NOT even the proverbial stoicism of the red man was sufficient to conceal the chagrin and disappointment recognizable in every lineament of the countenances of both Satanta and Lone Wolf when they discovered that all their efforts at deception had not only failed, but left them prisoners in our hands. Had we been in doubt as to whether their intention had really been to leave us in the lurch or not, all doubt would have been dispelled by a slight circumstance which soon after transpired. As I before stated we had almost reached Fort Cobb, which was our destination for the time being. The chiefs who had already made their escape now became anxious in regard to the non-arrival in their midst of Satanta and Lone Wolf. The delay of the last two could not be satisfactorily, accounted for. Something must have gone amiss.
Again was stratagem resorted to. We were marching along without interruption or incident to disturb our progress, such of us as were at the head of the column keeping watchful eyes upon our two swarthy prisoners who rode sullenly at our sides, and whose past career justified us in attributing to them the nerve and daring necessary to induce an effort to secure their liberty should there be the slightest probability of success. Suddenly a mounted Indian appeared far away to our right and approached us at a gallop until almost within rifle range, when halting his well-trained pony upon a little hillock which answered his purpose, he gracefully detached the scarlet blanket he-wore and began waving it in a peculiar but regular manner. Both chiefs looked anxiously in the direction of the warrior, then merely glanced toward me as if to see if I had also observed this last arrival; but too proud to speak or prefer a request, they rode silently on, apparently indifferent to what might follow. Turning to Romeo, who rode in rear, I directed him to inquire of the chiefs the meaning of the signals which the warrior was evidently endeavoring to convey to them. Satanta acted as spokesman and replied that the warrior in sight was his son, and that the latter was signalling to him that he had something important to communicate and desired Satanta to ride out and join him.
To have seen the innocent and artless expression of countenance with which Satanta made this announcement one would not have imagined that the son had been sent as a decoy to cover the escape of the father, and that the latter had been aware of this fact from the first. However, I pretended to humor Satanta. Of course there was no objection to his galloping out to where his son awaited him, because, as he said, that son was, and for good reason perhaps, unwilling to gallop in to where his father was. But if Satanta was so eager to see and communicate with his son, there should be no objection to the presence of a small escort-not that there existed doubts in my mind as to Satanta's intention to return to us, because no such doubt existed. I was positively convinced that once safely beyond our reach the place at the head of the column which had known him for a few brief hours would know him no more forever. I told Romeo to say to Satanta that he might ride across the plain to where his son was, and not only that, but several of us would do ourselves the honor to volunteer as his escort.
The most careless observer would have detected the air of vexation with which Satanta turned his pony's head, and taking me at my word started to meet his son. A brisk gallop soon brought us to the little hillock upon which Satanta's son awaited us. He was there, a tall, trimly built, warrior-like young fellow of perhaps twenty, and bore himself while in our presence as if he would have us to understand he was not only the son of a mighty chief but some day would wear that title himself. What was intended to be gained by the interview did not become evident, as the presence of Romeo prevented any conversation between father and son looking to the formation of plans for escape. questions were asked and answered as to where the village was, and in regard to its future movements, but nothing satisfactory either to Satanta or his captors was learned from the young warrior. Finally, I suggested to Satanta that as we only intended to proceed a few miles farther, being then in the near vicinity of Fort Cobb and would there encamp for an indefinite period, his son had better accompany us to camp, where Lone Wolf and Satanta would be informed what was to be required of them and their people, and then, after conferring with each other, the two chiefs could send Satanta's son to the village with any message which they might desire to transmit to their people. At the same time I promised the young warrior good treatment, with permission to go and come as he chose, and in no manner to be regarded or treated as a prisoner.
This proposition seemed to strike the Indians favorably, and much to my surprise, knowing the natural suspicion of the Indian, the young warrior readily consented to the plan and at once placed himself in our power. Turning our horses' heads, we soon resumed our places at the head of the column, the three Indians riding in silence, brooding, no doubt, over plans looking to their freedom.
