WHEN, in the spring of 1868, the time arrived for the troops to leave their winter quarters and march westward to the Plains, the command with which I had been associated during the preceding year left its station at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and marched westward about three hundred miles, there to engage in operations against the Indians. While they, under command of General Sully, were attempting to kill Indians, I was studying the problem of how to kill time in the most agreeable manner. My campaign was a decided success. I established my base of operations in a most beautiful little town on the western shores of Lake Erie, from which I projected various hunting, fishing, and boating expeditions. With abundance of friends and companions, and ample success, time passed pleasantly enough; yet withal there was a constant longing to be with my comrades in arms in the far West, even while aware of the fact that their campaign was not resulting in any material advantage. I had no reason to believe that I would be permitted to rejoin them until the following winter. It was on the evening of the 24th of September, and when about to break bread at the house of a friend in the little town referred to that I received the following telegram:
The reception of this despatch was a source of unbounded gratification to me, not only because I saw the opportunity of being actively and usefully employed opened before me, but there were personal considerations inseparable from the proposed manner of my return which in themselves were in the highest degree agreeable; so much so that I felt quite forbearing toward each and every one who, whether intentionally or not, had been a party to my retirement, and was almost disposed to favor them with a copy of the preceding despatch, accompanied by an expression of my hearty thanks for the unintentional favor they had thrown in my way.
Knowing that the application of Generals Sherman and Sheridan and the other officers referred to would meet with a favorable reply from the authorities at Washington, I at once telegraphed to General Sheridan that I would start to join him by the next train, not intending to wait the official order which I knew would be issued by the War Department. The following day found me on a railway train hastening to the Plains as fast as the iron horse could carry me. The expected order from Washington overtook me that day in the shape of an official telegram from the Adjutant General of the Army directing me to proceed at once and report for duty to General Sheridan.
At Fort Leavenworth I halted in my journey long enough to cause my horses to be shipped by rail to Fort Hays. Nor must I omit two other faithful companions of my subsequent marches and campaigns, named Blucher and Maida, two splendid specimens of the Scotch staghound, who were destined to share the dangers of an Indian campaign and finally meet death in a tragic manner the one by the hand of the savages, the other by an ill-directed bullet from a friendly carbine. Arriving at Fort Hays on the morning of the 30th, I found General Sheridan, who had transferred his headquarters temporarily from Fort Leavenworth to that point in order to be nearer the field of operations and better able to give his personal attention to the conduct of the coming campaign. My regiment was at that time on or near the Arkansas River in the vicinity of Fort Dodge, and about three easy marches from Fort Hays.
After remaining at General Sheridan's headquarters one day and receiving his instructions, I set out with a small escort across the country to Fort Dodge to resume command of my regiment. Arriving at Fort Dodge without incident, I found General Sully, who at that time was in command of the district in which my regiment was serving. With the exception of a few detachments, the main body of the regiment was encamped on Bluff Creek, a small tributary of the Arkansas, the camp being some thirty miles southeast from Fort Dodge. Taking with me the detachment at the fort, I proceeded to the main camp, arriving there in the afternoon.
I had scarcely assumed command when a band of Indians dashed close up to our camp and fired upon us. This was getting into active service quite rapidly. I was in the act of taking my seat for dinner, my ride having given me a splendid relish for the repast, when the shouts and firing of the savages informed me that more serious duties were at hand. Every man flew to arms and almost without command rushed to oppose the enemy. Officers and men provided themselves with rifles or carbines, and soon began delivering a deliberate but ineffective fire against the Indians. The latter, as usual, were merely practising their ordinary ruse de guerre, which was to display a very small venturesome force in the expectation of tempting pursuit by an equal or slightly superior force, and, after having led the pursuing force well away from the main body, to surround and destroy it by the aid of overwhelming numbers, previously concealed in a ravine or ambush until the proper moment.
On this occasion the stratagem did not succeed. The Indians, being mounted on their fleetest ponies, would charge in single file past our camp, often riding within easy carbine range of our men, displaying great boldness and unsurpassable horsemanship. The soldiers, unaccustomed to firing at such rapidly moving objects, were rarely able to inflict serious damage upon their enemies. Occasionally a pony would be struck and brought to the ground, but the rider always succeeded in being carried away upon the pony of a comrade. It was interesting to witness their marvellous abilities as horsemen; at the same time one could not but admire the courage they displayed. The ground was level, open, and unobstructed; the troops were formed in an irregular line of skirmishers dismounted, the line extending a distance of perhaps two hundred yards. The Indians had a rendezvous behind a hillock on the right, which prevented them from being seen or disturbed by the soldiers. Starting out singly or by twos and threes the warriors would suddenly leave the cover of the hillock and with war whoops and taunts dash over the plain in a line parallel to that occupied by the soldiers, and within easy carbine range of the latter.
