BEFORE leaving the Platte I employed two additional interpreters who were familiar with the Sioux language. Both were white men, but, following the example of many frontiersmen they had taken onto themselves Indian wives, and each had become the head of a considerable family of half-breeds.
Starting nearly due south from the Platte, and marching up the canon, which forms a natural gateway through the otherwise almost impassable barrier of bluffs and deep ravines bordering the valley of the Platte River, we again set out in search of Indians. The latter are sought after so frequently and found so seldom, except when not wanted, that scouting parties, as a general thing, are not overburdened with confidence on beginning an expedition. Most of us, however, felt that we were destined to see Indians - an impression probably due to the fact that we had determined to accomplish our purpose, if hard riding and watchfulness could attain this result.
Our first day's march brought us to a small stream, a tributary of the Republican River, on whose banks we encamped for the night. Daylight the following morning found us in the saddle and ascending from the valley to the table-lands; we were still in the broken country. On reaching the plateau overlooking the valley we found ourselves enveloped in a dense fog, so dense that the sky was not visible, nor was an extended view of the country possible. Had the surface of the plain been, as usual, level and unbroken, we could have pursued our march guided by the unerring compass. But deep and impassable canons divided the country in all directions and rendered our further progress impracticable. The sun, however, soon rose high enough to drive away the mist, and permitted us to proceed on what might be truly termed our winding way.
The afternoon of the fourth day we reached the forks of the Republican, and there went into camp. We were then located about seventy-five miles southeast of Fort Sedgwick, and about the same distance northeast of Fort Wallace. Intending to scout the surrounding country thoroughly in search of Indians, we selected our camp with reference to a sojourn of several days, combining among its essentials wood, water, good grazing, and last, but not least, facilities for defense.
When I parted from General Sherman the understanding was, that after beating up the Country thoroughly about the forks of the Republican River, I should march my command to Fort Sedgwick, and there I would either see General Sherman again or receive further instructions from him. Circumstances seemed to favor a modification of this plan, at least as to marching the entire command to Fort Sedgwick. It was therefore decided to send a trusty officer with a sufficient escort to Fort Sedgwick with my despatch, and to receive the despatches which might be intended for me. My proposed change of program contemplated a continuous march, which might be prolonged twenty days or more. To this end additional supplies were necessary. The guides all agreed in the statement that we were then about equidistant from Fort Wallace on the south and Fort Sedgwick on the north, at either of which the required supplies could be obtained; but that while the country between our camp and the former was generally level and unbroken-favorable to the movement of our wagon train-that between us and Fort Sedgwick was almost impassable for heavily-laden wagons. The train then was to go to Fort Wallace under sufficient escort, be loaded with fresh supplies, and rejoin us in Camp. At the same time the officer selected for that mission could proceed to Fort Sedgwick, obtain his despatch, and return.
Major Joel H. Elliot, a young officer of great courage and enterprise, was selected as bearer of despatches to Fort Sedgwick. As the errand was one involving considerable danger, requiring for the round trip a ride of almost two hundred miles through a country which was not only almost unknown but infested by large numbers of hostile Indians, the Major was authorized to arrange the details in accordance with his own judgment.
Knowing that small detachments can move more rapidly than large ones, and that he was to depend upon celerity of movement rather than strength of numbers to evade the numerous war parties prowling in that vicinity, the Major limited the size of his escort to ten picked men and one of the guides, all mounted on fleet horses. To elude the watchful eyes of any parties that might be noting our movements, it was deemed advisable to set out from camp as soon as it was dark, and by making a rapid night ride get beyond the circle of danger. In this way the little party took its departure on the night of the 23rd of June.
On the same day our train of wagons set out for Fort Wallace to obtain supplies. Colonel West with one full squadron of cavalry was ordered to escort the train to Beaver Creek, about midway, and there halt with one of his companies, while the train, under escort of one company commanded by Lieutenant Robbins, should proceed to the fort and return-Colonel West to employ the interval in scouting up and down Beaver Creek. The train was under the special management of Colonel Cooke who on this occasion was acting in the capacity of a staff officer.
While at Fort McPherson, and when under the impression that my command upon arriving at Fort Wallace, after terminating the scouting expedition we were then engaged upon, would remain in camp for several weeks, I wrote to my wife at Fort Hays,advising her to meet me at Fort Wallace, provided that travel between the two posts was considered safe. I expected her to reach Fort Wallace before the arrival of the train and escort from my camp, and under this impression I sent a letter to her by Colonel Cooke asking her to come to our camp on the Republican under escort of the Colonel, who was an intimate friend of the family. I am thus minute in giving these details in order that the events of the succeeding few days may appear in their proper light.
After the departure of the two detachments, which left us in almost opposite directions, our camp settled down to the dull and unexciting monotony of waiting patiently for the time when we should welcome our comrades back again, and listen to such items of news as they might bring to us.
