‘You scouts can go,’ Lieutenant Varnum shouted in our tongue. ‘Custer said you don’t have to come. You can head back and join up with the other scouts.’
I looked at my friend, White Swan. He stopped his horse and squinted at the distant figure of Custer, who rode along the ridge on the far-side of the river with soldiers on white horses. Custer waved his hat, urging the soldiers we rode with to advance. Then the last of the white horses were swallowed from our view by the hills.
‘We are ready to die like warriors.’ White Swan said. ‘Custer told that if he wins a big victory, he will become the Great-White Father. He will look after the Crow people and return to us the land the Sioux took. If we leave, maybe Custer will change his mind.’
The soldiers spurred their horses into a trot. Their formation fanned out from a long column into a line. Major Reno rode at their front. All afternoon his red face had sweated under his straw hat until his skin took on the hue of the red neckerchief he wore. Bloody Knife, an Arikara Scout, rode at the Major’s side. I waited with two other Crows, White Swan and Half Yellow Face and a couple of Arikaras.
‘If we follow these soldiers, we will die,’ I said.
All the Crow, Arikara and Shoshone scouts had removed their blue coats and adorned ceremonial clothing. One wore a bison scalp headdress. Only Bloody Knife and I kept our blue coats. I wanted to look as much like a soldier as an Indian could. I did not want them to shoot me because they thought I was a Sioux or Cheyenne. It is foolish to be killed by an ally.
‘We should stay with the soldiers,’ said Half Yellow Face. ‘If the Crow are to win back land taken by the Sioux, we must help the white men. Even if we three die.’ He dug his heels into his pony’s ribs and trotted after the line of soldiers. We followed with whoops and cries to scare our foe.
We approached the camp around one of the many bends in the Little Bighorn river. Steep bluffs masked the size of the camp. In the morning, from the site of an abandoned medicine lodge, we had seen the Sioux pony herd in the distance. Thousands of ponies. Custer’s eyes couldn’t see it. We told him there were more Indians than he had cartridges. Custer said if we were not brave, he would make women of us. One of the Crows replied, ‘If you do that to all your frightened soldiers, it will take a long time.’ We laughed. Custer walked away without saying another word to us. He had the medicine lodge burned. It contained the body of a Sioux who had died before we arrived. He should not have burned it, but we said nothing.
As we rounded the river’s curve, more of the village came into view. Sioux men ran about waving at their loved ones to flee. They weren’t expecting an attack so late in the day. Soldiers always attacked at dawn. The village had been sleeping in the hot afternoon sun. Many ponies walked around grazing freely under the watch of young boys. Thin smoke pillars rose from where camp women were cooking. There were many Tepees. I wondered how many more were beyond my sight when I heard a soldier’s bugle call.
‘Charge!’ someone shouted.
I thought some crazy person gave the order. We were about a hundred soldiers, several Crow, Arikara and Shoshone, and a few non-Indian scouts. I do not know how many Sioux and Cheyenne were in the village. It seemed as many as the blades of grass on the plains.
I galloped to keep up with the soldiers. We stayed behind the body of troops and to the left of their formation. I gripped my carbine with one hand, the reins with the other. I noticed the soldier’s formation had become ragged. Many of them were young boys. They rode badly. Some spoke strange tongues from faraway places. Some even spoke English more poorly than most of us Crow. They tended to look at me the same way I looked at them; like I was a strange sight with a mysterious background that was impossible to understand. I don’t think many of them had seen an Indian before. Few of them could hope to defeat a Sioux or Cheyenne.
Warriors began to surge from the camp. Even at distance I could see they wore no warpaint; they had no time to prepare. I heard the first snaps of gunfire. Wisps of white gun smoke drifted over the heads of the Sioux into the blue sky.
I didn’t hear the order to stop, but the soldiers slowed then halted short of the village. We reined in alongside them.
‘Dismount!’ Someone shouted. ‘Form skirmish line!’ Lots of men echoed the order. Whenever a white soldier shouts a command, many others repeat him. Maybe white soldiers do not hear so well. At least one soldier couldn’t rein in his mount. His horse carried him at great speed into the village. I expect he was the first to die.
