Sioux Showdown [Pony Soldiers Book 5]
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by Chet Cunningham
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: Seeking gold, the new white settlers block all Indian access to the Bozeman Trail; they are determined to kill any Indian who comes anywhere near the trail that leads to the gold fields. Red Cloud is not afraid. A Sioux leader, he moves toward the Bozeman Trail, determined to take back the gold fields for his people. A fierce fighter, Red Cloud is ready to stand up to anyone and anything. The settler's primary concern is no longer gold, but escaping death. The Pony Soldiers, their only hope, have the task of crushing an ensuing Sioux attack.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1988 e-reads
eBookwise Release Date: September 2002
7 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [227 KB]
Reading time: 153-215 min.
February 12, 1868
Lt. Col. Colt Harding edged lower behind a freight wagon box set on sled runners flat in the snow and felt the whisper of a rifle bullet ripple the air as it passed barely a foot over his head. He checked quickly to the left in this stand of pine barely four miles from Fort C.F. Smith, Montana Territory.
The band of hostiles, probably Ogalala Sioux, spread out even more in their hiding places in the trees and brush and continued to fire at the wood cutting crew of fifteen enlisted men, one Second Lieutenant and one light-Colonel, observing. Most of the cavalrymen had found good protection the moment the Sioux attacked.
The detail was working that morning on a resupply mission to bring loads of logs and limbs back to the fort to feed the voracious appetites of the wood stoves that cooked the food and kept the troopers and officers warm through the cold Montana winter. Since the Sioux had been making harassing attacks on the wood parties, the men had been instructed to bring in logs -- the cutting up could be done inside the fort walls.
The temperature hovered somewhere around the mid-twenties. Colt blew on his gloves to pump some life back into tingling fingers.
The wagon boxes had been fitted with improvised sled runners. Pairs of cooperative army mounts tugged the sleds with the help of make-do harness rigs. It worked well enough.
The Sioux didn't like the arrangement.
Colt saw a Sioux lift up and sprint for a closer tree. Colt's Spencer repeating rifle tracked the savage, and then Colt fired. The Sioux slammed to a halt in mid stride from the impact of the heavy .52 caliber slug that blasted into his chest, bent him double and dropped him dead into the untrampled stretch of virgin, two-foot deep snow.
Colt surveyed the scene. Half of the troopers and Lt. Oswald had jumped inside the empty wagon boxes when the Indian attack began. They had all around protection.
Four men lay behind a large pine that had been felled. Colt and two men crowded together on the far side of the first wagon in the six unit train, the one now nearly filled with snow-crusted limbs and logs.
One trooper lay in the open, an axe still in his hand, where he had died in the first volley of rifle fire and arrows from the Sioux raiding party. One other man had been wounded, a corporal, but he wasn't hit seriously and had crawled to protection behind a thick pine.
A pair of rifle shots jolted into the suddenly quiet air, but the sounds came from behind them! Colt spun around, his Spencer ready. Two belches of blue smoke drifted from a small ridge a hundred and fifty yards across an open grassy valley.
"Into the wagons!" Colt bellowed to the seven men exposed to the hostiles behind them. He fired five rounds as quickly as he could lever the Spencer, slamming the hot lead into the spot where the telltale black powder smoke still hung in some brush across the open meadow. The rest of the troopers all rushed toward the wagons at once to let the hostiles have only one shot per weapon at their unprotected blue clad bodies.
Colt snapped the last shot, then surged up and ran ten yards to the second wagon in the line and dove over the top. He panted from the sudden exertion and his breath came out in a cloud of steam. The truncated wagon boxes sat only three feet off the snow. He came down on top of a trooper and felt two slugs hit the wagon box but they did not penetrate.
Two more men tumbled into that wagon, and the others clambered into the rigs farther down.
"Casualties?" Col. Harding bellowed. "First wagon?"
"Nobody in that one, sir," a sergeant near Colt said.
"Two men hit, sir, not serious."
"One man took a round in the thigh. He'll make it."
"Can't be more than ten or twelve hostiles," Colt called out. "Take turns firing. Look for targets, but don't keep your head up too damn long."
Colt looked at Lt. Oswald. "They'll try for our horses," he said.
"We've been pushing them back each time they move that way," Oswald said.