Little did we imagine that the monotony of idleness was so soon and so abruptly to be broken. That night our pickets were posted as usual; the horses and mules, after being allowed to graze in the evening, were brought in and securely tethered close to our tents, and the stable guards of the different troops had been assigned to their stations for the night. At half-past eight the bugler at headquarters sounded the signal for taps, and before the last note had died away every light, in obedience to this command, disappeared, and nothing remained to the eye, except here and there a faint glimpse of a white tent, to indicate the presence of our camp.
It was just that uncertain period between darkness and daylight on the following morning, and I was lying in my tent deep in the enjoyment of that perfect repose which only camp life offers when the sharp, clear crack of a carbine near by brought me to my feet. I knew in an instant that the shot came from the picket posted not far from the rear of my camp. At the same moment my brother, Colonel Custer, who on that occasion was officer of the day, and whose duties required him to be particularly on the alert, rushed past my tent, halting only long enough to show his face through the opening and shout, "They are here!"
Now I did not inquire who were referred to, or how many were included in the word "they," nor did my informant seem to think it necessary to explain. "They" referred to Indians, I knew full well. Had I doubted, the brisk fusillade which opened the next moment, and the wild war-whoop, were convincing evidences that in truth "they were here!"
Ordinarily, I must confess to having sufficient regard for the customs and courtesies of life to endeavor to appear in society suitably and appropriately dressed. But when the alarm of "Indians" was given, and in such a startling manner as to show they were almost in our midst, the question was not "What shall I wear?" but "What shall I do?" It has become so common-in fact, almost a law-to describe the costumes worn upon memorable occasions, that I may be pardoned if I indulge in a description which I will endeavor to make as brief as the costume itself. A modern Jenkins, if desiring to tell the truth, would probably express himself as follows. "General Custer on this occasion appeared in a beautiful crimson robe (red flannel robe de nuit), very becoming to his complexion. His hair was worn au naturel, and permitted to fall carelessly over his shoulders. In his hand he carried gracefully a handsome Spencer rifle. It is unnecessary to add that he became the observed of all observers."
My orderly, as was his custom, on my retiring had securely tied all the fastenings to my tent, and it was usually the work of several minutes to undo this unnecessary labor. I had no time to throw away in this manner. Leaping from my bed, I grasped my trusty Spencer, which was always at my side whether waking or sleeping, and with a single dash burst open the tent and, hatless as well as shoeless, ran to the point where the attack seemed to be concentrated.
It was sufficiently light to see our enemies and be seen. The first shot had brought every man of my command from his tent, armed and equipped for battle. The Indians, numbering hundreds, were all around the camp, evidently intending to surround us, while a party of about fifty of their best mounted warriors had, by taking advantage of a ravine, contrived to approach quite close before being discovered. It was the intention of this party to dash through our camp, stampede all our horses, which were to be caught up by the parties surrounding us, and then finish us at their leisure. The picket, however, discovered the approach of this party and by firing gave timely warning, thus frustrating the plan of the Indians, who almost invariably base their hopes of success upon effecting a surprise.
My men opened on them such a brisk fire from their carbines that they were glad to withdraw beyond range. The picket who gave the alarm was shot down at his post by the Indians, the entire party galloping over his body and being prevented from scalping him only by the fire from his comrades, who dashed out and recovered him. He was found to be badly though not mortally wounded by a rifle ball through the body.
The Indians, seeing that their attempt to surprise us and to stampede our horses had failed, then withdrew to a point but little over a mile from us, where they congregated and seemed to hold a conference with each other. We did not fear any further attack at this time. They were satisfied with this attempt, and would await another opportunity.
It was desirable, however, that we should learn if possible to what tribe our enemies belonged. I directed one of our interpreters to advance midway between our camp and the Indians, and make the signal for holding a parley, and in this way ascertain who were the principal chiefs.
The ordinary manner of opening communication with parties known or supposed to be hostile, is to ride toward them in a zigzag manner or to ride in a circle. The interpreter gave the proper signal, and was soon answered by a small party advancing from the main body of the Indians to within hailing distance. It was then agreed that I, with six of the officers, should come to the bank of the river, which was about equidistant from my camp and from the point where the Indians had congregated, and there be met by an equal number of the leading chiefs. To guard against treachery, I placed most of my command under arms and arranged with the officer left in command that a blast from the bugle should bring assistance to me if required.
Six of the officers and myself, taking with us a bugler and an interpreter, proceeded on horseback to the designated point. Dismounting, we left our horses in charge of the bugler, who was instructed to watch every movement of the Indians and upon the first appearance of violence or treachery to sound the "advance." Each of us took our revolvers from their leather cases and stuck them loosely in our belts.
