Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

Buffalo Bill and Yellow Hand

A Plains-Day Duel

The war parties of Kiowas, Comanches and Southern Cheyennes from the Indian Territory reservation rode about for a year, plundering settlers, fighting the soldiers, and trying to drive the buffalo-hunters off the range. Colonel Miles had charge of the campaign against them, which extended through the summer of 1874, and the winter, and well into the spring of 1875. Many brave deeds were done.

The Southern Cheyennes surrendered first, in March. Then the Kiowas and Comanches began to appear at Fort Sill, Indian Territory, and give themselves up. Chief Quana's Antelope Eaters were the last. They surrendered in June.

So the Military Department of the Missouri seemed a little more quiet; a few bands of outlaw Indians still roved in southwestern Kansas, southern Colorado, New Mexico and northern Texas, but the buffalo-hunters again established their camps as they pleased. General Sheridan, the commander of the whole western country to the Rocky Mountains, had said that the only way to bring real peace was to kill off the buffalo; then the Indians would have to stay on the reservations, or starve.

Trouble now thickened in the north, especially in the Department of Dakota and in Wyoming of the Department of the Platte. Forts had been planned in Chief Red Cloud's Powder River country of Wyoming, and miners were entering the Sioux and Northern Cheyennes' hunting reserve of the famous Black Hills of South Dakota. Another railroad, the Northern Pacific, was about to cross the northern buffalo range.

On their reservations in South Dakota the Sioux and Cheyennes were getting restless. Chief Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull the medicine worker stayed far outside, to hunt and fight as free men. They refused to lead their bands in, and warriors on the Dakota reservations kept slipping away, to join them.

In the spring of 1876 General George Crook, the Gray Fox, commanding the Department of the Platte, at Omaha, and General Alfred H. Terry, commanding the Department of Dakota, at St. Paul, started out to round up the Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull bands, in the Powder River and Big Horn Valley country of northern Wyoming and southeastern Montana. General John Gibbon was to close in, with another column, from Fort Ellis, Montana, on the west.

Among the troops ordered to unite with General Crook's main column on the march, were the fighting Fifth Cavalry, with headquarters at Fort Hays, Hays City, Kansas, on the Kansas Pacific Railway half way between Fort Leavenworth and Denver. Their commander was Lieutenant-Colonel (brevet Major-General) Eugene A. Carr.

The Fifth were glad to go. They already had made a great record on the plains, protecting the Union Pacific and the Kansas Pacific railroads; were just back from scouting against the Apaches in Arizona; and now they eagerly unpacked their campaign kits for another round. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, their old chief-of-scouts, was sent for, in the East where he had been acting on the stage with Texas Jack. He came in a hurry, and was given three cheers.

The Fifth Cavalry were to rendezvous at Cheyenne. The four companies at Fort Hays went by railroad, first to Denver and then north to Cheyenne. On the seventh of June there they were. They marched north to old Fort Laramie. Here the regiment was ordered to guard the great Sioux and Cheyenne trail that crossed country from the South Dakota reservations to the hostile Powder River and Big Horn villages.

There were several skirmishes, but the traveling Indians got away. On July 1 the new colonel joined the regiment. He was Brevet Major-General Wesley Merritt, from General Sheridan's staff at Chicago division headquarters. As he was a full colonel, he out-ranked Lieutenant-Colonel Carr, and became commander.

On July 6 terrible word was received from Fort Laramie. Buffalo Bill first announced it, as he came out of General Merritt's tent.

"Custer and five companies of the Seventh have been wiped out of existence, on the Little Big Horn, by the Sioux. It's no rumor; General Merritt's got the official dispatch."

"What! When?"

"June 25. It's awful, boys."

Sunday, of last week! Twelve days ago, and they only just now heard! And while they had been longing for Indians, and envying other columns that might be having fights,—even a little jealous of the dashing Custer's rival Seventh, who were hunting Indians instead of watching a trail—this same Seventh had been battling for their lives.

Of course, reinforcements would be rushed in at once. The Fifth would have their chance. And sure enough, the order came for the Fifth Cavalry to march north in earnest and find the General Crook column in the Big Horn country.

The route lay from southeastern Wyoming northwest through Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman (which was farther up the North Platte River), and on to the Big Horn. But suddenly the march was stopped. A dispatch from the Red Cloud agency of the Sioux and Cheyenne reservation said that eight hundred Cheyennes had prepared to leave on the next day, Sunday, July 16, to join Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull.

There was only one thing for General Merritt to do: throw his troops across the war-trail between the reservation and the wagon-road of the white settlers to the Black Hills, and turn the runaways back. War Bonnet Creek of extreme southwestern South Dakota, west of the Red Cloud reservation, was the place where the red trail struck the white trail; Chief-of-Scouts Buffalo Bill knew it well. The troops must be there by Sunday night. It now was Saturday noon; the distance, by round-about route, was eighty-five miles; the Cheyennes had only twenty-eight to come. General Merritt resolved to get there first.

