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In the tower at the fort's main gate were Sergeant Will Hepler and Corporal Justin Scott, who were regulars in the tower.
Young privates Henry Washburn, Jake Barth, and Neal Kline had just arrived at the fort late that morning from an army training camp in Fort Scott, Kansas, along with some forty other new recruits. The three privates had been assigned to the tower that afternoon by the commandant, Colonel Daniel Huston, who wanted them to learn the job of tower guards.
The new men noticed as the sun dropped below the horizon that Sergeant Hepler and Corporal Scott were standing side by side at the tower's railing posts, looking across the plains as if they expected to see something ... or someone.
When the two guards looked at each other worriedly, Private Barth asked, "Is something wrong, Sergeant Hepler?"
The sergeant bit down on his lower lip and nodded. "Yes, there is. You see, there are eight Arikara Indian scouts here as part of the fort staff. Seven of them left at sunrise this morning to go on a buffalo hunt. Ordinarily, they would've been back with the meat and the hides at least two hours ago."
"I see. So you're afraid something is wrong?"
"Yes," said the sergeant. "Definitely."
"The group was led by Howling Wolf," said Corporal Scott. "He is the brother of the fort's chief scout, Bloody Knife. You've heard of him, I'm sure."
All three of the new recruits nodded.
"Bloody Knife is Lieutenant Colonel Custer's personal scout, isn't he?" Kline asked.
Hepler nodded. "That's right."
"I understand Bloody Knife earned his name as a very young warrior. They taught us about him at Fort Scott."
The sergeant grinned slightly. "Well, they taught you right. Bloody Knife is something to see in hand-to-hand combat. He-"
Hepler's words were cut off when he saw an army patrol coming over a distant hill. "Here's Lieutenant Colonel Custer and his patrol now. Colonel Custer and Bloody Knife are going to be upset when they find out that Howling Wolf and his men haven't returned."
Henry Washburn blinked as he set his gaze on the trotting patrol that raised great clouds of dust as they rode toward the fort by the vague light that was still in the western sky. "That's a pretty good-sized patrol unit."
Hepler rubbed his jaw. "Mm-hmm. With the Sioux tribes upset at our government, Colonel Custer is wise to have plenty of men in his patrols."
Corporal Scott looked toward the oncoming patrol and then turned to Hepler. "I'll go down and open the gate, Sergeant."
"I'll go with you," said Hepler. Then he said to the new men, "You fellas come down with us, too. I want you to meet Lieutenant Colonel Custer and Bloody Knife."
The patrol was drawing near as the five men reached the bottom of the tower stairs. Corporal Scott hurried to the gate and swung it open. The riders drew rein, and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, with Bloody Knife riding at his side, moved his mount up to the guards and stopped.
"Colonel Custer," said Hepler, "I want you to meet these young men." He introduced the privates first to Custer and then to Bloody Knife, explaining that they were some of the new soldiers who had arrived late that morning from Fort Scott, Kansas.
Custer, at thirty-five years of age, was slender and rawboned, with cool, pale blue eyes, high cheekbones, a droopy mustache, and long, curly hair that touched his narrow shoulders. Still in the saddle, he smiled at the new privates and welcomed them to Fort Abraham Lincoln.
Bloody Knife nodded with a slight smile and welcomed them also. He had expressive black eyes, a square jaw, and muscular arms and shoulders.
"Colonel," said Sergeant Hepler with an edge to his voice, "Howling Wolf and his men have not yet returned from their buffalo hunt."
Custer frowned. "What? They're always back by three o'clock, and surely no later than four."
"I know, sir. This really has me worried."
Custer rubbed the back of his neck. "Does Colonel Huston know that they're not back?"
"Yes, sir. And he is plenty worried, too. He'll want to see you and Bloody Knife right away, I'm sure."
"We're going to his house immediately." Custer hipped around in the saddle and told his men to go on to the mess hall to eat their supper.
Meanwhile, at the Custer apartment in the officers' building, thirty-two-year-old Libbie Custer was seated in the parlor with all seven of the Arikara squaws whose husbands had gone on the buffalo hunt, as well as their children. Summer Wind, Bloody Knife's squaw, was also with them.
As twilight crept into the room, the squaws placed their sewing into woven baskets and started gathering their babies and youngsters to go to their own quarters. The squaws nervously glanced toward the parlor door.
Libbie was anxious about the Arikaras in the hunting party, but she tried to keep the uneasy squaws from knowing the fear that she was feeling. She left the sofa that she was sitting on, started lighting lanterns, and said, "Please don't let your husbands' being late upset you. Perhaps they have killed so many buffaloes that it's taking them longer to skin them out than they had planned."
Summer Wind moved up beside Libbie and nodded. "Yes, Mrs. Custer, that could very well be the problem. It has happened before, and-"
Summer Wind's words were cut off when they all heard the front door of the apartment open and close. Every eye went to the open parlor door, and seconds later Colonel Custer and Bloody Knife appeared in the hallway and stepped into the room.