Descending to the river bank, we awaited the arrival of the seven chiefs. On one side of the river the bank was level and covered with a beautiful green sward, while on the opposite side it was broken and thickly covered by willows and tall grass. The river itself was at this season of the year, and at this distance from its mouth, scarcely deserving of the name. The seven chiefs soon made their appearance on its opposite bank, and, after removing their leggings, waded across to where we stood. Imagine our surprise at recognizing as the head chief Pawnee Killer, our friend of the conference of the Platte, who on that occasion had overwhelmed us with the earnestness of his professions of peace, and who, after partaking of our hospitality under the guise of friendship, and leaving our camp laden with provisions and presents, returned to attack and murder us within a fortnight. This, too, without the slightest provocation, for surely we had not trespassed against any right of theirs since the exchange of friendly greetings near Fort McPherson.
Pawnee Killer and his chiefs met us as if they were quite willing to forgive us for interfering with the success of their intended surprise of our camp in the morning. I avoided all reference to what had occurred, desiring if possible to learn the locality of their village and their future movements. All attempts, however, to elicit information on these points were skilfully parried. The chiefs in turn were anxious to know our plans, but we declined to gratify them. Upon crossing to our side of the river Pawnee Killer and his companions at once extended their hands, and saluted us with the familiar "How." Suspicious of their intentions, I kept one hand on my revolver during the continuance of our interview.
When we had about concluded our conference a young brave, completely armed, as were all the chiefs, emerged from the willows and tall grass on the opposite bank and waded across to where we were, greeting us as the others had done. Nothing was thought of this act until a few moments after another brave did the same, and so on until four had crossed over and joined our group. I then called Pawnee Killer's attention to the conditions under which we met, and told him he was violating his part of the contract. He endeavored to turn it off by saying that his young men felt well disposed toward us, and came over only to shake hands and say "How." He was told, however, that no more of his men must come. The conversation was then resumed and continued until another party of the warriors was seen preparing to cross from the other side. The conduct of these Indians in the morning, added to our opinions in general as regards treachery, convinced us that it would be in the highest degree imprudent to trust ourselves in their power. They already outnumbered us, eleven to seven, which were as heavy odds as we felt disposed to give. We all felt convinced that the coming over of these warriors, one by one, was but the execution of a preconceived plan whereof we were to become the victims as soon as their advantage in numbers should justify them in attacking us.
Again reminding Pawnee Killer of the stipulations of our agreement, and that while we had observed ours faithfully, he had disregarded his, I told him that not another warrior of his should cross the river to our side. And calling his attention to the bugler, who stood at a safe distance from us, I told him that I would then instruct the bugler to watch the Indians who were upon the opposite bank, and, upon any of them making a movement as if to cross, to sound the signal which would bring my entire command to my side in a few moments. This satisfied Pawnee Killer that any further attempt to play us false would only end in his own discomfiture. He at once signalled to the Indians on the other side to remain where they were.
Nothing definite could be gleaned from the replies of Pawnee Killer. I was satisfied that he and his tribe were contemplating mischief. Their previous declarations of peaceful intent went for naught. Their attack on our camp in the morning proved what they would do if able to accomplish their purpose. I was extremely anxious, however, to detain the chiefs near my camp, or induce them to locate their village near us, and keep up the semblance at least of friendship. I was particularly prompted to this desire by the fact that the two detachments which had left my command the previous day would necessarily continue absent several days, and I feared that they might become the victims of an attack from this band if steps were not taken to prevent it. Our anxiety was greatest regarding Major Elliot and his little party of eleven. Our only hope was that the Indians had not become aware of their departure. It was fortunate that the Major had chosen night as the most favorable time for setting out. As to the detachment that had gone with the train to Fort Wallace we felt less anxious, it being sufficiently powerful in numbers to defend itself, unless attacked after the detachment became divided at Beaver Creek.
Finding all efforts to induce Pawnee Killer to remain with us unavailing, I told him that we would march to his village with him. This did not seem satisfactory. Before terminating our interview, the chiefs requested me to make them presents of some sugar, coffee, and ammunition. Remembering the use they had made of the latter article in the morning, it will not appear strange if I declined to gratify them. Seeing that nothing was to be gained by prolonging the interview, we separated, the officers returning to our camp, and the Indians recrossing the river, mounting their ponies, and galloping off to the main body, which was then nearly two miles distant.
My command was in readiness to leap into their saddles and I determined to attempt to follow the Indians and, if possible, get near their village. They were prepared for this move on our part and the moment we advanced toward them set off at the top of their speed. We followed as rapidly as our heavier horses could travel, but the speed of the Indian pony on this occasion, as on many others, was too great for that of our horses. A pursuit of a few hours proved our inability to overtake them and we returned to camp.
Soon after arriving at camp a small party of Indians was reported in sight in a different direction. Captain Louis Hamilton, a lineal descendant of Alexander Hamilton, was immediately ordered to take his troop and learn something of their intentions. The Indians resorted to their usual tactics. There were not more than half a dozen to be seen-not enough to appear formidable. These were there as a decoy. Captain Hamilton marched his troop toward the hill on which the Indians had made their appearance, but on arriving at its crest found that they had retired to the next ridge beyond. This maneuver was repeated several times, until the cavalry found itself several miles from camp. The Indians then appeared to separate into two parties, each going in different directions. Captain Hamilton divided his troop into two detachments, sending one detachment, under command of my brother, after one of the parties, while he with twenty-five men continued to follow the other.
