Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

The "Sibley Scout"

A Famous Army Tale

Meanwhile General Crook and his main column were in camp upon Goose Creek at the head-waters of the Tongue River, at the east base of the Big Horn Mountains and Cloud Peak, northern Wyoming. They had come here from Fort Fetterman, in the southeast, and were impatiently waiting for their wagon-train and for General Merritt.

The Gray Fox's northward march to meet General Terry had been stopped by the Sioux in the Battle of the Rosebud, fought June 17. The Chief Crazy Horse warriors had proved very strong. General Crook rather believed that he did not have a force large enough to break through to find the principal villages of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, or to join General Terry, in the Rosebud country south of the Yellowstone River; so with his wounded he had fallen back from southern Montana into northern Wyoming. Here he waited for supplies and reinforcements.

Up to July 10 he did not know that General Custer and almost half the Seventh Cavalry had been killed, to a man; but he felt that, with the Sioux so bold, something was happening.

His column was composed of five troops of the Second Cavalry, ten troops of the Third Cavalry, two companies of the Fourth Infantry, and three companies of the Ninth Infantry: about one thousand soldiers. The Sioux had attacked him; they were more than he expected; things did not look good to the Gray Fox.

This waiting was vexatious as well as tiresome. General Crook was a fighter; he never quit a trail and he liked to travel fast and light, and strike the enemy. He knew that while he waited, the Sioux were gaining strength and choosing positions. Finally, on the night of July 5, he determined to send out a scouting detachment, and see if he could not locate the whereabouts of the nearest Sioux village.

Young Second Lieutenant Frederick William Sibley, born in Texas and appointed to West Point from Georgia, was selected to command the detachment. He was under twenty-five, had graduated from the Military Academy in 1874 and been assigned to the Second Cavalry. But although of only two years' service, he was no longer a "shave-tail"; he had the name of being a fine, thorough officer and soldier. Everybody liked Lieutenant Frederick Sibley, Troop E, Second Cavalry; many of the older officers remembered his father, General C. C. Sibley, who after thirty-six years in the uniform had died two years ago.

Lieutenant Sibley was directed to take twenty-five picked men, from his regiment, and two scouts; reconnoiter northwestward along the base of the Big Horn Mountains, and find the Sioux village if he could. General Crook was exceedingly anxious to know where Chief Crazy Horse lived when at home. The Battle of the Rosebud had been an unpleasant surprise.

The two scouts were Frank Gruard and Baptiste Pourier. Scout Gruard had been born in the Sandwich Islands. He had ridden pony express in Montana. Chief Crazy Horse's Sioux had captured him, and had thought, by reason of his dark skin and straight black hair, that he was a Sioux, himself. So instead of abusing him, they rejoiced, and kept him, in order that he might learn the Sioux language again.

He stayed with Chief Crazy Horse, until a chance of escape came. Then he got away, and for a number of years he was one of the most valuable scouts in the army. He knew Wyoming and Montana like a book, and could read sign and weather as well as any Indian. And he was brave.

Baptiste Pourier was half French, half Sioux. He was called "Big Bat," to separate him from another Baptiste guide and trailer—"Little Bat," a half-Sioux boy at Fort Fetterman. "Little Bat" was now with General Merritt's Fifth Cavalry.

Packer John Becker of the pack-mule outfit, a frontiersman who had been a guide in the country, was added to the scouts. At the last moment John F. Finerty, a plucky newspaper man who was reporting the campaign for the Chicago Times, asked permission to go, also.

He had not heard about the proposed trip until that morning, July 6; but he did not wish to miss any excitement, and therefore he applied at once to General Crook. The general hesitated a minute. He well knew that it was likely to be a dangerous scout, and that the Sioux were no joke. At last he said shortly:

"All right, sir. But I warn you that you're liable to get into more trouble than you bargain for."

