Unread Mail

A Story of the Nez Perce Campaign

Shadows raced across the barren landscape and faded into blackness in the distant hills to the east. The days were ending early and the temperature was approaching freezing even though Autumn had just commenced. No lights save one betrayed the location of the small army encampment. The dark silhouette of a sentry walked slowly in front of penned horses breathing steam into the near frozen night air.

The single light came from the tent at the center of the bivouac. A man sat at a small table writing by the light of a lantern. After writing several lines, he paused and lowered his head for a moment. After a brief time, he took an envelope out of a canvas bag at the foot of the table. He folded and inserted the paper into the envelope then affixed his personal seal in red wax. Without rising, he called out to a man standing outside his tent.

“Sergeant Alexander!” He shouted. “Come in here, please.”

A man, who had been waiting outside the tent, entered and saluted. The seated officer returned the salute.

“Go and get Lieutenant Norman for me.”

“Yes sir,” the sergeant said and he turned and exited the tent.

***

Some ten minutes after he was summoned, Lieutenant Henry Norman reported to the general’s tent. He entered the tent and positioned himself in front of the general’s table. Lieutenant Norman saluted and then stood at attention.

“Stand easy, son,” the general said.

“Yes, sir.” He relaxed his stance.

“Henry, you’ve been my aide for what… six months?”

“Yes sir… ten, actually.”

“Ten? Where does the time go?” The general paused for a moment. He looked out into the darkness. “You came recommended to me by Al Terry. He said you were a fighter.”

“Yes, sir. I hope I’ve met your expectations… and General Terry’s.”

“I assure you that you have. Fighting is not what you’ve been called on to do, but you have been an exemplary aide-de-camp.”

“Thank you, sir,” Henry said, wondering where this was leading.

“You are a young man I know I can trust. A young man of great courage,” the general said. “I have an important task… maybe a dangerous task. I have a message I need delivered… from my hand, through yours, to the recipient... to the named recipient only.”

“Yes, sir. I am at your service and I await your orders.”

The general picked up the envelope he had sealed minutes before. He did not hand it to the lieutenant but held it in his hand… an unfulfilled promise.

“Troop C is out in the Bear Paw Mountains. They are my longest arm. I think they have extended themselves beyond my reach… beyond the Army’s reach.” The general stood and picked up a large rolled paper bound with a simple string. He untied the string and unfurled a map which he laid on the table. “I believe they are… here! Yes, here,” he said as he pointed to a spot on the map.

Henry leaned over to get a better look.

“There have been some skirmishes in the Bear Paw. We have taken casualties… as they have. This could be a dangerous mission but it is vital that I send this to Captain Williams, the commander of Troop C.” He handed the envelope to Henry, though for the briefest of moments, he held it tight and did not relinquish his hold.

“I shall leave forthwith.”

“You shall leave at first light. Take Walks Alone with you. He knows the land. I don’t think the Niimíipuu will bother a single soldier and a scout. They grow weaker by the day, but make no mistake, it may still be very dangerous. Be careful!”

Henry was always amused that the old man called the Indians by the term they preferred, not by the name the French had given them, Nez Perce. General Howard respected all men… until he was given reason not to. He was a kind man with a gentle voice, but he had an otherwise stern demeanor. There was no nonsense about him.

“One more thing, Henry…”

“Yes, sir?”

“It is imperative that Captain Williams receive this message as soon as possible… tomorrow, if at all possible.”

“Yes, sir. I understand.” Henry felt the conversation was at an end. He saluted and waited to be formally dismissed. The general saluted and Henry turned to leave the tent.

“Lieutenant,” the general said. Henry paused. “Go with God!”

***

Before sunrise, Lieutenant Henry Norman and the scout Walks Alone met to prepare for their journey north into the mountains. Henry showed the scout where they would be going on the map the general had provided. He wasn’t sure the scout could even read a map, but he showed him anyway. Walks Alone nodded quietly and obediently accepted the mission and turned to get his carbine and to saddle his mount. He never asked questions.

“Wait,” Henry said. “How long will it take us?”

Without hesitation, Walks Alone said, “Two day.”

Not understanding, Henry asked for clarification. “Today?” We’ll be there today.? That’s good. We have to get there today.”

“No,” he said. “Two day.” He held up his fist and unfurled one finger, then two. “One day… two day.”

“No! We must get there today! Can we do it?”

Walks Alone cocked his head to the side as if he were trying to comprehend the urgency.

“We do anything. Ride faster. We can get there today.”

“Good. We’ll leave in ten minutes. We’ll need some supplies,” Henry told the scout.