I remained mounted. I didn’t want to lose my good horse. When soldiers fight on foot, one will stay mounted to hold the reins of three horses while his comrades go to the firing line. A Crow prefers to fight independently.
White Swan shot from the saddle. I thumbed a cartridge into my carbine. The same weapon soldiers use. It will only take one cartridge at a time and the range is not good, but it’s light and quick to reload. Unless the cartridges get stuck in the barrel. That often happens.
Sioux warriors rode to within thirty metres of the skirmish line, fired, then wheeled their ponies around. There was a great fusillade from the soldiers. One or two Sioux fell from their mounts. The others whooped and turned their ponies back toward the soldiers, shooting bullets and loosing arrows while the soldiers reloaded.
The numbers of attacking warriors grew. Other Sioux gathered on to the left of the skirmish line, opposite us scouts. I had no doubt they intended to charge and chase us away, so they could ride down on the flank of the soldiers. It was not a good place to fight.
‘Here they come!’ Shouted Half Yellow Face.
Twenty or so Sioux charged toward us. Smoke puffed from their pistols as they fired while at a gallop. The shooting was wildly inaccurate, their intention to frighten us away. It didn’t work. We wheeled our mounts about to make ourselves difficult to hit.
I stopped my horse and took steady aim at a rider wearing a war bonnet. I felt his eyes on me as I looked along the gunsight at him. I squeezed the trigger. The butt of the carbine nudged my shoulder. Smoke from the weapon clouded my vision for a moment before drifting. The rider still came at me. I decided his magic must be strong.
I knew I had several moments before he could reach me. I ejected the empty cartridge and slid another into the chamber. He was only metres away as I levelled my weapon at him. He drew back his spear for a lunge but seeing that I would shoot him first, he tugged his pony aside, presenting the animal’s flank to me. The Sioux ducked behind the opposite side of his pony faster than I could make my aim true. He was blocked from my sight by his mount’s body. I blasted the pony through the ribs and it fell, pinning the rider to the ground. The beast’s terrified squeal pierced through the gunfire. It’s legs frantically kicked the air.
The Sioux turned their ponies away again. They wouldn’t engage in a prolonged melee unless they were sure to win. I slid off my horse, holding the rein with one hand, I drew my knife from my belt. I walked around the dying pony. The Sioux underneath ceased his struggles to get free. He looked at me. He was pinned up to the waist under his dying mount. His war bonnet had fallen away. He wore no shirt. Just a necklace of beads.
‘Why do you Crow fight for the white man?’ he spat the words at me in the Sioux tongue. ‘You are traitors to fight for these devils.’
I studied the blade in my hand for a moment. The edge had become a little dull. I’d used it to skin elk and prepare meat as well as other little tasks since I’d last sharpened it.
‘You think we should fight with the Sioux?’ I said. ‘Sioux stole the land of my ancestors. The white man promises us this land back. Why shouldn’t we fight for him?’
‘I will hate you forever. And all of your kind.’ The Sioux sneered, then closed his eyes. He began his death song.
I didn’t feel it necessary to wait for him to finish. I let go of my bridle as I knelt beside him and stuck my blade into his neck at the jugular. Sawing through flesh and tendons to the opposite side of his neck. I stood again and watched him gargle red bubbles. I decided not to take his scalp, but his spirit might seek revenge, so I slashed the ligaments under his armpit. In the next life he would not aim well.
As I stood, the sounds of battle came back to me. The pops of pistols and carbines. Shouts from soldiers. Battle cries from Indians. I slid the carbine into the holster on my saddle and was about to mount my horse when he reared up, screaming. An arrow shaft protruded from his neck. He swayed his head left to right and jumped, kicking forward then behind, as if he might shake the arrow free.
‘Fall back to the timber!’ Many soldiers shouted the command as they ran back to their horses. A swarm of Sioux hovered near the village, ready to charge. At any moment they could overwhelm us. I was about to run to the woods when an Arikara scout called Young Hawk dashed his horse close to me and motioned for me to climb up behind him, which I did without hesitation.
