Arkansas River, Colorado. November, 1867:
Major Colt Harding slid through the light brush of the high Colorado plains without making a sound. Thirty
feet away a Cheyenne lookout relaxed against a rock in the late afternoon sun. The November day had
been bright and cold, but the sun had stored up heat in the flat rock slab and now the Cheyenne relished
Colt lifted his fighting knife, the half short sword, half skinning knife that had drawn enemy blood more
than once. The blade was eight inches long, sharp enough to shave with, and the knife carefully balanced
for hand-to-hand fighting.
Major Colt Harding took another step, froze against an Engelmann spruce as the Indian lookout shifted
his position, looked far down the valley and then pressed his back against another section of the warm
For a moment Colt wished he had mastered the use of an Indian bow and arrow. The silent kill of an arrow
right now would be a simple method of eliminating the lookout. Instead, he worked his way forward a step
at a time. He never put his weight on his foot until he was sure the surface under it would not make any
Two more steps and he was slightly behind the Cheyenne brave. He moved faster then, paused to listen,
then in a surge sprang around the rock, his big knife already making its deadly stroke. The blade drove
straight forward, sliced through the brown skin in an upward angle under the warrior's ribs and cut his
heart in half.
Harding jerked the big knife free of the falling savage. Colt looked at the bow and arrow leaning against the
rock. He picked them up, stood where the Indian had been and waved his men forward.
Lt. Nate Berwin ran up to the spot and stared at Colt. "How in hell you learn to move like a damned
Indian? Never saw nothing like it! Christ, you are smooth as a greased hole!"
"Berwin, before I'm done with you and your men, all of you will be expert trackers, as good as any army
scout, and you'll be able to sneak up on a whole camp full of Indians. Which is exactly what I hope we get
to do tonight."
Colt led the young officer to the ravine to the left and called the twenty-five cavalrymen around them.
"That was one of the Cheyenne lookouts. There may be one more and there might not. We'll find him
before dark or go around him if he's there. What we do is learn to think like an Indian thinks. Then we
know what to expect."
"I ain't no damn savage!" one of the men said.
Most of the troopers laughed quietly.
"We can learn a lot from the Cheyenne about moving through the woods, about building fires that don't
smoke, about tracking and placement of camps and villages. I'd rather be a cavalryman who knew how an
Indian thinks, than be killed by one of those savages because I didn't understand his ways."
Major Harding looked around at the men. They were all young, fit, all good riders. Now what he had to do
was turn them into a "Lightning" company half as good as he had at Ft. Comfort in Texas.
"From here forward there'll be no talking, no noise. We communicate by hand signal, so keep looking
around you all the time. Let's think like Indians and stay alive."
Major Harding pointed at two of the men and motioned them forward. He pointed at Lt. Berwin and
signalled for him to keep the men where they were.
He and the two cavalrymen walked forward silently. They had left their horses about a mile to the rear.
Major Harding was acting as his own scout for this mission.
He had been at Ft. Lyon in eastern Colorado for only three days when a Cheyenne raiding party had
attacked a wood cutting crew, killed three men, wounded two more and escaped with eleven of the twelve
army mounts at the site.
Major Vincent Larson, Ft. Lyon's commander, had stormed around his office for an hour shouting
obscenities at the four walls. When he calmed down enough to hold a conversation, Colt suggested that
he form up a special patrol and go after the sub-chief who led the raid, Bear Claw. The savage was well
known to the army in Colorado and one of the survivors had identified him.
Bear Claw had four long purple scars across his right cheek and the side of his head where a bear had
wounded him as a boy.
Bear Claw had been a sub-chief and escaped the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, three years before.
Reports were that his entire family had been killed in the attack. Sand Creek had been described as a
mistake, as overzealous, and by some as a blood lust massacre of women and children.
However the army and the civilians saw it, Bear Claw had sworn vengeance against all whites, especially
the army and the Pony Soldiers. He had been waging his own kind of quick-strike warfare since that day.
Some stories told that Bear Claw had more than two hundred white-eye scalps hanging from his own
scalp pole at his lodge high on the tributaries to the Big Sandy River that feeds into the Arkansas in
General Phil Sheridan had sent Major Colt Harding to Ft. Lyon to mount a campaign to rid the area of
Bear Claw and his terror and savagery.
For three days Colt had driven his patrol deep into the Cheyenne lands. They had followed a two day old
trail. Major Harding had been surprised that Bear Claw made no attempt to hide tracks, or those of the
eleven captured army mounts.