Colt liked this shavetail. He was young, quick, dedicated, seemed to understand the men and knew how to work with them. The seventeen horses had been tied to brush and trees at the near side of the small grove of pine where the troopers worked.
The mounts were not more than thirty yards away. There had been no standard one man to four horses caring for them as there would be in an attack situation.
The animals stood waiting in the snow. There was nothing for them to eat, not even in the frozen Montana ground once they had pawed down through the snow and ice. They stood, some splay legged as they slept standing up.
A Sioux warrior broke from the brush on his spotted war pony, galloped toward the wagons, then veered away and rode past, one foot hooked in a leather strap around the horse's midsection. The brave hung off the far side of the animal and fired once with a rifle from under the mount's neck. The troopers had no target to fire at.
Colt lifted up with his Spencer and shot twice; the second round hit the painted pony in the head and it went down splashing snow and brush in every direction. The Sioux warrior rolled off his dead mount, leaped up and darted through the snow for the cover of the closest pine tree. Six shots pounded from the wagon boxes and the brave went down in the snow and never moved again.
When Colt dropped below the side of the wagon, he felt two rounds hit the wooden box. One ripped through a crack where two boards came together but failed to penetrate the other side. Four men in the wagon were firing at the savages now on two sides of them. The fifth trooper slumped in the bottom of the wagon trying in vain to load a metallic cartridge in the muzzle of his breech loading Springfield rifle.
"Son, haven't you ever fired that weapon?" Colt roared.
The recruit looked up and shook his head. "No. No sir. Just got it yesterday to replace a muzzle loader. Nobody didn't tell me how to use it."
Colt rolled over to the other side of the wagon, showed the recruit how to push the round into the breech and close it and fire.
"That's all to it?" the young man, who was not more than eighteen, asked.
"That's all. Now shoot some of those rounds at the Sioux out there so they don't lift your scalp."
Colt crawled over to Lt. Oswald.
"The savages must be getting discouraged," Oswald said.
"Don't count on it," Colt replied. "They wouldn't attack if they didn't think they could win. The horses were the attraction."
A soft swishing noise came and Colt swore.
"Arrows!" Colt yelled. "They'll try to drop a few dozen in on us. They'll have to get into the open more to shoot that way. Tell your men to watch for targets."
Lt. Oswald repeated the orders to the troopers, who now looked more for targets, fired less.
Six or eight more arrows hit around the wagon where Colt crouched, but none landed inside.
Two Sioux in sturdy winter leggings and buckskin shirts raced toward the horses on foot, darting from cover to cover. Rifle fire dropped one, but the second vanished among the army animals.
Colt pushed a log six inches thick over the top of the wagon to give him some protection. Now he could look over the side of the wagon and not be spotted so easily. The new brevet light-colonel scanned the army horses, watching for any movement. One mount pranced toward the rear. Colt tracked it with his rifle sights. For a moment a Sioux head showed over the horse's back, then vanished.
Lt. Col. Harding concentrated on the same horse's back, narrowing his sights to aim just over the mount's saddle. The Sioux warrior's head popped up again in the same spot. Colt fired. The rifle jumped in his hands and he lost his sighting, then he focused on the target just as the top of the Sioux's head exploded outward and the hostile slammed to the ground behind the nervous army horseflesh.
The mounts jostled each other, skittered around smelling death, then moved back and forth on their tethers.
As Colt listened, he realized there was no more firing from the rear. The Ogalala Sioux had given up on that tactic.
"Every weapon!" Colt bellowed. "Ten rounds to the front into those trees where they've been firing from. Commence firing!"
The four troopers with Spencers in the detail finished their rounds first. Then the Springfields completed the ten rounds and Colt lifted up beside his small log and watched the brush and trees.
He heard no more firing from the Sioux, saw no blue smoke.
They waited fifteen minutes, then Lt. Oswald sent two men out of the wagons and through the heavy growth of pine to the left to circle around to the position the Sioux had used for their attack.
Twenty minutes later the two men walked out of the woods where the Indians had been, holding their rifles over their heads and shouting.
"Bastards done hauled ass!" one trooper bellowed from the enemy's former position.
Colt knelt down beside the trooper with the axe. He hadn't moved since he was hit. He was probably no more than eighteen, Colt decided. He was dead. Shot through the heart. His body was placed on the loaded first wagon.
