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The portentous events of the day now fully impressed Colonel Steptoe with the danger that would be incurred by pressing his advance farther toward Colville and he determined, therefore, to retrace his steps toward Snake River. For potent reasons he desired to accomplish the return without a clash with the Indians. His light supply of ammunition and the overwhelming, well-armed force opposed to him augured much against risking an engagement. And, besides this, he had entertained no thought of projecting his command offensively into the country of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene in violation of their avowed friendly relations, it having been the boast of these tribes that their hands were unstained by the white man’s blood. The reasons for withdrawing peace ably from the country were, therefore, no less cogent than the necessity for retiring without a conflict.
After having reached the conclusion that the exigency of the situation demanded the retracing of the trail from Snake River, it was decided to send an express to Walla Walla bearing intelligence of the menacing conditions with which the command had met and the probable difficulty that now con fronted it, and asking that reinforcements be sent to the crossing of Snake River. To bear this message one of the friendly Nez Perces was selected and at about twilight he was properly equipped and started, with orders to make his way to the fort with all possible speed.
Scant hope was entertained that the messenger would be able to reach Walla Walla. The entire distance to Snake River was through the land of Indians unfriendly to his tribe, and should he succeed in passing those who infested the immediate vicinity there was still great danger of his being run down before reaching the river.
In pursuance of the decision to return, the camp was aroused early on the morning of the I7th. The night had not brought to the soldiers their usual rest, and before the sun had kissed the hilltops they were again in the saddle and on the march. To reach the trail which had been followed on the previous day, a straight course was taken, forming a hypotenuse to the angle made in reaching the camping ground.
The column was formed in the following order: Company H, dragoons, under Lieutenant Gregg, in advance, followed by Company C of the dragoons under Captain Taylor; then came Captain Winder with the twenty-five men of Company E, Ninth infantry, and with them the howitzers; then the packs, and lastly, Lieutenant Gaston’s Company E of the dragoons. The dragoon companies were separated from each other about a thousand yards.
Soon after getting under way Indians were seen on distant hills, and not long after this they began to gather near the rear of the column. Their gathering was not characterized by the extravagant demonstrations of the day before, but there was evident excitement among them.
About this time Father Joset, a priest who had been laboring among the Coeur d’Alenes for several years and who was now in charge of the Coeur d’Alene mission, rode up to the rear at a gallop. He had come in hot haste from, the mission, 90 miles away, at the request of Chief Vincent. He made inquiry for Colonel Steptoe and on being directed to him hastened to his presence, receiving from the Colonel a very kindly greeting. With no unnecessary delay, he informed Steptoe of a sentiment which had been growing among the Indians for some months, tending to opposition to the advance of any force of soldiers to the north of the Nez Perce River, and that he feared an attack upon his force was now imminent. He also inquired of the Colonel as to the truth of the report which had come to him that a Palouse had stated to the Colonel, that the priest had arrived with ammunition for the Coeur d’Alenes and had urged them, to fall upon the soldiers. Steptoe informed him that he had heard such a report. The Father deprecated the matter very much and told the Colonel briefly of having started to Walla Walla in April to inform him of the unfriendly spirit that was brewing among these Indians, but that Chief Vincent, fearing some treachery to his party on the part of the Nez Perces or Palouse which might involve grave tribal difficulty, besought him to not make the trip. Steptoe advised him as to his intentions in coming through this part of the country and expressed his astonishment at the hostile attitude of the Indians. Feeling that there might still be a last hope of averting a conflict, Father Joset asked Steptoe if he would not again talk with the chiefs. Steptoe replied that his pack horses were too badly frightened to stop; upon which the Father told him that it would not be necessary to stop, but that the talk could be had while moving along. Steptoe informed him that in that case he would be glad to see them.
Hastening away to the ranks of the Indians, Father Joset was able to find only the Coeur d’Alene chief, Vincent, with whom he returned. Colonel Steptoe explained to Vincent that inasmuch as he would not be able to cross the Spokane river without the use of boats, which he could not now procure, and seeing that the presence of the troops was so offensive to the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane, which tribes he had counted as being friendly to the whites, he had decided to return to Walla Walla and for the present to defer the trip to Colville.
