Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

White Men at Bay Again

The Fight of the Privates

When the news of the attack upon Adobe Walls had gone forth, and reports of other raids followed thick and fast, the army in Texas, Kansas and Indian Territory were ordered out. Plainly enough, there was a great Indian uprising. The reservation peace had been broken.

Colonel Nelson A. Miles of the Fifth United States Infantry was directed to march from Fort Dodge on the Arkansas River just below Dodge City in south-western Kansas, and strike the Indians in Texas. He took eight troops of the Sixth Cavalry, four companies of the Fifth Infantry, a section of artillery, twenty-five white scouts and a party of Delaware Indian scouts who were led by their gray-haired old chief, Fall Leaf.

Three other army columns, one from Texas in the south, one from New Mexico in the southwest, one from Indian Territory in the northeast, also were starting from the same place: the Staked Plain region of western and northwestern Texas.

Colonel Miles refitted at Camp Supply, one hundred miles south of Fort Dodge, and pushed on toward Adobe Walls.

His advance of scouts and one troop of cavalry were just in time to help save Adobe Walls from yet another attack by Comanches and Kiowas. But the little garrison of buffalo-hunters were still full of fight, and the heads of the twelve Indians still grinned down from the pickets of the corral.

The Indians fled southwest, for the Staked Plain. Colonel Miles pursued and had a brush or two. The marches were long and hard, through a very hot, dry country where the only water was bad. Soldiers suffered so from thirst that some of them opened veins in their own arms and sucked the blood.

The Staked Plain country is a desert except after the rains or where irrigated by ditches. It forms a high flat table-land whose edges drop sharply off in curiously pillared cliffs. Therefore the early Spanish called it El Llano Estacado—the Palisaded Plain; but the Americans believed that the name was given because the only trails across it were marked by stakes.

In later days it proved to be a vast range for cattle and horses; in the older days it was the stronghold of the Comanches, who knew every water-hole and every cave.

Drawing near to the Staked Plain, southwest of Adobe Walls, Colonel Miles decided that he must have more supplies. The trains were far in the rear, and may have been cut off. On the afternoon of September 10 he directed that dispatches be sent back, for the trains or else for Camp Supply on the North Canadian River in northwestern Oklahoma which at that time was Indian Territory.

Fight of the Privates


The men selected were Sergeant Z. T. Woodall of I troop, Sixth Cavalry; Private John Harrington of H troop, Private Peter Roth of A troop, Private George W. Smith of M troop; and Citizen Scouts Amos Chapman and Billy Dixon—the same Billy Dixon of Adobe Walls. After the Quana Parker fight he had joined the army service. Scout Chapman had been stationed at Fort Sill, on the reservation in Indian Territory.

The four soldiers wore the regulation summer campaign uniform of Plains days. Their shirts were dark blue flannel. The light blue cavalry trousers were reinforced at the seats with white canvas. Upon their heads were high-crowned black felt hats. Upon their feet were the high cavalry boots. Scouts Chapman and Dixon wore buckskin trousers edged with long fringes, Indian style. Their blue flannel shirts had rolling sailor collars. Upon their heads were white wool hats. Upon their feet were moccasins.

Those were the army and scout uniforms in 1874.

They were armed with the stubby Springfield carbines, caliber forty-five, and Colt's six-shooter revolvers taking the same cartridge. In their belts were hunting-knives and two hundred rounds, each, of ammunition. They rode light—their only extra covering was their coats tied behind their saddles. They did not take blankets nor shelter-tents; for they had more than a hundred miles to go, every mile of it, to the North Canadian, through roving Indians, and might have to race for their lives.

Of course their horses were the best in the whole column, and they themselves were accounted as among the bravest of the men. They well knew, like everybody else, that it would be nip and tuck to get through; but they felt that they had been honored by the orders.

So they rode out, in the evening of September 10. They trotted for the northeast, this night made a short camp, set on at daylight, covered fifty more miles before night, camped again, and at sunrise the next morning were approaching the Wichita River in what then was northern Texas but now is southwestern Oklahoma. From a prairie swell Amos Chapman pointed ahead.

"We're in luck, boys. There's the advance guard of the wagon train."

