Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

Relief for Beecher's Island

And a Rattle-Snake in the Way

The Plains Indians—the Sioux, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, the Kiowas, the Comanches—had fought hard, during the war of the white men in the East, to clear their hunting grounds; but when in 1866 the Civil War had ended they found that the Americans were pressing forward more strongly than ever.

Two iron roads were being surveyed through the buffalo country; new gold fields, in Montana, were being opened and a white man's wagon-road, protected by forts, was being laid out to reach them by a short cut through Wyoming.

With two thousand of his Oglala Sioux, Chief Red Cloud undertook to close this wagon-road; and close it he did. He beleaguered new Fort Phil Kearney in northern Wyoming, wiped out one detachment of eighty-one men, attacked other detachments, cut off the supplies from all the forts, stood firmly in the path; and in 1868 the United States Government agreed to withdraw all soldiers and leave the country to the Sioux.'

But the iron trails continued. There were the Union Pacific in the north, the Kansas Pacific on the south. The first drove its stakes and laid its rails along the great white wagon-road of the Oregon Trail and the Overland Trail, which already had split the buffalo herds. The Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes fought it in Nebraska, they fought it in Wyoming; until in 1868 it still had not been stopped, it was lunging on straight for the mountains, and in the treaty that promised him the hunting grounds north of it Chief Red Cloud also promised to let it alone.

The Cheyennes, their allies from the Sioux and the Arapahos, made no such promise regarding the Kansas Pacific. The Union Pacific "thunder wagons" had divided the buffalo into the northern and the southern herds; now the southern herd was to be divided again. A line of forts was creeping on; the soldiers were increasing; and the "thunder wagons" were to travel back and forth between the Missouri River and Denver, frightening the buffalo that grazed in central Kansas, and bringing in hunters to kill them.

"If the road does not stop," said Chief Roman Nose of the Cheyennes, "I shall be the white man's enemy forever."

By the fall of 1868 the rails had reached four hundred and twelve miles, almost clear across northern Kansas, to Fort Wallace near the border of Colorado. Every mile of the last two hundred and more had been a fight; wellnigh every mile of these same had been stained red; all western Kansas was a battle ground, upon which settlers, soldiers, surveyors and track-builders gave up their lives. The Cheyennes lost heavily, but they showed no signs of quitting. They were getting worse.

At the end of August General Phil Sheridan, who commanded the Military Division of the Missouri, directed Major George A. Forsythe of the Ninth Cavalry to enlist fifty scouts and ride against the Indians—fight them in their own way. He left Fort Wallace on the morning of August 29; struck a broad Indian trail leading northward; early in the morning of September 17 was surprised by six hundred Cheyennes, Sioux and Arapahos, and was forced to entrench upon a little island in the Arikaree River of eastern Colorado not far from the Nebraska line; and here he stood off the charges of the Indian horsemen—five hundred at once.

All that day the fight was waged. Major Forsythe was wounded three times; Lieutenant Beecher was killed; Surgeon Mooers was dying; all the horses were dead; horse-flesh was the only food and the enemy had ringed the island with rifle-fire.

This evening volunteers were called for, to steal through the deadly circle and carry messages to Fort Wallace, one hundred miles south. There was no lack of men eager to try; Scouts "Pet" Trudeau and "Jack" Stillwell were chosen.

Scout Trudeau was a grown man, but Jack Stillwell was only nineteen, and boyish looking. Nevertheless, he, too, was a man. He knew Indians and he knew the plains; he was able to give a good account of himself. Scout Trudeau asked no better comrade on the danger trail.

They prepared to leave in the dark. At midnight they shook hands with their officer and their nearest fellows. With a piece of horse-flesh for food, with revolvers at belts and carbines in hand, and their boots slung from their necks, in their stockinged feet they quietly vanished, wrapped in their blankets so as to look as much like Indians as possible.

At first Trudeau led, because he was the older; toward the end Jack Stillwell led, because he proved to be the stronger. As they crossed from the little island to the dry bottom of the river-bed, they turned and walked backward. On the sand their stockinged feet made tracks like moccasin tracks, all pointing for the island. The Indians would not know that anybody had escaped.

Quiet reigned all around, except for the yapping of the coyotes. But they two were well aware that the camps of six hundred warriors were scattered everywhere, resting only until daylight.

Having entered the dry channel of the river, they did another wise thing. They crossed it, instead of keeping on down; and crawling, they stuck to the high ground, even the tops of the bare ridges, instead of taking to the ravines and washes.

