Boots and Saddles/Chapter 22



As the second winter progressed it bade fair to be a repetition of the first, until an event happened that excited us all very much.

I must preface my account of the occurrence by going back to the summer of the Yellowstone campaign. Two of the citizens attached to the expedition, one as the sutler, the other as the veterinary surgeon, were in the habit of riding by themselves a great deal. Not being enlisted men, much more liberty than soldiers have was allowed them. Many warnings were given, however, and an instance, fresh in the minds of the officers, of the killing by Indians of two of their comrades the year before was repeatedly told to them. One day their last hour of lingering came. While they stopped to water their horses, some Indians concealed in a gully shot them within sight of our regiment, who were then fighting on the hill, and did not find the bodies for some time afterwards. Both of the murdered men were favorites; both left families, and regret and sympathy were general throughout the command.

A year and a half afterwards information came to our post, Fort Lincoln, that an Indian was then at the Agency at Standing Rock, drawing his rations, blankets, and ammunition from the Government, and at the same time boasting of the murder of these two men. This intelligence created intense indignation in our garrison. A detachment was quickly prepared, and started out with sealed orders. The day was bitter, and not a still cold, for the wind blew, and cut like needle-points into the faces of the troopers. No one was aware even what direction they were to take. General Custer knew that it was absolutely necessary that caution and secrecy should be observed. At the next post, twenty miles below, there were scouts employed. They would not fail to send out a runner and warn the Standing Rock Indians of the coming of the command and its object, if they could learn what it was. When the runner carries important news he starts with an even gait in the morning and keeps it up all day, hardly stopping to drink at the streams he crosses. Such a courier would outstrip a command of cavalry in the ordinary time it makes on a march.

Accordingly, Fort Rice was left behind many miles before the orders were opened. They contained directions to capture and bring back an Uncapapa Indian, called Rain-in-the-face, the avowed murderer of the sutler and the veterinary surgeon. The command consisted of two officers and a hundred men. The general had selected his brother to assist in this delicate transaction, as he had been wont to do ever since they began their life of adventure together during the war. They arrived on the day that the Indians were drawing their rations of beef. There were five hundred at the Agency, armed with the latest long-range rifles. It was more and more clear that too much care could not be taken to prevent the object of the visit being known to the warriors. An expedition had been sent down once before, but news of its intentions had reached the Agency in time for the culprit to escape. He could not refrain, even after this warning, from openly vaunting his crime.

In order then to deceive as to the purport of their appearance at the Agency, the captain in command resorted to a ruse. He sent fifty men to the camp ten miles away to make inquiries for three Indians who had murdered citizens on the Red River the year before. Colonel Custer was ordered to take five picked men and go to the trader's store, where the Indians resort constantly. This required great coolness and extreme patience, for they had to lounge about, seemingly indifferent, until they could be certain the right man was discovered. The cold made the Indians draw their blankets around them and over their heads. There is never any individuality about their dress unless when arrayed for a council or a dance; it was therefore almost impossible to tell one from the other.

Colonel Tom had to wait for hours, only looking furtively when the sharp eyes of these wary creatures were off guard. At last one of them loosened his blanket, and with the meagre description that had been given him, Colonel Tom identified him as Rain-in-the-face. Coming suddenly from behind, he threw his arms about him, and seized the Winchester rifle that the savage attempted to cock. He was taken entirely by surprise. No fear showed itself, but from the characteristically stolid face hate and revenge flashed out for an instant. He drew himself up in an independent manner, to show his brother warriors that he did not dread death.

Among them he had been considered brave beyond precedent, because he had dared to enter the Agency store at all, and so encounter the risk of arrest. The soldiers tied his hands and mounted guard over him. About thirty Indians surrounded them instantly, and one old orator commenced an harangue to the others, inciting them to recapture their brother. Breathless excitement prevailed. At that moment the captain in command appeared in their midst. With the same coolness he had shown in the war and during the six years of his Indian campaigns, he spoke to them, through an interpreter. With prudence and tact he explained that they intended to give the prisoner exactly the treatment a white man would receive under like circumstances; that nothing would induce them to give him up; and the better plan, to save bloodshed, would be for the chiefs to withdraw and take with them their followers. Seeing that they could accomplish nothing by intimidation or by superior numbers, they had recourse to parley and proposed to compromise. They offered as a sacrifice two Indians of the tribe in exchange for Rain-in-the-face.

It was generosity like that of Artemus Ward, who offered his wife's relatives on the altar of his country, for they took care not to offer for sacrifice any but Indians of low rank. Rain-in-the-face was a very distinguished warrior among them, and belonged to a family of six brothers, one of whom, Iron Horse, was very influential. The officers prevailed in the end, and the prisoner was taken to the cavalry camp. During the time that the Indians were opposing his removal, the troopers had assembled around the entrance, ready for any emergency, and prepared to escort the murderer away. The Indians instantly vanished; all went quickly and quietly to their camp, ten miles distant. Later in the day a party of fifty mounted warriors dashed through the Agency to the road beyond, which had to be taken by our troopers on the way home. Of course our officers expected an attack from that party when they began their homeward march; to their surprise, they were unmolested. We learned afterwards that the mounted Indians went to the camp of Two Bears to urge the young braves there to combine with them in the recapture of Rain-in-the-face. Two Bears had long been friendly to the white man; he was too old to fight, and prevented his young men from joining in the contemplated rescue.

