Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 7 – The Smoke Signal
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 a 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.
Suppose something went wrong. Suppose the firebrands were never lit, or the animals didn’t stampede, or the Indians captured them all instead of going after the cattle! A hundred such possibilities flashed through his mind. Still he waited.
Finally it began. The first firebrand was thrown among the cattle, then another and another, followed by shouts and rifle shots coming, it seemed, from everywhere. Pandemonium broke loose, with the Indians shouting and the cattle bellowing and running in every direction. Dennis flew to his charges, cut loose their ropes and started off with them as rapidly as he could urge them on.
There was no time to chance even a backward glance to see how the others were faring. Mounting one of the mules and hanging on to the ropes of two more, he could only trust that the others would follow. His chance for safety lay, he felt sure, in the fact that the Indians would figure the mules of less value than the cattle and would gather up the latter before bothering about anything else; unless they went after the white men first. Dennis shivered as he thought of this possibility.
He had no tracks to follow to help guide him back to the rancho and could only travel east according to the stars, as James had cautioned him to do. Occasionally he saw a tree or knoll that he thought he recognized, but he could be sure of nothing in the darkness. he kept hoping that one of the others would catch up with him so that he could be reassured of their safety; but no one came. he traveled steadily on through the rest of the night, alone except for the half dozen mules.
With the first faint streaks of daylight the stars began to fade and Dennis looked about for some definite landmarks. For a time he found nothing, but as the light became stronger he located a primitive road. He followed it and found, to his great relief, that it led to the rancho.
Bartley and the Senora were as relieved and happy to welcome him back as he was to be back. After a few questions they gave him something to eat and allowed him to curl up in a rug for a few hours sleep.
It seemed to Dennis that he had only closed his eyes when James awakened him by shaking his shoulder and saying, “Come on, boy. I hate to disturb you, but we’ve got to get out of here before the Indians pay a return visit. The boys are all back now and we’ve got to be on our way.”
“All?” repeated Dennis gratefully.
“Sure. You didn’t suppose we could be out-smarted by a bunch of navajos, did you?”
“What about the Senora?” asked Dennis. “We can’t leave her if they’re coming back.”
“She’s going with us – as far as a village,” answered James, “and all the sheep as well. I’ve persuaded her that she might as well sell them to us as let the Indians steal them. come on. The others are all ready.”
Dennis was awake and ready, too, by now. going outside he climbed up behind Ned, and they were on their way.
“With all this mutton in tow,” said Ned, as they started off, “we’re not going to starve before we catch up with the battalion.”
“No,” answered Dennis, looking back for another glimpse of the rancho. “‘But I wish that some of them were juicy Spanish grapes.”
Shortly after noon they reached a Mexican village, and there they left the Senora. She was not too happy at the idea of having abandoned her rancho to the mercies of the Navajos. By the end of the second day they once more came in sight of the battalion, whose travel had been very slow on account of having to pull the wagons through the heavy sand.
Colonel Cooke was delighted at the addition of one hundred head of sheep to their rapidly dwindling resources. He gave the men strict orders that none were to be killed except by his express command.
“I guess he wants to wait until they’ve run all their fat off like the rest of these bone bags we’re dragging alone,” grumbled Barkley.
“The colonel knows what he’s doing,” reprimanded James sharply. “It’s going to take all his ingenuity and all our cooperating to get us through here, if I read the signs aright.”
“You said it!” spoke up Willet. “Did you hear the message General Kearney sent back to us yesterday? He said that he’d left his wagons so he could push on to California on horseback, quick-like, and we’re to follow on and build a wagon road. Can you beat that! It’ll probably take the rest of our lives to build a road to California.”
“Well, cheer up,” answered Barkley. “We probably won’t live very long at the rate we’re feeding.”
To the deep regret of everyone in the company, the road now left the Rio del Norte and turned off into country where the search for water was once more a daily necessity. the first night they were fortunate enough to discover a natural reservoir in a ravine, which furnished an abundance of good water for both the men and the animals. On the following two days they were not so fortunate, finding only one small stream during the entire march. On the third day, Colonel Cooke halted the command and sent guides in every direction with instructions that if they should find water, in any appreciable amount, they were to build a smoke signal to attract the attention of the rest of the battalion.
When Dennis found that his father and Tom Winn were going out together he quickly gained permission to go with them. Then he ran to find Neil so that they could have the pleasure of an afternoon together.
“Oh, let me go too,” cried Nancy, who was standing nearby. ‘I haven’t had any fun as far back as I can remember.”
“Who said it was going to be fun?” asked Dennis. “Anyway, I thought that you laundresses had work to do when a halt was called.”
“Well, it so happens that we can’t wash clothes without any water,” Nancy retorted. “Besides, we aren’t laundresses anymore. What few women are left are either paying their own way through or else doing some other work. Mother is cooking for the Colonel. Come on, let’s not stand here arguing all day.”
