Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 9 – Christmas in the Desert
On the day before Christmas the Battalion made camp just outside a Maricopa village. Dennis, who had conceived what he considered a brilliant idea, went to search out his father, Tom and Neil.
“You know it’s Christmas Eve! I was wondering if we couldn’t scare up enough stuff between us to trade for one of those chickens back in the village so we can have a real supper,” he said, his eyes sparkling at the mere thought.
“Sure we can,” answered Neil enthusiastically, beginning to empty his pockets. His enthusiasm waned as he laid out a brass button from his coat, a shining rock, and a pencil.
“Cripes, this stuff wouldn’t even buy a turnip,” he mourned, “let alone a nice fat hen. What have you got, Tom?”
“My Bible – which would be of small use to the Indians, a letter from my wife, which I wouldn’t trade for a hundred hens and, – well, I can take off a couple of buttons, I guess, to put with yours.”
“Three brass buttons,”counted Neil. “All right, Brother Martin, you’re next. What’s your contribution toward Christmas dinner for some poor, starving soldiers?”
“A fifty cent piece,” he announced triumphantly, holding forth a coin. “I’ve been trying in vain to spend it for the past five hundred miles. I hope I have more luck this time.”
“Good!” cried Neil. “Now Dennis, this was your idea. have you got anything else?”
“You bet I have,” answered Dennis happily. “My red bandana handkerchief. I’ve washed it out at every stream between here and Fort Leavenworth, but I’m sure that some Indian squaw will be tickled to death with it. Now, who’ll do our shopping for us?”
“I will, with pleasure,” said Tom. “With a gold mine like this I should come back with a chicken, half a dozen ears of corn, and a pumpkin pie.”
“Well, don’t stop to teach the Indians how to make pumpkin pie!”
They waited impatiently to learn whether or not they were to sup on broiled chicken or the same jerked beef that they had eaten every meal for the past two months. For the best part of an hour they kept their eyes almost constantly on the road leading from the village. Dennis jumped up and down in glee when he finally saw Tom headed back toward camp. Swinging in his hand was certainly one chicken if not more.
So engrossed was he in watching Tom’s approach that he failed to notice Sergeant Dykes, who had come up to their camp fire, until he heard his name called sharply.
“Yes, sir,” he answered, scarcely turning around to see who had spoken.
“General Kearney left some broken-down mules here to rest. The Indians have cared for them until they are in pretty good shape now and you are to go to a farm a few miles south and get them. You will leave at once while there is still daylight.”
“But, sir, I – I haven’t had my supper,” faltered Dennis.
“Take something with you and eat it on the way. You can’t hold up the entire march while you dine in state,” was the sergeant’s cool reply.
Dennis knew that further argument was hopeless, so he went after Hannibal and started on his way. A farm a few miles south, he reflected gloomily. Maybe there were a dozen farms. And how could he ask for government mules when he couldn’t speak a word of Indian? Why in thunder couldn’t the General have left the mules right in the middle of the village? there were plenty of other live stock running around loose.
He tried to hurry Hannibal along, but the mule was evidently enjoying the pleasant, warm evening and loitered along at its own sweet time.
Eventually they came to the Indian farm, or at least Dennis hoped that it was. There were a dome shaped hut with a thatched roof, a few crude farming implements scattered about, and a corral full of animals, including several mules which Dennis ardently hoped belonged to the United States Army.
By the time he slid off Hannibal’s back he was surrounded by half a dozen Indian children of varying ages, all beaming at him in the most friendly fashion imaginable, but not uttering a single word.
He walked to the door of the hut and was greeted by the mother of the family who smiled affably and signaled for him to come inside.
“I’ve come for the mules – the government mules,” he explained in a loud and painstaking voice but the woman merely kept on smiling and inviting him to come inside. Finally he went in, followed by all of the children, and sat down on some skins on the floor.
The Indian women then proceeded to bring him a supper consisting of small round bread cakes, molasses, goat’s milk and stewed pumpkin. Dennis accepted the food gratefully and sat eating everything that was placed before him, undisturbed by the little Indian children who sat around in a half circle, eying him with their bright eyes.
“I guess you think that I never saw food before,” he suggested, when he had come to a breathing space. “Well, I haven’t seen very much for a long time and that has been nothing but some worn out sheep that weren’t good for one tallow candle apiece. That and some wild beef we jerked back there a-ways.”
The children were so delighted with his speech that he was about to make another. By this time the father had come in and Dennis carefully explained to him that he had come for the mules. He wasn’t at all sure that the man understood, so, rising to his feet, he motioned for the Indian to follow him outside. Walking down to the corral, he pointed to the mules.
The Indian nodded in agreement and made signs that Dennis was to come back into the hut. Much as he wanted to be on his way, he went back in again to sit down on the floor and have some more food.
Dennis felt that he should do something to pay for his meal so he started to sing a song. The Indians listened in rapt attention while he sang an old hymn and then an army marching song. Suddenly, he remembered that it was Christmas Eve, and he broke into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” the children insisted that he sing some more and he went on to other Christmas carols.
Could anything under the sun have been more strange, he thought, than to be celebrating Christmas Eve in an Indian hut? He thought of his mother, of Sam and Bobby and wondered what they were doing tonight – if they were well fed and warm. More than that he dared not hope for. He wondered, too, if another Christmas would find them all together again.
Darkness was falling now and he dared not stay longer for fear he would not be able to find his way back to camp. Standing up, he thanked the Indian woman. He hoped that his sincerity would make some meaning to his words. He wished that he had something to give them but the only thing he could think of was the three buttons still remaining on his coat.
