Authors: Terry C. Johnston
Big Tree reached the fence and vaulted over it about the time a handful of fleet-footed young soldiers hurdled the rail fence behind him. In a matter of moments there were enough brunettes to have the Kiowa war-chief surrounded. He was ordered to throw up his hands, his pistol and knife taken from his belt before the soldiers escorted him to Grierson's headquarters.
By the time they got back to the parade with their angry prisoner, the women and children were racing across the creek in panic and things had turned ugly, with the warriors spilling across the open ground and between the post buildings. Many of the sub-chiefs stood their ground, however, shouting, urging their men to resist and escape when Colonel Grierson ordered Lieutenant Orleman to stop all who fled.
Two dozen of the warriors wheeled and opened fire with what weapons they had carried to the post: bows and arrows, pistols and a few rifles. With all the madness, however, only one of the brunettes was hit with an arrow in the melee. A solitary warrior dropped, a bullet through his heart. The rest scattered into the timber and were gone, crashing through the brush toward their camps. When they reached their villages, the women and children hastily tore down their lodges, intent on making good their escape to the nearby Wichita Mountains.
From that faint rattle of distant gunfire, those in other camps of Comanche and Kiowa across the creek believed their chiefs were being slaughtered by the soldiers. They too joined in the mass stampede from the country.
“I have what I want in my hands, Colonel,” Sherman said proudly to Grierson as the dust settled on the parade. “Put these bastards in irons.”
June 8, 1871
“Is everything in order for our march south, Lieutenant?” asked Ranald S. Mackenzie, colonel of the Fourth Cavalry, as he stepped off the headquarter's porch at Fort Sill, I.T.
The young lieutenant, Robert G. Carter, who oft-times served as Mackenzie's adjutant, replied snappily, “The prisoners should be brought out any time now, Colonel.”
At that moment there came a rattle of chains as the first of the three Kiowa chiefs emerged into the bright summer sunlight of these southern plains from the darkness of the guardhouse where they had been held for the past dozen days. Mackenzie, the man who had chased the Kiowa back to their reservation following their brutal attack on the Warren wagon train, was now awarded the duty of escorting the three chiefs down to Fort Richardson for trial. Sentiments in Texas ran strong enough against the Kiowa that, once the three were brought to Richardson, no man among the Fourth Cavalry expected anything less than the end of a rope for Big Tree, Satank and Satanta.
Having graduated at the top of his class at West Point in 1862 during the first year of the Civil War, Mackenzie went on to participate in many of the war's most famous battles, during which he suffered six wounds. The loss of two fingers from his right hand would, in fact, later cause the Indians of the southern plains to call Mackenzie “Bad Hand.” By the time the able soldier participated in the last of the fighting around Appomattox Courthouse, he had earned himself a brevet rank of major general for conspicuous bravery in action.
Despite his stellar war record, it was not until December of 1870 that Mackenzie was appointed to the Fourth Cavalry, the second youngest colonel in the service at that time. It was in fighting and eventually subduing the warrior horsemen who roamed the southern plains across the next twelve years that Ranald Slidell Mackenzie would amass a service record of historic proportions.
He was not new to the country, nor to Texas itself, at this moment in timeâhaving served as colonel in the 41st Infantry in postwar reconstruction duty, commanding a Negro regiment near Brownsville from 1867 to 1870âwhen he came to the Fourth Cavalry and began acquiring his eventual fame as the man who time and again stung back the mighty Kiowa and Comanche bands.
At Fort Richardson no less than the general of the army himself, William Tecumseh Sherman, had ordered Mackenzie to lead a force of troopers on the trail of those guilty of the raid on Henry Warren's supply train. With 150 soldiers and thirty days' rations, the colonel hurried to the scene. It was there at noon the day following the bloody raid that Mackenzie saw his first mutilations.
He had dismounted and slowly walked among the charred remains of the ten wagons, his boots barely crunching the corn spilled by the raiders across the Salt Prairie. A driving rain pelted the soldiers and their winded mounts after the mad hours in the saddle. Here and there camp equipment and the carcasses of a few dead mules littered the scene of destruction, arrows with soggy fletching bristling like porcupine quills from six swollen corpses.