Walks Alone said nothing. He just turned and went off by himself to help with gathering the supplies. Henry gathered a bag of jerky, one of cornmeal, and a little coffee. Presently, Walks Alone returned with six canteens of water, three for each of them. Where and how he got them was something Henry decided did not want to know. He also brought a bag of parched corn and a box of cartridges for their carbines. Walks Alone was a Yakima. He was every bit as good as the Crow scouts that Henry had worked with the year before at the Greasy Grass. He was also resourceful.

As the first hint of sunlight peeked above the distant mountains, they were already well on their way. Neither sought to lead… they just rode north. Henry knew that he would not lead as the scout knew the area better.

Ahead of them, there were the barren high plains. Trees were a rarity and could be found mostly along creeks and rivers, of which there were few. It was early October and there was still the possibility of occasional snow flurries. The extreme northern venue as well as the elevation made that a possibility. In any case, it was starting to get cold... very cold. They rode together in silence, seeing no sign of Indians or soldiers. There was an eerie quiet that seemed to emanate from ground itself.

The sun came up, a vague smear of muted orange vainly seeking to break out of a gray sky. The wind was high and the air moist, making it seem even colder. Dark clouds hung low over the horizon. Now the scout had instinctively taken the lead. After three hours, as they were in the foothills, the scout stopped some ten to fifteen paces in front of Henry and raised his right hand, indicating that Henry should stop as well.

He sat very still. Then he sniffed at the air, much like a dog would do. He looked around then fixed his eyes on the few trees off to the right… to the east. There was no hurried movement. He sniffed again and remained fixed on the spot. Henry sniffed the air as well, but could smell nothing.

“Come,” he finally said. Walks Alone turned his horse toward the spot in the trees where he had been staring. He kicked his leather-clad feet into the horses’ flanks. He wasn’t rough. The horse, he might have said, was his brother. It was as if the horse was an extension of him.

“Wait!” Henry said. “Shouldn’t we go down more and circle back through the ravine… just to be safe?”

“No, come,” was his reply.

“We cannot take much time here. I must deliver this message to Captain Williams today. General Howard was very clear about that. Should we be diverting our attention from our mission… from our route?” Henry asked. “General Howard wants us to deliver the message immediately.”

Walks Alone remained silent but turned and looked at Henry through sad eyes. Henry followed as the scout turned and continued towards the trees. He was cautious and confident at the same time. There was no choice but to trust him. Henry did reach down and touched his Colt, just to be sure it was there, in the holster. It was and he was reassured.

As they neared the trees, Henry, too, could smell something. Some 20 to 30 feet from the trees, Walks Alone stopped and dismounted. He held up his right hand in a gesture meaning “Stay there.” Henry complied but only for a few moments. Walks Alone stopped where the trees were and Henry rushed to catch up.

In an area of perhaps a quarter of an acre lay seven or eight bodies. Henry, not be to shocked by such a scene was, nevertheless, saddened. He quickly counted. It seemed there were eight bodies. One or two might have been warriors, though it was difficult to tell, they having been stripped of their weapons and their bodies had been mutilated. One had been scalped. Besides the two adult males, Henry noted a woman of about 60 years who had been shot in the back of her head. It was the back alright because her forehead had exploded out. Two children, a boy and a girl both between 8- and 10-years-old lay together as if they had been embracing. Siblings, Henry thought. Both had been shot in the upper torso. Of the other three, two were children and one was a man who had to have been between 65 and 70 years of age. Besides the fatal wounds to his upper body, his left hand had been severed. Perhaps the work of a cavalry saber. Henry wondered if this was the husband of the elderly woman who lay a few feet away. This was the evidence that skirmishes had been taking place over the past few days in the Bear Paw Mountains. Henry wondered how much of this had been a skirmish and how much had been murder.

“Why do you suppose the Nez Perce left them here?” Henry asked.

“I think Nez Perce big hurry. Try to get away.”

Something caught Henry’s eye and he walked over to inspect. There was, in the open, a lone blue kepi with crossed sabers of the cavalry on its top. Above the cross of the sabers was the numeral “7” and below the cross was the letter “C.” Henry picked the kepi up. Slowly shaking his head, he could not find the words to say as he remembered another such scene at the Washita River in ’68.

Henry took out the map the general had given him. He opened it and spread it on the ground before him. Next, retrieved a pencil from his inside his tunic. Identifying where they were, he drew a circle around the spot. This he would show to the general to indicate where these bodies could be found.

Neither Henry nor Walks Alone said anything as they returned to their horses. They silently mounted and continued their trek into the mountains.

***

Two hours later Henry called out to the scout who was riding ahead, “Stop! I think we’re near.”

