Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 4 – Mule Boy
For several days they drove along the rough road in comparative well=-being. Then one of the oxen became lame and the Martins were forced to drop behind. For one frightening night they made camp entirely alone. By morning, however, the oxen seemed to be all right and, to add to their relief, a young man by the name of James Brown came by looking for stray cattle.
“Will you ride with us, Mr. Brown?” asked Mrs. Martin as he came up to the wagon.
“Sure, Ma’am, I’ll be glad to,” he answered. “I reckon I can look for cattle just as easy from a wagon seat as I can from the ground.” He made a place on the wagon seat by taking Sam on his lap and Dennis drove out onto the road.
“Can you tell us anything about Mr. Martin?” asked the mother. “We haven’t seen him since we left Fort Leavenworth, and that seems ages ago.”
“I can’t tell you for sure, but I think he’s as well as anybody,” answered James. “There’s a Dr. Sanderson along with us who is dosing the men near to death with something he passes off for medicine. We didn’t have enough to plague us on this march; we had to have a quack doctor in the bargain.”
“Then the thing to do is keep well,” grinned Dennis.
“If you can,” agreed James; ‘but sleeping in clothes that have been soaked in rain, and trying to outwalk a Mexican mule aren’t the best roads to health.”
Dennis tried to urge the oxen forward, but they just ambled along. it was late in the day, when the animals had plodded to the top of a small hill, that the welcome sight of tents and wagons appeared near a creek below. The oxen were willing to move faster down hill, and they came into camp almost at a trot.
“Well, will you look what showed up!” cried Tom Winn, who was standing near a camp fire. “We thought you had hit the trail back for Council Bluffs.”
“Not much,” answered Dennis happily. “We just stopped along the way to pick daisies. Do you know where we can find Pa?”
“Yeah, I reckon he’s back in one of the wagons. He ain’t feeling so well today.”
“Which way?” asked Mrs. Martin, and without waiting for Dennis to turn the heavy wagon, she climbed down and hurried on in the direction Tom had indicated.
Running from one to another the three wagons at the rear of the camp, she soon located her husband. The story of their delay was quickly told. As she finished, she said fervently, “And now all we want is for you to get well again.”
“Shucks, I’ll be all right in no time,” he answered. “If I could just get away from Doc Sanderson’s rusty iron spoon and its dose, for one day, I’d be right back on my feet again.”
“We’ll think of something,” said Dennis, looking over the side of the wagon. “Right now I’ve got to make camp. We’ll fix you something nice for supper.”
Climbing back into their own wagon, he drove on looking for a suitable spot. His mother and the two boys followed on foot. As Mrs. Martin came up, she said briskly, ‘Now you scout around and get us some real firewood, Dennis. I want to make a good nourishing stew for your father’s supper.”
For the first time, Dennis paused to take a good look at the camp and realized that there were no signs of trees or brush within walking distance. Moving among the tents, rather bewildered and disconsolate, he finally stopped where Nancy Abbot was busily engaged in digging a narrow trench and filling it with weeds.
He was about to go on without speaking but she glanced up just in time to see him moving off. Nancy exclaimed, “Well, by Grandpa’s wig! Will you look what the hurricane blew in?”
“Yeah, there had to be some good along with the dirt,” he answered. “What are you burying in that trench?”
“This trench, bright boy, is an idea borrowed from the Arabs. The guides told us that there wouldn’t be any wood here, so we all cooked our meals back at Lost Springs. Now all we have to do is heat some up. Bring on your grub and I’ll make room for it on my cozy little fire,” she finished affably.
“We haven’t anything cooked,” Dennis answered lamely. “You see, we didn’t know about it.”
“Oh, that’s all right; we’ll give you some soup,” was the cheerful response. “There was a good leg of mutton in it to start with.”
“Oh, we couldn’t,” Dennis began, thinking all the time how well his father could do with some nourishing mutton soup.
“Well, bless my soul!” exclaimed Mrs. Abbot as she came bustling up with the soup kettle. “We sure thought we’d lost you for good and all.”
“We’re giving them some soup,” announced Nancy. “They haven’t anything cooked.”