While the conversation was being held, one of the Nez Perce scouts who stood by accused Vin cent of talking with a “forked tongue,” saying to him also, “Proud man, why do you not fire?” and immediately struck him across the shoulders with his whip almost felling the chief from his horse. The scout also accused a Coeur d’Alene who accompanied Vincent of having wished to fire on a soldier. What design the Nez Perce had in such conduct, or whether his accusations were feigned, is not known. There are those who are inclined to the belief that it was all in pursuance of a plan entered into by the Nez Perces to bring about a conflict between Colonel Steptoe’s force and these Indians. The scout was ordered to desist, however, and Vincent, who was satisfied with the Colonel’s remarks, was about to so express himself when his uncle, coming up hurriedly, informed him that the Palouses were about to open fire and he departed at once.
The troops were under the same orders with regard to opening the engagement that they were during the previous day. These orders were that no conflict should be initiated by any portion of the command, and that no reply should be made to any firing from the Indians, should they choose to attack, until the safety of the command or of any individual members should be in peril.
At 8 o’clock the Indians had gathered in large numbers and were hanging about the rear of the column. Just as the advance had crossed a small stream and was heading toward higher ground, fire was opened upon the rear. The firing was directed toward Gaston’s company, but being at too great a distance, no effect was produced, and in strict obedience to orders the company, in silence, moved steadily on. Swinging back and forth across the rear a portion of the Indians continued to fire in an irregular manner, until becoming emboldened by the refusal of the troops to respond, they stretched away along the flank toward the head of the column. The resounding crash of their arms increased in volume and rapidity until in twenty minutes from the first shot the firing became continuous. By reason of the distance thus far maintained the attack was as yet void of casualties, but all hope of avoiding a fight had now vanished, and everyone knew that in a very brief time the whole command must be thrown into a general engagement. The great Importance of taking advantage of the ground as they pushed along, and of being keenly alert to the movements of the foe, were things of lively consideration among the officers.
The matter of taking possession of the favorable positions rapidly developed into active contention. The Indians were not lacking in appreciation of the advantages of the hill-tops and ridges, and whenever it was seen that the troops, or any company of them, were headed toward those favorable locations, large numbers of Indians hurried on to fore stall the movement, and if possible keep the soldiers in the gulches and in the low ground. It thus became frequently necessary for some part of the command to charge the Indians in order to clear the way.
For full two miles over the broken and uneven country the troops pressed forward under such conditions. Gaston’s horse, wounded, had gone down under him, and a ball had grazed his hand. The battle spirit among the Indians grew in intensity and the vigor and boldness of their assaults dis played more of the savage passion.
Seeing that a large body of the Indians was making for a hill some distance in advance, and on the right, near which he must pass and from which a close fire could be poured upon the head of the column, Steptoe ordered Lieutenant Gregg to intercept it. Moving quickly forward, the Lieutenant soon found that he must race for the position. The race, though close, was won by the dragoons, and on seeing themselves outdistanced in their attempt to reach this vantage point, the Indians moved around it and took possession of another hill which from its situation commanded the former. Gregg determined to take this position also, and leaving a few men to hold the hill which he now occupied, he deployed the remainder of the company so as to engage a broad front and charged the Indians, who gave way as he approached, but kept up a steady fire on the troops. On reaching the top of this hill the dragoons found that to hold it would require all their attention. The Indians ceased to fall back as soon as the soldiers halted and from their ranks the firing was continued with energy.
The engagement had now become general. The entire command was under fire from an enemy who outnumbered it seven to one. The din of battle was continuous and mingled with it was the wild war whoop of the savages, intended to strike terror to the hearts of the assailed and to cheer on their own forces. The pack train required constant activity on the part of those who had it in charge to keep it within the lines. The horses, seized with terror, made desperate attempts to break away and flee to safety.
Already Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston had charged the foe, not once only, but again and again. The tactics employed by the Indians were not unlike those frequently used by the coyote when chased by the hound fleeing as long as the hound pursues, but turning to follow upon his heels and harass his footsteps as he returns. Thus did the Indians fall back as they were charged and when the soldiers turned to go forward again, bearing toward the line of march, they quickly recovered and swarmed after them. The men were, as far as possible, restrained from firing, except while charging, and fought almost entirely by short charges.
The companies were yet separated from each other by some hundreds of yards, and were following the line of march irregularly.
