Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 3 – Fort Leavenworth
The dugout was cleared of its furnishings – namely one wagon seat and some bedding. once more the Martins’ wagon was packed to the canvas top and rolling along behind the plodding oxen.
“Aren’t you thrilled to be on the way, Ma?” asked Dennis when the last good-byes had been said and they were actually on their way.
“Hm, I guess so,” assented Mrs. Martin, “although it seemed kind of nice to be settled for a while and the dugout was getting to look real cozy. I had saved some papers to put on the walls and I was going to plant some hollyhocks outside. Of course, being with your father makes up for everything.”
“Sure it does,” agreed Dennis enthusiastically. “You can save those hollyhock seeds for when you have a real home.”
On the evening of the third day they came to a small river where they had orders to camp and await the arrival of some supplies. With the exception of a small amount of parched corn, no food had been taken along. After two days of living on very meager portions of that simple diet, every one in the camp was looking with eager eyes for the arrival of the supply wagon.
“I’m hungry,” wailed the three-year-old Bobby for the tenth time that evening.
“So’m I,” chimed in Sam. “I could eat a mule, tail and everything.”
“Haven’t you any food, Ma?” asked Dennis. ‘Just enough to shut these boys up for a little while?”
“Yes, I have one cupful of corn,” answered their mother. “But my policy is never to eat the last mouthful until we have more and then we’ll never be really out of food. I’ll tell you what we can do. Give it to them one kernel at a time and maybe it will last until the supply wagon gets here.”
She handed the cup to Dennis who sat down on the ground before the two little boys.
“Now,” he said in a voice that promised something interesting, “I’ll take one kernel at a time. You boys shut your eyes and guess which hand it is in. The one that guesses right gets the corn.”
The little fellows brightened at once and entered into the game eagerly. They forgot how hungry they were as they pondered over Dennis’ tightly closed fists. The cup was only half emptied when the shout came, “Here are the supply wagons! Food at last!”
Dennis handed the cup back to his mother with the words, “there, you see. You’re not out of food yet.” Then he ran to meet his father and get their share of the rations.
Half an hour later he came back lugging a small bag of flour. He put it in his mother’s lap, saying cheerfully, “Well, here it is.”
“Is that all?” asked Mrs. Martin slowly.
“That’s all, for tonight, anyway,” answered Dennis. “I reckon there’ll be another wagon along tomorrow.”
“I reckon so,” she answered brightening. “Now I’d like to know just how I’m going to make anything out of that flour without a sign of a pot or pan. I knew that we shouldn’t have traded them off back there in Council Bluffs, but they said that the government would issue all those things. You run down to Mrs. Abbott’s wagon and see if she has something we can borrow.”
Dennis never went near the Abbott wagon unless it was absolutely necessary. Nancy’s pert, teasing ways always made him feel as if he had twice the customary number of hands and feet. Only the thoughts of his two hungry little brothers, plus a frightful gnawing emptiness in his own stomach, drove him on. he stopped at the Abbott camp to ask haltingly, “Mis’ Abbott, my mother wants to know if you have an extra pan that we could borrow to mix some of our flour in. She left ours behind at council Bluffs.”
“So did I, Dennis,” Mrs. Abbott started to explain.
“But that isn’t bothering us any,” chirped Nancy. for the first time Dennis looked over to where she sat toasting something on a long stick over the coals of the campfire. her sunbonnet was pushed back on her neck and her full skirts spread about the camp stool.
“Have some,’ she said suddenly, swinging toward Dennis and offering him the morsel on the end of the stick.
Not knowing what else to do he took the bit of food and ate it, his only regret being that the piece was so small.
“Come here and I’ll show you how to do it,” said Nancy, jumping up from the stool. ‘You see this flour,” she went, folding back the sack. ‘You make a dip in it, fill it with water and mix it into a dough. Then you take a piece, twist it on the end of a stick, bake it over the fire and, pft! there’s your supper. Want me to make you another?”
“No, thank you,” answered Dennis, backing away. “I’ll go home and tell Ma. The folks will be wanting their supper.”