With that she started out and the two boys followed, Dennis with a shrug of his shoulders and Neil with a broad grin, for he thought Nancy was lively and rather fun to have along.
The two older men had already started out but the young folk soon overtook them. They all hiked along at a fairly rapid rate of speed. The day was cooler than any they had known for some time since they had now come to a part of the country where there was a low range of mountains.
“When I get done with plodding across the country and build me a house,” said Tom as they were walking along, “it’s going to be by a lake or a river so that I can go out and get a drink twenty times a day.”
“You don’t get nearly so thirsty if you don’t think or talk about it,” said Nancy wisely. “If you keep a pebble in your mouth you hardly get thirsty at all – anyway, it helps.”
“So it does, lassie,” answered Tom with a smile, “and a big hulk like me could better spend his time looking for water today, instead of dreaming about it for Tomorrow.”
“Let’s climb this mountainside and look around,” suggested Mr. Martin. “If we see any amount of green about, it ought to be a fairly good indication of water.”
A few minutes climb up the mountainside brought them to a flat space. Neil, who was first to reach it, cried out, “Look! there’s an opening. It must be an old mine.”
“More than likely,” replied Tom. “If we just had a light we’d go inside.”
By now they had all reached the opening and Dennis, who had ventured a few feet inside, shouted, “Listen! I ca hear water running! If it isn’t too far inside we might get some. Wait ‘till my eyes get used to the darkness and I’ll go a bit farther and make sure.”
“Be very careful, son,” advised his father. “You never can tell about these mines. There could be a ledge where you’d drop off to nowhere.”
“I’ll be careful,” promised Dennis. “I can see fairly well now. Why,” he exclaimed a minute later, “it’s a stream, just a few yards in here! Come on in, all of you, and get a drink. It’s the coldest water I ever drank in all my life.”
They needed no further urging. As soon as all had quenched their thirst, Nancy said, “We must let the others know right away. We can build a smoke signal in front here and they’ll be sure to see it.”
Going outside, they gathered up branches of scrub oak, threw them into a pile and covered it with the broad leaves of the Spanish bayonet. Mr. Martin managed to get it lighted; then they all sat down on the ground to rest and wait for the other members of the company to come up.
“It may take a couple of hours for them to get here,” said Neil, as he stretched out lazily on the ground. “That will be perfectly all right with me. This is the first chance I’ve had to rest in the day time for as long as I can remember.”
“I’m going to pick flowers,” said Nancy. “There are some lovely ones around here, and I’m always too tired to care about them when we’re on the march.”
She started off along an ancient road that led from the mine, but a few minutes later rushed back and dropped down beside the men. “There’s someone coming,” she said in an excited whisper, “and it isn’t our people. I’m afraid they’re Indians or Mexicans.”
“They’ve been attracted here by our smoke signal. let’s hope that they’re Mexicans,” said Mr. Martin. “The Indians hereabouts are of the Apache tribe and are fierce and treacherous.”
“Well, we all have rifles – except Nancy there,” said Tom. “If they get too sassy I know how to use mine.”
“Leave your rifle alone,” admonished Mr. Martin. “Let’s not go borrowing trouble.”
They sat in tense silence for a few minutes and then as the natives appeared around the hillside, Mr. Martin said in a low voice, “They’re Indians! So much the worse for us. We’ll have to pretend that we’re not afraid of them.”
He stood up, smiling a welcome, but the Indians paid little attention to the white party. Instead, they ran to the opening of the mine and examined the footprints leading inside.
Only then did they turn to the travelers. The leader made many signs with his hands, and talked in a loud voice. Even though he spoke a language they could not understand, he made it clear that he was exceedingly angry over something they had done.
“You’ll just have to wait until our guides get here,” said Tom, “because none of us knows your language. In the meantime you can sit down and make yourselves to home.”
It was not the Indians’ intentions that anyone should make themselves “to home.” They made it quite clear, by their motions, that the white people should leave immediately.
“But we have to drink,” returned Tom, going through the motions of lifting water to his lips in his cupped hands, “Drink, in mine,” he continued, pointing to the entrance.
At this the Indian went into a near frenzy, and the young people began to think that the suggestion to leave hadn’t been such a bad idea after all.
Before they could act on the idea they saw three of their own men coming up the mountainside, among them Charboneaux, one of the guides, who spoke the Indian language.
“They were evidently scouting for water not far from here,” said Mr. Martin, as they waited for the men to arrive. “some of the others will probably get up here ahead of the main company, too.” Then as they drew within hearing distance he shouted, “Hurry up, you fellows. We’re having an argument up here and we don’t know who is winning.”
As Charboneaux came up he added, “There’s a stream of water just inside that old mine but these Indians seem to object to our going in. You see, they’ve placed guards near the entrance. They really mean business.”
“And we’ve just sent for all the rest of the battalion to come and get a drink,” complained Tom.