"Do you have a company trooper doctor?" Colt asked Lt. Oswald.
"No sir. I can wrap a bandage or two. I'll tend to our wounded."
Three of the men had minor wounds, one had a bullet in his chest that would have to come out. He would be taken back to the fort on a bed of pine boughs on top of a wagon.
This time Lt. Oswald put out scouts to the north and northeast and sent the men back to work. It took them until one-thirty in the afternoon to get the six wagons loaded. Colt took a turn with a double bitted axe trimming branches off the two foot pine they had felled.
The cross cut saws sang out as the men cut the logs into lengths that they could lift into the wagons. When the last log had been heaved on top of the last wagon, they stopped to eat their cold meal. Twenty minutes later they began the slow four mile trip back to the fort.
Fort C.F. Smith sat at the far end of the army's network of protection for the Bozeman Trail, the northern route into the Montana gold fields and the Oregon country. Two other forts guarded the route. Ninety miles to the south along the Bozeman Trail stood Fort Phil Kearny, then, sixty-seven miles lower, Fort Reno guarded the trail.
Another 165 miles southeast lay Fort Laramie on the Platte River Road. The Army had put in the series of three forts especially to guard the Bozeman Trail from attacks by the Sioux nation, the Northern Cheyenne and the northern Arapahoes.
The Indians had reacted at once and the Bozeman Trail had been of little use since 1867 except for heavily armed military wagon trains and detachments of troops.
Fort C.F. Smith was a "hostile territory" type fort, a true sense fortress built to withstand attacks from the outside. It was built in the classic square pattern, with each wall three hundred feet long.
Since this fort was a "containment and protection" installation, it was not scheduled to be permanent. The army's policy was to have the troopers build their own forts, and do it from native materials. In the southwest it was adobe, and here in pine country it was solid pine logs buried in the ground three feet and rising eight feet in the air with sharpened tops.
The pine logs were lashed and nailed together with railroad spikes. The inside walls were built of logs as well, resembling log houses. Because of the severe winters, solid living quarters had to be built that first summer of 1867 when the fort construction began under the planning and supervision, but not the actual on-site control, of Col. Henry B. Carrington.
Col. Carrington was at the Fort Phil Kearny site erecting one of the finest stockade type forts ever seen by the U.S. Army.
At C.F. Smith, the need was for a smaller fort than that put up at Phil Kearny, where provisions were made for a garrison of a thousand troops.
The Big Horn fort had three sides of the fort finished inside with log walls and log ceilings to form inside living space and areas for troops and supplies and officers. The roofing was tarred paper over the logs followed by a course of dirt two feet thick and sod planted on top.
Fort C.F. Smith had one side reserved for officers and administrative offices. One side held the barracks rooms for the troops, a kitchen where individual company cooks prepared food for their own men, and the quartermaster's supplies. On the third side of the fort stood the tack room, smithy, officers' mess and the commissary.
The fourth wall had an opening that led to a smooth wire fenced paddock area that was as long as the fort wall and extended a hundred yards to accommodate more than five hundred horses. The unfinished area inside the fourth wall next to the stables would be fitted with supplies, tack shops and other teamster oriented operations.
The center of the square became the parade grounds with a tall pine flag pole where the colors were raised and lowered each day religiously.
As soon as the wood detail entered the big main gate, Colt rode to his temporary quarters, handed his horse to his orderly and stomped snow off his boots before he walked into the fort commander's office.
Fort C.F. Smith's top man was Col. Luther P. Bradley. He had four hundred troopers and ten officers to hold down the far end of the Bozeman Trail. But in reality he did little except protect his own troops and fort, not able to offer protection to anyone moving along the Bozeman Trail.
Bradley stood five-ten, was thirty-eight years old and had been a brevet major general during the Civil War. He was happy to have been cut back only to full colonel and ran a well disciplined, tight post. His job was to protect the Bozeman Trail and he did it with every trooper he had. But he realized it was little more than protection in name only.
Bradley knew the right people and was a favorite of General William T. Sherman, commander of the Division of the Missouri. This command involved most of the Indian war areas and covered fourteen states from Texas to Montana and Colorado to Missouri. He figured he had a lock on his brigadier general's star within five years if he didn't foul up.
