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Dennis and the Mormon Battalion: Chapter 5

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 02, 2011

Dennis and the Mormon Battalion

By Mabel Harmer

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Chapter 5 – Hannibal is Lost

The long hot march was resumed early the next morning and the only water along the way was found in a stagnant pool but slightly cleaner than the first one. Since the canteens had been emptied long ago, there was no choice but to drink the loathsome pool water. The following day’s march brought them to a good spring and the welcome sight of the first timber to be encountered for many miles.

“I’m thankful that your mother has gone back,” said Mr. Martin as he and Dennis rolled up in their blankets for the night and lay down under the bright stars. “The company is following the river and won’t suffer for water as we have done.”

“Yes, I sure miss ‘em,” Dennis assented, “but I guess it’s for the best. Anyway, you and I will be together for the rest of the trip.”

“That’s right, son. We’ll look out for one another.”

With this comforting assurance Dennis dropped off to sleep. His father heard the slight commotion raised when a messenger came into camp, from where and for what purpose only Lieutenant Smith knew that night.

The rest of the battalion learned soon enough. Early the next morning the companies were lined up and listened to an order from General Kearney to the effect that unless the command reached Santa Fe by October 10, all would be discharged.

“In order to comply with this command,” said Lieutenant Smith, “I shall take fifty of the most able men from each company and the best teams. We will then push on with all haste to Santa Fe, and the rest of you will follow as rapidly as you can. Sergeant Dykes will now read the names of those who are to go first.”

There was no audible protest as the names were read, but on the faces of many of those to be left behind appeared looks of deep concern. to more than one the idea occurred that if the stronger part of the command went on ahead to Santa Fe, there was nothing to prevent them from being sent on further; and there was nothing to keep the weaker group from being left entirely behind.

To some who were alone the effect of the order was not so severe, but where members of families were divided it was a hard blow. To Dennis, so recently separated from his mother, the announcement that his father was included among the number called to go, brought a lump to his throat and a sudden rush of tears. then he reminded himself fiercely, “I’m thirteen years old; nearly a man! I’ll get along all right. And I’m strong, too. I’ll get to Santa Fe almost as soon as they will.”

Instinctively he ran back to where the mules had been tethered for the night and threw his arms around Hannibal, the only living creature that he was not ashamed to have see him cry. “They’re leaving us behind, old fellow,” he said, stroking the mule’s neck. “The best of them are going on and leaving us little fellows to come on as we can. But we’ll get there, won’t we old boy?”

His spirits were bolstered by his own words until suddenly he remembered that the officer had said the best of the animals were to go too. Then fresh anxiety gripped his heart and, putting his arm more tightly around Hannibal’s neck, he whispered, “They’re not going to get you. I’ll see to that.”

Untying the mule’s short rope, eh led the animal to the “sick” wagon at the rear of the encampment. There he untied one of the other mules and put Hannibal in its place.

“Hey you, what do you think you’re up to?” called a voice from the end of the wagon and, looking about, Dennis saw the jovial face of his old friend Tom Winn.

“I’m sorting out the mules,” Dennis answered. “What are you up to? You don’t look sick enough to be riding in one of these wagons.”

“That’s the trouble with a fat man,” moaned Tom. “You can be half dead and nobody’ll believe it. You don’t suppose I’d put myself in line for Doc Sanderson’s doses if I was able to walk, do you?”

“Nope,” agreed Dennis. “Say,” he continued excitedly, “I’ll bet you haven’t heard the news yet, have you?”

“Is the old blister down himself?” asked Tom, his face lighting up with hope.

“No such luck,” laughed Dennis. “He knows better than to swallow any of those voodoo herbs. No, this isn’t good news. General Kearney has sent orders that the command is to be in Santa Fe within a week or be discharged. Lieutenant Smith is taking the best men and animals and going on ahead. That’s why I was shifting mules. Hannibal asked to stay on here with me. I guess I’d better get back with this other fellow before they miss us. I’ll see you later.”

With an encouraging smile at Tom, he led the mule away toward the wagons that were being made ready for the advance army. He could still smile when his father marched off. This gave him great satisfaction, for he knew that his father’s heart was just as heavy as his own at the parting.

There was one vast silver lining to the cloud. As the wagons rolled by at the rear of the marching columns, Dennis caught sight of Dr. Sanderson holding his long black medicine case on his knee.

