ON the morning of the 28th the train with its escort returned to the main camp on the Republican. All were proud of the conduct of those detachments of the command which had been brought into actual conflict with the Indians. The heroes of the late fights were congratulated heartily upon their good luck, while their comrades who had unavoidably remained in camp consoled themselves with the hope that the next opportunity might be theirs.
The despatches brought by Major Elliot from General Sherman directed me to continue my march, as had been suggested, up the North Republican, then strike northward and reach the Platte again at some point west of Fort Sedgwick, near Riverside Station. This program was carried out. Leaving our camp on the Republican, we marched up the north fork of that river about sixty miles, then turned nearly due north, and marched for the valley of the Platte.
The only incident connected with this march was the painful journey under a burning July sun of sixty-five miles, without a drop of water for our horses or draft animals. This march was necessarily effected in one day, and produced untold suffering among the poor dumb brutes. Many of the dogs accompanying the command died from thirst and exhaustion. When the sun went down we were still many miles from the Platte. The moon, which was nearly full at the time, lighted us on our weary way for some time; but even this was only an aggravation, as it enabled us from the high bluffs bordering the Platte Valley to see the river flowing beneath us, yet many miles beyond our reach.
Taking Lieutenant Moylan, Dr. Coates, and one attendant with me and leaving the command under temporary charge of Major Elliot, I pushed on, intending after arriving at the river to select as good camping ground as the darkness and circumstances would permit. We then imagined ourselves within four or five miles of the river, so near did it appear to us. Mile after mile was traversed by our tired horses, yet we apparently arrived no nearer our journey's end. At last, at about eleven o'clock, and after having ridden at a brisk rate for nearly fifteen miles we reached the river bank. Our first act was to improve the opportunity to quench our thirst and that of our horses.
Considering the lateness of the hour and the distance we had ridden since leaving the command, it was idle to expect the latter to reach the river before daylight. Nothing was left to us but to bivouac for the night. This we did by selecting a beautiful piece of sward on the river bank for our couch, and taking our saddle blankets for covering and our saddles for pillows. Each of us attached his horse by the halter-strap to the hilt of his saber, then forced the saber firmly into the ground. Both horses and riders were weary as well as hungry. At first the horses grazed upon the fresh green pasture which grew luxuriantly on the river hank, but fatigue, more powerful than hunger, soon claimed the mastery and in a few minutes our little group, horses and men, were wrapped in the sweetest of slumber. Had we known that the Indians were then engaged in murdering men within a few minutes' ride of where we slept, and that when we awakened in the morning it would be to still find ourselves away from the command, our sleep would not have been so undisturbed.
Daylight was beginning to make its appearance in the east when our little party of slumbering troopers began to arouse themselves. Those unfortunate persons who have always been accustomed to the easy comforts of civilization, and who have never known what real fatigue or hunger is, cannot realize or appreciate the blissful luxury of a sleep which follows a day's ride in the saddle of half a hundred miles or more.
Being the first to awake, I rose to a sitting posture and took a hasty survey of our situation. Within a few feet of us flowed the Platte River. Our group, horses and men, presented an interesting subject for a painter. To my surprise I discovered that a heavy shower of rain had fallen during the night, but so deep had been our slumber that even the rain had failed to disturb us. Each one of the party had spread his saddle blanket on the ground to serve as his couch, while for covering we had called into requisition the india-rubber poncho or rubber blanket which invariably forms an important part of the Plainsman's outfit. The rain, without awakening any of the party, had aroused them sufficiently to cause each one to pull his rubber blanket over his face and thus protected he continued his repose. The appearance presented by this somber-looking group of sleepers strongly reminded me of scenes during the war when, after a battle, the bodies of the slain had been collected for burial.
But this was no time to indulge in idle reveries. Arousing my comrades, we set about discovering the circumstances of our situation. First, the duties of a hasty toilet were attended to. Nothing, however, could be more simple. As we had slept in our clothes, top boots and all, we had so much less to attend to. The river flowing at our feet afforded a lavatory which, if not complete in its appointments, was sufficiently grand in its extent to satisfy every want.
It was now becoming sufficiently light to enable us to see indistinctly for almost a mile in either direction, yet our eyes failed to reveal to us any evidence of the presence of the command. Here was fresh cause for anxiety, not only as to our own situation, but as to the whereabouts of the troops. Saddling up our horses, each person acting as his own groom, we awaited the clearing away of the morning mist to seek the main body. We had not long to wait. The light was soon sufficient to enable us to scan the country with our field-glasses in all directions. Much to our joy we discovered the bivouac of the troops about three miles down the river. A brisk gallop soon placed us where we desired to be and a few words explained how, in the darkness, the column had failed to follow us, but instead had headed for the river at a point below us, a portion not reaching the bank until near morning.
