BEFORE proceeding to narrate the incidents of the pursuit which led us to the battle of the Washita I will refer to the completion of our hasty preparations to detach ourselves from the encumbrance of our immense wagon train. In the last chapter it has been seen that the train was to be left behind under the protection of an officer and eighty cavalrymen, with orders to push after us, following our trail in the snow as rapidly as the teams could move. Where or when it would again join us no one could foretell; in all probability, however, not until the pursuit had terminated and we had met and vanquished our savage foes or had been defeated by them.
Under existing orders the guard for the protection of our train was each day under the command of the officer of the day, the tour of duty of the latter continuing twenty-four hours, beginning in the morning. On that day the duties of officer of the day fell in regular routine upon Captain Louis McLane Hamilton, Seventh Cavalry, a grandson of Alexander Hamilton. Of course this detail would require him to remain behind with the train while his squadron, one of the finest in the command, would move forward to battle under charge of another. To a soldier of Hamilton's pride and ambition to be left behind in this inglorious manner was galling in the extreme. He foresaw the situation at once, and the moment that intelligence of the proposed movement reached him he came galloping up from the rear in search of me. I was busily engaged at the time superintending the hurried arrangements for commencing the pursuit. Coming up to me with a countenance depicting the most earnest anxiety, his first words were to frame an inquiry as to whether I intended him to remain behind.
Fully appreciating his anxious desire to share with his comrades the perils of the approaching conflict, and yet unable to substitute, without injustice, another officer for him unless with the consent of the former, I could not give him the encouragement he desired. The moment that the plans for pursuit were being formed I remembered that the accidents of service were to deprive the pursuing column of the presence and aid of one whose assistance in such an emergency could always be confidently relied upon. Some of his brother officers had be-thought themselves of the same, and at once came to me with the remark that "we ought to have Hamilton with us." My only reply was that while my desires were all one way my duty prescribed that Hamilton should remain with the guard and train, it being his detail, and it also being necessary that some officer should remain upon this important duty. I answered his repeated request, that while I desired him in command of his squadron, particularly then of all times, I was powerless to have it so without being unjust to some other officer. While forced to admit this to be true, he added, "It seems hard that I must remain."
Finally I said to him that all I could do would be to allow him to get some other officer to willingly take his place with the train, adding that some officer might be found in the command who from indisposition or other causes did not feel able to undertake a rapid and tiresome pursuit, such as we would probably have, and under such circumstances I would gladly order the change. He at once departed in search of some one who would assume his duties with the train and leave him free to resume his post at the head of his splendid squadron-that squadron in whose organization and equipment he had displayed such energy and forethought, and whose superior excellence and efficiency long bore the impress of his hand. I am thus minute in detailing these circumstances affecting the transfer of Captain Hamilton from one duty to another as the sad sequel will show how intimately connected the destiny of one of the parties was with the slight matter of this change.
Hamilton had been absent but a few minutes when he returned overflowing with joy and remarked that an officer had been found who consented to take his place, ending with the question: "Shall I join my squadron?" To this I gladly assented and he galloped to another part of the field, where his men were, to hasten and superintend their preparations for the coming struggle. The officer who had consented to take Hamilton's place with the train had that day been affected with partial snow-blindness and felt himself disqualified and unable to join in the pursuit, and it was exceedingly proper for him, under the circumstances, to agree to the proposed change.
During all this time Elliot with his three companies of calvary was following hard and fast upon the trail left by the Indians in the deep snow. By being informed, as we were, of the direction in which the trail was leading, and that direction being favorable to our position, the main command by moving due south would strike the trail of the Indians, and of Elliot also, at some point not far in rear, perhaps, of Elliot's party. Everything being in readiness to set out, at the expiration of the allotted twenty minutes "The advance" was sounded and the pursuit on our part began. Our route carried us across the broad, open Plains, the snow over a foot in depth, with the surface of course unbroken. This rendered it exceedingly fatiguing to the horses moving in the advance, and changes were frequently rendered necessary. The weather, which during the past few days had been so bitterly cold, moderated on that day sufficiently to melt the upper surface of the snow.
After leaving the wagon train we continued our march rapidly during the remaining hours of the forenoon and until the middle of the afternoon. Still no tidings from Elliot's party nor any sign of a trail. No halt was made during the day either for rest or refreshment. Toward evening we began to feel anxious concerning Elliot's detachment. Could it be that the Indians had discovered that they were pursued, and had broken up into smaller parties or changed the direction of their trail? If so, could Elliot's messengers reach us in time to make the information valuable to us? We had hurried along, our interest increasing with each mile passed over, until the sun was not more than one hour high above the western horizon; and still, strain our eyes as we would and scan the white surface of the Plains in every direction in our front, the snow seemed unbroken and undisturbed as far as the eye could reach.
Our scouts and Indian guides were kept far out in front and on the proper flank to discover, if possible, the trail. At last one of the scouts gave the signal that the trail had been discovered and in a few moments the command had reached it and we were now moving with lighter and less anxious hearts. After studying the trail our Osage warriors informed us that the Indians whose trail we were pursuing were undoubtedly a war party, and had certainly passed where we then were during the forenoon. This was encouraging and a free rein was given to our horses as we hastened along through the snow.