Charboneaux entered at once into conversation with the Indian leader and when they had finished he turned to Mr. Martin and said, “This mine is sacred to them and they don’t allow anyone to enter it. They are very angry that you have gone in already, but they are willing to forgive that trespass if we will all go away now.”
“Cripes, we can’t go off and leave all that good water,” said Neil. “Not when we haven’t had a decent drink for three days. There’s only half a dozen Indians. Tell them to go jump in a hole and we’ll do as we please.”
“Not so fast there,” answered Charboneaux. “perhaps we could handle these Indians, bur remember that there are a lot more of them in this country we have to travel through.”
“Then we’ll just have to talk them into it,” said Tom. “Ask them what makes the water too good to drink.”
Charboneaux turned to the Indian again and when they had finished talking, he explained, “He says that this is an old Spanish mine and that the Indians were forced to work here against their will. A large number were killed in there at one time and since it is their burial ground the Great Spirit has commanded that the water must not be used. He says that an Indian will die of thirst before he will drink that water.”
“I’d just like to see one,” said Tom.
“The others are coming,” announced Nancy, who had been looking intently into the distance. “It will be terrible to disappoint them. Find out if their Great Spirit won’t relent and let us use the water.”
Charboneaux turned once more to the Indian. After a lengthy argument he said, “He is willing to make supplication to the Great Spirit. We may build a fire here on the mountainside. If the smoke is dark we must go on our way, but if the smoke is light it will mean that the Great Spirit forgives the ancient wrong and will allow us to use the water once more.”
“Now all we have to do is build a fire with light smoke,” said Tom. “There’s nothing but oak and bayonet leaves here and an hour ago they made black smoke. That’s how we got into all this trouble. Does anybody here know how we can make them give forth white smoke?”
Nobody seemed to know, and in moody silence they watched the caravan below slowly making its way toward the mountainside where the travelers thought they were going to be able to relieve their burning thirst.
Colonel Cooke was the first to come to the mine, riding all the way on his mule. Close behind him were Lieutenant Smith and Doctor Sanderson.
Dennis had watched Dr. Sanderson take the black medicine case which he usually carried across his knees and leave it on the wagon seat. Now he turned to Neil and said, “You know all those powders that the Doc has in his case. Maybe if he sprinkled them on the fire it might make a white smoke.”
“Or green or yellow,” answered Neil. “But it would accomplish one good thing, regardless of the color of the smoke. It would get rid of those awful tasting powders. I don’t suppose he could be persuaded to part with them anyway.”
“I’ll bet he could if he’s thirsty enough,” argued Dennis. “I’m going to suggest it to Father, anyway.”
He jumped up and ran over to the older men who agreed that, under the circumstances, the idea was worth at ry. As soon as Colonel Cooke reached the mine, they explained the predicament they were in and offered him Dennis’ suggestion.
“Do you have any idea what those powders would do to the smoke?” the colonel asked Dr. Sanderson, who had come puffing up to the mine by this time.
“There’s a good deal of sulpher in them,” answered Dr. Sanderson. “They will likely make the smoke more yellow than anything else.”
“Anyway it won’t be dark,” said Mr. Martin, “and the Indians may think that yellow is even better than white. Don’t you think it worth a try, Colonel?”
“We must have water,” was the Colonel’s terse reply. ‘I’d prefer not to offend the Indians if we can manage without. send down for your powders, Sanderson, but don’t let the Indians see what you are doing, if you can help it.”
Accordingly, Dennis was dispatched down to the wagon where he removed a quantity of the powders and concealed them in his pants pockets. Others began gathering fuel to rebuild the fire on the mountainside which was to determine whether or not they were to have water for themselves and their famishing animals.
Just before they lighted the pile of branches, Mr. Martin called a dozen men to surround the fire in order that the powders could be thrown on without the Indians detecting what they were up to.
“I’ll lead a chant,” said Tom, “and as soon as the smoke turns yellow you all jump and shout with happiness like it was just exactly what everybody wanted an then go after the water.”
“Smoke, smoke turn to white,
Make our water prospects bright,”
He changed, raising his arms upward and lowering them again.
The others solemnly followed, although more than one had a desire to laugh at Tom’s nonsensical ritual. Each time they lowered their arms Dennis threw a handful of powder upon the fire. before long the gray smoke had changed to yellow while the fire itself shot forth vivid blue flames.
“Hurrah! hurrah!” shouted Tom, when he thought the smoke was sufficiently changed, and running over to one of the Indians, who had been standing stolidly by watching the performance, he grabbed his hand and cried, “Congratulations, Brother. Your Great Spirit says that all is forgiven. Come along and have a drink with the rest of us.”
The Indian made no reply – which was not entirely unexpected since he had not understood any of Tom’s nonsense – but neither he nor any of the other Indians made any protest as the men trooped into the mine to fill their buckets and canteens. An hour later the battalion formed once more into marching order and was on its way.