"Never do what the enemy expects you to do," is a military maxim, although rather hard to follow in modern fighting. The natural trail for scouts through the lines would be by the river bottom, and by other low ground out of sight. The Indians, Scout Stillwell learned afterward from chiefs themselves, were watching all the river channel and all the ravines, this night. The two scouts fooled them, and found the ridge trails thinly guarded. Those Indians not on guard were sleeping out of the breeze.

Through every yard of their crawl the hearts of the two scouts were in their throats. To creep amidst the dark, this way, with Indians before, behind, on right, on left—who knew where?—was nerve-racking. When the stars began to pale only two miles had been covered. Slow work, careful work, fearful work! Now for a hiding-place. They would be seen instantly by daylight.

They cautiously slipped on, for a little arroyo or dried wash, bordered by brittle weeds. Even this might be occupied ahead of them. If it was, then that meant death or capture—and capture meant death also, by torture in revenge for warriors slain. They had agreed to fight to the last cartridge, and then to use their last cartridge on themselves after destroying their message.

Cautiously, cautiously they harked and peered; they gently parted the weeds and wormed in, closing the weeds behind them again. The arroyo was empty. In the first tinge of gray they crouched under the high bank overhung by the weeds, to wait.

The night had passed, and here they were, abroad in the very thick of the Indians, to face a day of unknown perils. It was to be a long, long day.

The stars faded; the sky brightened; squads of Indians galloped by, to the fight. The sun rose, flooding the world above the arroyo. Gun-shots spatted dully—fast and faster; the fight at the island was on.

From hour to hour they listened, hoping that the shots would not cease. While the firing continued, the island was holding out. The firing did continue, and that nerved their hearts afresh. Their comrades were bravely battling while depending upon them.

The arroyo grew stifling hot. They had no water, and saved their horse-beef for an emergency. They had been tired when they started—already had fought one whole day through, on slim rations. But they dared not move on. When they ventured to peep over the edge of the arroyo, they saw an Indian camp of women and old men in plain view—could catch the voices, now and then. The country was an open country; nothing could stir above its surface without being sighted.

Finally the sun set, the dusk gathered, and in darkness again they crept out. A full day gone, only two miles gained in a day and half a night—two miles in one hundred! But the island was still held by their comrades.

They put on their boots, and to-night they made better headway. Twice they had to flatten and muffle their breathing, for parties of Indians rode almost upon them. The country seemed to be alarmed; Indians were riding back and forth constantly. All the landmarks were shrouded and changed; they headed south and easterly by the stars—and at daybreak were obliged to hide in a hurry, for they somehow were running right into the main village of the Cheyennes!

They had come ten miles from their arroyo, and were at the South Republican River in western Kansas. This time they crawled along under the river bank, and into the tall coarse grass of a bayou that bordered the river. They could see the village; they could hear the squaws chanting the mourning songs for dead warriors, and might watch them carrying bodies to the scaffolds.

Had that village known two white scouts were so near—! Why, once during the day a party of warriors watered their horses not thirty feet from where Scouts Trudeau and Stillwell were lying; and time after time other war parties crossed and recrossed the river here. It was a ford.

The second long day passed. In the darkness of the third night out they crossed the river themselves, and side-stepping the village and its wolfish dogs struck south once more. They had to dodge night-roving Indians, as before, but they traveled steadily; there was no sign, by any of the Indians they met, that the island had been taken. This gave hope, still.

"We're getting through, Jack," spoke Scout Trudeau, toward morning. "But we'll have to do better. Will you risk day travel with me, so we can finish up. There are anxious hearts, back yonder; and by this time the boys are suffering something fearful."

"I'm game, 'Pet.' "

So they did not stop, with daylight. Keeping to the coulees or washes, and the draws, and the stream beds, they zigzagged on. They had counted upon the Indians all being attracted in to the island, by this time; but they had counted too soon.

About eight o'clock, while they were crossing a high rolling prairie, Scout Trudeau suddenly dropped. Scout Stillwell imitated—did not hesitate an instant.

"Don't move! Don't breathe! Look yonder!"

A long file of mounted Indians had emerged around the base of a low hill not a mile away, off to the northwest, and were coming on.

"We'll have to cache ourselves in a hurry."

