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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand
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By Lola Mauer
Webmaster's Note: “Wooden Leg” centers on the Cheyenne friends, Wooden Leg and Noisy Walking just as the Battle of the Little Bighorn opens.
The stars danced in the heavens as Wooden Leg and three other Cheyenne boys lounged on the cool summer grass. At eighteen, Wooden Leg was tall and lithe. The third of five children, the young warrior was alive with life and the pleasures that the June evening brought. The firelight from the nearby camps lit the night sky and formed odd shapes on the tepees. Members of the various Sioux and Cheyenne camps wandered around speaking with one another and laughing. Wooden Leg was energized by his surroundings and the buffalo meat he'd had for dinner. The Cheyenne camp consisted of seventy-five lodges and many wickiups. The latter were home to one or two young Cheyenne men and were made of heavy sticks and pieces of rawhide. Wooden Leg was glad he'd never had to stay in a wickiup. He enjoyed the closeness of his family in their lodge.
“Let’s go dance awhile with the Sioux girls,” Noisy Walking said, jumping to his feet. "There is no fun in being in the Cheyenne camp tonight."
The others stood and brushed loose grass and leaves from their breeches. After winding their way through the cottonwoods the four playfully punched each another and tugged at one another's dangling braids as they walked to the Arrows All Gone camp. Wooden Leg himself was the tallest Cheyenne in the village and happened to be well-known. He was coming into manhood and had fought against General Crook, the Gray Fox, just the week before on the Rosebud River here in Montana. It was a good time to be a Cheyenne.
The Sans Arc Sioux village was alive with laughter, singing and dancing. A large fire in the center of the camp rose into the dark sky and the logs crackled from the heat. The buffalo and elk meat cooking on small fires near the lodges reminded Wooden Leg of his earlier dinner and he patted his full stomach. Several Sioux men were engaged in a game of sham fighting. The battling men tried to pass the fiery clay to their own teammates who would then run to a marked position in the camp and receive a goal. Each warrior held a four-foot switch with cupped ends, which allowed them to swing pieces of semi-hardened clay. The clay had been mixed with burning coals and the balls blazed through the darkened sky.
The rhythmic beating of the drums pounded into Wooden Leg’s chest, matching his heartbeat. He tapped his foot and gazed around, hoping to merit the attention of a dance partner. Luckily for the young Cheyenne men, it was customary for the females to do the asking.
Noisy Walking poked his friend in the side before nodding his head in the direction of some giggling Sioux girls. Wooden Leg unconsciously scratched his calf with the toe of his moccasin and smiled.
“Tell her you will catch a large buffalo and present it to her father for approval,” one of the boys teased.
Wooden Leg grabbed his side and pretended to laugh heartily at his friend’s words then immediately his face was emotionless. The young Cheyenne, seeing his joking didn’t impress his friend, cleared his throat and pulled his gaze away from Wooden Leg’s.
“Hello,” a female voice said.
The boys looked to their right to see two Sans Arc girls, one of whom was the object of the earlier scoffs. It was she who brought the teasing words out of Wooden Leg's friends' mouths.
“Dance with me, Wooden Leg,” the girl said, holding out her hand.
He hoped his palms were not sweaty and that he didn’t step on her toes while they danced. As they walked, Wooden Leg stole glances at the maiden’s long black hair, which nearly reached her waist. Her eyes sparkled when she talked, and her features were tiny. Not only was she beautiful, but her father was an important figure among the Sioux people.
“Are there no dances in the Cheyenne camp tonight?” she asked.
“Uh, no,” responded Wooden Leg in Sioux.
“Then we shall have to dance all night.”
Wooden Leg smiled and felt his heart jump. He liked the special attention the Sioux girl was paying him in front of his friends. The two soon came upon the other dancers. Hearing voices behind them, Wooden Leg turned to see Noisy Walking and his other two friends, along with the Sans Arc girl, coming up. Noisy Walking closed his eyes and puckered his lips to tease his good friend.
Moving to the rhythm of the beating drums, Wooden Leg and his partner danced. He held her hand lightly in his own and guided the maiden around the blazing fire. The music and laughter seemed to never end.
Hours later the new friends sat upon the lush grass not far from the inner camp circle. Among the dancing and feasting were hushed words and ceremony.
The medicine of the Uncpapa Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, was powerful. Yellow Hair had told his brother the medicine man was, on that very night, stripping one hundred pieces of his flesh in order to receive a vision of the white men. Wooden Leg enthusiastically told his companions the story as they lazed upon the ground.
“My father once performed the same medicine,” Noisy Walking said.
Wooden Leg’s eyes widened as his friend spoke. He had never heard this story and supposed Noisy Walking was only trying to impress the girls.
“I hear it is a dreadful experience,” one of the Sioux girls said.
“Oh, yes, the medicine is strong and powerful.”
“You saw this happen to your father?” another girl questioned.
Noisy Walking pushed his hair over his shoulders and spoke. “You see, the pieces of flesh fell upon the ground as my father cut into his arm. The blood from the wounds dripped upon the removed skin. He was granted a vision though,” Noisy Walking said, folding his arms behind his head.
“Gross!” the girls said all together.