That did not daunt the alert John Finerty. He already had fought side by side with the troopers, and was looked upon as a soldier although not in uniform. No man in the column was more popular. He hastened to tell Lieutenant Sibley, his friend. Lieutenant Sibley was glad. Other officers asked him what kind of an obituary they should write for him. Captain E. R. Wells, of Troop E—the Sibley troop—only remarked, without a smile:

"Orderly, bring Mr. Finerty a hundred rounds of Troop E ammunition."

This sounded like business, to Reporter Finerty.

They all rode out at noon; made thirteen miles and camped to rest the horses for a night march. Scout Gruard thought that they would not have to go far to find Indians. Two or three nights before he and Big Bat had reconnoitered forward twenty miles and had seen several parties of Sioux, only that distance from the main camp. Evidently General Crook was being watched.

At sunset the little detachment started on. In the dusk Big Bat imagined that he caught sight of a mounted Indian spy surveying them from a shallow ravine. Frank Gruard dashed for the place; but the object disappeared and he discovered nothing.

"Might have been an Indian, but we think maybe only an elk," he said.

Anyway, the mystery was not very comforting. The column were forbidden to talk; they rode on, northward, through the long grass of the rich bottoms; the two scouts led, Scout Gruard every now and again halting, to scan about from the high points.

The full moon rose at eight o'clock, and the lonely land of sage and grass and willows and pines and rocks stretched silvery; on the west the snowy tips of the Big Horn Mountains glistened.

Nothing happened. About two o'clock in the morning Lieutenant Sibley ordered camp. They were forty miles from General Crook, and near ahead, over the next divide, lay the upper end of the Valley of the Little Big Horn in the Rosebud country.

"We will find the Sioux villages in there, all right," promised Frank Gruard. "And," be added again, "we won't have far to go, either."

Yes, that had been the place; but General Custer and his Seventh Cavalry already had found the villages, and the Sioux were on the outlook to keep back other soldiers while the villages moved elsewhere. Young Lieutenant Sibley and his thirty men were advancing into a hornets' nest.

They had camped at the Montana line. With dawn they proceeded on very cautiously, through a broken country. They were approaching the stronghold of the Sioux. By sunrise they were about to strike the Little Big Horn, where it issues from the rough foot-hills bordering the north end of the Big Horn Range. Any moment, now, they might discover the Sioux, or, worse, the Sioux might discover them.

Scout Gruard motioned to Lieutenant Sibley to halt the column; he himself rode up a rocky outcrop, left his horse, and climbed afoot to the top; he lay flat, and crawled, and just peeking over he leveled his field-glasses upon the country beyond.

The little column watched him keenly. What would he see? He certainly saw something of great interest, for with his hand behind him he beckoned to Baptiste, below. Baptiste hastened, and crawled to Frank's side. They both gazed, through their glasses, between the boulders. They turned; ran, crouching, for their horses; mounted, and back they came at a tearing gallop.

"Be quick!" Scout Gruard rapped. "Follow me for your lives."

Everybody heard. Not another word was spoken. The soldiers who had been easing their horses vaulted into the saddle. Away they all raced, following Baptiste westward through the foothills. The route was rough, but he fled straight across red sandstone ledges, some dropping six and seven feet, in the arroyos and draws, until he rounded to behind a bare bluff.

He, Baptiste and the lieutenant immediately left the men and horses and climbed for a look at the back trail. Reporter Finerty soon overtook them, to find out what was the matter—although be had no doubts about it.

To this time only Frank and Baptiste knew, apparently. But when they four had reached a viewpoint, and had their glasses out, the lieutenant calmly asked:

"What did you see, Frank?"

"Only Sitting Bull's war-party! I could have told they'd be here around the Little Big Horn, without our coming."

Sitting Bull's war-party! That meant Sioux, with a vengeance. Lieutenant Sibley said nothing. Reporter Finerty caught his breath. They focused their glasses upon their back trail, and upon the country north.

They had no need of glasses. There they were—the Sioux, riding up the valley. Little bunches of warriors appeared: advance scouts mounting the high ground here and yonder, surveying before. Their figures, in full war costume, were outlined against the sky. Down they rode, and the others followed, until the low hills and the draws seemed to be covered as the wide front cantered forward in a half circle extending from the north into the east.