They were indeed, as Dennis found when he got back to the camp. The two little boys had forgotten all about the corn game and were wailing for food. It was only a matter of minutes, however, until their mother had fashioned some “doughbobs,” and they were being toasted over the hot coals. Minus salt, butter or leavening, they still tasted like manna to the hungry children. The other supply wagons remained only a wish, and in the succeeding days the flour and water doughbobs were served for breakfast, dinner, and supper.
At the end of a week the travelers came once more to a crossing place on the banks of the broad Missouri river. They looked with eager anticipation at the ferry which was to carry them across to Fort Leavenworth, the first landmark on the march of the Mormon Battalion.
Ordinarily, being ferried across the river would have been an experience exciting enough to crowd out all other emotions, but now Dennis could think only of reaching Fort Leavenworth. Here the men would become full-fledged members of the army, with new rifles and all the trappings of real soldiers. Here they would see volunteers from other parts of the country, and start out on their march to fight the Mexicans. He leaned forward as if he would urge the slowly moving ferry more quickly to the opposite shore.
As they came near the landing place Dennis recognized Neil, waving and shouting a welcome. he waved his ragged black felt hat enthusiastically in response. The ferry had no sooner touched shore than Dennis leaped on the bank and scrambled up to his friend’s side.
“I thought you’d never get here,” shouted Neil. “It sure is exciting. A company from Missouri came in today – the roughest crowd you ever saw. They’re at the arsenal getting their arms now. Want to see them?”
“Sure, I want to see everything,” answered Dennis, trying to look in all directions at once. ‘My land, did you ever see so many tents? and don’t they look grand all out there on the hillside in rows? Which way do we go first? Wait1 I’ll have to see if Ma needs me to help her get settled.”
Speedily securing permission from his mother, Dennis rejoined Neil and they were on their way to the swarming hive of activity, that was Fort Leavenworth in early August of 1846. The hot, dusty streets were crowded with men of every description. None were in uniform but many had already been issued arms and seemed loaded down with their heavy accoutrements.
“Makes you sort of wonder where a fellow is going to put his clothes and bedding, doesn’t it?” mused Neil, as they passed two soldiers plodding along with their loads under the hot sun.
“You don’t have to carry all that, too, do you?” exclaimed Dennis.
“That’s what I’ve heard,” answered Neil with seeming cheerfulness, “although there’s some talk of buying a few mules to carry some of the heavier stuff. You can be kind of glad you’re not old enough to enlist, I’d say.”
“Well, I’m not,” answered Dennis. “I’ll bet that I walk just as far as you do and get just as hot and tired. The only difference will be that you get forty-two dollars a month for doing it.”
Neil grinned and they walked on through the jostling crowd.
After wandering about for another hour, Dennis said, “Maybe we’d better look up the folks. It must be getting near supper time.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” agreed Neil. “I sure hope they’ve been issued some food and a frying pan. I haven’t had anything but plain baked dough for five solid days now.”
“Who has?” asked Dennis. “Say, how do we go about finding the folks?” he went on, gazing bewildered at the rows of hundreds of tents.
“Oh, that’s easy enough,” shrugged Neil. “The Mormons are all camped down by that grove of trees and the wagons are at the south end of the tents. I’ll take you over.”
A hum of activity pervaded the streets of the tent city as the two boys trudged through. From numerous campfires came the aroma of cooking food. Friends called back and forth to each other as they went about the welcome task of preparing a meal of full rations.
“Hm,” sniffed Dennis. “Do you suppose that can be bacon?”
“It’s been so long since I smelled any that I wouldn’t be sure,” grinned Neil, “but it might be. Let’s hurry and find out.”
They quickened their steps for a way but came to a sudden halt as they saw a large wagon coming down the road. It was drawn by six mules, each seemingly bent on going in a different direction.
“Hey, there, Silas,” cried Neil, recognizing the driver. “Where do you think you’re going with the mules?”
“Crazy, plumb crazy,” called back the exasperated driver. “I’ve got to break them in and I’d rather have a string of hyenas.”