Wooden Leg crossed his arms and stared at his friend. He shook his head at Noisy Walking and couldn’t help but smile.
“Would anyone like to hear another story?” asked Noisy Walking.
“I think we’ve had enough of your stories for tonight,” Wooden Leg said.
“We could dance some more,” said the young Sioux girl, staring at Wooden Leg.
Noisy Walking sat up and threw his arms in the air. “Whatever you wish! Don’t even ask me what I want to do.”
“Stop pouting, my friend or I’ll have to get a willow stick and switch you,” said Wooden Leg.
The friends playfully took jabs at one another as they all walked away. Ahead of them, the Arrows All Gone camp was still lit up with the glow of many fires. Music and singing reverberated through the night sky. A smooth hand grasped Wooden Leg’s and pulled him into the center of the dancing Sioux.
The Vision Comes True
“How late were we at the Sans Arc camp?” Wooden Leg asked his older brother, Yellow Hair, as the two were stretched out on the grass the following morning.
“Just before dawn, I suppose,” Yellow Hair yawned.
Wooden Leg smiled up at the bits of blue sky he could see through the lush cottonwood branches. “I had a good time.”
“I guess someone who danced with a certain Sans Arc Sioux girl all night would.”
The younger brother folded his bronze arms behind his head and smiled. To their right, the Greasy Grass River could be heard flowing gently through the valley. The cool water rippled over large, sparse rocks and lapped against the banks. Voices of children at play in the water drifted into Wooden Leg’s ears. He soon heard the heavy breathing of Yellow Hair and knew his brother was asleep.
The brothers had eaten breakfast nearly an hour ago and chores would be seen to later in the day. There were ponies to check on and game to hunt. The Cheyenne camp was located at the northern end of the Indian encampment. They had joined their Sioux friends many months ago in defiance of the white man’s threatening words. The grandfather in Washington had notified Sitting Bull's band that they were to arrive at the reservation by the end of the year 1875. Thus far, in the present summer of 1876, the written words of the white man’s government had been ignored. Together, the Indians forged a type of close family that was nearly twelve thousand strong.
Dreams soon filled Wooden Leg’s head as he slumbered beneath the trees. He didn’t feel the dragonfly that landed on his foot but perhaps subconsciously the warrior could smell the dry earth and boiling buffalo meat outside his family lodge.
Wooden Leg dreamed that he and his friends were engaged in their own game of sham fighting. The moon was bright, lighting up the night sky. He could clearly make out the figures of Noisy Walking and Yellow Hair. There were no smiles, only looks of fierce competition. The clay was glowing red from the hot coals and it crackled as it sped through the sky.
Pop, pop, pop. Wooden Leg was brought out of his sleep. For a moment he expected to see a piece of clay land at his bare feet. Pop, pop, pop. Wooden Leg shook his head after propping himself up on his elbows. Yellow Hair jumped up, his feet brown against the summer grass.
“Brother, what is it?” Wooden Leg asked as he stood.
Yellow Hair’s attention was at the southern end of the long encampment where the Uncpapa camp was located.
“That is the sound of gunfire! Look how our brothers run to the Sioux to help them,” spoke an excited Yellow Hair as he dashed off toward the family lodge.
As the brothers ran into the Cheyenne circle, old men, women and children were fleeing westward toward the hills. A handful of women returning from the river dropped the bundles of wood they had just gathered and grabbed their children. Youngsters dripping wet from their play in the river soon passed the warriors. Dogs skittered around and barked. Wooden Leg looked left and right and saw no soldiers.
“Ve’ho’e!” yelled a young Cheyenne mother as she ran out of her tepee with a small child in her arms.
“Can it be?” asked a breathless Wooden Leg. “The white soldiers have really come?”
“It is as Sitting Bull said,” spoke Yellow Hair over his shoulder as the two entered their empty dwelling. "The ve’ho’e are falling into our village."
Wooden Leg eyed the abandoned lodge and knew his parents and siblings had likely fled with the others. He was satisfied they were safe.
“Soldiers are here! Young men go out and fight them!” The brothers heard the incessant call of an old Cheyenne man outside the lodge.
Yellow Hair, better prepared than his brother, pushed through the tepee flap after telling Wooden Leg to be brave. The younger Cheyenne nodded before continuing with the task of dressing for battle. He quickly pulled on a cloth shirt, a new pair of buckskin breeches and beaded moccasins. Dumping his war bag on the ground, Wooden Leg sifted through the contents and noticed his hands shook. He looked upon his sweaty palms for a matter of seconds as if to calm them. He dipped his finger into a tin of blue paint and formed a large circle on his face. Wooden Leg added yellow and red to the inside of the circle, thus covering his nose, cheeks and eyes. From beneath his buffalo pallet, the young warrior retrieved a long knife and scabbard.
If I shall die for my people today then I will enter the next life in an acceptable manner, thought Wooden Leg.
Like A Buffalo Hunt
Wooden Leg looked up to see his father standing just inside the lodge. "Father, why have you returned?" He hastily secured his hair to the back of his neck with a piece of leather.
“Your brother has already gone. Even now the soldiers attack our friends," his father said without answering the question.