When the two detachments had become so far separated as to be of no assistance to each other, the Indians developed their scheme. Suddenly dashing from a ravine, as if springing from the earth, forty-three Indian warriors burst out upon the cavalry, letting fly their arrows and filling the air with their wild war-whoops. Fortunately Captain Hamilton was an officer of great presence of mind as well as undaunted courage. The Indians began circling about the troops, throwing themselves upon the sides of their ponies and aiming their carbines and arrows over the necks of their well-trained war-steeds. Captain Hamilton formed his men in order to defend themselves against the assaults of their active enemies. The Indians displayed unusual boldness, sometimes dashing close up to the cavalry and sending in a perfect shower of bullets and arrows. Fortunately their aim, riding as they did at full speed, was necessarily inaccurate.
All this time we who had remained in camp were in ignorance of what was transpiring. Dr. Coates, whose acquaintance has been made before, had accompanied Captain Hamilton's command, but when the latter was divided the doctor joined the detachment of my brother. In some unexplained manner the doctor became separated from both parties, and remained so until the sound of the firing attracted him toward Captain Hamilton's party. When within half a mile of the latter, he saw what was transpiring; saw our men in the center and the Indians charging and firing from the outside. His first impulse was to push on and endeavor to break through the line of savages, casting his lot with his struggling comrades. This impulse was suddenly nipped in the bud. The Indians, with their quick, watchful eyes, had discovered his presence, and half a dozen of their best mounted warriors at once galloped toward him.
Happily the doctor was in the direction of camp from Captain Hamilton's party, and comprehending the peril of his situation at a glance, turned his horse's head toward camp, and applying the spur freely set out on a ride for life. The Indians saw this move, but were not disposed to be deprived of their victim in this way. They were better mounted than the doctor, his only advantage being in the start and the greater object to be attained. When the race began he was fully four miles from camp, the day was hot and sultry, the country rough and broken, and his horse somewhat jaded from the effects of the ride of the morning. These must have seemed immense obstacles in the eyes of a man who was riding for dear life. A false step, a broken girth, or almost any trifle might decide his fate.
How often, if ever, the doctor looked back, I know not; his eyes more probably were strained to catch a glimpse of camp or of assistance accidentally coming to his relief. Neither the one nor the other appeared. His pursuers, knowing that their success must be gained soon, if at all, pressed their fleet ponies forward until they seemed to skim over the surface of the green plain, and their shouts of exultation falling clearer and louder upon his ear told the doctor that they were surely gaining upon him. Fortunately our domestic horses, until accustomed to their presence, are as terrified by Indians as by a huge wild beast, and will fly from them if not restrained. The yells of the approaching Indians served, no doubt, to quicken the energies of the doctor's horse and impelled him to greater efforts to escape.
So close had the Indians succeeded in approaching that they were almost within arrow range and would soon have sent one flying through the doctor's body, when to the great joy of the pursued and the corresponding grief of his pursuers camp suddenly appeared in full view scarcely a mile distant.
The ponies of the Indians had been ridden too hard to justify their riders in venturing near enough to provoke pursuit upon fresh animals. Sending a parting volley of bullets after the flying doctor, they turned about and disappeared. The doctor did not slacken his pace on this account, however; he knew that Captain Hamilton's party was in peril, and that assistance should reach him as soon as possible. Without tightening rein or sparing spur he came dashing into camp, and the first we knew of his presence he had thrown himself from his almost breathless horse and was lying on the ground, unable, from sheer exhaustion and excitement, to utter a word.
The officers and men gathered about him in astonishment, eager and anxious to hear his story, for all knew that something far from any ordinary event had transpired to place the doctor in such a condition of mind and body. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently to speak, he told us that he had left Captain Hamilton surrounded by a superior force of Indians, and that he himself had been pursued almost to the borders of camp.
This was enough. The next moment the bugle rang out the signal "To horse," and in less time than would be required to describe it, horses were saddled and arms ready. Then "there was mounting in hot haste." A moment later the command set off at a brisk trot to attempt the rescue of their beleaguered comrades.
Persons unfamiliar with the cavalry service may mentally inquire why, in such an emergency as this, the intended reinforcements were not pushed forward at a rapid gallop. But in answer to this it need only be said that we had a ride of at least five miles before us in order to arrive at the point where Captain Hamilton and his command had last been seen, and it was absolutely necessary to so husband the powers of our horses as to save them for the real work of conflict.
