30. FORT NIOBRARA
THE JOURNEY itself, however, was not to be dreaded, although it was so undesired. It was entirely by rail across New Mexico and Kansas, to St. Joseph, then up the Missouri River and then across the state to the westward. Finally, after four or five days, we reached the small frontier town of Valentine, in the very northwest corner of the bleak and desolate state of Nebraska. The post of Niobrara was four miles away, on the Niobrara (swift water) River.
It was November, and the drive across the rolling prairie-land gave us a fair glimpse of the country around. We crossed the old bridge over the Niobrara River, and entered the post. The snow lay already on the brown and barren hills, and the place struck a chill to my heart.
The Ninth Cavalry took care of all the officers' families until we could get established. Lieutenant Bingham, a handsome and distinguished-looking young bachelor, took us with our two children to his quarters, and made us delightfully at home. His quarters
Quarters were not very plentiful, and we were compelled to take a house occupied by a young officer of the Ninth. What base ingratitude it seemed, after the kindness we had accepted from his regiment! But there was no help for it. We secured a colored cook, who proved a very treasure, and on inquiring how she came to be in those wilds, I learned that she had accompanied a young heiress who eloped with a cavalry lieutenant, from her home in New York some years before.
What a contrast was here, and what a cruel contrast! With blood thinned down by the enervating summer at Tucson, here we were, thrust into the polar regions! Ice and snow and blizzards, blizzards and snow and ice! The mercury disappeared at the bottom of the thermometer, and we had nothing to mark any degrees lower than 40 below zero. Human calculations had evidently stopped there. Enormous box stoves were in every room and in the halls; the old-fashioned sort that we used to see in school-rooms and meeting-houses in New England. Into these, the soldiers stuffed great logs of mountain mahogany, and the fires were kept roaring day and night.
We could not complain of our fare, however, for our larder hung full of all sorts of delicate and delicious things, brought in by the grangers, and which we were glad to buy. Prairie-chickens, young pigs, venison, and ducks, all hanging, to be used when desired.
It was about this time that the law was passed abolishing the post-trader's store, and forbidding the selling of whiskey to soldiers on a Government reservation. The pleasant canteen, or Post Exchange, the soldiers' club-room, was established, where the men could go to relieve the monotony of their lives.
With the abolition of whiskey, the tone of the post improved greatly; the men were contented with a glass of beer or light wine, the canteen was well managed, so the profits went back into the company messes in the shape of luxuries heretofore unknown; billiards and reading-rooms were established; and from that time on, the canteen came to be regarded in the army as a most excellent institution. The men gained in self-respect; the canteen provided them with a place where they could go and take a bite of lunch, read,
But, alas! this condition of things was not destined to endure, for the women of the various Temperance societies, in their mistaken zeal and woful ignorance of the soldiers' life, succeeded in influencing legislation to such an extent that the canteen, in its turn, was abolished; with what dire results, we of the army all know.
Let them stay by their lectures and their clubs, I say, and their other amusements; let them exercise their good influences nearer home, with a class of people whose conditions are understood by them, where they can, no doubt, do worlds of good.
They cannot know the drear monotony of the barracks life on the frontier in times of peace. I have lived close by it, and I know it well. A ceaseless round of drill and work and lessons, and work and lessons and drill—no recreation, no excitement, no change.
Far away from family and all home companionship, a man longs for some pleasant place to go, after the day's work is done. Perhaps these women think (if, in their blind enthusiasm, they think at all) that a young soldier or an old soldier needs no recreation.
And here, amidst the sand-hills of Nebraska, we first began to really know our Colonel. A man of strong convictions and abiding honesty, a soldier who knew his profession thoroughly, having not only achieved distinction in the Civil War, but having served when little more than a boy, in the Mexican War of 1846. Genial in his manners, brave and kind, he was beloved by all.
The three Kautz children, Frankie, Austin, and Navarra, were the inseparable companions of our own children. There was a small school for the children of the post, and a soldier by the name of Delany was schoolmaster. He tried hard to make our children learn, but they did not wish to study, and spent all their spare time in planning tricks to be played upon poor Delany. It was a difficult situation for the soldier. Finally, the two oldest Kautz children were sent East to boarding-school, and we also began to realize that something must be done.