"Haven't seen us, I think," Scout Gruard remarked. "Don't act like it. If they don't strike our trail, we may be all right."

The four among the boulders could only wait. The Sioux were closing in. It was scarcely possible that they would miss the fresh trail of the thirty-one horses. The advance warriors riding southward were almost at the spot where the trail had turned in flight for the foothills. Reporter Finerty heard his heart beat furiously. They all stiffened. A few moments would tell the tale.

Aha! An Indian in a red blanket had reined his pony short, and was staring at the ground. Now he began to trot in a small circle. A signal! The Indians on right and left of him hastened in.

"Here's where we'd better look out," Scout Gruard sharply warned. "That fellow has found our trail, and they'll be after us in five minutes."

"What's the best thing to do, then'?" coolly asked Lieutenant Sibley. The scouts knew the country, and in a pinch their advice was good.

"Well, we've just one chance of escape. That is, to make into the mountains and try to cross them. But we'll have to prepare for the worst."

There was no escape into the open; the Sioux blocked the way. They had the detachment pocketed against the mountains, fifty miles from help. To attempt a running fight, or a stand, would result in a surround, with the enemy pouring in a fire from every rise or else cutting off the water supply.

"Very well," the lieutenant agreed.

They went down to where the troopers and Packer John Becker were waiting and wondering.

Lieutenant Sibley spoke briefly. They had read bad news in his grave young face.

"Men, the Indians have discovered us. We'll have to do some fighting. If we can make an honorable escape, all together, we'll do it. But if that proves impossible, let no man surrender. Die in your tracks, for these Indians will show no mercy."

The bronzed countenances of a few of the men paled a trifle; but as soldiers they were ready to do their best, obey orders and trust in their leaders.

"All right, sir." That was all they said.


Away they trotted at a smart pace, Scout Gruard guiding, west by north, directly for the nearest slope of the first range. Carbines thumped, bridles jingled, leather squeaked, the horses' hoofs clattered on the sandstone ledges. They emerged from the last of the reddish defiles and proceeded to climb—up, up, up into the pines. The going was steep, and the horses puffed and groaned.

Gazing back, they might see the Sioux a mile behind, and below, bunched in council, and looking and gesturing. They appeared uncertain whether to pursue.

Soon Frank turned into an old, narrow pony trail, pointing still westward as if to cross the first range.

"This is an old Sioux hunting trail," he called, over his shoulder, to the lieutenant and Reporter Finerty. "It leads clear to the snowy range. If we can get there our chances are pretty fair."

The trail was good. They pushed on at a trot, never sparing the horses. They began to feel more hopeful. The Sioux were out of sight; there were no sounds of pursuit; was it possible that they had been let off? As everybody knew, the Plains Indians rarely ventured far into the mountains, except on quick forays against enemies who did not expect them.

After five miles more, Scouts Gruard and Big Bat stopped. The column had climbed almost to the top of the first range.

"Do you want to rest the horses, lieutenant?"

"Yes, if it's safe. What do you think?"

"Bat and I've about decided that those fellows have quit. We've given them the slip. They're not likely to risk attacking us in the high country. So you can take a breathing spell. We've a hard trip ahead."

"Dismount," Lieutenant Sibley ordered.

The word was welcome. The horses were badly winded, and the men were hungry and thirsty, for they had had an early breakfast and the sun beat down hotly.

Noon camp was made here in a little park, where amidst the surrounding trees the grass grew long and the flowers nodded. The sweaty horses were unsaddled and picketed short, to graze; coffee was set upon small fires, to boil; sentries had been posted, and the other men were permitted to stretch out, in the shade.

Everything seemed very peaceful, but—!

At any rate, they all might talk and laugh and sip their coffee and doze, and believe that they had out-witted the Sioux. In about an hour and a half they saddled up and rode on, still heading from the Sioux and into the mountains.