“Why, of course,” was the hearty response. “You take it over just the minute it’s hot, and be sure that your Uncle Timothy gets some, too.”
Dennis didn’t have the heart to refuse. He carried a pail of the soup back to the family, who received it most gratefully.
“Now,” said Mr. Martin, as he lay back on his quilt again, “if it wasn’t for that medicine in the morning I think I’d be all right in another day.”
“Well, we’ve got till morning,” answered Dennis hopefully, “and I’ll think of something. You just wait and see.”
All during the fore part of the next morning Dennis stayed close by his father’s side. When the loud call, “Jim along, Josey,” was heard down the line, Mr. Martin said, “Well, there it is. That’s old Doc Sanderson shouting. Guess I’ll be on my way.”
“No, you don’t,” said Dennis, pushing him back. “I told you that I’d think of something, and I have. I’m answering this sick call.”
Before his father could remonstrate Dennis had gone down the camp and joined the lineup of men outside the doctor’s tent. Scarcely any of them were able to walk unaided. Many had been carried there and laid upon the ground.
The doctor sat on a chair outside his tent with a long medicine chest before him. From a paper on his knee he was reading his victims’ names. One by one as their names were called, each would go forward and receive a dose of medicine from the same spoon and the same bottle.
Dennis pulled his hat down over his eyes and waited anxiously until the doctor called, “Amos Martin.” Then going forward he said in a low voice, “Here, Doctor,” and took the rusty spoon which the doctor held forward without looking up.
After the horrid dose he no longer had to pretend illness. He reeled away from the tent, and as soon as he was out of sight got rid of the vile tasting medicine. He sat on the ground for a while and then walked back to the wagon saying, under his breath, “Believe me, I wouldn’t have done that for any man living except my father. Medicine. Ugh! I hope I never hear of medicine again.”
The members of the battalion had finished a short drill practice by this time. The missing cattle had been rounded up and the entire company was preparing to move on. The Martins had packed and Dennis was about to mount the wagon when an officer came up. “The women are driving the wagons. You go back and drive the mules,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” said Dennis and, handing the lines over to his mother, he made his way to the rear of the long army train.
“Sergeant Wilkins sent me back to help drive these animals,” he explained to the man in charge.
“To help nothing! You’re to drive them,” was the cheerful response. “You’re the mule boy now. See that you don’t lose any of them. We’re likely to need every blasted one before we get to California. here’s a stick to help prod them on. Not that it helps much. – Well, so long; I’ll see you later – I hope.” And with this parting shot the former mule boy stalked ahead to more congenial tasks.
Dennis walked among the animals. he patted one here and there and finally stopped by the side of a little fellow who looked up at him with large dark eyes in which Dennis thought he saw warmth and friendliness.
“You’re Hannibal,” he announced, stroking the small animal’s back. “I’d bet you a lump of sugar that you and I get along first rate – if I had a lump of sugar.”
The mule responded by stopping to nuzzle its head under Dennis’ arm. Since the battalion was moving on, however, Dennis started to move with it. The mule followed along and Dennis gave him an encouraging pat every few feet.
For the first time since leaving Fort Leavenworth, Dennis felt really lighthearted. he had just started to whistle a tune when the appearance of a sunbonneted girl, sitting on a rock by the side of the road, put an end to both the tune and high spirits.
“Nancy Abbott!” he muttered. “Can’t I ever get away from her?” He pretended all at once to be very busy with the mules, but when Nancy decided to join him, he gave up. “What’d you want to come back here for?” he asked. “I should think you’d stay up with the wagons, so you could ride.”
“That’s just the point,” she answered, pushing her pink sunbonnet back saucily. “The road’s so sandy they piled us all out, except for the drivers. I thought that as long as I had to walk anyway, I’d come back and walk with you. Say! I’ve got an idea. Why not ride one of these mules?”
“I wouldn’t advise you to,” said Dennis. “The sergeant didn’t say anything about riding them.”
“Well, he didn’t say not to, did he?” she demanded. “Golly, but you’re pokey. I don’t believe you ever have any fun. Come on, help me up. I’m going to get on this big one.”