We had advanced in this manner probably two miles, when we discerned in the distance the approach of Captain Hamilton's party. They were returning leisurely to camp, after having succeeded in driving off their assailants and inflicting upon them a loss of two warriors killed and several wounded. The Indians could only boast of having wounded a horse belonging to Captain Hamilton's party.
This encounter with the Indians occurred in the direction taken by Major Elliot's detachment on leaving camp, and the Indians, after this repulse by Captain Hamilton, withdrew in that direction. This added to our anxiety concerning the safety of Major Elliot and his men. There was no doubt now that all Indians infesting the broad belt of country between the Arkansas and Platte rivers were on the war path, and would seek revenge from any party so unfortunate as to fall in their way. The loss of the two warriors slain in the fight, and their wounded comrades, would be additional incentives to acts of hostility. If there had been any possible means of communicating with Major Elliot, and either strengthening or warning him, it would have been done. He left us by no travelled or defined route, and it was by no means probable that he would pass over the same trail in coming from Fort Sedgwick as in going to that point; otherwise reinforcements could have been sent out over his trail to meet him.
On the 27th our fears for the safety of the Major and his escort were dispelled by their safe return to camp, having accomplished a ride of nearly two hundred miles through an enemy's country. They had concealed themselves in ravines during the daytime and travelled at night, trusting to the faithful compass and their guide to bring them safely back.
Now that the Major and his party had returned to us, our anxiety became centered in the fate of the larger party which had proceeded with the train to Fort Wallace for supplies. The fact that Major Elliot had made his trip unmolested by Indians proved that the latter were most likely assembled south of us, that is between us and Fort Wallace. Wherever they were, their numbers were known to be large. It would be impossible for a considerable force, let alone a wagon train, to pass from our camp to Fort Wallace and not be seen by the Indian scouting parties. They had probably observed the departure of the train and escort at the time, and, divining the object which occasioned the sending of the wagons, would permit them to go to the fort unmolested, but would waylay them on their return, in the hope of obtaining the supplies they contained. Under this supposition the Indians bad probably watched the train and escort during every mile of their progress; if so, they would not fail to discover that the larger portion of the escort halted at Beaver Creek, while the wagons proceeded to the fort guarded by only forty-eight men; in which case the Indians would combine their forces and attack the train at some point between Fort Wallace and Beaver Creek.
Looking at these probable events, I not only felt impelled to act promptly to secure the safety of the train and its escort, but a deeper and stronger motive stirred me to leave nothing undone to circumvent the Indians. My wife, who, in answer to my letter, I believed was then at Fort Wallace, would place herself under the protection of the escort of the train and attempt to rejoin me in camp. The mere thought of the danger to which she might be exposed spurred me to decisive action. One full squadron, well mounted and armed, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Meyers, an officer of great experience in Indian affairs, left our camp at dark on the evening of the day that Captain Hamilton had had this engagement with the Indians, and set out in the direction of Fort Wallace. His orders were to press forward as rapidly as practicable, following the trail made by the train. Written orders were sent in his care to Colonel West, who was in command of that portion of the escort which had halted at Beaver Creek, to join Colonel Meyers's command with his own, and then to continue the march toward Fort Wallace until he should meet the returning train and escort. The Indians, however, were not to be deprived of this opportunity to secure scalps and plunder.
From our camp to Beaver Creek was nearly fifty miles. Colonel Meyers marched his command without halting until he joined Colonel West at Beaver Creek. Here the two commands united and under the direction of Colonel West, the senior officer of the party, proceeded toward Fort Wallace, following the trail left by the wagon train and escort. If the escort and Colonel West's forces could be united, they might confidently hope to repel any attack made upon them by Indians. Colonel West was an old Indian fighter and too thoroughly accustomed to Indian tactics to permit his command to be surprised or defeated in any manner other than by a fair contest.
Let us leave them for a time and join the wagon train and its escort-the latter numbering, all told, as before stated, forty-eight men under the immediate command of Lieutenant Robbins. Colonel Cooke, whose special duty connected him with the train and its supplies, could also be relied upon for material assistance with the troops in case of actual conflict with the enemy. Comstock, the favorite scout, a host in himself, was sent to guide the party to and from Fort Wallace. In addition to these were the teamsters, who could not be expected to do more than control their teams should the train be attacked.
The march from camp to Beaver Creek was made without incident. Here the combined forces of Colonel West and Lieutenant Robbins encamped together during the night. Next morning at early dawn Lieutenant Robbins's party, having the train in charge, continued the march toward Fort Wallace, while Colonel West sent out scouting parties up and down the stream to search for Indians.
As yet none of their party were aware of the hostile attitude assumed by the Indians within the past few hours, and Colonel West's instructions contemplated a friendly meeting between his forces and the Indians should the latter be discovered. The march of the train and escort was made to Fort Wallace without interruption. The only incident worthy of remark was an observation of Comstock's, which proved how thoroughly he was familiar with the Indian and his customs.