Upon our arrival at Fort Cobb, the day of the seizure of the two chiefs, Lone Wolf and Satanta, we selected a camp with a view of remaining at that point during the negotiations which were to be conducted with the various tribes who were still on the war path. So far as some of the tribes were concerned, they were occupying that equivocal position which enabled them to class themselves as friendly and at the same time engage in hostilities. This may sound ambiguous, but is easily explained. The chiefs and old men with the women and children of the tribe were permitted to assemble regularly at the agency near Fort Cobb, and as regularly were bountifully supplied with food and clothing sufficient for all their wants; at the same time the young men, warriors, and war chiefs of the tribe were almost continually engaged in making war upon the frontier of northern Texas and southeastern Kansas. Indeed, we established the fact while at or near Fort Cobb that while my command was engaged in fighting the warriors and chiefs of certain tribes at the battle of the Washita the families of these same warriors and chiefs were being clothed and fed by the agent of the Government then stationed at Fort Cobb.
Surprising as this may seem, it is not an unusual occurrence. The same system has prevailed during the past year. While my command was resisting the attacks of a large body of warriors on the Yellowstone River last summer the families of many of these warriors, the latter representing seven tribes or bands, were subsisting upon provisions and clothed in garments issued to them at the regular Indian agencies by the Government. But of this more anon.
The three tribes which became at that time the special objects of our attention, and with whom we were particularly anxious to establish such relations as would prevent in the future a repetition of the murders and outrages of which they had so long been guilty, were the Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes the object being to complete our work by placing these three tribes upon reservations where they might be cared for and at the same time be kept under proper surveillance. The Washita campaign had duly impressed them with the power and purpose of the Government to inflict punishment upon all who chose to make war; and each tribe, dreading a repetition of the blow upon themselves, had removed their villages to remote points where they deemed themselves secure from further chastisement. Having Lone Wolf and Satanta, the two leading chiefs of the Kiowas, in our hands, we thought that through them the Kiowas could be forced to a compliance with the just and reasonable demands of the Government, and with the terms of their treaty providing for the reservation system.
All demands upon the Kiowas were communicated by me to Lone Wolf and Satanta under the instructions of General Sheridan, who, although on the ground, declined to treat directly with the faithless chiefs. The Kiowas were informed that unless the entire tribe repaired to the vicinity of the agency, then located not far from Fort Cobb, the war which had been inaugurated with such vigor and effect at the Washita would be renewed and continued until the terms of their treaty had been complied with. This proposition was imparted to Lone Wolf and Satanta and by them transmitted to their tribe through the son of the latter, who acted as a sort of diplomatic courier between the Kiowa village and our camp.
The Kiowas, while sending messages apparently in accord with the proposition, and seeming to manifest a willingness to come in and locate themselves upon their reservation, continued, after the manner of Indian diplomacy, to defer from time to time the promised movement. There was every reason to believe that finding the military disposed to temporarily suspend active operations and resort to negotiation, the Kiowas had located their village within a short distance of our camp, as Satanta's son in going and coming with messages from one to the other easily made the round journey in a single day; so that had they been so disposed the Kiowas could have transferred their village to our immediate vicinity, as desired by the military authorities, in one day. The truth was, however, that while manifesting an apparent desire to conform to this requirement, as a precedent to final peace, they had not intended at any time to keep faith with the Government, but, by a pretended acquiescence in the proposed arrangement secure the release of the two head chiefs, Lone Wolf and Satanta, and then hasten with the entire village to join forces with the other two tribes, the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, who were there represented as being located somewhere near the source of Red River, and on the border of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plain, a region of country supposed to be impenetrable by civilized man. Every promise of the Kiowas to come in was always made conditional upon the prior release of Lone Wolf and Satanta.
Their efforts to procrastinate or evade a fulfilment of their part of the agreement finally exhausted the forbearance which thus far had prompted none but the mildest measures on the part of the military authorities, in the efforts of the latter to bring about a peaceful solution of existing difficulties. It had become evident that, instead of intending to establish relations of permanent peace and friendship with the whites, the majority of the tribe were only waiting the release of Lone Wolf and Satanta to resume hostilities, or at least to more firmly ally themselves with the extremely hostile tribes then occupying the head waters of Red River. Spring was approaching, when the grass would enable the Indians to recuperate their ponies, which, after the famished condition to which winter usually reduced them, would soon be fleet and strong, ready to do duty on the war path. It was therefore indispensable that there should be no further delay in the negotiations, which had been needlessly prolonged through several weeks.
