Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 12 – Homeward Bound
Marshall and Captain Sutter made every effort to keep their discovery a secret, but Sam Brannan managed to get hold of the news and made a special trip to San Francisco to spread it about. Almost at once the gold-seekers started to pour over the land. They came from Monterey and other towns to the south and from the hills of San Francisco.
At first it was only a trickle of prospectors that went past the walls of the fort. Before many weeks, a steady stream not only went past but overran all of New Helvetia, camping anywhere and everywhere and trampling down the orchards and fields as if they were so much stubble.
To Sutter’s dismay the helpers on his estate caught the fever also and dropped their work to rush off and try to pan fortunes on the American river and nearby streams. he watched helplessly as the men in the tannery left the vats filled with half finished leather, the blacksmiths left their shops and the field hands deserted the wheat fields. The Indians and a few Mormons were all who stayed to take care of the vast domain. Everyone else was off to dig and wash gold.
“Are you boys coming, too?” asked one of the men of Dennis and Neil as they were finishing the milking one morning. “We’ve an outfit ready and you’re welcome to join. There’s plenty for everyone.”
“No,” said Dennis sharply, stripping the last of the milkings into the foaming pail. “We wouldn’t go off and leave these cattle to suffer. Not for all the gold in the world.”
“All right,” answered the man, with a shrug. “I was just giving you a chance. You won’t get rich milking cows.”
“Maybe not – buy we can sleep nights,” said Neil.
“Well, slumber on, my lads,” was the sarcastic rejoinder.
“I expect we are a pair of fools,” said Dennis when they were alone in the barn, “but I’d feel like a rat for the rest of my days if I deserted the Captain now.”
“Poor Captain Sutter,” mused Neil, looking out through the doorway at the destruction that lay over what had once been the beautiful New Helvetia. “And just a few weeks ago we thought that he was the luckiest man on earth. who would have thought that he could be destroyed by gold – and on his own land, too.”
“Maybe he hasn’t lost everything,” said Dennis, joining him at the doorway. “This might be just a false alarm. Maybe there isn’t but a small amount of gold and these people will all go away just as fast as they came.”
“Perhaps,” agreed Neil. ‘In the meantime they’re sure raising Cain. Look at all the liquor shops that have been set up in the last few days. The field across from the Fort is black with them. That’s where a good share of the gold dust will end up.”
The two boys worked on, milking until their hands were so tired and numb that they thought their fingers would drop off. They had to turn away the cows that could best do without their care.
At nights they locked their room securely and rarely ventured out after dark. The lawless hordes that had come up from the ships at San Francisco were capable of any crimes, once they had visited the liquor shops. During this time Dennis had heard only occasionally from his father when someone came down for supplies. He learned that the mill had been finished and that Mr. Martin was now out seeking enough gold to make a good start in their new home.
He kept Hannibal tied up just outside his cabin during the night and rode him out to the pastures and to the barn for the milking during the day. He thought that by this means the little animal would be safe; but one morning as he and Neil were at work in the barn he heard an angry bray and as he rushed outside Dennis found two men leading the mule off while a third was astride his back.
“Stop!” he cried, running after them. “That’s my mule. Stop it, I tell you.”
They stopped and looked at him in amusement.
“Listen, Sonny,” said one of them indulgently, “we’re off to the gold fields and we need a little animal like this to carry our stuff. We’re going to get rich, see. Now you wouldn’t put anything in the way of us getting rich, would you? Besides, how do we know this is your mule?”
“Sure,” said another quickly. “How would a cowhand like you get a mule? I guess next thing you’ll be saying this pick is yours,” and Dennis stepped back as he swung it menacingly about.
As they were about to start off again Dennis sprang forward and took hold of Hannibal’s bridle. “This is my mule,” he insisted stoutly. “I bought him from the United States Army. Captain Sutter will tell you that it’s mine.”
“Maybe,” answered one of the men as he came up close, “but we haven’t got time to see him. So you just run back to your chores and don’t go bothering busy folks like us.” With that he seized Dennis’ hand from the bridle, gave it a severe twist and threw him to the ground. They went off laughing as Dennis picked himself up and stood looking after them, rubbing his hurt wrist.
He stood only a minute though. As quickly as he could collect his thoughts he ran back to the barn and shouted to Neil. “Some ruffians got away with Hannibal. I’ve got to find a way to go after him. They’re not going to get away with him like that.”