Where they were going, nobody knew save Scouts Gruard and Big Bat. Frank led, with Big Bat close behind him. Then came the lieutenant, and Reporter Finerty, and in long single file the troopers, with Packer John Becker closing the rear.

It was a splendid country, of clustered pines, scattered rocks and huge ledges, sunny, flowery parks, cold streams in the valleys, and tremendous, long slopes rising, before, to the white crest of the snowy main range of the Big Horn Mountains.

In mid-afternoon they were leisurely winding through a park lying between the front range and the main range. There was timber on the left, or south-west; rocks and timber on the right; and timber before, with the snow caps towering above.

Not a sound had been heard, to signal danger—when suddenly John Becker spurred up along the file, from the rear.

"The Indians, lieutenant! Here they are!"

What! Yes! War bonnets were moving rapidly through the trees and high rocks, quartering behind on the right. The troopers quickened, to close their intervals—for the column had strung out. Every hand dropped to its carbine butt.

"Keep well to the left, against that timber," shouted Scout Gruard.

"Bang-g-g!" He had been answered by a volley. There were Indians among the rocks and trees, on the right, within two hundred yards. The bullets whined and stung; wounded horses reared and plunged—Reporter Finerty's mount stumbled to its knees.

"To the left, men! Quick!"

Half wheeling, they dashed for the edge of the timber, there; gained it safely; under cover of the branches sprang to earth and faced about, guns ready. Lieutenant Sibley took command.

"Give them a few shots, sergeant, till we can tie our horses."

At the carbine reports the Indians in sight, out in the park, dived for shelter.

"Now tie your horses short, to the trees, men."

That was done.

"As skirmishers. Take intervals right and left. Keep under cover. Fire carefully, only when you see a mark. Don't waste ammunition."

The skirmish line ran in a semi-circle, from south-east to northwest, through the edge of the timber. There were many fallen trees, as if a storm or a forest fire had swept through; that closed the way to the horses, but furnished good breastworks.

The battle had opened in a hurry. The bullets from the Indians pattered like hail, sending the bark flying, and drumming upon the bare trunks of the breastworks. The heavy carbines stanchly replied. Horses reared again, and screamed and fell, kicking. The Indians were making certain of the cavalry mounts. That was the first job—to put the enemy afoot.

The attackers were Sioux and Cheyennes both. How they had come in so cunningly, was a mystery. Gruard thought it was an accident; they were not the same Indians who had been sighted, below. But that cut no figure.

The head chief wore white buckskin and an imposing war bonnet. He might be glimpsed, now and then, as he darted about, placing his warriors.

"White Antelope, that," asserted Gruard. "Eh, Bat?"

"Think so," Big Bat nodded.

"And he's a good one; among the best of the

Cheyennes. Pass the word to get him, when we can." After that, every carbine sought for White Antelope. His time came when he led a charge. The bullets seemed to mow him down, together with his warriors. Whether he had been killed or not, was a question; but he did not appear again.

The Indians tried no more charges across the park. However, they were growing in strength. They were extending their line; the bullets and yells arrived from east, north and west. The line had crossed the head of the park and the foot, and was closing in on three sides. The detachment were being out-flanked.

More than half the horses were down. The rifle fire never slackened. Matters looked very serious. An Indian called to Gruard.

"Hello, Standing Bear! You are all dead. Do you think there are no men but yours in this country?"

Civilian Finerty had many thoughts while he aimed, fired, and loaded. He remembered the warning by General Crook. He rather wished that he had stayed safe in the big camp. He almost wished that he had never left Chicago. How far away Chicago seemed! There, people were walking about the streets—the Times presses were thundering out first editions—and here, in the Big Horn Mountains of Montana he and half a company of United States soldiers were fighting for their lives.

He did not so much mind meeting death, in a charge, or in the excitement of open battle; but to be hemmed in, and helpless—to be disabled, and captured, by Indians—!

"No surrender!"

That was the word being passed now.

"Every man save one shot for himself."

They grimly buckled to the task of holding out as long as they could. By the volume of yells and the storms of bullets the force of the Sioux and Cheyennes certainly had increased. One big charge from the three sides, and the end would come.