The other Indians had seemed to prize them, so, in a flash, he tore them off and handed them to the woman. Beaming her gratitude, she turned around and picked up a small pair of beautifully decorated moccasins, offering them in return. “Why, they’re just the right size for Bobby!” he exclaimed. “I’ll keep them for him.”
The thought made him happier than anything had done for a long time and, as he rode away in the fast growing darkness with his string of mules following, he once more broke into the strains of “A Stranger Star O’er Bethlehem.” As if in answer to his song a great star appeared in the eastern sky, and Dennis sang to the star as he rode along the prairie.
Early on the morning of Christmas Day the Battalion bade farewell to the friendly Maricopa Indians and once more took up their march – a march that was to lead on for eighteen miles to camp without water. On the following day they again struck the Gila River and followed down its course for sixty miles. The sandy bottoms made traveling so difficult it was possible to average only ten miles a day.
Another long, dry march brought them to the banks of the Colorado river, at this point quite as wide, though not so deep, as the Missouri.
After a long look at the swirling yellow stream, Tom groaned and sat down on the bank. “All our troubles come from water,” he lamented. “Either it’s too much or it’s not enough. Look at that now – enough to drown this whole outfit, and last night we didn’t even have a drink.”
All day long the men were kept busy loading the wagons and helping to get them across. the next morning they again took up the march, finding some comfort in the assurance that this was the last big river they would have to cross before reaching California.
“Take one last drink of water before you go on,” shouted Tom. “Our next stop is at some wells dug by Kearney fifteen miles further on and, according to rumor, maybe there’s water in them and maybe there is not.”
Neil and Dennis drove the sheep at the rear of the command, and the fifteen miles might have been fifty the boys were that weary when they stumbled into camp.
“Did they find the well?” asked Dennis of his father, who came to meet him.
“Yes, the well is here all right, but so far it’s dry,” was the discouraging reply. “However, the men are clearing it out and also digging a new one, so we hope to have water soon. Come and have a look at it.”
Dennis went and heard, rather than saw, the men digging at the bottom of the well, now some eight or ten feet below the surface.
“There’s some water down there,” said Mr. Martin, ‘but quicksand comes in and covers it up as fast as we can get it dug. If we only had something to hold the sand back it might give the water a chance to come in.”’
“I know!” cried Dennis, ‘Mrs. Abbot’s laundry tub. They could bore holes in the bottom to let the water through and it would still hold the sand back.”
“Maybe,” answered his father. “Anyway, it’s an idea. You might go and ask her.”
The two boys searched for some time in the darkness of the camp before they found the Abbots. Then, when the idea was presented, the widow gave a quick and scornful refusal.
“Not much, you don’t bore holes in my tub,” she exclaimed. “How do you suppose I’d do the Colonel’s laundry without a tub, and how do you suppose I’d make a living if I couldn’t do a bit of washing? You can go and ask Mrs. Hunt for hers. She has a husband to support her.”
“Well, I guess that settles that,” remarked Neil dryly, as they set off without another word. “We’d better take her suggestion and go after Mrs. Hunt, unless we can think of some other way to talk the widow out of hers. Maybe if we offered to help her do the laundry in the stream or promised to help her get back to the states, she would give in.”
“That’s it,” cried Dennis, snapping his fingers. “That tub is the widow’s provider, so we’ll just have to find her another provider. We’ll arrange for Uncle Tim to marry her. I’ve been protecting him all this time, but now he can do a good turn for the rest of us.”
“I suppose you want me to go along and help you propose,” said Neil.
“You bet. He might not think it worth the odds to marry the widow just to get water for the Battalion. We may have to do some talking to convince him – although a good cook like the widow might not be a bad bargain some day in the future when there is something to cook again.”
After considerable search they found Uncle Tim repairing a harness by the light of one of the camp fires.
“Hello, Denny,” he called cheerfully. “what can I do for you?”
“Not a thing,” said Dennis, just as cheerfully. “We just thought you looked sort of lonesome and decided to come and talk with you for a little while. You know, come to think of it, a man like you does get sort of lonesome. Now, most of the men are already thinking about getting back to their families, and you haven’t a soul, outside of Pa and me, and we can hardly take the place of a wife.”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” agreed his uncle. “I’ll probably think it over wen I get back with the rest of the folks.”
“That may be a long time,” argued Dennis. “Why not do something about it right now? when you come down to it, what finer woman could you get anywhere than the widow Abbott? She’s a good cook, cheerful, and a right smart rustler.”
“Maybe so,” said Uncle Tim, pulling on a piece of the mended harness to test its strength, “but what makes you think she’d have me?”
“Gosh, Uncle Tim! Have you been as blind as that all these months? Why, the widow has been waiting for you to ask her every day since we left Nauvoo. You just go over to her camp right now and find out.”
The two boys practically lifted him to his feet and started him out along the way before he knew just what was happening. Nor did they let go of him until he was standing within the circle of the widow’s camp fire. They knew that she was fully capable of carrying on from there.
“Good evening, Mrs. Abbott,” said Dennis, as if they were just now meeting for the first time that evening. “Uncle Tim here has an urgent matter he’d like to talk over with you. Maybe Nancy would like to come with us and see how the well is getting along. Would you, Nancy?”
“Of course she’ll go with you,” answered her mother. “She was just pining for some little diversion.”
Nancy arose with alacrity and walked away with the two boys. They went over to where the men were still struggling with the well. As they came up Mr. Martin said, “They still haven’t been able to clear the bottom of quicksand. That idea of yours about the tub might prove to be the only way, after all. Do you suppose we can get one?”
“I think we can,” replied Dennis. “In fact, in just a little while now, I’m pretty sure that I can go and get the widow Abbott’s.”