The object now was to overtake as soon as practicable the party of Elliot, which from the heavy trail we could see was in advance of us. The almost level and unbroken character of the country enabled us to see for miles in all directions, and in this way we knew that Elliot must be many miles ahead of our party. At the same time I could see that we were gradually descending into a valley, probably of some stream, and far in advance appeared the dim outline of timber, such as usually fringes the banks of many of the western streams. Selecting a few wellmounted troopers and some of the scouts, I directed them to set out at a moderate gallop to overtake Elliot, with orders to the latter to halt at the first favorable point where wood and water could be obtained and await our arrival, informing him at the same time that after allowing the men an hour to prepare a cup of coffee and to feed and rest their horses it was my intention to continue the pursuit during the night-a measure to which I felt urged by the slight thawing of the snow that day, which might result in our failure if we permitted the Indians to elude us until the snow had disappeared.
Satisfied now that we were on the right course, our anxiety lessened, but our interest increased. Soon after dark we reached the valley whose timbered surface we had caught faint glimpses of hours before. Down this valley and through this sparse timber the trail led us. Hour after hour we struggled on, hoping to overtake the three troops in advance, for hunger, unappeased since before daylight, began to assert its demands in the strongest terms. Our faithful horses were likewise in great need of both food and water as well as rest, as neither had been offered them since four o'clock in the morning. So far had Elliot pushed his pursuit that our scouts were a long time in reaching him and it was nine o'clock at night when the main command arrived at the point where he and his three troops were found halted. A stream of good water with comparatively deep banks ran near by, while the valley at this point was quite heavily timbered.
To enable the men to prepare a cup of coffee, and at the same time give no evidence of our presence to the Indians, who for all we knew might be not far from us, advantage was taken of the deep banks of the creek, and by building small fires down under the edge of the bank they were prevented from being seen except at a small distance. At the same time the horses were relieved of their saddles and unbitted, and a good feed of oats distributed to each. Officers and men were glad to partake of the same quality of simple fare that night, consisting only of a most welcome and refreshing cup of good strong coffee and a handful of army crackers-hard tack. By waiting an hour we not only gained by rest and refreshment, but the light of the moon would then probably be sufficient to guide us on our night ride.
When the hour had nearly expired we began our preparations in the most quiet manner to resume the pursuit. No bugle calls were permitted as in this peculiar country sound travels a long distance and we knew not but that our wily foes were located near by. Before starting I conferred with our Indian allies, all of whom were firmly convinced that our enemy's village was probably not far away, and most likely was in the valley in which we then were, as the trail for some miles had led us down the stream on whose banks we halted. Little Beaver, who acted as spokesman for the Osages, seemed confident that we could overtake and surprise the Indians we had been pursuing and most probably follow them direct to their village; but much to my surprise Little Beaver strongly advised that we delay further pursuit until daylight, remaining concealed in the timber as we were at the time. When asked for his reasons for favoring such a course he could give none of a satisfactory nature. I then concluded that his disinclination to continue pursuit that night arose from the natural reluctance, shared by all Indians, to attack an unseen foe, whether concealed by darkness or other natural or artificial means of shelter. Indians rarely attack between the hours of dark and daylight, although their stealthy movements through the country either in search of an enemy or when attempting to elude them are often executed under cover of night.
As soon as each troop was in readiness to resume the pursuit the troop commander reported the fact at headquarters. Ten o'clock came and found us in our saddles. Silently the command stretched out its long length as the troopers filed off four abreast. First came two of our Osage scouts on foot; these were to follow the trail and lead the command; they were our guides and the panther, creeping upon its prey could not have advanced more cautiously or quietly than did these friendly Indians as they seemed to glide rather than walk over the snow-clad surface. To prevent the possibility of the command coming precipitately upon our enemies the two scouts were directed to keep three or four hundred yards in advance of all others; then came, in single file, the remainder of our Osage guides and the white scouts-among the rest California Joe. With these I rode, that I might be as near the advance guard as possible. The cavalry followed in rear at the distance of a quarter or half a mile; this precaution was necessary from the fact that the snow, which had thawed slightly during the day, was then freezing, forming a crust which, broken by the tread of so many hundreds of feet, produced a noise capable of being heard at a long distance.
Orders were given prohibiting even a word being uttered above a whisper. No one was permitted to strike a match or light a pipe-the latter a great deprivation to the soldier. In this silent manner we rode mile after mile. Occasionally an officer would ride by my side and whisper some inquiry or suggestion, but aside from this our march was unbroken by sound or deed. At last we discovered that our two guides in front had halted and were awaiting my arrival. Word was quietly sent to halt the column until inquiry in front could be made. Upon coming up with the two Osages we were furnished an example of the wonderful and peculiar powers of the Indian. One of them could speak broken English and in answer to my question as to "What is the matter?" he replied: "Me don't know, but me smell fire." By this time several of the officers had quietly ridden up and upon being informed of the Osage's remark each endeavored, by sniffing the air, to verify or disprove the report. All united in saying that our guide was mistaken. Some said he was probably frightened, but we were unable to shake the confidence of the Osage warrior in his first opinion. I then directed him and his companion to advance even more cautiously than before and the column, keeping up the interval, resumed its march.
After proceeding about half a mile, perhaps farther, again our guides halted, and upon coming up with them I was greeted with the remark, uttered in a whisper: "Me told you so;" and sure enough, looking in the direction indicated were to be seen the embers of a wasted fire, scarcely a handful yet enough to prove that our guide was right and to cause us to feel the greater confidence in him. The discovery of these few coals of fire produced almost breathless excitement. The distance from where we stood was from seventy-five to a hundred yards, not in the line of our march, but directly to our left in the edge of the timber. We knew at once that none but Indians, and they hostile, had built that fire. Where were they at that moment? Perhaps sleeping in the vicinity of the fire.