General Sheridan promptly decided upon the terms of his ultimatum. Like most of the utterances of that officer, they were brief and to the point. I remember the day and the circumstances under which they were given. The General and myself were standing upon opposite sides of a rude enclosure which surrounded the space immediately about his tent, composed of a single line of rough poles erected by the unskilled labor of some of the soldiers. The day was one of those bright, warm, sunshiny days so frequent in the Indian Territory, even in winter. I had left my tent, which was but a few paces from that of General Sheridan, to step over and report, as I did almost daily, the latest message from the Kiowas as to their intention to make peace. On this occasion as on all former ones there was a palpable purpose to postpone further action until Lone Wolf and Satanta should be released by us.
After hearing the oft-repeated excuses of the Kiowas, General Sheridan communicated his resolve to me in substance as follows: "Well, Custer, these Kiowas are endeavoring to play us false. Their object is to occupy us with promises until the grass enables them to go where they please and make war if they choose. We have given them every opportunity to come in and enjoy the protection of the Government if they so desired. They are among the worst Indians we have to deal with, and have been guilty of untold murders and outrages, at the same time they were being fed and clothed by the Government. These two chiefs, Lone Wolf and Satanta, have forfeited their lives over and over again. They could now induce their people to come in and become friendly if they chose to exert their influence in that direction. This matter has gone on long enough and must be stopped, as we have to look after the other tribes before spring overtakes us. You can inform Lone Wolf and Satanta that we shall wait until sundown to-morrow for their tribe to come in; if by that time the village is not here, Lone Wolf and Satanta will be hung and the troops sent in pursuit of the village."
This might be regarded as bringing matters to a crisis. I proceeded directly to the lodge in which Lone Wolf and Satanta were prisoners, accompanied by Romeo as interpreter. I found the two chiefs reclining lazily upon their comfortable if not luxurious couches of robes. Satanta's son was also present. After a few preliminary remarks, I introduced the subject which was the occasion of my visit by informing the chiefs that I had just returned from General Sheridan's tent, where the question of the failure of the Kiowas to comply with their oft-repeated promises had been discussed, and that I had been directed to acquaint them with the determination which had been formed in regard to them and their people, At this announcement I could see that both chiefs became instantly and unmistakably interested in what was being said.
I had so often heard of the proverbial stoicism of the Indian character that it occurred to me that this was a favorable moment for judging how far this trait affects their conduct. For it will be readily acknowledged that the communication which I was about to make to them was one likely, at all events, to overturn any self-imposed stolidity which was not deeply impregnated in their nature. After going over the subject of the continued absence of the Kiowas from their reservation, their oft-made promises, made only to be violated, I told them that they were regarded, as they had a right to be, as the two leading and most influential chiefs of the tribe; that although they were prisoners, yet so powerful were they among the People of their own tribe that their influence, of all the other chiefs combined; hence all negotiations with the Kiowas had been conducted through them, and although they had it in their power, by a single command, to cause a satisfactory settlement of existing difficulties to be made, yet so far they had failed utterly to exert an influence for peace between their people and the Government. The announcement then to be made to them must be regarded as final, and it remained with them alone to decide by their action what the result should be.
In as few words as possible I then communicated to them the fate which undoubtedly awaited them in the event of the nonappearance of their tribe. Until sunset of the following day seemed a very brief period, yet I failed to detect the slightest change in the countenance of either when told that that would be the extent of their lives if their tribe failed to come in. Not a muscle of their warrior-like faces moved. Their eyes neither brightened nor quailed; nothing in their actions or appearance gave token that anything unusual had been communicated to them. Satanta's son alone of the three seemed to realize that matters were becoming serious, as could readily be told by watching his anxious glances, first at his father, then at Lone Wolf; but neither spoke.
Realizing the importance of time, and anxious to bring about a peaceful as well as satisfactory termination of our difficulties with the Kiowas, and at the same time to afford every facility to the two captive chiefs to save their oft-forfeited lives- for all familiar with their bloody and cruel career would grant that they merited death-I urged upon them the necessity of prompt action in communicating with their tribe and pointed to Satanta's son, who could be employed for this purpose. Quickly springing to his feet and not waiting to hear the opinions of the two chiefs the young warrior rushed from the lodge and was soon busily engaged in tightening the girths of his Indian saddle preparatory to a rapid gallop on his fleet pony.
