THE CURSE OF DESTINY
The Betrayal of General George Armstrong Custer
CHAPTER 3:BROKEN PROMISES
A regulation army Colt lay in plain sight on the table which separated the two men.
The general gestured toward a chair and said aloud as he signed to the chief, "You may sit there."
The chief, one of four shirt-wearers in the Hunkpapa Sioux nation, signed in return, "I will stand," and with head high gathered his robe around him. He intended to maintain his dignity at this meeting he had requested with the man he hoped could alleviate the suffering of the Indians at the nearby Standing Rock Agency.
Some, both at the fort and throughout the agencies, claimed that Running Antelope, who stood tall and erect, was as much or even more a spokesman for the Sioux than Sitting Bull. One newspaperman called him a silver-tongued orator, attesting to his intelligence and cunning, as well as his openness which encouraged meaningful dialogue.
The Sioux called the general Pehin Hanska, meaning Long Hair, because of the golden mane that cascaded down to just above his shoulders. He was the man who had braved the sub-zero temperature of November 1868 to attack the Cheyenne camp along the Washita, the man who had fought them on the Yellowstone in 1873, and led his troopers all the way to the Paha Sapa, the sacred grounds of the Sioux in the Black Hills. They respected him and considered him both a worthy adversary and a man with whom they could communicate.
Lieutenant William Cooke stopped shuffling the papers on the desk. Libbie Custer sat quietly on a settee holding a note pad and pencil to record the
proceedings. Silence prevailed in the room-Custer's private quarters-as he and Running Antelope looked steadily at each other.
Seven other Indians-two of them squaws-stood quietly about the room. Many more were hunkered down outside, some beside the porch where Sergeant Major William Sharrow was seemingly relaxing against the frame of the door that opened onto it. He wore a sidearm on his left hip and another tucked into his belt. Six troopers in full battle array were stationed randomly about the porch. There had been rumors of attempted shootings at other such councils, and the general was taking no chances.
Custer nodded toward a corner of the room, and a big black man in buckskins stepped forward. He was unarmed.
"This man will interpret for us," the general signed. "He has lived with the Sioux. He is Isaiah Dorman, the man we call Teat...."
"I know him," Running Antelope interrupted. "He is Azimpi, the Black Hawk, the stepson of Tatanka-Iyotanka, who you call Sitting Bull. He is a renegade, a traitor to his people. He has laid with our daughter Visible, and has made her with child. Now he has left her and come to this fort. We cannot trust him." He crossed his arms in front of him, and turned his back.
"We have not come together to talk of the Black Hawk Azimpi Teat," Custer stated emphatically. "I am anxious to hear what the great chief of the Sioux has to say. It is good that you have come. Please, let us go on."
Running Antelope remained silent for a moment and then quietly, but with heartfelt emotion, began to speak. "This week I killed my woman's pony. Last week we slit the throats of our dogs. They are all that we have had to eat in many days. We are starving. All of us at the agency are starving. We are without food. There are no more mice or rats to eat. We have eaten them all. Our children scratch in the earth for grasshoppers, and worms, and beetles, for anything that will ease the pain in their bellies. It is said that on one part of our reservation..." A look of overwhelming misery crossed his face and he stopped talking, then he continued, "It is said that on a part of our reservation my people were so hungry they ate one of our departed elders."
Libbie clasped her hand to her mouth, Lieutenant Cooke coughed violently, and General Custer's mouth and eyes went wide. He shook his head in disbelief, then walked to Libbie's side and laid his hand on her shoulder. Chief Running Antelope wiped tears from his eyes, and was about to speak again, but Custer motioned for all of them to remain silent. He turned to Teat and asked, "Is what he says true? Are they receiving so little food from the agents that it has come to this?" He then turned abruptly to his adjutant. "Cooke, is this true? My God! Have they no honor? Where is their humanity? I'm aware there is graft in the agencies; that is why I have Meeker prowling around. I can hardly believe this. It can't be true!"
Teat stepped forward. "It is true, General Custer. I know it for a fact." He repeated their words to Running Antelope, who nodded in agreement.
Teat continued, "Many are close to dying out there, General. Half of what is sent here for them-the wheat, corn, beef, and oats-never gets to them. Not even half. Less than that. They are being cheated."
Custer broke in, "The natives I see around the post seem to be getting along. They're dirty, but they look reasonably healthy."
"True enough," Teat said, "but if they didn't beg for food, and menial jobs, and sell their wives, they'd be starving too. They do what they have to do to survive. What keeps them going is that they tell themselves some day they will have revenge. It's what they pray for. They're waiting for that time. I know, because I have lived with Sitting Bull, and he will fight to bring about justice for the reservation Indians. And believe me, General, red men from near and far will join him."
Custer turned to his wife and said, "Please go to the kitchen and bring Mary in." Libbie left the room, and returned with their trusted and valued black maid, who was wiping her hands on her apron.
"Mary," he ordered, "put the food you've prepared for us and our guests on the dining room table. We have some very hungry people to feed."
Mary soon had the table loaded with bread, butter, boiled potatoes, four game hens which the general himself had shot, a large beef roast, and an assortment of cakes.
Custer said to Isaiah, "Tell them it is theirs to eat, that they should take all of it."
The hungry Indians converged on the table and began scooping food into their mouths with their hands. When Running Antelope had eaten his fill, he formed a makeshift sack from his robe and emptied all that remained on the table and the plates into it. He brought the ends together and belted them around his waist, and with great dignity led his people from the house, and away from the post.