The pony seemed possessed of the designs and wishes of his dusky rider, as he seemed to fly unguided by bridle, rein, or spur. The warrior would fire and load and fire again as often as he was able to do, while dashing along through the shower of leaden bullets fired above, beneath, in front, and behind him by the excited troopers, until finally, when the aim of the latter improved and the leaden messengers whistled uncomfortably close, the warrior would be seen to cast himself over on the opposite side of his pony, until his foot on the back and his face under the neck of the pony were all that could be seen, the rest of his person being completely covered by the body of the pony. This maneuver would frequently deceive the recruits among the soldiers; having fired probably about the time the warrior was seen to disappear, the recruit would shout exultingly and call the attention of his comrades to his lucky shot. The old soldiers, however, were not so easily deceived, and often afterwards would remind their less experienced companion of the terrible fatality of his shots.
After finding that their plan to induce a small party to pursue them did not succeed, the Indians withdrew their forces, and, concealment being no longer necessary, we were enabled to see their full numbers as that portion of them which had hitherto remained hidden behind a bluff rode boldly out on the open plain. Being beyond rifle range, they contented themselves with taunts and gestures of defiance, then rode away. From the officers of the camp I learned that the performance of the Indians which had occupied our attention on this afternoon was of almost daily occurrence, and that the savages, from having been allowed to continue in their course unmolested, had almost reduced the camp to a state of siege; so true had this become that at no hour of the day was it safe for individuals to pass beyond the chain of sentinels which enveloped the immediate limits of the camp.
Before it became known that the Indians were so watchful and daring, many narrow escapes were made, and many laughable although serious incidents occurred-laughable, however, only to those who were not the parties most interested. Two of these serio-comic affairs now recur to me. There was a beautiful clear stream of water, named Bluff Creek, running through camp, which supplied bathing facilities to the officers and men, a privilege which but few allowed to pass unimproved. Whether to avoid the publicity attending localities near camp or to seek a point in the bed of the stream where the water was fresh and undisturbed, or from a motive different from either of these, two of our young officers mounted their horses one day without saddles and rode down the valley of the stream perhaps a mile or more in search of a bathing place. Discovering one to their taste, they dismounted, secured their horses, and after disposing of their apparel on the greensward covering the banks were soon floating and floundering in the water like a pair of young porpoises. How long they had been enjoying this healthful recreation, or how much longer they might have remained, is not necessary to the story. One of them happening to glance toward their horses observed the latter in a state of great trepidation. Hastening from the water to the bank, he discovered the cause of the strange conduct on the part of the horses, which was nothing more nor less than a party of about thirty Indian warriors, mounted, and stealthily making their way toward the bathing party, evidently having their eyes on the latter and intent upon their capture.
Here was a condition of affairs that was at least as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Quickly calling out to his companion, who was still in the water unconscious of approaching danger, the one on shore made haste to unfasten their horses and prepare for flight. Fortunately the Indians, who were now within a few hundred yards of the two officers, were coming from the direction opposite camp, leaving the line of retreat of the officers open. No sooner did the warriors find that their approach was discovered than they put their ponies to their best speed, hoping to capture the officers before the latter could have time to mount and get their horses under headway. The two officers in the meanwhile were far from idle; no flesh brushes or bathing towels were required to restore a healthy circulation, nor was time wasted in an idle attempt to make a toilet. If they had sought their bathing ground from motives of retirement or delicacy, no such sentiments were exhibited now, for, catching up their wardrobe from the ground in one hand and seizing the bridle rein with the other, one leap and they were on their horses' backs and riding toward camp for dear life.
They were not exactly in the condition of Flora McFlimsy with nothing to wear, but to all intents and purposes might as well have been so. Then followed a race which, but for the risk incurred by two of the riders, might well be compared to that of John Gilpin. Both of the officers were experienced horsemen; but what experienced horseman would willingly care to be thrust upon the bare back of a flying steed, minus all apparel, neither boots, breeches, nor saddle, not even the spurs and shirt collar which are said to constitute the full uniform of a Georgian colonel, and when so disposed of to have three or four score of hideously painted and feathered savages, well mounted and near at hand, straining every nerve and urging their fleet-footed war ponies to their highest speed in order that the scalps of the experienced horsemen might be added to the other human trophies which grace their lodges? Truly this was one of the occasions when personal appearance is nothing, and ' "a man's a man for a' that," so at least thought our amateur Mazeppas as they came dashing toward camp, ever and anon casting anxious glances over their shoulders at their pursuers, who, despite every exertion of the former, were surely overhauling their pale-faced brothers.
To the pursued, camp seemed a long way in the distance, while the shouts of the warriors, each time seeming nearer than before, warned them to urge their steeds to their fastest pace. In a few moments the occupants of camp discovered the approach of this strangely appearing party. It was an easy matter to recognize the warriors, but who could name the two who rode at the front? The pursuing warriors, seeing that they were not likely to overtake and capture the two knights of the bath, slackened their pace and sent a volley of arrows after them. A few moments later and the two officers were safe inside the lines, where they lost no time in making their way to their tents to attend to certain matters relating to their toilet which the sudden appearance of their dusky visitors had prevented. It was a long time before they ceased to hear allusions made by their comrades to the cut and style of their riding suit.
