Title: The Battle of War Bonnet Creek

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The Battle of War Bonnet Creek

And the Duel of Buffalo Bill and Yellow Hand

By Major General Charles King




IT was the Centennial summer, and the eyes of the nation seemed focused on Philadelphia. Every art and industry was there represented, and to further attract the array of sightseers from all over the land, "shows" without number had pre-empted every suitable hall or theater in the neighboring cities. And yet, at the very outset of what promised to be a very profitable season, one theatrical company doing a rushing business summarily disbanded. It was the "Buffalo Bill's Own," then playing to crowded houses, and the simple explanation of it all was that the papers had just announced a serious Indian war in the West, and that the Fifth regiment of cavalry had been ordered from the southern plains to hasten to the support of Gen. George Crook's column in Wyoming. This was the regiment which, six and seven years earlier, Cody had guided as chief scout on the campaign against Tall Bull and the Southern Cheyennes, and now their old comrade could not bear the idea of their again going campaigning without him.

The wires had flashed his message to Cheyenne within the hour after he read the news. The wires flashed back to him the answer from the regiment:

"Your old position open to you. Join us here." And for four days thereafter he was eagerly welcomed by every officer and man, as much at home among them as though they had never known a day apart.

One week thereafter, under the orders of General Sheridan, they had forded the North Platte and launched out into the broad lands of the Sioux, ordered to find the route by which the young warriors were quitting the reservations of Red Cloud and Spotted Tail in Northwestern Nebraska, and riding away laden with rations, arms and ammunition, to join the great herds of "hostiles" under the renowned medicine chief, Sitting Bull — Tatonka Eyo Tonka. Their rendezvous was in the heart of the glorious country between the Big Horn range and the Yellowstone. Three columns, commanded respectively by Generals Terry, Crook and Gibbon, were closing in upon them from east, south and west. With Terry rode the famous cavalry leader of the Civil war, George Armstrong Custer. Hurrying to join Crook, and assigned to the command of the Fifth cavalry, came Wesley Merritt, famous even as Custer; and between those three slowly concentrating columns lurked the bands of Sitting Bull, wearily watching every move and waiting a chance to strike. On the 17th of June they swarmed on Crook's force among the bluffs of the Rosebud and brought him to a stand. On the 25th they overwhelmed Custer and his command on the banks of the Little Horn, and though Indians far and wide speedily heard of that bloody victory, not until ten days thereafter was it told to the awe-stricken crowds at the Centennial. Then, people along the Delaware began to see why Buffalo Bill had closed his show, turned his back on crowded houses and box receipts, and had hastened to bear his part in the deadly and dramatic work on the frontier.


ON July 1st Merritt reached the Fifth cavalry away out on the dry fork of the South Cheyenne. On the 2nd, with Buffalo Bill leading, they had their first lively chase after a war party of Sioux, and followed it with five long days of scouting under hot suns, and short nights of sleeping under the stars. Then — just as they were saddling on the morning of the 7th of July, came dread and direful news: Custer — "The Long Haired" — the daring and dashing leader, with five of his favorite companies, had been swept from the face of the earth in fierce battle with the Sioux.

Perhaps no man felt it more than Cody, who had ridden with Custer on many a run for buffalo. Perhaps no man more eagerly welcomed the news that now the regiment would be recalled to Fort Laramie to fit out with supplies, and then march to strengthen Crook's command, now in its entrenched camp at the base of the Big Horn. Perhaps no man more delightedly heard Merritt's sudden order — a few days later — to face again northward, ride like the wind and be ready to fight like the devil. Eight hundred Southern Cheyennes, old antagonists of the Fifth, had had a grand pow-wow at the Red Cloud agency, and openly declared their intention of starting to join forces with their victorious brethren under Sitting Bull.

Merritt's generalship always was fine; this day it was great. With just seven companies he was in bivouac at the moment close to Rawhide Ford of the Red Cloud Laramie road, sixty-five miles southeast of the reservation. It was just noon, Saturday, the 13th. He had promptly reasoned that the Indians would take the broad trail across the valley of the South Cheyenne, where the Fifth had been scouting and chasing until Sheridan's order of recall reached them on the 12th. The route was now open. There was nothing to hinder the Indian move. If, as announced, they started on Sunday, they should be crossing by Monday morning. Merritt's resolve was taken instantly. He would make a wide circuit back by Rawhide Butte and Cardinal's Chair, march eighty-five miles night and day, and get there first. Then — with only 400 men all told, throw himself across the Indian path, and though they might be two to his one — drive them back to the reservation.

