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Captain Colt Harding kicked the big black army gelding in the flanks and drove him forward through the darkness of the gently flowing West Texas prairie. A night hawk screamed somewhere to the right. His scouts told him they were getting close. Another hour of riding and they would leave their horses and move up.
Colt Harding's moonlit face showed tough and stern. He had been watching this band of Comanches for a week. They had found a small herd of buffalo and stopped for an early hunt. Now the Second Cavalry out of Fort Comfort moved in to rout the hostiles. The Daily Report showed that the date was August 14, 1867.
Captain Harding rode at the front of his forty man "Lightning" company, a fast strike force he had put together that could cover as much ground in a day as any Comanche. His troopers were ready to fight at the end of a sixteen-hour, sixty-five mile ride.
His selected men were tough, hardened, the best shots from all the troopers at Fort Comfort, and they had earned the right to be members of this elite group. They were the best in this section of the famous Second Cavalry. He had hand selected them from the four companies at the fort and created a new unit. Some men didn't want to leave their old company, but the lure of something new and good caught their imagination.
For years the Indians had ridiculed the Pony Soldier for his slow footed mounts, his bugles announcing to the enemy that he was having mess, or going to bed, or getting ready to move, and then the lumbering, slow wagons they always brought along. The Indian traveled light and fast, living off the land.
Now Captain Harding's Lightning force did much the same.No supply wagons trailed his troop. No sabers were allowed, no bugles, no tents for officers or enlisted, and every man carried his own food supply for six, eight or ten days. He took another page from the Indian warfare book.
He brought along five Tonkawa Indians as scouts and hunters. Two of the braves worked ahead, tracking the enemy and picking out the best route for the troop. The other three Indians were free to use their own ponies and only bow and arrow to hunt for food for the company as it rode forward.
On one long trip the Lightning Company had covered seventy-five miles in one day. Few Indian ponies could do better.
Captain Colt Harding was not sure if this was the specific Comanche band he wanted, but any Comanche was fair game. He had been hunting Walking White Eagle and his band for three months now, ever since the chief and a raiding party had caught an army supply wagon train and wiped out all but one on board. The only life spared was that of Sadie Harding, age four, who had been captured and taken away.
Colt Harding wanted his daughter back. The same band had raped and killed his wife, Milly, and cut down his son Yale, who was only seven. His family had been on the way from Austin to live on the post with him. Their covered wagon had been attached to the army train with an escort for safety.
Captain Harding had more than a score to settle with the Comanche, and especially the chief called White Eagle!
Captain Harding pulled up sharply as the lead scout materialized out of the darkness ahead. He held one hand high, palm toward the riders. They stopped and Colt walked his black up to the Indian scout, who spoke some English.
"Dismount, walk," the small Tonkawa said. His tribe had "gone to the blanket" on an informal reservation. About ten families lived near the fort and the braves served as guides and scouts for the army.
Captain Harding gave a soft command and the men behind him dismounted. They left three horse guards who tied the mounts together and picketed them by sixes.
The Cavalrymen, more used to fighting from horseback than the ground, grouped around their captain in the dimness. Colt lifted his big pocket watch to catch the moonlight. He checked the location of the Big Dipper and grunted.
"Damn near two A.M.," he said to the men. "We're on schedule. It's about a mile to the Comanche camp. We don't want to take any chances waking them up. We'll spread out when we find the camp and each man pick a tipi and do the job. Remember, check for a five-year-old girl with long yellow hair. If Sadie is in there, I don't want her scratched. We get her out first!"
Captain Harding stared at them a moment in the dim light. "I just pray to God that this is the band that has Sadie. Let's go do it!"
They moved out quietly, hiking the mile in a column of fours much the way they would ride. There was no grumbling in the ranks. They had been trained to move without a sound. No jangling spurs, no coins clinking, no metal clanking on metal. They moved Indian quiet, as Capt. Harding called it.
Every trooper had a Spencer seven-shot rifle. The Spencers didn't have the range some of the longer rifles did, but they could throw out a hail of lead better than any weapon on the market.
A hundred and forty rounds was standard ammunition issue for each trooper to carry. The Lightning members carried two hundred and eighty, and twice the ration, or sixty rounds, for their pistols. About half of them had fourteen inch bayonets on the end of their long gun, and a good fighting knife on their cartridge belt. They were ready.
The lead scout held up his hand and the men stopped behind him. It was still dark, the moon coming in and out behind scattered clouds that scudded to the east.
When they were within five hundred yards of the camp, they came over a small hill and saw the village with a few thin streams of smoke coming from twelve tipis below along a small stream.
The scouts signaled to wait and they moved forward to check for lookouts or guards. Five minutes later they were back.
"No guards," the lead scout said.
Captain Harding gave the signal for the men to spread out in a line of skirmishers. They were five yards apart as they moved silently down the slope toward the sleeping Indians.
Sgt. Richard Casemore watched his end of the line and motioned three men to move up quicker. There was no talking as the men marched Indian-quiet down the hill.
They had instructions. It was to be a "silent attack" as long as possible. They would use knife and bayonet. Not until the Indians raised a war cry or they fired the first shot were the troopers allowed to use their firearms.