The hoofs of the Sioux ponies beat the ground behind us. I remembered my carbine was with the army mount I had just lost. Unlike the soldiers, I had no pistol. We rode among the mass of troopers as they dashed for the trees. Some of the horse holders had retreated before the soldiers could take to their horses, so some men were forced to run to the cover of the woods.
As soon as we reached the woods I slid off the back of the horse. Officers were shouting at troopers to dismount. They hurried to form a firing line at the edge of the woods. I scanned the bluffs for a sign of Custer. If he attacked the Sioux in the rear, we might beat them. If he didn’t, we would likely die.
The soldiers scrambled about like they were confused. Shouting more than they shot. Others stayed on their horses shooting pistols in the direction of the Sioux without really aiming.
Splinters erupted from trees where Sioux bullets struck. Occasionally an arrow shaft thudded into the ground. I needed to find a weapon. Before long there would be dead soldiers in the woods, then I could claim a new carbine, maybe even a horse.
‘What are the savages going to do?’ a man with a moustache and dirty cheeks shouted close to my face. He wore just a grey shirt instead of his blue coat, so I couldn’t tell if he was an officer, but his teeth were brown, and his breath as fetid as a week-dead racoon, so I think he was just a soldier. I ignored him and made to move past him when he snatched my arm.
‘I asked you a question, savage!’ He held his revolver toward my face. His eyes were wide. The pupils dashing as if looking for escape.
‘They will try to surround us,’ I said. ‘Maybe then attack. Maybe burn the woods.’
The soldier cursed. He shoved my arm aside and turned to one of his comrades and shouted something at him. I spotted Bloody Knife, standing beside Major Reno. He was shooting at the Sioux while the Major was shouting at him. Bloody knife’s head jerked back violently. He slumped over a fallen tree trunk. His blood and brains covered Reno’s face and tunic.
The Major looked at me. His mouth formed a small ‘o’. His eyes were wild like the soldier who grabbed my arm.
‘Mount!’ The Major bellowed. He snatched his bridle from his orderly and climbed up into his saddle. His order was repeated throughout the timber.
I picked up Bloody Knife’s pistol. Grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it over his body. I think I said some words, but I don’t recall them.
‘Dismount!’ The Major shouted. Again, the command was echoed. The Major stood beside his horse, looking down at Bloody Knife’s body. He turned abruptly to his left then right as if searching for something. ‘Mount!’
Soldiers climbed onto their saddles again. Others ran through the undergrowth shouting for a mount. Waving at comrades who held the bridles of empty horses. I knew no soldier would give me a horse. I looked about for an unguarded mount but could not see one.
‘Any man who wishes to make his escape and live…’ The Major was back in his saddle, holding his pistol high. ‘Follow me!’
Major Reno rode through the woods to the clearing closest the river. Most of his command followed close behind. Some, like me, still searched for a horse. Others who were not close enough to hear the command or notice their comrades flee, stayed where they were, shooting at the baying Sioux.
I ran after the mounted soldiers. I glimpsed Sioux on the edge of the woods. If I stayed close to the soldiers there would be an empty horse soon enough. Branches brushed aside by the army horses whipped at my face. Reeds tugged at my moccasins, but I kept up with the slowest riders.
The soldiers burst from the woods. As I emerged with the stragglers I saw a large body of Sioux bear down on the troopers ahead. They rode their ponies right up alongside the soldiers to shoot them point-blank. In their haste to escape, soldiers jumped their mounts down the steep bank into the Bighorn River. Several fell from their horses as they smashed into the fast-flowing torrent.
The Sioux were able to leap their ponies into the river and stay mounted without even holding on. The instant their horses were in the water, they continued shooting the fleeing white men. I stopped at the tree line. Not wanting to make an easy target of myself. A Sioux would likely prefer to kill a Crow than a white soldier, and on foot I would be easier to ride down.