The other affair to which I have alluded occurred about the same time, but in a different direction from camp. One of the officers who was commanding a troop concluded one day that it would be safe to grant permission to a part of his command to leave camp for the purpose of hunting buffaloes and obtaining fresh meat for the men. The hunting party, being strong enough to protect itself against almost any ordinary war party of Indians that might present itself, left camp at an early hour in the morning and set out in the direction in which the buffaloes were reported to be. The forenoon passed away, noon came, and still no signs of the return of the hunters. The small hours of the afternoon began to come and go and still no tidings from the hunters, who were expected to return to camp after an absence of two or three hours. The officer to whose troop they belonged, and who was of an exceedingly nervous temperament, began to regret having accorded them permission to leave camp, knowing that Indians had been seen in the vicinity.
The hunting party had gone by a route across the open country which carried them up a long but very gradual ascent of perhaps two miles, beyond which, on the level plain, the buffaloes were supposed to be herding in large numbers. Anxious to learn something concerning the whereabouts of his men and believing he could obtain a view of the country beyond which might prove satisfactory, the officer, whose suspense was constantly increasing, determined to mount his horse and ride to the summit of the ridge beyond which his men had disappeared in the morning. Taking no escort with him, he leisurely rode off, guided by the trail made by the hunters. The distance to the crest proved much farther than it had seemed to the eye before starting. A ride of over two miles had to be made before the highest point was reached, but once there the officer felt well repaid for his exertion, for in the dim deceptions of a beautiful mirage he saw what to him was his hunting party leisurely returning toward camp.
Thinking they were still a long distance from him and would not reach him for a considerable time, he did what every prudent cavalryman would have done under similar circumstances-dismounted to allow his horse an opportunity to rest. At the same time he began studying the extended scenery, which from his exalted position lay spread in all directions beneath him. The camp, seen nestling along the banks of the creek at the base of the ridge, appeared as a pleasant relief to the monotony of the view, which otherwise was undisturbed. Having scanned the horizon in all directions, he turned to watch the approach of his men; when, behold! instead of his own trusty troopers returning laden with the fruits of the chase the mirage had disappeared and he saw a dozen well-mounted warriors riding directly toward him at full speed. They were still far enough away to enable him to mount his horse and have more than an even chance to outstrip them in the race to camp. But no time was to be thrown away; the beauties of natural scenery had, for the time at least, lost their attraction. Camp never seemed so inviting before. Heading his horse toward camp and gathering the reins in one hand and holding his revolver in the other, the officer set out to make his escape.
Judgment had to be employed in riding this race, for the distance being fully two miles before a place of safety could be reached, his horse, not being high-bred and accustomed to going such a distance at full speed, might, if forced too rapidly at first, fail before reaching camp. Acting upon this idea, a tight rein was held and as much speed kept in reserve as safety would permit. This enabled the Indians to gain on the officer, but at no time did he feel that he could not elude his pursuers. His principal anxiety was confined to the character of the ground, care being taken to avoid the rough and broken places. A single misstep or a stumble on the part of his horse, and his pursuers would be upon him before he could rise. The sensations he experienced during that flying ride could not have been enviable. Soon the men in camp discerned his situation and seizing their carbines hastened out to his assistance. The Indians were soon driven away and the officer again found himself among his friends. The hunters also made their appearance shortly after, well supplied with game. They had not found the buffaloes as near camp as they had expected, and after finding them were carried by a long pursuit in a different direction from that taken by them in the morning. Hence their delay in returning to camp.
These and similar occurrences, added to the attack made by the Indians on the camp the afternoon I joined, proved that unless we were to consider ourselves as actually besieged and were willing to accept the situation some decisive course must be adopted to punish the Indians for their temerity. No offensive measures had been attempted since the infantry and cavalry forces of General Sully had marched up the hill and then, like the forces of the king of France, had marched down again. The effect of this movement, in which the Indians gained a decided advantage, was to encourage them in their attempts to annoy and disturb the troops, not only by prowling about camp in considerable numbers and rendering it unsafe, as has been seen, to venture beyond the chain of sentinels, but by waylaying and intercepting all parties passing between camp and the base of supplies at Fort Dodge.
Knowing, from my recent interview with General Sheridan that activity was to characterize the future operations of the troops, particularly those of the cavalry, and that the sooner a little activity was exhibited on our part the sooner perhaps might we be freed from the aggressions of the Indians, I returned from the afternoon skirmish to my tent and decided to begin offensive movements that same night, as soon as darkness should conceal the march of the troops. It was reasonable to infer that the war parties which had become so troublesome in the vicinity of camp, and made their appearance almost daily, had a hiding place or rendezvous on some of the many small streams which flowed within a distance of twenty miles of the point occupied by the troops; and it was barely possible that if a simultaneous movement was made by several well-conducted parties with a view of scouting up and down the various streams referred to, the hiding place of the Indians might be discovered and their forays in the future broken up. It was deemed most prudent, and to promise greatest chance of success, to make these movements at night, as during the hours of daylight the Indians, no doubt, kept close watch over everything transpiring in the vicinity of camp, and no scouting party could have taken its departure in daylight unobserved by the watchful eyes of the savages.