It was almost certain to our minds that the Indians we had been pursuing were the builders of the fire. Were they still there and asleep? We were too near already to attempt to withdraw undiscovered. Our only course was to determine the facts at once, and be prepared for the worst. I called for a few volunteers to quietly approach the fire and discover whether there were Indians in the vicinity; if not, to gather such information as was obtainable as to their numbers and departure. All the Osages and a few of the scouts quickly dismounted and with rifles in readiness and fingers on the triggers silently made their way to the nearest point of the timber, Little Beaver and Hard Rope leading the way. After they had disappeared in the timber they still had to pass over more than half the distance before reaching the fire. These moments seemed like hours and those of us who were left sitting on our horses, in the open moonlight and within easy range from the spot where the fire was located felt anything but comfortable during this suspense. If Indians, as then seemed highly probable, were sleeping around the fire our scouts would arouse them and we would be in fair way to be picked off without being in a position to defend ourselves.
The matter was soon determined. Our scouts soon arrived at the fire and discovered it to be deserted. Again did the skill and knowledge of our Indian allies come in play. Had they not been with us we should undoubtedly have assumed that the Indians who had had occasion to build the fire and those we were pursuing constituted one party. From examining the fire and observing the great number of pony tracks in the snow the Osages arrived at a different conclusion and were convinced that we were then on the ground used by the Indians for grazing their herds of ponies. The fire had been kindled by the Indian boys, who attend to the herding, to warm themselves by, and in all probability we were then within two or three miles of the village. I will not endeavor to describe the renewed hope and excitement that sprang up. Again we set out, this time more cautiously, if possible, than before, the command and scouts moving at a greater distance in rear.
In order to judge of the situation more correctly I this time accompanied the two Osages. Silently we advanced, I mounted, they on foot, keeping at the head of my horse. Upon nearing the crest of each hill, as us invariably the Indian custom, one of the guides would hasten a few steps in advance and peer cautiously over the hill. Accustomed to this, I was not struck by observing it until once when the same one who discovered the fire advanced cautiously to the crest and looked carefully into the valley beyond. I saw him place his hand above his eyes as if looking intently at some object, then crouch down and come creeping back to where I waited for him. "What is it?" I inquired as soon as he reached my horse's side. "Heaps Injuns down there," pointing in the direction from which he had just come.
Quickly dismounting and giving the reins to the other guide, I accompanied the Osage to the crest, both of us crouching low so as not to be seen in the moonlight against the horizon. Looking in the direction indicated, a could indistinctly recognize the presence of a large body of animals of some kind in the valley below and at a distance which then seemed not more than half a mile. I looked at them long and anxiously, the guide uttering not a word, but was unable to discover anything in their appearance different from what might be presented by a herd of buffaloes under similar circumstances. Turning to the Osage, I inquired in a low tone why he thought there were Indians there. "Me heard dog bark," was the satisfactory reply. Indians are noted for the large number of dogs always found in their villages, but never accompanying their war parties.
I waited quietly to be convinced; I was assured, but wanted to be doubly so. I was rewarded in a moment by hearing the barking of a dog in the heavy timber off to the right of the herd, and soon after I heard the tinkling of a small bell; this convinced me that it was really the Indian herd I then saw, the bell being one worn around the neck of some pony who was probably the leader of the herd. I turned to retrace my steps when another sound was borne to my ear through the cold, clear atmosphere of the valley-it was the distant cry of an infant; and savages though they were and justly outlawed by the number and atrocity of their recent murders and depredations on the helpless settlers of the frontier, I could not but regret that in a war such as we were forced to engage in the mode and circumstances of battle would possibly prevent discrimination.
Leaving the two Osages to keep a careful lookout, I hastened back until I met the main party of the scouts and Osages. They were halted and a message sent back to halt the cavalry, enjoining complete silence and directing every officer to ride to the point we then occupied. The hour was then past midnight. Soon they came and after dismounting and collecting in a little circle I informed them of what I had seen and heard; and in order that they might individually learn as much as possible of the character of the ground and the location of the village I proposed that all should remove their sabers, that their clanking might make no noise, and proceed gently to the crest and there obtain a view of the valley beyond. This was done; not a word was spoken until we crouched together and cast our eyes in the direction of the herd and village. In whispers I briefly pointed out everything that was to be seen, then motioned all to return to where we had left our sabers; then, standing in a group upon the ground or crust of snow, the plan of the attack was explained to all and each assigned his part.
The general plan was to employ the hours between then and daylight to completely surround the village and at daybreak, or as soon as it was barely light enough for the purpose, to attack the Indians from all sides. The command, numbering, as has been stated, about eight hundred mounted men, was divided into four nearly equal detachments. Two of them set out at once, as they had each to make a circuitous march of several miles in order to arrive at the points assigned them from which to make their attack. The third detachment moved to its position about an hour before day, and until that time remained with the main or fourth column. This last, whose movements I accompanied, was to make the attack from the point from which we had first discovered the herd and village. Major Elliot commanded the column embracing G, H, and M troops, Seventh Cavalry, which moved around from our left to a position almost in rear of the village; while Colonel Thompson commanded the one consisting of B and F troops, which moved in a corresponding manner from our right to a position which was to connect with that of Major Elliot. Colonel Meyers commanded the third column, composed of E and I troops, which was to take position in the valley and timber a little less than a mile to my right.