The Major and the lead soldiers with him scrambled up the far bank and continued up the steep bluff without looking back. The soldiers in the middle urged their horses on through the river. The clacking of horse shoes on pebbles was louder than both gunfire and the fast-flowing current. Some soldiers at the rear saw that escape was impossible for them and dismounted. They bunched together, fumbling with their carbines, dropping more shells than they loaded. Warriors leapt from their ponies onto the hapless troopers.
I fled back into the woods. Cracks of gunfire were followed by the snapping of branches. Shouting and screams came from every direction. I had no idea if I was being shot at or if the bullets bursting around me were stray shots.
The wood wasn’t very large. If the Sioux came in force it would be difficult to hide. I contemplated climbing a tree, but if I was spotted I couldn’t escape. I kept myself as low to the earth as I could as I ran. A fallen trunk with thick foliage around it looked likely to offer temporary cover. I leapt over the fallen timber and was immediately confronted by two faces.
In my alarm, I almost dropped the pistol. Someone cried out, I think it was one of them, but it might’ve been me. A weapon was levelled at me. I thrust my pistol toward my new enemy, only then noticing it was a white man in a blue coat.
‘Friendly! Friendly!’ I shouted. Holding the pistol above my head while tugging the front of my army tunic with the other hand. The second soldier, a big, older man in a chequered flannel shirt pointed his finger at me.
‘Get down, ya stupid savage. ‘Afore you give us away! Gilbert, you Irish lout, don’t shoot the sumbitch or you’ll bring all those darn Hunkpapa Sioux down on us.’
The soldier in the blue coat, barely a man in age, turned his carbine aside. I ducked behind the trunk at a point where I could see through a gap in the foliage. I grabbed fistful of weeds growing around the log and tore them out to allow myself a clearer field of view. The cacophony of battle travelled away from the woods. Snapping twigs and the occasional report of gunfire indicated we weren’t quite alone in the woods.
‘What in hell’s happen’t’ rest the command?’ The big soldier growled.
I looked at him, unsure he was talking to me. The man’s breathing was hard, either through of fear, or because he was fat for a soldier. His belly obscured half of his brass belt buckle. His riding boots were creased and worn, and his light blue pants faded and stained.
‘They crossed back over the Bighorn.’ I thought a moment, deciding it might be best not to let these scared soldiers know they were abandoned. ‘I think they will meet with Custer’s men before attacking the village again.’
‘The General will come rescue us!’ The young soldier spoke quickly. His wide eyes fixed on me until the big soldier spoke again.
‘Don’t be so darn stupid! Custer abandoned Major Elliott and his men to die on the Washita back in ’68. He don’t care about an old sweat, a greenhorn and a savage scout.’
The younger soldier bowed his head as if scolded. His uniform was dirtied by earth and a couple of weeks on campaign, but his boots looked stiff, his blues unfaded and his chin had yet to sprout hair. He was surely one of the new soldiers which had joined in the spring. I wondered if it was best to leave them. I could take off my hat and coat, throw a blanket around my shoulders and at a distance look like a Sioux or Cheyenne. I could make my escape alone. The big one looked at me through narrow eyes. I decided he might shoot me if I tried to abandon them.
‘So, Crow…’ the big soldier spat, leaving a trickle of brown saliva on his chin. ‘Whadya think?’
‘Wait until nightfall. Cross the river. Follow the other soldiers.’
‘No! Jesus! We can’t stay here all afternoon!’ The young soldier cried out. ‘Th-those barbarians will find and scalp us!’
‘I’ll scalp you if’n you raise yer voice again!’ the big soldier hissed.
I looked for sign of alerted enemies. Spying a dash of blue among a long tangle of grass thirty metres away. A soldier. I didn’t know if he was hiding, dead or dying.
‘Whadya see, Crow?’ The big soldier’s breath was hot on my ear.
I nodded toward the prone soldier. The big soldier grunted.
‘Trooper from M company. Saw him go down. He ain’t gonna bother nobody.’
The young trooper shook the last drops of water from his canteen into his waiting mouth. It was only then I realised my own thirst. The heat, excitement of battle and metallic taste of black powder on the tongue made warriors parched. I lifted my waterskin. There hadn’t been a chance to refill canteens since the previous day. Fortunately, mine was still half-full. I took a small sip, swilling the water around my mouth and offered my water to the young soldier.