Four separate detachments were at once ordered to be in readiness to move immediately after dark. Each detachment numbered about one hundred cavalry, well mounted and well armed. Guides who knew the country well were assigned to each, and each party was commanded and accompanied by zealous and efficient officers. The country was divided into four sections and to each detachment was assigned one of the sections, with orders to thoroughly scout the streams running through it. It was hoped that some one of these parties might, if in no other way, stumble upon a camp-fire or other indication of the rendezvous of the Indians; but subsequent experience only confirmed me in the opinion that Indians seldom, if ever, permit hostile parties to stumble upon them unless the stumblers are the weaker party.
Before proceeding further in my narrative I will introduce to the reader a personage who is destined to appear at different intervals and upon interesting occasions as the campaign proceeds. It is usual on the Plains, and particularly during time of active hostilities, for every detachment of troops to be accompanied by one or more professional scouts or guides. These guides are employed by the government at a rate of compensation far in excess of that paid to the soldiers, some of the most experienced receiving pay about equal to that of a subaltern in the line. They constitute a most interesting as well as useful and necessary portion of our frontier population. Who they are, whence they come or whither they go, their names even, except such as they choose to adopt or which may be given them, are all questions which none but themselves can answer. As their usefulness to the service depends not upon the unravelling of either of these mysteries, but little thought is bestowed upon them. Do you know the country thoroughly, and can you speak any of the Indian languages, constitute the only examination which civil or uncivil service reform demands on the Plains.
If the evidence on these two important points is satisfactory the applicant for a vacancy in the corps of scouts may consider his position as secured, and the door to congenial employment, most often leading to a terrible death, opens before him. They are almost invariably men of very superior judgment or common sense, with education generally better than that of the average frontiersman. Their most striking characteristics are love of adventure, a natural and cultivated knowledge of the country without recourse to maps, deep hatred of the Indian and an intimate acquaintance with all the habits and customs of the latter, whether pertaining to peace or war, and last but most necessary to their calling skill in the use of firearms and in the management of a horse. The possessor of these qualifications and more than the ordinary amount of courage may feel equal to discharge the dangerous and trying duties of a scout.
In concentrating the cavalry, which had hitherto been operating in small bodies, it was found that each detachment brought with it the scouts who had been serving with them. When I joined the command I found quite a number of these scouts attached to various portions of the cavalry, but each acting separately. For the purposes of organization it was deemed best to unite them into a separate detachment under command of one of their own number. Being unacquainted personally with the merits or demerits of any of them, the selection of a chief had necessarily to be made somewhat at random. There was one among their number whose appearance would have attracted the notice of any casual observer. He was a man about forty years of age, perhaps older, over six feet in height, and possessing a well-proportioned frame. His head was covered with a luxuriant crop of long, almost black hair, strongly inclined to curl, and so long as to fall carelessly over his shoulders. His face, at least so much of it as was not concealed by the long, waving brown beard and mustache, was full of intelligence and pleasant to look upon. His eye was undoubtedly handsome, black and lustrous, with an expression of kindness and mildness combined. On his head was generally to be seen, whether asleep or awake, a huge sombrero or black slouch hat. A soldier's overcoat with its large circular cape, a pair of trousers with the legs tucked in the top of his long boots) usually constituted the outside make-up of the man whom I selected as chief scout. He was known by the euphonious title of California Joe; no other name seemed ever to have been given him, and no other name ever seemed necessary.
His military armament consisted of a long breechloading Springfield musket, from which he was inseparable, and a revolver and hunting-knife, both the latter being carried in his waist-belt. His mount completed his equipment for the field, being instead of a horse a finely-formed mule, in whose speed and endurance he had every confidence. Scouts usually prefer a good mule to a horse, and wisely too, for the reason that in making their perilous journeys, either singly or by twos or threes, celerity is one principal condition to success. The object with the scout is not to outrun or overwhelm the Indians, but to avoid both by secrecy and caution in his movements. On the Plains at most seasons of the year the horse is incapable of performing long or rapid journeys without being supplied with forage on the route. This must be transported, and in the case of scouts would necessarily be transported on the back of the horse, thereby adding materially to the weight which must be carried. The mule will perform a rapid and continuous march without forage, being able to subsist on the grazing to be obtained in nearly all the valleys on the Plains during the greater portion of the year.
California Joe was an inveterate smoker and was rarely seen without his stubby, dingy-looking brierwood pipe in full blast. The endurance of his smoking powers was only surpassed by his loquacity. His pipe frequently became exhausted and required refilling, but California Joe seemed never to lack for material or disposition to carry on a conversation, principally composed of personal adventures among the Indians, episodes in mining life, or experience in overland journeying before the days of steam engines and palace cars rendered a trip across the Plains a comparatively uneventful one. It was evident from the scraps of information volunteered from time to time, that there was but little of the western country from the Pacific to the Missouri River with which California Joe was not intimately acquainted. He had lived in Oregon years before, and had become acquainted from time to time with most of the officers who had served on the Plains or on the Pacific Coast. I once inquired of him if he had ever seen General Sheridan? "What, Gineral Shuridun? Why, bless my soul, I knowed Shuridun way up in Oregon more'n fifteen years ago, an' he wuz only a second lootenant uv infantry. He wuz quartermaster of the fort or something uv that sort, an' I hed the contract uv furnishin' wood to the post, and, would ye b'leve it? I hed a kind of a sneakin' notion then that he'd hurt somebody ef they'd ever turn him loose. Lord, but ain't he old lightnin'?" This was the man whom upon a short acquaintance I decided to appoint as chief of the scouts. This thrust of professional greatness, as the sequel will prove, was more than California Joe aspired to, or, considering some of his undeveloped traits, was equal to; but I am anticipating.
