The command followed up the trail discovered by the scouts for nearly 400 miles. Early one morning when that distance had been rounded, and just as the men were about to break camp preparatory to the day’s march, Kit Carson went out on a little reconnaissance on his own account, as he had noticed a flock of ravens hovering in the air when he first got out of his blankets at dawn. This was sufficient indication to him that an Indian camp was located somewhere in the vicinity; for that ominous bird was always to be found in the region where the Indians took up an abode, feeding upon the carcasses of the many varieties of game killed for food. He had not proceeded more than half a mile from the camp when he discovered two Indians slowly riding over a low “divide,” driving a herd of ponies before them. The famous scout was then certain their village could not be very far away. The Indians did not observe him, as he took good care they should not; so he returned quickly to where Major Greer was standing by his camp-fire and reported the presence of a village very close at hand.
The Major having sent for Tom Tobin and “Uncle Dick” Wootton, requested them to go and find the exact location of the Indians. These scouts came back in less than half an hour and reported a large number of teepees in a thick grove of timber a mile away.
It was at once determined to surprise the Indians in their winter quarters by charging right among their lodges without allowing them time to mount their ponies. The command succeeded in getting within good charging distance of the village without its occupants having any knowledge of its proximity; but, at this moment Major Greer was seized with an idea that he ought to have a parley with the Indians before he commenced to fight them, and for that purpose he ordered a halt, just as the soldiers were eager for the sound of the “Charge!”
Never were a body of men more enraged. Carson gave vent to his wrath in a series of elaborately carved English oaths, for which he was noted when young; Leroux, whose naturally hot blood was roused, swore at the Major in a curious mixture of bad French and worse mountain dialect, and it appeared as if the battle would begin in the ranks of the troops instead of those of the Indians; for never was a body of soldiers so disgusted at the act of any commanding officer.
This delay gave the Indians, who could be seen dodging about among their lodges and preparing for a fight that was no longer a surprise, time to hide their women and children, mount their ponies, and get down into deep ravines, where the soldiers could not follow them. While the Major was trying to convince his subordinates that his course was the proper one, the Indians opened fire without any parley, and it happened that at the first volley, a bullet struck him in the breast, but a suspender buckle deflected its course and he was not seriously wounded.
The change in the countenance of their commanding officer caused by the momentary pain was just the incentive the troopers wanted, and without waiting for the sound of the trumpet, they spurred their horses, dashed in, and charged the thunderstruck Indians with the shock of a tornado.
In two successful charges of the gallant and impatient troopers more than 100 of the Indians were killed and wounded, but the time lost had permitted many to escape, and the pursuit of the stragglers would have been unavailing under the circumstances; so, the command turned back and returned to Taos. In the village was found the body of Mrs. White still warm, with three arrows in her breast. Had the charge been made as originally expected by the troopers, her life would have been saved. No trace of the child or of the colored nurse was ever discovered, and it is probable that they were both killed while en route from the canyon to the village, as being valueless to keep either as slaves or for other purposes.
The fate of the Apache chief, “White Wolf,” who was the leader in the outrages in the canyon of the Canadian River, was fitting for his devilish deeds. It was Lieutenant David Bell’s fortune to avenge the murder of Mrs. White and her family and in an extraordinary manner. Bell, a scout stationed at Fort Union, New Mexico led about 30 men to the Canadian River canyon, where they met about the same number of Indians. A parley was in order at once, probably desired by the Indians, who were confronted with an equal number of troopers. Bell had assigned the baggage-mules to the care of five or six of his command and held a mounted interview with the chief, who was no other than the infamous White Wolf of the Jicarilla Apache. As Bell approached, White Wolf was standing in front of his Indians, who were on foot, all well armed and in a perfect line. Bell was in advance of his troopers, who were about twenty paces from the Indians, exactly equal in number and extent of the line; both parties were prepared to use firearms.
The parley was almost tediously long and the impending duel was arranged, White Wolf being very bold and defiant. At last, the leaders exchanged shots, the chief sinking on one knee and aiming his gun, Bell throwing his body forward and making his horse rear. Both lines, by command, fired, following the example of their superiors, the troopers, however, spurring forward over their enemies. The warriors, or nearly all of them, threw themselves on the ground, and several vertical wounds were received by horse and rider. The dragoons turned short about and again charged through and over their enemies, the fire being continuous. As they turned for a third charge, the surviving Indians were seen escaping to a deep ravine, which, although only one or two hundred paces off, had not previously been noticed. A number of the Indians thus escaped, the troopers having to pull up at the brink, but sending a volley after the descending fugitives.
In less than 15 minutes 21 of the 46 actors in this strange combat were slain or disabled. Bell was not hit, but four or five of his men were killed or wounded. He had shot White Wolf several times, and so did others after him; but, so tenacious of life was the Apache that, to finish him, a trooper got a great stone and mashed his head. This was undoubtedly the greatest duel of those times; certainly, nothing like it ever occurred on the Santa Fe Trail before or since.