“I should think not,” declared Neil hotly. “What are you going to do? You can’t go after them alone.”
“No, I can’t,” said Dennis thoughtfully. “And I can’t leave the place with all this work today. I might try sending one of the Indians but they haven’t even been able to protect Sutter’s property, let alone go after mine.”
“We’ll have to go,” said Neil positively. “You’ll never have another happy minute if you don’t get that mule. We can turn the cows out with the calves for today. It’s not a good idea but this is an emergency. Let’s get a musket apiece and start out before they get too far.”
Half an hour later the two boys were on the way, Dennis carrying a small musket borrowed from one of the guards at the fort. Neil carried a bag of dry rolls which the cook had passed out to them in response to a plea for something to eat on a long hike.
“They all follow the river for a ways,” said Neil, “so that much is easy. Later on we can ask if anyone has seen them. Is there anything unusual about them that we can describe?”
“The only thing I can think of is that one of them limped,” answered Dennis thoughtfully. “I guess I was too excited to notice them special.”
“That may be enough. We’ll ask all along the way. Someone will have seen them.”
They walked a long way before they found anyone of whom they might inquire concerning the three men and the stolen animal. Like themselves, everyone was traveling up the river bank. Eventually they came to a group who were camped by the river. One of them said, “How would I know who or what passed here today. There’s been a thousand if there’s been one.”
“That’s the way it’s been all along,” said Dennis bitterly. “They’d have to be walking on their heads to have anyone notice them.”
As they plodded wearily along it looked as though he were right. Miners working along the stream paid no attention whatever to anyone who passed, seeing nothing beyond the bits of bright metal among the gravel they were shifting back and forth int heir pans.
Late in the afternoon, as they sat down to munch some of the dry rolls, they called to an old man who sat nearby to come and join them.
“Sure I saw them,” he said, in response to their query. “They turned off a ravine down a ways. I’ve been mostly sitting around, on account I can’t work much, and I noticed how the mule was all loaded down with their pickaxes and stuff.”
“The rats,” choked Dennis. “Just wait ’till I get my hands on them.”
“You mustn’t do nuthin’ rash, Son,” counseled the old man. “There ain’t no law and order around here now and them men could make it mighty unpleasant for a couple of younguns like you if they was a mind to.”
“Then there’s nothing to keep us from being unpleasant too,” answered Neil. “Especially since we happen to be in the right. Thanks for your advice, anyway,” he added as they moved off.
They found the ravine and hiked cautiously along, hoping that Hannibal wouldn’t be the first to discover their approach and give any welcoming signals. To their dismay, however, that was exactly what he did, just as they were rounding a heavy growth of trees, and they darted under cover.
“Now what’ll we do?” whispered Dennis anxiously. “We can’t just hide here the rest of the day.”
“We might have to,” replied Neil. “And again, there’s just a chance that they have gone off to prospect and left him tied there alone. I know what I can do. I can walk past as if I was going up the creek. They don’t know me and even if Hannibal kicks up a fuss they probably won’t think anything of it. You just stay quiet here until I get back.”
“All right, but hurry. And you’d better take this musket,” said Dennis.
It seemed that he waited hours crouched in the brush before Neil finally showed up again and dropped down beside him.
“It’s great,” he whispered excitedly. “Couldn’t be better. There’s only one of them there and he’s asleep. I guess the others are out digging. Let’s hurry before they get back.”
“Hurry and do what?” asked Dennis. “Just try to get away with Hannibal? He’s bound to make a noise.”
“You take the mule and I’ll handle the man. I guess he won’t make too many objections with this gun pointed at him.”
They walked on to where the mule was tied. For a few minutes they thought that they were going to be lucky enough to get away without the man waking up, but just as they started off Hannibal gave vent to his joyous feelings in a prolonged bray. In a flash, the man was on his feet lunging after them.
“All right,” said Neil, pointing the gun, “if that’s the way you want it you can come along with us. Maybe that’s the best idea, after all. Then your friends will think you have gone off with their supplies and left them in the lurch.”
“You thieving little devils,” muttered their captive. “I’d like to wring your necks.”
“I don’t doubt it in the least,” answered Neil blandly, “but we’re not going to give you a chance. Forward march and keep your hands high.”
In this manner the strange procession came on down the river where they aroused considerable interest among the prospectors.
“What have you got there?” shouted one man as he stood up with his pan of gravel.
