Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 10 – California
Dennis had thrown away the last shreds of his shoes on the banks of the Colorado. Since that time he had suffered severely as they traveled through the thorny thickets that covered the way so completely that, in some places, the brush had to be burned away before the wagons could get through. Sometimes he stepped on hot coals and that was even worse than the thorns.
As he came limping into camp one evening he was met by Nancy, who said, “Come on over to our camp. Ma has something for you.”
It seemed to him as if it took the animals an uncommonly long time to get enough to drink from the tiny steam by which they were camped. When finally he dragged himself over to the Abbott camp he thought he couldn’t have been more tired and hungry if he had walked a hundred miles that day instead of fifteen.
The odor of cooking food quickened his steps. As he came within hailing distance Mrs. Abbott called, “Hurry up, my boy. Here’s a big bowl of stew for you from a fat beef that Bromley brought in from California today. You’d never believe how different it tastes from those skinny old oxen we’ve been getting.”
Dennis took it gratefully and, after a few mouthfuls, he said to his uncle, who was sitting near, “It may have been good beef, but it’s better cooking. You’re a very lucky man, Uncle Tim.” Both Tim and the lady beamed in happy accord.
When Dennis had quite finished his supper, Mrs. Abbott brought something out of her deep dress pocket and held it up to the fire light.
“Here’s a present for you, my boy,” she said smiling. “A pair of shoes. I made them myself this very day.”
“Shoes,” echoed Dennis, unbelieving as he gazed at the queer objects.
“Shoes is right,” she echoed. “At least I think you can use them for shoes. You see what I did? I had Tim strip the hide from the gambrel joint of an old ox that died today. He cut a ring above and below the joint and took it off whole. Then I sewed up one end and now it will about fit your foot, I’m thinking. At least it will be better than nothing at all. Here you are. Try them on.”
Dennis took his “shoes” and slipped them over his travel-sore feet. They were far from being even a fair fit, but his heel slipped into the natural crook in the joint, after a fashion. When he tried walking a step or two he decided that he would be able to walk in them.
“Thanks – why, they’re wonderful,” he exclaimed, walking around the camp fire. “I’ll bet I get more good out of these shoes than any I ever had in all my life before.”
“I’m glad you like them. One good turn deserves another, you know,” answered the widow, beaming fondly at Uncle Tim.
At that moment the shrill blast of a whistle announced that something unusual was happening in camp and Nancy darted over to headquarters to find out what it was.
“More good news,” she cried. “Some men have just come in with some food from California and we’re going to have a dance.”
“It’s a good thing that I have some new shoes for the dance,” laughed Dennis. He got up from the ground and started out with the others in the direction from which the scrapings of a fiddle were already to be heard.
“Joe Shipley hung on to that fiddle when he was ‘most too tired to tote his own head,” remarked Mrs. Abbott as they walked along. “I guess it’s a good thing, too, ‘cause a lively tune or two can sure do a lot to drive the weariness out of your bones.”
By the time they arrived at the scene of festivities, Joe had broken into the tune of “Stitches in your Britches” and Tom Winn was singing his own version in his loudest tones. Soon others were attempting to join in the words:
”Stitches in your britches,
Patches on your coat,
Beard a growin’ longer,
Worse’n any goat,
While making a road to Californy.
“Shirt back with the Indians,
Shoes in tears and tatters,
Hat lost in the Gila
But nothing ever matters
While making a road to Californy.
“Shadow soup for breakfast,
Same again at noon,
Boiled ox hide for supper,
Hope we get there soon –
The end of the road to Californy.”
Two score or more were dancing a reel. Others just sat around on the sidelines clapping for the dancers and cheering them on. Only two of the five women in the company were dancing, but a new set quickly formed when Nancy and her mother arrived. Their bright swirling calico skirts added a wonderfully gay note to the scene.
Neil immediately took Nancy’s hand and led her off to the set. Dennis found himself wishing that he had gone into action a bit more quickly. Especially did he wish it when old Mr. Winegar took his arm and said, “Come on, lad, get into the dance. Don’t stand there looking green-eyed.”