A quick sigh of relief escaped Libbie's lips as she rushed into her husband's arms. Summer Wind hurried to Bloody Knife, her face showing the disturbance she was feeling over the tardy hunting party.
Libbie, who was petite in size and wore her long, black hair in a bun, noted the deep lines of distress on her husband's features. "Darling, has the hunting party not returned yet?"
Custer glanced around at the worry-filled eyes of the squaws in the lamplit room. "No, they're not back yet, but it could be that they ran into more buffalo than they had expected to and are late because it's taking a long time to skin them out."
Libbie tried to smile. "That's what I told their wives a few minutes ago."
Some of the Indian women quietly murmured among themselves, trying to encourage each other, while others spoke their fear that the hunting party had run into Sioux warriors.
One of the squaws with a small baby boy in her arms stepped close to the Custers. "Colonel Custer, is Colonel Huston aware that our husbands have not returned?"
"Yes, Pale Sky. Bloody Knife and I went to Colonel Huston's house as soon as we learned that Howling Wolf and his men had not yet returned."
"And what are Colonel Huston's thoughts about this?"
"He ... uh ... he is worried about them. He said that if they do not return by the time darkness falls, he will send me and a good number of my Seventh Cavalry to search for them. Colonel Huston knows the approximate area where they were going to hunt."
Libby looked at the women and said, "Well, it will be dark in less than half an hour. Why don't you all just stay right here until we know something more? I have a large kettle of rabbit stew simmering on the kitchen stove, and we'll make some corn bread. You can feed your little ones first, and then the rest of us can eat. I think it would be best if we all stayed together."
Howling Wolf 's squaw, Little Flower, smiled and said, "This is very gracious of you, Mrs. Custer. I, too, think it would be best if we all stayed together."
The other women spoke their agreement and worked together under Libbie's directions, preparing the meal while staying alert for any sounds of the returning hunting party.
In the tower at the front gate of the fort the five guards were scanning the prairie for any sign of the buffalo hunters when Corporal Justin Scott pointed due south and said, "There's one rider, Sergeant Hepler!"
They could all see the lone rider galloping toward the fort in the fading light. Soon they could make out that it was a pinto carrying an Indian, and Sergeant Hepler lifted binoculars to his eyes and said, "It's Howling Wolf. He's bent over like he's been shot."
Hepler told the three new men to remain in the tower and took Corporal Scott down the stairs with him. When they opened the gate, Howling Wolf was drawing up on his pinto. His upper body was smeared with blood, which was coming from a bullet wound in his left shoulder.
Sergeant Hepler stepped up, lifting his arms, and said, "Here, Howling Wolf, let me help you down."
The wounded Indian let go of the reins and leaned into Hepler's arms, breathing with difficulty.
Hepler cradled Howling Wolf in his arms, the blood staining his uniform, and laid the Indian on the ground.
"I'll go get Dr. Stouffer, Sergeant," said Scott.
As Corporal Scott took off running toward the infirmary, Sergeant Hepler told the three men in the tower to come down, saying that he would need a couple of them to carry Howling Wolf to the infirmary. Sergeant Hepler knelt down, used his handkerchief to wipe perspiration from the wounded Indian's brow, and asked, "What happened, Howling Wolf?"
Privates Washburn, Barth, and Kline drew up and stood over the sergeant and the wounded Indian.
Howling Wolf's voice was just above a whisper. "After we had killed ten buffaloes ... we had just begun skinning them and cutting the meat ... when we were attacked by twelve Sans Arcs Sioux warriors. They were led by a sub-chief I recognized. His name is Wounded Bear."
"Where did this happen?"
Howling Wolf swallowed hard and took a sharp breath. "It was on Huff Creek, where it bends at the big rock that looks like an arrow head."
Hepler nodded. "I know right where it is."
"When the attack came, I ... I was hit instantly and fell into the creek. I held my breath while I swam underwater to some brush at the bank of the creek. I stayed hidden with my face out of the water enough to breathe. When the firing stopped, the Sioux looked in the creek for me, but they did not see me."
Howling Wolf swallowed hard again. "While the Sioux were skinning the dead buffaloes, I swam downstream underwater a short distance and crawled up onto the bank and made my way into some bushes. I saw that all the other Arikara men were lying dead in plain sight. Our riding horses and packhorses were still where we had tied them to some small trees nearby. I managed to get to my horse without being seen. I led him into the nearby forest and then struggled onto his back and rode for the fort."
Swift-moving footsteps were heard, and in the light from the moon Sergeant Hepler saw Justin Scott and the fort's physician, Dr. Ward Stouffer, coming on the run. The doctor was carrying a lighted lantern.
