Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 6 – A Daring Rescue
When the three lads reached the camping grounds of the night before, they found, as they had expected, that the company had gone on. They followed as rapidly as the mules would travel and managed to catch up with the rest of the command by midday.
By the end of the week they came in sight of Santa Fe and, to their great relief, found the main part of the battalion still there. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke had arrived to take command of the battalion in place of Colonel Allen, who had died at Leavenworth. He was reorganizing the companies on a strict military basis before proceeding onward.
Dennis discovered that even his simple duties were brought under army discipline. He listened attentively as the colonel’s order was read: “At trumpet signal the mules and oxen must be harnessed, yoked and hitched up. The mules must be taken far out at first when not herded, and not brought in nearer. another trumpet signal will be sounded every evening for taking them to water. The Quartermaster will assign six extra mules to each company.”
According to the new rules, every man had to stay in his own place as far as possible. Dennis could not go forward during the day and travel with his father as he had done in the past, but just to know that they were once more in the same company made him happy.
Their course now lay down the Rio Del Norte, which meant that there was plenty of water for both the men and the animals. In many places, however, the road was extremely sandy, and the men had to pull on the long ropes to help the teams get through. This condition alone would have been bad enough, but it now became necessary to put the men on reduced rations.
“Until further orders, three-fourths pound of flour and three-fourths rations of sugar will be issued,” the order read. “Beef, one and a half pounds will be issued for the day’s rations.”
“A pound and a half of beef wouldn’t be so bad, if it were good beef,” complained Ned as they gathered around the camp fire for the evening meal. “Those fat beeves we picked up in Santa Fe are to be kept for work animals. Look what we get. … Nothing but the poor critters that die from exhaustion by the wayside.”
“Yeh, it’s hard,” answered James, “but the Colonel knows what he’s doing. We’d be in the same fix as the man who killed the goose that laid the golden eggs if we killed off our work animals. Here, hold your plate over and I’ll give you a tasty bit from the old bag of bones that gave up the ghost just in time for our supper.”
“Tripe!” exclaimed Ned in disgust, as he took his plate back. “So help me, it’s nothing but tripe.”
“Yeh, and the company ahead got a portion of soft-boiled hide for their share. But you just wait. Next time it’s our turn to get the marrow bones; so mind that you’re not late for supper. That’s a treat you really want to get in on.”
Dennis laughed and picking up the bucket went down to the river. the unsavory food didn’t taste quite so bad if one had plenty of water to wash it down with.
As he stooped down to fill his bucket he heard a quick step behind him, and looked up in astonishment to see a Mexican woman, young, rather pretty, and all alone.
“Hello!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”
Running towards him she threw out her hands and let loose with a volley of words.
“Sorry,” he replied, “but I don’t know a word you’re saying; so you might just as well save your breath. But if you’ll come back here with me we’ll see what we can do for you.” Motioning as he went, Dennis climbed up the river bank and the woman followed.
“Here’s another case for you, Ned,” he said as they drew near the camp fire. “She found me down by the river and seems to have something on her mind.”
“Greetings, Senora,” said Ned politely, for the woman was well dressed and evidently a person of means – quite different from the half breed Indians they had encountered along the way. “What can we do for you?”
A torrent of Mexican words, accompanied by many gestures followed. When she stopped for breath, Ned explained: “She lives on a rancho a ways over and says that the Navajos have run off with a lot of their stock. Her husband is away somewhere and she is afraid that they will come back and run off with her too. She wants us to come over and show them a little gun fire.”
“With pleasure,” answered James, “providing the colonel will let me go. I’ll go and ask.”
Half an hour later he returned smiling and announced, “The Colonel says that half a dozen of us may go, but the command will move on in the morning. It will be up to us to catch up as soon as we can. We’re to buy all the sheep she will sell us. In fact, that’s the main reason he’s letting us go, rather than any sympathy for beauty in distress. We’re to take the six extra mules from company E.”
He had hardly finished speaking before Dennis was on his feet and headed off to where the mules were tethered.
“Here, wait a minute, youngster,” called James.”Who said that you could go?”
“Please, James,” pleaded Dennis. ‘You know that I can shoot as well as any man in the company. And besides, maybe she’ll give us something to eat.”
“All right. You win. Maybe she will, and I guess you’ve got as good a right to a full meal as anyone.”
Beaming with happiness, Dennis ran off for the mules. When he returned they mounted and rode off, Dennis behind Ned so that the Mexican woman could have his mule.
By the time they reached the rancho, some two or three miles away, it was quite dark. Dennis shivered a little as he thought of the blood-thirsty Navajos that might be hiding in ambush behind the barns or the house. He noticed that the older men kept their rifles in readiness and that the Senora was moving forward very cautiously. They rode up to the door of the house and still everything was quiet.
“Looks like there’s no reception committee here tonight, anyway,” commented James as he swung down from his mule. He assisted the woman to alight, and she went inside and lighted candles.