Bradley was solid, a little heavy, wore a full beard, enjoyed a glass of port wine in the evening and had taken to chess with a passion, quickly beating anyone on the post who challenged him. His small and close set eyes gave him a sharp, cynical expression but he usually was fair minded, delegated authority well and enjoyed a good fight.
Colt nodded at the sergeant major behind the desk and pointed at the commander's door.
"Yes sir, he's in. Said he wanted to see you, sir."
Colt kicked the rest of the snow and ice off his boots again and walked into the Commanding Officer's office without knocking.
Bradley looked up with dark eyes.
"Oh, yes, Harding. Get a feel of the wood detail?" Colt sat down easily and nodded. "Yes sir, and of Sioux firepower. We lost one man, had five wounded."
"Damn! They keep up the pressure. Two hundred of them could freeze us out in two weeks if they really tried."
"But the Sioux probably don't like fighting in the winter any more than the other plains Indians," Colt said.
"Don't like it, but they keep harassing us. Oh, pair of couriers rode in today from Kearny. Big envelope for you. Thought you might like it. From some guy named Sheridan."
Colt grinned. "Might look at it if I get time."
Bradley handed the bulging envelope to him. "How did the fight go? How was Oswald?"
"Young man did fine. They didn't push us as hard as they could. Made one run at our horses and gave it up."
"Damn Sioux are strange that way. They can lose twenty men, but if they can steal two hundred horses they think they've won. Never understand them."
"I figure the better we can know the Sioux, especially Red Cloud, the better we can deal with them."
"Hope to God you're right, Harding. One of the officers talked to me about forming up a Lightning troop, the way you did in Texas. Things like that tend to get around."
"Might help sometimes to have a company that can move fast and hit hard. Only thing is you have to have one officer who will put in the extra work. And it's damn hard work."
"We'll talk about it. I can see that envelope is getting anxious to be opened. Are your quarters all right?"
"Fine, Colonel. I know I ranked-out somebody, but I won't be here forever."
"Still not sure just what the hell you're doing here. But you have the orders and that's all I need to know. Well, I'll see you at dinner."
Colt came to his feet, saluted Bradley, who grinned and returned a snappy salute, and Colt went out. He told the sergeant major he'd be in his quarters the rest of the afternoon, and crunched his boots through the packed down snow.
His two rooms were typical of the frontier forts, log constructed even on the interior walls. The kitchen-living room was about ten feet square with a smaller bedroom behind it.
As soon as he came in an orderly snapped to attention. He had been feeding wood into a round pot bellied wood stove at the side of the living room section. The room was comfortable, a sharp contrast from the twenty-eight degree temperature outside.
"At ease, Corporal Knapp. Thanks for keeping the fire going. Cold enough out there to freeze the balls off a brass monkey."
Corporal Knapp grinned. "Yes sir. It sure as hell is."
"Where are you from, Knapp?"
"Portland, sir. Portland, Maine."
"How old are you?"
"Just past twenty, sir. Been in the army since sixty-six."
"Tolerable. Leastwise it's a steady job. Now that I'm a corporal I'll probably sign on again."
"Good. You're relieved now. I'll keep the fire going. Did you rub down my horse and feed her?"
"Yes sir, first thing."
"Thanks, Corporal Knapp."
The young man saluted, even though he didn't have to inside, took Colt's return salute, and left smiling.
Colt watched him go. No reason officers couldn't treat the enlisted like human beings. Hell, everyone bled and died the same way. He'd seen too many officers shot in the back during the Civil War. It was a stupid trap to get caught in. The officer mystique wasn't all that wonderful, or important.
He sat down in a chair beside the fire, moved one of two coal oil lamps over on a table nearby and took off his heavy black jacket that was totally non-government regulation, but kept him as warm as the sheep it had once covered.
He tossed the sheepskin coat on another chair and held his hands out to the fire. He'd never be warm again, he'd about resigned himself to the fact up here in the fringes of the Montana Territory Big Horn Mountains.
He ripped open the envelope, nearly a foot square, and pulled out a stack of papers of various sizes. The top sheet was glued to a heavy stack of papers with a wax seal that bore the initials PHS. Philip H. Sheridan himself.