“You shouldn’t have said that. Now you’ve made them made,” Neil shouted back, as the fractious mules finally came to an agreement on one matter and stopped dead still.
Past the power of speech, Silas only gazed at them in complete bafflement. The two boys laughed and walked on. Almost at the end of the row of tents they came upon Tom Winn, rigged out in full army equipment and marching back and forth in front of his tent.
“What’s the idea?” asked Dennis. “Can’t you wait until the army gets going?”
“I’m just trying to see if I can carry this load and still move,” Tom answered, pausing wearily. ‘Just count this stuff: belt with cartridge box over the left shoulder, belt with bayonet and scabbard over the right shoulder, waist belt, straps for bedding behind, knapsack behind, canteen somewhere and haversack somewhere.”
Then, starting his march again, he sang dolefully:
”I joined the ranks of Uncle Sam
To meet and fight an army,
Instead I’ve twenty thousand pounds
To tote to Californy.”
“Cheer up, Tom, maybe you’ll get to fight, too,” laughed Dennis, as they went on.
The wagon camp was close by and in a few minutes Dennis dropped down on the ground by the camp fire where his mother was busily stirring something in a large frying pan.
“I don’t have to wash, do I, Ma?” he pleaded. “I’m just plain starved.”
“The creek’s only twenty feet away, and as long as you can stagger there and back, you have to wash,” she answered firmly.
“Is it really bacon?” he paused long enough to ask.
‘It really is. Bacon and potatoes,” she smiled. “Run along now. I’ll have it all dished up when you get back.”
The following days were busy and exciting ones. new companies arrived every day. Mules had to be trained. Pay checks were drawn and equipment issued. Within a week the first companies of the Mormon Battalion began to leave on the long trek southward. As each group marched on, accompanied by a few wagons carrying the heavy supplies and the women and the children, Dennis was on hand tow ave good-by to his friends and to shout, “Good luck! We’ll be seeing you soon.”
At last the day came when their own company was to leave. The camp equipment was all packed and the men marched forward, glad to be on their way.
Dennis waved good-by to his father in the ranks of the marching men, and then ran back to help his mother drive the wagon. He climbed over the wheel into the big seat and gathered up the reins. they were on their way to Mexico – or thereabouts.
As the morning wore on and the sun’s rays became increasingly hot., his gay spirits began to droop. he was dreadfully thirsty but dared not say so for fear of starting the two little boys asking for water. he was very sure that in the excitement of getting away they had forgotten to fill the canteens.
It was not long, however, before the others awakened to the realization that they were both hot and thirsty. Presently Sam said longingly, “That was sure a nice creek we camped by, wasn’t it?”
“Let’s go back!” shouted Bobby. “I want a drink.”
“We can’t go back now,” said his mother, “but I’m sure we’ll come to another creek pretty soon.”
Relying on this promise the boys busied themselves looking in all directions for a creek, but the dry, baked earth gave no evidence of having known water for many weeks.
“This is dreadful,” said Mrs. Martin. “I can’t imagine how I could ever have forgotten to fill those canteens.”
“Shucks, Ma, you can’t think of everything,” comforted Dennis. “If it gets too bad, we can ask someone else to share theirs with us. Look, there’s some green over yonder. That could be a water hole, couldn’t it?”
“I think it could,” she answered, not daring to hope for too much. “You run over and see.”
Dennis stopped the wagon and jumped quickly over the side of the wheel. He ran to the hole and examined it anxiously. It was water, all right, but so filled with bugs that he realized it was quite unfit for human beings to drink. No such ideas hindered Sam and bobby, however.
“It’s a drink, Mummy,” shrieked Bobby, stooping down and cupping his small chubby hands.
Sam followed suit and, unable to resist any longer, Dennis knelt down by his brothers and filled his hands with the doubtful water.
As he walked back to the wagon he felt a twinge of real homesickness for the dugout at Council Bluffs. It had promised to be so cozy and was within a stone’s throw of a river.