At 11 o’clock Captain Winder, with the infantry and the howitzers, succeeded in reaching Lieutenant Gregg, who still held the hill from whence he had driven the Indians. Colonel Steptoe himself accompanied Winder in this movement. The howitzers were brought into action, and though the actual damage inflicted upon the Indians by them; was hardly noticeable, yet it was plain that their use infused them with fear. Taylor and Gaston were still far away and at some distance from each other. Both moved toward the position occupied by Gregg. The Indians, seeing that it was the intention of these companies to join the force on the hill, determined to prevent the juncture if possible and strengthening their numbers in that part of the field pressed the combat at closer range and with greater energy. These movements were watched attentively by the men on the hill who were, for the moment, less actively engaged. As Gaston’s company came on, a large detachment of Indians moved hurriedly in front of it, and between it and Gregg’s position, so that, with the body of Indians in its rear, the company was between two fires and therefore in a very critical situation. Gaston at once comprehended the full import of this move, and immediately turning his attention from the force in his rear determined to charge that now massed in his front and endeavor to clear his way toward the eminence crowned by the companies of Gregg and Winder. It was a moment of tense interest to the men on the hill. All eyes there were riveted on the ominous scene. Gregg prepared to charge the rear of the Indians between him and Gaston when the latter should charge their front and watched intently for the first signs among Gaston’s men indicating that the order to charge had been given. When he saw them taking firmer hold upon their reins, squaring themselves in their saddles and grasping their weapons in readiness, he led his own men to the charge at a gallop. As Gaston’s men dashed forward the Indians, stretched across their front, bent upon carrying out their purpose in cutting them off, poured into them a scathing fire. Even after discovering that they were between the fires of the charging companies they fought desperately, as if to wipe out the one before the impact of the other should compel their attention or force them aside.
The Indians were extended in close formation across and at a right angle to the line on which Gaston and Gregg approached each other; a position hazarded only under the most promising circumstances in civilized warfare, yet in this instance it might easily have been the strategical move of a wise commander.
They were compelled to give way before the charging forces and the two companies met. Twelve dead Indians were counted upon the ground at the point of meeting, and many others were seen to be wounded; among the latter, as it was afterward learned, were Jacques and Zachariah, the former a highly respected Indian among his tribe, and the latter a brother-in-law of Chief Vincent. Both were Coeur d’Alenes and both had counseled against the fight. Each was mortally wounded and died soon after. Chief Victor of the Coeur d’Alenes was also slain in this angle.
The Indians who had attempted to cut off Gaston’s company quickly returned to the attack, and those in his rear crowded closer. For a time the two companies continued to fight from the point where they met and then moved toward the hill from which Gregg had charged, and while so doing were subjected to a fierce fire on both flanks and rear.
Captain Taylor had, in the mean time, led his company across the space which had intervened between it and this hill, which had during these operations been held by Captain Winder. The splendid bravery of Captain Taylor, leading his men in the short charges which were so frequently necessary to his progress, cheering and complimenting them as they reformed to push on, served as an inspiration to all.
When the dragoons reached the hill the several sections of the command were together for the first time since the beginning of the march in the early morning. For three hours they had been actively engaged, and part of them had been under fire since 8 o’clock. During the whole time they had sought to continue moving toward the south, bearing southeasterly, and to do this it was very often necessary for portions of the command, in addition to the continuous defense enjoined upon them, to assume the aggressive and dislodge the enemy from positions taken squarely in their front.
Several men had been wounded, but at this hour it appears that only one had been lost. A number of the animals had been killed and many injured.
The pack train was held with the greatest difficulty and part of the force was handicapped through the necessity for its defense.
A new difficulty was also pressing upon the troopers: the need of water. The course of the Ingossomen (called in the report of the battle the “To-hoto-nim-me” winding among the hills, was in plain view to the south and west. Colonel Steptoe determined to push toward it and reformed his men for that purpose, being fully aware of the desperate work which was sure to attend the movement.
The Indians were exhibiting greater fury. The loss of the warriors who had fallen at the hands of Gregg’s and Gaston’s men had served to enrage them and they were impatient for revenge. Their numbers were increasing and small companies could be seen on the surrounding hills signaling to distant comrades.