That was cheering news. They had done famously. The supplies were coming and possibly their dangerous trip had ended. They rode on, to meet the cavalry guard of the train. Scout Dixon suddenly spoke:

"Those aren't white soldiers! They're Injuns! They've seen us, too. We've got to run or fight."

"Yep; Injuns and heap Injuns," rapped Scout Chapman. "But we can't run. They'd catch us in a hurry and there's no timber to stand 'em off from. We'll have to face 'em and do the best we can."

When first sighted, the horsemen had been a mile distant, slowly riding among the grassy billows, and appearing and disappearing. They had dipped into a draw, had come out less than a half a mile away; a second, much larger party had galloped into view; all were spreading into a broad front and were tearing forward. The sun shone on their red blankets, their painted feathers and their tufted lances.

"Look to your guns and cinches, boys," ordered Sergeant Woodall, his weathered face grimly set. "We're good for 'em. We've seen their kind before. Shall we make a running fight, Chapman?"

"No. There's too much cover for 'em. They'd lie in this grass like snakes and cut us off. Head into that first ravine, yonder. Maybe we can stand 'em off from there till help comes."

They six had only a moment for tightening their girths and unbuttoning their holster flaps.

Ford! Gallop!" barked the sergeant. They galloped. They and the foremost Indians reached the ravine, on opposite sides, at the same time. They plunged in, could go no farther. It was the work of only an instant to vault from the saddles, leave the six horses to be held by Private Smith, and level their carbines from the brush of the rim.

The Indians volleyed from the ravine edge. "They've got me," Private Smith called. He came running and dodging, his right arm dangling and bloody. "I had to leave the horses—couldn't hold 'em."

A moment more, and twenty-five of the Indians charged straight through the ravine, below, and up again; they were waving their blankets and yelling, and took five of the horses with them. It was done in a jiffy. Lead rained in, searching the ravine slope where the six white men were lying.

"This is no place," panted Scout Chapman. 'We'll all be dead, without a chance. The open is better, where we can see around. Come on, everybody."

"As skirmishers, men. Keep together and keep low," Sergeant Woodall ordered.

Out they lunged, into the very face of the enemy. The Indians gave way before but closed in behind.

"Fall back, fall back! Steady, now. Hold your intervals," Sergeant Woodall warned. "We'll try for shelter beyond. Mebbe we can make Gageby Creek. Don't waste a shot, but shoot to kill."

The sixth horse had followed them. Good old Baldy! An Indian dashed for him—Sergeant Woodall took quick aim and the pony scoured off, its saddle-pad empty. But Baldy whirled and was lost.

The short, thin line—four soldiers, two scouts—knelt, fired, ducked and ran a few steps, knelt and fired again. The Indians (there were one hundred and fifty) formed their circle; skimming around and around, shooting and whooping. Wherever the squad looked, they saw Indians. And they saw never a token of shelter: all the vast prairie was a sea of grass, unbroken by a tree. In spots the grass grew saddle high, but that was covert for the enemy too. When the squad halted, to rest, the Indians dismounted and commenced to crawl closer, through the grass. Then the six men had to jump up, and run on, shouting and firing. The Indians before leaped upon their horses again, and opened out; the Indians behind were afraid to shoot, for fear of killing their comrades opposite; but the Indians on either side pelted with bullets and arrows.

"None of us ever expected to get out alive," says Private Harrington. "We all determined to die hard and make the best fight possible."

The circling Indians charged to within twenty-five yards. Hanging almost under their ponies' bellies they shot from there, while those farther out daringly stood erect upon their saddles like circus riders and also fired at full speed; then racing in closer they swung low and fired again. Wherever the six men faced, before, behind, right, left, there the scurrying riders were.

They were Comanches and Kiowas. The Comanches were noted as the most skillful horsemen of the plains. They all were having fun. A medicine-man appeared to be their leader. He wore a head-dress of buffalo-horns and an eagle-feather trail streaming to his pony's tail. Time after time he charged to within twenty-five yards, at the head of his warriors, firing with a pistol and urging the braves to ride over the white men.

"Never mind him," Scout Chapman said. "He's harmless; he can't hit anything. Tend to the others."