Almost bursting with glee, he ran back to the “sick’ wagons and pulling aside a cover shouted at Tom. “Guess what? I’ve got great news for you. Doc Sanderson is going on with the well people.”

“Heaven be praised,” answered Tom fervently. “Now I’ll have a chance to get well again. By jove, I feel like I can even sing again.” And with something of his old time happy-go-lucky spirit Tom sang:

”Our doctor fills his rusty spoon
With calomel and bitters.
It makes a sick man long for death,
And gives a well man jitters.

“But now he’s gone to Santa Fe
To meet with General Kearney,
The sick folks get a holiday –
May fate prolong his journey.”

“You’re still pretty sick,” teased Dennis, “but I believe it’s mostly in your head now. It looks like the company is starting to move, so I guess I’d better be hitching up these mules.”

The “stragglers,” as they now began to call themselves, took up the line of march in fairly good order and moved ahead as rapidly as possible. to their great relief the feed and water became much more plentiful as they advanced along the way. Each day they were able to force their jaded animals a few miles farther than they had been able to do before.

On the third day they came to a village. It, to be sure, was a very small village with a scattering of flat-roofed adobe houses. The people were half-breed Spanish Indians but it was a happy experience just to know that they were in a country where it was possible for people to make a home.

The natives did not appear to welcome the soldiers with the same warmth, for they either stood in the doorways, watching with sullen eyes, or else stayed out of sight altogether. One of the interpreters managed to engage a few of the Indians in conversation and learned that a company passing through a few days previously had pretended to buy bread and cakes and then cheated them out of their money as well as stealing some goats.

“That would be Colonel Price’s ruffians,” said Sergeant Miller. “I’m sure that our men wouldn’t be guilty of such petty thievery.”

“You’re probably right,” answered Tom, “but I wish that we had got here first. I’d give the buttons off my only shirt for some of that stuff I can smell baking, even if these shanties don’t look too clean.”

“Well, from the looks of things you can keep your buttons and eat your own desert flap-jacks as per usual,” said the sergeant, “because they’ve made it plenty clear that all they want to see of us is the back of our heels.”

With reluctant steps the company went on and made their camp by some springs a few miles beyond. Some of the men were keenly disappointed that the villagers had refused to sell them food. The same fare, week after week, was getting very tiresome, but Dennis was too happy over the progress they were making to waste time mourning over some lost Mexican cakes or goat’s cheese. He felt sure that at their present rate of travel they would reach Santa Fe within a few days and he would be reunited with his father.

Whistling to himself he went contentedly about his work of unhitching the mules and taking them to the spring for their evening’s watering. As he reached the rear of the train he looked first for his pet, Hannibal, as was his nightly custom.

At first he was only mildly surprised when he discovered that the mule was missing, for he supposed that someone had made a change at one of the wagons and taken Hannibal to replace a more worn animal. As he searched the camp through and through, without finding any trace of the little fellow, he became increasingly alarmed. Finally he was forced to decide that Hannibal was somewhere back on the trail.

There was no question in his mind at all about going back to look for the mule his only problem was whether or not to ask permission from Sergeant Miller, Eventually he decided that it would be best not to say anything about the matter. He knew he would be reprimanded for allowing one of the animals to get loose. So, slipping away in the growing dusk, he retraced his steps back along the deeply rutted wagon trail.

As he walked along he called out at intervals but there was no answer from the growing darkness that was fast blotting out the surrounding landscape. Dennis had to feel his way along the rough road. More than once he was on the verge of turning back, but felt that he could not bear to desert his pet. One thing he knew he must do. He must turn back in order to reach camp by morning, otherwise, if he were not missed, they might go off without him.

Dennis almost stumbled into the little Indian village, although he had been expecting to reach it for some time. It was quiet and completely dark, for by now the time was nearly midnight. he decided that he would look about near some of the houses and then, he knew, he would have to turn back. to go on would be both useless and risky.

He wandered about from house to house. As he was feeling his way cautiously along an adobe wall he heard a short bray of welcome. Running forward, he threw his arms around Hannibal’s neck.

“You rascal!” he scolded softly. “What did you run away for? I’ve been up all night looking for you. It would have served you right if I’d left you here with the Indians.” He found the rope around the mule’s neck and started to lead him off but stopped short as he discovered that Hannibal was tied securely to a small tree.