In the mean time Lone Wolf and Satanta began exchanging utterances, at first slow and measured, in tones scarcely audible. Gradually they seemed to realize how desperate was the situation they were in, and how much depended upon themselves. Then, laying aside the formality which had up to that moment characterized their deportment, they no longer appeared as the dignified, reserved, almost sullen chiefs, but acted and spoke as would be expected of men situated as they were. In less time than I have taken to describe the action Satanta's handsome son appeared at the entrance of the lodge, mounted and in readiness for his ride.
Although he seemed by his manner to incline toward his father as the one who should give him his instructions, yet it was soon apparent that a more correct understanding existed between the two captives. Lone Wolf was the head chief of their tribe, Satanta the second in rank. The occasion was too important to leave anything to chance. A message from Satanta might receive prompt attention; a command from the head chief could not be disregarded; hence it was that Satanta stood aside and Lone Wolf stepped forward and addressed a few hasty but apparently emphatic sentences to the young courier, who was all eagerness to depart on his mission. As Lone Wolf concluded his instructions and the young warrior was gathering up his reins and lariat and turning his pony from the lodge in the direction of the village, Satanta simply added, in an energetic tone, "Hoodle-teh, hoodle-teh" (make haste, make haste) ; an injunction scarcely needed, as the young Indian and his pony were the next moment flying across the level plain.
I then reentered the lodge with Lone Wolf and Satanta, accompanied by Romeo. Through the latter Lone Wolf informed me that he had sent orders to the Kiowa village, which was not a day's travel from us, to pack up and come in as soon as the courier should reach them. At the same time he informed them of what depended upon their coming. He had also sent for Black Eagle, the third chief in rank' to come In advance or the village, bringing with him a dozen or more of the prominent chiefs. I inquired if he felt confident that his people would arrive by the appointed time? He almost smiled at the question, and assured me that an Indian would risk everything to save a comrade, leaving me to infer that to save their two highest chiefs nothing would be permitted to stand in the way. Seeing, perhaps, a look of doubt on my face, he pointed to that locality in the heavens which the sun would occupy at two o'clock and said: "Before that time Black Eagle and the other chiefs accompanying him will be here; and by that time," indicating in a similar manner sunset, "the village will arrive."
No general commanding an army, who had transmitted his orders to his corps commanders directing a movement at daylight the following morning could have exhibited more confidence in the belief that his orders would be executed than did this captive chief in the belief that, although a prisoner in the hands of his traditional enemies, his lodge closely guarded on all sides by watchful sentinels, his commands to his people would meet with a prompt and willing compliance, After a little further conversation with the two chiefs I was preparing to leave the lodge when Lone Wolf, true to the Indian custom, under which an opportunity to beg for something to eat is never permitted to pass unimproved, called me back and said that the next day his principal chiefs would visit him, and although he was a prisoner, yet he would be glad to be able to entertain them in a manner befitting his rank and importance in the tribe, and therefore I was appealed to furnish the provisions necessary to provide a feast for a dozen or more hungry chiefs and their retainers ; in reply to which modest request I made the heart of Lone Wolf glad, and called forth in his most emphatic as well as delighted manner the universal word of approval, "How," by informing him that the feast should certainly be prepared if he only would supply the guests.
The next day was one of no little interest, and to none more than to the two chiefs, who expected to see the first step taken by their people which would terminate in their release from a captivity which had certainly become exceedingly irksome, not to mention the new danger which stared them in the face. Lone Wolf, however, maintained his confidence and repeatedly assured me during the forenoon that Black Eagle and the other chiefs whom he had sent for by name would arrive not later than two o'clock that day. His confidence proved not to be misplaced. The sun had hardly marked the hour of one in the heavens when a small cavalcade was seen approaching in the distance from the direction of the Kiowa village. The quick eye of Satanta was the first to discover it. A smile of haughty triumph lighted up the countenance of Lone Wolf when his attention was called to the approaching party, his look indicating that he felt it could not be otherwise: had he not ordered it?
On they came, first about a dozen chiefs riding at a deliberate and dignified pace, they and their ponies richly caparisoned in the most fantastic manner. The chiefs wore blankets of bright colors, scarlet predominating, with here and there a bright green. Each face was painted in brilliant colors, yellow, blue, green, red, black, and a combination of all of them, no two faces being ornamented alike, and each new face seeming more horrible than its predecessor. The ponies had not been neglected, so far as their outward makeup was concerned, eagle feathers and pieces of gaudy cloth being interwoven in their manes and tails.