To the soldiers, the supreme test was yet to come. At this time not a moment of relaxation could be obtained. Each officer and every man facing the enemy was required to give his full attention to the duties in hand. Therefore, in forming to move forward toward the water, great care had to be exercised by the officers in order that no vulnerable point might be presented to their antagonists. As the execution of the order began there were unmistakable signs that the Indians were seeking a favorable opening for a successful dash upon the troops.
Colonel Steptoe directed Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston to dispose their companies so as to protect the flanks, positions which every soldier knew would be attended with extreme danger, as the defenders of either flank would be required to meet the repeated onslaughts of the enemy and be immediately under fire so long as the command should continue to move in that order. Yet, without hesitation the companies moved promptly to their respective positions, facing, with their gallant leaders, the frenzied, yelling horde of savages. To Gregg and Winder was assigned the difficult task of defending the rear and of moving forward the pack train.
The officers cautioned their men against wasting their ammunition and exhorted them to make the best possible accounting of the small supply with which each was furnished.
A little before 12 o’clock, the order to move forward was given and as the soldiers started down the long slope pandemonium broke loose anew among the Indians. Large bodies of them swayed in toward the flanks, and others circled the front, riding rapidly and each firing from the neck of his horse, according to the custom of the Indian warrior. The aim of the soldiers protecting the flanks, at such close range, was uncomfortably accurate, and the Indians in those quarters hesitated to close in with them. Owing to the imminent danger of being cut off from the main body, neither of the flanking companies dared to charge far onto the enemy’s ground, though in order to relieve the pressure short charges were of frequent necessity. Progress was slow; each officer endeavored to gauge his advance at such a rate as to keep the whole body intact. If any point was delayed by heavy engagement, the other divisions of the force held their positions until the resistance was over come and all could proceed. Captain Winder and Lieutenant Gregg found but few opportunities to assist either flank. The fire of the enemy, coming from almost every direction, raked the whole command constantly.
About 12 o’clock, E company, being desperately attacked at very close quarters and being unable to continue forward without great danger of serious results, undertook to again force the enemy back. In the midst of this charge, Lieutenant Gaston received a mortal wound in the body and fell, dying as he had expressed a hope that he might, when, during the last year, ill health had overtaken him and he feared the approach of that feeble condition which would incapacitate him for the duties of his chosen profession.
The Indians, as usual, were compelled to give way before this charge and the company resumed its position. Soon after this, elated over their success in slaying a chief of the soldiers and designing to demoralize his company, the Indians on this flank formed after the semblance of military order, in strong force, and charged formally. Gaston’s men, who had since the early morning borne the brunt of the fight, and who had responded gallantly to every call that had been made upon them, now lost heart under the strain of insistent, never-ceasing, and constantly shifting attack from over whelming numbers. They felt keenly, too, the loss of their leader, whose voice and example had been thus far a source of inspiration to them. And now, when this line of savages came on like the heavy surf beating toward the beach, rending the air with its blood-curdling war whoop, they gave way and fell back upon Winder and Gregg. The latter quickly swung his men into position to meet the charge, and Colonel Steptoe rode among the men of Company E and endeavored to encourage them, but failed to rally them sufficiently to present their full strength at this critical moment. Gregg’s men met and stopped the Indians, and drove them back again though they contested the ground with unusual stubbornness.
During the brief period covered by this desperate onset, necessitating as it did a hurried change in the order of defense, thereby detracting from the strength of the guard about the pack train, some loss of animals and packs was sustained.
Whenever opportunity permitted their being un-limbered the howitzers boomed away at the swiftly moving foe. On account of the flank and rear guards intervening their action was limited to such opportunities as were presented in the arc enclosing the front. The Indians made no decided attempt to mass any considerable force against the advance, probably for the reason that they were uncertain of the destructive power of the cannon; but their operations in that quarter were, for the greater part, conducted after the manner of the “circle fighting” frequently employed by the Indians of the plains.