Buffalo Bill


So he did. With his seven companies of cavalry, about four hundred men, he swung back, leaving his wagon-train and a small escort to follow after. From one o'clock noon until ten o'clock at night he rode; at the end of thirty-five miles camped until three o'clock in the morning; led again by Buffalo Bill rode all day Sunday, and at nine o'clock unsaddled in the star-light, at the war-trail crossing of War Bonnet Creek, twenty-eight miles from the reservation. The seven companies had traveled their eighty-five miles over hill and plain in thirty-one hours, and had won the race. The Cheyennes had not yet passed here.

This night Lieutenant Charles King of K troop was in charge of the outposts stationed toward the southeast, and covering the trail from the reservation. At dawn he moved his posts farther on, to a steep little hill, from which the view was better. Much farther, two miles in the south and southeast, there was a high ridge, breaking the trail from the reservation. The Cheyennes would cross it. In the southwest, or to the right from the outpost hill, there was the Black Hills wagon-road, from which the cavalry had ridden to the War Bonnet here.

Lieutenant King and Corporal Wilkinson of the guard lay upon the hill slope, watching the morning brighten upon the war-trail ridge. It was nearing five o'clock, of July 17. The Cheyennes would be coming soon.

"Look, lieutenant! There they are! The Indians!"

Yes, at last! Five or six mounted figures had appeared atop the distant ridge. The number increased rapidly. But they did not come on. They galloped wildly back and forth, dodging the slopes that opened to the west, and seeming to care not at all that they might be seen from the north.

Evidently they knew nothing of the cavalry camp. It was concealed from them, by the outpost hill and by the bluffs along the War Bonnet. Then why didn't they hasten on, if they were in a hurry to join Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, and share in the plunder to be gained from the fights?

At five o'clock they dotted the ridge on a front of three miles. They were fascinated by something in the west. What? Colonel Merritt and Lieutenant-Colonel Carr had been notified. They arrived at the hill, and they also scanned with their field-glasses. And still

"What ails the rascals?" That was the question.

It took half an hour of waiting and wondering, to solve the problem. Then—the wagon train! The wagon train under Lieutenant and Quartermaster William P. Hall had trundled into sight, coming in to camp by the Black Hills road toward the right, in the southwest, opposite the ridge.

There it was, a white-topped line, apparently guarded by only a few cavalry troopers; but two hundred infantry were with it and Lieutenant Hall had stowed them in the wagons. The Cheyennes were waiting, their mouths watering; it looked like a rich plum; they could not see inside the wagons; they would meet a double surprise—one from the cavalry gathered at the War Bonnet, the other from the infantry riding in the wagons.

"Have the men had their coffee?" General Merritt asked, not a whit excited.

"Yes, sir," replied Lieutenant and Adjutant William Forbush.

"Then let them saddle up and close in mass under the bluffs."

Buffalo Bill Cody had arrived on the hill, with two other scouts: Tait, and "Chips" whose real name was Charley White. "Chips" imitated Buffalo Bill in every way; seemed to think that Bill made the world. He was Buffalo Bill's understudy.

Scout Cody did not wear buckskin, to-day. He wore one of his stage costumes—a Mexican suit of short black velvet jacket trimmed with silver buttons and silver lace, and black velvet trousers also with silver buttons down the sides, and slashed from the knee down with bright red. His brown hair was long and curling.

"What in thunder are those vagabonds down yonder fooling about?" he growled, on a sudden.

What, indeed? Something new had cropped out. From the ridge in the southeast a long ravine ran down, crossed in front of the hill and met the wagon-road trail at the right of the hill. It and the road formed a V; the two arms of the V were separated by a stretch of high ground, and the hill was at the point of the V.

Where the ravine headed at the base of the ridge a mile and a half southeast, thirty or forty Indians had collected, all ready to dash on. But why? Ah, see! Lieutenant Hall had sent two cavalry couriers forward, with dispatches for General Merritt. Two miles distant they were galloping hard, up the road, bent upon reaching the War Bonnet. The Indians knew. The warriors in the ravine were about to follow it down to the trail and kill the couriers.

The couriers could not see the Indians, on account of the high ground between. The Indians could not now see the couriers, for the same reason. But the Lieutenant King party on the hill could see everything, on both sides. The couriers, unconscious of their danger, could not possibly escape. They were far ahead of the wagon train, they were loping steadily on—were now within a mile of the War Bonnet camp, and as if at a signal the Indians in the ravine started, pell-mell, to cut them off on their way.

The two parties, couriers and warriors, were converging for the west side of the hill. It might have been a pretty race to watch, had life not been the stake. But what to do? The couriers should not be sacrificed, of course; yet to send the cavalry forward now would spoil the bigger game.

Buffalo Bill exclaimed, his eyes bright, his face aglow.

General! Now's our chance! Why not let our party mount here out of sight, and we'll tend to those fellows, ourselves!"

"Good! Up with you, then. King, you stay here and watch until they're close under the hill; then give the word. Come down, every other man of you, where you won't be seen."

