Just Regulars by Will C. Barnes
In the dark depths of an Arizona caņon, with no light but that which
came from the stars, a string of shadowy figures slowly worked its way
through tangles of thorny mesquite and cat claw, over rocks and past
great bunches of cactus which pierced hands and limbs wherever they
If you looked closer, you saw that the figures were those of men, also
horses and mules, most of the men leading their mounts, and here and
there the yellow chevrons on some sergeant's blouse, or the broad yellow
stripe on an officer's trousers showed them to be cavalry.
There was no talking or unnecessary noise. At times they were fairly on
their knees fighting their way up some rocky steep; again they dropped
down into the darkness, the well-trained animals following like goats.
At the head of the line, an officer, young in years but old in this kind
of work, whispered occasionally to the veteran guide at his left.
Just ahead of him an Apache scout, stripped for the fight, a band of red
flannel about his forehead, his body naked except for the white cotton
breechclout ("the G string") about his waist, the peculiar moccasins of
his tribe on his feet, led the way, like some bloodhound on the trail.
Out of the darkness ahead came the weird hoot of an owl. Three times did
it sound. The scout listened till the last echo died away, and then,
with his hands gathered about his mouth, answered the call.
Quietly he slipped away into the night, the command stopping where they
were as the whispered order flew back along the line, each man sinking
down to the ground, glad of the chance for the moment's rest.
The night was cold, although it was midsummer in a region where at noon
the earth is baked and burned with the heat.
An hour passed, and out of the darkness the Apache returned.
The quarry which they sought was not far ahead, and it was best to leave
their animals and go the rest of the way without them.
Turning to the tall Sergeant behind him, the officer gave the orders for
the movement, and back down the shivering, scattered line went the
instructions: "Number fours hold the horses, every one else take all
extra ammunition and their canteens and follow the column on foot."
Then came whispered pleadings from the unfortunate "number four men"
doomed to remain behind to guard the horses and the rear while the
others went on into the darkness to—what? Perhaps death, perhaps a
wound from a poisoned arrow; in any event plenty of hardship and
How those cavalrymen begged for the privilege of getting a hole shot
through them. They urged the officers to cut down the rearguard and
leave but a couple of men to look after the packs and horses.
"Very well, Sergeant," the commanding officer replied, well pleased when
told of the men's desire to go with the fighting force, "leave three or
four men to guard the animals and let the rest come on; God knows we are
very likely to need them."
Then the Sergeant, knowing his men as a schoolmaster his pupils, left
behind: fat Corporal Conn whose asthmatic wheezings and puffings had
already brought forth many a muttered curse upon his head; Private Hill
who couldn't see an inch beyond his nose in the dark and who had fallen
over every bush and rock in the trail since they entered the caņon; and
two other men whose physical condition was such that he doubted their
ability to make the climb which he knew was ahead of them.
Not one of these accepted the detail without as vigorous a protest as
soldierly duty made possible. Bless you no! Each of them felt himself an
object of especial pity, fat Conn even claiming that the higher he
climbed the less the asthma troubled him.
Then the command once more drove into the blackness ahead, following the
lithe Apache up a mountain side which seemed almost perpendicular.
Each man carried two belts of cartridges about his waist with a third
swung from his shoulder. Most of them wore the Apache moccasin which
gave forth no sound as they moved along.
At last they reached the summit of the mountain breathless and tired.
Before them was a mighty caņon, the caņon of the Salt River. To their
left four granite peaks, the "Four Peaks" of the maps, pierced the
skyline like videttes on guard over the caņon.
From its bed, two thousand feet below, the dull murmur of the river, as
it dashed along its rocky way, came softly to the soldiers' ears.
It was the dawning of December 27, 1872. The soldiers were a detachment
of the Fifth United States Cavalry, Major Brown in command.
At a little spring some twenty miles away they had left their supplies
and pack train.