Slowly, inch by inch, the column fought its way onward through the ceaseless efforts of the enemy to overcome it or to so shatter its formation that it might be wiped out in detail. After a half hour a distance of only a half mile had been covered. Water was not yet reached, but it could be seen that the stream was not far away. Company C was now warmly engaged at close quarters, but with usual courage was standing its ground unwaveringly. Men from other companies came to its assistance. At about 12:30 p. m. Captain Taylor, whose figure was always prominent among his men, a conspicuous target for the enemy, while fighting with his accustomed bravery, was shot from his horse. On seeing him fall, the Indians at once rushed the troops in the hope of securing his body. Several men dismounted and hastened to the fallen Captain and for a time the defense of his body en tailed the most desperate fighting. Private R. P. Kerse, of Company E, with a few others, placed themselves in front of the body and fought the Indians hand to hand, clubbing their guns. Private Victor C. DeMoy, of Company C, a man who had received his training in arms in the army of France, stood with them, swinging his gun barrel as he would a saber until receiving a severe wound he was unable longer to use his gun with effective force; yet, struck with the splendid opportunity for the use of his favorite weapon, he cried out, “My God, for a saber!” While this desperate struggle was in progress about the spot where Taylor fell, Francis Poisell, of H Company, with the assistance of others, succeeded, under heavy fire, in bearing the wounded Captain to a safer position. Lieutenant James Wheeler, Jr., at once assumed the command of the company.
The Indians, never given to facing firm resistance on open ground at great length, soon shifted their force from this point and relieved the soldiers thus engaged. The wounded were all brought in and as soon as it was possible were attended by Surgeon Randolph.
Colonel Steptoe, now fully convinced of the great peril in continuing the advance under such conditions, the ground over which he must necessarily pass so frequently offering advantage to the enemy, who need not attack him upon those portions which offered the advantage to himself, decided to select a favorable field and make a stand. Accordingly, turning to the left from the direction he had been pursuing, he made his way to the summit of a nearby hill and there halted. The hill was rather the point of a long ridge whose terminus dropped off to the creek in a steep incline. The ground chosen for the stand was higher than the connecting portion of the ridge, and a line drawn directly over it, from base to base of the hill, would be about three-eighths of a mile in length. The position was quickly surrounded and the soldiers completely shut in. They dismounted and “picketed the horses close together in the center of the flat inclined summit.” The men were hastily posted in a circle around the crest and were required to lie flat upon the ground, in which position they were pretty well hidden from the enemy by the rank growth of grass.
The wounded were placed in the most secluded spot to be found back from the surrounding cordon of troops.
Captain Taylor had been shot through the neck and the wound was of such evident severity that from the first it was plainly seen that he could sur vive but a short time. The skill of Surgeon Randolph could not avail, and soon after reaching the summit of the hill, the comrades who stood by the brave officer were compelled to witness the closing of his useful and devoted career.
While the Indians now had the command completely surrounded, they marshaled the greater part of their force on the south. At this point the hill sloped rather abruptly and not far from its base ran the coveted stream. Lying flat upon the ground, just back of the angle at the brow of the hill, the soldiers in this quarter were in less danger from the bullets of the Indians than were those in some other parts of the field. In order to have reached a point of better view and more accurate range from the south, the Indians would have been compelled to approach to within a few yards of where the soldiers lay and, in doing so, would have exposed themselves at too close range to the men who peered through the grass for their coming.
A continuous shower of bullets and arrows was poured over this point by the savages, doubtless with the intention of preventing any further movement of the besieged in that direction.
The Indians engaged in fighting abandoned their horses soon after surrounding the troops and crept around the hillside, crouched in favorable indentations in the earth, and wormed their way through the grass at the more exposed points. In their eagerness to get close enough to the men to pick them off, many of them resorted to the old trick of tying grass about their heads, thinking to approach, snakelike, without attracting attention; but this proved to be a rather precarious scheme. The bunch of grass coming along the ground, no matter how much cautious attention its wearer might give to its movement, or how well it blended with the standing grass, was generally observed and the crawling brave made to test the value of his deceptive headgear in retrograde movement, or to suffer severe penalty for his ill-timed zeal.
The yelling of the exultant savages continued without cessation except among those who at tempted by stealth to gain closer ground.
The little band of men were momentarily impressed with the extreme peril of their situation. The strenuous work of the day, following a restless night which had been preceded by a day of trying physical and nervous tension, began to tell upon them,. To the fatigue of body was added the suffering from extreme thirst. The vigilance could not be abandoned, though it required an effort on the part of the soldier to maintain the alertness so highly necessary. Amid the whistling of balls and the whir of arrows arose the agonizing cries of the wounded and dying.