Sgt. Casemore and a private slipped into the tipi at the far end of the camp. A smoldering fire blazed up with the gust of air from the entry flap. A brave lifted up still half asleep. Sgt. Casemore bayonetted him in the chest, yanked the blade out and hit him in the face with a butt stroke of his 47-inch-long Spencer repeater.
A woman darted at him. He slashed her with his knife, then plunged it into her chest through a breast.
Pvt. Vorhees caught up a pair of buffalo robes on a low bed against the wall of the tipi. A ten-year-old boy lay there sleeping. Vorhees slit his throat with his fighting knife and moved to the next pile of buffalo robes. There were no more Indians in the tipi.
Sgt. Casemore motioned outside and they ran to the next tipi only to find two troopers coming out of it, one laughing softly. The other, a recruit who was on his first action with the Lightning troop, looked sickly green even in the dim light. He rushed to one side and threw up.
A piercing Indian war cry shattered the silence of the Texas creek bottom. The cry was repeated again and again from other parts of the camp as the Indians came alert.
Rifles and pistols thundered inside and outside the tipis. A brave ran from the next tipi toward the horses. Sgt. Casemore led him with his pistol and hit him in the side. The Comanche went down and tried to get up once, then flopped down and didn't move.
Everyone was screaming and shooting. Sgt. Casemore figured it would be a miracle if at least two of the troop were not killed by friendly fire. He rushed from one tipi to the next. Most were deathly silent.
He came out of one and looked back at the Indian he had shot on the run. The brave was not there. The savage must have been faking his wound. He was gone.
Sergeant Casemore pointed at three privates.
"You three, over there beyond that brush. Go find their horses and don't let them get away. Go now!"
The three trotted away.
At the other end of the camp, just as the attack began, Captain Harding and a private slipped into the farthest tipi. They let their eyes adjust to the dark interior. The gust of outside air brought two adults upright among their buffalo robes.
Captain Harding grunted with pent-up hatred as he drove his bayonet toward the Comanche brave. The man twisted but the bayonet struck him in the side, daggering under his arm directly into his heart. The brave gave a small cry and fell dead.
The private slashed at a small Indian woman who brandished a knife. He jumped back and then slammed ahead with the butt of his rifle, crushing her skull.
Two children whimpered to one side. Captain Harding ran to them, threw off the robes, but found only a pair of Indian children under five.
"Kill them!" he spat at the private and ran out of the tipi flap. He charged the next tipi just as Corporal Nellington ran inside. A brave had started to come out. His knife caught the corporal in the side.
Before the trooper could react, Captain Harding's knife drove four inches into the brave's neck. A geyser of blood sprayed from the wound, painting all three of them. Slowly the brave sagged, then fell away.
Corporal Nellington staggered. Harding caught him and looked at the blade in his side.
"Easy boy, take it easy. Sit down over here." He eased the trooper to the ground. "Take your kerchief off and fold it into a pad. I'm going to pull that blade out and you put the pad over the wound and press it tight. You do that and you'll be just fine. You hear?"
There was no shooting yet. All was quiet in the camp except for a grunt and a gush of the final breath as another Comanche died.
Corporal Nellington nodded. Harding pulled the knife free. It had penetrated only two inches. The Captain saw the compress held in place, then he ran on inside the tipi.
A woman fitted an arrow in a bow and started to draw the string. Captain Harding charged, batted away the bow and bayonetted her in the chest.
"Your people killed my wife!" he hissed at her. A second woman came from the side with a knife before he could jerk out the bayonet. He ducked under her charge, slammed his fist into her belly, then jolted the knife from her right hand by grabbing her wrist and elbow and breaking her arm over his thrust up knee.
She cried out and he smashed a backhanded blow against her face, driving her to the side.
The piercing Comanche war cry came then and was repeated again and again. The woman with the broken arm below him screamed the cry. Shots thundered around the camp.
Captain Harding pulled his service pistol and shot the woman once in the chest, then hurried around the tipi. He found three children, one only a baby. He shook his head, holstered his weapon and hurried out.
He saw only a few Indians running. They were quickly cut down by the sharpshooters.
Suddenly there were no more targets. The clouds shifted off the moon and they could all see better.
Sgt. Casemore sent teams into the tipis to check each one. The men were to look for wounded and living and dispatch all quickly, and count the dead.
A half dozen shots slammed through the early morning quietness as the troopers went about their grim task.
Captain Harding ran from tipi to tipi. Nowhere did he find one with the giant eagle's head painted on it, the symbol of Walking White Eagle. He found the largest tipi -- it would be the chief's -- the leader's.
Inside he saw only the dead. One brave and three women, and four children. All the small ones were Indian. He shuddered, then left the place.
Sgt. Casemore waited for him outside.
"We've checked every tipi, Captain. Sadie just isn't here. My men report that one brave got away. The rest of the Comanche will know you mean business now. They'll know we can fight the same way they can and show no mercy."
Captain Harding nodded. The rush of emotion was gone. The killing lust had been washed away with blood. His vengeance was dulled.
So much killing!