‘Take this... Just one taste. Maybe we wait here a long time. It’s not safe to go to the river.’
‘You’re a scout,’ the big soldier grunted, ‘you ‘kin sneak past them savages. Find a way out.’
‘All Sioux and Cheyenne are scouts too. They will be cautious at night. We will try then.’ I went back to looking out for trouble. Bursts of gunfire became more infrequent and distant. The big soldier lent in close, his stinking mouth an inch from my cheek.
‘Yer just a scout. I’m a soldier of nine damn years. If I tells ya to do something, ya best be doin’ it.’
I heard a click, recognising it as the hammer of his pistol being pulled back. The light touch at my hip I knew was the barrel. I looked at the man. His prickly chin jutted forward. His nose creased in a sneer. But his twitching eyelids betrayed his fear.
‘If you shoot me,’ I said, ‘the Sioux will come. You are not brave. You will try to surrender. Maybe they will kill you quickly and take your scalp. Or maybe they will cut you many times. Slit your eyes. Slice off your nose. Keep you alive for more than one day before the warriors burn the flesh off your bones.’
The big soldier’s breathing became ragged. Spittle formed on his lips. I put my knife blade to his groin.
‘Filthy savage.’ He spat onto the dirt and moved a metre away from me. A snapping of undergrowth redirected my attention. I motioned for the two white men to be quiet.
A woman walked toward us. Clad in tan and brown hides. A Sioux woman. She dropped to her knees next to the dead soldier. Sunlight caught her blade. The familiar damp sound of metal sawing through flesh was accompanied by her low humming. I glared in the direction of the two soldiers who both craned for a view.
The woman stopped humming. She looked around. She was young, with small nose and prominent cheek bones. Beautiful. For a moment I thought she looked directly at me, but her gaze passed by and she went back to her task. The humming resumed.
The big soldier made a motion with a finger across his throat. I shook my head. Was he stupid enough to think she would venture far from others? He shifted in the dirt to get a better view.
‘Silence. Maybe many Sioux.’ I dared to whisper.
‘Oh, Jesus.’ The young soldier crossed himself repeatedly.
‘Quiet!’ hissed the big soldier.
The young soldier whimpered. I looked back to the woman. She continued to hum as she tried on the dead man’s crumpled hat.
‘I’m not going to get burned alive by a heathen in this unholy country!’ The young soldier jabbed the barrel of his weapon under his chin and closed his eyes.
The big soldier lunged. He forced the weapon aside and twisted it from the younger man’s grip. Pinning the younger man onto his back he straddled his chest. Beefy hands gripping the throat. The young soldier’s legs scrambled against the earth. The Sioux girl sang a song to herself.
I shook my hand at the white men. They continued to struggle. I licked my lips, contemplating leaving them. The young soldier’s throat made a hollow rasp as he gasped for air.
Keeping low, I rushed the two or three paces toward them. I put a hand over the big soldier’s mouth and pulled at his right arm. His elbow stabbed into my gut. Knocking the air out from me. I stumbled back, gasping.
Ignoring me, the big hands returned to the throat of the young soldier. I pushed myself to my feet and again slapped a hand over the soldier’s mouth. Before I could even contemplate the action, my knife had dragged a line across the soldier’s wide neck. His fat fingers pawed uselessly at the wound. I held my palm tight across his mouth. The younger soldier gulped air as his tunic and face was spattered in crimson from the big soldier’s throat.
I held the big soldier until his body went limp. I lowered him to the ground. The young soldier stared at me. His red face made his wide eyes look even whiter. I put a finger to my lips. He didn’t move or make a sound. Transfixed by the horror he’d witnessed. I lowered the knife. It was then I became aware of the Sioux woman watching us.
She stood beside the felled tree trunk. Watching with calm, grey eyes. I didn’t know what to do. If I rushed her, she would shout alerting any nearby enemies. We looked at each other for some moments. She raised her right arm, revealing a cavalry colt which she’d held concealed behind the skirt of her dress.