Breakfast disposed of, the next question was to ascertain our exact location and distance from the nearest telegraph station. Fortunately Riverside Station was near our camp, and from there we ascertained that we were then about fifty miles west of Fort Sedgwick. The party obtaining this information also learned that the Indians had attacked the nearest stage station west of camp the preceding evening and killed three men. This station was only a few minutes' ride from the point on the river bank where myself and comrades had passed the night in such fancied security.
Believing that General Sherman must have sent later instructions for me to Fort Sedgwick than those last received from him, I sent a telegram to the officer in command at the fort, making inquiry to that effect. To my surprise I received a despatch saying that the day after the departure of Major Elliot and his detachment from Fort Sedgwick with despatches, of which mention has been previously made, a second detachment of equal strength, viz., ten troopers of the Second United States Cavalry, under command of Lieutenant Kidder and guided by a famous Sioux chief Red Bead, had left Fort Sedgwick with important despatches for me from General Sherman, and that Lieutenant Kidder had been directed to proceed to my camp near the forks of the Republican, and failing to find me there he was to follow rapidly on my trail until he should overtake my command. I immediately telegraphed to Fort Sedgwick that nothing had been seen or heard of Lieutenant Kidder's detachment, and requested a copy of the despatches borne by him to be sent me by telegraph. This was done; the instructions of General Sherman were for me to march my command, as was at first contemplated, across the country from the Platte to the Smoky Hill River, striking the latter at Fort Wallace. Owing to the low state of my supplies, I determined to set out for Fort Wallace at daylight next morning.
Great anxiety prevailed throughout the command concerning Lieutenant Kidder and his party. True, he had precisely the same number of men that composed Major Elliot's detachment when the latter went upon a like mission, but the circumstances which would govern in the one case had changed when applied to the other. Major Elliot, an officer of experience and good judgment, had fixed the strength of his escort and performed the journey before it was positively known that the Indians in that section had entered upon the war path. Had the attack on the commands of Hamilton, Robbins, and Cooke been made prior to Elliot's departure, the latter would have taken not less than fifty troopers as escort.
After an informal interchange of opinions between the officers of my command regarding the whereabouts of Lieutenant Kidder and party, we endeavored to satisfy our selves with the following explanation. Using the capital letter Y for illustration, let us locate Fort Sedgwick, from which post Lieutenant Kidder was sent with despatches, at the right upper point of the letter. The camp of my command at the forks of the Republican would be at the junction of the three branches of the letter. Fort Wallace relatively would be at the lower termination, and the point on the Platte at which my command was located the morning referred to would be at the upper termination of the left branch of the letter. Robbins and Cooke, in going with the train to Wallace for supplies, had passed and returned over the lower branch. After their return and that of Major Elliot and his party my entire command resumed the march for the Platte. We moved for two or three miles out on the heavy wagon trail of Robbins and Cooke, then suddenly changed our direction to the right. It was supposed that Kidder and his party arrived at our deserted camp at the forks of the Republican about nightfall, but finding us gone had determined to avail themselves of the moonlit night and over take us before we should break camp next morning. Riding rapidly in the dim light of evening, they had failed to observe the point at which we had diverged from the plainer trail of Robbins and Cooke, and instead of following our trail had continued on the former in the direction of Fort Wallace. Such seemed to be a plausible if not the only solution capable of being given.
Anxiety for the fate of Kidder and his party was one of the reasons impelling me to set out promptly on my return. From our camp at the forks of the Republican to Fort Wallace was about eighty miles-but eighty miles of the most dangerous country infested by Indians. Remembering the terrible contest in which the command of Robbins and Cooke had been engaged on this very route within a few days, and knowing that the Indians would in all probability maintain a strict watch over the trail to surprise any small party which might venture over it, I felt in the highest degree solicitous for the safety of Lieutenant Kidder and party. Even if he succeeded in reaching Fort Wallace unmolested there was reason to apprehend that, impressed with the importance of delivering his despatches promptly, he would set out on his return at once and endeavor to find my command.
Let us leave him and his detachment for a brief interval, and return to events which were more immediately connected with my command, and which bear a somewhat tragic as well as personal interest.