As the four detachments already referred to were to move as soon as it was dark, it was desirable that the scouts should be at once organized and assigned. So, sending for California Joe, I informed him of his promotion and what was expected of him and his men. After this official portion of his interview had been complete, it seemed to Joe's mind that a more intimate acquaintance between us should be cultivated, as we had never met before. His first interrogatory, addressed to me in furtherance of this idea, was frankly put as follows: "See hyar, Gineral, in order that we hev no misonderstandin', I'd jest like to ask ye a few questions." Seeing that I had somewhat of a character to deal with, I signified my perfect willingness to be interviewed by him. "Are you an ambulance man ur a hoss man?" Pretending not to discover his meaning, I requested him to explain. "I mean do you b'leve in catchin' Injuns in ambulances or on hossback?" Still assuming ignorance, I replied, "Well, Joe, I believe in catching Indians wherever we can find them, whether they are found in ambulances or on horseback." This did not satisfy him. "That ain't what I'm drivin' at. S'pose you're after Injuns and really want to hev a tussle with 'em, would ye start after 'em on hossback, or would ye climb into an ambulance and be haulded after 'em? That's the pint I'm headin' fur." I answered that I would prefer the method on horseback provided I really desired to catch the Indians; but if I wished them to catch me, I would adopt the ambulance system of attack.
This reply seemed to give him complete satisfaction. "You've hit the nail squar on the hed. I've bin with 'em on the Plains whar they started out after the Injuns on wheels, jist as ef they war goin' to a town funeral in the States, an' they stood 'bout as many chances uv catchin' Injuns az a six-mule team wud uv catchin' a pack of thievin' Ki-o-tees, jist as much. Why that sort uv work is only fun fur the Injuns; they don't want anything better. Ye ort to've seen how they peppered it to us, an we a doin' nuthin' a' the time. Sum uv em wuz 'fraid the mules war goin' to stampede and run off with the train an' all our forage and grub, but that wuz impossible; fur besides the big loads uv corn an' bacon an baggage the wagons hed in them, thar war from eight to a dozen infantry men piled into them besides. Ye ort to hev heard the quartermaster in charge uv the train tryin' to drive the infantry men out of the wagons and git them into the fight. I 'spect he wuz an Irishman by his talk, fur he sed to them, 'Git out uv thim wagons, git out uv thim wagons; yez'll hev me tried fur disobadience uv ordhers fur marchin' tin min in a wagon whin I've ordhers but fur ait!'"
How long I might have been detained listening to California Joe's recital of incidents of first campaigns, sandwiched here and there by his peculiar but generally correct ideas of how to conduct an Indian campaign properly, I do not know; time was limited, and I had to remind him of the fact to induce him to shorten the conversation. It was only deferred, however, as on every occasion thereafter California Joe would take his place at the head of the column on the march and his nearest companion was made the receptacle of a fresh instalment of Joe's facts and opinions. His career as chief scout was of the briefest nature.
Everything being in readiness, the four scouting columns, the men having removed their sabers to prevent clanging and detection, quietly moved out of camp as soon as it was sufficiently dark and set out in different directions. California Joe accompanied that detachment whose prospects seemed best of encountering the Indians. The rest of the camp soon afterward returned to their canvas shelter, indulging in all manner of surmises and conjectures as to the likelihood of either or all of the scouting parties meeting with success. As no tidings would probably be received in camp until a late hour of the following day, taps, the usual signal from the bugle for lights out, found the main camp in almost complete darkness, with only here and there a stray glimmering of light from the candle of some officer's tent, who was probably reckoning in his own mind how much he was losing or perhaps gaining by not accompanying one of the scouting parties. What were the chances of success to the four detachments which had departed on this all night's ride? Next to nothing. Still, even if no Indians could be found, the expeditions would accomplish this much: they would leave their fresh trails all over the country within a circuit of twenty miles of our camp, trails which the practiced eyes of the Indians would be certain to fall upon in daylight, and inform them for the first time that an effort was being made to disturb them if nothing more.
Three of the scouting columns can be disposed of now by the simple statement that they discovered no Indians, nor the remains of any camps or lodging places indicating the recent presence of a war party on any of the streams visited by them. The fourth detachment was that one which California Joe had accompanied as scout. What a feather it would be in his cap if; after the failure of the scouts accompanying the other columns to discover Indians, the party guided by him should pounce upon the savages and by a handsome fight settle a few of the old scores charged against them!