“A horse thief,” answered Dennis. “He took my mule. What do you think we ought to do with him?”
“We ought to do plenty,” cried another. “Maybe a good bath in the river will learn him to keep his hands of other folks’ animals.”
“Sure, give him a good ducking, shouted another, and with that the struggling man was seized by half a dozen hands and thrown into the river. He gasped, cursed and struggled his way back to shore. He was promptly seized and returned to the river. How long this went on, the boys didn’t stop to see, for they were much more concerned with getting safely back to the fort.
For the next few days Dennis kept his mule inside the barn while he was doing the milking. He didn’t need to be shown twice that the lawless mobs passing through had absolutely no respect for the property of others, and he felt that he might not be quite so fortunate in getting his back a second time.
On the first day of June, Mr. Martin and the others came down from the hills to make final preparations for the journey to the Salt Lake Valley.
“How have you done, Pa?” asked Dennis when the first greetings were over. “Will you have enough to buy tools and seeds and a lot of other stuff to take back with us?”
“I guess I’ve got three or four hundred dollars worth of gold dust,” was the reply. “It would have fitted us out in fine style a few months ago, but now they’re charging five times as much for a wagon as they did and it’s next to impossible to get good oxen. We’ll manage all right, though,” he finished cheerfully. It’s a lot more than we had when we came here.”
People who saw them making preparations to go though them quite mad.
“Why, man alive,” cried Sam Brannan when they went to his store for some purchases. “You’re walking out on a fortune. There’s gold everywhere, and you talk about leaving to go back and try to raise grain on a desert. I tell you, you’ll live to regret it.”
“I think not,” answered Mr. Martin quietly. “We want something more out of life than what gold can give us.”
“Gold can give you everything,” insisted Brannan. “And don’t forget this, either: I’ve seen that forsaken country you’re going to. I know what you’re up against.”
“Well, Brigham Young has seen it, too,” answered Mr. Martin. ‘If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. I’m willing to go all the way on his judgment.”
“All right, have it your way,” shrugged Brannan, “but don’t say that I didn’t warn you. Here’s that sack of beans you wanted and it will cost you five dollars worth of your gold dust.”
It was mid-June before they dared start out, for they learned that the snow was still two or three feet deep in the mountains and that it would be impossible for the teams to get through. As soon as all were outfitted, they rode away from the fort and camped in a pleasant little ravine away from the main stream of gold diggers.
From there, just the day before they were to begin traveling in earnest, James Brown took Dennis, and the two of them, equipped with pick and shovel, wandered away from camp and up to a dry gulch. They had dug around only a short time until they struck a rich prospect of gold and by sundown had gathered a considerable amount of the rich dirt.
“What will we do with it?” asked Dennis. “I can’t carry very much in my hat and we don’t want to go off and leave it.”
“Take off your pantaloons,” answered James, “and fill them up. The men won’t mind how we come into camp and there’s no one else around.”
So it was that the pair showed up in camp for supper each carrying a heavy load of pay dirt. As they were busy washing it out in the stream, Mr. Martin came up and looked over their findings, remarked, “That’s a mighty good day’s work, boys. That ought to make you about fifty dollars a piece.”
“Wow, Pa!” exclaimed Dennis, to whom this was a new experience. “And there’s lots more where this came from. Why, we hardly touched the surface. Couldn’t we stay for a few days, or maybe weeks? We could be almost rich by that time.”
“Are you getting the gold fever, too?” laughed his father. “I thought that you had seen enough to cure you of wanting to join the gold rush. Are you sure that you want to stay, son?” he went on seriously, “or do you want to push on home with the rest of us?”
“Home,” repeated Dennis, with his eyes on the gold dust in his hand, but seeing something else far, far away. “Sure, Pa. I want to go home.”
Next morning Dennis was all excited as he helped to load the last bits of camp equipment onto the wagon. The sun was just beginning to send pinkish streaks up into the eastern sky when his father climbed to the high wagon seat and picked up the reins. Even the horses seemed anxious to be on their way.
“Ready, Dennis?” his father asked.
The boy gave one last look at the loaded wagon, then scrambled up beside his father.
“Giddiup!” shouted Mr. Martin. There was a happy tone in his voice.
As the horses started forward Dennis suddenly sprang to his feet. He grabbed his hat off his head and waved it in the air. “Yippee!” he yelled. “Yippee! We’re going home!”