A tale of the old west
By Charles Towne
The date was June 24th, 1876, a significant date in the history of the west when the Sioux nation was coming together at a place in Montana called, The Little Bighorn.
Phineas Buckman or, “Buck” as he was known to his friends, was a 17-year-old private in the U.S. Army.
He was part of a contingent of cavalry, two companies to be exact, sent west to help settle the Indian affair in as expeditious a manner as possible.
At the moment he was riding front for the small, eleven-man cavalry patrol.
The Major in charge, a stern man in his mid-forties had sent Buck to check the terrain ahead.
The Major, Indicating a tall rocky hill some three miles to their front said, “Private Buckman, I want you to ride ahead and glass the area on the opposite side of that hill. Be careful not to skyline yourself and take care that you don’t raise any dust. We should reach you shortly and you can report when next we see you.”
Following this brief exchange, the Major threw the young soldier a faint smile as he said in a low voice, “and private, be very careful. We know there are hostiles about and I can’t afford to lose a man, even if he is a green private!”
Phineas Buckman, private, grinned as he snapped a parade perfect salute at his Major, and with a respectful “Yes sir!” he reined his horse around and began cantering toward the distant objective.
Anyone not familiar with the situation or the relationship between the Major and the young private would have had to miss the similarity in the two men’s appearances not to understand the veiled meaning in the Major’s words and his smile. Both men were lithe, of medium height, with dark, almost black hair except for a hint of red. Each of them had piercing blue eyes that seemed to flash with a fire and life quite disconcerting to some.
The Major’s name was Magellan Buckman and he was the young private’s father. Nobody called him Magellan or Buck, just “Major” with a “sir” attached.
Understanding his son’s passion to follow his father’s lead in the military the Major had arranged for Buck to join him on the frontier.
This would be a good experience for his son and it would not hurt his chances for advancement once he was enrolled in officer candidate school at the military academy at West Point.
Now, knowing that the various tribes could erupt into open warfare at any time, he was having misgivings. He would never forgive himself, nor would the boy’s mother if anything were to happen to her darling.
“Oh well, it’s too late now.” He thought, “We’ll just have to avoid trouble if at all possible.”
He knew that if they were to have the misfortune to run into a large war party about the only thing they could do would be to either run for it or hunker down and hold
them off and hope that help would arrive, and as thin as their forces were that might take days.
During his time on the frontier, he had learned a lot about the enemy and he had come to respect them, not just as a people, but and as damned good, if not exceptional, fighting men.
The generals such as Custer were badly mistaken if they thought they could run roughshod over the Indians.
As he sat there on his horse watching his son’s back as he rode away he thought of that damned fool Custer who at that very moment was moving toward the Little Bighorn with the idea that he could eradicate the Indian problem with a force of a couple hundred men. Yes, Custer was a fool with his golden hair and his hopes of glory. If he wasn’t careful that long hair of his could possibly decorate some warrior’s lodge.
When the Major had been given his orders they were simple, “scout the area, avoid trouble and report back in one piece!”
Well, they were scouting the area. The big question was whether they could get back in one piece to give that report.
Just that day they had crossed the trails of several large bands of Indians, all traveling in the same general direction, North and North West, toward the Little Big Horn River
Young Phineas Buckman rode warily.
He had learned enough about the country to know that though the ground might seem flat and level there were arroyos and swales, dry river courses and even canyons that were not evident until suddenly you were looking down into them, each of them large enough to conceal a sizable war party.
Buck loved the country and he had, after listening to his father formed an opinion of the Indian based on great respect.
He had left the patrol far behind. When he glanced back they appeared small in the distance.
As much as possible he followed a straight line only deviating from his course when he dropped down into the occasional dry creek or arroyo.
His destination, the “hill” that dominated the terrain was actually more a small mountain that what one would generally call a hill. Unlike the Rockies in the west, it was similar to those ancient mountains he had seen in Georgia and Tennessee.
He moved forward and eventually reached the base of the “hill” and started to climb. It was easy going for his horse and the well-behaved animal moved forward only
occasionally deviating from his destination when a house size boulder obstructed his path.