Their Christmas holidays had been spent in pursuit of several bands of
Apaches, and the scouts had reported that a large band of them was
located in a cave on the Salt River caņon.
A pack mule had died in camp that day, and the Indian scouts were
allowed to make a great feast upon its remains that they might set out
on the expedition with full stomachs.
For years efforts had been made to concentrate the Apaches, who had been
the scourge of Arizona and the Southwest, upon one or two reservations
where, under guard, they could be watched and kept in bounds.
In the summer of 1872 General George Crook, after having held numerous
councils with the Apaches, issued an ultimatum to the effect that, if
those who were outside of the reservation did not return by the
fifteenth of the coming November, active operations would begin against
them. After that date every Indian found outside the reservation was to
be treated as a hostile and dealt with accordingly.
The Apaches knew Crook only too well, for the "Old Grey Fox," as they
called him, had always kept his word with them in the past.
Promptly on the day set General Crook took the field against the outlaw
Apaches and hunted them down relentlessly day and night.
The region in which these operations took place is one of the roughest
in the United States. It is located on the western side of the great
"Tonto Basin" in central Arizona, and consists of ragged mountain
ranges, and isolated peaks, while the whole area is cut and seamed with
deep box caņons impassable for miles.
About fifty miles from the city of Phœnix, as the crow flies, and
near the great Roosevelt irrigation reservoir and dam, four granite
peaks pierce the sky.
Here Nature is found in one of her most inhospitable moods, and in the
fastnesses of these "Four Peaks" several bands of the hunted, harassed
Apaches took refuge.
In its mighty caņons the Indians knew of caves and cliffs where they had
lived in safety from their old enemies for many years; there they
believed no white man could possibly reach them.
Crook and his soldiers matched wits with the Indians and beat them at
their own game. Wherever the Indians went there the troops followed
them. They chased them on foot when their horses played out, lived on
the scantiest possible allowance of food, slept in the deep snows with
but a single blanket and without fires lest the telltale smoke give the
Indians warning of their presence.
It was to surprise the occupants of one of these caves that Major Brown
and his men were making this night march.
There the Apaches had fled, carrying into the cave great quantities of
food and other necessary supplies, leaving their ponies behind to shift
The cave itself is not a cave in the strict sense of the word, but
rather a great weather-worn shelf, similar to those used by the ancient
cliff dwellers for their habitations all over the Southwest.
At the outside edge the opening is about fifteen feet high from floor to
roof, and sixty feet wide. The roof slopes back into the cliff for some
thirty feet to a point where the rear wall is not over three feet high.
At the front, the floor of the cave projects some little distance beyond
the overhanging cliff forming a sort of platform. Entirely around this
platform the Apaches had raised a stone-wall several feet high, inside
of which they rested in fancied security.
On top of the mountain Major Brown's command, which numbered but fifty
men and officers, with two civilian guides, waited while the two scouts
wormed their way into the blackness of the caņon's depths in an attempt
to make sure that the Indians did not have any pickets outside the cave
to guard against surprise.
The cool night breeze made the soldiers' teeth chatter. Some dropped off
to sleep, while others huddled together under the lee of the great rocks
whose surface still gave off some slight warmth stored up during the
day. Meantime they cursed, with a soldier's vehemence, the slowness of
the scouts in returning.
Finally they came, dropping into the midst of the men as if from above,
so quietly did they move.
Five minutes of whispering followed between the guide, the Major and the
Indians, and then Lieutenant W. J. Ross and a dozen men crawled away
into the darkness with one of the Indians to guide them.
Again, those soldiers had begged to be taken as one of the party. No use
to call for volunteers, they were all volunteers and envied the
fortunate ones whom the tall First Sergeant named for the trip.
