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Boots and Saddles

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Boots and Saddles
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Author(s): Elizabeth B. Custer
Date Published: 2009/07
Page Count: 272
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-733-2
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-734-9

A classic account of life on the Western Frontier

Mrs Custer—Libby—the love of George Armstrong Custer's life is in some regard no less famous than her husband. They were in the truest sense 'a couple' and our understanding of their relationship has been enhanced by Elizabeth Custer's writing of her time in the company of her husband during his campaigning on the Western Plains against the Indian tribes. Custer was already a legend—The Boy General—during the Civil War. Elizabeth Custer's writing of his post-war career enhances both our view of him—and them—and brings with it an illumination of life with the United States army—including its many colourful personalities—on the frontier. Here then is the famous 7th Cavalry as viewed by its commander’s wife. This touching account ends—inevitably—as Custer and his command ride out for their fateful encounter at Little Big Horn.

One morning we were walking back and forth, looking, as we never tired of doing, down the long, level plain, when we were startled by shouts. We ran to the edge of the piazza, and saw the prisoners, who had been working outside the post, and the guard who had them in charge, coming in at a double-quick. A hatless and breathless herder dashed up to the officer on an unsaddled mule. With blanched face and protruding eyeballs he called out that the Indians were running off the herd.<br>
The general came hastily out, just in time to see a cloud of dust rising through a gap in the bluffs, marking the direction taken by the stampeded mules. Instantly he shouted with his clear voice to the bugler to sound the call, “Boots and saddles,” and keep it up until he told him to stop. The first notes of the trumpet had hardly sounded before the porches of the company quarters and the parade were alive with men.<br>
Everyone, without stopping to question, rushed from the barracks and officers’ quarters to the stables. The men threw their saddles on their horses and galloped out to the parade-ground. Soldiers who were solely on garrison duty, and to whom no horse was assigned, stole whatever ones they could find, even those of the messengers tied to the hitching-posts.<br>
Others vaulted onto mules bare-backed. Some were in jackets, others in their flannel shirt-sleeves. Many were hatless, and occasionally a head was tied up with a handkerchief. It was anything but a military-looking crowd, but everyone was ready for action, and such spirited-looking creatures it is rarely one’s lot to see. Finding the reason for the hasty summons when they all gathered together, they could hardly brook even a few moments’ delay.<br>
The general did not tarry to give any but brief directions. He detailed an officer to remain in charge of the garrison, and left him some hurried instructions. He stopped to caution me again not to go outside the post, and with a hasty goodbye flung himself into the saddle and was off. The command spurred their horses toward the opening in the bluff, not a quarter of a mile away, through which the last mules had passed. In twenty minutes from the first alarm the garrison was emptied, and we women stood watching the cloud of dust that the hoofs of the regimental horses had stirred as they hurled themselves through the cleft in the hills.<br>
We had hardly collected our senses before we found that we were almost deserted. As a rule, there are enough soldiers on garrison duty, who do not go on scouts, to protect the post, but in the mad haste of the morning, and impelled by indignant fury at having the herd swept away from under their very noses as it were, all this home-guard had precipitately left without permission. Fortunately for them, and his own peace of mind regarding our safety, the general did not know of this until he returned. Besides, the officers never dreamed the pursuit would last for more than a mile or so, as they had been so quick in preparing to follow.<br>
After our gasping and wild heart-beating had subsided a little, we realized that, in addition to our anxiety for those who had just left us, we were in peril ourselves. The women, with one instinct, gathered together. Though Indians rarely attack a post directly, the pickets that were stationed on the low hills at the rear of the garrison had been fired upon previously. We also feared that the buildings would be set on fire by the wily, creeping savages. It was even thought that the running off of the herd was but a ruse to get the garrison out, in order to attack the post. Of course we knew that only a portion of the Indians had produced the stampede, and we feared that the remainder were waiting to continue the depredations, and were aware of our depleted numbers.<br>
Huddled together in an inner room, we first tried to devise schemes for secreting ourselves. The hastily-built quarters had then no cellars. How we regretted that a cave had not been prepared in the hill back of us for hiding the women in emergencies. Our means of escape by the river were uncertain, as the ferry-boat was in a shocking condition; besides, the citizens in charge would very naturally detain the boat upon some pretext on the safe side of the river. Finally, nervous and trembling over these conferences, we returned to the piazza, and tried to think that it was time for the return of the regiment.<br>
Our house being the last in the line, and commanding an extended view of the valley, we kept our lookout there. Each of us took turns in mounting the porch railing, and, held there in place by the others, fixed the field-glass on the little spot of earth through which the command had vanished. With a plaintive little laugh, one of our number called out the inquiry that has symbolized all beleaguered women from time immemorial, “Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?” <br>
All of us scanned the horizon unflaggingly. We knew the Indian mode of taking observation. They pile a few stones on the brow of the hill after dark; before dawn they creep up stealthily from the farther side, and hiding behind the slight protection, watch all day long with unwearying patience. These little picket posts of theirs were scattered all along the buffs. We scarcely allowed ourselves to take our eyes off them. <br>
Once in a while one of our group on watch called out that something was moving behind the rocks. Chairs were brought out and placed beside her, in order that a second pair of eyes might confirm the statement. This threw our little shivering group into new panics.<br>
There was a window in the servants’ room at the rear of the house, to and from which we ascended and descended all day long. I do not think the actual fear of death was thought of so much as the all-absorbing terror of capture. Our regiment had rescued some white women from captivity in Kansas, and we never forgot their stories.
One of our number became so convinced that their fate awaited us that she called a resolute woman one side to implore her to promise that, when the Indians came into the post, she would put a bullet through her heart, before she carried out her determination to shoot herself. We sincerely discussed whether, in extreme danger, we could be counted upon to load and fire a carbine.