In a previous chapter reference has been made to the state of dissatisfaction which had made its appearance among the enlisted men. This state of feeling had been principally superinduced by inferior and insufficient rations, a fault for which no one connected with the troops in the field was responsible, but which was chargeable to persons far removed from the theater of our movements, persons connected with the supply departments of the army. Added to this internal source of disquiet, we were then on the main line of overland travel to some of our most valuable and lately discovered mining regions. The opportunity to obtain marvellous wages as miners and the prospect of amassing sudden wealth proved a temptation sufficiently strong to make many of the men forget their sworn obligations to their government and their duties as soldiers. Forgetting for the moment that the command to which they belonged was actually engaged in war and was in a country infested with armed bodies of the enemy, and that the legal penalty of desertion under such circumstances was death, many of the men formed a combination to desert their colors and escape to the mines.
The first intimation received by any person in authority of the existence of this plot was on the morning fixed for our departure from the Platte. Orders had been issued the previous evening for the command to march at daylight. Upwards of forty men were reported as having deserted during the night. There was no time to send parties in pursuit, or the capture and return of a portion of them might have been effected.
The command marched southward at day light. At noon, having marched fifteen miles, we halted to rest and graze the horses for one hour. The men believed that the halt was made for the remainder of the day, and here a plan was perfected among the disaffected by which upwards of one third of the effective strength of the command was to seize their horses and arms during the night and escape to the mountains. Had the conspirators succeeded in putting this plan into execution it would have been difficult to say how serious the consequences might be, or whether enough true men would remain to render the march to Fort Wallace practicable. Fortunately it was decided to continue the march some fifteen miles farther before night. The necessary orders were given and everything was being repacked for the march when attention was called to thirteen soldiers who were then to be seen rapidly leaving camp in the direction from which we had marched. Seven of these were mounted and were moving off at a rapid gallop; the remaining six were dismounted, not having been so fortunate as their fellows in procuring horses. The entire party were still within sound of the bugle, but no orders by bugle note or otherwise served to check or diminish their flight. The boldness of this attempt at desertion took every one by surprise. Such an occurrence as enlisted men deserting in broad daylight and under the immediate eyes of their officers had never been heard of. With the exception of the horses of the guard and a few belonging to the officers, all others were still grazing and unsaddled. The officer of the guard was directed to mount his command promptly, and if possible over take the deserters. At the same time those of the officers whose horses were in readiness were also directed to join in the pursuit and leave no effort untried to prevent the escape of a single malcontent. In giving each party sent in pursuit instructions, there was no limit fixed to the measures which they were authorized to adopt in executing their orders. This, unfortunately, was an emergency which involved the safety of the entire command, and required treatment of the most summary character.
It was found impossible to overtake that portion of the party which was mounted, as it was afterwards learned that they had selected seven of the fleetest horses in the command. Those on foot, when discovering themselves pursued, increased their speed, but a chase of a couple of miles brought the pursuers within hailing distance.
Major Elliot, the senior officer participating in the pursuit, called out to the deserters to halt and surrender. This command was several times repeated, but without effect. Finally, seeing the hopelessness of further flight, the deserters came to bay, and to Major Elliot's renewed demand to throw down their arms and surrender, the ring-leader drew up his carbine to fire upon his pursuers. This was the signal for the latter to open fire, which they did successfully, bringing down three of the deserters, although, two of them were worse frightened than hurt.
Rejoining the command with their six captive deserters, the pursuing party reported their inability to overtake those who had deserted on horseback. The march was resumed and continued until near nightfall, by which time we had placed thirty miles between us and our last camp on the Platte. While on the march during the day a trusty sergeant, one who had served as a soldier long and faithfully, imparted the first information which could be relied upon as to the plot which had been formed by the malcontents to desert in a body. The following night had been selected as the time for making the attempt. The best horses and arms in the command were to be seized and taken away. I believed that the summary action adopted during the day would intimidate any who might still be contemplating desertion, and was confident that another day's march would place us so far in a hostile and dangerous country that the risk of encountering war parties of Indians would of itself serve to deter any but large numbers from at tempting to make their way back to the settlements. To bridge the following night in safety was the next problem. While there was undoubtedly a large proportion of the men who could be fully relied upon to remain true to their obligations and to render any support to their officers which might be demanded, yet the great difficulty at this time, owing to the sudden development of the plot, was to determine who could be trusted.
This difficulty was solved by placing every officer in the command on guard during the entire night. The men were assembled as usual for roll-call at tattoo, and then notified that every man must be in his tent at the signal "taps," which would be sounded half an hour later; that their company officers, fully armed, would walk the company streets during the entire night, and any man appearing outside the limits of his tent between the hours of taps and reveille would do so at the risk of being fired upon after being once hailed.