After the command had returned and the officers had reported, General Custer sent for Rain-in-the-face. He was tall, straight, and young. His face was quite imperturbable. In a subsequent interview the general locked himself in his room with him. Through an interpreter, and with every clever question and infinite patience he spent hours trying to induce the Indian to acknowledge his crime. The culprit's face finally lost its impervious look, and he showed some agitation. He gave a brief account of the murder, and the next day made a full confession before all the officers. He said neither of the white men was armed when attacked. He had shot the old man, but he did not die instantly, riding a short distance before falling from his horse. He then went to him and with his stone mallet beat out the last breath left. Before leaving him he shot his body full of arrows. The younger man signalled to them from among the bushes, and they knew that the manner in which he held up his hand was an overture of peace. When he reached him the white man gave him his hat as another and further petition for mercy, but he shot him at once, first with his gun and then with arrows. One of the latter entering his back, the dying man struggled to pull it through. Neither man was scalped, as the elder was bald and the younger had closely cropped hair.

This cruel story set the blood of the officers flowing hotly. They had already heard from one of the white scouts a description of Rain-in-the-face at a sun-dance, when he had betrayed himself as the murderer of the veterinary surgeon, by describing in triumph his beating out the brains of the old man with his mallet. After all this, it is not to be wondered at that each officer strode out of the room with blazing eyes.

Two Indians, one of them Iron Horse, had followed the cavalry up from the Agency and asked to see their comrade. The general sent again for Rain-in-the-face. He came into the room with clanking chains and with the guard at his heels. He was dressed in mourning. His leggings were black, and his sable blanket was belted by a band of white beads. One black feather stood erect on his head. Iron Horse supposed that he was to be hung at once, and that this would be the final interview. The elder brother, believing there was no hope, was very solemn. He removed his heavily-beaded and embroidered buffalo robe, and replaced it with the plain one that Rain-in-the-face wore. He exchanged pipes also, giving him his highly-ornamented one that he might afterwards present it to the general. These pipes are valuable, as the material of which the bowls are made has to be brought from Kansas. Then finding that there was a prospect of Rain-in-the-face having his trial in Washington, he took off the medal that had been given to his father by a former president, whose likeness was in the medallion, and placed it over the neck of his brother, that it might be a silent argument in his favor when he confronted the "Great Father."

It was an impressive and melancholy scene. Iron Horse charged his brother not to attempt to escape, saying, that if he did get back to the reservation he would surely be recaptured. He believed that he would be kindly treated while a captive, and perhaps the white chief would intercede for him to obtain his pardon. After asking him not to lose courage, they smoked again, and silently withdrew. In about ten days Iron Horse returned, bringing a portion of his tribe with him.

The valley of the Missouri is wide, and slopes gradually back to the bluffs. Beyond are the plains, rolling away for hundreds of miles to another river. There was a level stretch of three miles below our post down the river. From this direction we were accustomed to watch the approach of the bands of Indians coming from the reservation. We could see their arms glistening far down the valley long before we could distinguish who they were, except with a powerful field-glass. As they came nearer, the sun caught a bit of gaudy scarlet, or touched for a moment one of the feathers in a war-bonnet.

A New York Charity Ball could bring out no more antique heirlooms, nor take more time in preparations than the costumes of Indians prepared for council. The war-bonnets, shields, and necklaces of bear's claws are all handed down from far-away grandfathers, and only aired on grand occasions. Every available bit of metal that could catch the light reflected and shone in the morning sun. The belts were covered with brass nails, shining with many an hour's polishing. They had many weapons, all kept in a brilliant and glistening state. The tomahawk is one of the heirlooms of the collection of arms. It is not like the ones I used to see at Mackinac as a child. It looks more like a large ice-pick. The knife, pistol, and Henry rifle are very modern, and are always kept in the most perfect condition. Mrs. "Lo" is the Venus who prepares Mars for war, and many a long weary hour she spends in polishing the weapon and adorning the warrior.

The Indians with Iron Horse came directly to head-quarters and asked for a council. As many as could get into the general's room entered. There was time, while they were preparing, to send for the ladies, and a few of us were tucked away on the lounge, with injunctions not to move or whisper, for my husband treated these Indians with as much consideration as if they had been crowned heads. The Indians turned a surprised, rather scornful glance into the "ladies' gallery," for their women are always kept in the background. In return for this we did not hesitate to criticise their toilets. They were gorgeous in full dress. Iron Horse wore an elaborately beaded and painted buckskin shirt, with masses of solid embroidery of porcupine quills. The sleeves and shoulders were ornamented with a fringe of scalp-locks; some of the hair, we saw with a shudder, was light and waving. I could not but picture the little head, "sunning over with curls," from which it had been taken, for all the Indian locks I have ever seen were straight and black. The chief wore on his shoulders a sort of cape, trimmed with a fringe of snowy ermine; his leggings and moccasins were a mass of bead-work. He wore a cap of otter, without a crown, though, for it is their custom to leave the top of the head uncovered. His hair was wound round and round with strips of otter that hung down his back; the scalp-lock was also tightly wound. Three eagle feathers, that denote the number of warriors killed, were so fastened to the lock that they stood erect. There were several perforations in each ear from which depended bead ear-rings. He had armlets of burnished brass; thrown around him was a beaded blanket. The red clay pipe had the wooden stem inlaid with silver, and was embellished with the breast feathers of brilliantly plumaged birds. The tobacco-bag, about two feet long, had not an inch that was not decorated. The costume was simply superb.

