THE LAST STAND
However daring the pen, it cannot but falter when attempting to picture the events of those hours of victorious defeat. Out from the scene of carnage there crept forth no white survivor to recount the heroic deeds of the Seventh Cavalry. No voice can ever repeat the story in its fulness, no eye penetrate into the heart of its mystery. Only in motionless lines of dead, officers and men lying as they fell while facing the foe; in emptied carbines strewing the prairie; in scattered, mutilated bodies; in that unbroken ring of dauntless souls whose lifeless forms lay clustered about the figure of their stricken chief on that slight eminence marking the final struggle—only in such tokens can we trace the broken outlines of the historic picture. The actors in the great tragedy have passed beyond either the praise or the blame of earth. With moistened eyes and swelling hearts, we vainly strive to imagine the whole scene. This, at least, we know: no bolder, nobler deed of arms was ever done.
It was shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon when that compact column of cavalrymen moved silently forward down the concealing coulee toward the more open ground beyond. Custer’s plan was surprise, the sudden smiting of that village in the valley from the rear by the quick charge of his horsemen. From man to man the whispered purpose travelled down the ranks, the eager troopers greeting the welcome message with kindling eyes. It was the old way of the Seventh, and they knew it well. The very horses seemed to feel the electric shock. Worn with hard marches, bronzed by long weeks of exposure on alkali plains, they advanced now with the precision of men on parade, under the observant eyes of the officers. Not a canteen tinkled, not a sabre rattled within its scabbard, as at a swift, noiseless walk those tried warriors of the Seventh pressed forward to strike once more their old-time foes.
Above them a few stray, fleecy clouds flecked the blue of the arching sky, serving only to reveal its depth of color. On every side extended the rough irregularity of a region neither mountain nor plain, a land of ridges and bluffs, depressions and ravines. Over all rested the golden sunlight of late June; and in all the broad expanse there was no sign of human presence.
With Custer riding at the head of the column, and only a little to the rear of the advance scouts, his adjutant Cook, together with a volunteer aide, beside him, the five depleted troops filed resolutely forward, dreaming not of possible defeat. Suddenly distant shots were heard far off to their left and rear, and deepening into a rumble, evidencing a warm engagement. The interested troopers lifted their heads, listening intently, while eager whispers ran from man to man along the closed files.
“Reno is going in, boys; it will be our turn next.”