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Captain Winder, next in command to Colonel Steptoe, Lieutenant Gregg, now senior dragoon officer, and Surgeon Randolph, having come together, fell to discussing their situation. They entertained no doubt as to the intention of the Indians to renew the attack, either during the night or on the following morning. Nearly destitute of ammunition, the command could hardly withstand a single onset. They were outnumbered five or six to one and should a determined assault be made upon them, and the ammunition become entirely spent the survivors would be helpless to prevent being slain on the spot, or captured and subjected to whatever manner of torture and death might suit the will of their savage captors. Being entirely surrounded, escape seemed almost as hopeless. While the Indians had receded from their positions of the afternoon, they nevertheless occupied points which must be passed in any attempt to get away. Yet the three officers felt that an effort to escape should be made, and that it should be attempted during the night.
Captain Winder and Lieutenant Gregg approached Colonel Steptoe and informed him of their deliberations. The Colonel had turned the whole matter over in his own mind and was of the opinion that there remained no other course for them but to stay and die like brave men. He reminded them that no point of safety lay north of Snake river, and if it were possible to pass through the line of savages by whom they were surrounded the retreat would have to be continued at high speed over the long trail to the crossing. Regard for the wounded would necessarily impede the flight and the weight of each of the howitzers was greater than any animal in the command was cap able of carrying so far and so long. That the Indians would pursue them should they succeed in passing through their lines he thought was inevitable, and in case of the final expenditure of their ammunition in a running fight their fate would be scarcely less certain than if they remained in their present position, and the probability of the troops being captured singly or in small numbers and finally subjected to the torture and death usually imposed by the savage would be more to fear.
The two officers turned away from their Colonel and busied themselves with the duties that lay before them.
Lieutenant Gregg could not liberate his mind from the impression that an effort to escape should be made and continued to weigh the possibility of a successful dash past the Indians and of finally reaching safety with a part of the command, at least. Seeking Captain Winder, whom he found to still entertain the same view of the situation, the two went again to Colonel Steptoe and urged that it would be better to attempt to get away though only a small part or even none of the command succeeded, than to remain where they were with the almost certain knowledge that with the rising of the morrow’s sun a general massacre of the troops would take place and not one be left to tell the story of the fight.
The gallant Colonel pondered the situation: His desire above all else was to save his men, yet he could not believe that the Indians would now under any circumstances permit a man to escape. Had he not started to return peaceably, and had he not suffered the Indians to fire upon him at some length before engaging in the combat? What reason, then, could be deduced, after the blood of the Indian slain had stained the hills, to warrant any hope that the soldiers would not be pursued most relentlessly and cut down somewhere on the long trail to Snake river?
The howitzers would have to be abandoned and such necessity the Colonel would feel keenly. Having spent several years in the artillery service, his training prompted him to guard jealously any implements at his command and to regard the loss of any to the enemy as a matter of much seriousness to a commanding officer. But that could be given no weight in this case, as the howitzers would only serve as an impediment to rapid movement and entail additional danger to any effort to save the command.
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After thus discussing the circumstances at this conference in his usual candid manner, Colonel Steptoe agreed that the movement should be under taken. A general consultation was then had among the officers and all agreed that an attempt to escape would offer some possibility, at least, as against the utter hopelessness presented in the alternative of remaining.
Steptoe directed Lieutenant Gregg, now commanding the three companies of dragoons, to proceed with the necessary preliminary arrangements and to prepare the order in which the troops should move from the hill. Gregg set immediately about the task assigned him. It was desired first of all to ascertain whether any Indians were still lying, on the south, the direction to be followed to recover the trail, in sufficient force to check the movement at its beginning. Accordingly, a small party was detailed to reconnoiter in that direction. With the greatest caution the party passed over the ground which had marked the operations of the Indians in that quarter during the day, finding it abandoned, and reached the creek. No sign of the foe could be discerned as, with ready gun, they crept along its bank, frequently halting and bending the ear to assay the sounds borne to them through the darkness. The investigations led the party at some distance and included both sides of the creek.
On the report of the reconnaissance the active work of preparing to leave the field was begun. All those who had fallen on or near the hill, whose bodies could be reached, were buried in graves hastily dug and the two howitzers were dismounted and cached nearby. Arrangements for transporting and caring for the wounded were of serious consideration. Fifteen men were found to be wounded, two of whom, Private Victor C. DeMoy and Sergeant William C. Williams, it was believed could not long survive. Six others were severely wounded, and seven there were who had received slight injuries. The long ride could not but sorely aggravate the distress already keenly felt by those who were severely hurt; possibly some would be able to endure the ordeal but a short way, yet it was decided that none should be left. There was no thought of invoking the unwritten law known to Indian fighters of that day, which forbade leaving a wounded comrade to fall alive into the hands of the Indians. Those who were suffering too much to sit their horses safely without assistance were carefully lashed in their saddles and each placed under the care of a comrade.
Lieutenant Gregg, in preparing the order of the retreat, directed Lieutenant Wheeler to take the advance with Company C, Taylor’s company, and the wounded; Captain Winder’s infantry company, mounted, was to move with Wheeler, while he himself with the two other companies would take the rear and be the last to leave the field.
About thirty horses of the command had been shot and in providing suitable mounts it was found necessary to use some of the pack mules. These fell to the infantry. The light gray and the white animals were blanketed in order to render them less conspicuous in the darkness. All the animals not actually required, together with those which had been wounded, were left picketed on the hill. To take them away would encumber the movement, and their presence on the field would probably serve to delude the Indians into the belief that the soldiers were still there.
After burying the dead the horses were led over the ground so as to conceal the graves by a general breaking of the sod around them. The spot where the howitzers were buried was treated in a similar manner. The packs and supplies of provision, which had all been removed from the pack animals, were left where they were stacked.
At about 10 o’clock, Colonel Steptoe with Wheeler’s company of dragoons and Winder’s infantry company moved from the hill. Lieutenant Gregg was then engaged in collecting the skirmishers, who were lying in the grass at their posts, some of whom, it was found, had fallen asleep from exhaustion. So quietly did the first division move from the field that Gregg, absorbed in the care of his task, had not noticed their departure when Surgeon Randolph came to him and asked why he did not start, stating that Wheeler and Winder had gone some time before. With no unnecessary delay the two remaining companies then prepared to leave. Quietness was enjoined on all. Loose accoutrements liable to swing noisily against saddle or boots were carefully adjusted. Orders passed along the line in subdued tones. They moved down into the narrow valley of the To-hoto-nim-me and rode silently away into the night. From the field left behind there came no sign of life save the occasional whinnying of a tethered horse whose companion bore a trooper away to safety.