Western Short Story
Aaron Talbot: The Dispatch Rider (May 1874)
Bob Fincham

Western Short Story

I got called to Colonel Custer’s office just three days ago for a particular assignment. When I walked into his office, he was affixing his official seal to a folded document. He ignored my presence while he placed the report into a dispatch bag. He closed the strap on the bag and stood, acknowledging my presence with a stare. I quickly saluted, and he returned my salute with a wave of his hand across his forehead.

“Lieutenant Talbot, you may not be regular army and just a civilian scout with the acting rank of Lieutenant for dealing with our Indian scouts, but as an acting Lieutenant, you will give me a proper salute immediately upon entering my presence. Is that understood?” Custer said, as he repeatedly slapped the dispatch bag against his leg.

He went on to say, “You are not my chief scout, but you are one of my best civilian scouts, and I trust you. I need these dispatches taken to Lieutenant Colonel Luther P. Bradley, Post Commander at Fort Laramie. One contains information concerning the paymaster robbery of last month and asks him to send the Indian Agent, Mr. Thomas, back with you. He is the agent assigned to Red Cloud’s Agency. I believe he was involved in the robbery, and I want to question him here. He leaked information to the outlaws and sent several young Sioux to be involved in a way that they would get the blame for the robbery.”

“You are not to divulge any of this to the agent nor Colonel Bradley. Just get him back here for questioning. I told the Colonel I want to ask him about the Sioux who were involved. Bloody Knife will join up with you somewhere along the way. A dispatch rider for the army for several years before becoming a scout, he knows a few tricks. I don’t want him to enter Fort Laramie with you. If the Sioux spot him, it could cause some problems since they have a bad history with each other.”

“The other dispatch in the pouch concerns my upcoming expedition into the Black Hills. The Colonel will be sending a response back with you.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. I saluted and left the room, all the while thinking about the route I would follow and wishing I had been out on patrol when this assignment came along. I would be gone for at least three weeks, most of it traveling through the Indian Territory. Plus, I would have to babysit a civilian on the way back.

I went to the scouts’ barracks to get a few things for my mission. James Washington and Jedediah Strong were sitting in some shade near the entrance and hailed me as I approached.

“Jedediah said, “You in a big hurry or you got time to join us at the Sutter’s for a bit of whiskey?”

“I can’t right now. I got orders from the boy general to run a dispatch to Fort Laramie. I’m expected to be on the road immediately. Y’all can go ahead without me.”

Washington walked into the barracks with me while Jedediah headed to the Sutter’s. When we got inside, he said, “According to Bloody Knife, Custer is planning his big expedition into the Black Hills for this summer. I suspect he’ll be askin’ some of the other forts for their help of some sort.”

I responded by saying, “Custer tells Bloody Knife more than he tells us. The information we gathered for him in the Black Hills must have convinced him to go ahead with his expedition. I guess Fort Laramie is close to the Black Hills and must figure into his plans in some way.”

“Either that, or he wants to know about Indian activity west of the Black Hills,” Washington said.

“Whatever it is, I have to get a move on,” I said, as I focused on packing my saddlebags while Washington sat watching me.

As I cinched the bags shut, Jedediah came into the barracks with a bottle of an amber-colored liquid. He grabbed three tin cups off a shelf and pulled the cork from the bottle. He half-filled each cup with the whiskey and set the jug on a table.

We each took a cup and drank a round, as Jedediah made a toast to the successful completion of my mission. Then I was out the door while my two friends poured themselves another drink. As I started along the road out of the fort, I saw them sitting on the barrack’s porch without a care in the world.

I had been on the trail and making good time for nearly six hours when two other scouts joined me. Bloody Knife and White Crow were waiting in the middle of the road. Without a word, they took up a position on each side of me, and we rode together for the rest of the day.

After supper, White Crow disappeared into the night while Bloody Knife and I sat by the small fire we had started. He was the first to speak, “Sioux have braves constantly in the area of the fort but always out of sight. They watch and report to Crazy Horse. He is the Sioux war chief. Custer make many enemies among Cheyenne and Sioux, and they want know what he does.”

“That is why dispatch riders often disappear. I did not think the Sioux had anyone who could read white man’s words on paper,” I said.

“Long ago, Red Cloud sent a boy to learn the white man’s ways. He go back toward rising sun. He return two years ago and tell Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull about the words on the papers carried by the lone soldiers between the forts.”

