Grey-backs

It is a notorious fact that many of the overland stage drivers and stock tenders, between three and four decades ago, were inhabited by a species of vermin known as pediculus vestimenti, but on the plains more vulgarly called “graybacks.” Some of the boys at times were fairly alive with them. It is not at all surprising, however, for they slept from year to year on ticks filled with hay—they called it “prairie feathers”—and their blankets were seldom washed from one year’s end to another. Some of the stage company’s employees didn’t indulge in a bath for several months at a time, especially during the winter season, when the weather was way down below the freezing-point and even the most plain and simple conveniences for a bath were greatly lacking.

While living at Latham that summer during the civil war, an excellent opportunity was from time to time afforded me to become familiar with a few things I had never before dreamed of. The boys employed on the stage line, I soon learned, had a way of disposing of the graybacks when they became so numerous that it was a serious question as to who should remain master of the situation. Not more than 800 yards to the south of the station were quite a number of uncommonly large ant-hills or mounds,

of circular form. They were at least six inches high, and some of them were fully six or eight feet across. The mounds appeared in shape very much like a pressed-tin milk-pan, bottom side up. The soil was mostly coarse sand and gravel, which the ants had thrown up into their nicely built mounds. The surrounding vegetation consisted of a luxuriant growth of cacti and scanty tufts of bunch- or buffalo-grass. The ants themselves, in size, were from one-fourth to three-fourths of an inch in length. Some of them could nearly always be seen reconnoiter- ing outside the hills—probably deployed as skirmishers—but they lived inside. In color they were a dark brown. . . .

During the hot weather of midsummer, when the vermin were rapidly multiplying, it was the custom of the boys at the station to take their underclothing and blankets in the morning, spread them out on the ant-hills, and get them late in the afternoon, minus the last grayback. This was the way they did their washing. They found it an excellent substitute for making the music of a John Chinaman on the wash-board. For a time, at least, after the “washing days,” they could enjoy some rest. But in a few weeks it would become necessary to repeat the operation of a general clean-out by placing their garments and blankets at the disposal of the ants. Nearly every stage-driver, stock tender, and bull-whacker along the South Platte infested with this kind of vermin, during the days of overland staging and freighting, well re¬ members the valuable services of these ants. Mammoth ant-hills, upward of a third of a century ago, were common in the South Platte valley in sight of the Rockies.