By this disposition it was hoped to prevent the escape of every inmate of the village. That portion of the command which I proposed to accompany consisted of A, C, D, and K troops, Seventh Cavalry, the Osages and scouts, and Colonel Cooke with his forty sharpshooters. Captain Hamilton commanded one of the squadrons, Colonel West the other. After the first two columns had departed for their posts-it was still four hours before the hour of attack-the men of the other two columns were permitted to dismount, but much intense suffering was unavoidably sustained. The night grew extremely cold towards morning; no fires of course could be permitted, and the men were even ordered to desist from stamping their feet and walking back and forth to keep warm, as the crushing of the snow beneath produced so much noise that it might give the alarm to our wily enemies.
During all these long weary hours of this terribly cold and comfortless night each man sat, stood, or lay on the snow by his horse, holding to the rein of the latter. The officers, buttoning their huge overcoats closely about them, collected in knots of four or five, and, seated or reclining upon the snow's hard crust, discussed the probabilities of the coming battle, for battle we knew it would be, and we could not hope to conquer or kill the warriors of an entire village without suffering in return more or less injury. Some, wrapping their capes about their heads, spread themselves at full length upon the snow and were apparently soon wrapped in deep slumber. After being satisfied that all necessary arrangements were made for the attack I imitated the example of some of my comrades and gathering the cavalry cape of my greatcoat about my head lay down and slept soundly for perhaps an hour.
At the end of that time I awoke and on consulting my watch found there remained nearly two hours before we would move to the attack. Walking about among the horses and troopers, I found the latter generally huddled at the feet of the former in squads of three and four, in the endeavor to keep warm. Occasionally I would find a small group engaged in conversation, the muttered tones and voices strangely reminding me of those heard in the death-chamber. The officers had disposed of themselves in similar but various ways; here at one place were several stretched out together upon the snow, the body of one being used by the others as a pillow. Nearly all were silent; conversation had ceased, and those who were prevented by the severe cold from obtaining sleep were no doubt fully occupied in their minds with thoughts upon the morrow and the fate that might be in store for them.
Seeing a small group collected under the low branches of a tree which stood a little distance from the ground occupied by the troops, I made my way there to find the Osage warriors with their chiefs, Little Beaver and Hard Rope. They were wrapped up in their blankets sitting in a circle, and had evidently made no effort to sleep during the night. It was plain to be seen that they regarded the occasion as a momentous one and that the coming battle had been the sole subject of their conference. What the views expressed by them were I did not learn until after the engagement was fought, when they told me what ideas they had entertained regarding the manner in which the white men would probably conduct and terminate the struggle next day. After the success of the day was decided, the Osages told me that, with the suspicion so natural and peculiar to the Indian nature, they had, in discussing the proposed attack upon the Indian village, concluded that we would be outnumbered by the occupants of the village, who of course would fight with the utmost desperation in defense of their lives and lodges, and to prevent a complete defeat of our forces or to secure a drawn battle we might be induced to engage in a parley with the hostile tribe, and on coming to an agreement we would probably, to save ourselves, offer to yield up our Osage allies as a compromise measure between our enemies and ourselves.
They also mistrusted the ability of the whites to make a successful attack upon a hostile village, located, as this one was known to be, in heavy timber, and aided by the natural banks of the stream. Disaster seemed certain in the minds of the Osages to follow us, if we attacked a force of unknown strength and numbers; and the question with them was to secure such a position in the attack as to be able promptly to detect any move disadvantageous to them. With this purpose they came to the conclusion that the standard-bearer was a very important personage, and neither he nor his standard would be carried into danger or exposed to the bullets of the enemy. They determined therefore to take their station immediately behind my standard-bearer when the lines became formed for attack, to follow him during the action and thus be able to watch our movements, and if we were successful over our foes to aid us; if the battle should go against us, then they, being in a safe position, could take advantage of circumstances and save themselves as best they might.
Turning from our Osage friends, who were, unknown to us, entertaining such doubtful opinions as to our fidelity to them, I joined another group near by, consisting of most of the white scouts. Here were California Joe and several of his companions. One of the latter deserves a passing notice. He was a low, heavy-set Mexican, with features resembling somewhat those of the Ethiopian-thick lips, depressed nose, and low forehead. He was quite a young man, probably not more than twenty-five years of age, but had passed the greater portion of his life with the Indians, had adopted their habits of life and modes of dress, and had married among them. Familiar with the language of the Cheyennes and other neighboring tribes, he was invaluable both as a scout and interpreter. His real name was Romero, but some of the officers of the command, with whom he was a sort of favorite, had dubbed him Romeo, and by this name he was always known, a sobriquet to which he responded as readily as if he had been christened under it; never protesting, like the original Romeo,
The scouts like nearly all the other members of the command had been interchanging opinions as to the result of the movements of the following day. Not sharing the mistrust and suspicion of the Osage guides, yet the present experience was in many respects new to them, and to some the issue seemed at least shrouded in uncertainty. Addressing the group, I began the conversation with the question as to what they thought of the prospect of our having a fight. "Fight!" responded California Joe; "I haven't nary doubt concernin' that part uv the business; what I've been tryin' to get through my topknot all night is whether we'll run aginst more than we bargain fur." "Then you do not think the Indians will run away, Joe?"
