Throughout 2016 and 2017, Stillness of Heart shared edited excerpts from the extraordinary memoir of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who chronicled her adventures throughout the Civil War — either as herself, as a Confederate spy, or in disguise as Confederate Lt. Harry T. Buford. She fought and led men in terrible battles, fell in love, bore and lost children, and traveled throughout the U.S. and Europe, ultimately fulfilling her childhood dream of a rich and adventurous life.
Read previous chapters of her incredible story here.
Part 65: The bloody lawlessness of Western communities and of Western men fascinate and outrage Velazquez as she moves westward.
My traveling companions were a rather rough set. The men on the front seat — who proved to be what I took them for, mountaineers — had some whiskey, of which they partook rather more freely than was good for them, and they were a little inclined to be boisterous. They did not make themselves disagreeable to me, however, and were evidently inclined to be on their good behavior on account of a lady being present. In spite of their rough manners they were better gentlemen than the fellow who sat next to me and who wore more stylish clothes than they did. They used no black-guard language or profanity and showed a disposition to be attentive to me whenever they had an opportunity.
This other man, however, swore fearfully, and, in spite of my being on the seat with him, made use of language such as no true gentleman would degrade himself by using under any circumstances. At length, noticing the expression of disgust on my face, one of the mountaineers on the front seat, said, “See here, old chap, just remember there is a female aboard this stagecoach, will you?”
The other replied, “I am a captain in the United States Army, sir, and I wish you to respect my commission.”
“I don’t care a d–n who you are,” said one of them, called Bill by his companions. “You simmer down mighty quick,” and with that he took him by the throat and choked him until he was nearly black in the face.
This treatment was effectual, and he did simmer down, and I was annoyed no more by him during the balance of the trip, while Bill and his friends earned my hearty respect despite their rough ways and their over-fondness for whiskey-drinking.
I shall not attempt to describe the rough and toilsome ride over the plains. It was scarcely such a journey as one would make for a mere pleasure trip, and yet it was one worth making, if only for the reason that it afforded an opportunity to study with some minuteness a country that ere many years will probably be the seat of empire on this continent. Much of this land between Omaha and the Rocky Mountains is, undoubtedly, capable of great improvement under a proper system of cultivation, and that it ultimately will be settled and improved there can be no doubt. Just at present, however, there are more inviting regions to which settlers may be expected to flock in preference.
In course of time we arrived at one of the most remarkable products of Western civilization — the town of tents called Julesburg. I had seen a great deal of life and a great deal of rough life, but when I beheld this place, I thought that I would prefer to be excused from choosing it as a permanent residence. In fact, a very brief stay in Julesburg was eminently satisfying, and I was quite content to leave it with a hope in my heart that I would never be compelled to find myself within sight of it again.
Card-playing and whiskey-drinking, embellished with blasphemy, seemed to be the chief occupations of the Julesburg citizens, while murder was their commonest amusement. Many of these men had been brought up and educated in civilized communities and knew what decent living was, and yet, so soon as they would get out here, they would throw off all restraint and develop into worse savages than the red men. Such a collection of fiends in human shape as Julesburg was at the time I visited the place, I hope never to see again. The women were, if anything, worse than the men, and I did not meet more than two of my own sex while I was there who made the most distant claims to even common decency or self-respect.
The reckless bloodthirstiness of most of the men baffles description. Pistols and knives were produced on the slightest provocation, and often on no provocation at all, and no ties of friendship appeared to be strong enough to check the murderous propensities of some of the ruffians.
While standing in the board shanty, which was dignified by the name of a station, waiting for the stage to come up, I saw a fiend in human shape deliberately shoot down a young man of about twenty years of age. While his victim was writhing on the ground, he stepped up and fired two more shots into his prostrate body, and then, pulling out a huge knife, was about to cut his throat. Two of the murderer’s comrades who seemed to have a little humanity in them, now interfered, but only to have him turn upon them, with his eyes flashing with fury and his mouth full of oaths. I expected to see a general free fight, but the fellow, apparently satisfied with his bloody work, permitted himself finally to be persuaded to leave his victim and go away. I had witnessed many shocking scenes, but nothing so atrocious as this, and I was heartily glad when the stage shortly after drove up and I was able to say farewell to Julesburg.
It is due to these desperadoes, however, to say that they are not entirely without some good qualities. When they have any reason to think that a woman is really respectable they will protect her, and they are always free with their money and ready to help any one who may be in distress. Their vices, however, so far outnumber their virtues that their good deeds will scarcely count for much when they are called upon to settle their final accounts.
My companions of the stagecoach, as we rolled out of Julesburg, were a rougher and more unpleasant set than the first party, and one of the most disagreeable among them was, I am ashamed to say, a woman. The men were tolerably full when we started, and we were scarcely off before they produced a bottle, and, after taking some of the fearful smelling whiskey which it contained, passed it around. I begged to be excused from partaking, but the other female passenger was not so fastidious, and she took a good drink every time it was handed to her. Her whiskey-drinking capacity was great, equal to that of any of the men.