He still had memories of that awful time when he had been forced into dancing on the plains of Iowa. He didn’t want to repeat that experience, yet he wasn’t going to have anyone thinking that he was jealous of Nancy. He went into the set and swung back and forth as best he could in his queer gambrel joint shoes.
Once he glanced up to see the Colonel gazing upon the scene in astonishment. Later on, one of the men told him that their commanding officer had said, “I never saw such a crazy fool set of men in all my life. They stagger into camp exhausted and hungry and then, when they’ve had half a meal, they act as happy as gods.”
He should have been glad of a few hours enjoyment along the way for, during the next few days, the command encountered such difficulties in traveling that it looked as if their object in making a road to California was doomed to failure, at the very boundaries of the territory.
After traveling over one very rugged mountain ridge their way lay through a chasm with solid rock on either side. It was so narrow that it was necessary to cut and hack the rocks to clear enough space to get the wagons through.
Just as they were starting out the next morning, James called to Dennis, “I’m going to show you something interesting today.”
“I hope it’s good to eat,” grinned Dennis.
“Nope. But there might be something to eat in connection. It’s a house. A white man’s house, at that. Charboneaux tells us that we should get to the Warner ranch about mid-day, if the traveling is fair.”
“A white man’s house,” repeated Dennis slowly. “Say, I haven’t seen a white man’s house since we left Fort Leavenworth last August. Does that mean we’re almost through?”
“It means that we’re in California and not an awful long way from San Diego or some of the old missions.”
When they finally reached the rancho and gazed at the rambling house, Dennis was almost as happy as he would have been looking at his own home. Although he didn’t know it at the time, an even greater thrill was awaiting him.
A few days later, as the command halted for the noonday meal, Sergeant Dykes called to Dennis and told him to go after a couple of mules that had strayed off and were now headed up a bluff to the west. He called to Nancy in passing, inviting her to go along, adding, “If we find those mules we can ride them back to camp.”
“That will be fun,” said Nancy. “the Colonel let me ride his mule for a little while yesterday. He can be right nice when he wants to.”
“Yeh, I know,” mused Dennis. “I guess he has to be rough with us or we’d never get through.”
Conversation lagged while they climbed the bluff. The extra effort left them no breath for talking. As they neared the top, Nancy called, “I’ll bet I beat you,” and took a spurt forward. On reaching the top, she cried, “Oh!” and stood transfixed, gazing westward.
“What is it?” cried Dennis, joining her. Following her gaze he, too, echoed, “Oh!” Then he added slowly. “It’s the ocean. At last we’ve come to the ocean!” Unconsciously, in his excitement, he had taken hold of Nancy’s hand, and when she made a motion to withdraw it his face reddened and he stammered, “I guess we’d better go back and tell the others.”
They took one more long look as if to cram as much as possible into their mind’s eyes, and then turned back to camp. In their eagerness they covered the distance back in half the time it had taken to climb the bluff. As they hurried up to the companies, now forming in line to take up the march again, they were met by Sergeant Dykes. He said sternly, “I thought I sent you to look for some animals. didn’t you find them?”
“Oh, no,” said Nancy happily. “We found the Pacific Ocean.”
It was wonderful to travel along in sight of the ocean. No more dragging through the hot, sandy desert or climbing over snow-capped mountains. No more fighting a way through thickets of mesquite or fording great river. Instead, they walked along through sunny fields of mustard and wild grass, and rank from cold, clear mountain streams. True, they were still hungry, for the saltless beef never seemed to satisfy their appetites, but they knew that the day could not be very far off when they would have welcome additions in the way of food.
In a few days they reached the old Catholic mission of San Luis Rey where they were to be stationed for the time being. The mission consisted of a large adobe church and a row of small buildings which formed the outside wall and enclosed a square of some three or four acres where orange, pepper and fig trees grew. There were also some vineyards and, wonder of all wonders, a reservoir of water for bathing and washing clothes.
