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Polenta with Gorgonzola and Honey

The True story of "TWO-BITS" the Heroic Horse nobody wanted

From the book:True Stories of Dogs and Horses and their Service to Man

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Two Bits was never in any historic battle, nor did a famous general ever ride him. The highest he ever rose in the ranks was to the saddle of a captain-Captain Charles A. Curtis. Until then, the big bay had known a dozen masters for he was one of a cavalry pool at Fort Craig, New Mexico.

It was between the 1870's and '80's. The United States was trying to persuade the Indians to stay on the reservations appointed to them. The Indians, largely Apaches, Comanches, and Navahos, were not taking kindly to the Government's methods of armed persuasion. Bands of warriors still roamed the high mesas. In the vast emptiness of the landscape, a troop of soldiers could be seen for miles, but the Indians seemed to melt into the background. The old-timers had a saying, "When you don't see an Indian, you're looking right at him."

That was the reason for the forts with their high stockades. They were constantly being raided by the Indians, more for the horses than the men. Among the redskins, it was considered an act of greater courage to slip a horse out of a corral than a knife into a soldier.

It was at Fort Craig that Two Bits caught his first scent of the red enemy. Here, too, he was given his name.

Men cannot be continually on nerve-taut guard without some relaxation, and so a race was arranged one bright June day when the great half dome of the sky was filled with clouds as small and white as baby lambs.

The swiftest horses of the Mounted Rifles had already been chosen by the riders. One horse was left, a big bay. An Irish fifer boy named Cain decided to ride him. As they trotted to the starting line, a soldier shouted derisively, "I wouldn't give two bits for that horse."

Two Bits won by three lengths.


Six years later Cain, now a sergeant, was to meet Two Bits under vastly different conditions.

The horse had been included in a bunch that were considered no longer fit for cavalry service. Soldiers transferred from New Mexico to Arizona had brought the herd with them to be sold. It was a seven-hundred mile trek. At the end, the horses looked even more, decrepit than they had at the start of the march. At auction, they brought about five dollars a head. Two Bits came into the possession of a new and brutal master. Cain, then serving at Fort Whipple, in Arizona, came upon the horse lying on the ground starved to the point of emaciation. A man was standing over him beating him unmercifully.

Sergeant Cain sprang to the horse's defense before he recognized Two Bits. The owner was willing to give him up to avoid a fight, and Sergeant Cain took him back to the fort. With him, he took a horse-sized problem.

Fort Whipple stood on the slope of one of the wooded hills surrounding the town of Prescott. Spread out below were corrals for the horses and mules. There were also three hundred head of cattle and a thousand sheep offering constant temptation to marauding Indians. It would have seemed that with all these animals there would have been room for one more, that Two Bits could have been easily lost among them, but every one was marked and every horse known.

Cain was fully aware that the Army would not accept the broken-down old horse into the cavalry pool, and he could not afford to keep him himself, not on a sergeant's pay. It was not a matter of selling him that bothered Cain, it was finding him a kind, understanding master.

Cain's captain was the ideal owner for Two Bits, but would Captain Curtis buy him? Cain needed money for a special reason; he had to have it. "I'll let you have him for five dollars, sir," he told Curtis, "and you'll be gettin' the finest horse on the post." Curtis laughingly refused, but Cain's Irish tongue proved so eloquent that the captain finally agreed.

During the next few weeks, the deal he had made with his sergeant slipped from Curtis' mind. He was surprised when Cain appeared with a beautiful bay, groomed from mane to fetlock, sleek and filled out-on the oats the captain's five dollars had purchased for him. Two Bits and Curtis fell in love with each other at first sight.

The horse renewed his acquaintance with the red men on the marches the captain and his troop made in pursuit of Indians who had swooped down on village and wagon train to loot and kill. He knew the wolf bark of the Apache, the high-pitched yip of the charging Comanche that raised the hair right up with its insane clamor. He knew, too, the peaceful times when Curtis would take him for a canter among the pine trees that broke up the hard, bright Arizona sunshine into soft, cathedral shafts of light. He caught the scent of deer and bear long before he saw them in swift or lumbering flight.

Perhaps the happiest days were those when Curtis went fishing. Then the man would flick the quiet, shadowed pools for trout, and the horse would graze nearby. On one such day the succulent grass tempted Two Bits farther away than usual from his master. He was cropping contentedly when the wind suddenly said, "Danger!" Instantly, Two Bits wheeled and raced back to Curtis. The captain did not stop to question. He flung himself into the saddle and they were off. A yelp of frustrated fury broke out behind them. A war party of mounted Apaches burst from cover and raced in pursuit. Two Bits outran them. As the fort came into view, the disgruntled Indians slackened their speed and turned back.

A second time, Curtis was attacked by Indians a lying in ambush. The shot, creasing the captain's coat collar, took both horse and rider by surprise. Two Bits involuntarily shied. Curtis was thrown. Before the captain had hit the ground, the horse froze, waiting for him to remount. The smell of the Indians was strong in Two Bits' nostrils, along with the smell of rifle powder. He could have reverted to instinctive flight, but he made no move until his master was in the saddle. Even then he did not run. He walked slowly, carefully away from the ambush while Curtis, pistol in hand, waited for the Indians to show themselves. It was as though the horse was giving the captain the opportunity to return the fire, as though he knew how many there were, that they were not the overpowering force in the first attack. It was not until rifle space was between them and the enemy that Two Bits broke into a run. Behind them three Apaches rose from the bushes, the black dots and blue crescents on their faces showing them to be painted for war.