Wooden Leg exited the tepee and was grateful his father had retrieved his favorite horse. A blanket had been thrown over the steed’s back and a lariat was fastened around the neck and through the teeth forming a bridle. Wooden Leg mounted his horse and tucked the extra length of rope into his breeches.
The air was full of dust and swirled around the legs of the horses in front of Wooden Leg. He rubbed at his eyes before urging his own mount into a run. Hundreds of other warriors were riding to the south and Wooden Leg followed. They swiftly passed through the vacated Brule, Sans Arc and Minniconjou areas of the village. Wooden Leg hoped his dance partner had long ago fled with the others in the Sioux camps. Flames flickered beneath heavy pots that held the meals of many families, women darted here and there gathering possessions, and tepees pointed into the blue sky. How quickly the camps had been voided of the daily routines. Wooden Leg took a deep breath and swallowed hard. He wondered if all the men of these Sioux camps were already fighting the blue clad soldiers. With the Greasy Grass River on their left, the throng of warriors swept into and then past the Uncpapa Sioux circle.
On an open piece of ground some two hundred yards in front of Wooden Leg, the soldiers in blue had formed a line with the river at their rear. Are these the same soldiers we defeated at the Rosebud only days ago? Brave Sioux and Cheyenne rode back and forth in front of the soldiers, taunting the whites who soon found their left flank under heavy attack.
“Ay! Ay!” cried out Wooden Leg with his six-shooter pointed in the air.
He kicked his horse and sped into the action. The warriors alongside Wooden Leg turned away and rode hard until they came up behind the white men, who were now falling back into the timber along the Greasy Grass. Both Sioux and Cheyenne surrounded the dense cottonwoods and voiced individual war cries.
“Hay-ay! Hay-ay!” came a shout from Wooden Leg’s left. He turned to see Noisy Walking. His friend’s face was painted red with blue streaks on the forehead and cheeks.
Another Cheyenne cried out, “Warriors, don’t run away if the soldiers charge you. Stand and fight them. Keep your eyes on me. I’ll stand even if I am sure to be killed!”
Wooden Leg's confidence grew when he heard the well-spoken words. He would be brave as he had been the week before. The Cheyenne and their Sioux friends crept closer to the enemy who had invaded their land.
“Look at the fear in their eyes,” Noisy Walking said, pointing with his bow. “They have invaded our homes for the last time.” With those words he released an arrow, which sliced silently through the blue sky.
Wooden Leg watched these strangers who had traveled far to take away the sacred lands of his people. A stout soldier chief who wore stripes on his arms and continuously dabbed at his face with a blue bandana was giving orders to the cavalrymen. Some of the soldiers knelt to shoot at the Sioux and Cheyenne while others fired from behind the line, but their aim was inaccurate. The taunts and cheers from the Sioux and Cheyenne resounded in Wooden Leg's ears. Ay! Ay! Even now there were warriors from the villages streaming into the valley. The dust created by the horses' hooves made it difficult for Wooden Leg to see the invaders. He craned his neck and looked upon the enemy.
The soldier chief apparently ordered his men to retreat because the frightened soldiers hastily moved into the timber. The warriors watched the fleeing white men and move steadily forward. Wooden Leg followed the gaze of Noisy Walking and other friends who were nearby. None of them even blinked as they watched the fleeing white men.
"Now they are trapped."
Wooden Leg was startled by the voice of Noisy Walking. He shook his head to clear his thoughts then smiled. The Sioux and Cheyenne continued to move toward the timber and to those that were hidden in its depths. The young Cheyenne warrior watched about fifty Indians sweep around the left side of the timber. They will come in behind the soldiers and kill them. If they run out, those of us in front will be here.
A small band of warriors, including Wooden Leg, galloped toward the woods along the river. He could hear the white man’s language as someone shouted within the timber. Wooden Leg was puzzled to see some of the soldiers in blue jump off their horses. Do they plan to stay there? The sound of gunfire crashed through the air, and seconds later was followed by the troopers’ rifles. The woods filled with smoke, and Wooden Leg could no longer clearly see the cavalry. He inched his horse forward, coming within thirty yards of the timber.
The Cheyenne warrior squinted his eyes, leaned forward in the saddle, and stared into the timber. Voices of the white men revealed their positions among the trees. Wooden Leg aimed his rifle and shot without eyeing a target. More Sioux and Cheyenne rode up alongside him and followed the warrior’s lead.
“The fools are giving themselves away,” one of the Sioux said. “Let’s ride into the timber and finish them.”
The outspoken warrior started forward, and then reined his horse as the white men flew out of the timber. Surprised, Wooden Leg and the others split in two different directions. The man with the blue bandana led the cavalrymen from the tree-lined battleground. Wooden Leg eyed the Indians around him. Time seemed to stand still as everyone watched the retreating soldiers.
The troopers dashed southward, away from the encampment, their horses kicking up dust as thick as the smoke had been earlier. A handful of stragglers were exiting the timber when the warriors rushed forward. The troopers’ horses were slow and frothing at the mouth. Indians, on their well-fed ponies soon rode neck and neck with the tired cavalry steeds. Wooden Leg watched as his comrades used war clubs to knock the enemy from their saddles. The soldiers ran when they hit the ground, but were soon cut down.