Major Harding had treated these troopers the way he had his own "Lightning" company from Ft. Comfort,
where he had developed the ideas of a lightly equipped, bare bones attack force that could ride long
distances, sustain themselves off the land, and strike fast and hard directly at the home village of the
Too often Major Harding had sent patrols out to try to catch fleeing raiders. It was an impossible task. On
the other hand, with the principle of attacking the hostiles in their camps and villages, to take offensive
action and not just respond to Indian raids, he had raised the technique of Indian fighting to a level that
could mean victory for the Pony Soldiers.
The Lightning Company had performed with outstanding success in Texas. General Phil Sheridan, who
commanded the five states and territories known as the Military District of Missouri, asked that Colt be
assigned to Ft. Leavenworth. From there Sheridan sent Colt to Ft. Lyon with this specific task.
Colt led the two troopers along a small valley, then up to the crest of the ridge to their right. From the
position of the other sentry, Colt decided that the main village of Bear Claw must be in the valley to the
right. There could be one more lookout somewhere ahead, but Colt didn't think so.
He told Lt. Berwin that the Cheyennes felt safe this far from Ft. Lyon. They had used a teenager not yet
fourteen on watch, indicating to Colt that Bear Claw did not think guards important enough to make a full
warrior go out and stand guard. Warriors hated such an assignment and sometimes refused, which
usually led to a challenge of leadership and sometimes a family or two moving to another band in the
Colt motioned for the two men to spread out and follow him up the ridge. They crawled the last ten feet to
stay below the ridgeline, then eased up and peered over the top through the grass and weeds.
A half mile up the narrow valley along the Big Sandy they saw smoke from fifteen to twenty tipis formed in
a circle bridging the creek and under dozens of cottonwoods. Below them Colt saw movement, and
quickly spotted three Cheyenne hunters sweeping through a brushy section of the valley that was no
more than a quarter of a mile wide.
Each hunter held an arrow nocked in his bow. In their right hands were three more arrows as the men
stalked some unseen game. There was a sudden beating of wings that came like a rumbling and two
ruffled grouse lifted off the ground in front of the Cheyenne. Two hunters shot arrows at the big birds and
brought down one of them.
They recovered the dead bird, slung it over one hunter's back on a rawhide thong, and moved ahead,
working toward the camp.
Colt motioned the two men back down the slope away from the valley. He waved one of the men to him.
"Go back and bring up Lt. Berwin and the men," he whispered. They had come through a heavy stand of
cottonwood in the small valley below on this side of the larger valley. "We'll be right down there. Quietly!"
Major Harding said and sent the man on his way.
Colt moved back to the ridge and watched the camp. There seemed to be no other lookouts, no scouts.
With hunters out they must feel secure. He could see little of the camp. The army horses were there
The Cheyenne were horse Indians, almost as good at riding as the Comanches. For years they had few
horses and they were precious. This was the far end of the camp but he couldn't see where the horses
were kept. They must have them at the other side with a boy herder or two.
A warrior's wealth was in his horses. If he had a dozen horses, or twenty, he was a rich man. A chief
might have fifty, even a hundred. The Cheyenne were a warrior tribe. When a boy proved himself and
became a full warrior, his life revolved around waging war on and raiding the whites or the other tribes for
horses, women and children.
Major Harding had learned enough about the Indians to begin to understand them. They made raids on
white settlers because that was their business, their occupation, how they made their living. It was like a
white man saying he was a soldier, or a carpenter, or a mailman.
Nobody said a carpenter was a bad person just because he sawed lumber and built houses. To an Indian
it was the same reasoning when he went raiding. It was simply what he did. Part of raiding was taking
prisoners, killing women and children and torturing them.
Major Harding knew the American people would never understand the Indian logic. To the Indian, torture,
taking captives and taking hostages were a normal part of life.
That was why those Indians who could not change their ways to conform to the white man's way of living
had to be wiped out, obliterated from the countryside.
Colt was a soldier, that's what he did for a living. If it involved killing Indians, that's what he did. It didn't
make him good or bad.
Behind him he heard the detail moving up. They clanked and whispered and broke branches like they
were on a walk through downtown St. Louis. Major Harding knew he had his work lined up for him for the
next few months. Whipping this outfit into some semblance of a "Lightning Company" would take a lot of
sweat and swearing. But that's how he earned his living.
He gave Lt. Berwin a "down" hand signal and the twenty-five men dropped to the ground and didn't move.
Colt walked down to them without making a sound. He motioned for them to gather around him.
"Men, when I say move quietly, that's what I mean!" he said softly. "You made enough noise coming up
here to get every one of you killed dead by about twenty Cheyenne arrows ... each! The Cheyenne village
is less than half a mile from here. It'll be dark soon, and that's when we move up on it to find out for sure if
it's Bear Claw's camp. If it is, we attack in that half light time between first light and sunrise.
