful of
garnets the Indians had brought him from the little ant hills so
abundant in the country. I sent a few of the choicest stones to
Tiffany & Company of New York and had two rings made; one
for my wife and one for* a friend, the post surgeon's wife at Fort
Wallace, who had been most kind to her while she was waiting
for an opportunity to join me.

The company from Fort Wingate to Fort Dodge together
with the headquarters' paraphernalia was under the command of
Mr. Krause, a lieutenant of the fifteenth infantry. Instead of
coming around by Albuquerque we came part way and then cut
across country to the northeast. When within a few miles of the
Rio Grande the wagon road bore down to the southeast. The
infantry cut across in the direction of Barnalillo (double L has
the sound of E in Spanish) and the transportation followed the
wagon road. Mr. Krause and I took the ambulance and when we
reached the river in place of going up stream on the west side as
the wagons were directed to do we crossed over to the old over-
land stage route and then went north on the east side. It was


late when we reached the outskirts of the town and we noticed
a great light as though some building was on fire. We had now
left the stage road and were trying to find one that would take
us to a crossing on the river. We were about to enter the town
or pueblo, for it was an Indian pueblo, when we had a good view
of the fire which proved to be an immense bonfire in the middle
of the street with many people gathered around it. An Indian
met us and gave us to understand that we could go no farther.
With what little Spanish we could command, and by signs, we got
him to understand that we wanted to reach the command on the
other side of the river. By that time another Indian or two had
joined us and they at once took the matter in hand. One of them
got into the ambulance and by signs indicated to the driver which
way to go and the first man to meet us signalled Mr. Kruse and
myself to follow him. He would take us through the pueblo, but
started around the outskirts of the place and after what seemed
to me an interminable time brought us up at a high bluff. It was
quite dark and we could see the campfires across the river, but
how to get there, or whether we would get there, seemed ques-
tionable to me. However, the Indian knew what he was about,
and soon found the place he wanted, and disappeared over the
side of the bluff on what proved to be steps cut out of the rock,
leading down to the valley below. It was then only a short dis-
tance to the ford and our guide motioned us to stay there, and we
understood he wanted us to wait for the ambulance, but he waded
across the river. We found him on our arrival in camp carrying
wood for the campfires and seemingly greatly pleased at being
able to help us. We gave him a dollar at which he was evidently
delighted. The transportation arrived soon after we reached
camp and all was right again.

We reached Santa Fe early, in November I think the 4th
and only stayed in town a few hours to rest and report to district
headquarters where arrangements were made to have the pay-
master come out to a place agreed on some five miles out where
we would camp that night and pay off the men. This precaution
was taken because there are always some men who cannot stand
prosperity and will blow their money for anything they may


fancy, particularly for liquor, and quite a number of them were
likely to get drunk and be put in the guardhouse and cause delay
in getting away from the town. It seems however, that some
of them had money and those disposed to load up on "tangle-
foot" had borrowed enough to put themselves past good march-
ing condition, for at roll call preparatory to being paid off, some
were missing and came straggling into camp one at a time later on
in the afternoon, one without shoes, hat or clothing, excepting
underwear, and one entirely naked. They had fallen out of ranks
and taken a nap, and on trying to join the command had been
held up by Mexicans. Of course their guns and accountrements
had gone with their clothing. We were camped where we could
see some distance back along the road we had come and it was
rather an odd sight to see the men coming into camp in that
condition. It was quite ridiculous to see men in such uniforms,
or rather lack of them, come into camp, stand at attention and
salute when reporting to the commanding officer.

We followed the old overland stage route from Santa Fe to
Fort Lyon, Colo., a distance of nearly three hundred miles. From
there it was some two hundred miles to our destination at Fort
Dodge. There was little of interest on the way to Fort Lyons,
the usual routine of making and breaking camp and marching
during the day. By this time the men were thoroughly hardened
to the march and the roads being good we made good time. It is
interesting to know that for a distance of one thousand miles
men will beat horses.