When they drew up, the doctor quickly knelt down and examined Howling Wolf 's wound while Sergeant Hepler told the doctor and Corporal Scott the story Howling Wolf had just told him.
Dr. Stouffer rose to his feet and looked at the sergeant. "We need to get him to the infirmary quickly."
Hepler gave orders to Washburn and Kline to carefully pick Howling Wolf up and carry him to the infirmary. While they were picking him up, the sergeant told Corporal Scott and Private Barth to stay in the tower. He then told Dr. Stouffer that he was going to go to Colonel Huston's house and take him to the infirmary.
Less than fifteen minutes later, Colonel Huston and Sergeant Hepler arrived at the infirmary, where they found the fort's physician administering chloroform in preparation to remove the rifle slug from Howling Wolf's shoulder. The patient was already under the influence of the chloroform.
Keeping a safe distance from the operating table, Colonel Huston said, "Doctor, is he going to make it?"
Dr. Stouffer glanced at the commandant in the light of the lanterns that burned overhead and nodded. "Yes, sir. I believe that he will live."
"I'm glad for that."
Colonel Huston sent Privates Washburn and Kline back to the tower. Then he turned to Sergeant Hepler. "You stay here at Howling Wolf 's side. I'm going to the Custer home to tell the squaws the bad news. It's going to be very difficult, but as the fort's commandant, it's my responsibility to tell them. I'm glad, at least, that I can give Little Flower the good news that, though her husband has been wounded, he is going to live."
Hepler nodded. "Yes, sir."
With his heart pounding, Colonel Huston made his way in the moonlight to the officers' building and knocked on the door of the Custer apartment.
Colonel Custer opened the door, and when he saw the pallid look on the commandant's features, he said, "Come in, Colonel. Bad news?"
Huston stepped in, took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and nodded. "Yes. Bad news. I need to tell everyone here the story at the same time."
"They're all in the parlor, sir. We just finished supper."
Libbie stood in the hall at the open parlor door, listening to the conversation. Her heart sank.
Custer led the commandant into the parlor with Libbie at his side and told the women that Colonel Huston wanted to talk to them.
Colonel Huston explained about Howling Wolf riding into the fort wounded and alone and then told them the story that Howling Wolf had related. When the squaws heard that their husbands had all been killed, they broke into sobs, as did the children who were old enough to understand.
Colonel Huston stepped to Little Flower and told her that Dr. Stouffer was removing a bullet from Howling Wolf 's shoulder and that he had said that Howling Wolf was going to live. Little Flower's eyes were already filled with tears, but she broke into sobs of relief and said shakily, "I must go to Howling Wolf."
Summer Wind left Bloody Knife's side, put an arm around Little Flower, and said, "I'll go with you to the infirmary."
Little Flower drew a shaky breath. "Oh, thank you. Let us go right now."
Summer Wind looked back at her husband, and Bloody Knife nodded his assent. He knew that Colonel Huston would soon send Colonel Custer and a unit of soldiers after the Sioux who had killed the Arikara buffalo hunters, and he wanted to be at the colonel's side. He watched Summer Wind and Little Flower dash out the door.
Libbie Custer lived daily with the fear of her husband being killed while on patrol in Sioux territory. Her heart was heavy as she moved among the weeping women, trying to comfort them. Inside, she breathed a prayer of thanks that her own mate was still alive.
Colonel Huston turned to Lieutenant Colonel Custer and, with his eyes flashing fire, said, "I want you to take four companies of your Seventh Cavalry right now to Huff Creek and wipe out those Sioux murderers!"
Custer nodded. "Gladly, sir. It galls me the way the Sioux continually attack the Arikaras, who are never aggressive toward them. I heard about this when I was attached to Fort Riley before coming here, and now I've seen it for myself."
Less than twenty minutes later, Libbie Custer and the wives of the officers who were riding with her husband stood at the fort gate in the moonlight and watched them ride away. An angry Bloody Knife was in his usual place, riding beside Custer.
At the infirmary, Little Flower stood over the operating table between Dr. Stouffer and Summer Wind, waiting for the chloroform to wear off so that she could talk to her wounded husband.
When Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and his large unit drew to within a mile of the spot on Huff Creek where the attack had occurred, Custer signaled for them to pull rein. They were on a slight rise. Under the stars in the pale moonlight, the branches of the trees along the creek bank were wrapped in fleecy banners of mist. Huff Creek looked like a cold scar cutting a pallid, silvery path through the prairie.
Looking through his binoculars, Custer could see three fires burning and could make out the Sioux warriors as they worked on the dead buffaloes by the bright firelight. He described to his men what he saw through the binoculars and then pointed to a ravine just below them and said, "Let's go down there and ground rein the horses. We'll move in silently on foot."
Excerpted from The Forbidden Hills by Al Lacy JoAnna Lacy Copyright © 2005 by ALJO PRODUCTIONS, INC.. Excerpted by permission.
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