The next in rank had an immense buffalo robe as the distinguishing feature of his dress. The inside was tanned almost white, and his history was painted on the surface. Whoever ran might read, for it represented only two scenes, oft repeated—the killing and scalping of warriors and the capture of ponies.

The general's patience with Indians always surprised me. He was of such an active temperament and despatched his own work so rapidly that I have often wondered how he contained himself waiting an hour or more for them to get at the object of their visit. They took their places according to rank in a semicircle about the general. The pipe was filled and a match lighted by one of their number of inferior grade, and then handed to Iron Horse, who took a few leisurely whiffs. Though we were so shut in, the smoke was not oppressive. Their tobacco is killikinick, prepared by drying the bark of the ozier and mixing it with sumach. They inhale the smoke and exhale it from their nostrils. After all in the first circle had smoked a little, the general included, they observed the Indian etiquette and passed the pipe back through each warrior's hand to the chief. It was then relighted, and he began again. It seemed to us that it went back and forth an endless number of times. No matter how pressing the emergency, every council begins in this manner.

Iron Horse tired us out, but he was collecting himself and rehearsing his speech. We found afterwards that it was prepared in advance, for during its recital he forgot, and was prompted by one of the Indians in the outer circle.

When the pipe was finally put away, they asked to have Rain-in-the-face present. He came into the room, trying to hide his pleasure at seeing his friends and his grief at his imprisonment. In an instant the imperturbable expression settled down on his face like a curtain. The officers present could scarcely believe their eyes when they saw his brother approach and kiss him. Only once before, among all the tribes they had been with, had they seen such an occurrence. The Indian kiss is not demonstrative; the lips are laid softly on the cheek, and no sound is heard or motion made. It was only this grave occasion that induced the chief to show such feeling. Several of the ranking Indians followed his example; then an old man among them stepped in front of Rain-in-the-face, lifted his hands, and raising his eyes reverentially said a few words of prayer to the Great Spirit in behalf of their unfortunate brother. The prisoner dropped his head to hide the look in his eyes that he thought ill became a warrior as brave as he really was. The bitter, revengeful thoughts with which I had entered the room were for a moment forgotten, and I almost wished that he might be pardoned. The vision of the hearth-stones he had desolated came back to me directly, and I could not forget.

Iron Horse began his speech in the usual high-pitched, unchangeable key. He thanked the general for his care of his brother, and the whole tenor of the rest was repeated petitions to ask the Great Father in Washington to spare his life. He then slowly took off his elaborate buckskin shirt and presented it to my husband. He ended by making a singular request, which was worthy of Damon and Pythias: two shy young braves in the outer circle of the untitled asked permission through their chief to share the captivity of Rain-in-the-face. I could not help recalling what some one had told me in the East, that women sometimes go to the State prison at Sing Sing and importune to be allowed to share the imprisonment of their husbands or brothers; but no instance is found in the history of that great institution where a man has asked to divide with a friend or relative the sufferings of his sentence.

Consent was given to the comrades to return to the guard-house, but they were required to remain in confinement as he did until they were ready to return to the reservation. After all the ranking Indians had followed Iron Horse in speeches, with long, maundering, slowly-delivered sentences, each like the other, the pipe was again produced. When it was smoked, the whole band filed out to eat the presents of food the general had given them, and soon afterwards disappeared down the valley on their way home.

After his two friends had left him, Rain-in-the-face occupied a part of the guard-house with a citizen who had been caught stealing grain from the storehouse. For several months they had been chained together, and used to walk in front of the little prison for exercise and air. The guard-house was a poorly-built, insecure wooden building. After a time the sentinels became less vigilant, and the citizen, with help from his friends outside, who were working in the same way, cut a hole in the wall at night and escaped. He broke the chain attaching him to the Indian, who was left free to follow. We found afterwards that Rain-in-the-face did not dare to return to the reservation, but made his way to the hostile camp. In the spring of 1874 he sent word from there by an Agency Indian that he had joined Sitting Bull, and was awaiting his revenge for his imprisonment.

As will be seen further on, the stained waters of the Little Big Horn, on June 25, 1876, told how deadly and fatal that was. The vengeance of that incarnate fiend was concentrated on the man who had effected his capture. It was found on the battle-field that he had cut out the brave heart of that gallant, loyal, and lovable man, our brother Tom.