Besides the general and Lieutenant King, the party on the hill numbered Adjutant Forbush, Lieutenant Pardee, old Sergeant Schreiber, Corporal Wilkinson, the four privates of the picket, the general's orderly private, Scouts Buffalo Bill, Tait and "Chips": twelve in all. They will charge the thirty Cheyennes; or some of them will.

Alone, Lieutenant King watched, careful to lie flat and poke only his head over the brow of the hill. Much depended upon him. If he signaled too soon, the Cheyennes would wheel and escape. If he signaled too late, they would have passed in front of the hill and attacked the two couriers.

He waited. On the farther side of the slope Buffalo Bill, Scouts Tait and "Chips" and the five privates were mounted and set for a charge. Eight, to turn the Cheyennes! Just behind Lieutenant King were the general and the two lieutenants of his staff, crouching, ready to repeat the signal. And behind them were Sergeant Schrieber and Corporal Wilkinson, on hands and knees, to pass the signal back to Buffalo Bill, at the base of the hill, and then join the fight or their company.

The Cheyennes swiftly approached, swerving through the winding ravine, intent upon striking their unconscious prey. Their feathers, their pennoned lances, their rifles, their trailing war bonnets, their brass and silver armlets, their beaded leggins, were plain to Lieutenant King's field-glasses. He might read the legend painted on the leader's shield. He let them come.

They were within five hundred yards; they were within three hundred yards; they were within two hundred yards. He did not need his glasses, now. He might see them slinging their rifles and poising their lances. It was to be lance work; they did not wish to alarm the wagon train with gun-shots. One hundred yards! Half a minute more and they would be rounding the point where the ravine bordered the hill slope, and would be upon the two couriers.

Ninety yards

"Ready, general!"

"All right. When you say."

"Now! Into 'em!"

"Now, men!"

It occurred in an instant. With cheer and thud and scramble Buffalo Bill's little detachment had spurred from the covert of the hill. The carbines spoke in a volley. General Merritt is first to the top of the hill, to gaze; Corporal Wilkinson bounds beside him, takes quick aim and fires at the Cheyenne leader in the cloud of dust below. The leader (he is a young chief) had reined his pony in a circle sharply out and to the left; he notes the group on the bill-he notes everything; he ducks to the far side of his horse and still at full speed shoots back from under his mount's neck. The bullet almost grazes General Merritt's cheek!

Down in front there was lively work for a few minutes, as Buffalo Bill's little command charged in. The Cheyennes scattered, astonished; they turned for their main body.

"Look!" Lieutenant Forbush cried. "Look to the ridge!"

Pouring down the ridge, all the Cheyennes were coming, to the rescue and the attack.

"Send in the first company," General Merritt ordered; and with his adjutant galloped away. The real fight was about to begin.

Out upon the plain the Buffalo Bill men were chasing the Indians, knowing that the cavalry would soon follow. At a short distance the Cheyennes made another stand. Their young chief cantered out in front of them, his hand raised. He called clearly to Buffalo Bill.

"I know you, Pa-he-haska (Long Hair). If you want to fight, come and fight me."

He rode boldly up and down along his line, waiting. Buffalo Bill galloped forward alone.

"Stand back," he ordered, of the men. "Fair play."

The young chief saw him coming, and with a shout gladly hammered to the meeting. They had started one hundred and thirty yards apart. They each rode at top speed for fifty yards, when from thirty yards, as they swerved, they fired. Down plunged Buffalo Bill's horse; he had only stepped in a badger-hole. Down also plunged the chief's pony; but he was dead and the bullet that had killed him had passed through the chief's leg, first.

They sprang to their feet. They were now twenty yards apart. The young chief tottered—they fired together, again; they had to act very quickly. The chief missed; Buffalo Bill had shot true. He leaped forward, as the chief reeled, and sank his knife to the hilt. All was over in a moment.

A great howl of rage arose from the Cheyennes. They charged, for revenge. They were a fraction of a minute too late; the cavalry were coming. As Troop K, Lieutenant King's company, tore past, Buffalo Bill waved his captured war bonnet.

"First scalp for Custer!" he shouted. Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were to be avenged.

Custer's Last Stand


Seeing troop after troop of blue-shirts spurring over the divide and down, the Cheyennes, every one of their eighteen hundred, turned in flight. Away they went, the cheering troopers hard after, back up the trail for the reservation. The pursuit was so hot that they threw aside their blankets, rations, whatever they might drop. They lost several ponies and two warriors besides the young chief, but they won the race and were in their reservation by noon!

Here they hid their guns and their ammunition, washed off their paint; and when at seven o'clock that evening General Merritt's tired column filed in, they were strolling about, in their fresh blankets, perfectly peaceful.

Nevertheless, they and all the other Indians on the reservation were keen to see Pa-he-haska, the white man who had killed the skillful young chief Yellow Hand in single combat. They followed Buffalo Bill about, admiringly. Yellow Hand's father, old Cut Nose, a head chief, offered four mules in exchange for Yellow Hand's war bonnet, shield and arms; but that was not to be. Buffalo Bill saved them, and used them on the stage.