"Run away! How in creation can Injuns or anybody else run away when we'll have 'em clean surrounded afore daylight?" "Well, suppose then that we succeed in surrounding the village, do you think we can hold our own against the Indians?" "That's the very pint that's been botherin' me ever since we planted ourselves down here, and the only conclusion I kin come at is that it's purty apt to be one thing or t'other; if we jump these Injuns at daylight, we're either goin' to make a spoon or spile a horn, an' that's my candid judgment, sure. One thing's certain, ef them Injuns doesn't har anything uv us till we open on 'em at daylight, they'll be the most powerful 'stonished redskins that's been in these parts lately- they will, sure. An' ef we git the bulge on 'em and keep puttin' it to 'em sort a lively like we'll sweep the platter, thar won't be nary trick left for 'em. As the deal stands now we hold the keerds and are holdin' over 'em; they've got to straddle our blind or throw up their hands. Howsomever, thar's a mighty sight in the draw."
California Joe continued in this strain and by a prolific use of terms connected with other transactions besides fighting Indians did not fail to impress his hearers that his opinion in substance was that our attack in the morning was to result in overwhelming success to us, or that we would be utterly routed and dispersed-that there would be no drawn battle.
The night passed in quiet. I anxiously watched the opening signs of dawn in order to put the column in motion. We were only a few hundred yards from the point from which we were to attack. The moon disappeared about two hours before dawn and left us enshrouded in thick and utter darkness, making the time seem to drag even slower than before.
At last faint signs of approaching day were visible and I proceeded to collect the officers, awakening those who slept. We were standing in a group near the head of the column when suddenly our attention was attracted by a remarkable sight and for a time we felt that the Indians had discovered our presence. Directly beyond the crest of the hill which separated us from the village and in a line with the supposed location of the latter we saw rising slowly but perceptibly, as we thought, up from the village and appearing in bold relief against the dark sky as a background something which we could only compare to a signal rocket, except that its motion was slow and regular. All eyes were turned to it in blank astonishment and but one idea seemed to be entertained, and that was that one or both of the two attacking columns under Elliot or Thompson had encountered a portion of the village and this that we saw was the signal to other portions of the band near at hand. Slowly and majestically it continued to rise above the crest of the hill, first appearing as a small brilliant flaming globe of bright golden hue. As it ascended still higher it seemed to increase in size, to move more slowly, while its colors rapidly changed from one to the other, exhibiting in turn the most beautiful combinations of prismatic tints. There seemed to be not the shadow of doubt that we were discovered.
The strange apparition in the heavens maintained its steady course upward. One anxious spectator, observing it apparently at a standstill, exclaimed: "How long it hangs fire! why don't it explode?" still keeping the idea of a signal rocket in mind. It had risen perhaps to the height of half a degree above the horizon as observed from our position when, lo! the mystery was dispelled. Rising above the mystifying influences of the atmosphere, that which had appeared so suddenly before us and excited our greatest apprehensions developed into the brightest and most beautiful of morning stars. Often since that memorable morning have I heard officers remind each other of the strange appearance which had so excited our anxiety and alarm. In less perilous moments we probably would have regarded it as a beautiful phenomenon of nature, of which so many are to be witnessed through the pure atmosphere of the Plains.
All were ordered to get ready to advance; not a word to officer or men was spoken above undertone. It began growing lighter in the east and we moved forward toward the crest of the hill. Up to this time two of the officers and one of the Osages had remained on the hill overlooking the valley beyond so as to detect any attempt at a movement on the part of the occupants of the village below. These now rejoined the troops. Colonel West's squadron was formed in line on the right, Captain Hamilton's squadron in line on the left, while Colonel Cooke with his forty sharpshooters was formed in advance of the left, dismounted. Although the early morning air was freezingly cold the men were directed to remove their overcoats and haversacks, so as to render them free in their movements.
Before advancing beyond the crest of the hill strict orders were issued prohibiting the firing of a single shot until the signal to attack should be made. The other three detachments had been informed before setting out that the main column would attack promptly at daylight without waiting to ascertain whether they were in position or not. In fact it would be impracticable to communicate with either of the first two until the attack began. The plan was for each party to approach as closely to the village as possible without being discovered and there await the approach of daylight. The regimental band was to move with my detachment and it was understood that the band should strike up the instant the attack opened. Colonel Meyers, commanding the third party, was also directed to move one half his detachment dismounted.
In this order we began to descend the slope leading down to the village. The distance to the timber in the valley proved greater than it had appeared to the eye in the darkness of the night. We soon reached the outskirts of the herd of ponies. The latter seemed to recognize us as hostile parties and moved quickly away. The light of day was each minute growing stronger and we feared discovery before we could approach near enough to charge the village. The movement of our horses over the crusted snow produced considerable noise and would doubtless have led to our detection but for the fact that the Indians, if they heard it at all, presumed it was occasioned by their herd of ponies. I would have given much at that moment to know the whereabouts of the first two columns sent out. Had they reached their assigned positions, or had unseen and unknown obstacles delayed or misled them? These were questions which could not then be answered. We had now reached the level of the valley and began advancing in line toward the heavy timber in which and close at hand we knew the village was situated.