Ross was to endeavor to locate the entrance to the cave in order that
the rest of the command might be posted in the most advantageous
positions. His party dropped into the caņon and was quickly swallowed up
in its sombre shadows. Down they crept, stumbling over rocks, treading
on the "Cholla" cactus balls that covered the ground everywhere, and
whose sharp needles will often pierce the heaviest buckskin gloves,
moccasins or even leather boots. A misstep meant death far below in the
caņon, while every minute they looked for the crash of the Indians'
As they felt their way carefully along, they saw the faint gleam of a
campfire. Ross worked his men up as closely as he could, placing them in
safe positions behind rocks scattered about. By the light of the fire,
they made out some fifteen Indians standing about it while a lot of
squaws were preparing food for them. The fire was but a few feet from
the cave which could be seen dimly in the background, and it was quite
evident the hostiles felt very secure in their retreat.
Scarcely daring to breathe, each picked out a brave for a target and at
a whispered signal, fired. Those of the Indians who were not killed fled
into the cave, while the report of the carbines quickly brought the rest
of the command down into the caņon.
Major Brown placed his men about the cave so as to prevent the escape of
any of the Indians, waiting for daylight before attempting further
One Apache managed to work his way out of the cave and through the
cordon by some means. He was seen after he had passed clear through the
lines, standing for an instant on a great rock, his figure boldly
outlined against the sky. His recklessness in his fancied security was
his undoing, for one of the crack shots in the regiment, Private John
Cahill, took a hasty shot at the form, and it came tumbling down the
steep side of the caņon.
After Major Brown had formed his lines about the cave he called on the
Indians to surrender. This they answered with cries of defiance,
followed by a few scattering shots which did no harm. Later on Brown
again called on them to surrender, or if not that, to send out their
women and children, promising no harm should come to them. Again the
Indians refused to accept the offer. They heaped epithets, dear to the
Apache heart, upon the soldiers, taunting them with cowardice, and
assuring them that they would soon be food for the buzzards and ravens.
"May the coyotes howl over your grave," is a favorite Apache expression
of contempt, which they hurled at their opponents many times during the
Daylight came slowly, and then the siege was on in earnest. Brown again
renewed his offer of protection to the women and children, but to no
purpose. Of arrows and lances, as well as fixed ammunition for their
rifles, the Indians seemed to have an unlimited supply. They showered
arrows upon the soldiers by hundreds, sending them high into the air, so
they would fall upon the men lying behind the rocks scattered about.
Lances were also thrown in the same manner, but they were unable to
inflict any damage upon the besiegers by such tactics. The Indians also
played all the tricks belonging to their style of warfare. War bonnets
and hats were raised upon lances above the wall with the intention of
drawing the fire of some soldier and getting him exposed to a return
shot. But Brown warned his men against all such schemes, and no harm was
done by them.
Twice did small parties of the Indians make bold dashes out of the cave,
evidently with the intention or hope of gaining the rear of the troopers
to harass them from the heights above, or else to secure assistance from
other bands of hostiles known to be in the vicinity. But these sorties
were repulsed by the soldiers with a loss of several Indians.
Whether the trick of the Indians in shooting arrows at such an angle as
to drop on the men behind the rocks suggested retaliation in kind, no
one can say today; but finding direct firing without any great effect,
Brown conceived the idea of having his men aim their carbines so that
the bullets would strike against the roof of the cave; by so doing, he
believed the bullets would be so deflected as to strike amongst the
Indians huddled in the small space below.
For some time the soldiers poured their fire against the rocky roof with
no apparent results, although the shriek of a wounded squaw or the
pitiful cry of some child, struck by the spattering lead, convinced them
that some of the bullets were finding a mark.
The Indians fought with the desperation of trapped animals, but finally
there came a lull in their fire. From the cave came a weird wild chant.
It was the death chant of the Apaches, which the scouts warned the
officers meant a charge.
Soon they came; about twenty picked warriors clambering over the rocky
wall, with the most desperate courage and recklessness. All were armed
with both bow and rifle. Each carried on his back a quiver full of the
slender reed arrows peculiar to the Apaches and, with a volley from
their rifles, charged the soldiers behind their rocky breastworks.