Following the chiefs rode a second line, only less ornamented than the chiefs themselves. These were warriors and confidential friends and advisers of the chief's in whose train they rode. In rear of all rode a few meek looking squaws, whose part in this imposing pageant became evident when the chiefs and warriors dismounted, giving the reins of their ponies to the squaws, who at once busied themselves in picketing the ponies of their lords, and, in every sense of the word, masters, wherever the grazing seemed freshest and most abundant. This being done, their part was performed and they waited near the ponies the return of the chiefs and warriors.
The latter, after forming in one group, and in similar order to that in which they rode, advanced toward the lodge outside of which, but within the chain of sentinels, stood Lone Wolf and Satanta. The meeting between the captive chiefs and their more fortunate comrades occasioned an exhibition of more feeling and sensibility than is generally accredited to the Indian. A bevy of school girls could not have embraced each other, after a twenty-four hours' separation, with greater enthusiasm and demonstrations of apparent joy than did these chieftains, whose sole delight is supposed to be connected with scenes of bloodshed and cruelty. I trust no gentleminded reader imbued with great kindness of heart will let this little scene determine his estimate of the Indian character; for be it understood, not one of the chiefs who formed the group of which I am writing but had participated in acts of the most barbarous and wanton cruelty. It was a portion of these chiefs who had led and encouraged the band that had subjected the Box family to such a horrible fate, of which Major-General Hancock made full report at the time.
Immediately after greetings had been exchanged between the captives and their friends I was requested, by a message from Lone Wolf, to repair to his lodge in order to hear what his friends had to say. As I entered the lodge the entire party of chiefs advanced to meet me, and began a series of handshaking and universal "Hows," which in outward earnestness made up for any lack of real sincerity, and to an inexperienced observer or a tender-hearted peace commissioner might well have appeared as an exhibition of indubitable friendship if not affection. After all were seated and the everpresent long red clay pipe had passed and repassed around the circle, each chief indulging in a few silent whiffs, Black Eagle arose, and after shaking hands with me proceeded, after the manner of an oration, to inform me, what I had had reason to expect and what the reader no doubt has also anticipated, that the entire Kiowa village was at that moment on the march and would arrive in the vicinity of our camp before dark. No reference was made to the fact that this general movement on their part was one of compulsion, but on the contrary to have heard Black Eagle, who was an impressive orator, one might well have believed that, no longer able to endure the separation from their brothers, the white men, who, as Black Eagle said, like themselves were all descended from one father, the Kiowas had voluntarily resolved to pack up their lodges, and when they next should put them down it would be alongside the tents of their white friends.
In nothing that was said did it appear that the impending execution of Lone Wolf and Satanta had aught to do with hastening the arrival of their people. At the termination of the conference, however, Black Eagle intimated that as the tribe was about to locate near us, it would be highly agreeable to them if their two head chiefs could be granted their liberty and permitted to resume their places among their own people.
That evening the Kiowa village, true to the prediction of Lone Wolf, arrived, and was located a short distance from our camp. The next morning the family or families of Satanta appeared in front of headquarters and made known their desire to see Satanta, to which, of course, no objection was made, and the guards were instructed to permit them to pass the lines. Satanta's home circle was organized somewhat on the quadrilateral plan; that is, he had four wives. They came together, and so far as outward appearances enabled one to judge they constituted a happy family. They were all young and buxom, and each was sufficiently like the others in appearance to have enabled the lot to pass as sisters; and, by the way, it is quite customary among the Indians for one man to marry an entire family of daughters as rapidly as they reach the proper age. To those who dread a multiplicity of mothers-in-law this custom possesses advantages.
To add in a material as well as maternal way to the striking similarity in appearance presented by Satanta's dusky spouses each bore on her back, encased in the capacious folds of a scarlet blanket a pledge of affection in the shape of a papoose, the difference in the extreme ages of the four miniature warriors, or warriors' sisters, being too slight to be perceptible. In single file the four partners of Satanta's joys approached his lodge, and in the same order gained admittance, Satanta was seated on a buffalo robe when they entered. He did not rise-perhaps that would have been deemed unwarriorlike-but each of his wives advanced to him, when, instead of going through the ordinary form of embracing with its usual accompaniments, on such occasions considered proper, the papoose was unslung-I know of no better term to describe the dexterous manner in which the mother transferred her offspring from its cozy resting-place on her back to her arms-and handed to the outstretched arms of the father, who kissed it repeatedly, with every exhibition of paternal affection, scarcely deigning to bestow a single glance on the mother, who stood by meekly, contenting herself with stroking Satanta's face and shoulders gently, at the same time muttering almost inaudible expressions of Indian endearment.