Walks Alone pulled back on his horse’s reins and waited for Henry to ride along side.

“Where?”

“That woods off to the left,” Henry waved his hand in that direction. That is where the general thinks they are and it seems like a logical place.”

Walks Alone stared straight ahead, not following Henry’s wave.

“What is it?”

“Loo-Ten-Nut, we are watched,” he said.

“Where?” Henry asked.

“There.” He pointed at a low butte to their front left. A single rider sat astride his horse. He was immobile but obviously attentive to their movements. Henry watched for a moment, then he turned his horse toward the trees they had considered before.

With the scout leading, they turned and entered the trees off to the west. As they rode through the woods, he slowed and seemed to proceed very cautiously. Something was up ahead and the scout knew it. Again, Henry was less aware. Presently, a voice from the trees up ahead shattered the quiet and caused them to stop.

“Halt!” Came the voice from the trees. “Identify yourselves,” the voice said. A young cavalry trooper, probably around 17- or 18-years-old, emerged from his hiding place with his carbine aimed up at Henry’s chest. “Who are you?”

“Lieutenant Norman. I have a message from General Howard to Captain Williams.”

The young trooper bade Henry to come closer. He looked at Walks Alone clad in the blue tunic of a cavalryman and the buckskin leggings of an Indian.

“… and him? Who is he?” The young trooper gestured toward the scout with the muzzle of his carbine.

“He is a scout. I can vouch for him,” Henry answered.

“Let me see the message,” he said.

“No,” I said. “It is for Captain Williams only. Can you take me to him?”

He didn’t respond but he whistled and a mounted trooper emerged from the trees leading another horse. The second trooper aimed his carbine at us as well and the first trooper mounted his horse.

“Follow us.”

As Henry and Walks Alone obeyed the young sentry, Henry noticed that the second trooper was bareheaded. He reached down to his saddle horn and removed the kepi.

“Did you lose your cap, soldier?” Henry extended his reach offering the kepi to the trooper.

“Yes, sir… thank you,” the trooper said as he retrieved the kepi.

***

Henry and Walks Alone followed the two young troopers through the trees for about 200 yards. They broke into a clearing where about 30 cavalrymen sat astride their mounts. This was not a unit at rest. They were prepared to do something and to do it soon.

The young trooper they had encountered first turned to Henry and said, “Wait here. I’ll tell the captain you have something for him. He rode over to a man who wore the epaulets of an officer sat mounted. The captain was about Henry’s age. He sat mounted on a bay slightly forward of his men. He peered through field glasses at something Henry could not see. The sentry spoke to the captain who seemed to ignore him as he continued looking through the glasses. For a brief moment the captain turned to the trooper. Henry could not tell what was being said. The young trooper rode back to where Henry was.

“He says he doesn’t have time to see you right now.”

“That is unacceptable!” Henry said, his voice louder than he had wished. “I represent General Howard and I must see the captain now!”

The young trooper started to say something, but Henry ignored him and walked his mount over to where the captain was.

“Captain Williams?”

The captain ignored Henry. He just kept staring straight ahead and occasionally looking up and down his line of mounted cavalrymen.

“Captain, I have an urgent message from General Howard for you.”

The captain turned toward Henry. “Weren’t you told, lieutenant, that I don’t have time right now?” He made “lieutenant” sound like it tasted bad in his mouth and he couldn’t wait to spit it out.

“Yes, sir, but this is urgent and I do represent General Howard.”

“I don’t care if you represent President Grant! I don’t have time! Do you understand that?”

“Yes, sir, but I must insist,” Henry said as he withdrew the envelope from his breast pocket.

“What? What did you say? You must insist?”

“Yes, sir, I must.”

“Why you insubordinate little ass… I’ll have you put under guard and brought up on charges.”

Henry had been in the cavalry for more than ten years. This man was not going to intimidate him. “Do as you must, sir.” He thrust his right hand with the envelope forward.

“Give me that damned thing!” He snatched the envelope out of Henry’s hand and put it in his breast pocket. “Lieutenant, we’ve got work to do here… real work. Would you understand that? We are going into that small Indian village just ahead by the creek.”

“Sir?” Henry did not comprehend. How could he be so unfortunate as to arrive just as the troop was being ordered to attack? This brought back memories of the Washita… of the dead… the women… the children. It also caused him to reflect on the site of the massacre he and Walks Alone had inspected just several hours ago.

“We are going to attack the village. Now, if you don’t have the stomach for it, you can stay here, or you can return to headquarters, or… or… or you can just go to hell!”

“Captain, they know you are here.”

“What? Who knows?”