The language this woman used was frightful, and she seemed to be unable to open her lips without uttering some blasphemous or obscene expression. Finally, having taken eight or nine big drinks from the bottle, she became stupidly drunk, and then, to vary the monotony of her proceedings, she produced a filthy pipe, which she filled with the blackest plug tobacco, and commenced to smoke. The fumes from this pipe were sickening to me, but I was willing to let her smoke in peace, for it at least kept her quiet and soothed her until she fell into a deep and drunken sleep.
In this fashion we rolled along until we came to Cheyenne, which appeared to be quite a town and a decided improvement on Julesburg. A number of moderately good-looking houses were already occupied, while others were in process of erection, and everything seemed to indicate that this, in a short time, was likely to be a really thriving place. The driver pulled up his horses, shouting, “Cheyenne House!” and out the occupants of the stagecoach tumbled, the drunken woman and all, although she was so far gone that one of the men was forced to almost lift her out to prevent her from falling flat on the ground.
The Cheyenne House, in spite of its rather imposing name, was, taking it all in all, the worst apology for a hotel I had ever met with in the course of my rather extensive travels. It was a frame building of the rudest construction, while the lodging rooms — about eight by ten feet in size — were merely separated from each other by canvas partitions which rendered any real privacy an absolute impossibility. The beds, or rather the bunks, in these rooms were large enough for two persons, and it was expected that two persons would occupy each of them, the luxury of a single bed being something unheard of in that locality. The mattresses and pillows were made of flour bags — the miller’s brands still on them — stuffed with straw, and the coverlets were a pair of gray army blankets with “U.S.A.” plainly marked — undoubtedly the plunder of some rascally quartermaster who was bent on making his residence on the frontier pay him handsomely even if he had to cheat the government.
On entering the hotel, we were ushered into a good-sized room, the floor being made of the roughest pine boards, from which the tar exuded in thick and sticky lumps. A large railroad stove, heated red hot, was in the center of the room and was surrounded by a motley crowd of men, who were sitting in every describable posture, smoking, chewing, spitting, and blaspheming in a style that indicated a total ignorance on their part of the fact that they had souls to be saved. It was impossible to get near the stove, although it was quite cold, for none of these men offered to move, and seemed to consider a poor little woman, like myself, as something entirely beneath their notice.
To my great satisfaction I did not have to remain long in this choice company, for supper was announced as ready within a few moments of our arrival. I requested to be shown the washroom, and, on reaching it, found there a few old tin washbasins, all of which were vilely dirty, a sardine box with a lump of homemade soap in it, and a vile-looking tow towel on a roller, which, in addition to being utterly filthy, did not have a dry place on it as big as half a dollar. Fortunately, I had my own soap and towels in my satchel and managed to perform my ablutions in a moderately satisfactory fashion. As for the basins and towels belonging to the place, I should not have hesitated to have used them, rough as they were, had they been moderately clean, for, on the frontier, we have no right to expect the accommodations of the Grand Central Hotel of New York or the Hotel le Louvre of Paris and must expect to rough it. Still, even on the frontier, soap and water are cheap, and people who profess to keep hotels and who take the money of the public ought to make some effort to have things reasonably neat and tidy.
The dining-room was like the rest of the building, of the roughest possible construction. The table was covered with a dark colored oil-cloth, full of grease and dirt, and the supper, although it was such as a hungry traveler could have relished had it been properly prepared, was so uninviting in appearance that I could eat but little of it.
Being much fatigued, so soon as I had swallowed a few mouthfuls I sought my room, but, on arriving there, found, to my utter astonishment, that the woman who had come with me in the stage was occupying the bed. When I remonstrated, I was told that it was impossible for me to have a room to myself and speedily found that I either had to submit or else pass the night in the parlor among the roughs congregated there. The alternative of sharing the bed with my fellow traveler was preferable, for there at least I should be safe, as the room was over the landlord’s private apartments, while the parlor being over the barroom was liable to have a bullet coming through the floor before morning.
I accordingly submitted to circumstances but did not obtain much satisfaction from my couch, for, independently of its unpleasant human occupant, it was fairly alive with vermin. My companion, however, snored away in happy unconsciousness of any such disturbances, being stupefied with whiskey and overcome by the fatigues of travel. She was evidently accustomed to this sort of thing and was not disposed to be fastidious.
The next morning, she was called to go in the stage. I, having determined to remain for a day or two, was therefore to part company with her. She got up, and I was surprised to see that she had been in bed all night without removing any of her clothing. From under her pillow she took a belt containing a formidable-looking knife and a six-shooter, which she buckled around her waist, and as she did so, seeing that I was awake, asked, in a sarcastic sort of way, “How did you sleep?”
“Not much,” I replied. “This kind of a bed don’t suit me.”
“Well, I’ve slept too d–d much,” she said. “I am tired yet. I’d as lives sleep on a board or a rock as on one of these d–d old straw beds!”
This was nice language for a woman to utter, but it was nothing in comparison to some that I had heard her use the day before. Soon, to my infinite relief, this delectable creature was gone, and I was left to myself.