Wooden Leg kicked his horse hard in the side and dashed ahead to catch up. The dust coated his teeth, and he tried hard to breathe only through his nose. Above, the sun beat down, warming his skin. The young warrior came up beside a cavalry horse carrying two troopers. The brown stallion was snorting loudly as he ran, and white foam coated his mouth. Wooden Leg swung his six-shooter at the man on the back of the stallion, but the soldier bent down in the saddle, his head resting on the side of the rider in front. They aren’t even trying to fire their guns.
The end of Wooden Leg’s gun made a cracking sound as it came in contact with the head of the rear trooper. The soldier yelped in pain as he toppled from the saddle. After rolling to a stop, he started crawling toward the river on his hands and knees. Blood dripped down the right side of the soldier’s head and ran down his neck. Wooden Leg turned his horse to follow the grounded white man who uttered words that were foreign to the Cheyenne. Wooden Leg slowly walked his horse behind the crawling trooper. The wounded man continued to move toward the Greasy Grass River. Wooden Leg’s eyes were fixed on the back of the blue clad man. Was he crying?
The white man glanced over his shoulder every few seconds. His face was covered with dust and sweat. Yes, there are the tears. At the edge of the riverbank, the trooper fell onto his stomach. Once, he tried to lift himself up. Wooden Leg stopped his horse just a few feet away.
“I am not afraid of you!” said Wooden Leg.
There was no response from the trooper. The warrior leaned forward on his horse to get a closer look at his enemy. His back no longer rose and fell with each breath.
Wooden Leg turned his horse and sped in the direction his Sioux and Cheyenne brothers had gone. If he didn’t have the dust to guide him, the young Cheyenne knew he could rely on the sound of gunfire. After traveling three quarters of a mile, Wooden Leg saw the last of the white men climbing the bluffs on the opposite side of the river. At least four dead white men lined the riverbank and several bodies floated downriver. Most of the Indians were shooting at the troopers or arching their arrows high into the blue sky.
Wooden Leg looked right to see Noisy Walking riding in his direction.
“Good to see you,” said Noisy Walking.
Wooden Leg smiled. “I was in the running fight and knocked one trooper from his horse. He crawled toward the river, so I followed him until he fell dead.”
“The blue soldiers are cowards and running their horses up the bluffs,” said Noisy Walking, pointing ahead.
“At least they are not in the village. Besides, I have only one bullet left,” said Wooden Leg.
The two friends exchanged smiles.
“Have you seen my brother, Yellow Hair?” asked Wooden Leg.
Noisy Walking shook his head. “Some Cheyenne rode around to the other side. Maybe he is there.”
Wooden Leg and Noisy Walking looked upon the others from the camp and urged their horses toward the far side of the bluffs.
“What is that?” asked Noisy Walking. “Listen,” he said, looking toward the village.
Both warriors stopped their horses and turned around. An older Sioux was riding hard toward them, shouting something unfamiliar.
“Let’s go!” said Noisy Walking.
Within seconds the two were once again among the Indians along the riverbank who were still harassing the troopers on the bluff. Nearly everyone was now focused on the old man.
More Soldiers Are Coming!
“More soldiers are coming! More soldiers are coming!” the Sioux shouted before turning his horse and racing back to the village.
Nearly all the Indians fell back to the camp. Their horses were fast and the space between where the troopers had crossed the river and the camp was covered in little time. Along the way, the bodies of the white men littered the ground. Wooden Leg and Noisy Walking brought up the rear of the Sioux and Cheyenne as they entered the village.
“Everyone is still gone,” Wooden Leg shouted as they sped through the camp.
“Where are the soldiers?” asked Noisy Walking, looking right.
The land rose hundreds of feet into the air on the opposite side of the river, making it impossible to see what danger lay beyond. Ahead, the rest of the warriors disappeared into the cottonwoods lining the bank and emerged on the other side. The horses glided easily through the water as the Indians urged their mounts up the rolling hills.
“I’ve got to go back to the lodge for more bullets,” said Wooden Leg. “I will meet you soon.”
Noisy Walking nodded his head in confirmation and followed the rest of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Wooden Leg watched his friend gallop away before turning his horse left.
Outside the family lodge, Wooden Leg leapt from his horse and ran inside the tepee. His father was sitting on a buffalo robe with a gun across his legs. The older Cheyenne jumped when his son entered the lodge.
“You startled me, Wooden Leg.”
“Sorry, Father. I’ve come for more bullets,” he said, turning a deerskin bag upside down and emptying the contents.
“You do not need to go back to the fighting,” said Wooden Leg’s father. “I already have one son out there. Let your brother engage in the battle.”
“I cannot! I must defend my family.”
“You can defend your family by remaining here at the camp.”
Wooden Leg threw the bag aside and walked toward his father. “I am of age. It is the right thing to do.”
His father sighed loudly. “Then take these four bullets. They’re all that I have.”
Wooden Leg rested his hand on his father’s arm a moment before taking the ammunition. “I will bring you a better gun when the fighting is over.”
“Stay close to your brother,” Wooden Leg’s father said as his son walked out.
In one swift move, Wooden Leg was once again on the horse’s back. “We’re going back one more time,” he said to the steed.