The night passed without disturbance, and daylight found us in the saddle and pursuing our line of march toward Fort Wallace. It is proper to here record the fact that from that date onward desertion from that command during the continuance of the expedition was never attempted. It may become necessary in order to perfect the record, borrowing a term from the War Department, to refer in a subsequent chapter to certain personal and official events which resulted partially from the foregoing occurrences.
Let us now turn our attention to Lieutenant Kidder and his detachment. The third night after leaving the Platte my command encamped in the vicinity of our former camp near the forks of the Republican. So far nothing had been learned which would enable us to form any conclusion regarding the route taken by Kidder. Comstock, the guide, was frequently appealed to for an opinion which, from his great experience on the Plains, might give us some encouragement regarding Kidder's safety. But he was too cautious and careful a man, both in word and deed, to excite hopes which his reasoning could not justify. When thus appealed to he would usually give an ominous shake of the head and avoid a direct answer.
On the evening just referred to, the officers and Comstock were grouped near headquarters discussing the subject which was then uppermost in the mind of every one in camp. Comstock had been quietly listening to the various theories and surmises advanced by different members of the group, but was finally pressed to state his ideas as to Kidder's chances of escaping harm.
"Well, gentlemen," emphasizing the last syllable as was his manner) "before a man kin form any ijee as to how this thing is likely to end, thar are several things he ort to be acquainted with. For instance, now, no man need tell me any p'ints about Injuns. Ef I know anything, it's Injuns. I know jest how they'll do anything and when they'll take to do it; but that don't settle the question, and I'll tell you why. Ef I knowed this young lootenint-I mean Lootenint Kidder-ef I knowed what for sort of a man he is, I could tell you mighty near to a sartainty all you want to know; for you see Injun huntin' and Injun fightin' is a trade all by itself, and like any other bizness a man has to know what he's about, or ef he don't lie can't make a livin' at it. I have lots uv confidence in the fightin' sense of Red Bead the Sioux chief, who is guidin' the lootenint and his men, and ef that Injun kin have his own way thar is a fair show for his guidin' 'em through all right; but as I sed before, there lays the difficulty. Is this lootenint the kind of a man who is willin' to take advice, even ef it does cum from an Injun? My experience with you army folks has allus bin that the youngsters among ye think they know the most, and this is particularly true ef they hev just cum from West P'int. Ef some of them young fellars knowed half as much as they b'lieve they do, you couldn't tell them nothin'. As to rale book-larnin', why I 'spose they've got it all; but the fact uv the matter is, they couldn't tell the difference twixt the trail of a war party and one made by a huntin' party to save their necks. Half uv 'em when they first cum here can't tell a squaw from a buck, just because both ride straddle; but they soon larn. But that's neither here nor thar. I'm told that the lootenint we're talkin' about is a new-comer and that this is his first scout. Ef that be the case it puts a mighty onsartain look on the whole thing, and twixt you and me, gentlemen, he'll be mighty lucky ef he gits through all right. To-morrow we'll strike the Wallace trail and I kin mighty soon tell ef he has gone that way.
But little encouragement was to be derived from these expressions. The morrow would undoubtedly enable us, as Comstock had predicted, to determine whether or not the lieutenant and his party had missed our trail and taken that leading to Fort Wallace.
At daylight our column could have been seen stretching out in the direction of the Wallace trail. A march of a few miles brought us to the point of intersection. Comstock and the Delawares had galloped in advance, and were about concluding a thorough examination of the various tracks to be seen in the trail, when the head of the column overtook them. "Well, what do you find, Comstock?" was my first inquiry. "They've gone toward Fort Wallace, sure, was the reply; and in support of this opinion he added, "The trail shows that twelve American horses, shod all round, have passed at a walk, goin' in the direction of the fort; and when they went by this p'int they were all right, because their horses were movin along easy and there are no pony tracks behind 'em, as wouldn't be the case ef the Injuns had got an eye on em." He then remarked, as if in parenthesis, "It would be astonishn' ef that lootenint and his lay-out gits into the fort without a scrimmage. He may; if he does, it will be a scratch ef ever there was one, and I'll lose my confidence in Injuns."
The opinion expressed by Comstock as to the chances of Lieutenant Kidder and party making their way to the fort across eighty miles of danger unmolested was the concurrent opinion of all the officers. And now that we had discovered their trail, our interest and anxiety became immeasurably increased as to their fate. The latter could not remain in doubt much longer, as two days' marching would take us to the fort. Alas! we were to solve the mystery without waiting so long.