"Men, you can take a break, but there will be no fires, and no talking. I'd suggest you either clean and
check your weapons or have some sleep. Dry rations at dusk. If this is Bear Claw's group, we'll be back
and move into position in the dark.
"Lt. Berwin, post three guards, and pick out your two best men to come with me on a scouting patrol."
Ten minutes later, Major Harding, Sgt. Jed Murphy, a veteran of six years of Indian fighting, and Pvt. Mike
Thomas, an alert young recruit who claimed he had lived with an Indian tribe, worked their way up the
Colt chose the heaviest wooded section of the draw and moved for what he considered a half mile. Then
they waited in the thick cover for darkness.
As they waited they spoke in whispers.
"Major, sir, I understand you had a fast attack group in Texas against the Comanches," Sgt. Murphy said.
"That we did, Sergeant. It worked well. Now we're trying to develop more of them. The idea is simple. We
travel light, live off the land and ride eighty miles a day if we have to. The Indians can do it. So can we. It
just takes some re-thinking by the army brass."
"That's why we have two Indians along as hunters?" Pvt. Thomas asked. "I thought they were scouts."
"That's how we hired them. Their job is to feed our bellies twice a day."
"Sir, do you think this is Bear Claw's band?" Pvt. Thomas asked.
"What do you think, Thomas? Have we followed the tracks?"
"Yes, sir. I worked on the tracking detail. I'd say it's the same bunch that hit the wood detail."
"We'll find out tonight. If we can't spot Bear Claw in the camp, we'll check the herd of ponies. Those black
army mounts will stand out."
They ate hardtack and dried fruit from their packs, and as soon as it was dark, they moved up the hill.
Major Harding led the way.
"We're Indians," he told them. "Think like an Indian. Move like an Indian. Don't fire your weapon unless
you need to in order to save your own life."
All three men carried .52 caliber Spencer repeating rifles. Major Harding had insisted on the repeating
rifles for each man on the patrol for several reasons, even though they were six inches longer than the
Springfield carbines most cavalrymen used for arms. The Spencer's ability to fire eight rounds without
reloading was an asset in an outnumbered situation.
The repeating rifles also helped make up for the poor marksmanship of most regular army troopers, either
infantry or cavalry. Major Harding would change that as soon as he could get his new troop into training.
The regular army soldiers had no target practice at all, and little if any basic training. Most of their actual
rifle training had come as boys when they were civilians.
Major Harding had orders in writing from General Phil Sheridan that the major could expend ten rounds
per day per trooper in target practice and on simulated attack training maneuvers. He would have the
sharpest outfit in the army!
The trio worked up the slope of sparsely wooded land with no difficulty. Only once did a man crack a dead
branch he stepped on. Another time Pvt. Thomas slipped and skinned his shin and swore under his
At the top of the ridge they moved up cautiously, Major Harding showing them how by crawling the last
six feet. Over the top, they could look down on the Cheyenne camp.
Major Harding saw at once it was a proper Cheyenne village. The tipis were arranged in a large circle
straddling the small creek. The break in the circle was carefully placed to the east where the sun rises.
The doorway to each tipi faced the rising sun as well. It was a correctly laid out camp, as far as
Cheyenne traditions and superstitions went, but not from a defensive or labor point of view. Some of the
tipis were a long way to water.
There were a dozen small fires burning outside, and twenty tipis that showed light through their sides and
doors. One large council fire had been built and more than sixty men, women and children gathered
around it. One man spoke to a council of ten to twelve warriors.
Major Harding signalled the two men to remain where they were. He slithered over the top of the ridge and
crawled ten feet down the slope, then came to his feet and moved cautiously, silently toward the council
Fifty feet from the fire he saw an Indian walking toward him in the dim light. Harding pulled his fighting
knife, then saw the warrior squat and relieve himself.
Great! Harding thought. He was coming at them across the latrine and their outdoor outhouses! The
warrior soon stood and trotted back to the council fire.
Major Harding decided to continue his route. Here he could keep in the best cover and get closest to the
council fire. The closer he came, the slower Colt moved. A cautious step at a time, making sure he did
not rustle a leaf, scrape a branch or disturb the ground cover.
Soon the brush petered out and only a fringe of random cottonwoods remained. He stood upright and
walked to the nearest cottonwood and faded behind it.
He could hear the voices clearly now, and wished he could speak even a few words of the language that
was somewhat common to the plains Indians.
Major Harding lifted the army binoculars to his eyes and studied the man speaking to the council. He
sucked in his breath as he saw the four long blue scars across the speaker's right cheek and up into his
hairline. The firelight showed it plainly.