Immediately in rear of my horse came the band, all mounted and each with his instrument in readiness to begin playing the moment their leader, who rode at their head and who kept his cornet to his lips, should receive the signal. I had previously told him to play Garry Owen as the opening piece. We had approached near enough to the village now to plainly catch a view here and there of the tall white lodges as they stood in irregular order among the trees. From the openings at the top of some of them we could perceive faint columns of smoke ascending, the occupants no doubt having kept up their feeble fires during the entire night. We had approached so near the village that from the dead silence which reigned I feared the lodges were deserted, the Indians having fled before we advanced. I was about to turn in my saddle and direct the signal for attack to be given, still anxious as to where the other detachments were, when a single rifle shot rang sharp and clear on the far side of the village from where we were. Quickly turning to the band leader, I directed him to give us Garry Owen. At once the rollicking notes of that familiar marching and fighting air sounded forth through the valley and in a moment were reechoed back from the opposite sides by the loud and continued cheers of the men of the other detachments, who, true to their orders, were there and in readiness to pounce upon the Indians the moment the attack began.
In this manner the battle of the Washita commenced. The bugles sounded the charge and the entire command dashed rapidly into the village. The Indians were caught napping; but realizing at once the dangers of their situation, they quickly overcame their first surprise and in an instant seized their rifles, bows, and arrows, and sprang behind the nearest trees, while some leaped into the stream, nearly waist deep, and using the bank as a rifle-pit began a vigorous and determined defense. Mingled with the exultant cheers of my men could be heard the defiant war-whoop of the warriors, who from the first fought with a desperation and courage which no race of men could surpass. Actual possession of the village and its lodges was ours within a few moments after the charge was made, but this was an empty victory unless we could vanquish the late occupants, who were then pouring in a rapid and well directed fire from their stations behind trees and banks. At the first onset a considerable number of the Indians rushed from the village in the direction from which Elliot's party had attacked. Some broke through the lines, while others came in contact with the mounted troopers and were killed or captured.
Before engaging in the fight orders had been given to prevent the killing of any but the fighting strength of the village; but in a struggle of this character it is impossible at all times to discriminate, particularly when, in a hand-to-hand conflict such as the one the troops were then engaged in the squaws are as dangerous adversaries as the warriors, while Indian boys between ten and fifteen years of age were found as expert and determined in the use of the pistol and bow and arrow as the older warriors. Of these facts we had numerous illustrations. Major Benteen, in leading the attack of his squadron through the timber below the village, encountered an Indian boy scarcely fourteen years of age; he was well mounted and was endeavoring to make his way through the lines. The object these Indians had in attempting this movement we were then ignorant of, but soon learned to our sorrow. This boy rode boldly toward the Major, seeming to invite a contest. His youthful bearing, and not being looked upon as a combatant, induced Major Benteen to endeavor to save him by making peace signs to him and obtaining his surrender, when he could be placed in a position of safety until the battle was terminated; but the young savage desired and would accept no such friendly concessions. He regarded himself as a warrior and the son of a warrior and as such he purposed to do a warrior's part. With revolver in hand he dashed at the Major, who still could not regard him as anything but a harmless lad. Levelling his weapon as he rode, he fired, but either from excitement or the changing positions of both parties his aim was defective and the shot whistled harmlessly by Major Benteen's head. Another followed in quick succession, but with no better effect. All this time the dusky little chieftain boldly advanced, to lessen the distance between himself and his adversary. A third bullet was sped on its errand and this time to some purpose, as it passed through the neck of the Major's horse close to the shoulder. Making a final but ineffectual appeal to him to surrender and seeing him still preparing to fire again, the Major was forced in self-defense to level his revolver and despatch him, although as he did so it was with admiration for the plucky spirit exhibited by the lad and regret often expressed that no other course under the circumstances was left him. Attached to the saddle bow of the young Indian hung a beautifully wrought pair of small moccasins elaborately ornamented with beads. One of the Major's troopers afterward secured these and presented them to him. These furnished the link of evidence by which we subsequently ascertained who the young chieftain was, a title which was justly his, both by blood and bearing.
We had gained the center of the village and were in the midst of the lodges, while on all sides could be heard the sharp crack of the Indian rifles and the heavy responses from the carbines of the troopers. After disposing of the smaller and scattering parties of warriors who had attempted a movement down the valley, and in which some were successful, there was but little opportunity left for the successful employment of mounted troops. As the Indians by this time had taken cover behind logs and trees and under the banks of the stream which flowed through the center of the village, from which stronghold it was impracticable to dislodge them by the use of mounted men, a large portion of the command was at once ordered to fight on foot, and the men were instructed to take advantage of the trees and other natural means of cover and fight the Indians in their own style.
Cooke's sharpshooters had adopted this method from the first, and with telling effect. Slowly but steadily the Indians were driven from behind the trees, and those who escaped the carbine bullets posted themselves with their companions who were already firing from the banks. One party of troopers came upon a squaw endeavoring to make her escape, leading by the hand a little white boy, a prisoner in the hands of the Indians, and who doubtless had been captured by some of their war parties during a raid upon the settlements. Who or where his parents were, or whether still alive or murdered by the Indians, will never be known, as the squaw, finding herself and prisoner about to be surrounded by the troops and her escape cut off, determined, with savage malignity, that the triumph of the latter should not embrace the rescue of the white boy. Casting her eyes quickly in all directions to convince herself that escape was impossible, she drew from beneath her blanket a huge knife and plunged it into the almost naked body of her captive. The next moment retributive justice reached her in the shape of a well-directed bullet from one of the troopers' carbines. Before the men could reach them life was extinct in the bodies of both the squaw and her unknown captive.