The pair crossed the river in seconds and climbed the bank on the other side. Ahead, the land rolled and was cut by ravines. On the right, a deep gulch ran parallel with Wooden Leg and emptied into the Greasy Grass. He swung the horse in that direction to see if any soldiers were hidden there. Empty. Had he not seen the cavalrymen clustered at the base of the hilltop, Wooden Leg would have used the thick smoke to find his way. The soldiers fired continuously, and in between loading bullets a lot of them were forcing metal rods into their guns. The rifles would not work unless the white men performed this trick.
Wooden Leg looked for his brother as well as Noisy Walking but couldn’t find either one. He urged the horse to the right once again and crossed through the gulch. Not far from the cavalrymen he had just seen was another group. Wooden Leg stopped on a ridge, which looked down on a flat basin. A ravine ran to his right and left, behind the white men. Some soldiers were in the ravine trying to hold on to horses. The steeds were rearing up and trying to get away. Wooden Leg watched as one of the Cheyenne chiefs led a group of warriors quietly behind the unsuspecting troopers. With yells of victory, the brave Cheyenne charged the men holding the horses. The frightened mounts rushed toward Wooden Leg and subsequently, the river.
The chief provided the soldiers with little time to react. After sliding from his horse, Wooden Leg darted forward as the soldiers turned to face the ravine the warriors had attacked from. He turned his rifle around in his hand in order to use it as a club. The first soldier he hit went down hard and dropped his gun. Around Wooden Leg, nearly everyone was engaged in hand to hand combat. It was as if the white men didn’t know what to do. Some of the cavalrymen tried to run in the direction Wooden Leg had ridden from. The young Cheyenne was aware of what his foes were hoping to accomplish--joining their comrades on that hilltop. Wooden Leg knew he and his friends couldn’t let that happen. The fighting was fierce, and in a matter of minutes, the troopers’ blood colored the landscape. Not a Cheyenne was killed.
“Hello brother,” said a breathless Yellow Hair, coming up behind Wooden Leg. The other warriors moved northeast to the hilltop fighting.
“Were you here in this fight with the chief?” asked the younger brother.
“Yes.” Yellow Hair nodded. “First we attacked white soldiers to the south, just over that rise. There was a lot of shooting by the troops, and I think two Sioux were killed.”
“Have you seen Noisy Walking?”
Yellow Hair shook his head from side to side. “Not since last night.”
Wooden Leg shrugged his shoulders. “Are there still soldiers over there?”
“No. Those alive fled down here, so we followed them. They do not fight like the Gray Fox’s men did seven days ago.”
“What do you mean?” asked Wooden Leg.
“Well, remember how at the last fight the men had a soldier chief giving orders and how the troops lined up? These white soldiers today have not done so.”
“Could it be we are not battling against the same group?” asked Wooden Leg.
“That I don’t know, but we better move off. There is still firing straight down the valley,” said Yellow Hair.
“I know. The soldiers are many lengths from the village but are closer than any of the others have been today.”
“As long as we keep them away from the village, things will be okay,” said Yellow Hair. “Are you ready?”
After retrieving his horse, Wooden Leg walked toward Yellow Hair. “Where is your horse?”
“He was shot from underneath me. That’s how I ended up on foot with the chief.”
“You can ride with me,” Wooden Leg offered.
Yellow Hair smiled and held his wooden club above his head. “We’ve had better luck on foot. I will see you over there.”
Wooden Leg watched his brother run away. After mounting his horse, the young warrior looked down upon the dead soldiers. No one moved. Already, the women and children of the camp were arriving. They expertly walked amongst the fallen troopers and prepared them to enter the spirit world. With her knife a woman removed the ears of one trooper. Perhaps you will hear better in the next life and keep the promises you and your grandfather in Washington made when the treaties were signed.
Last Stand Hill
Urging his horse forward, Wooden Leg followed the gunshots and strained voices. It was difficult to see all of the men on the hilltop. The soldiers had moved backwards to the crest of the hill since Wooden Leg had last seen them. He estimated that there were at least fifty still alive. After bringing the horse to a stop, Wooden Leg dumped the contents of the small buffalo bag into his hand. The four bullets were cool against his palm. He loaded one into his gun before sliding to the ground. Leaning forward, he spoke into the horse’s ear. “Go on now, boy. I will look after you later.” Wooden Leg patted the horses broad back and the steed took off down the gulch.
As Wooden Leg approached the smoke covered hill, the soldiers became easier to see. A trooper in buckskin pants fired his white handled pistols simultaneously. A large majority of the men steadied their rifles across the dead horses in front of them. Wooden Leg soon realized that he simply had to fire among the fallen mounts to find a mark. For it was there that the cavalrymen were hidden.
With only four bullets, the warrior knew he had to choose wisely. Hunched down, he crept closer to the soldiers. Many Indians kept hidden around the ridge by using the gullies to their advantage. Wooden Leg wished for his bow or another rifle, but he told himself not to be greedy. It was obvious to see who had the advantage on this day. Arrows were released high into the air, falling upon the soldiers and horses. As the steel points entered the bodies of the horses, the steeds went crazy. Rearing up and floundering, the stallions knocked over the white men. The troopers scrambled back to their feet, looking every which way.