The night was passing away uninterrupted by any such event, and but a few hours more intervened before daylight would make its appearance. The troops had been marching constantly since leaving camp; some were almost asleep in their saddles when the column was halted and word was passed along from man to man that the advance guard had discovered signs indicating the existence of Indians near at hand. Nothing more was necessary to dispel all sensations of sleep, and to place every member of the command on the alert. It was difficult to ascertain from the advance guard, consisting of a non-commissioned officer and a few privates, precisely what they had seen. It seemed that in the valley beyond into which the command was about to descend, and which could be overlooked from the position the troops then held, something unusual had been seen by the leading troopers just as they had reached the crest. What this mysterious something was or how produced, no one could tell; it appeared simply for a moment and then only as a bright flash of light of varied colors; how far away it was impossible to determine in the heavy darkness of the night.
A hasty consultation of the officers took place at the head of the column, when it was decided that in the darkness which then reigned it would be unwise to move to the attack of an enemy until something more was known of the numbers and position of the foe. As the moon would soon rise and dispel one of the obstacles to conducting a careful attack, it was determined to hold the troops in readiness to act upon a moment's notice and at the same time send a picked party of men under guidance of California Joe to crawl as close to the supposed position of the indians as possible and gather all the information available. But where was California Joe all this time?. Why was he not at the front where his services would be most likely to be in demand? Search was quietly made for him all along both flanks of the column, but on careful inquiry it seemed that he had not been seen for some hours, and then at a point many miles from that at which the halt had been ordered. This was somewhat remarkable and admitted of no explanation-unless, perhaps, California Joe had fallen asleep during the march and been carried away from the column; but this theory gained no supporters. His absence at this particular time, when his advice and services might prove so invaluable, was regarded as most unfortunate.
However, the party to approach the Indian camp was being selected when a rifle shot broke upon the stillness of the scene, sounding in the direction of the mysterious appearance which had first attracted the attention of the advanced troopers. Another moment, and the most powerful yells and screams rose in the same direction, as if a terrible conflict was taking place. Every carbine was advanced ready for action, each trigger was carefully sought, no one as yet being able to divine the cause of this sudden outcry, when in a moment who should come charging wildly up to the column, now dimly visible by the first rays of the moon, California Joe, shouting and striking wildly to the right and left as if beset by a whole tribe of warriors.
Here, then, was the solution of the mystery. Not then, but in a few hours, every-thing was rendered clear. Among the other traits or peculiarities of his character, California Joe numbered an uncontrollable fondness for strong drink; it was his one great weakness-a weakness to which he could only be kept from yielding by keeping all intoxicating drink beyond his reach. It seemed, from an after development of the affair, that the sodden elevation of California Joe, unsought and unexpected as it was, to the position of chief scout was rather too much good fortune to be borne by him in a quiet or undemonstrative manner. Such a profusion of greatness had not been thrust upon him so often as to render him secure from being affected by his preferment. At any rate he deemed the event deserving of celebration-professional duties to the contrary notwithstanding-and before proceeding on the night expedition had filled his canteen with a bountiful supply of the worst brand of whiskey, such as is only attainable on the frontier. He, perhaps, did not intend to indulge to that extent which might disable him from properly performing his duties; but in this, like many other good men whose appetites are stronger than their resolutions, he failed in his reckoning. As the liquor which he imbibed from time to time after leaving camp began to produce the natural or unnatural effect, Joe's independence greatly increased until the only part of the expedition which he recognized as at all important was California Joe. His mule, no longer restrained by his hand, gradually carried him away from the troops, until the latter were left far in the rear.
This was the relative position when the halt was ordered. California Joe, having indulged in drink sufficiently for the time being, concluded that the next best thing would be a smoke; nothing would be better to cheer him on his lonely night ride. Filling his ever present brierwood with tobacco, he next proceeded to strike a light, employing for this purpose a storm or tempest match; it was the bright and flashing colors of this which had so suddenly attracted the attention of the advance guard. No sooner was his pipe lighted than the measure of his happiness was complete, his imagination picturing him to himself, perhaps, as leading in a grand Indian fight. His mule by this time had turned toward the troops, and when California Joe set up his unearthly howls and began his imaginary charge into an Indian village he was carried at full speed straight to the column, where his good fortune alone prevented him from receiving a volley before he was recognized as not an Indian.
His blood was up, and all efforts to quiet or suppress him proved unavailing, until finally the officer in command was forced to bind him hand and foot and in this condition secured him on the back of his faithful mule. In this sorry plight the chief scout continued until the return of the troops to camp, when he was transferred to the tender mercies of the guard as a prisoner for misconduct. Thus ended California Joe's career as chief scout. Another was appointed in his stead, but we must not banish him from our good opinion yet. As a scout, responsible only for himself, he will reappear in these pages with a record which redounds to his credit.
Nothing was accomplished by the four scouting parties except, perhaps, to inspire the troops with the idea that they were no longer to be kept acting merely on the defensive, while the Indians, no doubt, learned the same fact and at the same time. The cavalry had been lying idle, except when attacked by the Indians, for upward of a month. It was reported that the war parties, which had been so troublesome for some time came from the direction of Medicine Lodge Creek, a stream running in the same general direction as Bluff Creek, and about two marches from the latter in a northeasterly direction. It was on this stream-Medicine Lodge Creek-that the great peace council had been held with all the southern tribes with whom we had been and were then at war, the Government being represented at the council by Senators and other members of Congress, officers high in rank in the army, and prominent gentlemen selected from the walks of civil life.
