©2022 Robert Lee Murphy
“Red Cloud’s mad!” I leaned over the railing to get a better look at the throng of Indians gathered below on Fort Laramie’s barren parade ground.
“He may have good reason, Zach.” Major Bonnet, the paymaster, stood beside me on the second-floor balcony of Old Bedlam. The building served as the fort’s headquarters and bachelor officer quarters.
Red Cloud had jumped up from where he had been squatting on the ground among his companions. He shook a fist in the air and shouted at the peace commissioners concealed from my view beneath a bower of cottonwood saplings. The temporary shelter sat in the southwest corner of the parade ground to shade the officers and civilians of the commission from the blazing sun.
“Great Father sends presents and wants new road,” Red Cloud exclaimed, “but White Eagle goes with soldiers to steal road before Indian says yes or no!” The Indian’s English, while not perfect, was certainly understandable.
The “White Eagle” to whom Red Cloud referred was Colonel Henry B. Carrington, commanding officer of the Eighteenth Infantry. The spread-eagle emblem on his shoulder boards provided the name. The colonel had arrived yesterday with seven hundred soldiers now camped four miles from the fort. Carrington was headed north with two hundred and sixty men of the Second Battalion of his regiment to build forts along the Bozeman Trail to protect immigrants flooding up the new road to the Montana goldfields. The other two battalions of the Eighteenth would be spread out along the Oregon Trail across Dakota Territory and into Utah, with some units stationed in Colorado Territory.
“For not being a chief,” I said, “Red Cloud certainly dominates the others.”
“He’s getting them stirred up,” the paymaster said.
With his outburst, the fierce war leader of the Oglala band generated a chorus of grunts from the Indian crowd. What started as low-level grumbling soon escalated into a roar of discontent. Red Cloud turned away from the bower and berated fellow Indian leaders arrayed beside him.
“What’s he saying, Major?” My boss understood the Sioux language.
“He’s lecturing them to stand with him in defending Absaraka from the encroachment of the white man. He says he would rather die than give up their hunting grounds.”
Absaraka was a Crow Indian word for the Powder River country adjacent to the Big Horn Mountains. The land was home to the largest buffalo herd in the northern plains.
The commissioners emerged from the bower, the meeting adjourning for the afternoon. The first to appear on the dirt road in front of Old Bedlam was Colonel Carrington. He trailed a finger down an aquiline nose, then tugged on his dark, Vandyke beard. With his other hand he returned his broad-brimmed campaign hat to his head, concealing his sloping forehead and shoulder-length black hair. He strode through the dust toward a mule-drawn, Rucker-pattern ambulance parked below us in what little shade existed at one corner of the building.
“Henry!” A woman’s shrill voice called from the front seat of the ambulance. Her bonneted head thrust forward from the shadow of the canvas cover, and a warning finger pointed beyond the colonel. I recognized Mrs. Margaret Carrington. I had met the Carringtons earlier at Fort Kearney, Nebraska, on my trip west with Major Bonnet.
Colonel Carrington glanced over his shoulder, bringing a hand to rest on the butt of a pistol in a flapped holster on his hip. He did not slow his pace.
Red Cloud rapidly closed the distance from the parade ground to where Carrington approached the ambulance. The war leader clutched a large knife tucked into a belt around his waist.
Carrington reached the ambulance and took the reins of a thoroughbred saddle horse from an orderly. The colonel and Red Cloud glared at each other as the latter stalked past.
“Henry,” Mrs. Carrington said, “I thought he was going to assault you.”
Standing on the balcony above the ambulance, Major Bonnet and I were close enough to overhear the colonel reassure his wife everything was fine. He told her the peace commissioners assured him a treaty would be signed the next day.
“Come, Zach,” Major Bonnet said, “I need to speak to the colonel. This may be my best chance.”
The major walked ahead of me along the wooden-floored balcony to a flight of steps descending to the ground. With each step, he swung the wooden portion of his left leg forward with a purposeful jerk of his hip. He moved surprisingly quickly for wearing an artificial limb.
The side curtains of the ambulance were rolled up, and I saw two other women sitting in the rear.
“Colonel Carrington.” Major Bonnet came to attention and saluted. “A word, if I might, sir?”
Carrington had lifted a foot into a stirrup in preparation for mounting but removed it and stood beside his horse. “Certainly, Major.” He returned the salute.
“Sir, you remember my clerk, Zachary Wakefield?”
The major motioned to where I stood nearby. No longer a soldier, I didn’t salute, but I did stand at attention.
“Yes,” the colonel said, “we’ve met.”
“Sir,” Major Bonnet said, “the payroll cash is not here. I’m not sure when it will arrive. I receive conflicting telegrams from headquarters. One day I’m told the pay chests are departing Omaha, the next day I’m told they are not.”
“It’s been four months since the troops were paid, Major. Why this delay?”
“I don’t know, sir. When I left headquarters in March, General Cooke assured me the payroll would be sent out immediately. I’m sorry, sir.”
Brigadier General Philip St. George Cooke commanded the Department of the Platte with headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. That was where I had responded to a newspaper advertisement for a paymaster clerk. Major Armond Bonnet hired me because I had worked for my father handling money in his hardware store. Another factor had also weighed in my favor. During the recent war, I drove a Rucker ambulance, the vehicle assigned to a paymaster.
“No need to apologize about confusing instructions from headquarters, Major,” Carrington said. “I receive them myself. I asked permission to stay here until the peace commission concludes. Omaha orders, however, direct me to proceed north no later than June seventeenth, eighteen sixty-six—tomorrow. It would be nice to wait for the arrival of the payroll and, more importantly, the arrival of ammunition and food. General Cooke informed me there was adequate ammunition here, but when I requisitioned ten thousand rounds this morning, I was issued one thousand. They claimed even that cut Fort Laramie’s supply short. The food provided is hardly worth taking. The bacon is rancid, the flour moldy, and the hardtack infested with weevils.”
“I’ll follow you north as soon as I receive the pay chests, Colonel,” Major Bonnet said. “I have to pay the troops at Fort Reno. Maybe I can catch up with you there.”
“Good. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Major, I must get back to my encampment.”
“Have a safe journey north, Colonel,” Major Bonnet said.
“After the peace treaty is signed tomorrow,” the colonel said, “I don’t anticipate any problems. General Sherman is of the opinion we will encounter no difficulties. Otherwise, why would he have encouraged us to bring our wives along?”