The desperation with which the Indians fought may be inferred from the following: Seventeen warriors had posted themselves in a depression in the ground which enabled them to protect their bodies completely from the fire of our men, and it was only when the Indians raised their heads to fire that the troopers could aim with any prospect of success. All efforts to drive the warriors from this point proved abortive and resulted in severe loss to our side. They were only vanquished at last by our men securing positions under cover and picking them off by sharpshooting as they exposed themselves to get a shot at the troopers. Finally the last one was despatched in this manner. In a deep ravine near the suburbs of the village the dead bodies of thirty-eight warriors were reported after the fight terminated.
Many of the squaws and children had very prudently not attempted to leave the village when we attacked it, but remained concealed inside their lodges. All these escaped injury, although when surrounded by the din and wild excitement of the fight and in close proximity to the contending parties their fears overcame some of them and they gave went to their despair by singing the death song, a combination of weird-like sounds which were suggestive of anything but musical tones. As soon as we had driven the warriors from the village and the fighting was pushed to the country outside I directed Romeo, the interpreter, to go around to all the lodges and assure the squaws and children remaining in them that they would be unharmed and kindly cared for; at the same time he was to assemble them in the large lodges designated for that purpose which were standing near the center of the village. This was quite a delicate mission as it was difficult to convince the squaws and children that they had anything but death to expect at our hands.
It was perhaps ten o'clock in the forenoon and the fight was still raging when to our surprise we saw a small party of Indians collected on a knoll a little over a mile below the village and in the direction taken by those Indians who had effected an escape through our lines at the commencement of the attack. My surprise was not so great at first as I imagined that the Indians we saw were those who had contrived to escape, and having procured their ponies from the herd had mounted them and were then anxious spectators of the fight, which they felt themselves too weak in numbers to participate in.
In the meantime the herds of ponies belonging to the village, on being alarmed by the firing and shouts of the contestants, had, from a sense of imagined security or custom, rushed into the village, where details of troopers were made to receive them. California Joe, who had been moving about in a promiscuous and independent manner, came galloping into the village and reported that a large herd of ponies was to be seen near by, and requested authority and some men to bring them in. The men were otherwise employed just then, but he was authorized to collect and drive in the herd if practicable. He departed on his errand and I had forgotten all about him and the ponies when in the course of half an hour I saw a herd of nearly three hundred ponies coming on the gallop toward the village, driven by a couple of squaws who were mounted, and had been concealed near by, no doubt; while bringing up the rear was California Joe, riding his favorite mule and whirling about his head a long lariat, using it as a whip in urging the herd forward. He had captured the squaws while endeavoring to secure the ponies, and very wisely had employed his captives to assist in driving the herd.
By this time the group of Indians already discovered outside our lines had increased until it numbered upwards of a hundred. Examining them through my field glass, I could plainly perceive that they were all mounted warriers; not only that, but they were armed and caparisoned in full war costume, nearly all wearing the bright-colored war-bonnets and floating their lance pennants. Constant accessions to their numbers were to be seen arriving from beyond the hill on which they stood. All this seemed inexplicable. A few Indians might have escaped through our lines when the attack on the village began, but only a few, and even these must have gone with little or nothing in their possession save their rifles and perhaps a blanket. Who could these new parties be, and from whence came they?
To solve these troublesome questions I sent for Romeo, and taking him with me to one of the lodges occupied by the squaws, I interrogated one of the latter as to who were the Indians to be seen assembling on the hill below the village. She informed me, to a surprise on my part almost equal to that of the Indians at our sudden appearance at daylight, that just below the village we then occupied, and which was a part of the Cheyenne tribe, were located in succession the winter villages of all the hostile tribes of the southern Plains with which we were at war, Including the Arapahoes, Kiowas, the remaining band of Cheyennes, the Comanches, and a portion of the Apaches; that the nearest village was about two miles distant, and the others stretched along through the timbered valley to the one farthest off, which was not over ten miles.
What was to be done!-for I needed no one to tell me that we were certain to be attacked and that, too, by greatly superior numbers, just as soon as the Indians below could make their arrangements to do so; and they had probably been busily employed at these arrangements ever since the sound of firing had reached them in the early morning, and been reported from village to village. Fortunately, affairs took a favorable turn in the combat in which we were then engaged, and the firing had almost died away. Only here and there where some warrior still maintained his position was the fight continued. Leaving as few men as possible to look out for these, I hastily collected and reformed my command and posted them in readiness for the attack which we all felt was soon to be made; for already at different points and in more than one direction we could see more than enough warriors to outnumber us and we knew they were only waiting the arrival of the chiefs and warriors from the lower villages before making any move against us.
In the meanwhile our temporary hospital had been established in the center of the village, where the wounded were receiving such surgical care as circumstances would permit. Our losses had been severe; indeed, we were not then aware how great they had been. Hamilton, who rode at my side as we entered the village and whose soldierly tones I heard for the last time as he calmly cautioned his squadron, "Now, men, keep cool, fire low, and not too rapidly," was among the first victims of the opening charge, having been shot from his saddle by a bullet from an Indian rifle. He died instantly. His lifeless remains were tenderly, carried by some of his troopers to the vicinity of the hospital. Soon afterwards I saw four troopers coming from the front bearing between them in a blanket a wounded soldier; galloping to them, I discovered Colonel Barnitz, another troop commander, who was almost in a dying condition, having been shot by a rifle bullet directly through the body in the vicinity of the heart. Of Major Elliot, the officer second in rank, nothing had been seen since the attack at daylight, when he rode with his detachment into the village. He, too, had evidently been killed, but as yet we knew not where or how he had fallen. Two other officers had received wounds, while the casualties among the enlisted men were also large. The sergeant-major of the regiment, who was with me when the first shot was heard, had not been seen since that moment.