This touching little scene lasted for a few moments, when Satanta, after bestowing a kiss upon the soft, cherry lips of his child, transferred it back to its mother, who passed on and quietly took a seat by Satanta's side. The second wife then approached, when precisely the same exhibition was gone through with, not being varied from the first in the slightest particular. This being ended, the third took the place of the second, the latter passing along with her babe and seating herself next to the first, and so on, until the fourth wife had presented her babe, received it back, and quietly seated herself by the side of the third; not a word being spoken to or by Satanta from the beginning to the end of this strange meeting.
The Kiowas were now all located on their reservation, except a single band of the tribe led by a very wicked and troublesome chief named Woman Heart, although his conduct and character were anything but in keeping with the gentleness of his name. He had taken his band and moved in the direction of the Staked Plains, far to the west of the Kiowa reservation.
However, the Indian question, so far as the Kiowas were concerned, was regarded as settled, at least for the time being, and it became our next study how to effect a similar settlement with the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, who had fled after the battle of the Washita and were then supposed to be somewhere between the Wichita Mountains and the western border of Texas, north of the head-waters of Red River. It was finally decided to send one of the friendly chiefs of the Apaches, whose village was then near the present site of Fort Sill,43 and one of the three captive squaws whom we had brought with us.
All of the chiefs of that region who were interested in promoting peace between the whites and Indians were assembled at my headquarters, when I informed them of the proposed peace embassy and asked that some chief of prominence should volunteer as bearer of a friendly message to the Cheyennes and Arapahoes. A well-known chief of the Apaches named Iron Shirt promptly offered himself as a messenger in the cause of peace. In reply to my inquiry he said he could be ready to depart upon his commendable errand on the following day, and estimated the distance such that it would be necessary to take provision sufficient to last him and his companion three weeks.
Having arranged all the details of the journey the assemblage of chiefs dispersed, the next step being to decide which of the three squaws should accompany Iron Shirt to her tribe. I concluded to state the case to them and make the selection a matter for them to decide. Summoning Mah-wis-sa, Mo-nah-see-tah, and the Sioux squaw, their companion, to my tent, I, through Romeo, acquainted them with the desire of the Government to establish peace with their people and with the Arapahoes, and in order to accomplish this we intended despatching a friendly message to the absent tribes, which must be carried by some of their own people. After conferring with each other a few minutes they concluded the Mah-wis-sa, the sister of Black Kettle, should return to her people. Every arrangement was provided looking to the comfort of the two Indians who were to undertake this long journey. A bountiful supply of provisions was carefully provided in convenient packages, an extra amount of clothing and blankets being given to Mah-wis-sa in order that she should not return to her people empty-handed. To transport their provisions and blankets a mule was given them to be used as a pack-animal.
It was quite an event, sufficient to disturb the monotony of camp, when the hour arrived for the departure of the two peace commissioners. I had told Iron Shirt what he was to say to the chiefs of the tribes who still remained hostile, which was in effect that we were anxious for peace, and to that end invited them to come at once and place themselves and their people on the reservations, where we would meet and regard them as friends and all present hostilities, as well as reckoning for past differences, should cease; but if this friendly proffer was not accepted favorably and at once we would be forced to regard it as indicating their desire to prolong the war, in which event the troops would be sent against them as soon as practicable. I relied not a little on the good influence of Mah-wis-sa, who, as I have before stated, was a woman of superior intelligence, and was strongly impressed with a desire to aid in establishing a peace between her people and the white men. Quite a group, composed of officers, soldiers, teamsters, guards, and scouts, assembled to witness the departure of Iron Shirt and Mah-wis-sa, and to wish them God-speed in their mission.