Mr. Martin managed to have Dennis assigned to his quarters. It was with feelings of joy that they moved, with a dozen others, into the squalid room with dirt floor and the walls crawling with vermin.
“The Indians that have been living here aren’t very good housekeepers,” remarked Mr. Martin. “We’ll have to see what we can do towards cleaning up the place, but we’d better start with ourselves first. You run down to the reservoir and get a bath and then you can stay here while I take your clothes down with me and wash them.”
Dennis needed no second invitation. After a prolonged swim he came back and handed his pants and shirt to his father, saying, “Don’t spend too much time on them, Pa. Maybe we can buy something new when we get to Los Angeles.”
“Maybe,” agreed Mr. Martin, “but in the meantime we’ll have to see if we can take off a few layers of that desert sand you’ve been collecting along the way.”
Dennis rolled up in a blanket while his father went off to do the laundry. He waited impatiently for the return of his only clothes so that he could go out and explore the mission.
Half an hour later his father returned with the pants over one arm and said ruefully, “I guess I worked too hard getting the dirt out, or else that was all that was holding them together, because they went all to pieces in the washing. I don’t know what we’re going to do for more but you’ll have to stay here in that blanket while I go out and scout around.”
“Gosh, Pa!” exclaimed Dennis in a panic. “Will you try to find something quick? I can’t sit here very long. The walls are crawling and besides, I’ve got things to do.”
“I’ll do my best,” promised Mr. Martin, hurrying away.
Dennis sat on the dirt floor with the blanket folded about him and waited with growing impatience as the long minutes dragged themselves away. “This is awful,” he thought mournfully. “here I am, at a stopping place at last, a hundred things to do and I haven’t got any pants. Maybe I can’t get any pants, either. Maybe I’ll have to march to Los Angeles in this blanket. I wonder if Pa will let me wear his long enough to go out for supper.”
He had almost worked himself into a fever by the time his father came back to report. Dennis jumped up crying, “What luck, Pa? Have you got something for me?”
“Not yet, son,” answered his father, smiling in spite of the seriousness of the occasion, ‘but there’s something on the way. There isn’t an extra piece of clothing in camp and none to be had anywhere, but I managed to get a piece of wagon cover. Your uncle Tim’s new wife is going to make you a pair of pants. It will take some time but you’ll have to be patient. It was the best I could do.”
“Oh!” exclaimed Dennis, sinking back on the floor. “How long do you suppose it takes to make a pair of pants?”
“I wouldn’t just know,” returned Mr. Martin, “but I’ll wager that the widow Abbott, that was, can turn ‘em out quicker than anyone else in the country. That woman is a real go-getter.”
Even so, she was not nearly quick enough to suit Dennis, and he waited impatiently until nearly nightfall. Then, while his father was out getting something to eat, he heard Nancy’s voice calling his name, as she passed along the row of buildings that housed the soldiers.
He sat in an agony of indecision, wondering whether he should call out and receive his new pants while wrapped in an ignominious blanket or keep still and perhaps lose the chance of getting them that evening. Why hadn’t her mother brought them instead of sending that silly girl? Women didn’t have a lick of sense when it came to some things.
The voice came nearer and with it the moment of decision. No, regardless of the consequences, he couldn’t let those precious pants get beyond his reach. Standing just inside the opening that served for a doorway and clutching his blanket tightly around him, Dennis called, “Here I am.” Then he held out his hand. A moment later he was rewarded by having the pants thrust into it by the unseen Nancy, who fled as soon as she had delivered her wares.
He lost no time in putting on his new apparel. They were far from being a good fit and were so large around the waist that, without the services of a sturdy belt, they could not possibly have been held up. Fortunately, however, his old belt had not fallen to pieces along with his pants. In a few moments he was able to make himself once more presentable to polite society.
It was probably just as well for his peace of mind that he had no mirror to view the effect. The lad presented a queer picture, indeed, in his gambrel joint shoes and his crude wagon cover pants, but the style of his clothing did not bother him in the least. He was once more fully covered and that was all that mattered at the moment.