‘You people are crazy. Even fight each other.’ she said in her language. The pistol’s hammer clicked.
‘We just want to live.’ I dropped my knife and held up my palms. ‘I’m finished fighting.’
‘You are a Crow.’ She turned the pistol on the young soldier. ‘He is a white soldier. It is good if I kill you.’
‘What’s she saying?’ the young soldier cried. His eyes wandered to his weapon laying just out of his reach. The Sioux girl saw it too. She levelled her pistol, looking along the barrel at him.
‘No!’ I shouted. I snatched up my knife and flung it in her direction. I hoped to upset her shot. My shout and motion were enough for her to transfer her aim back to me. I held my open palm toward her. Seemingly the same instant I saw the last two fingers on my right hand explode in a cloud of red. I felt the spatter of warm blood on my face before the searing hot pain where my digits used to be.
I cradled my hand. The Sioux girl pulled the revolver’s hammer, taking careful aim at me. I flinched at the gunshot, but it was her body which jerked away with an invisible, violent force.
My wound forgotten, I took a couple steps toward her prone form. Half hidden by ferns and tangles of long grass. She didn’t move. Wisps white smoke from the young soldier’s pistol wafted past me, filling my nostrils with the metallic stench of gunpowder.
‘Jesus Mary and Joseph, I’ve killed her.’ The young soldier’s voice cracked on the last word.
‘We should go.’ I said, my eyes still on the body. ‘More will come.’
The young soldier stared at the body. I had to pull him by the arm before he would move. We dashed for the river, mindless of the racket we made in our haste. I kept my half-hand squeezed tight inside my other fist, only releasing it when we jumped into the river. I flayed feebly against the current. Many times my feet almost slipped on the rocks.
The young soldier had gotten ahead of me. He climbed out next to a dead horse. He offered his carbine butt to me which I took, and he heaved me out. We paused to catch our breath. Distant volleys of gunfire rolled through the valley like thunder. By the time we had regained our breath, the shooting reduced to a crackle.
We scurried up the steep embankment like rats escaping a flood. I gripped my injured limb the entire way. With every step blood dripped onto my leggings and the grass. I looked back occasionally. There was some movement in the valley below but no effort to pursue us.
‘Who goes there?’ a voice demanded from somewhere above.
‘Gilbert! From A company!’ The young solder yelled back.
I followed the young soldier so the whites would see his face first. There were many soldiers on top of the hill. More than had been in the valley fight. I thought they must be Custer’s men, but I spotted Captain Benteen, who’d been kept in reserve with three companies. They had dug rifle pits and corralled their horses together. The cries of the wounded were piteous. It was only by a trick of the terrain we hadn’t heard them on the ascent.
A sergeant beckoned us, most of the other soldiers barely paid us any attention, their eyes searching the hills over which Custer had ridden, but now only empty wind howled.
‘Looks like you had a hell of a time. Anyone else left in the woods?’ the sergeant addressed the young soldier, only glancing at the bloody mess I cradled. I wanted to beg for a surgeon, but I waited. The young soldier looked down at the grass, his shoulders shook as he sniffed wetly.
‘No other whites.’ I said quickly.
‘Kill any hostiles?’ the sergeant growled, keeping his attention on the young soldier.
‘No…’ the young soldier dared to meet the Sergeant’s eye. ‘No hostiles.’
The sergeant grunted. ‘Fine. Rejoin your company. The Crow can skulk by the surgeon, but he’s got his hands full already.’ The sergeant said more, but I’d stopped listening.
The young soldier looked at me. I could see his shame in his eyes. I’d saved his life, I realised he would save me from the noose by his silence. He nodded to me, I returned the gesture and left to find the Surgeon.
Andrew is the author of a self-published novel ‘The March of the Dragons’ an extract of which appeared in an article in ‘Writing Magazine.’ He has also authored numerous shorter pieces of fiction in various genres including comedy fiction in the anthology ‘Verse and Vice Versa’. Andrew lives in the United Kingdom and is currently writing a history book and miniature wargaming rules for the Plains Indian Wars.