After Iron Shirt and Mah-wis-sa had seated themselves upon their ponies and were about to set out, Mah-wis-sa, suddenly placing her hand on the neat belt which secured her blanket about her indicated that she was unprovided with that most essential companion of frontier life, a mutch-ka as she expressed it, meaning a hunting-knife. Only those who have lived on the Plains can appreciate the unpurchasable convenience of a hunting-knife. Whether it is to carve a buffalo or a mountain trout, mend horse equipments, or close up a rent in the tent, there is a constant demand for the services of a good hunting-knife. Mah-wis-sa smiled at the forgetfulness which had made her fail to discern this omission sooner, but I relieved her anxiety by taking from my belt the hunting-knife which hung at my side and giving it to her, adding as I did so that I expected her to return it to me before the change in the moon, that being fixed as the extreme limit of their absence. When all was ready for the start Iron Shirt rode first, followed by the pack-mule, which he led, while Mah-wis-sa, acting as a driver to the latter and well mounted, brought up the rear.
As they rode away amid the shower of good wishes which was bestowed upon them and their mission, many were the queries as to the probable extent of their journey, their return, and whether they would be successful. For upon the success or failure of these two Indians depended in a great measure the question whether or not we were to be forced to continue the war; and among the hundreds who watched the departing bearers of the olive branch there was not one but hoped earnestly that the mission would prove successful, and we be spared the barbarities which a further prosecution of the war would necessarily entail. Yet there are those who would have the public believe that the army is at all times clamorous for an Indian war. I have yet to meet the officer or man belonging to the army, who, when the question of war or peace with the Indians was being agitated, did not cast the weight of his influence, the prayers of his heart, in behalf of peace. When I next called Mah-wis-sa's attention to the mutch-ka (knife) it was far from the locality we then occupied, and under very different circumstances.
After the departure of Iron Shirt and Mah-wis-sa we were forced to settle down to the dullest routine of camp life, as nothing could be done until their return. It was full three weeks before the interest in camp received a fresh impetus by the tidings which flew from tent to tent that Iron Shirt had returned. He did return, but Mah-wis-sa did not return with him. His story was brief. He and Mah-wis-sa, after leaving us and travelling for several days westward, had arrived at the Cheyenne and Arapahoe villages. They delivered their messages to the chiefs of the two tribes, who were assembled in council to hear them, and after due deliberation thereon Iron Shirt was informed that the distance was too great, the ponies in too poor condition, to permit the villages to return. In other words, these two tribes had virtually decided that rather than return to their reservation they preferred the chances of war. When asked to account for Mah-wis-sa's failure to accompany him back, Iron Shirt stated that she had desired to fulfill her promise and return with him, but the chiefs of her tribe would not permit her to do so.
The only encouragement derived from Iron Shirt was in his statement that Little Robe, a prominent chief of the Cheyennes, and Yellow Bear, the second chief of the Arapahoes, were both extremely anxious to effect a permanent peace between their people and the Government, and both had promised Iron Shirt that they would leave their villages soon after his departure and visit us with a view to prevent a continuation of the war. Iron Shirt was rewarded for his journey by bountiful presents of provisions for himself and his people. True to their promises made to Iron Shirt, it was but a short time before Little Robe and Yellow Bear arrived at our camp and were well received.
They reported that their villages had had under consideration the question of accepting our invitation to come in and live at peace in the future, and that many of their People were strongly in favor of adopting this course, but for the present it was uncertain whether or not the two tribes would come in. The two tribes would probably act in concert and if they intended coming would make their determination known by despatching couriers to us in a few days. In spite of the sincerity of the motives of Little Robe and Yellow Bear, whom I have always regarded as two of the most upright and peaceably inclined Indians I have ever known, and who have since that time paid a visit to the President at Washington, it was evident that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, while endeavoring to occupy us with promises and pretenses, were only interested in delaying our movements until the return of spring, when the young grass would enable them to recruit the strength of their winter-famished ponies and move when and where they pleased.
After waiting many long weary days for the arrival of the promised couriers from the two tribes, until even Little Robe and Yellow Bear were forced to acknowledge that there was no longer any reason to expect their coming, it occurred to me that there was but one expedient yet untried which furnished even a doubtful chance of averting war. This could only be resorted to with the approval of General Sheridan, whose tent had been pitched in our midst during the entire winter, and who evidently proposed to remain on the ground until the Indian question in that locality should be disposed of. My plan was as follows:
We had some fifteen hundred troops, a force ample to cope with all the Indians which could then, or since, be combined at any one point on the Plains. But in the state of feeling existing among those Indians at that time, consequent upon the punishment which they had received at and since the Washita campaign, it would have been an extremely difficult if not impracticable matter to attempt to move so large a body of troops near their villages and retain the latter in their places, so fearful were they of receiving punishment for their past offenses. It would also have been impracticable to move upon them stealthily, as they were then, for causes already given, more than ever on the alert, and were no doubt kept thoroughly informed in regard to our every movement.