A seventh, who Mackenzie himself identified as a friend, teamster Samuel Elliott, had been chained belly-down on a wagon's single-tree and burned over one of the fires. The extreme heat of the flames had caused some of the blackened bodies to burst open, fissures of pink and white erupting with a stench that no man could stand for long, even in that afternoon's hard rain.
Having swallowed down his anger, Mackenzie ordered the rest to dismount and stand to horse. It was a grim silence that surrounded the colonel as he went from body to body, looking at what was left of the faces, each one pounded to jelly, to look for any others he might know.
“Captain,” he called back when his own tour of the scene was complete, “let's break out the spades and get these men buried.”
After a few words over the common grave marked by a small cairn of stones, Mackenzie informed his men they would be pushing on from here, using every bit of light left to them that day instead of stopping for the night. He drove them on, hoping that the wind-driven rain that was their companion that season had not obliterated every trace of the raiders' trail.
Mackenzie's determination had been rewarded late the following day when his advance guard under Lieutenant Peter M. Boehm had run across four of the raiding party on the south bank of the Wichita River where the Kiowas had discovered some buffalo crossing to the north shore. After killing a half-dozen of the shaggy beasts, the four warriors were butchering the buffalo for the rest of the raiding party when Boehm's twenty-five troopers happened upon them.
In a rapid, furious gun battle, the warriors wounded one trooper, and a single Kiowa was killed before the rest swam the Wichita to safety, dashing north for the Red River and their reservation, driving their mules among the small buffalo herd for cover.
The colonel and his Fourth followed that fresh trail straight to Fort Sill and the Kiowa-Comanche Agency, where Mackenzie himself reported his findings to General Sherman and Colonel Grierson, post commander.
Into the first wagon now this early summer morning, the buffalo soldiers of Fort Sill hoisted Satank, the oldest of the prisoners. He was placed between two privates, with a corporal settling in the wagon as well. Big Tree and Satanta were confined in a second wagon with only two guards.
All three of the Kiowas still squinted into the bright summer sunlight. For the past dozen nights, they had been held in a barrack cellar used as a temporary guardhouse, far from the open prairie where the free wind cleansed the stench of offal and sweat.
“Soldier chief,” announced an Indian dressed in a white man's civilian clothes as he rode up to Mackenzie, “I want to go south with your soldiers.”
“Who are you?” Mackenzie asked, glancing at Horace Jones, post interpreter.
“I am George Washington,” he said proudly, his back going rigid.
“He's a Caddo, Colonel Mackenzie,” Jones explained, then looked up at the Indian. “You going to help interpret for the colonel?”
His head bobbed up and down eagerly. “Yes. I know Kiowa good.”
“This true, Jones?”
Mackenzie nodded. “You ride near the two wagons, George Washington. Tell me if the prisoners need anythingâor have something to say.”
He watched the Caddo rein his pony toward the two wagons, then gave the order, “Let's move this parade south.”
The entire procession had barely rumbled away from the stone buildings of Fort Sill, parting long lines of curious, saddened, and angry Kiowa who had come to watch the departure of their chiefs, when George Washington loped to the head of the columns and brought his pony into step with Mackenzie's.
“Satanta, he say to tell his people they might never see him again.”
“He say anything else to them?”
“Only to stop raiding into Texas, and give back the mules to the soldiers.”
“What about Big Tree?”
“Him say nothing,” Washington replied, then looked away like a man who did not want to be caught keeping a tight rein on the whole truth.
“And the old one, Satank?”
The Caddo looked far from happy to answer.
“All right, George Washington,” Mackenzie declared sternly. The colonel was far from being an easy man to likeâa stern disciplinarian and taskmaster, and he brooked little in the way of a sense of humor. “I'm countermanding my decision to take you along. If you aren't going to do as you're ordered toâ”
“The old oneâSatank,” Washington blurted, “he's singing his death song to the Kiowas on the road.”
Mackenzie turned in the saddle and looked back at the first wagon. “I don't see him.”
“He have his blanket over his headâsinging death song.”
“What is thatÂ â¦ this death song? Translate for me.”
“O sun, you remain forever,
But we Koitsenko must die.
