BUFFALO BILL'S OWN STORY OF THE KILLING OF YELLOW HAND
FROM "THE MAKING OF BUFFALO BILL"
Editor's Note: - The only son of Buffalo Bill had just
died. At Military Headquarters in Chicago he learned that the 5th
U.S. Calvary had come back to the Sioux Country after five years hard service
in Arizona. General Carr had written that he wanted Cody as Chief of Scouts.
Grieved over the death of his son, Cody had abandoned his wild west show
and took to the plains again. He hurried to Cheyenne where the 5th
was encamped. As he rode into camp the officers shouted "Heres Buffalo
Bill" and the soldiers sent up three cheers.
"The First Scalp For Custer"
Suddenly the troops knew they were in for something more than a summer frolic. Custer and his entire command were wiped out on the Little Big Horn.
In that tragic ambush not a man escaped.
News of the disaster reached the Fifth Cavalry while it was in the field, scouting on the trails between the Agencies and the Black Hills. On the same day scouts came in with the warning that eight hundred Cheyennes were leaving the Red Cloud reservation.
Over what General Sheridan described as an almost totally unknown region of about ninety thousand square miles the Sioux and their allies were supreme and aflame with hatred. There were twenty-nine thousand well-armed Indians at large in a country in which they knew every canyon and ford.
To cut off the Cheyennes, who were riding to join Sitting Bull, the Fifth must beat them to the strategic point where the plains meet the timber and the rocky bluffs. Colonel Merritt had to march his seven companies of cavalry eighty miles before the Indians could go thirty. He did it, and straddled the Indian trail at the crossing of Hat Creek.
At daybreak on July seventeenth, Cody and Colonel Merritt lay hidden on an outpost behind a hill. Above, on a ridge the first Cheyenne war parties were in sight. Three miles to the south the wagon-train, laden with infantry, was coming up. Well ahead of the wagons rode two dispatch-bearers. They did not see the Indians. The Indians could see them, but could not see the cavalry drawn up below the butte.
A small party of braves galloped up the ravine to attack the two riders. Cody rushed back to camp, got together fifteen men, rode down the bluff and started a running fight. The main body of Indians swarmed to the rescue. It was a surprise attack.
There was a lull. A young Chief Yellow Hand, rode out in front of the Indian line, shouting, "I know you, Pahaska. If you want to fight, come ahead and fight me."
Thus began the famous duel which an eye witness, Captain Charles King, accounted "as plucky a single combat on both sides as is ever witnessed."
It was not strange that the enemy picked on Buffalo Bill. The luxuriant hair which gave him the Indian nickname, Pahaska, was not peculiar to himself. But Cody was otherwise conspicuous that day. His comrades wore buckskin, corduroy or flannel so indiscriminately that officers and privates could not be told apart.
Cody went into that fray all dressed up in one of his stage costumes, a handsome Mexican suit of black velvet, slashed with scarlet and trimmed with silver buttons and lace. Why he should be wearing such regalia, far in the hills, at dawn, after an eighty mile ride, when the regiment was in its working clothes, is impossible to explain, except as studied showmanship.
His own account of the duel is quotable:
"The chief was riding his horse back and forth in front of his men, as if to banter me, and I concluded to accept the challenge. I galloped towards him for fifty yards and he advanced towards me about the same distance, both of us riding at full speed, and then, when we were only thirty yards apart, I raised my rifle and fired; his horse fell to the ground having been killed by my bullet. Almost at the same instant my own horse went down, he having stepped into a gopher hole. The fall did not hurt me much, and I instantly sprang to my feet. The Indian had also recovered himself, and we were not both on foot, and not more than twenty paces apart. We fired at each other simultaneously. My usual lack did not desert me on this occasion for his bullet missed me while mine struck him in the breast. He reeled and fell but before he had fairly touched the ground I was upon him, knife in hand, and had driven the keen-edged weapon to its hilt into his heart. Jerking his war-bonnet off I scientifically scalped him in about five seconds.
"The whole affair from beginning to end occupied but little time, and the Indians, seeing that i was some little distance from my company, now came charging down upon me from the hill, in hopes of cutting me off. General Merritt had witnessed the duel, ordered Colonel Mason with Company K to hurry to my rescue. The order came none too soon, for had it been given one minute later I would have had not less than two hundred Indians upon me. As the soldiers came up I swung the Indian chieftain's top knot and bonnet in the air and shouted:
"The first scalp for Custer."
Sergeant James Richardson used to tell how the blood from the scalp spattered his face as Cody waved it.
In the chase which followed, the Cheyennes were driven back to the reservation. There were no casualties. All the glory of the skirmish belonged to Cody, and he got it plenty. Newspaper men put the story on the wire; it was good for nearly a column in the New York Herald. It is, in fact, the only one of his Indian-slaying exploits of which we have a contemporary account.
Sergeant Jacob Blaut thought that he himself might have killed Yellow Hand. "Bill and I fired at the same time" he said "and I think my bullet killed him."
King and Richard both of whom saw the fight, agreed in stating that it was Cody's second bullet that killed the Indian. Richardson added that after firing the fatal shot at fifty yards range, Cody remounted and rode forward to take the scalp.
But Cody himself always claimed that he gave the death blow with a heavy bowie-knife, which he kept on exhibition. He told his wife that he had lost his gun in falling from his horse. Johnny Baker, his foster son, confirms this, pointing out that no one thrown from a horse will hold anything in his hands. Cody told Baker that Yellow Hand was pinned down by his own horse, which had fallen on his leg, that Cody himself had been riding so fast that he found himself upon the Indian before he knew it, and that Yellow Hand tried an overhand blow with his tomahawk, which gave Cody a tiny nick on the back of the hand.
Yellow Hand, like Cody, had gone into the fight in full panoply. He wore a beautiful war-bonnet and all the decorations and ornaments of a proud young chief. Cody carefully collected these, as well as the arms and shields of his victim, and made good use of them later. The scalp he carried in his pocket so long that one officer offered him fifty dollars to get rid of it. Sergt. Richardson remembered riding beside him and begging him to move round so that the wind would blow in the other direction.
Finally he put it into a box and sent it to his wife at Rochester, to her utter disgust. 'Will Cody' she said, when he got home, "don't you ever send me another Indian scalp as long as you live."
"I'll do better than that," he promised. I'll never scalp another Injun!"
And he never did. That duel and a little scouting were the sum total
of Cody's services in the Sioux War of 1876.