But the Comanche had asked for it!
So many dead!
Not a fraction of the number the Comanche kill!
Comanche love to swing white babies by the heels, bashing their brains out!
He turned away. "Very good, Sergeant Casemore. Destroy everything here. Start by burning down each of the tipis. It works best to start the fire inside along the walls."
Captain Harding walked back up the hill thirty yards away from the nearest tipi and sat down.
Why did he feel so old? He was thirty-two and felt right now like he was a hundred. Sgt. Casemore would take a body count without being told. He was a veteran.
He watched as the nearest tipi began to smoke out the smoke hole at the top, then one whole wall burst into flames. The carefully-stitched-together tanned buffalo hides made a crackling, hot fire. They burned the tipi poles in half and soon the whole structure fell in on itself.
Any bodies inside would be cremated.
Just as well.
The sons of bitches had asked for it!
He watched another and then another tipi surge into flames until all twelve of them were blazing. Captain Harding called his orderly, Corporal Swenson. They had become separated in the fighting. Swenson had to pass the riding and shooting tests the same as the other troopers to win his place in the unit.
"Lance, see that Marlin takes care of our wounded. Then bring me a count of the casualties. I didn't see any of our men killed, did you?"
"No, sir, but several were wounded." He saluted smartly to a half hearted wave, and left at once.
Colt Harding stared at the burning tipis. Leave them nothing to live in -- no tipis, no robes, no food, no horses. Destroy them utterly! They had asked for it! The fires below burned together, some tipis falling sideways onto others.
In the firelight he could see the drying racks where fresh buffalo meat had been cut into strips and hung in the sun to dry. They must have had a good hunt yesterday. Everyone hunts and butchers in a tribe. Everyone was tired this night.
Everyone died, all but one.
He shook his head to clear it. That was his job, killing the hostiles. He would report the attack, detail his methods and wait for any criticism from the brass. He did not follow procedures, but he wiped out an entire band of Comanche -- did not just kill two bucks and chase the rest for a hundred miles and never see them again.
He had not followed procedures. He knew he was supposed to do it the way the army had been doing things for a hundred years.
Maybe that's why the Indian was making fools of the army.
No, he couldn't say that. He had found a way to beat the Indians without massive sweeps and thousands of troopers, cannons, wagons, and long supply lines.
He put his chin on his hands that rested on his knees. Perhaps if he closed his eyes for just a few minutes.
Captain Harding stirred, his chin came off his hands and he looked at his orderly. He saw him silhouetted against an almost daylight sky.
"Sir, Sergeant Casemore has a report."
The First Sergeant of the Lightning troop came up the last ten yards and saluted his commander.
"Sir, we have five wounded. One trooper is dead, Private Ben Zedicher. He was surprised by three braves when he entered a tipi just after the first war cry."
"We counted forty-nine bodies, sir, before the fires began. That was thirty-one...."
"I don't want a breakdown, Sergeant. Make the report read that forty-nine Comanche were killed in the attack, twelve tipis destroyed and the rest of the village. How many horses?"
"We've captured a hundred and twelve horses, sir, and fifteen mules. Included in that figure are seven branded U.S. army remounts."
"Noted, Sergeant." Captain Harding looked down at the smoking ruins of the camp. "I want everything destroyed. Don't leave one stick another Indian can use. The drying racks should be burned, the meat thrown in the river.
"Save a bale of the jerky. We'll test it on the way home. The rest of it burn or dump in the stream. Crush every cooking pot, kettle and clay dish you find. Nothing is to be left!"
Captain Harding looked up.
"Sir, I've taken the liberty of sending for our mounts. The men could use a day of rest if it's all right with the captain?"
"Yes, right. When we're done here, pick out a camp upstream half a mile and we'll catch up on our sleep. Tomorrow morning we'll head back to the fort."
Cpl. Marlin came by a short time later with a medical report. Only one man was in serious condition, but he could ride.
"We had one dead, sir."
"Yes, we'll have to bury him here. I'll read a service at sundown. Have two men dig a grave. I want it six feet deep."
Captain Colt Harding watched the final destruction of the camp as it grew light. Nothing remained. Tipi poles not burned completely were set on fire to help burn the bales of jerky and more robes that were found.
Bastards gonna find out we can fight as dirty as they do!
He looked the other way, down the small stream, along the little valley to the rolling hills. Texas.
Goddamn Texas! It had stolen away his family! It had killed Milly and Yale. It had kidnapped little Sadie!
He looked north and west. Up there somewhere must be his little baby girl. Somewhere, and with the savages. He prayed that she had not been harmed. Comanches did terrible things to slaves sometimes.
I'm coming, baby! I'm going to rescue you!
He looked down at his hands. His hands and arms, even his face was still red with the savages' blood. He went to the stream to wash away the blood and came back for a clean shirt. It was one of the few luxuries he allowed himself on his ride. It would soon be time for the men to eat their breakfast.
He wondered if any of them would be hungry. For just a moment he thought of how furious he had been when he killed that last Indian woman. Then he turned away. He couldn't think about that. They had brought it on themselves.
Copyright © 1987 by Chet Cunningham