Dennis tied his mule to the hitching post at the side of the house and followed the others inside. He looked about in wonder at the clean painted walls, the fresh white curtains and the woven rugs on the floor. Never in all his life, he thought, had he seen anything so heavenly. He felt as if he must be in a dream. Then it came to him that for the first time in almost a year he was in a real house. With a feeling of awe he touched the arm of a chair and then slowly sat down in it.
The Senora brought in a large tray of food – bread, goat’s cheese, cakes, and Spanish grapes; and finally, for Dennis alone, a large mug of rich, cool milk.
“I don’t wish the lady any harm,” said James after he had devoured a huge bunch of the sweet, juicy grapes, “but as long as there are Navajos around I’m sure glad that she came to us for protection.”
“And speaking of protection,” added Ned, “we’d better get a sentry or two outside. The Indians could be running off with the whole place and we wouldn’t know the difference.”
They agreed to take watches of four hours each, and two of the men went outside to take their turns while the others lay down on the floor to sleep, declining the Senora’s offer of beds.
“It would take us all night to get used to sleeping in a bed again,” Ned explained, “and we can’t afford to lose the sleep.”
Dennis rolled himself up in a rug in front of the fireplace and went to sleep. he was awakened just at dawn by the sound of shots, and seizing his own rifle he ran from the house in time to see a band of Indians driving off the remaining cattle on the place, as well as their own mules.
“Well, if that isn’t adding insult to injury!” exclaimed James, sending a parting shot after the fleeing Navajos. “What in the dickens happened, Bartley? Oh, they’ve winged you, haven’t they?”
“Yeh, that’s part of what happened,” answered Bartley, supporting his wounded arm. “I was around on the other side of the house when I heard them. By the time I reached here they were ready to make off. What’ll we do? Chase after them on foot?”
“We’ll have to. There isn’t a four-legged crittur left on the place, except the sheep. We’ll have to get them unless we want to board with the Senora for the rest of our natural lives. You’ll have to stay here, of course, and the rest of us will trail them. then we’ll have to get the mules back tonight the same way they took them from us.”
they decided to yield to the Senora’s entreaties that they eat breakfast before starting out, for they knew that the day would be long and difficult enough without adding hunger to their hardships. Besides, if they followed too closely behind the Navahos they might be discovered and lose all chances of regaining their stolen animals.
About an hour after sunrise they started, avoiding the open spaces as much as possible just in case the Indians were keeping a lookout. The trail was fairly easy to follow for the hoof marks were printed deeply in the sand and dry, loose desert soil.
During the mid afternoon they passed the spot where the Indians had camped for their noon meal. The ashes of their camp fire and the remains of a sheep gave evidence.
“They could have left a little something besides wool and bones,” complained Ned, poking hopefully about in the scattered bits.
“They did,” announced Dennis. “Here’s the sheep’s lights. Do you want them?”
“No, thanks. I’ve heard that if you eat them you go blind and I’m not hungry enough to take a chance today. Any other time, I might, but I’ll try and hold out now until we get back to the rancho.”
A short time alter, on coming to the top of a small hill, they almost stumbled upon the Navajos’ camp. It was just below them, near some small springs. They could see the Indians, the stolen cattle and the government mules. Dropping quickly to the ground, they looked the scene over in silence and then crept back to a safe distance.
“Have you got any plan?” asked Levi Willet of James, who was the accepted leader.
“Not yet,” answered James. “I thought we’d have to wait until we saw how they were situated and how many there were. I counted about a dozen Indians. that’s not a great many, but it’s more than we want to take on in a straight battle.”
“If you could manage to get the Indians’ attention somewhere else,” volunteered Dennis, “I could take the mules off. They all know me.”
“The lad has something there,” admitted Levi. “Our problem would be to distract their attention, or better still, to lead them away.”
“If we could stampede their cattle,” said James thoughtfully, “that might turn the trick. I wonder how we could do that.”
“We might try throwing firebrands among them,” suggested Ezra Meeks, the fifth member of the group. “The question is, who will tie the bell around the cat’s neck?”
“All of us,” answered James promptly, “and from all different directions so that we can stir up as much confusion as possible. Dennis will grab the mules and start off for the rancho and the rest of us will follow as best we can. If we manage to meet along the way, so much the better. If not, we’ll meet at the ranch house.”
They spent the rest of the daylight hours gathering knots of wood, as big and dry as they could find, and planning in which direction they would creep up on the herd in order to escape detection.
Dennis, for his part, lay on the knoll studying every detail of the spot where the mules were tethered and figuring the best path for his getaway after he had secured the animals. Just before they were to start James slipped him a sharp knife saying, “Here’s something to cut them loose with, boy, and good luck to you.”
Dennis waited until the others had gone off to their positions and then crawled slowly down the hillside toward the mules. When he was within half dozen feet of them he lay quite still, scarcely daring to breathe. The Indians were but a short distance beyond, and he dared not think what would be his fate if he were discovered.