The escort was moving over a beautifully level plateau. Not a mound or hillock disturbed the evenness of the surface for miles in either direction. To an unpractised eye there seemed no recess or obstruction in or behind which an enemy might be concealed, but everything appeared open to the view for miles and miles, look in what direction one might. Yet such was not the case. Ravines of greater or less extent, though not perceptible at a glance, might have been discovered if searched for, extending almost to the trail over which the party was moving. These ravines, if followed, would be found to grow deeper and deeper, until, after running their course for an indefinite extent, they would terminate in the valley of some running stream.
These were the natural hiding places of Indian war parties, waiting their opportunities to dash upon unsuspecting victims. These ravines serve the same purpose to the Indians of the timberless plains that the ambush did to those Indians of the eastern states accustomed to fighting in the forests and everglades. Comstock's keen eyes took in all at a glance, and he remarked to Colonel Cooke and Lieutenant Robbins, as the three rode together at the head of the column, that "If the Injuns strike us at all, it will be just about the time we are comin' along back over this very spot. Now mind what I tell ye all." We shall see how correct Comstock's prophecy was.
Arriving at the fort, no time was lost in loading up the wagons with fresh supplies, obtaining the mail intended for the command, and preparing to set out on the return to camp the following day. No late news regarding Indian movements was obtained. Fortunately, my letter from Fort McPherson to Mrs. Custer, asking her to come to Fort Wallace, miscarried, and she did not undertake a journey which in all probability would have imperilled her life, if not terminated it in a most tragic manner.
On the following morning Colonel Cook and Lieutenant Robbins began their return march. They had advanced one half the distance which separated them from Colonel West's camp without the slightest occurrence to disturb the monotony of their march, and had reached the point where, on passing before, Comstock had indulged in his prognostication regarding Indians; yet nothing had been seen to excite suspicion or alarm. Comstock, always on the alert and with eyes as quick as those of an Indian, had been scanning the horizon in all directions. Suddenly he perceived, or thought he perceived, strange figures resembling human heads peering over the crest of a hill far away to the right. Hastily levelling his field-glass, he pronounced the strange figures, which were scarcely perceptible, to be neither more nor less than Indians. The officers brought into requisition their glasses, and were soon convinced of the correctness of Comstock's report. It was some time before the Indians perceived that they were discovered. Concealment then being no longer possible, they boldly rode to the crest and exposed themselves to full view. At first but twenty or thirty made their appearance; gradually their number became augmented, until about a hundred warriors could be seen.
It may readily be imagined that the appearance of so considerable a body of Indians produced no little excitement and speculation in the minds of the people with the train. The speculation was as to the intentions of the Indians, whether hostile or friendly. Upon this subject all doubts were soon dispelled. The Indians continued to receive accessions to their numbers, the reinforcements coming from beyond the crest of the hill on which their presence was first discovered. Finally, seeming confident in their superior numbers, the warriors, all of whom were mounted, advanced leisurely down the slope leading in the direction of the train and its escort.
By the aid of field-glasses Comstock and the two officers were able to determine fully the character of the party now approaching them. The last doubt was thus removed. It was clearly to be seen that the Indians were arrayed in full war costume, their heads adorned by the brilliantly colored war bonnets, their faces, arms, and bodies painted in various colors, rendering their naturally repulsive appearance even more hideous. As approached nearer they assumed a certain order in the manner of their advance. Some were to be seen carrying the long glistening lance with its pennant of bright colors; while upon the left arm hung the round shield, almost bullet-proof, and ornamented with paint and feathers according to the taste of the wearer. Nearly all were armed with carbines and one or two revolvers, while many in addition to these weapons carried the bow and arrow.
When the entire band had defiled down the inclined slope, Comstock and the officers were able to estimate roughly the full strength of the party. They were astonished to perceive that between six and seven hundred warriors were bearing down upon them and in a few minutes would undoubtedly commence the attack. Against such odds, and upon ground so favorable for the Indian mode of warfare it seemed unreasonable to hope for a favorable result. Yet the entire escort, officers and men, entered upon their defense with the determination to sell their lives as dearly as possible.
As the coming engagement, so far as the cavalry was concerned, was to be purely a defensive one, Lieutenant Robbins at once set about preparing to receive his unwelcome visitors. Colonel Cooke formed the train in two parallel columns, leaving ample space between for the horses of the cavalry. Lieutenant Robbins then dismounted his men and prepared to fight on foot. The led horses, under charge of the fourth trooper, were placed between the two columns of wagons, and were thus in a measure protected from the assaults which the officers had every reason to believe would be made for their capture. The dismounted cavalrymen were then formed in a regular circle enclosing the train and horses. Colonel Cooke took command of one flank, Lieutenant Robbins of the other, while Comstock, who as well as the two officers remained mounted, galloped from point to point wherever his presence was most valuable. These dispositions being perfected, the march was resumed in this order, and the attack of the savages calmly awaited.