Nearing the top Buck dismounted and tied the reins to a low bush and drawing his Spencer carbine from its boot he checked its action and then began climbing toward the summit a short distance ahead.
He was close. Once he stopped, his senses alert. He thought he had heard something, perhaps a rolling stone. Ever vigilant, he listened. He heard a dove in the distance, a very natural sound, then, silence again.
He had heard that the Indians at times imitated bird and animal sounds as a means of communicating but he
was sure the dove was in simply that, a dove.
Cautiously he approached a large boulder on his hands and knees, and then, silently, he lowered himself to the ground and belly crawled forward, the carbine across his arms.
His intent was to look to the other side from the very base of the boulder.
Buck knew enough from hunting mule deer to never simply rise up and look over a hill.
That is what the captain meant when he had told him not to skyline himself. Any sort of movement on a ridge or a hill could be seen for a long distance.
Buck was smiling, thinking about his father, the captain as he raised his head and got the surprise of his life.
There, no more than an arm’s length ahead of him, staring into his eyes, as surprised as himself, was the painted face of an Indian warrior.
The two men, each a soldier, enemies, stared at each other, unmoving.
Buck could see that the Indian was roughly his own age and he also noticed in sharp detail that the war lance was poised, ready to plunge into Bucks’ chest.
As Buck had moved forward to his vantage point at the base of the boulder he had brought the barrel of his Spencer forward until now, quite inadvertently, it was pointed into the Indian’s face.
All it would take would be for one of them to move and there would be blood. They lay like that for what seemed like the longest time. At such times seconds can seem like hours and minutes become days.
Unmoving, they watched each other.
Strangely, Buck had never felt so alive than as at that moment, and yet he felt the proximity of death almost as a living breathing entity.
He could kill or be killed and in the great scheme of life what would it matter?
He could look over to the other side of the hill and there, down below, was a war party of perhaps a dozen warriors.
While Buck was looking at the war party down below the brave could look in the distance and see the approaching cavalrymen.
They looked back at each other and then Buck did something totally uncalled for, even a bit strange under the circumstances, he smiled.
For a moment the brave’s eyes grew large in surprise, and then he grinned.
The young Indian slowly took his right hand from his spear shaft and pushed it toward Buck, palm forward.
Buck recognized the gesture.
Without a spoken word, the Indian was declaring peace.
Buck continued to smile as he raised his right hand, palm, outward toward the other man in that sign so familiar to him.
The brave, moving slowly, reached to his waist and pulled forth a sheathed knife, the sheath beautifully decorated with porcupine quills. While he was doing this he never took his eyes from Buck’s face, never stopped smiling.
He pushed the sheathed knife toward Buck handle first, and then with his other hand, he pointed at the knife and then at Buck. A gift!
Buck hesitated only for a moment and then he reached to his own waist and removed the hunting knife that his father had given him for his birthday.
Taking his knife by it’s sheathe he offered it to the Indian.
The young man’s face lit up with pleasure at the gift.
Buck glanced back toward the patrol and then at the Indian and then with a last smile he began to slide back down the hill the way he had come.
“Well private, do you have anything to report?” His father, the Major, asked when he rejoined the patrol.
“Yes sir, a band of Indians, perhaps fifty of them sir, two, maybe three miles distant. They are traveling North West sir, toward the Little Big Horn”
“Hmm, that many?” Mused the captain. “Well, we better not lock horns with a group that large. I believe that we have found out what we need to know. Good work private.” And then as an aside to his son, he said, “unless I miss my guess, General George Armstrong Custer is about to have that moment of glory he’s been searching for.”
As the patrol turned and headed back to the fort Buck glanced back one last time, back at the top of the hill, wondering if he had done the right thing, but in his heart, he knew he had.
Charles Towne is first and foremost a Christian. An octogenarian, author, journalist, wildlife photographer, naturalist, caregiver, and survivor, his life has been and continues to be, a never-ending adventure filled with possibilities never imagined. He has adopted the philosophy that to Live fully, laugh uproariously, love passionately, and learn like there is no tomorrow, is a formula for a long and joy-filled life.