The table-land was bare and level. For a moment their, hearts sank. Then they noted a patch of tall, stiff yellowed weeds growing from an old buffalo wallow. In the wet season the buffalo had rolled in the mud here, until they had scooped a little hollow; the hollow had formed a shallow water-hole; the rains had collected and sunk in, and provided moisture for the weeds long after the surrounding soil had dried.

It was the only cover in sight, and for it they crawled.

The Indians came straight on. Had they seen? If so, good-by to life and to the message.

The two scouts had intended to break the weeds and cloak themselves with the stems—a camouflage of old days and new. The screen was very thin, for concealment on all sides. But the Indians granted no time. Trudeau and young Jack might only squirm into the very middle. An old buffalo carcass was here. It had not been disturbed. Scraps of brittle hide still clung to its frame-work of ribs. All that they might do was to crawl close to the frame-work and lie beside it.

The Indians halted before reaching the wallow; they could see that it contained no water. But presently one of their young men rode forward, surveying the landscape; posted himself not one hundred yards from the wallow, and there he sat, on his horse, like a sentry.

The two scouts hugged the ground; it was white with alkali, and as seemed to them they were clearly outlined, through the yellow weeds. Then an alarming thing happened. The buffalo carcass had, not been the only occupant of the wallow. Jack nudged Scout Trudeau, and pointed with his thumb. A king rattle-snake, over four feet long and as thick as their arm, was gliding for them, and the carcass.

His head was up, his tongue shot in and out; possibly the carcass was his tipi—at any rate, they had annoyed him, and he was declaring war.

Now what to do? If they waited, he would keep on coming! Horrors! If they moved, he would coil, and rattle. They dared not shoot; they dared not wait—could not stand having him crawl under them or over them, and perhaps strike; they dared not let him rattle.

A rattle-snake does not rattle for nothing. The Indian sentinel would hear, would gaze, would be curious, would suspect, would approach; and then—death to two scouts, despair for the island.

Fascinated, they watched the great, yellowish blotched snake. He loitered, basked, his tongue played, his fangs showed, he came on, little by little. Oh, if he would only veer off! But he was determined. What an ugly, obstinate brute! What an abominable trick! And yonder, still sat the vigilant Indian.

They waited until the snake was within six feet. They could fairly smell his musky odor, and he was growing angrier and angrier—was likely to coil and rattle, any moment. They were at their wits' end, their nerve almost breaking, what with the menace of the snake and the menace of the Indian lookout, at the same time.

Jack Stillwell solved the problem. He was chewing tobacco.

"Sh! I'll fix him," he whispered.

He slightly raised—at the movement the snake coiled, rattle sticking up in the center, head poised, tongue licking wickedly. And aiming his best, Jack spat.

The stream spurted truly. It drenched the beady-eyed, flat-iron head, flooded the swaying neck and spattered the thick scaly coils. With a writhe and a hiss the blinded snake threshed to one side and burrowed for shelter. Jack chuckled and shook. He had cleared the decks of one enemy.

Nearly at the same time the Indian look-out rode away, following the retiring band. That was a great relief. Between the snake and the Indian scout Trudeau and Stillwell had experienced, as the record says, the most terrible half-hour of their lives.

The collapse of the danger left them both weak. They now had found out that it was not yet safe to travel by day; so they stayed here in the wallow, with the buffalo carcass for company, till evening.

In this next night's journey poor Trudeau broke. The strain was proving too much. They had eaten nothing since leaving the island, they had crawled for miles, had traveled by night, through the midst of the Indians, for fifty miles; had escaped again and again only by the sheerest good fortune. He broke, and young Jack had all that he could do, for a time, to keep him from seeing imaginary forms and running amuck over the plain, or else killing himself.

Toward morning he succeeded in quieting him, making him drink heartily from a stream and swallow some of the horse-beef. They pushed on. It was a foggy day, and they did not stop. Jack now had to furnish the brains and the strength, and do the bracing. But he was equal to it; he selected the trail and helped his staggering partner. Neither was braver than the other, but one had more reserve power.

At noon they were within twenty miles of Fort Wallace. That fourth evening after dusk they were challenged by the post sentry, and tottered on in with their message from the island in the Arikaree, one hundred miles to the northward.

Jack Stillwell went with the relief column from the fort. Scout Trudeau could not; he was exhausted. He never did recover, and the next spring he died; he had given his life to save the lives of others. Scout Stillwell followed many another danger trail, until the Indian wars upon his plains were over; then he became a lawyer and a judge, and in 1902 answered the last roll-call.