“That is why Custer wanted me to have some company. I suppose there will be an attack somewhere along my route.”

“When you left fort, a Sioux scout followed you to see what road you take. Then he go to Crazy Horse. They will ambush you when you come near Fort Laramie. We scout along your trail and find ambush. Then we go around it to the fort.”

“Sounds like a good plan. Hopefully, you will spot the Sioux before they find me.”

I wasn’t too excited about the whole thing, but the Sioux would not have the advantage of surprise. I started getting my bedroll ready when I saw White Crow come back to the fire carrying a fresh scalp.

“What is going on?” I asked Bloody Knife.

“Sioux scout see me with you. That not good if he tell others. Then they wonder why you not alone. White Crow take care of problem.”

Satisfied, I bedded down for the night. The next morning, they were gone when I awoke. I pride myself on my scouting abilities, but these two made me look like a tenderfoot.

As I rode the trail, I would catch a glimpse of one of them from time to time, and they always joined me at night. Except for the first night, the whole mission was proving to be uneventful. Then three days outside of Fort Laramie, the atmosphere changed.

I had just started to set up camp when White Crow showed up. He surprised me by speaking English. It was somewhat broken but understandable.

“You no camp here tonight. Start fire, then we go. Sioux waiting three miles ahead. They are watching for your fire and then plan to capture you in the morning.”

I made a small fire and stuffed a blanket with some grass. I placed it near the fire so a watcher would think I was sleeping there. Then we left.

When the sun rose the next morning, we were ten miles past where the Sioux had their ambush. We met up with Bloody Knife, and the three of us rode and walked throughout the day. When we finally camped for the night, I was exhausted. My horse was in good shape because I had walked him as much as I had ridden him.

We camped along a different route to the fort. It would take an additional day, but the Sioux would have a difficult time finding us. Bloody Knife and White Crow continued their scouting, and on the third day, I asked them to wait while I entered the fort. I explained that there was still a good chance that the Sioux thought I was alone. I rode ahead, and they disappeared. I figured I would pick them up again when I left the fort.

Colonel Bradley was in his office when I arrived in the late afternoon. He immediately opened the dispatches and read them while I waited in his outer office. After a few minutes, the colonel called me in and said, “Mr. Thomas, the Indian Agent, happens to be here at the fort today. He and his assistant are conducting some business with two Bible salespeople. I’ll have Sergeant O’Grady fetch him here. He should be able to return with you to Fort Lincoln tomorrow. I will also have some dispatches for you to take back to Colonel Custer at that time.”

He saluted and dismissed me. I ate some army food and found an empty bunk for the night. The next morning, I was back in his office after breakfast.

Four men waited in the office with Colonel Bradley. The Indian Agent, Jack Thomas, and his assistant, Jonathan Red Eagle, were to accompany me back to Fort Lincoln. The other two, Joe Johnson and Mike Smith, were Bible salesmen from back east. They were going to go with us as well. Their weathered skin and rough hands did not fit with easterners.

I started to object, but the Colonel stopped me and said, “Mr. Thomas will not go along with you unless we accommodate Misters Johnson and Smith.”

“And Jonathan goes where I go,” Thomas added.

“Y’all got weapons in case we run into any hostiles?” I asked.

“We all have rifles and know how to use ‘em,” Johnson answered.

Before I could say anything else, Colonel Bradley handed me the dispatch case and wished me Godspeed.

As we left the fort, I was wondering what Thomas was trying to do. He was involved in a failed payroll robbery, and I suspected that his assistant was the man Bloody Knife had told me about. The two Bible sellers were an enigma. I had asked around the post about them. All anybody knew was they had shown up with six crates of Bibles on an old wagon pulled by two worn-out mules. They left the Bibles in Thomas’ storage room at the agency. They sold the wagon for next to nothing and bought horses and tack with shiny new Double Eagles.

Getting back to Fort Lincoln would prove to be complicated. I hadn’t counted on so much company. I suspected they were all tied in with the Sioux one way or another. I had planned on asking Thomas about the Bibles. Since none of the Sioux on the reservation could read, I saw no value in them. I wondered if the crates contained barrels of cheap whiskey instead.

Everybody kept to themselves as we moved along with a steady pace. The first night was uneventful, and it was during the second day, I started to feel some discomfort. Most likely there were some Sioux in the hills around us.

I hadn’t seen Bloody Knife or White Crow since leaving the fort. They were staying out of sight for now. They probably didn’t know what to make of my extra companions.