The officers crawled from point to point on hands and knees seeking to encourage the men and exhorting them to be careful in the expenditure of the few rounds of ammunition yet remaining. Now and then along the line a man was able to scrape a shallow trench for himself, thereby adding somewhat to his vantage.
Early in the afternoon the Indians made ready to hurl themselves upon the soldiers. The evidence of their preparations was unmistakable. Much gesticulation and signaling, coupled with loud shouting among those who attempted to exercise authority, gave the first warning. Those who were still mounted galloped closer in. The yelling became, if possible, more hideous and ere long it seemed that every savage throat was strained in the general endeavor to enthuse the host for the con tact. At that stage which seemed to be the climax of the excitement, those on foot nearest the besieged sprang forward, half crouching, to lead the onslaught, but all were stopped after going a few paces. Those farther toward the rear hesitated until the ardor befitting the task to which they had set themselves had waned. Gradually the whole line again fell away and settled into the tactics first employed.
Not long after this, similar preparations among the Indians denoted that they again contemplated carrying the hill by storm, and again they failed at the moment of putting forward in the charge.
Many of the men fired without regard to the conservation of their ammunition, though apparent effect was produced by those guns which were cap able of accuracy at the distance to which the hos-tiles approached, and they were seen to carry off many who fell, either killed or wounded.
At one point on the line where a large number of Indians concentrated and displayed marked persistence in pressing the attack, they were met by Sergeant Ball of Company H of the dragoons, and a few men who were holding that point on the circle, who stood their ground with such determination and fought with such coolness and telling effect that after losing some of their number the Indians lost courage and fell back out of reach of the deadly aim of the few men and soon the congestion in that quarter was dissipated.
While these demonstrations on the part of the enemy forced the men on the hill to the conclusion that if the fight should be resolved into a hand-to-hand grapple the termination which all now believed to be inevitable would quickly follow, the friendly Nez Perces engaged, at intervals, in communicating across the line with the Coeur d’Alene and Spokane.
Father Joset, writing of the fight soon after its occurrence, and from information obtained solely from the hostile Indians engaged, related that the Coeur d’Alenes said the Nez Perces cried to them from the midst of the troops: “Courage! You have already killed two chiefs.” (Meaning, doubt less, Captain Taylor and Lieutenant Gaston.) This action, if not based upon a treacherous design conceived before joining the expedition, was very probably an effort of diplomacy on the part of the Nez Perces, at this critical period when it seemed that certain doom awaited all, having for an object the conveyance of their friendly intentions with some show of assistance so that when the final coup should be made, and the captives, if any, disposed of, they would have some chance among the Coeur d’Alenes for their lives.
As the long afternoon began to wane the Indians became less active and the firing from their lines abated noticeably. Counseling was going on among them. The war whoop which had been so prominent a feature of the Indian discipline died away. The setting sun saw Colonel Steptoe’s men not so hard pressed as earlier in the evening. Though the cracking of the Indian rifles was still heard, they were at longer range and the soldiers’ peril there from correspondingly lessened. Yet the situation offered to the troops but the slightest ground for hope.
Just before nightfall loud calls were heard proceeding from among the Indians. These the Nez Perces interpreted to be commands from the chiefs to cease fighting and to wait until the morrow, when the battle would be renewed. Soon the firing ceased; flashes from the guns no longer disturbed the gathering darkness nor marked the location of the foe. The light of Indian campfires gleamed from the banks of the creek at some distance from the scene of the afternoon’s work and signal fires sprang up on many of the surrounding hills. On the hill occupied by Steptoe all became quiet save for the moans of the wounded and the low-toned commands of the officers. The suffering among the men on account of thirst grew in severity and their tired condition was a matter of grave concern for the prospective night.
In order to forestall any circumstance which might further weaken the efficiency of his force, and to preserve every man in the best possible mental condition for any further test he might be required to meet, Colonel Steptoe ordered that all the liquor carried by the commissary be destroyed.
Some fear was felt that the enemy in drawing off designed to return to the attack, stealthily, under cover of the darkness. When it was ascertained that no approach was thus being made and that the Indians were not lurking dangerously near, the men were called in from their positions and a small party detailed to form a skirmish line.
Investigation disclosed that the ammunition was almost exhausted; that no more than three rounds remained to each man.