Reporter Finerty held a hand upon his shoulder. It was that of Private Rufus, who had been his skirmish-line neighbor, and who had stolen to him.

"The rest are retiring, sir. Lieutenant Sibley says for us to do the same."

That was so. The line, except for half a dozen troopers, was cautiously creeping back through the trees and logs. Lieutenant Sibley, his lips set firmly, was still in position, to be the last.

"Take all your ammunition from your saddle-bags," he said quickly. "We're going to abandon what horses we have left. The Indians are getting all around us; our only chance, Gruard thinks, is to make back through the timber while we can, on foot."

Scout Gruard and his partner, Big Bat, were waiting impatiently.

If the grass wasn't wet from that last thunder storm the Indians would have smoked us out long ago. It's drying fast. We can't hold our position; even if we got a man through to Crook, he couldn't bring help in time. There's nothing to gain by staying. Sibley hates to retreat, but if he doesn't go now not a man can escape. As for horses, those fellows have seized every pass on three sides, and they'll soon have the fourth side. That's where they're working to. So, knowing Indians and knowing the country, we put it up to him, for yes or no. He's agreed."

It was planned to have the rear guard keep firing, until the horses had been stripped of ammunition. One by one the men dodge back, among the trees and rocks. The last man, and the lieutenant, came breathless; the single file followed Gruard and Big Bat at a trot, afoot, and only the few horses were left, as a blind. The horses were doomed, but there was no other way.

The file had hastened for a mile, through the fallen timber, through an icy cold stream, up a steep slope slippery with boulders and pine needles, and had paused, to catch breath, when they heard, below and behind, a series of brisk volleys and a chorus of wild yells; then, spattering shots, and silence.

The Indians had charged. Escape had been made by not more than fifteen minutes of grace! That had been a close call; Gruard and Big Bat had known what they were talking about. No one could help but shiver at the thought of having stayed down there, with the horses.

"They'll search a while. That means we're safe for a bit," panted Frank. "Now come on. We'd better lose no time in putting more rocks between them and us."

Even in the hurry some of the men chuckled over

the game that had been played on the enemy. The Sioux and the Cheyennes would be sorely disappointed in their hope of scalps. They had made a water haul; had killed the horses, and gained nothing.

It was a tough climb in a country where white man apparently had never been before. Gruard and Big Bat did not slacken. The mountains opposed with timber and rock and precipices. All the file gasped; the air was heavy with thunderstorms; overcoats, blouses, everything was thrown aside, except the rifles and the ammunition. The Indians might follow, and might not; but distance was the only safety.

The two scouts led without another stop until midnight; then the little company camped amidst the rocks on the very top of a peak. A terrific storm of wind and hail swept over them, so that the falling trees sounded like the crashes of artillery. The temperature almost reached freezing; yet this was no time for complaining. They might have been lying, colder still, among the horses.

At first daylight they stumbled on. Gruard and Big Bat saw no rest until within touch of General Crook. The course turned southward, along the crests of the mighty range. They arrived at a canyon so steep that the tired troopers could not clamber down into it. Frank found a sort of a trail by way of a valley, to a crossing of the river at the canyon's bottom; and they needs must hustle madly, to cross and get out before any Indians discovered them in the pocket.

The main camp was now twenty-five miles southeast, Gruard thought. The plains were in sight through the gaps; but there would likely be Indians down on those plains. Gruard and Big Bat guided up the opposite side of the canyon. They had to cling like squirrels, following a sheep trail not more than a foot wide, five hundred feet above the stream, and two hundred feet below the rim.

But they got out. Gruard swung more eastward, toward the foothills. Beyond the foothills lay the camp of the Crook column. Presently the men were gasping for water. Everybody was pinched with hunger, for there had been nothing to eat and nothing to drink, since they had retreated just in time from the net.