I rode beside Thomas for a few miles before saying, “I’m going to do a little scouting along our route. You all continue along the road for now. I’ll be back before we reach tonight’s campsite.”

Before he could answer, I kicked my horse into a gallop and headed off at an angle. I was quickly out of their sight, exploring the area along our route. I didn’t find anything that concerned me. Just before I rejoined the others, Bloody Knife and White Crow found me. Each of them was carrying several new repeating rifles.

Bloody Knife handed me one of the rifles and said, “We visit people at Red Cloud’s village, and he tell us to look in agency storehouse. White Crow lead guard away. I go in and find rifles in boxes hidden under some Bibles. Red Cloud want peace, and rifles make young men want war.”

According to Custer, Bloody Knife had no friends among the Sioux. So, I was surprised by the whole story. “I suppose we need to return to Fort Laramie and have Colonel Bradley confiscate these weapons. Of course, the four men with me might have other ideas.”

Bloody Knife then said, “Rifles gone. Bloody Knife start fire. Everything burn. We bring these to show Yellow Hair.”

“Do you know what the Sioux who reads our dispatches to Crazy Horse looks like?” I asked them.

“He rides with you now,” Bloody Knife said.

I thought for a minute about what we should do next. Bloody Knife and White Crow just sat still looking at me and waiting for a decision.

I figured we had to do something tonight. I said, “I will stand guard after we settle in for the night. You two can join me then. We will disarm them and take them to Fort Lincoln, where Colonel Custer can take care of them.”

We split up, and I rode back to the trail, where I waited for the four men to join back up with me. It was a short while past noon when they came into view. Johnson and Smith had their rifles raised. I wondered what was happening. When they pointed them at me and opened fire, I reacted immediately. Stretching out along my horses’ neck, I pulled him to the right and headed for some large boulders at the base of a low hill. I was almost there when my horse went down. A bullet had hit him in the shoulder. I flew from the saddle and landed hard. I was half-dazed, and they were almost upon me when bullets started flying in their direction. I was seeing double and firing my revolver as well.

They turned their horses and rode back toward Thomas. Johnson didn’t make it. He threw his hands up into the air and somersaulted over the back end of his horse. Before Johnson even hit the ground, Red Eagle was past him and hanging down the side of his horse, he swung past my injured mount. Somehow, among a hail of bullets, he managed to grab the dispatch bag from my half-standing horse. Then, reversing direction, he headed back to where Thomas and Smith had disappeared behind a cluster of cottonwoods.

My vision was starting to clear a bit when Bloody Knife and White Crow rode into view. They weren’t in any big hurry. While White Crow dismounted to take Johnson’s scalp, Bloody Knife caught his mount and brought it back to where I stood on wobbly legs. My mount had a broken leg. I shot him and then put my gear on Johnson’s horse. I discovered that Johnson’s saddlebags held a thousand dollars’ worth of golden eagles. It was extra weight and would be a problem. I marked the location and buried it at the base of a large boulder with a crack running down its center. A small pine tree was growing out of the break.

Watching me dig the hole, Bloody Knife asked, “We bury dead man?”

“Let him lay there and rot. We got better things to do. We have to get the dispatch bag back and make those three prisoners or kill them.”

“Them look for Sioux to help. We must catch them before they find any,” Bloody Knife said.

White Crow had taken Johnson’s scalp and had ridden out of sight. I figured he was scouting ahead and following their trail. I was feeling better with just a slight headache and told Bloody Knife, “Let’s go get them.”

We rode our horses at a pace alternating between a walk and a slow canter as we followed their trail. Their horses were running at breakneck speed to put some distance between us. That was a big mistake. White Crow was waiting for us beside a dead horse. It had stepped in a hole and broke its leg. They had just abandoned it rather than risk the noise of a rifle shot. White Crow had killed it with his scalping knife.

White Crow waited until we stopped at his side and said, “Three men and two tired horses. They stop three miles ahead and make ambush after second horse collapse. Red Eagle want take dispatch and go on foot. Other two say no and make him stay.”

The sun was low in the sky, and it would soon be dark. We separated and surrounded their position. When the sun finally set, there was no moon, and everything was pitch black. We slowly approached their location prepared for a fight. I saw a slight movement. Someone was leading a horse out of the area. He was going to pass almost beside me, so I remained entirely still. As he came close, he grabbed the horse’s mane and pulled himself onto its back. At the same time, I grabbed his leg, yanked him off the horse, and slugged him across the jaw.