The Indians, who were interested spectatators of these preparations for their reception, continued to approach, but seemed willing to delay their attack until the plain became a little more favorable for their operations. Finally, the desired moment seemed to have arrived. The Indians had approached to within easy range, yet not a shot had been fired, the cavalrymen having been instructed by their officers to reserve their fire for close quarters. Suddenly, with a wild ringing war-whoop, the entire band of warriors bore down upon the train and its little party of defenders.
On came the savages, filling the air with their terrible yells. Their first object, evidently, was to stampede the horses and draft animals of the train; then, in the excitement and consternation which would follow, to massacre the escort and drivers. The wagon-master in immediate charge of the train had been ordered to keep his two columns of wagons constantly moving forward and well closed up. This last injunction was hardly necessary, as the frightened teamsters, glancing at the approaching warriors and hearing their savage shouts, were sufficiently anxious to keep well closed upon their leaders.
The first onslaught of the Indians was made on the flank which was superintended by Colonel Cooke. They rode boldly forward as if to dash over the mere handful of cavalrymen, who stood in skirmishing order in a circle about the train. Not a soldier faltered as the enemy came thundering upon them, but waiting until the Indians were within short rifle range of the train, the cavalrymen dropped upon their knees, and taking deliberate aim, poured a volley from their Spencer carbines into the ranks of the savages, which seemed to put a sudden check upon the ardor of their movements and forced them to wheel off to the right. Several of the warriors were seen to reel in their saddles, while the ponies of others were brought down or wounded by the effectual fire of the cavalrymen.
Those of the savages who were shot from their saddles were scarcely permitted to fall to the ground before a score or more of their comrades dashed to their rescue and bore their bodies beyond the possible reach of our men. This is in accordance with the Indian custom in battle. They will risk the lives of a dozen of their best warriors to prevent the body of any one of their number from falling into the white man's possession. The reason for this is the belief, which generally prevails among all the tribes, that if a warrior loses his scalp he forfeits his hope of ever reaching the happy hunting-ground.
As the Indians were being driven back by the well-directed volley of the cavalrymen, the latter, overjoyed at their first success, became reassured and sent up a cheer of exultation, while Comstock, who had not been idle in the fight, called out to the retreating Indians in their native tongue, taunting them with their unsuccessful assault.
The Indians withdrew to a point beyond the range of our carbines, and there seemed to engage in a parley. Comstock, who had closely watched every movement, remarked that "There's no sich good luck for us as to think them Injuns mean to give it up so. Six hundred red devils ain't agoin' to let fifty men stop them from gettin' at the coffee and sugar that is in these wagons. And they ain't agoin' to be satisfied until they get some of our scalps to pay for the bucks we popped out of their saddles a bit ago."
It was probable that the Indians were satisfied that they could not dash through the train and stampede the animals. Their recent attempt had convinced them that some other method of attack must be resorted to. Nothing but their greater superiority in numbers had induced them to risk so much in a charge.
The officers passed along the line of skirmishers-for this in reality was all their line consisted of-and cautioned the men against wasting their ammunition. It was yet early in the afternoon, and should the conflict be prolonged until night, there was great danger of exhausting the supply of ammunition. The Indians seemed to have thought of this, and the change in their method of attack encouraged such a result.
But little time was spent at the parley. Again the entire band of warriors, except those already disabled, prepared to renew the attack and advanced as before-this time, however, with greater caution, evidently desiring to avoid a reception similar to the first. When sufficiently near to the troops the Indians developed their new plan of attack. It was not to advance en masse, as before, but to fight as individuals, each warrior selecting his own time and method of attack. This is the habitual manner of fighting among all Indians of the Plains, and is termed "circling." First the chiefs led off, followed at regular intervals by the warriors, until the entire six or seven hundred were to be seen riding in single file as rapidly as their fleet-footed ponies could carry them. Preserving this order and keeping up their savage chorus of yells, war-whoops, and taunting epithets, this long line of mounted barbarians was guided in such manner as to envelop the train and escort, and make the latter appear like a small circle within a larger one.
The Indians gradually contracted their circle, although maintaining the full speed of their ponies, until sufficiently close to open fire upon the soldiers. At first the shots were scattering and wide of their mark; but, emboldened by the silence of their few but determined opponents, they rode nearer and fought with greater impetuosity. Forced now to defend themselves to the uttermost, the cavalrymen opened fire from their carbines with most gratifying results. The Indians, however, moving at such a rapid gait and in single file, presented a most uncertain target. To add to this uncertainty the savages availed themselves of their superior-almost marvellous- powers of horsemanship. Throwing themselves upon the sides of their well-trained ponies, they left no part of their persons exposed to the aim of the troopers except the head and one foot, and in this posture they were able to aim the weapons either over or under the necks of their ponies, thus using the bodies of the latter as an effective shield against the bullets of their adversaries.