Pursuing our way along the plain, heavy trail made by Robbins and Cooke, and directing Comstock and the Delawares to watch closely that we did not lose that of Kidder and his party, we patiently but hopefully awaited further developments. How many miles we had thus passed over without incident worthy of mention, I do not now recall. The sun was high in the heavens, showing that our day's march was about half completed, when those of us who were riding at the head of the column discovered a strange-looking object lying directly in our path, and more than a mile distant. It was too large for a human being, yet in color and appearance, at that distance, resembled no animal frequenting the Plains with which any of us were familiar. Eager to determine its character, a dozen or more of our party, including Comstock and some of the Delawares, galloped in front.
Before riding the full distance the question was determined. The object seen was the body of a white horse. A closer examination showed that it had been shot within the past few days, while the brand, U.S., proved that it was a government animal. Major Elliot then remembered that while at Fort Sedgwick he had seen one company of cavalry mounted upon white horses. These and other circumstances went far to convince us that this was one of the horses belonging to Lieutenant Kidder's party. In fact there was no room to doubt that this was the case.
Almost the unanimous opinion of the command was that there had been a contest with Indians, and this only the first evidence we should have proving it. When the column reached the point where the slain horse lay, a halt was ordered to enable Comstock and the Indian Scouts to thoroughly examine the surrounding ground to discover, if possible, any additional evidence, such as empty cartridge shells, arrows, or articles of Indian equipment, showing that a fight had taken place. All the horse's equipments, saddle, bridle, etc. had been carried away, but whether by friend or foe could not then be determined.
While the preponderance of circumstances favored the belief that the horse had been killed by Indians there was still room to hope that he had been killed by Kidder's party and the equipments taken away by them; for it frequently happens on a march that a horse will 'be suddenly taken ill and 'be unable for the time being to proceed farther. In such a case, rather than. abandon him alive, with a prospect of his recovering and falling into the hands of the Indians to be employed against us, orders are given to kill him, and this might be the true way of accounting for the one referred to.
The scouts being unable to throw any additional light upon the question, we continued our march, closely observing the ground as we passed along. Comstock noticed that instead of the trail showing that Kidder's party was moving in regular order, as when at first discovered, there were but two or three tracks to be seen in the beaten trail, the rest being found on the grass on either side.
We had marched two miles perhaps from the point where the body of the slain horse had been discovered, when we came upon a second, this one, like the first, having been killed by a bullet, and all of his equipments taken away. Comstock's quick eyes were not long in detecting pony tracks in the vicinity, and we had no longer any but the one frightful solution to offer: Kidder and his party had been discovered by the Indians, probably the same powerful and blood-thirsty hand which had been resisted so gallantly by the men under Robbins and Cooke; and against such overwhelming odds the issue could not be doubtful.
We were then moving over a high and level plateau unbroken either by ravines or divides, and just such a locality as would be usually chosen by the Indians for attacking a party of the strength of Kidder's. The Indians could here ride unobstructed and encircle their victims with a continuous line of armed and painted warriors, while the beleaguered party, from the even character of the surface of the plain, would be unable to find any break or depression from behind which they might make a successful defense. It was probably this relative condition of affairs which had induced Kidder and his doomed comrades to endeavor to push on in the hope of finding ground favorable to their making a stand against their barbarous foes.
The main trail no longer showed the footprints of Kidder's party, but instead Comstock discovered the tracks of shod horses on the grass, with here and there numerous tracks of ponies, all by their appearance proving that both horses and ponies had been moving at full speed. Kidder's party must have trusted their lives temporarily to the speed of their horses-a dangerous venture when contending with Indians. However, this fearful race for life must have been most gallantly contested, because we continued our march several miles farther without discovering any evidence of the savages having gained any advantage. How painfully, almost despairingly exciting must have been this ride for life! A mere handful of brave men struggling to escape the bloody clutches of the hundreds of redvisaged demons, who, mounted on their well-trained war ponies, were straining every nerve and muscle to reek their hands in the life-blood of their victims. It was not death alone that threatened this little band. They were not riding simply to preserve life. They rode, and doubtless prayed as they rode, that they might escape the savage tortures, the worse than death which threatened them. Would that their prayer had been granted!
We began leaving the high plateau and to descend into a valley through which, at the distance of nearly two miles, meandered a small prairie stream known as Beaver Creek. The valley near the banks of this stream was covered with a dense growth of tall wild grass intermingled with clumps of osiers. At the point where the trail crossed the stream we hoped to obtain more definite information regarding Kidder's party and their pursuers, but we were not required to wait so long. When within a mile of the stream I observed several large buzzards floating lazily in circles through the air, and but a short distance to the left of our trail. This, of itself, might not have attracted my attention seriously but for the rank stench which pervaded the atmosphere, reminding one of the horrible sensations experienced upon a battle-field when passing among the decaying bodies of the dead.