However, Two Bits did not prove the heights of his courage and heroism when Curtis was riding him. At that time, he carried a comparative stranger on a dangerous mission.

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page23image3924177392Express riders were being found scalped, the contents of their postal pouches scattered over the blood-stained ground. This happened so often that riders could no longer be hired for that stretch of service between Arizona and New Mexico. Cavalrymen had to deliver the mail. They went out first in pairs, later in groups. Even then they were cut down.

The situation was becoming increasingly tense. Captain Curtis knew it all too well. A dispatch had been received that morning from San Francisco. The nature of its contents required that it be sent on at once to Santa Fe. By whom? Who would venture into the heart of Apache country?

The captain advertised for a civilian rider, offering the highest pay. There were no takers. Curtis felt that he could spare no more men from his troop. There were too few now to risk sending out four or five to possible slaughter.

Then Sergeant Porter of the Quartermaster's Department volunteered to carry the dispatch on one condition—that he should be allowed to ride Two Bits.

The horse had made quite a name for himself at the fort. Not only had he twice saved the captain's life, but he had won a race which even his owner thought he had no chance of winning. It was Sergeant Cain who insisted that Two Bits be entered.

"Why that horse must be twenty years old!" Curtis had protested. "Sure, and the older he grows, the faster he goes," Cain answered.

And Cain was on his back, as he had been in the first race at Fort Craig, when Two Bits romped home with daylight showing between him and the rest of the field.

Now Sergeant Porter wanted to ride Two Bits. He said he would feel safe with him. Curtis was loathe to give him the horse. He felt that he was sending Two Bits to almost certain death. Yet there was the dispatch that had to be delivered. Reluctantly he agreed.

For three bitter cold nights, sergeant Porter slept in his blankets under the blazing stars while Two Bits stood watch, now grazing, now half dozing, but with ears and nose constantly alert.

On the fourth day, they reached a broad military road that crossed over a low hill and dropped down to a wide, flat plain. However, a flash flood had wiped out a part of the road and tumbled rocks down on it from the hill. Wagons and mule trains had made a new path around this point. It skirted the hill instead of going over it, and a mile beyond rejoined the original military road.

Ordinarily, Porter would have taken the smoother, easier way, but now he hesitated. He could not see what lay on the other side of the hill. Unable to make up his mind, he left the decision to the horse. Two Bits promptly chose the original, boulder-strewn road. He made his way up the slope with unusual caution. Near the crest, he halted, rigid, ears pricked forward. Porter, dismounting, crept to the top of the hill. On the other side were four Indian ponies, partially concealed in the brush. Porter did not see the Indians, he did not expect to but he knew they were there. They were waiting for the Express Rider - for him.

If Two Bits had not chosen the hill path, if he had not alerted Porter to the danger lying ahead, the sergeant would have unknowingly ridden straight into ambush.

Porter led the horse back down the hill to the road made by the wagon wheels. He could not detour around the Indians. It would take too much time, another day maybe. But he figured that if he surprised the war party, he could pass them before they had recovered enough to hoot. He moved silently forward on foot, the horse right behind him. Then, when he was in sight of the ambush, he flung himself into the saddle. Two Bits broke into a ground-eating gallop.

An Indian pony raised its head, snorting. Porter shot it. The other three Indians jumped for their horses. Yelping, they tore after their quarry.

Two Bits' stride lengthened, but he was carrying too much weight—the man, a twenty- pound mail sack, three blankets, an overcoat, a carbine, and rations for another three days.

Bullets started whining around him. One struck him in the flank. He kept on. Porter was hit in the shoulder. He fired back. One of the three Indians made a half arc over the rump of his galloping horse. The two remaining Indians fired. A bullet smashed Porter's right hand. He switched his gun to his left and fired back. The carbine of the second Indian, stolen from a dead soldier, flew up in the air.

Now there was only one Indian left. He came on firing, gaining on the laboring Two Bits and his rider.

In an act of desperation, Porter wheeled Two Bits and shot the third Indian's horse. Apache and pony fell together. Two Bits spun around and raced on. Blood oozed from several bullet wounds. The sergeant did not notice this.

He was too badly wounded himself. At last he pulled the horse to a halt, slid down from the saddle and pitched forward on his face.

Two Bits nosed him. When Porter did not respond, the horse lifted its head and asked questions of the wind. It answered, "Smoke-and men straight ahead." Two Bits broke into a gallop.

The guard of a Government train, huddled around their fire, looked up in surprise as the blood-streaked horse trotted up to them, mail pouch strapped to an empty saddle. They ran to catch hold of the bridle. Two Bits shied, snorting. Turning, he trotted back the way he had come. When the soldiers did not follow, he halted, looking over his shoulder.

The camp was immediately alerted. Mounted soldiers swung in behind the wounded horse, waiting for him to take the lead. Two Bits moved forward, staggered and died.

The full story of his heroic ride was pieced together from the men of the Government train and Sergeant Porter. Rescued, Porter was sent to Fort Wingate where he recovered.

Granted that training might have taken Two Bits to the encamped soldiers, what made the dying horse attempt to lead a rescue party back to the man who was not even his master—instinct or intelligence?

Two Bits was given a soldier's burial under shading pines where twenty-one cavalry men already lay sleeping. Each grave was covered by stones, but the cairn above Two Bits was the largest. Soldiers passing that way never failed to dismount and add another stone to the mound in tribute to the heroic horse that wasn't worth "two bits."