The next move, after the unsuccessful attempt in which California Joe created the leading sensation, was to transfer the troops across from Bluff Creek to Medicine Lodge Creek and to send scouting parties up and down the latter in search of our enemies. This movement was made soon after the return of the four scouting expeditions sent out from Bluff Creek. As our first day's march was to be a short one we did not break camp on Bluff Creek until a late hour in the morning. Soon everything was in readiness for the march and like a travelling village of Bedouins the troopers and their train of supplies stretched out into column. First came the cavalry, moving in column of fours; next came the immense wagon train, containing the tents, forage, rations, and extra ammunition of the command, a very necessary but unwieldy portion of a mounted military force. Last of all came the rear guard, usually consisting of about one company.
On this occasion it was the company commanded by the officer whose narrow escape from the Indians while in search of a party of his men who had gone buffalo hunting, has been already described in this chapter. The conduct of the Indians on this occasion proved that they had been keeping an unseen but constant watch on everything transpiring in or about camp. The column had scarcely straightened itself out in commencing the march, and the rear guard had barely crossed the limits of the deserted camp, when out from a ravine near by dashed a war party of fully fifty well-mounted, well-armed warriors. Their first onslaught was directed against the rear guard, and a determined effort was made to drive them from the train and thus place the latter at their mercy, to be plundered of its contents. After disposing of flankers for the purpose of resisting any efforts which might be made to attack the train from either flank, I rode back to where the rear guard were engaged to ascertain if they required reinforcements. At the same time orders were given for the column of troops and train to continue the march, as it was not intended that so small a party as that attacking us should delay our march by any vain effort on our part to ride them down or overhaul them, when we knew they could outstrip us if the contest was to be decided by a race. Joining the rear guard, I had an opportunity to witness the Indian mode of fighting in all its perfection. Surely no race of men, not even the famous Cossacks, could display more wonderful skill in feats of horsemanship than the Indian warrior on his native plains, mounted on his well-trained war pony, voluntarily running the gantlet of his foes, drawing and receiving the fire of hundreds of rifles and in return sending back a perfect shower of arrows or, more likely still, well-directed shots from some souvenir of a peace commission in the shape of an improved breech-loader.
The Indian warrior is capable of assuming positions on his pony, the latter at full speed, which no one but an Indian could maintain for a single moment without being thrown to the ground. The pony, of course, is perfectly trained, and seems possessed of the spirit of his rider. An Indian's wealth is most generally expressed by the number of his ponies. No warrior or chief is of any importance or distinction who is not the owner of a herd of ponies numbering from twenty to many hundreds. He has for each special purpose a certain number of ponies, those that are kept as pack animals being the most inferior in quality and value; then the ordinary riding ponies used on the march or about camp, or when visiting neighboring villages; next in consideration is the buffalo pony, trained to the hunt and only employed when dashing into the midst of the huge buffalo herds, when the object is either food from the flesh or clothing and shelter for the lodges, to be made from the buffalo hide; last, or rather first, considering its value and importance, is the war pony, the favorite of the herd, fleet of foot, quick in intelligence, and full of courage. It may be safely asserted that the first place in the heart of the warrior is held by his faithful and obedient war pony.
Indians are extremely fond of bartering and are not behindhand in catching the points of a good bargain. They will sign treaties relinquishing their lands and agree to forsake the burial ground of their forefathers; they will part, for due consideration, with their bow and arrows and their accompanying quiver, handsomely wrought in dressed furs; their lodges even may be purchased at not an unfair valuation, and it is not an unusual thing for a chief or warrior to offer to exchange his wife or daughter for some article which may have taken his fancy. This is no exaggeration; but no Indian of the Plains has ever been known to trade, sell, or barter away his favorite war pony. To the warrior his battle horse is as the apple of his eye. Neither love nor money can induce him to part with it. To see them in battle and to witness how the one almost becomes a part of the other, one might well apply to the warrior the lines-
The officer in command of the rear guard expressed the opinion that he could resist successfully the attacks of the savages until a little later, when it was seen that the latter were receiving accessions to their strength and were becoming correspondingly bolder and more difficult to repulse, when a second troop of cavalry was brought from the column as a support to the rear guard. These last were ordered to fight on foot, their horses, in charge of every fourth trooper, being led near the train. The men being able to fire so much more accurately when on foot, compelled the Indians to observe greater caution in their manner of attack. Once a warrior was seen to dash out from the rest in the peculiar act of "circling," which was simply to dash along in front of the line of troopers, receiving their fire and firing in return. Suddenly his pony while at full speed was seen to fall to the ground, showing that the aim of at least one of the soldiers had been effective. The warrior was thrown over and beyond the pony's head and his capture by the cavalry seemed a sure and easy matter to be accomplished.
I saw him fall and called to the officer commanding the troop which had remained mounted to gallop forward and secure the Indian. The troop advanced rapidly, but the comrades of the fallen Indian had also witnessed his mishap and were rushing to his rescue. He was on his feet in a moment, and the next moment another warrior mounted on the fleetest of ponies was at his side, and with one leap the dismounted warrior placed himself astride the pony of his companion; and thus doubly burdened the gallant little steed, with his no less gallant riders, galloped lightly away, with about eighty cavalrymen, mounted on strong domestic horses, in full cry after them.