At no time were the Indians able to force the train and its escort to come to a halt. The march was continued at an uninterrupted gait. This successful defense against the Indians was in a great measure due to the presence of the wagons, which, arranged in the order described) formed a complete barrier to the charges and assaults of the savages; and as a last resort the wagons could have been halted and used as a breastwork, behind which the cavalry, dismounted, would have been almost invincible against their more numerous enemies. There is nothing an Indian dislikes more in warfare than to attack a foe, however weak, behind breast-works of any kind. Any contrivance which is an obstacle to his pony is a most serious obstacle to the warrior.
The attack of the Indians, aggravated by their losses in warriors and ponies, as many of the latter had been shot down, was continued without cessation for three hours. The supply of ammunition of the cavalry was running low. The "fourth troopers," who had remained in charge of the led horses between the two columns of wagons, were now replaced from the skirmishers, and the former were added to the list of active combatants. If the Indians should maintain the fight much longer, there was serious ground for apprehension regarding the limited supply of ammunition.
If only night or reinforcements would come! was the prayerful hope of those who contended so gallantly against such heavy odds. Night was still too far off to promise much encouragement; while as to reinforcements, their coming would be purely accidental-at least so argued those most interested in their arrival. Yet reinforcements were at that moment striving to reach them. Comrades were in the saddle and spurring forward to their relief. The Indians, although apparently turning all their attention to the little band inside, had omitted no precaution to guard against interference from outside parties. In this instance, perhaps, they were more than ordinarily watchful, and had posted some of their keen-eyed warriors on the high line of bluffs which ran almost parallel to the trail over which the combatants moved. From these bluffs not only a good view of the fight could be obtained, but the country for miles in either direction was spread out beneath them; and enabled the scouts to discern the approach of any hostile party which might be advancing. Fortunate for the savages that this precaution had not been neglected, or the contest in which they were engaged might have become one of more equal numbers. To the careless eye nothing could have been seen to excite suspicion. But the warriors on the lookout were not long in discovering something which occasioned them no little anxiety. Dismounting from their ponies and concealing the latter in a ravine, they prepared to investigate more fully the cause of their alarm.
That which they saw was as yet but a faint dark line on the surface of the plain, almost against the horizon. So faint was it that no one but an Indian or practised frontiersman would have observed it. It was fully ten miles from them and directly in their line of march. The ordinary observer would have pronounced it a break or irregularity in the ground, or perhaps the shadow of a cloud, and its apparent permanency of location would have dispelled any fear as to its dangerous character. But was it stationary? Apparently, yes. The Indians discovered otherwise. By close watching, the long faint line could be seen moving along, as if creeping stealthily upon an unconscious foe. Slowly it assumed a more definite shape, until what appeared to be a mere stationary dark line drawn upon the green surface of the plain developed itself to the searching eyes of the red man into a column of cavalry moving at a rapid gait toward the very point they were then occupying.
Convinced of this fact, one of the scouts leaped upon his pony and flew with almost the speed of the wind to impart this knowledge to the chiefs in command on the plain below. True, the approaching cavalry, being still several miles distant, could not arrive for nearly two hours; but the question to be considered by the Indians was, whether it would be prudent for them to continue their attack on the train-their ponies already becoming exhausted by the three hours' hard riding given them-until the arrival of the fresh detachment of the enemy, whose horses might be in condition favorable to a rapid pursuit, and thereby enable them to overtake those of the Indians whose ponies were exhausted. Unwilling to incur this new risk, and seeing no prospect of overcoming their present adversaries by a sudden or combined dash, the chiefs decided to withdraw from the attack and make their escape while the advantage was yet in their favor. The surprise of the cavalrymen may be imagined at seeing the Indians, after pouring a shower of bullets and arrows into the train, withdraw to the bluffs, and immediately after continue their retreat until lost to view.
This victory for the troopers, although so unexpected, was none the less welcome. The Indians contrived to carry away with them their killed and wounded. Five of their bravest warriors were known to have been sent to the happy hunting-ground, while the list of their wounded was much larger. After the Indians had withdrawn and left the cavalrymen masters of the field, our wounded, of whom there were comparatively few, received every possible care and attention. Those of the detachment who had escaped unharmed were busily engaged in exchanging congratulations and relating incidents of the fight.
In this manner nearly an hour had been whiled away when far in the distance, in their immediate front, fresh cause for anxiety was discovered. At first the general opinion was that it was the Indians again, determined to contest their progress. Field-glasses were again called into requisition, and revealed not Indians, but the familiar blue blouses of the cavalry. Never was the sight more welcome. The next moment Colonel Cooke, with Comstock and a few troopers, applied spurs to their horses and were soon clashing forward to meet their comrades.
The approaching party was none other than Colonel West's detachment, hastening to the relief of the train and its gallant little escort. A few words explained all, and told the heroes of the recent fight how it happened that reinforcements were sent to their assistance; and then was explained why the Indians had so suddenly concluded to abandon their attack and seek safety in quietly withdrawing from the field.