It was decided to venture into a valley of the foot-hills, and find water. They went slipping and sliding down the slope, carpeted with the dried pine needles, and treacherous with loose gravel, and drank in haste. But Frank was still suspicious. His senses were keen. He instantly led them back into the first belt of timber, above; and on a sudden, with a hiss of warning, he flung himself flat. Down they all sprawled.

Just below, wellnigh at the very spot they had left, there were more Indians: Sioux!

The Sioux were riding, arrayed for war, in open order, like scouts for a larger party behind. If they struck the trail to the water and back, that would mean another fight. It seemed horrible to be cut off, again, when so near help; the location of the General Crook camp was plain in view, off there twenty miles to the east.

But the brave soldiers had grown too desperate to care. They were tired out, and determined to sell their lives dearly. Lieutenant Sibley motioned.

He and the two scouts crawled to position on a little knoll; the others followed, and took their posts. Reporter Finerty crept to his commander's side.

"We're in hard luck again," young Lieutenant Sibley whispered. "But we'll show those red scoundrels how white men can fight and die, if necessary. Men," he said, "we have a good place; let every shot count on an Indian."

Yes, the spot was a strong one, for defense. On one side there was a stream, bounded by a lofty cliff, over-hanging. On the other side there was an open slope, with no cover for the attackers. On the rear there were a mass of boulders, handy in case of retreat. In front the timber was very thin. And where the party lay, there were plenty of rocks and trees, and considerable down timber, but not enough to be dangerous from a fire.

The Sioux warriors kept on, riding slowly; on, and on, their eyes searching the country. Hurrah! They did not stop; they had passed outside the trail; they were on the flank of the main body; no warriors followed; the scouts and soldiers and Civilian Finerty let down their rifle hammers to half cock. There would be no fight.

It had been such a strain that now everybody except the two scouts went to sleep, while Frank and Big Bat stayed on watch. At dusk Lieutenant Sibley spoke with fresh energy:

"We'll strike out of the mountains and make a night march to the camp. Might as well do it first as last. We've got to have something to eat; but we can't hunt here, or we'd call in the Sioux by our shots."

They descended, through the gathering darkness; reached the plains, and forded Big Goose Creek where snow-water ran breast high. Sergeant Cornwell and Private Collins could not swim, would not try wading, and had to be left in the bushes. The lieutenant promised to send back for them. He dared not delay. Camp was still a dozen miles across the plains.

The next six miles required four hours, to travel. The men were very weak, and their boots were in tatters. At five o'clock in the morning they saw more Indians, and the Indians saw them.

"Let 'em come for us if they want us," the lieutenant growled. "We're going on to camp, and we'll fight."

But the Indians hesitated, and stayed at a distance.

At half-past six they sighted two cavalry horses, saddled and grazing. The horses belonged to troopers on a hunt, and foolishly bound for the north, into the same kind of country where the detachment had been! They very willingly changed their program and galloped for the camp, with the news, and to get more mounts and supplies. The Sibley men stopped short, to lie on the ground, and wait. They were about at the end of their trail.

At eight o'clock the horses and supplies arrived. Sergeant Cornwell and Private Collins were sent for. At ten o'clock on this Sunday morning, July 9, the third day since they had ridden so jauntily out to find the Sioux, they entered camp; but they were an entirely different looking set of men.

The oldest Indian fighters in the one thousand of rank and file agreed that it had been the narrowest escape on record, and achieved only by the skill of Scouts Frank Gruard and Big Bat Pourier, the good sense of Lieutenant Sibley, and the obedience of the men.

General Crook was away, on a hunt. Lieutenant-Colonel William B. Royall of the Third Cavalry was temporarily in command. Lieutenant Sibley wearily went to him, to report.

"We reached our objective in the Little Big Horn country, sir," he said, "and found the Indians."

"Very good, sir," Colonel Royall approved. And he added, with a twinkle in his eyes: "It looks as though you did! Or else they found you."

Reporter Finerty went through the campaign with the Crook column; he had many other adventures; but whatever they were, as long as he lived his hair bristled when he gazed back, with a shudder, upon the most perilous adventure of all: the "Sibley Scout."