Wooden Leg guessed there were a thousand Indians hidden around the ridge. He doubted the soldiers could see many of the Sioux and Cheyenne. The white men wasted many bullets because the Indians would expertly jump up from a hiding place and stand long enough to attract attention. This was a good plan.
Now, a dozen warriors rode in front of the soldiers, shouting their war cries. No bullets were fired at them. “You are too afraid to know what to do,” Wooden Leg said to the white men even though their ears would be deaf to his words. “You think you are so brave to come here, but you won’t even move from this hill.”
The mounted Indians, still chanting, moved back down toward the river. They held their guns and bows high in the air. To Wooden Leg’s surprise, thirty soldiers on gray horses galloped down the hill in the direction of the Greasy Grass. Many Sioux and Cheyenne were hidden in the gullies there, right in front of where the white men were riding. Luckily, the Indians move backward. Wooden Leg, low to the ground, ran downhill, using the deep gulch to his advantage.
“Do not flee, brave warriors. There are hundreds of us and only three dozen of them. We will wipe out these white men today!” shouted a chief.
The Indians stopped. Following their leader’s strong words, they ran toward the soldiers. As his friends came closer, Wooden Leg joined in the advance. The soldiers brought up their rifles as if to shoot but had difficulty aiming from the backs of their horses. Wooden Leg watched as the cavalrymen in blue tried holding onto both the reins and their guns. In a matter of seconds the soldiers dismounted, with some of the troopers moving back, holding onto the reins of other horses. After forming a line and aiming their rifles, the soldiers prepared to fire. The Indians were upon the ground behind the brush and grasses before the troopers pulled their triggers.
Both Sioux and Cheyenne watched in amazement as the soldiers turned their guns on one another instead. Their bodies slumped forward on the saddles or fell to the ground. What have these troopers done? Have they gone crazy? Four soldiers ran off to the side, veering away from the Indians. Wooden Leg watched the cavalrymen flee into the deep gulch. Many Sioux and Cheyenne followed and Wooden Leg didn’t have to guess what the fate would be of the white men.
Wooden Leg listened as the warriors expressed their astonishment at the actions of the enemy. After securing one of the dead men’s carbines and forty rounds of ammunition, Wooden Leg halted to address his tribe mates. “Come. Let us go back to the ridge and finish off the soldiers there. Who is with me?”
The chief nodded his head in agreement. “That is a good plan, Wooden Leg.”
And the warriors were off, moving cautiously up the slope. The Sioux and Cheyenne that had been hidden around the ridge’s base had moved closer. The increase in firing had formed a blanket of blue smoke around the soldiers. Wooden Leg could make out the legs of some of the men, and could plainly see the carcasses of the horses. He set the new rifle on the ground beside him and used his six-shooter to fire upon the enemy. After firing two shots and grabbing the captured carbine, Wooden Leg ran to a different location. More of the Sioux and Cheyenne were moving upon the white men and he didn’t want to chance shooting one of his own.
While slipping to a spot that offered a better look at the white men, Wooden Leg wondered about Noisy Walking. Where are you, friend? He knew where Yellow Hair was. He had just seen his brother move around behind the troopers on the crest of the hill. A great cloud of dust developed around the troopers as more of the cavalry horses raced downhill. Wooden Leg assumed a throng of warriors had rushed upon them from behind. He didn’t know how many horses were left on the hill, but he knew it wasn’t enough to carry all the soldiers away. Besides, the Indian ponies weren’t tired and thirsty. Wooden Leg knew from the valley fight earlier in the day that the Army horses were exhausted. They had been no match for the Indians’ well fed ponies.
These white men on the hill were also shooting at each other and themselves. Cowards. You come all this way to fight and look at you now. Four men broke free of the hill and Wooden Leg saw them as a rush of blue on the landscape as the soldiers raced across the ridge. Three were killed and many Indians were soon upon them, counting coup on the dead men. Pressing a pistol against the side of his head, the fourth trooper took his own life. Shouting triumphantly, the warriors struck the dead soldiers with their decorated clubs or rifles.
One Indian lifted a bloody scalp high into the air. “Hay-ay! Hay-ay!”
Many cheers resounded around Wooden Leg. The blue smoke that had lain thick at the crest of the hill now dispersed. The young Cheyenne warrior could see the soldiers’ hilltop position more clearly. Dozens of horses lay in heaps--some upon men. There were also dead men lying across the Army horses.
“All the soldiers are dead!” came the cry.
A Friend Forever
A few Indians fired into the sky. The warriors stood from their safe positions and cheered. Boys that were too young to take part in the fighting rode onto the field of battle and began shooting arrows into the dead soldiers, counting coup in their own way. Wooden Leg once again looked around trying to find his brother or Noisy Walking. Immediately, he saw the smiling face of Yellow Hair. He was walking in Wooden Leg’s direction.
The brothers hugged and Wooden Leg proudly showed off his newly acquired rifle. Yellow Hair held up two fresh scalps and the young men shared a laugh.
“Father will be proud,” said Yellow Hair. “His sons have done well today.”
“I told Father I would get him a gun. It is a good gun too.” Wooden Leg held the rifle in the air so his brother could get a good look.
