Captain John White shivered in the early spring wind. He had seen the size of the Lakota village and he knew he could not defeat it with so few men. Ninety-nine lives were in his hands. More, in fact, for his men could take lives too. The weight of the responsibility was enormous.
Turning his horse away from the others, the captain bowed his head. He needed help from God. What was it the chaplain said? The only way to the Father was through His son, Jesus Christ.
John winced as he thought the name. He’d used it as a curse many times. Could he honestly invoke it now? Silently he prayed, “Jesus, have mercy on me, for I’m a sinner. I’ve used your name in vain. In fact, I’ve broken most of your commandments. I have but one plea; you died for my sins. I’m sorry for them now. With your help, I’ll turn away from them. Lord, I give you my life.”
John let out a sigh of relief. The barrier was down. He could ask for the help he needed to do his job. “Heavenly Father,” he began again, “I’m in over my head. I don’t know what’s going to happen in that valley today, but I don’t want innocent blood on my hands. I submit my plans to you. I ask for your will to be done. If possible, bring a peaceful outcome to all of this. If not, I ask that as few lives be lost as possible. If I fall in battle, grant Lieutenant Gibbs the wisdom and guidance he’ll need. In Jesus’s Name, amen.”
John White felt relief wash over him a second time. He lifted up his head. His request had been heard.
Hours later, negotiations had reached an impasse. Captain White lacked the authority to alter the harsh terms he had been instructed to convey, and it was clear that they were unacceptable. Refusing to give up hope, he prayed fervently, yet silently. John knew he would not be sitting in this lodge and smoking with Chief Black Fox if his people were unwilling to pay a price for peace.
“It is not for me to say what lands the government will acknowledge to be yours, nor do I have the authority to permit you to keep your rifles,” he said. John braced himself for the translated reply.
“What good is it to talk to you, Captain John White? What can you do for my people if we agree to surrender our rifles and accompany you to Red Cloud Agency? The horses are thin. The people are hungry and need to hunt. We need our rifles and our horses.”
Suddenly, John realized he could offer them something after all, “My commander will feed you if you come to Fort McKinney first. The water is good there, and you can remain for a few weeks while your ponies fatten on the new spring grass.”
“If we surrender our rifles, and go with you to Fort McKinney, you must promise that we can keep our horses. We cannot travel to Red Cloud Agency if we do not have horses.”
John was on thin ice. Could he guarantee that his commanding officer would not take away their horses once they reached Fort McKinney?
“I must be honest with you, Chief Black Fox, the government views your horses as a threat to the peace. They will take your horses, at least for a time. I do not know whether my commander will allow you to keep your horses until you reach Red Cloud Agency. But I do know that his orders are to make sure that all surrendering bands go back to the reservation. If you will surrender your rifles and come with me, I will speak to him about the need of your people to use their horses to reach the agency.”
When this was translated, the old chief was silent. At length he said, “Perhaps we will spend another year on the hunting grounds. I could give the order to have the young men kill all your soldiers and take your horses and your rifles.”
At this, Lieutenant Gibbs leapt to his feet with his hand on his Colt revolver. Only a quick word from Captain White stopped him from drawing it.
“Gibbs! Sit down and that’s an order.” There was silence in the lodge. The Lieutenant stood his ground. Two armed Lakota men had also gotten to their feet, facing him. No one moved. No one breathed. Finally, Gibbs obeyed, but there was still anger in his eyes.
Captain White said quietly, “Chief Black Fox, we have smoked together. I am no longer your enemy. If you will not come with me today, I will return to my commander empty-handed. But I cannot let you kill my men, or take our horses.”
During the translation, Black Fox never took his eyes from Captain White’s. The elder brought the pipe back to his lips and drew on it once again. At last he spoke, “Pipe tobacco,” he said, in English.
The elder spoke in Lakota again, “The tobacco you brought does not smoke well. If we go to Fort McKinney, you will provide my people with proper tobacco. Then we will smoke again, you and I and your commander. My men will keep their bows.”
“Agreed,” said John. He felt elated, but he understood the solemnity of this moment for the old chief. It was not easy to give up one’s traditional ways. He negotiated out of necessity.
Black Fox took another draw on the peace pipe, then passed it to John White who did likewise. The matter was settled.
On the way back to camp, Lieutenant Gibbs apologized for his rashness during the negotiations. Then he said, “What came over you, Captain? I’ve never seen you speak so…”
“Authoritatively?” John smiled.
“Yeah. You were brilliant!”
“Well, Gibbs, what if I told you I had help?”