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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Custer and his Hounds

By Elizabeth Bacon Custer (1842–1933)

[From “Boots and Saddles,” or, Life in Dakota with General Custer. 1885.]

THE PACK of hounds were an endless source of delight to the general. We had about forty: the stag-hounds that run by sight, and are on the whole the fleetest and most enduring dogs in the world, and the fox-hounds that follow the trail with their noses close to the ground. The first rarely bark, but the latter are very noisy. The general and I used to listen with amusement to their attempts to strike the key-note of the bugler when he sounded the calls summoning the men to guard-mount, stables, or retreat. It rather destroyed the military effect to see, beside his soldierly figure, a hound sitting down absorbed in imitation. With lifted head and rolling eyes there issued from the broad mouth notes so doleful they would have answered for a misericordia.

The fox-hounds were of the most use in the winter, for the hunting was generally in the underbrush and timber along the river. I never tired of watching the start for the hunt. The general was a figure that would have fixed attention anywhere. He had marked individuality of appearance, and a certain unstudied carelessness in the wearing of his costume that gave a picturesque effect, not the least out of place on the frontier. He wore troop-boots reaching to his knees, buckskin breeches fringed on the sides, a dark navy-blue shirt with a broad collar, a red necktie, whose ends floated over his shoulder exactly as they did when he and his entire division of cavalry had worn them during the war. On the broad felt hat, that was almost a sombrero, was fastened a slight mark of his rank.

He was at this time thirty-five years of age, weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, and was nearly six feet in height. His eyes were clear blue and deeply set, his hair short, wavy, and golden in tint. His mustache was long and tawny in color; his complexion was florid, except where his forehead was shaded by his hat, for the sun always burned his skin ruthlessly.

He was the most agile, active man I ever knew, and so very strong and in such perfect physical condition that he rarely knew even an hour’s indisposition.

Horse and man seemed one when the general vaulted into the saddle. His body was so lightly poised and so full of swinging, undulating motion, it almost seemed that the wind moved him as it blew over the plain. Yet every nerve was alert and like finely tempered steel, for the muscles and sinews that seemed so pliable were equal to the curbing of the most fiery animal. I do not think that he sat his horse with more grace than the other officers, for they rode superbly, but it was accounted by others almost an impossibility to dislodge the general from the saddle, no matter how vicious the horse might prove. He threw his feet out of the stirrups the moment the animal began to show his inclination for war, and with his knees dug into the sides of the plunging brute, he fought and always conquered. With his own horses he needed neither spur nor whip. They were such friends of his, and his voice seemed so attuned to their natures, they knew as well by its inflections as by the slight pressure of the bridle on their necks what he wanted. By the merest inclination on the general’s part, they either sped on the wings of the wind or adapted their spirited steps to the slow movement of the march. It was a delight to see them together, they were so in unison, and when he talked to them, as though they had been human beings, their intelligent eyes seemed to reply.

As an example of his horsemanship he had a way of escaping from the stagnation of the dull march, when it was not dangerous to do so, by riding a short distance in advance of the column over a divide, throwing himself on one side of his horse so as to be entirely out of sight from the other direction, giving a signal that the animal understood, and tearing off at the best speed that could be made. The horse entered into the frolic with all the zest of his master, and after the race the animal’s beautiful, distended nostrils glowed blood-red as he tossed his head and danced with delight.

In hunting, the general rode either Vic or Dandy. The dogs were so fond of the latter, they seemed to have little talks with him. The general’s favorite dog, Blücher, would leap up to him in the saddle, and jump fairly over the horse in starting. The spirited horses, mounted by officers who sat them so well, the sound of the horn used for the purpose of calling the dogs, their answering bay, the glad voices, and “whoop-la” to the hounds as the party galloped down the valley, are impressions ineffaceable from my memory. They often started a deer within sound of the bugle at the post. In a few hours their shouts outside would call me to the window, and there, drooping across the back of one of the orderlies’ horses, would be a magnificent black-tailed deer. We had a saddle of venison hanging on the wood-house almost constantly during the winter. The officers’, and even the soldiers’, tables had this rarity to vary the monotony of the inevitable beef.

After these hunts the dogs had often to be cared for. They would be lame, or cut in the chase, through the tangle of vines and branches. These were so dense it was a constant wonder to the general how the deer could press through with its spreading antlers. The English hounds, unacquainted with our game, used to begin with a porcupine sometimes. It was pitiful, though for a moment at first sight amusing, to see their noses and lips looking like animated pin-cushions. There was nothing for us to do after such an encounter but to begin surgery at once. The general would not take time to get off his hunting-clothes nor go near the fire until he had called the dog into his room and extracted the painful quills with the tweezers from his invaluable knife. I sat on the dog and held his paws, but quivered even when I kept my head averted. The quills being barbed cannot be withdrawn, but must be pulled through in the same direction in which they entered. The gums, lips, and roof of the mouth were full of little wounds, but the dogs were extremely sagacious and held very still. When the painful operation was over they were very grateful, licking the general’s hand as he praised them for their pluck.

Sometimes, when the weather was moderate, and I rode after the foxhounds, one of them separated himself from the pack, and came shaking his great, velvet ears and wagging his cumbrous tail beside my horse. The general would call my attention to him, and tell me that it was our latest surgical patient, paying us his bill in gratitude, “which is the exchequer of the poor.”

Among the pack was an old hound that had occasional fits. When he felt the symptoms of an attack he left the kennel at the rear of the house, came round to the front-door, and barked or scratched to get in. My husband knew at once that the dog was going to suffer, and that instinct had taught him to come to us for help. Rover would lie down beside the general until his hour of distress, and then solicit the ever-ready sympathy with his mournful eyes. The general rubbed and cared for him, while the dog writhed and foamed at the mouth. He was always greatly touched to see the old hound, when he began to revive, try to lift the tip of his tail in gratitude.

With the stag-hounds, hunting was so bred in the bone that they sometimes went off by themselves, and even the half-grown puppies followed. I have seen them returning from such a hunt, the one who led the pack holding proudly in his mouth a jack-rabbit.