“Ah! so you didn’t run away!” he exclaimed under his breath. “The Indians just nipped you off from the end of our lines. Well, come on, let’s get going.” He was working rapidly in the darkness to get the knots untied before they should be discovered and might have succeeded if Hannibal had not become too impatient. Just as he had the rope almost free the mule gave a prolonged bray that brought an Indian rushing from the house.

Seizing Dennis by an arm the man dragged him into the adobe house and threw him into a corner. He was muttering all the time in either Indian or Spanish. Dennis didn’t know which, but realized that it didn’t much matter since he couldn’t understand a word of either. Even so, he tried to explain that he thought his mule had been lost but that he would go back alone if the man would just allow him his freedom. After a time he realized that argument was of no use; he might just as well save his breath and hope for the best.

All the rest of the night he sat huddled on the dirty floor waiting for the dawn and praying that release would come in some way. He hoped that they would miss him at camp or that the Indian would relent and let him go before it was too late. He couldn’t bear to think of the possibility that the company might go on without him.

He listened breathlessly for some sound that might tell him the Indian had dropped off to sleep. Although they sat there for hours without saying another word, Dennis knew that the man was just as watchful and wide awake as he was.

The first streaks of daylight coming through the open doorway brought more distress than relief to Dennis. He knew that now there would not be time to reach the encampment before the day’s march would have begun. He waited impatiently for some sign from the Indian, but the man sat there as stolidly as a monument until the sound of hoofbeats brought both of them to their feet.

“Here! I’m in here!” shouted Dennis just as the Indian sprang forward and closed his hand over the boy’s mouth.

He waited in an agony of suspense, wondering if he had been heard. If no one else heard his shout Hannibal did and answered back with a loud bray that soon brought the riders to the doorway of the hut. As they entered, the Indian took his hand away from the boy’s mouth but kept a firm grip on his arm.

“Neil!” shouted Dennis, recognizing his friend and Ned Willett. “I was so afraid that you wouldn’t miss me.”

“We almost didn’t,” answered Neil. “That little Abbott girl just happened to see you stroll off last night and when you didn’t show up again we figured we’d have to look you up. Ned came along to speak their lingo. I couldn’t imagine what had led you back here but now I see it was that crazy mule.”

“This Indian stole him while we were going through,” explained Dennis. “Ask if I can have him back again, will you Ned?”

“I can try,” answered Ned, “but the odds are all on his side and we can’t waste much time here arguing.”

Ned did try with all the Spanish at his command, but the Indian remained entirely passive. Finally Ned threw up his hands and said, “He claims that somebody stole his goat and so he has to keep the mule in exchange. You’d better come along and be glad that you can.”

“All right,” agreed Dennis sorrowfully. “But I sure hate to leave Hannibal.”

“Wait a minute,” interrupted Neil. “Ask him if he’ll take this for the mule,” and he held up a prized hunting knife that he had treasured ever since leaving Nauvoo.

“Oh, not your knife!” cried Dennis, noting the flash in the Indian’s eye. “I couldn’t ask you to part with that – not even for Hannibal.”

“Go on and ask him,” repeated Neil. “A knife is only a piece of steel. I’ll get another one some day – but Hannibal, well, Hannibal is a friend.”

The exchange was but a matter of half a dozen words, and a few moments later the three were out in the yard again and mounting their mules for the return trip.

“Espera!” cried the Indian as they were about to ride off.

“He says to wait,” explained Ned. “How about it?”

“I’m for going on as fast as possible,” said Dennis, starting out.

But the Indian had already darted into his hut and in a moment reappeared with three small loaves of bread which he offered to Ned, with the words, “Pan. Tienen hambre.”

“Thanks, friend. You bet we’re hungry,” agreed Ned, taking the bread and riding on to the other boys. “Here’s a little peace offering,” he said, handing a loaf to each, “just to show us that there are no hard feelings.”

“Oh, I’d almost forgotten how hungry I am,” said Dennis, munching his gratefully.

“Well, make the most of it,” advised Neil, “for it’s the only food we are likely to see until we catch up with the rest of the company.”

“You hear that, Hannibal?” said Dennis. “On your way, fellow,” and giving the mule an encouraging pat he once more started on the journey southward.

(To be continued)



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