“I was surprised,” she answered. “Still am.”
“Good.” The woman smiled brightly. “I’m glad. Now, as I said, I put the kitchen in order and I’ll show you where everything is. Jasper and I usually have our meals brought over by one of Mr. Ryan’s maidens, especially in the summer months. Even the smallest fire in the stove heats up the house and there really is no sense in wasting the wood. It’s so precious out here.”
They’d crossed the room, and stood near the long wall adorned with cupboards. Gesturing toward the back door with one hand, Ilene continued, “You’ll see the woodshed out by the facilities. All of the officers’ homes share it. I will caution you to watch for snakes.”
“Snakes?” Millie tried to keep the quiver out of her voice, but didn’t succeed.
“Don’t worry. They’re just bull snakes. They keep the mice population down and the rattlesnakes away. But they do like to hide in the woodpile, and have startled me a time or two.” Ilene gave a carefree giggle. “Now, this is where I put the dishes, plates and bowls. Cups are over here....”
The woman’s voice seemed to fade away. Mr. Cutter and Mr. Winston had warned of snakes while traveling, but Millie hadn’t thought of them inside the stockade walls. Of course, there were snakes in Virginia, but not in town. She’d never seen one in person and would be happy to keep it that way.
A shiver had Millie glancing up, wondering how many times Ilene had called her by that name and she hadn’t answered.
“Someone is knocking on the door. Would you like me to answer it?”
The tea To-She-Wi delivered was a magical elixir, and after sharing the pot with Ilene, Millie was much more prepared to be shown about her new home—and see it this time with a clear mind. The house had all the comforts of her Richmond home, and more, for Seth’s clothes hung in the room across the hall from hers.
Back downstairs, in the hall beyond the staircase, Ilene pointed into a windowless room. “I saved this for last. It’s the bathing area. It was my idea, as was the bathing house for the men living in the barracks. Men just don’t think of such things, yet they use them as regularly as women,” she said. “Most of the year, just leaving water on the back porch will heat it enough to use. Of course, Briggs always has a stove going, and will heat water if you don’t wish to start your own fire.”
A large tub, bench and small dressing table filled the room, and the thought of the private area was welcome. Yet other things were filling Millie’s mind. “There’s barely a tree out here,” she noted. “Where does the wood come from?”
“The Wichita Mountains are fifteen or so miles from here. Troops of soldiers are regularly deployed to gather enough wood to last a couple of months.”
“Is that where the Indians live?”
“Sometimes. Most of them still move from place to place every few months or so.”
“Let’s return to the kitchen,” Ilene suggested. “I added more water to the teapot so we can have another cup.”
Millie followed, and once seated, sipping the tepid, weak but still refreshing tea, asked again, “Why do they move around?”
“It’s their way of life.” Ilene shrugged as she held her teacup, but her face and tone held compassion and understanding. “They used to follow the buffalo, and now some follow the cattle drives, gathering chips and whatnot for fuel.”
“After the cattle defecate, the sun dries the piles hard and they burn quite well.” Ilene smiled, setting her cup down. “It’s not as unpleasant as it sounds. The Indians also cut tall grass and twist it into small bundles to burn in their fires.” She sighed then. “They aren’t bad people or evil, they’re just like you and me, and the rest of the world. Families with babies and children to take care of. But unlike a lot of us, their entire way of life has been unbalanced. For the most part, they’re trying very hard to adjust. The buffalo used to provide them with almost everything they needed.” She shook her head as if confused or disgusted. “And now the army sends them flour.”
“That’s bad?” Millie asked.
“Well, yes, they don’t know what to do with flour and baking powder. They’ve never used it before. They don’t have ovens, just open fires.” Ilene pushed her cup away and folded her hands upon the table. “That’s why Seth is going to Washington in person next month. To insist that the provisions sent out here are ones the tribes can use. Things that will feed their families. It used to be the cattlemen would give the Indians a few head of cows to cross their land, but now they bring bottles of whiskey to trade instead. A very sad thing for sure.”