At Cimarron we waked up in the morning to find six inches
of snow on the ground and at Wooton's just north of the crest
of Raton Pass, we stayed two or three days to have transporta-
tion repaired. I hunted a little but as I was afraid to go' far from
camp found nothing. One evening while there, Mr. Krause and I
went down to Trinidad, a mining town of some importance in
those days with the usual equipment of saloons and gambling
halls. Ii had some curiosity to see the later, so we visited one.
It was located in a long room a hundred feet or more in length
by probably forty feet wide, in which there were many tables,
at most of which were men engaged in playing games. The


poker players sat at small tables, four or five players around each
one, with stacks of chips or money at their side, or perhaps a
buckskin sack containing gold dust, (for this was a placer mining
camp) which was weighed out as occasion demanded in the
fluctuations of the game. At other tables dice were used, or balls
were rolled, and the bets were made as to which little pocket
they would enter. Everything was quiet and orderly 1 and serious-
ly business-like. It was a curious exhibition and to this day I
do not understand the fascination that seems to be in it.

At Trinidad we were still a hundred miles or more from
Fort Lyons where I expected to meet my wife, and while we
made exceptional progress for infantry it seemed all too slow for
me. It was on the 25th of November when we reached Fort
Lyons, and I had the great pleasure of seeing my wife and baby
boy again. We rested over for two or three days at Fort Lyon
and then started on the last long lap of nearly two hundred miles
down the Arkansas river to Fort Dodge, Kans. We did not see
a habitation or a soul on the way except at one place where a man
was standing at the roadside as we passed along. He informed
us that he and his partner were there killing buffalo and poison-
ing wolves for their hides. We found an immense gray wolf
lying by the roadside and the men threw it on one of the wagons
and we left it with the lone hunter by the roadside.

When pretty well down toward Fort Dodge, I had one of
the most exciting hunting experiences of my life. Buffalo in
great numbers were seen nearly all the way down and I was
anxious to get a fine robe from an animal I had killed myself.
My opportunity occurred one afternoon after we had gone into
camp. I saw a good sized herd leave the river and start back to
the high ground to graze, probably a mile or more away. I did
not know any better than to go on foot and alone. It never oc-
curred to me that there could be any danger. The ground was
level as a floor and I got up within a hundred yards or less and
picked out a large black bull that I thought would furnish the
prize I was after, and fired. At the crack of the rifle he started
for me and of course I turned and ran, and ran for my very life.
I thought how hopeless it looked for me, for the camp seemed


far away, but I did my best. Finally I could hear him close be-
hind me and while I expected every moment to be gored it oc-
curred that he was breathing heavily, and I kept the pace as best
I could until the breathing seemed less distinct and looking over
my shoulder I discovered that he had stopped running and was
walking around and around. However, I kept going until I was
sure I was at a safe distance and then fell on the ground and
lay there for a while. My heart was beating like a trip-hammer.
I had no notion then of giving up the contest and as he turned
broadside to me I fired and he started, and I started for another
race. He did not make much headway this time and my courage
arose accordingly. Pretty soon he stopped again and commenced
turning around. He did not chase me again, but it took the
fourth shot before he fell. The rifles of those days were very
different from the modern repeating rifles. This was a breech
loader with only a single shot and it was necessary to raise up
what was called the breachblock by hand and insert the cartridge,
then replace the breachblock, cock the gun, and you were ready
for another shot. Too slow a process when a mad buffalo is
chasing you.

I had been aiming for the heart but shot too high and the
wound in the lungs had caused the blood to choke him so he
could not keep up the pace. All four of the shots went into a
space not larger than my hand and one of the bullets lodged
under the skin on the opposite side which I was careful to keep
as a souvenir of the chase. Some of the enlisted men who had
gone out to the right for a shot came to my assistance and
skinned the animal for me and carried the hide into camp. They
assured me that the animal was certainly within ten or fifteen
feet of me at one time during our race.