“I’m not going to help you,” returned Dennis, “and I hope he throws you off.”
He walked on, followed by the rest of the mules. The animal that Nancy had selected for her mount stopped dead still, and when Dennis looked back the pair were still in the same spot. They looked as if they might remain there for some time to come.
For a brief moment he considered going back and trying to persuade the mule to travel on. then he decided to let Nancy work out her problem by herself. When he next looked back she was coming down the road on foot, followed by the mule.
It was near sundown when he caught up with the rest of the company. One glance showed him that a river, flowing down between two very steep banks, had held up the progress of the battalion.
As he neared the stream he could see that it was taking the combined efforts of fifty men to get each wagon across. On either side groups were working, one crew lowering the wagons with ropes, and the other bringing it up the opposite bank by the same slow back-breaking means.
For a few moments he looked on in silence. A sudden thought struck him and sent chills up and down his spine. He said, half aloud, “What if they had crossed this river before our wagon caught up. We’d have been stuck here for good.” In a burst of thankfulness he ran forward to help with the ropes.
It seemed to Dennis that there was always either too much water or none at all. Half the time they were searching the desert for water holes or else trying to get their wagons over some deep stream. It was rather a relief when they reached the Arkansas, some days later, to find that the wide river bed was mostly sand, with only an occasional water hole here and there.
His first concern, as always upon reaching a river, was to see that all the mules had a drink. having accomplished that, he made them secure and hurried off to find his mother.
She was busy getting the tubs out of the wagon. nearby, a pile of clothing was steadily growing larger as the men of the company came by and threw down their soiled clothing.
“Say, Ma!” he exclaimed, “are you going to wash every shirt in the company?”
“No, son,” she smiled, “just my share of them. It won’t be any holiday at that, I reckon. If you have any spare time I wish you’d keep a lookout for Bobby. He’s like Paddy’s flea for wanting to get around.”
“Which way will I look first?” he asked, gazing about in every direction.
“Oh, dear, I don’t know,” his mother answered, setting a tub on a rickety stool. “Better try the river bank, I guess. That’s where most everybody seems to be.”
Dennis hurried off, calling Bobby by name. Before he reached the sandy river bed he was hailed by a man carrying the dripping child on his shoulders.
“This belong to you?” he called.”
“I reckon so,” grinned Dennis, rather sheepishly. “Looks like he’s been taking a swim.”
“That he has,” was the answer. “He falls into the water holes as fast as we can get them dug. There’s enough sand falling in to pester us without any little boys in addition.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dennis, taking a firm grip on Bobby’s hand. “We’ll see that he doesn’t get over there again.”
Mrs. Martin had stopped her work and was busy taking the wet clothing off the child when Dykes, an officer in the company, came up. Glancing first at the almost untouched pile of laundry and then at the struggling youngster, he asked, “Is that your child?”
“Why, yes, of course,” she answered, glancing up.
“Got a couple more, too, haven’t you?” he answered gruffly.
“Yes, sir,” she answered, somewhat mystified. “There’s our five-year-old son, Sam, and Dennis here, who drives the extra mules.”
“We’re sending most of the families back when we reach Bent’s Fort,” he went on in the same tone of voice. “You and the two little ones will go with them. The older boy can stay as long as he makes himself useful.”
With that he strode on, leaving Dennis and his mother looking at one another in consternation.
“We weren’t supposed to be separated – ever,” she said numbly. “Brigham Young said that the battalion was not to be divided on any account. Get your father. We must see if we can find some way to stay together.”
Many other families carried their pleas to the commander and asked that they be allowed to either go on or turn back together; but the order remained unchanged. When they reached Bent’s Fort a few days later, the women and children started back, with only a few men to guide them over the desert country. Most of these were too ill to do more than sit up in a wagon seat.
Dennis and his father stood together, straining their eyes until the last wagon was out of sight. It seemed to the boy that he could still hear his baby brother’s cheery good-by as he laughed and waved from the wagon seat.
The order “forward march” was then given, and the men of the battalion turned their eyes southward. Once more they were on their weary way.