In the meantime, Cupid had not been idle. It was observed that Mr. Bingham, our gracious host of the Ninth Cavalry, had fallen in love with Antoinette, the pretty and attractive daughter of Captain Lynch of our own regiment, and the post began to be on the qui vive to see how the affair would end, for nobody expects to see the course of true love run smooth. In their case, however, the Fates were kind and in due time the happy engagement was announced.
Being nearer civilization now, in the state of Nebraska, Uncle Sam provided us with a chaplain, and a weekly service was held by the Anglican clergyman—a tall, well-formed man, a scholar and, as we say, a gentleman. He wore the uniform of the army chaplain, and as far as looks went could hold his own with any of the younger officers. And it was a great comfort to the church people to have this weekly service.
Then Mrs. Kautz, who was a thorough music lover and had a cultivated taste as well as a trained and exquisite voice, gave several musicales, for which much preparation was made, and which were most delightful. These were given at the quarters of General Kautz, a long, low, rambling one-story house, arranged with that artistic taste for which Mrs. Kautz was distinguished.
We charged admission, for we needed some more scenery, and the neighboring frontier town of Valentine came riding and driving over the prairie and across the old bridge of the Niobrara River, to see our plays. We had a well-lighted stage. Our methods were primitive, as there was no gas of electricity there in those days, but the results were good, and the histrionic ability shown by some of our young men and women seemed marvellous to us.
Neither the army nor the stage can now claim this brilliant cavalry officer, as he was induced, by urgent family reasons, shortly after the period of which. I am writing, to resign, his, commission and retire to private life, at the very height of his ambitious career.
And now the summer came on apace. A tennis-court was made, and added greatly to our amusement. We were in the saddle every day, and the country around proved very attractive at this season, both for riding and driving.
But all this gayety did not content me, for the serious question of education for our children now presented itself; the question which, sooner or later, presents itself to the minds of all the parents of army children. It is settled differently by different people. It had taken a year for us to decide.
At the end of that time, I bade good-bye to the regiment, to Niobrara, to my husband, and to my army home, and established myself in the East, resolved to remain there, and hoping that some lucky stroke of Fate would enable us to be reunited at no distant day.
My husband had now worn the single bar on his shoulder-strap for eleven years of more; before that, the straps of the second lieutenant had adorned his broad shoulders for a period quite as long. Twenty-two years a lieutenant in the regular army, after fighting, in a volunteer regiment of his own state,
President Cleveland heard casually of these unjust conditions (brought about by red tape and clever management in some of the Department offices in Washington), and decided to rectify matters a little by hurrying up promotion in that regiment. So he appointed Jack Summerhayes a Captain and Quartermaster; then, in a few months gave another staff appointment to Lieutenant Hyde, who was next in rank, and who also had grown grey in the service.
The Eighth Foot and the Ninth Horse at Niobrara gave the new Captain and Quartermaster a rousing farewell, for now my husband was leaving his old regiment forever; and, while he appreciated fully the honor of his new staff position, he felt a sadness at breaking off the associations of so many years—a
There were many champagne suppers, dinners and card-parties given for him, to make the good-bye something to be remembered, and at the end of a week's festivities, he departed by a night train from Valentine, thus eluding the hospitality of those generous but wild frontiersmen, who were waiting to give him what they call out there a “send-off.”
For Valentine was like all frontier towns; a row of stores and saloons. The men who kept them were generous, if somewhat rough. One of the officers of the post, having occasion to go to the railroad station one day at Valentine, saw the body of a man hanging to a telegraph pole a short distance up the track. He said to the station man: ‘‘“What does that mean?”’’ (nodding his head in the direction of the telegraph pole).
‘‘“Why, it means just this,”’’ said the station man, ‘‘“the people who hung that man last night had the nerve to put him right in front of this place, by G—. What would the passengers think of this town, sir, as they went by? Why, the reputation of Valentine would be ruined! Yes, sir, we cut him down and moved him up a pole of two. He was a hard case, though,”’’ he added.