Pandemonium reigned. The death chant was taken up by the squaws in the
cave; the crack of guns in the deep caņon, the shrieks of wounded and
dying squaws and children, the yells of the soldiers as they met this
fierce attack of the desperate savages, the flashing of rifle shots in
the darkness, all made what an officer who was present (the late Captain
John G. Bourke of the 3rd U. S. Cavalry) once told the writer was the
most thrilling as well as the most appalling moment he ever knew during
a lifetime full of exciting incidents.
But the efforts of the despairing Indians were fruitless, and they were
driven back with heavy losses. Thus the fight went on for hours. The sun
rose high in the heavens and beat down on the scene until the soldiers
lying in the hot rocks suffered fearfully for water. Major Brown's
scheme was working, however, with frightful success. The death chant was
ceaseless and the cries of defiance, rage, and despair rang out
constantly from the penned-up savages.
One little Apache boy, possibly not over four years of age, toddled out
of the side of the cave where the wall of rock was open, and stood
gazing with wide-eyed wonder at the sight before him. One of Major
Brown's Indian scouts sprang from his hiding place behind a rock a few
yards away, and running to the child, seized him by the arms, dragging
him into the soldiers' lines before a single shot could be fired at him.
The small detachment, left behind as a rearguard and anxious to take
part in the fighting, worked its way up to the cliff above the caves.
Below them they could hear the roar of carbines and the shrieks of the
Indians. By means of straps, two adventurous soldiers were lowered far
enough over the edge of the cliff to get a clear view of the scene
below. The wall erected by the Apaches was several feet outside of the
line of the cliff or cave, and from their dizzy height they could see
the Indians lying behind their ramparts.
The top of the cliff was covered with boulders of all sizes, and the men
at once conceived the idea of dropping boulders down on to the Indians
beneath. This forced them to take refuge from the flying rocks, by
retiring farther into the cave. When they did this the ricochette fire
from the soldiers became more deadly and the end was not far off.
By noon the firing of the Indians had ceased. No sounds but the cries
of the squaws or groans of wounded came from the interior of the cave.
Brown now prepared for a charge believing that the cave could be stormed
without much if any loss. Corporal Hanlon of G-Troop, 5th Cavalry, was
the first man over the stone-wall, the rest following him as rapidly as
Inside the cave was a scene that made the roughest soldier among them
shudder. Men, women, and children, either dead or in the agonies of
death, were lying in piles three and four deep. At first it appeared as
if danger was to be expected from some wounded Indian, and while part of
the soldiers worked among the debris on the floor, others watched with
guns in hand for signs of hostile intent. But nothing of the kind
Only one man was alive and he died soon after the soldiers entered the
cave. Some seventy-eight dead bodies were lying in the cave, and of the
living there were but eighteen, all squaws. Many of the wounded squaws
could have been saved had the troops been accompanied by a surgeon or
even provided with the necessary medical supplies.
The few that had lived through that awful hail of lead and rocks, were
saved by screening themselves from the missiles under great slabs of
slate which the squaws had packed into the caves for cooking purposes,
or by hiding under or behind the dead bodies of their comrades.
The fight was over; the dead babies lay in their dead mothers' arms.
Rough men as they were, the sights made the soldiers sick at heart; such
warfare was not to their liking.
As it was impossible to bury the dead, they were left in the cave where
they fell and where they lie today, in great heaps of skulls and bones,
together with clothing and other camp impedimenta which have survived
the years in the dry atmosphere of the region.
After satisfying themselves that no more living were among the bodies
the soldiers tramped wearily back to Fort McDowell with their prisoners
and wounded, and the brief official report of the affair closed the
It was more than a thousand miles over desert and mountain to the
nearest railroad station and civilization. No war correspondent trailed
along in their wake, armed with kodak and typewriter, to tell a waiting
world of their prowess; no flaming headlines in the morrow's paper would
cry out their victory. They were "just regulars," and this was but the