“The Nez Perce. They have a watchman posted on a butte to the east of here. He was watching us and I am sure he has been watching you.”

“We are a superior fighting force. We will prevail!” He turned his attention away from Henry and back to his men.

“That may not be enough.”

“Oh, I think it is.” He turned away from Henry and again looked up and down his line of cavalry troopers. “Forwaaaard… at a walk,” he commanded. The troopers and their mounts stepped out and they proceeded out of a thin line of trees into an open area.

After he and Walks Alone had ridden clear of the trees, Henry noticed a small encampment of three teepees about two hundred yards to the front. There didn’t seem to be any movement among the teepees.

“Forward at a trot,” the captain commanded, intensifying the pace. The entire troop of three dozen mounted soldiers complied.

Not feeling particularly welcome, Henry and Walks Alone hung back 20 yards or more from the advancing cavalry troop. Henry hoped that he would not be witnessing what he thought he might. He had seen it before… several times and once was enough.

The small encampment was down a slight fold in the landscape. The horses could negotiate it easily, even at full speed.

The cavalry trotted to within 100 yards when the captain gave his final order.

“Charge!” he shouted above the sound of the wind and the thundering of more than a hundred horses’ hooves. The men kicked their mounts into a full run. Implicit in the command to charge was the permission to fire at will. There was no movement from the small village, so the troopers shot into the teepees. Still there was no movement nor did anyone return fire. After a brief but violent run, the soldiers instinctively ceased firing and brought their mounts to a halt.

Henry and the scout sat astride their mounts at the top of the rise, perhaps 50 yards away. They watched half a dozen soldiers dismount and go from teepee to teepee opening the flaps and finding, it appeared, absolutely no one. Henry was relieved that this had not been the massacre he had anticipated. He started down the decline to where the others were.

He had not gone very far when he watched as a trooper fell off his mount and immediately thereafter there was a “CRACK” of a rifle shot. It was impossible to tell where it had come from until other shots were fired. Henry dismounted and took to ground noting that the firing appeared to be coming from a small stand of trees on the other side of the creek.

After about a minute-long volley, the firing stopped. The troopers never had a chance to return fire. Henry slowly began to get up. Still no firing. Looking into the Indian encampment, Henry saw that several other soldiers were down. For the Indians, it had been like shooting fish in a barrel. It had been a very well planned out ambush. Swift, deadly, and then nothing. They were gone. No wonder so few had been so successful against so many over the past three months.

Henry did not mount but, with his revolver drawn, he walked down and into the encampment. Upon arriving there, he noted that four troopers were down. One had a wound to the arm and three were dead. Among the dead was Captain Williams.

Turning to a sergeant who stood dismayed at what he saw, Henry asked, “Sergeant, who’s in command here, now?”

“I think you are, sir,” he said.

“I am? Where are your officers?”

“There was only Captain Williams and now…”

Henry quickly surveyed the scene and thought about his next move. He had been, as General Terry had said, a fighter. He may have been a new officer, but he was otherwise very experienced with the Indians. He immediately knew what he must do. There was no official commander now. Absent their leader, they did not seem to know what their mission was. General Howard would be expecting his return and report. This troop of cavalry must be returned, with their dead, to headquarters more than 20 miles south.

Take command he did. Henry ordered that the dead be tied to their mounts and that all were to follow him as they rode south. The soldiers, eager for direction and a leader, offered no resistance. The bodies of the fallen cavalrymen were hoisted onto their mounts and, as Captain Williams’ remains were likewise mounted, the envelope that Henry had given to him fell out of his tunic. Henry picked it up and tucked it into his own pocket.

Then it occurred to Henry that the message he had carried would probably answer many questions as it probably carried specific orders. He reached in his tunic and retrieved the message. The wax seal was broken and the paper had blood on it. He supposed it was time to read the message that had been for the now dead Captain Williams only. The message read:

Captain Williams,

You are to return with your cavalry contingent immediately. Do not make contact or engage in any combat with the Nez Perce. I have received word that Chief Joseph wants to talk with me.

O. O. Howard

Though the results of the little skirmish at the Indian camp had a different ending than the one Henry had witnessed years before at the Washita, it showed that Captain Williams was arrogant and ambitious without the application of common sense and sound tactics. Three men killed and peace talks might have been forthcoming. Henry took the note and put it in his leather pouch.

***

It was in the early morning hours when Henry lead Troop C of the Seventh Cavalry into camp and General Howard’s headquarters. Henry was surprised that the general was still up. General Howard came to greet them and then, seeing the bodies of the dead troopers, he dropped to one knee. He seemed to be alternating between praying and simply shaking his head. When he stood again, Henry noticed that his eyes were moist.