As if impelled by one thought Comstock, the Delawares, and half-a-dozen officers detached themselves from the column and separating into squads of one or two instituted a search for the cause of our horrible suspicions. After riding in all directions through the rushes and willows, and when about to relinquish the search as fruitless, one of the Delawares uttered a shout which attracted the attention of the entire command; at the same time he was seen to leap from his horse and assume a stooping posture, as if critically examining some object of interest. Hastening, in common with many others of the party, to his side, a sight met our gaze which even at this remote day makes my very blood curdle. Lying in irregular order, and within a very limited circle, were the mangled bodies of poor Kidder and his party, yet so brutally hacked and disfigured as to be beyond recognition save as human beings.
Every individual of the party had been scalped and his skull broken-the latter done by some weapon, probably a tomahawk-except the Sioux chief Red Bead, whose scalp had simply been removed from his head and then thrown down by his side. This, Comstock informed us, was in accordance with a custom which prohibits an Indian from bearing off the scalp of one of his own tribe. This circumstance, then, told us who the perpetrators of this deed were. They could be none other than the Sioux, led in all probability by Pawnee Killer.
Red Bead, being less disfigured and mutilated than the others, was the only individual capable of being recognized. Even the clothes of all the party had been carried away; some of the bodies were lying in beds of ashes, with partly burned fragments of wood near them, showing that the savages had put some of them to death by the terrible tortures of fire. The sinews of the arms and legs had been cut away, the nose of every man hacked off, and the features otherwise defaced so that it would have been scarcely possible for even a relative to recognize a single one of the unfortunate victims. We could not even distinguish the officer from his men. Each body was pierced by from twenty to fifty arrows, and the arrows were found as the savage demons had left them, bristling in the bodies. While the details of that fearful struggle will probably never be known, telling how long and gallantly this ill-fated little band contended for their lives, yet the surrounding circumstances of ground, empty cartridge shells, and distance from where the attack began, satisfied us that Kidder and his men fought as only brave men fight when the watchword is victory or death.
As the officer, his men, and his no less faithful Indian guide had shared their final dangers together and had met the same dreadful fate at the hands of the same merciless foe, it was but fitting that their remains should be consigned to one common grave. This was accordingly done. A single trench was dug near the spot where they had rendered up their lives upon the altar of duty. Silently, mournfully, their comrades of a brother regiment consigned their mangled remains to mother earth, there to rest undisturbed, as we supposed, until the great day of final review. But this was not to be so; while the closest scrutiny on our part had been insufficient to enable us to detect the slightest evidence which would aid us or others in identifying the body of Lieutenant Kidder or any of his men, it will be seen hereafter how the marks of a mother's thoughtful affection were to be the means of identifying the remains of her murdered son, even though months had elapsed after his untimely death.
On the evening of the day following that upon which we had consigned the remains of Lieutenant Kidder and his party to their humble resting place, the command reached Fort Wallace on the Smoky Hill route. From the occupants of the fort we learned much that was interesting regarding events which had transpired during our isolation from all points of communication. The Indians had attacked the fort twice within the past few days, in both of which engagements men were killed on each side. The fighting on our side was principally under the command of Colonel Barnitz, whose forces were composed of detachments of the Seventh Cavalry. The fighting occurred on the level plain near the fort, where, owing to the favorable character of the ground, the Indians had ample opportunity to display their prowess both as warriors and horsemen.
One incident of the fight was related, which, its correctness being vouched for, is worthy of being here repeated. Both parties were mounted and the fighting consisted principally of charges and countercharges, the combatants of both sides becoming at times mingled with each other. During one of these attacks a bugler boy belonging to the cavalry was shot from his horse; before any of his comrades could reach him a powerfully built warrior, superbly mounted on a war pony was seen to dash at full speed toward the spot where the dying bugler lay. Scarcely checking the speed of his pony, who seemed to divine his rider's wishes, the warrior grasped the pony's mane with one hand and, stooping low as he neared the bugler, seized the latter with the other hand and lifted him from the earth, placing him across his pony in front of him. Still maintaining the full speed of his pony, he was seen to retain the body of the bugler but a moment, then cast it to the earth. The Indians being routed soon after and driven from the field, our troops, many of whom had witnessed the strange and daring action of the warrior, recovered possession of the dead, when the mystery became solved. The bugler had been scalped.