“Yes, it is a fine gun. Our father will be happy with the extra bullets too.”
“I think the whites are crazy,” said Wooden Leg, shaking his head. “Did you see the soldiers shooting themselves?”
Yellow Hair nodded his head. “Yes, the white men are strange, and weren’t as organized in their fighting as Gray Fox’s men. I have never seen such fear.”
Wooden Leg placed the six-shooter beneath his arm while holding onto the carbine he planned to give his father. “Well, one thing I do know is that we better see what we can find before all the soldiers’ belongings are gone.”
“Are we looking for bullets?”
“Whatever we can find,” said Wooden Leg as he trudged uphill.
“I’m not finding anything I would even keep for myself, let alone give as a gift,” said Yellow Hair several minutes later. “I found a picture of a woman.”
“Someone’s sweetheart,” Wooden Leg said.
Yellow Hair laughed. “Are you going to start carrying a picture of your Sioux sweetheart?”
Wooden Leg threw a small rock at his brother. “Stop teasing.” He looked at Yellow Hair and saw a troubled expression.
Yellow Hair was looking at a soldier with hair the color of straw who had propped himself up on his elbow. The trooper stared wildly at his surroundings. His eyes were wide and his face void of color.
The soldier is back from the dead!
Wooden Leg watched as the Sioux and Cheyenne stepped back as if afraid of this white man. The soldier reached for the carbine that lay across his legs but in an instant a Cheyenne warrior rushed forward, pulling the gun from the white man's grasp. Placing the barrel against the soldier’s temple, the warrior pulled the trigger. The body jerked in its final moments before death and collapsed fully to the ground.
"Hay-ay!" the victor shouted while proudly waving the rifle in the air. "Hay-ay!"
"All the white soldiers are dead," came the cry from the Indians.
Wooden Leg and Yellow Hair weaved through the dry grass and fallen bodies. The majority of those who had entered the spirit world wore expressions of shock and great pain. A soldier with golden hair lay across several others, his left hand still wrapped around a white handled pistol. This particular white man appeared to be sleeping. Wooden Leg poked the soldier with his captured rifle and discovered he was indeed dead. The only movement on the trooper was the blood trickling down his left temple.
More women and young boys were arriving and walked among the lifeless cavalrymen. Dust from the dry earth had settled upon the grass and clothing of the dead soldiers. Flies gathered around the bloated horses and converged on open wounds. The young warriors were flashes of color as they moved quickly around the battlefield shooting arrows into the white troopers. Their painted bodies leapt here and there, avenging the wounded men of their camps. The stone and steel points of the arrowheads tore into the sunburned flesh of the fallen enemy. Wooden Leg dismounted and knelt among the dead on the hill and reached into the pockets of a blue jacket that had golden buttons. His fingers clasped a round metal object attached to a chain. The strange piece of copper was alive!
Wooden Leg put the ticking timepiece to his ear and listened. He had never seen or heard anything like it. What was this strange medicine of the white man?
“Brother!” said Yellow Hair who stood four feet from his brother. “Come here. This young boy brings news of your friend.”
“I came to tell you about Noisy Walking,” said the boy. “He is badly hurt.”
Wooden Leg clenched his fists. “Take this gun to Father,” he said to Yellow Hair before pushing his way past his brother. Hearing of Noisy Walking’s condition made Wooden Leg realize why he hadn’t been able to find his friend. At what point of the fighting were you injured, friend? Wooden Leg glanced around as he quickened his pace. That hillock? That ravine? Were you surprised by your attacker or was it hand to hand combat? Wooden Leg wanted revenge for Noisy Walking, but he knew all the white men were dead. He would figure out a way to honor his friend.
Noisy Walking lay on a buffalo robe in the middle of his family’s lodge. Wooden Leg allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness while thinking about what to say. The two were accustomed to playful times and hunting excursions. How would he express his feelings to his injured Cheyenne brother?
“Nčtňnetomňhtahe?” asked Wooden Leg.
“Not well,” Noisy Walking grimaced. “Come here, friend.”
Wooden Leg walked to his friend and knelt down. There were bandages around Noisy Walking’s waist and right leg. The tall Cheyenne was speechless.
“Why don’t you sneak me some water? Father won’t allow me any.”
“Your father wants you to heal,” said Wooden Leg. “The water will kill you.” There was a long pause. Wooden Leg nearly felt foolish for being so awkward. “The battle is over and the soldiers are dead except for the first group we fought earlier. I also got the gun of a white soldier and forty rounds for my father.”
Wooden Leg could see the effort in his friend’s face as Noisy Walking struggled to smile.
“Are you in pain?” asked Wooden Leg, immediately wishing he hadn’t asked such a question.
“I was thinking how I’d like to take a swim. I have nothing better to do,” said Noisy Walking with a solemn look.
“Would you like me to bring you something from the soldiers? I mean I couldn’t bring you a gun, but there is green picture paper and many other things,” offered Wooden Leg to his dying friend.
“Surprise me,” said Noisy Walking before coughing. He grabbed at his side and moaned.
“At least the person who injured you has gone on to the spirit world.”
In a strained voice, Noisy Walking spoke. “Oh, he’s dead all right. My aim was more accurate than his.”