The scrawl was familiar:
"Colt: Here is some background on the Laramie Peace Commission. I want you to know exactly what they are trying to do. Gen. Sherman agrees with me to send you in there, so do your damndest. We'll get back to fighting the god-damned Indians as soon as all this bullshit about peace is over. We got trapped into it by the bleeding heart Indian lovers.
"Oh, don't get your ass shot off out there."
Colt put down the packet of papers and warmed his hands next to the stove. When he had them warmed on both sides, he opened the stove door with a poker and threw in three pieces of split pine, then banged the door closed.
Pine burned up like paper. Impossible to leave a banked fire to burn all night. He wished he had some scrub oak. That wood was so tightly packed it would burn for ten hours if the damper was closed.
The early morning rising and the stress of the sharp combat with the Sioux were telling on him. Maybe just a quick nap. After fifteen minutes of rest he'd be charged up for the rest of the day.
Colt took the sheepskin with him, lay on the ticking mattress bed and pulled the coat over his chest. Just a few minutes of shuteye.
He stared at the ceiling. A few months ago he had been in Colorado. Then he'd spent a month or more after that in Fort Leavenworth with his family, wife Doris, little Daniel and Sadie. It had been a good time. They had been a real family for the first time, all together in a relatively civilized place.
At Fort Leavenworth he had met with General Sheridan and the Department of Missouri Commander, Brig. General Christopher C. Augur. Gen. Augur was an impressive figure, tall, white haired with a flowing moustache and mutton chops on the sides that met the mostly white face whiskers.
They talked about, and with, some members of the Peace Commission. The work had gone well in the area south of the Platte River, but not to the north. A push was underway early in January and February of 1868 to bring in the chiefs of the various Indian nations to sign the treaty.
Red Cloud, of the Sioux, was a vocal holdout and a man many others would follow. When he heard about the commission, he promptly sent a message that he would never sign a peace document as long as the army forts commanded the trail to Bozeman. The forts had to be abandoned and the trail closed.
Major Colt Harding had been suggested to Gen. Augur as the right man to go talk to Red Cloud on a warrior to warrior basis.
"This man went with only six Indian scouts into a Comanche winter camp with a thousand warriors and rescued his small daughter from Chief White Eagle," General Sheridan told Augur. "He's a man who knows Indians, is our best Indian fighter, yet has the compassion and intelligence to meet with Red Cloud."
On General Sheridan's recommendation, Colt Harding was breveted to light colonel and given the mission.
"Know everything you can about the Peace Commission, the men, the ideas behind it, the political pressures, and the Indians involved," Gen. Augur told Colt. "Anything you can do will put us one step ahead. If you can sway Red Cloud even a little, you'll have done your job."
A week later Colt was in Chicago talking with members of the Peace Commission. He later spent a week in Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, then headed out for Fort C.F. Smith.
As soon as he arrived he had talked to all of the Indian scouts. One, a Pawnee, knew the Sioux dialect and Colt took him on as a full time language instructor. The Pawnee's name was Running Bird.
Colt lifted off the bed and stoked the fire. It was almost language training time.
Nearly a half hour later, Running Bird knocked on the door the way Colt had instructed him to. He wore leather leggings, army boots, a blue army blouse and a section of a buffalo robe as a cape with the fur inside.
He came in, sat down on the floor next to the fire and nodded. "Begin," Running Bird said. "I call you Evanble-spa, Black Eagle. Today you should call me Mato, which is bear in the Sioux tongue."
Colt wrote down each new word and name in his large notebook. Later he would alphabetize the words to give himself a dictionary of the Sioux language.
Colt and Running Bird worked for three hours, then Colt held up his hand and said in Sioux, "That is enough."
Running Bird nodded and stood. Colt touched his shoulder and gave him a twenty-five cent piece.
The Pawnee's solemn face broke into a grin.
"Thank you, my favorite colonel," Running Bird said, and hurried out the door, letting in a chilling blast of Montana winter.
Colt looked at the door a moment, then put more wood in the fire. It was almost time for chow. A hundred new Sioux words and phrases spun around in his head. It would take four hours tonight to memorize the Sioux word list. But it would be four hours well spent!
Copyright © 1988 by Chet Cunningham/BookCrafters