Fort Lancaster's Moonlight Riders: Part 2

by Jim Fish

Last week we left Major Hunter on his way back to his base camp of rangers after reconnoitering the camp of a band of deserters and n’er-do-wells at old Fort Lancaster…

Major Hunter was assured of impending victory when he ended his tale to Captain Williams; “The trumps are all in our hands, and the game's as good as finished, if only we work it cleverly, and some darned blunder doesn't scare them. Now for a good sleep, my boy; have the command ready to march an hour after sundown and see to all the rifles and six-shooters in the meantime.”

When supper was done, and the appointed hour was at hand Williams’ spirit soared… “I well remember now what a glorious night it was, as we rode over the prairie by the light of the brilliant moon with the cool night breeze to fan us after the burning heat of the day… The command was to halt half a mile from the camp, and all the horses, except 150, to be left with a reserve of 125 men. For Hunter, daring as he was, was cautious withal, and would avoid risks if possible. He himself would lead a hundred men up the right slope, to surprise the camp, whilst 250 dismounted and 100 mounted men (under Williams) were to take up position on the left, to intercept the fugitives and secure their horses.”

They took their time, “jogging along quite easily", reaching their destination shortly after 3 a.m. The horses were tied and linked, the reserve in place under the command of the second senior captain and strictly ordered not to move except by order from Major Hunter or Williams. The Major and his hundred frontier rangers went to the right to avoid the guards and disappeared into the darkness. Williams led his contingent of 350 men to the left, guided by the scouts who had been over the ground the night before. They marched four abreast.

With the footmen on the right and the mounted on the left of the clearing specified, they waited.

Not a sound was heard except the faint plodding of the horses' hooves on the ground as they milled around in their corral and the voices of their guards. Time passed and still they waited.

Suddenly, one of the enemy horses neighed long and loudly and one of their horses answered back! One of the guards shouted: “There's a horse loose, who’s in thunder is it?”

In search of the horse they believed to be one of theirs, the enemy guards were heard pushing their way through the brush directly toward the Confederate force. Williams braced himself to be prematurely discovered.

At last! From a nearby hilltop, he heard a single revolver shot, then another; and instantly what sounded like the volley of a hundred rifles. Then yells and screams of terror, and random firing went on for a few minutes until down the brushy slope came the panic-stricken renegades and deserters whose only thought was escape.

Williams ordered the advance of the footmen on the double and directed the horsemen at just the moment the mob was clear of the brush but still in a position to prevent a stampede when the two forces met.

“Fire!” commanded Williams. The sounds resounding from the brush and the clearing assured him that the double surprise completely routed the ‘Californians,’ who were scattering in all directions. Without waiting to reload, he led his force across the clearing to find only dead and wounded remaining. The rest had disappeared into the brush and the darkness.

Cease-fire was given just before Hunter met them in the clearing near the horses, having left a detachment to hold the camp. The surprise was absolute and the operation was successful. Four of the Confederates were killed and ten wounded, four of them seriously.

Of the ‘Californians;’ thirty-five were dead and twenty wounded. Those able to move got away into the brush and were not heard from again.

At daylight, they counted some 250 horses. A scouting party was sent to follow the enemy, but returned saying that they had crossed the river into Mexico and did not pursue them. They heard later that many of the fugitives met an ill fate at the hands of the settlers and ranchers they had been plundering. 

They feasted on provisions left by the enemy and shortly afterward rode out for Fort Clark to secure medical attention for the wounded.



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