Wooden Leg forced a smile. There was silence for several seconds. “I’ll be back to see you. And don’t worry, I’ll bring a present.”
“I know you will or you’ll have to hear me whine,” joked Noisy Walking.
“All right then. Goodbye.”
Sleeping or Dead?
After exiting the tent, Wooden Leg made his way to the field of battle. He thought of Noisy Walking and was hurt that his friend couldn’t join him in searching for treasures among the white men. I acted oddly in the lodge. It was as if I was seeing Noisy Walking for the first time—like he was a stranger to me. Wooden Leg was partly angry with himself, but furious at the soldiers.
Even from the river, Wooden Leg could make out the snow colored men lying dead on the bluffs. The women of the village walked from soldier to soldier, poking, prodding, and removing the troopers’ clothing. Wooden Leg knew the materials, especially the leather boots, could be used later. There were serious expressions on the women's faces as they cautiously moved from man to man. These invaders would meet the spirits in embarrassing form and appear in the afterlife in a manner to be ridiculed. The whites would know what they had done.
Wooden Leg knelt beside a black haired soldier who had an arrow protruding from his neck, near the shoulder. Upon the trooper’s face were lengthy sideburns that extended well past his cheeks. Wooden Leg had never seen such facial hair. He pulled the knife from the sheath around his waist and placed the blade at the bottom of the soldier’s face near the neck where the sideburn ended. In one swift movement, Wooden Leg scalped the left sideburn of his enemy.
Grasping the bloody scalp in his hand, Wooden Leg stepped across the soldier. Nearby, the women moved from trooper to trooper, yet Wooden Leg discovered a soldier that was still clothed. Someone had already taken the gun and ammunition, so Wooden Leg dug into the blue jacket pockets. He pulled a small bottle from an inside breast pocket. Wooden Leg brought the bottle to his lips and the fiery liquid burned its way down the warrior’s throat. He gagged and shook his head while blinking away the tears that formed in his eyes. Was it this odd liquid that made the white men crazy? Wooden Leg didn’t understand why anyone would partake in such a horrible drink.
This soldier also had green picture paper in his jacket. Seeing no use for such things, Wooden Leg tossed it aside. He did manage to pull a golden ring off the white man’s left hand. Nothing else of value was found on the dead trooper. Wooden Leg knew his luck of securing items was starting to wane. The young boys of the camp continued to ride around the perimeter shooting arrows into the bloated bodies. Wooden Leg could see the ends of the shafts protruding out of the soldiers. This was truly the day of the Cheyenne and their Sioux friends.
An hour later, Wooden Leg stood with four other Cheyenne’s within their camp circle. The mood of the village was somber despite the fact of victory. Wailing and traditional Cheyenne songs reverberated through the warm air. Of those killed in the fighting, twelve were Cheyenne. The injured warriors had been assisted back to camp to be treated by medicine men and loving mothers. Wooden Leg hated that he knew nothing more could be done to help Noisy Walking. He would give him the gold ring that was found earlier. Perhaps the gift would take Noisy Walking’s mind off the pain for a while. I wish you were here, friend, to celebrate the victory and share the white man’s strange belongings.
“Okay Wooden Leg?” one of the Cheyenne’s asked.
“Huh? Sorry, my mind was elsewhere.”
“We are going to take turns watching the first band of soldiers who remain on the bluff just past the Arrows All Gone camp. It is our duty, along with the Sioux to keep the troopers away.”
Wooden Leg was glad to take part in this. The fools hiding atop the bluff only miles downriver would also see their demise soon. “I will ride ahead and cover someone’s position so that he may return,” he said. “I’ll go get my horse.”
Grasping the rifle tight in his hand, Wooden Leg kicked his horse into a gallop. He sped past the tepees of his Sioux allies along the same path he had ridden hours ago to first attack the white invaders. With a glance, he could see that the soldier bodies on the valley floor had also been removed of their clothing. One trooper was headless, and several arrows stuck out from his chest and groin. These men had been dead longer. Their bodies were plump from the late afternoon sun and beginning to darken.
Wooden Leg forged ahead. In two steps, his horse crossed a shallow part of the river. He knew the other Sioux and Cheyenne would be well hidden among the hillocks and brush. Swinging the horse left, Wooden Leg led the pony up a gently rolling bluff. The two climbed high into the air until they reached the summit. A soft breeze blew tendrils of Wooden Leg’s long hair about his face. Below, to the right, the Greasy Grass River cut into the valley floor. Farther upriver he could see the tops of the tepees jutting into the blue skies. Wooden Leg turned his gaze forward to a lower bluff four hundred yards away. He could plainly see the blue clad troopers moving about the hill. It looked as if the majority of the soldiers were upon the ground. Sleeping or dead?
Wooden Leg closed his eyes and thought about Noisy Walking, the rush of energy he'd felt when first seeing the white men, and how soon the last of the soldiers would be annihilated. If he could, he'd rush upon the last of these men, wiping them from the earth. But for now, everything would have to wait.
Published by permission of the author, all rights reserved.
Copyright 1999-2013 Bob Reece
Friends Little Bighorn Battlefield, P.O. Box 636, Crow Agency, MT 59022