We were not in as effective condition by far as when the attack was made, yet we were soon to be called upon to contend against a force immensely superior to the one with which we had been engaged during the early hours of the day. The captured herds of ponies were carefully collected inside our lines and so guarded as to prevent their stampede or recapture by the Indians. Our wounded, and the immense amount of captured property in the way of ponies, lodges, etc., as well as our prisoners, were obstacles in the way of our attempting an offensive movement against the lower villages. To have done this would have compelled us to divide our forces, when it was far from certain that we could muster strength enough united to repel the attacks of the combined tribes. On all sides of us the Indians could Now be seen in considerable numbers, so that from being the surrounding party, as we had been in the morning, we now found ourselves surrounded and occupying the position of defenders of the village.
Fortunately for us, as the men had been expending a great many rounds, Major Bell, the quartermaster, who with a small escort was endeavoring to reach us with a fresh supply of ammunition, had by constant exertion and hard marching succeeded in doing so and now appeared on the ground with several thousand rounds of carbine ammunition, a reinforcement greatly needed. He had no sooner arrived safely than the Indians attacked from the direction from which he came. How he had managed to elude their watchful eyes I never could comprehend unless their attention had been so completely absorbed in watching our movements inside as to prevent them from keeping an eye out to discover what might be transpiring elsewhere.
Issuing a fresh supply of ammunition to those most in want of it, the fight soon began generally at all points of the circle. For such in reality had our line of battle become, a continuous and unbroken circle of which the village was about the center. Notwithstanding the great superiority in numbers of the Indians, they fought with excessive prudence and a lack of that confident manner which they usually manifest when encountering greatly inferior numbers, a result due, no doubt, to the fate which had overwhelmed our first opponents. Besides, the timber and the configuration of the ground enabled us to keep our men concealed until their services were actually required. It seemed to be the design and wish of our antagonists to draw us away from the village; but in this they were foiled.
Seeing that they did not intend to press the attack just then, about two hundred of my men were ordered to pull down the lodges in the village and collect the captured property in huge piles preparatory to burning. This was done in the most effectual manner. When everything had been collected the torch was applied, and all that was left of the village were a few heaps of blackened ashes. Whether enraged at the sight of this destruction or from other cause, the attack soon became general knowledge along our entire line, and pressed with so much vigor and audacity that every available trooper was required to aid in meeting these assaults. The Indians would push a party of well-mounted warriors close up to our lines in the endeavor to find a weak point through which they might venture, but in every attempt were driven back.
I now concluded, as the village was off our hands and our wounded had been collected, that offensive measures might be adopted. To this end several of the squadrons were mounted and ordered to advance and attack the enemy wherever force sufficient was exposed to be a proper object of attack, but at the same time to be cautious as to ambuscades. Colonel Weir, who had succeeded to the command of Hamilton's squadron, Colonels Benteen and Meyers with their respective squadrons, all mounted, advanced and engaged the enemy. The Indians resisted every step taken by the troops, while every charge made by the latter was met or followed by a charge from the Indians, who continued to appear in large numbers at unexpected times and places. The squadrons acting in support of each other and the men in each being kept well in hand, were soon able to force the line held by the Indians to yield at any point assailed. This being followed up promptly, the Indians were driven at every point and forced to abandon the field to us. Yet they would go no farther than they were actually driven.
It was now about three o'clock in the afternoon. I knew that the officer left in charge of the train and eighty men would push after us, follow our trail, and endeavor to reach us at the earliest practicable moment. From the tops of some of the highest peaks or round hills in the vicinity of the village I knew the Indians could reconnoiter the country for miles in all directions. I feared if we remained as we were then until the following day the Indians might in this manner discover the approach of our train and detach a sufficient body of warriors to attack and capture it; and its loss to us, aside from that of its guard, would have proved most serious, leaving us in the heart 0@ the enemy's country in midwinter, totally out of supplies for both men and horses.
By actual count we had in our possession eight hundred and seventy-five captured ponies, so wild and unused to white men that it was difficult to herd them. What we were to do with them was puzzling as they could not have been led had we been possessed of the means of doing this; neither could we drive them as the Indians were accustomed to do. And even if we could take them with us, either one way or the other, it was anything but wise or desirable on our part to do so as such a large herd of ponies, constituting so much wealth in the eyes of the Indians, would have been too tempting a prize to the warriors who had been fighting us all the afternoon, and to effect their recapture they would have followed and waylaid us day and night with every prospect of success until we should have arrived at a place of safety. Besides, we had upwards of sixty prisoners in our hands to say nothing of our wounded, to embarrass our movements. We had achieved a great and important success over the hostile tribes; the problem now was how to retain our advantage and steer safely through the difficulties which seemed to surround our position. The Indians had suffered a telling defeat involving great losses in life and valuable property. Could they succeed, however, in depriving us of the train and supplies and in doing this accomplish the killing or capture of the escort it would go far to offset the damage we had been able to inflict upon them and render our victory an empty one.
As I deliberated on these points in the endeavor to conclude upon that which would be our wisest course, I could look in nearly all directions and see the warriors at a distance collected in groups on the tops of the highest hills, apparently waiting and watch and watching our next move that they might act accordingly. To guide my command safely out of the difficulties which seemed just then to beset them I again had recourse to that maxim in war which teaches a commander to do that which his enemy neither expects nor desires him to do.