Our arrival at Fort Wallace was most welcome as well as opportune. The Indians had become so active and numerous that all travel over the Smoky Hill route had ceased; stages had been taken off the route, and many of the stage stations had been abandoned by the employees, the latter fearing a repetition of the Lookout Station massacre. No despatches or mail had been received at the fort for a considerable period, so that the occupants might well have been considered as undergoing a state of siege. Added to these embarrassments, which were partly unavoidable, an additional and under the circumstances a more frightful danger stared the troops in the face. We were over two hundred miles from the terminus of the railroad over which our supplies were drawn and a still greater distance from the main depots of supplies. It was found that the reserve of stores at the post was well-nigh exhausted, and the commanding officer reported that he knew of no fresh supplies being on the way. It is difficult to account for such a condition of affairs. Some one must surely have been at fault; but it is not important here to determine who or where the parties were The officer commanding the troops in my absence reported officially to headquarters that the bulk of the provisions issued to his men consisted of rotten bacon and hard bread that was no better. Cholera made its appearance among the men, and deaths occurred daily. The same officer, in officially commenting upon the character of the provisions issued to the troops, added: "The low state of vitality in the men, resulting from the long confinement to this scanty and unwholesome food, will, I think, account for the great mortality among the cholera cases;... and I believe that unless we can obtain a more abundant and better supply of rations than we have had, it will be impossible to check this fearful epidemic."
I decided to select upward of a hundred of the best mounted men in my command and with this force open a way through to Fort Harker, a distance of two hundred miles where I expected to obtain abundant supplies; from which point the latter could be conducted, well protected against Indians by my detachment, back to Fort Wallace. Owing to the severe marching of the past few weeks, the horses of the command were generally in an unfit condition for further service without rest. So that after selecting upward of a hundred of the best, the remainder might for the time be regarded as unserviceable; such they were in fact. There was no idea or probability that the portion of the command to remain in camp near Fort Wallace would be called upon to do anything but rest and recuperate from their late marches. it was certainly not expected that they would be molested or called out by Indians; nor were they. Regarding the duties to be performed by the picked detachment as being by far the most important, B chose to accompany it.
The immediate command of the detachment was given to Captain Hamilton whom mention has been previously made. He was assisted by two other officers. My intention was to push through from Fort Wallace to Fort Hays, a distance of about one hundred and fifty miles, as rapidly as was practicable; then, being beyond the most dangerous portion of the route, to make the remainder of the march to Fort Harker with half a dozen troopers, while Captain Hamilton with his command should follow leisurely. Under this arrangement I hoped to have a train loaded with supplies at Harker and in readiness to start for Fort Wallace by the time Captain Hamilton should arrive.
Leaving Fort Wallace about sunset on the evening of the 15th of July, we began our ride eastward, following the line of the overland stage route. At that date the Kansas Pacific Railway was only completed as far westward as Fort Harker. Between Forts Wallace and Harker we expected to find the stations of the overland stage company, at intervals of from ten to fifteen miles. In time of peace these stations are generally occupied by half a dozen employees of the route, embracing the stablemen and relays of drivers. They were well supplied with firearms and ammunition, and every facility for defending themselves against Indians. The stables were also the quarters for the men. They were usually built of stone, and one would naturally think that against Indians no better defensive work would be required. Yet such was not the case. The hay and other combustible material usually contained in them enabled the savages, by shooting prepared arrows, to easily set them on fire, and thus drive the occupants out to the open plain, where their fate would soon be settled.
To guard against such an emergency each station was ordinarily provided with what on the Plains is termed a dug-out. The name implies the character and description of the work. The dugout was commonly located but a few yards from one of the corners of the stable, and was prepared by excavating the earth so as to form an opening not unlike a cellar, which was usually about four feet in depth, and sufficiently roomy to accommodate at close quarters half a dozen persons. This opening was then covered with earth and loopholed on all sides at a height of a few inches above the original level of the ground. The earth was thrown on top until the dug-out resembled an ordinary mound of earth, some four or five feet in height. To the outside observer, no means apparently were provided for egress or ingress; yet such was not the case. If the entrance had been made above ground, rendering it necessary for the defenders to pass from the stable unprotected to their citadel, the Indians would have posted themselves accordingly and picked them off one by one as they should emerge from the stable. To provide against this danger, an underground passage was constructed in each case, leading from the dug-out to the interior of the stable. With these arrangements for defense a few determined men could withstand the attacks of an entire tribe of savages. The recent depredations of the Indians had so demoralized the men at the various stations that many of the latter were found deserted, their former occupants having joined their forces with those of other stations. The Indians generally burned the deserted stations.