The fight had begun at six in the morning. The long, long day slipped slowly by; the sun had changed from east to west, and the hour was four o'clock. By this time the six men were pretty well worn out. Private Smith's right arm was useless, but he shot left-handed with his revolver. Of the two hundred cartridges apiece, only a few were left. The Indians knew; they were growing even bolder. They all had dismounted, except the medicine-man, and were skulking through the grass. They had no fear that the white men could get away.

The medicine-man rode up once more, this time to within twenty yards. As he passed he taunted and fired his pistol. That was his last challenge, for Scout Dixon answered with a sudden bullet. Reeling, the medicine-man galloped away and they never saw him again.

But the end seemed near. No help had signaled. The Colonel Miles column was thirty-six hours' distant. Something had to be done before dark.

"You see that little knoll yonder?" gasped Amos Chapman. "We've got to make it. If we're caught here in this grass we're dead before morning. Now, all together, and don't stop. There we'll stay."

They advanced by steady rushes. The Indians knew. One by one they vaulted upon their ponies and dashed across the route. The six shot briskly and carefully, to clear the way. Fully twenty of the saddle-pads were emptied by the time the riders had reached a patch of tall grass which commanded the trail to the knoll. The ponies raced on and were rounded up by the squaws who followed the fight.

That was good shooting, and seemed to discourage the other Indians from trying for the grass, but they pressed hard behind, driving the white men on. Rear as well as front had to be protected, and an hour was consumed in approaching the knoll.

Then, with the knoll almost within grasp, up from the tall grass leaped the twenty or more Indians supposed to be dead. From fifty yards they poured in a smashing volley. Down crumpled Private Smith, in a heap. Sergeant Woodall was shot through the side, John Harrington through the hip, Peter Roth through the shoulder. It had been an Indian trick. The warriors had purposely tumbled from their ponies, here; the warriors behind had purposely driven the white men within short range.

But the five gained the knoll; they had to leave Private Smith for dead.

On the top of the knoll there was an old buffalo wallow—a shallow cup like a small circus ring. The cup was only a foot or two deep, but the grassy rim helped. The Indians veered from the black muzzles resting upon the ring, and drew off, to wait and jeer, and form another circle.

"We mustn't show we're wounded, boys," Sergeant Woodall ordered, sick with his own pain. "Move about, act lively; we'll lick 'em yet. And save your lead for close quarters."

"Smith's not dead! I see him stirring!" cried somebody. "There he is! But he can't make in."

"They'll get him after dark, then," groaned Private Roth. "That's tough, fellows. I'd rather he was dead."

Amos Chapman laid down his carbine.

"They sha'n't get him. You boys keep those infernal redskins off me and I'll run down and pick him up and fetch him back before they can stop me."

Without waiting for answer, he dashed out, and down the little slope. He and Scout Dixon were the only two not disabled.

George Smith was lying seventy or seventy-five yards out. It was a long way to go, and a longer way back under a load. But Amos reached him, before the Indians knew what was up. Then—

"He wasn't a large man, one hundred and sixty or seventy pounds," said Scot Amos, afterward, "but I declare he seemed to weigh a ton. Finally I lay down and got his chest across my back, and his arms around my neck, and then got up with him. It was as much as I could do to stagger under him, for he couldn't help himself a bit. By the time I'd made twenty or thirty yards, about fifteen Indians came for me at full speed on their ponies. They all knew me [he had been on their reservation], and yelled, 'Amos! Amos! We got you now Amos!' I pulled my pistol, but I couldn't hold Smith on my back with one hand, so I let him drop. The boys in the buffalo wallow opened up just at the right time, and I opened too, with my pistol. There was a tumbling of ponies and a scattering of Indians, and in a minute they were gone. I got Smith again and made my best time in, but before I could reach the wallow another gang came for me. I had only one or two cartridges left in my pistol, so I didn't stop to fight, but ran for it. When I was in about twenty yards of the wallow a little old scoundrel that I'd fed fifty time rode almost on to me and fired. I fell, with Smith on top of me; thought I'd stepped into a hole. The Indians didn't stay around there a minute; the boys kept it red-hot; so I jumped up, picked up Smith, and got safe into the wallow."


"You're hurt Amos! You're hurt bad, man!"

That was Billy Dixon.