Another hunting incident occurred on our trip down the val-
ley in which I was only a spectator. Some men had gone off
into the hills to get a buffalo for the command. They had sep-
arated one from the herd and had wounded it and got the animal
turned in the direction so as to cross the road ahead of the
command When it came in sight our cook became enthused with
the idea of going out and killing it and thus have some of the


glory of the chase. He asked permission to take my riding mule
that followed behind the ambulance. I readily gave my consent
and watched the proceedings with a good deal of interest. He
started away at full speed with a pistol in one hand swinging it
in anticipation of a great victory. All went well enough until
the mule got close to the game when I suppose he got a whiff of
an odor that did not please him, for without slacking his pace
he turned and never stopped until he was back in the rear of
the ambulance again. All this with the rider making the most
frantic effort to get him into the fight. He did not even get a
shot. The buffalo was killed near the road and loaded on one
of the wagons and taken into camp.

Another little incident occurred on this trip that was quite
exciting for a few moments: We had camped near the river in
some very tall grass, blue-stem I think it was called, the company
some little distance away and to windward of headquarters. Some
way in starting their campf ire, it got beyond their control, and a
shout in that direction gave as warning. I gathered the baby
in my arms and we all ran for the river. Fortunately there was
a sandbar extending out from the bank and we jumped some four
or five feet down to that, and huddled up against the bank until
the danger was past. There was a strong wind blowing and it
was all over in a few moments. We thought of the ammunition
wagon and feared the results, but the only harm done was a
little scorching of my wife's side-saddle which was under the
wagon. Only those who have seen a prairie fire in tall grass with
a stiff wind blowing, can picture the scene as it actually happen-
ed. The ground was swept clean but was black with the ashes
and stubble of the burned grass..

On arriving at Fort Dodge we stayed a few days waiting
for a surgeon who was returning from Fort Larned and who
accompanied us from Fort Dodge to Fort Hayes, Kans. While
at Fort Dodge there was a dust storm that continued for three
or four days, blowing a steady gale during that time. Major
Morris was commanding officer at that post and I remember a
lieutenant, Phil Reed, who was a charming and entertaining
talker at the table. My recollection is that he was afterwards


married to Minnie Reams, an actress of note at that time. The
road from Fort Dodge to Fort Hayes was a very desolate one. By
starting early and urging our team along until after dark we
came to a stream bordered by timber where we camped for the
night. It was snowing very hard when we reached camp and
by morning there were six or eight inches of snow on the ground.
The road was so obscure in many places that we were doubtful
whether we were on the right road or on any road at all. Not
a house or sign of life in all that great white waste and even
now I think of it as the most desolate day of all my life. We
arrived at Fort Hayes after midnight of the second day, and were
soon comfortably located at Doctor JMeacham's quarters and
sound asleep. My orders read to accompany the command to
Fort Dodge and then proceed to St. Louis, Mo., and report to the
medical director of the department which had been changed from
Fort Leavenworth to that place. We were now at the railroad
and the worst of the long journey from Fort Craig, N. Mex., to
St. Louis was over.

When in the ticket office at Fort Hayes arranging my trans-
portation, I was introduced to one of the most noted characters
on the frontier. He was generally known as "Wild Bill," but his
name was Hickok and his brother had been our wagon master
from Fort Wingate to Fort Dodge. He did not look wild at all
but was a rather mild mannered and genteel looking fellow. He
had long hair and wore good clothes and had nothing of the
appearance of a desperado.

The trip to St. Louis was uneventful.


On reporting to the medical director at St. Louis I was
ordered to Fort Sill, Indian Territory, (now Oklahoma) by way
of railroad to Fort Scott, Kans., and thence by stage to my desti-
nation. We arrived at Fort Scott, Kans., late in the evening.
This was theend of the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Gulf Rail-
road at that time, and a booming town The hotels were crowded
and we had great difficulty in finding a place to sleep, but finally
were located at what was called the Western Hotel where we

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Online LibraryR. H. (Robert Henderson) McKayLittle pills; an army story → online text (page 3 of 11)