Marching by night was found to be attended with some disadvantages. The men located at the stations which were still occupied, having no notice of our coming, and having seen no human beings for several days except the war parties of savages who had attacked them from time to time, were in a chronic state of alarm, and held themselves in readiness for defense at a moment's notice. The consequence was that as we pursued our way in the stillness of the night, and were not familiar with the location of the various stations, we generally rode into close proximity before discovering them. The station men, however, were generally on the alert, and as they did not wait to challenge us or be challenged, but took it for granted that we were Indians, our first greeting would be a bullet whistling over our heads, sometimes followed by a perfect volley from the dug-out.
In such a case nothing was left for us to do but to withdraw the column to a place of security, and then for one of our number to creep up stealthily in the darkness to a point within hailing distance. Even this was an undertaking attended by no little danger, as by this time the little garrison of the dug-out would be thoroughly awake and every man at his post, his finger on the trigger of his trusty rifle, and straining both eye and ear to discover the approach of the hateful redskins, who alone were believed to be the cause of all this ill-timed disturbance of their slumbers. Huddled together as they necessarily would be in the contracted limits of their subterranean citadel, and all sounds from without being deadened and rendered indistinct by the heavy roof of earth and the few apertures leading to the inside, it is not strange that under the circumstances it would be difficult for the occupants to distinguish between the voice of an Indian and that of a white man. Such was in fact the case, and no sooner would the officer sent forward for that purpose hail the little garrison and endeavor to explain who we were, than, guided by the first sound of his voice, they would respond promptly with their rifles.
In some instances we were in this manner put to considerable delay, and although this was at times most provoking it was not a little amusing to hear the description given by the party sent forward of how closely he hugged the ground when endeavoring to establish friendly relations with the stage people. Finally, when successful and in conversation with the latter, we inquired why they did not recognize us from the fact that we hailed them in unbroken English. They replied that the Indians resorted to so many tricks that they had determined not to be caught even by that one. They were some what justified in this idea, as we knew that among the Indians who were then on the war-path there was at least one full blood who had been educated within the limits of civilization, graduated at a popular institution of learning, and only exchanged his civilized mode of dress for the paint, blanket, and feathers of savage life after he had reached the years of manhood. Almost at every station we received intelligence of Indians having been seen in the vicinity within a few days of our arrival.
We felt satisfied they were watching our movements, although we saw no fresh signs of Indians until we arrived near Downer's Station. Here, while stopping to rest our horses for a few minutes, a small party of our men, who had without authority halted some distance behind, came dashing into our midst and reported that twenty-five or thirty Indians had attacked them some five or six miles in rear, and had killed two of their number. As there was a detachment of infantry guarding the station, and time being important, we pushed on toward our destination. The two men reported killed were left to be buried by the troops on duty at the station. Frequent halts and brief rests were made along our line of march; occasionally we would halt long enough to indulge in a few hour's sleep. About three o'clock on the morning of the 18th we reached Fort Hays, having marched about one hundred and fifty miles in fifty-five hours, including all halts.
Some may regard this as a rapid rate of marching; in fact, a few officers of the army who themselves have made many and long marches (principally in ambulances and railroad cars) are of the same opinion. let was far above the usual rate of a leisurely made march, but during the same season and with a larger command I marched sixty miles in fifteen hours. This was officially reported, but occasioned no remark. During the war, and at the time the enemy's cavalry under General J. E. B. Stuart made its famous raid around the Army of the Potomac in Maryland, a portion of our cavalry, accompanied by horse artillery, in attempting to overtake them marched over ninety miles in twenty-four hours. A year subsequent to the events narrated in this chapter I marched a small detachment eighty miles in seventeen hours, every horse accompanying the detachment completing the march in as fresh condition apparently as when the march began.
Leaving Hamilton and his command to rest one day at Hays and then to follow on leisurely to Fort Harker, I continued my ride to the latter post, accompanied by Colonels Cooke and Custer and two troopers. We reached Fort Harker at two o'clock that night, having made the ride of sixty miles without change of animals in less than twelve hours. As this was the first telegraph station, I immediately sent telegrams to headquarters and to Fort Sedgwick announcing the fate of Kidder and his party. General A. J. Smith, who was in command of this military district, had his headquarters at Harker. I at once reported to him in person, and acquainted him with every incident worthy of mention which had occurred in connection with my command since leaving him weeks before. Arrangements were made for the arrival of Hamilton's party and for a train containing supplies to be sent back under their escort. Having made my report to General Smith as my next superior officer, and there being no occasion for my presence until the train and escort should be in readiness to return, I applied for and received authority to visit Fort Riley, about ninety miles east of Harker by rail, where my family was then located.