That was a memorable march. It was fourteen miles west to Rawhide Peak, and there at 4 o'clock they halted, watered, re-mounted, rode on again — northward now to the valley of the Niobrara, where at 10 p. m. they unsaddled, bivouacked to three in the morning, by which time the wagons with rations and forage had caught up. Men and horses were roused, given a substantial breakfast, then away they went again — east — northeast now, and heading for the Cheyenne crossing.

The Indians to reach it had only an easy Sunday ride of twenty-eight miles northwestward from their abandoned camps. The Fifth cavalry, after a thirty-five-mile jog all Saturday afternoon and evening, had still a fifty-mile stage to cover, and had to make it unsuspected and unseen. With only an hour's rest at the old stockade on Sage creek, where every belt and pocket was crammed with ball cartridges, Merritt marched his hardy column, Cody and his scouts well in the lead and far out on the eastward flank, and just at 8 p. m. on Sunday, silently under the stars, halted below the bluffs of a tributary to the South Cheyenne, long known to the Indians as War Bonnet creek. Here close at hand was the grand crossing, and the Fifth had won the race. Half an hour's scout enabled Cody to assure Merritt that the hostiles were still to the southeast, between them and the reservation — that it was a safe bet they would be along early Monday morning, and probably not before.

That night, in spite of yelping coyotes on every side, every horse and man, save only the watchful guard, had at least a few hours of sleep. Then came the dawn of a most eventful day — Monday, July 17th.


AS the stars began to pale in the eastern sky and a faint gray light to steal over the landscape, the outlying sentries began peering over the banks and ridges behind which they were crouching. The southeast — the direction from which the hostiles should come — was the important front, and the officer of the guard, Lieutenant King, taking with him Sergeant Schreiber and Corporal Wilkinson, crept further out to a little knoll from which they found unobstructed view. East — southeast — south and southwest — the rolling prairie lay spread before them. Directly in their front was a broad open "swale," rising gradually to a long ridge stretching from east to west. Winding away to the southwest and a little distance to their right, lay the road by which they had come the previous evening. Directly southward, with its branches cutting into the ridge, a dry water course in a shallow ravine, extended well across the swale and passing to the right of the knoll, wound its way through the bluffs to the bed of the War Bonnet. The road crossed it but a stone's throw to the right of the knoll. The ground rose in a V-shaped tongue between the ravine and the road, hiding one from the other. Even as the officer, kneeling near the crest, was studying with his binocular the distant winding of the road, he was suddenly accosted by Corporal Wilkinson:

"Look, lieutenant, there are Indians!"

Levelling his glass in the direction pointed, Lieutenant King quickly sighted not one, but two or three groups of mounted warriors scurrying about along that southward ridge, evidently in great excitement. In a moment a messenger was hurried back to notify   General Merritt and almost instantly the order was sent noiselessly from troop to troop:

"Saddle up and mount."

In five minutes, riding up from the hidden bivouac, came the general, with three of his staff and Buffalo Bill. Dismounting behind the knoll, they crawled up to where King kept watch. Following in a moment more came two of Cody's scout, Tait and "Chips" — and perhaps half a dozen of the guard, all concealed behind the knoll.

Briefly Lieutenant King pointed out the lay of the land. "What puzzles me," said he, "is the action of the Indians. There are hundreds of them along that ridge, all darting about as though watching something out on the Sage creek road, keeping hid from the west, but evidently seeing and suspecting nothing in this direction."

By this time, though the sun was not yet peeping above the horizon, every moving object along the southward ridge was distinctly visible, and the long stretch of winding road could be seen full four miles away. By this time, too, the ridge and every slope screened from the west were fairly alive with Indians, and even Cody was mystified.

"What in thunder are those fellows fooling about!" said he.


THEN all of a sudden came the explanation. Afar out over the westward slopes, where the land was higher — first one, then another white dot came slowly into view until presently a little string was crawling towards them.

"The wagon train, by all that's wonderful!" cried Bill, "and we never thought they could make it!"

Make it — they had. Though expected to halt at the Sage creek stockade, Lieutenant Hall, the quartermaster in charge, had baited his mules, piled a lot of infantrymen with their long rifles on top of his rations but under the wagon covers, and shoved ahead on an all-night march. This then, was the cause of the tremendous excitement among the Cheyennes — a rich train bound for the Black Hills! What better prize could they hope for? Already they were signalling belated brethren up from the rear, little dreaming how very much more those wagons might hold! And then suddenly, just as the sun came peering over the eastward hills, a new excitement arose. To the amaze of Merritt's party on the knoll, a brilliant little band of warriors, detaching from the main body on the ridge, came lashing full speed down the slope directly toward them, war bonnets streaming in the wind, their ponies bounding over the turf, and then, almost as suddenly came the explanation. Only a mile away to the southwest, popping suddenly over a wave of prairie, two couriers rode suddenly into view. Bearing dispatches to Merritt, believing him now so near and the coast entirely clear, they had ventures forward from the train and all unconscious of danger, were speeding straight to their death.