"No I'm not. Why?" panted Amos.

"You aren't? Why, look at your leg!"

Sure enough! One leg was shot in two at the ankle joint, and Scott Chapman had run twenty yards, with Private Smith pick-a-back—dragging his loosened foot and stepping at every stride on the end of the leg-bone!

"I never knew it," he said. And strange to add, from that day onward he never felt any pain.

The six were together again. Private Smith was conscious, but couldn't handle himself. He was fatally wounded. That didn't daunt his courage.

"Prop me sitting boys," he begged. "Put me up where I'll do some good. You can shoot from behind me and I'll stop a few bullets, anyway."

"We'll not use you like a dead horse."

But he insisted on sitting with a piston in his lap. He would have sat on top of the wallow, if they had let him. Amos Chapman tried to conceal his broken ankle; not a man there gave out a sign of wounds to the enemy. While Billy Dixon dug with his knife and tin cup, the four others hastened hither-thither, serving the carbines. The Indians circled closer, swerving in and out, firing. It looked like a combat to the death. But the earth had been dug out and piled up, and just before sunset the Indians suddenly wheeled land raced away.

Pretty soon distant shooting was hear. Troops were coming? Rescue was due! No, for the darkness gathered, and although the Indians did not appear, no soldiers appeared, either.

This night a cold rain drenched the wallow and all the country around. The six had no food; their rations had been in the saddle-pockets of the horses. They would have had no water, except far the rain. They drank and washed in the puddles that collected; but they all, save Billy Dixon, were wounded, and the puddles colored red.

They did their best for George, who lay dying. For the rest there was nothing but watching and waiting, and wondering what would happen in the morning. They had scarcely two dozen cartridges.

At last the day dawned, lowering and dark and wet. No Indians were in sight; nothing was in sight but the sodden grass and the equally cheerless sky. George was dead; four out of their remaining five were so sore and stiffened that they could barely move.

"I'm going to leave you, boys," spoke Billy Dixon. "I'm not hurt yet, and it's up to me to take the back trail and find Miles. If I get through I'll find him within thirty-six hours. If you don't hear from him with relief soon after that, you'll know I didn't get through. But there's a chance."

They agreed. Scout Dixon refused to take more than four cartridges. That gave them five or six apiece, for the defence of the wallow. As he explained, if once he was surrounded fifty cartridges would be the same as four. He could shoot only one at a time, and the Indians would kill him.

So he strode bravely away, in a drizzle, and presently vanished. Sergeant Woodall, shot in the side; Private Harrington, shot in the hip; Private Roth, shot in the shoulder; and Scout Chapman, his ankle shot off, peered and listened and waited.

They had waited about an hour when through the mist they saw an Indian cautiously riding in. He was reconnoitering the wallow. Their hearts sank. They kept quiet until he was within point-blank range—they could see his red blanket, rolled beneath his saddle.

"I'll get him," Sergeant Woodall uttered; took good, long aim, and fired. But he was shaky, the light was poor, and he killed only the horse.

"No matter. An Injun afoot is an Injun out of business and needs another Injun to give him a lift," Scout Chapman consoled.

Listen! Scarcely had the crashing report of the carbine rolled across the prairie and the horse fallen kicking, when from the spot where the rider had been pitched there welled the clear notes of a cavalry trumpet: "Officers' Call!"

What? Private Roth scrambled to his feet.

"That man was no Indian, sergeant! He's a trumpeter—he's a cavalry trumpeter—he's signaling us! Thank God you didn't hit him."

"I see others," Amos cried, craning and squinting. "Yonder; out beyond. Coming at a trot—one man ahead—another man holding his stirrups. It's Billy Dixon! Billy's back, with a troop of cavalry, and they sent that trumpeter on before to find us."

"Give 'em a round in the air, boys, and a cheer, to let 'em know we're all right," ordered Sergeant Woodall. "I can hear the bridles jingle. All together, make ready, fire!"

"Bang-g-g-g! Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!"

The trumpet gaily pealed. Answering the cheer, three troops of the Eighth Cavalry led by Major W. H.

Price and the puffing Billy Dixon surged in.

The "Fight of the Privates," or "Twenty-five to One," as it is known in army annals, had gloriously ended.