"Cookie," Custer commanded, "send a telegram to the Secretary of War asking for permission to open the storehouses of this post to the Indians until this business with the agency is straightened out. I need an immediate answer."
The answer denying Custer's request was received the next day, their reason being that such action would involve complexities in their relations with other departments. This was government double-talk, meaning that if the deficiencies were made good it would reflect badly on the management of the Department of the Interior. They would rather let the Indians starve than admit to it. Their promises had been broken.
General Custer was outraged, and with the help of the undercover agent began to work on the problem behind the backs of the army brass and the politicians. Only Custer, his wife, Cooke and Teat knew that the man who called himself J. D. Thompson was in reality Ralph Meeker, a reporter for the New York Herald. The paper was owned by J. G. Bennett, an outspoken opponent of President Grant, who had conspired with Custer to expose the administration's so-called Indian Ring.
Obtaining hard evidence of the corruption was a tough task, because the Indian Ring protected its own and covered its tracks well. Meeker, through jobs Custer helped him get at various locations, was able to get a lead on certain individuals involved in sidetracking the rations destined by treaty for the Indians, and selling them for personal gain. His reports were secretly funneled to the paper with the help of Linda Slaughter, Bismarck's postmistress.
When the news first appeared in the Herald, the administration was red-faced, and determined to get to the bottom of it. When it was discovered that Linda Slaughter was involved she was immediately relieved of her position.
"Never!" cried the citizens of Bismarck, most of whom-with the notable exception of the mayor-signed a petition to have her reinstated, and she was.
The Indian Ring, hoping to make the bad publicity go away, accepted this setback and proceeded quietly but with a vengeance to flush out the source of the reports. That, of course, was Ralph Meeker. He was playing a dangerous game.
* * *
People who worked hard all day to make an honest living went to bed early, and activity in Bismarck pretty much ceased after nightfall, except in the saloons in the tenderloin district on the waterfront.
Meeker, under the alias J. D. Thompson, pursued his search for information with bulldog tenacity, and he was up and about at all hours, particularly after dark-the best time for checking out the honky-tonks near the docks where the big sidewheelers were tied up. He was certain that somewhere in this shady environment he'd find the answer to where the tons of supplies diverted from the Indians were being stored. He'd pick up a little information from a drunken stevedore now and then, but never anything conclusive; though one name-Robert Seip-cropped up on a regular basis, and Meeker realized he was finally onto something.
It was shortly after the Linda Slaughter incident that he took notice of two men who had recently wandered into town, and who apparently were in no hurry to leave. They both sported bowler hats, brocade vests, and highly polished boots, and judging by their looks he concluded they weren't common laborers. He decided to keep an eye on them. He never saw them at the faro or poker tables, but on almost a daily basis they would pay a visit to Mollie's or Fechette's sporting houses. From there they would proceed to a local eatery or saloon, and he observed they frequently bought drinks for the house. They appeared to have an unlimited supply of money.
At other times he would see them in town chatting with someone at the Bismarck Tribune, or passing out cigars at the Great Northern Pacific station while one of them thumbed through the passenger lists, or at the post office talking with Linda. It appeared they wanted to make themselves known-almost too much so. They always seemed to be wherever he was, and he began to wonder if they were following him instead of the other way around. He was about to find out.
Meeker was finishing up his usual rounds, feeling good because he'd been able to pick up information which pointed to some of Bismarck's leading officials. But he was tired, and around ten o'clock decided to call it a day. He was almost halfway past Mollie's when he saw one of the men open the door and step onto the porch. Meeker quickened his pace and was approaching Fechette's when he spotted the other one coming out and heading in his direction. He figured he was in for trouble, and made a quick turn toward the docks where he hoped to find a place to hide.
The man behind him shouted, "Meeker! Hold up there! We want to talk to you!"
"My God," Meeker thought, "they know my name! How in hell could they know my name? They must be on to me!"
He broke into a run, and the two came after him. "Stop right there, Meeker, if you don't want to get shot!" the same one hollered. He turned just enough to see the man brandishing a pistol, and kept going.
"I said hold up, you son of a bitch," and Meeker heard the shot at the same time a bullet whizzed past his head and slammed into the hull of the ship moored just ahead of him. He crouched down and ducked to his right where a rotting barge lay lopsided against the wharf. All that was keeping it afloat were the cables fastened to the piling. He grabbed one and slid down into the murky water of the Missouri River. He stayed very quiet and listened.
"You asshole! What the hell did you shoot for?"
"Shut up! He's out here somewhere. We've got to find him."
"You screwed our chances of doing that, Fred. Look at those lights. The whole damn town must have heard that shot, and someone'll be down here to investigate pretty damn quick."
"You got a point," Fred grumbled. "Let's git."
Meeker breathed a sigh of relief, but then he heard, "Meeker! You better get your ass out of town, or you won't live to see your kids again! You hear me? Get out!"
"Come on, Harry. We can't be pissing around here when we need to get going ourselves!"
"I'm coming. Keep your shirt on."
Meeker was shivering as much from fear as from being too long in the cold water, but he kept still until he could no longer hear the footsteps of the two men.
He pulled himself out of the water and managed to slip past the guards from the riverboat who were out with their lanterns searching the docks. He hurried to his hotel, gathered his belongings, rushed to the relative safety of the railroad station, and took the first train out. He'd had enough of being J. D. Thompson, and had no intention of ever coming back.
Because of the flap in the newspapers, there was a slight increase for a couple of months in the provisions allotted to the Indians, but they soon returned to starvation levels.
Tired of broken promises and being hungry, more and more of them began to leave the reservations and join up with Sitting Bull.