There is no doubt but that by all the laws of chance the cavalry should have been able to soon overhaul and capture the Indians in so unequal a race; but whether from lack of zeal on the part of the officer commanding the pursuit or from the confusion created by the diversion attempted by the remaining Indians, the pony, doubly weighted as he was, distanced his pursuers and landed his burden in a place of safety. Although chagrined at the failure of the pursuing party to accomplish the capture of the Indians I could not wholly suppress a feeling of satisfaction, if not gladness, that for once the Indian had eluded the white man. I need not add that any temporary tenderness of feeling toward the two Indians was prompted by their individual daring and the heroic display of comradeship in the successful attempt to render assistance to a friend in need.
Without being able to delay our march, yet it required the combined strength and resistance of two full troops of cavalry to defend the train from the vigorous and dashing attacks of the Indians. At last, finding that the command was not to be diverted from its purpose or hindered in completing its regular march, the Indians withdrew, leaving us to proceed unmolested. These contests with the Indians, while apparently yielding the troops no decided advantage, were of the greatest value in view of future and more extensive operations against the savages. Many of the men and horses were far from being familiar with actual warfare, particularly of this irregular character. Some of the troopers were quite inexperienced as horsemen and still more inexpert in the use of their weapons, as their inaccuracy of fire when attempting to bring down an Indian within easy range clearly proved. Their experience, resulting from these daily contests with the red men, was to prove of incalculable benefit and fit them for the duties of the coming campaign.
Our march was completed to Medicine Lodge Creek, where a temporary camp was established while scouting parties were sent both up and down the stream as far as there was the least probability of finding Indians. The party, consisting of three troops, which scouted down the valley of Medicine Lodge Creek, proceeded down to the point where was located and then standing the famous medicine lodge, an immense structure erected by the Indians and used by them as a council house, where once in each year the various tribes of the southern Plains were wont to assemble in mysterious conclave to consult the Great Spirit as to the future and to offer up rude sacrifices and engage in imposing ceremonies, such as were believed to be appeasing and satisfactory to the Indian Deity. In the conduct of these strange and interesting incantations the presiding or directing personages are known among the Indians as medicine men. They are the high priests of the red man's religion, and in their peculiar sphere are superior in influence and authority to all others in the tribe, not excepting the head chief. No important step is proposed or put in execution, whether relating to war or peace, even the probable success of a contemplated hunt, but is first submitted to the powers of divination confidently believed to be possessed by the medicine man of the tribe. He, after a series of enchantments, returns the answer supposed to be prompted by the Great Spirit as to whether the proposed step is well advised and promises success or not. The decisions given by the medicine men are supreme and admit of no appeal.
The medicine lodge just referred to had been used as the place of assembly of the grand council held between the warlike tribes and the representatives of the Government, referred to in preceding pages. The medicine lodge was found in a deserted but well-preserved condition. Here and there, hanging overhead, were collected various kinds of herbs and plants, vegetable offerings no doubt to the Great Spirit; while, in strange contrast to these peaceful specimens of the fruits of the earth, were trophies of the war path and the chase, the latter being represented by the horns and dressed skins of animals killed in the hunt, some of the skins being beautifully ornamented in the most fantastic of styles peculiar to the Indian idea of art.
Of the trophies relating to war, the most prominent were human scalps representing all ages and sexes of the white race. These scalps, according to the barbarous custom, were not composed of the entire covering of the head, but of a small surface surrounding the crown and usually from three to four inches in diameter, constituting what is termed the scalp lock. To preserve the scalp from decay a small hoop of about double the diameter of the scalp is prepared from a small withe which grows on the banks of some of the streams in the West. The scalp is placed inside the hoop and properly stretched by a network of thread connecting the edges of the scalp with the circumference of the hoop. After being properly cured, the dried fleshy portion of the scalp is ornamented in bright colors, according to the taste of the captor, some-times the addition of beads of bright and varied colors being made to heighten the effect. In other instances the hair is dyed, either to a beautiful yellow or golden, or to crimson. Several of these horrible evidences of past depredations upon the defenseless inhabitants of the frontier or overland emigrants were brought back by the troopers on their return from their scout. Old trails of small parties of Indians were discovered, but none indicating the recent presence of war parties in that valley were observable.
The command was then marched back to near its former camp on Bluff Creek, from whence, after a sojourn of three or four days, it marched to a point on the north bank of the Arkansas River about ten miles below Fort Dodge, there to engage in earnest preparation and reorganization for the winter campaign which was soon to be inaugurated, and in which the Seventh Cavalry was to bear so prominent a part. We pitched our tents on the banks of the Arkansas on the 21st of October, 1868, there to remain usefully employed until the 12th of the following month, when we mounted our horses, bade adieu to the luxuries of civilization, and turned our faces toward the Wichita Mountains in the endeavor to drive from their winter hiding places the savages who had during the past summer waged such ruthless and cruel war upon our exposed settlers on the border. How far and in what way we were successful in this effort, will be learned in the following chapter.