It was thus considered out of the question to employ my entire command of fifteen hundred men in what I proposed should be purely a peaceful effort to bring about a termination of the war, as so large a force would surely intimidate the Indians, and cause them to avoid our presence. I believed that if I could see the leading chief's of the two hostile tribes and convince them of the friendly desire of the Government, they might be Induced to relinquish the war and return to their reservation. I have endeavored to show that I could not go among them with my entire command, neither was I sufficiently orthodox as a peace commissioner to believe what so many of that order preach, but fail to practise, that I could take an olive branch in one hand, the plan of a school-house in the other, and, unaccompanied by force, visit the Indian villages in safety. My life would certainly have been the price of such temerity. Too imposing a force would repel the Indians; too small a force would tempt them to murder us, even though our mission was a friendly one.
After weighing the matter carefully in my own mind I decided that with General Sheridan's approval I would select from my command forty men, two officers, and a medical officer, and, accompanied by the two chiefs, Little Robe and Yellow Bear, who regarded my proposition with favor, I would set out in search of the hostile camp, there being but little doubt that with the assistance of the chiefs I would have little difficulty in discovering the whereabouts of the villages; while the smallness of my party would prevent unnecessary alarm or suspicion as to our intentions. From my tent to General Sheridan's was but a few steps, and I soon submitted my proposition to the General, who from the first was inclined to lend his approval to my project. After discussing it fully, he gave his assent by saying that the character of the proposed expedition was such that he would not order me to proceed upon it, but if I volunteered to go he would give me the full sanction of his authority and every possible assistance to render the mission a successful one; in conclusion urging me to exercise the greatest caution against the stratagems or treachery of the Indians, who no doubt would be but too glad to massacre my party in revenge for their recent well-merited chastisement. Returning to my tent, I at once set about making preparations for my journey, the extent or result of which now became interesting subjects for deliberation. The first thing necessary was to make up the party which was to accompany me.
As the number of men was to be limited to forty, too much care could not be exercised in their selection. I chose the great majority of them from the sharpshooters, men who, in addition to being cool and brave, were experienced and skilful marksmen. My standardbearer, a well-tried sergeant, was selected as the senior non-commissioned officer of the party. The officers who were to accompany me were my brother, Colonel Custer, Captain Robbins, and Dr. Renick, Acting Assistant Surgeon U. S. Army. As guide I had Neva, a Blackfoot Indian, who had accompanied General Fremont in his explorations, and who could speak a little English. Little Robe and Yellow Bear were also to be relied upon as guides, while Romeo accompanied us as interpreter. Young Brewster, determined to miss no opportunity of discovering his lost sister, had requested and been granted permission to become one of the party.
This completed the personnel of the expedition. All were well armed and well mounted. We were to take no wagons or tents; our extra supplies were to be transported on pack-mules. We were to start on the evening of the second day, the intervening time being necessary to complete our preparations. It was decided that our first march should be a short one, sufficient merely to enable us to reach a village of friendly Apaches located a few miles from our camp, where we would spend the first night and be joined by Little Robe and Yellow Bear, who at that time were guests of the Apaches. I need not say that in the opinion of many of our comrades our mission was regarded as closely, bordering on the imprudent, to qualify it by no stronger term.
So confident did one of the most prudent officers of my command feel in regard to our annihilation by the Indians that in bidding me good-by he contrived to slip into my hand a small pocket Derringer pistol, loaded, with the simple remark, "You had better take it, General; it may prove useful to you." As I was amply, provided with arms, both revolvers and rifle, and as a pocket Derringer may not impress the reader as being a very formidable weapon to use in Indian warfare, the purpose of my friend in giving me the small pocket weapon may not seem clear. It was given me under the firm conviction that the Indians would overwhelm and massacre my entire party; and to prevent my being captured, disarmed, and reserved for torture, that little pistol was given me in order that at the last moment I might become my own executioner, an office I was not seeking, nor did I share in my friend's opinion.
Everything being ready for our departure, we swung into our saddles, waved our adieus to the comrades who were to remain in camp, and the next moment we turned our horses' heads westward and were moving in the direction of the Apache village.