O earth, you remain forever,
But we Koitsenko must die.”
“What the devil is this Koitsenko?”
“Kiowa warrior society. Satank is chief. He took vow never to die like a animal. Only as a manâfighting soldiers.”
“That what he's telling these Kiowa?” Mackenzie asked, gazing up and down the road at the Indians they were passing.
“Satank has promised his scalp to your Tonkawa tracker up there,” Washington said.
“Sounds like he's stirring up as much trouble as he can,” said the colonel.
“He say him a warrior and chiefâtoo old to treat him like a child now.”
“I'm not treating him like a child,” Mackenzie bristled. “I'm treating him like the goddamned murderer that he is.”
A mile south of the fort on the Jacksboro road, the road dipped down a gentle slope to the Cache Creek Crossing. It was in descending that slope that Satank pushed back the blanket from his head and called out for George Washington. The Caddo urged his horse up from the second wagon, where he had been talking with Big Tree.
“You, Caddo,” Satank said in Kiowa. “See that tree ahead?”
Washington looked down the gentle slope and spotted the tall tree standing much by itself. “I see.”
Satank smiled grimly. “I will not go past that tree.”
Washington nudged his horse forward without a word, intent on finding the soldier chief. He was nearing the head of the columns when angry, shouting voices erupted behind him. Mackenzie turned in his McClellan, then reined his mount out of formation and loped back toward the commotion.
Satanta and Big Tree were yelling at the same time in Kiowa from their wagon. In confusion, a dozen soldiers rushed past the wagon, bolting for Satank's wagon, where the chief's three guards suddenly flushed like a covey of quail, one of them clutching a hand over a glistening arm wound.
The old chief wheeled on the other troopers closing in on him, yelling out his Koitsenko death song. From one wrist dangled the loose end of the iron shackles. The other wrist had been torn, flesh peeled from bone in ripping the shackles from his hand. Blood streamed onto the Springfield rifle he had wrestled from one of the guards.
Satank shouted in frustration as he worked the bolt, a cartridge already in the chamber, jamming the rifle's action as he brought it to his hip, growling at the soldiers closing on his wagon.
One of the nervous troopers fired. The bullet struck Satank high in the chest. He shrieked in rage, flinging blood over the jammed action of the Springfield as he struggled with the bolt, yanking back on the trigger again and again. Another shot struck the Kiowa chief, then a half-dozen in a staccato volley that knocked Satank over the side of the wagon onto the dusty road that would have taken him to Fort Richardson, Texas.
By the time a stunned Mackenzie had dismounted and hurried to the chief, Satank's eyes were already glazing. Still breathing, blood darkening his cloth shirt in more than a dozen places, the old warrior gritted his teeth in excruciating pain rather than show the white men he was weaker than this excruciating walk into death.
After twenty minutes of refusing water from the soldiers, and staring with glassy eyes at the faces gathered in curiosity around him, Satank breathed his last, raspy, sputtering breath. A bit of pink sputum rolled from his lower lip as his body relaxed.
“I get scalp,” said the Tonkawa tracker who stepped up beside Mackenzie.
“Get the hell out of my sight before I scalp you myself!” the colonel snapped.
Trudging off two steps, then wheeling, his shoulders thrown back in a haughty defiance, the Tonkawa tried again. “He told me: I get his scalpâwhen he die.”
The colonel shook with rage, holding his fist beneath the tracker's nose. “This is the last time you'll work for me. And I'll make sure it's the last time you work for the U.S. Army. Nowâget out of my sight!”
He trembled for a moment more as he watched the Tonkawa making good his exit, then Mackenzie ordered a sergeant to retrace the mile to Fort Sill and request a wagon of Colonel Benjamin Grierson.
Satank was buried at Fort Sill by the Kiowa and the Negro buffalo soldiers as Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie once more pushed his columns south for Fort Richardson.
That evening, and for six more following that first, the Fourth Cavalry feared a night attack by the Kiowas attempting to free the other two chiefs. One chief had already been killed by the soldiers while he was their prisoner. Mackenzie analyzed the situation. Chances were the Kiowas would try something to keep the soldiers from killing the last two.