Like a whirlwind came the Indians — by this time speeding down the tortuous ravine, and Cody saw the scheme at a glance — to dash six to one upon the unwary riders, at the point where the road in the ravine met — and the rest — could better be imagined than described.

"By Jove, general," he cried, "now's our chance! Let us mount and cut those fellows off!"

Instantly came Merritt's answer. "Up to you, Cody! Stay there, King! Watch till they're close under you, then give the word!"

It was a thrilling moment. Already six companies had saddled and ridden into line close under the screening bluffs, 200 yards to the rear — a sweet surprise would that be for the Cheyennes! Already the ridge to the south was fairly bristling with feathered crests, lances and shields, as scores of Indians watched with eager envy the dash of their fellows on the helpless prey. Already Cody, "Chips," Tait and half a dozen troopers had sprung to saddle behind the knoll. Merritt and his aids crouched half way down the slope. Only Lieutenant King remained at the crest, stretched at full length, the top of his hatless head alone visible from the Indian side. Already above the swift beating of their hearts the little party could hear the swifter tattoo of nimble hoofs upon the resounding turf. All eyes were fixed on King, awaiting his signal. Ten seconds too soon and the dashing foemen could easily veer and escape. Two seconds too late and the couriers were dead men. Presently the watchers saw the gauntleted hand cautiously lifting, higher and higher. Ten — five seconds more — and then came the ringing order:

"Now, lads — in with you!"

And with an instant rush and cheer the little party of scouts and troopers burst from their concealment, tore headlong around the shoulder of bluff and straight at the face of the astonished foe — Buffalo Bill ten lengths in the lead.


IN the moment that followed, Merritt and his officers sprang again to the crest. The officers had only their revolvers, but Corporal Wilkinson's carbine let drive the first shot. Cool and daring,   the Indian leader bent low over his pony's neck and sent his answering shot close to the general's cheek, and then as he straightened in saddle, he was suddenly aware of a foeman equally daring, dashing straight upon him, half a dozen cheering troopers at his heels. One glance was more than enough. Even Indians who never before had seen him — well knew Buffalo Bill, and the lean brown arm with its glistening bracelets and brandishing lance was thrown on high in warning to his fellows. The lance was flung aside even as, veering to the right to avoid the shock of the charge and bring his rifle into action, the superb young chief flung himself along his pony's outstretched neck to aim beneath it, just as Cody's first bullet tore through his left leg and into the gallant pony's heart, tumbling steed and rider headlong in confused and kicking heap. Frantic with excitement, his amazed followers circled to right and left, and the young brave struggling to his feet — his rifle hurled from his grasp — his tomahawk brandished for close combat, was flung again to earth as Cody's charger stumbled over the dying pony. The next instant white chief and red — Buffalo Bill for the scouts and the cavalry — Yellow Hand for the Southern Cheyennes, once more faced each other in deadly grapple, and in another the pride of the warrior tribe lay gasping on the sod.


EVEN then in the moment of his breathless victory, there was peril for Buffalo Bill. Astonished though they were at the sight of this onslaught of a handful of foes, the Cheyennes along the mile-away ridge were quick to realize what had happened, and in one magnificent dash they came charging down to the rescue. One minute the broad, sun-lit slope was fairly alive with mounted warriors, full twenty score, all full panoplied in Indian fashion, lurid with paint, brilliant with flashing ornaments, their wild war bonnets streaming behind them. On they came, yelling hate, vengeance, death and defiance, and for the moment it looked as though Cody and his little band would be swallowed up in the rush. Only for a moment though, for before half the distance from ridge to knoll had been covered, up from the screen of bluffs to the north came line after line, troop after troop of blue-shirted riders, their guidons flashing, their carbines unslung and advanced, and in a burst of cheers and a thunder of hoofs, the Fifth cavalry swooped down at the gallop. The sight was too much even for Cheyenne nerves, and, leaving their dead on the field, the bewildered, out-generaled warriors reined in, whirled about, turned and fled — never stopping until safe within the limits of the reservation, where — no matter what their sins, they were safe from soldier hands. Thither followed the Fifth — and there that night, awe-stricken Indians crept about their bivouac fires, intent on seeing the chief who had beaten them at their own game, and with fear, hatred and baffled vengeance in their eyes, following and studying the famous scout who that day had stripped them of their daring leader — Yellow Hand. In all Merritt's hard-riding column, there was no man who did not accord the honors of the day to Buffalo Bill.