As Red Eagle lay motionless at my feet, I heard shots at the ambush site. The noise caused his horse to run a few feet before stopping. He was too exhausted to run any distance, so Red Eagle would not have gotten very far with him.

Slapping him into some resemblance of consciousness, I half-dragged Red Eagle to the others. Thomas and Smith were severely wounded. White Crow got our horses, and we settled in until morning. We hogtied Red Eagle after bandaging Thomas and Smith They were secured a short distance away. We would sort it all out in the morning.

As the sun appeared above the eastern horizon, a lone Sioux brave sat on his pony about a hundred yards from our position. He wasn’t doing anything, just sitting there. I was about to ride out to him when a group of ten others joined him.

We waited behind some rocks as the Sioux gathered. I asked Bloody Knife, “Do you think they are looking for trouble?”

Red Eagle was close by and responded to my question. “They come for rifles at Red Cloud Agency. Crazy Horse is their leader, and he shouts that they will kill all of us for burning those rifles.”

“We’ll see about that,” I said.

Red Eagle was a nephew of Red Cloud and had been working with Crazy Horse against the U. S. Army. I figured if they saw Bloody Knife holding a knife against his throat that they might hold off attacking.

Before Bloody Knife stood with him, a larger group of Sioux joined the first group, and an argument ensued between them.

Bloody Knife said, “Red Cloud bring warriors from his village. He angry that rifles were brought to his village when he has pledged to live in peace with the whites. He tell Crazy Horse to leave this place.”

The two groups separated, but neither rode away. Red Cloud walked his pony over to where we waited and said, “You release Red Eagle then you go. Crazy Horse no bother you.”

I was hesitant to release him, but Red Eagle was a Sioux and technically a non-combatant. Perhaps I could reach an agreement with Red Cloud over the killing of dispatch riders if I did.

“If Crazy Horse will agree to stop killing our message carriers, I will release him. If not, I will take him to Fort Lincoln. If he attacks us on the way, Red Eagle will be the first to die.”

Red Cloud was not a person to try and bluff. He stared hard at me and said, “Red Eagle is son of my sister. I will take him to live in my village. He will no longer read the white man’s messages for Crazy Horse.”

I turned to Bloody Knife and said, “Cut him loose and let him take Smith’s horse.”

As Red Cloud rode back to his men, Red Eagle was at his side. He and Crazy Horse said a few things to each other before Crazy Horse signaled his men, and they rode off. They were not in a happy mood. Red Cloud rode back to us and said, “Three of my warriors will ride with you as far as the Little Yellowstone River. That will give Crazy Horse time to return home.”

Smith had died during the night. Thomas was still alive, but in bad shape. I didn’t think he would survive the ride to Fort Lincoln, but we had to get moving. Leaving Smith for the vultures, we resumed travel. Thomas died the following night, and we left his body where it lay.

We reached the river without incident and circled north of the Black Hills to avoid running into any friends of Crazy Horse. I rode into Fort Lincoln precisely three weeks to the day after I had left. Bloody Knife and White Crow had left me on my own about a half day’s ride from the fort. I carried a small bundle of rifles with badly charred wooden parts tied across the back of my horse, courtesy of Bloody Knife.

I went directly to Colonel Custer’s office and laid the bundle of rifles and dispatch bag on his desk. Then I saluted and said, “Acting Lieutenant Talbot reporting back from Fort Laramie, sir.”

Custer saluted and said, “What do we have here, Lieutenant? And where is Mr. uh Thomas, the Red Cloud Indian Agent?”

“Thomas and two other men were killed on the trail, sir.”

“Tell me what happened and the origin of these rifles. Then you can go into more detail in your written report, Lieutenant.”

I told Custer what had happened, leaving out the part about the gold double eagles.

His response was, “Good work, Talbot. However, I wish you had brought this Red Eagle back with you so I could see him hang. You are dismissed.”

I hardly got out of his office before I ran into Washington and Jedediah. They walked with me to the stable where I turned my horse over to an enlisted man.

“I saved half that bottle of whiskey to welcome you back from your little vacation,” Jedediah said.

“You can fill us in while you quench your thirst,” Washington added.

We headed into our barracks as Custer read Colonel Bradley’s responses to his dispatches. The one was no longer relevant, while the other increased his interest in the Black Hills. It even gave him some ideas about a way to settle the Indian problems once and for all.