Life among the Apaches/Chapter 7

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Jornada del Muerto.—Socorro.—Lieut. Campbell.—Terrific Ride for Life.—Splendid Horse.—Narrow Escape.—Caring for a Horse.—Apache Visits.—Treacherous Nature.

Some time after the events above recorded, it became necessary for me to visit the town of Socorro, in New Mexico, for the purpose of assisting in the purchase of sheep. It was my most excellent fortune to possess a horse whose equal I have never seen. With high courage and almost fabulous powers of endurance; strong, swift and handsome, I had made him a special pet, and nobly did he answer my appeal when occasion demanded.

At that time Fort Craig had no existence, and the space between Doña Ana and Socorro—a distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles—is a large desert, well supplied with fine grama grass in some portions, but absolutely destitute of water or shade for ninety-six miles. This intervening strip of territory is known by the unattractive appellation of the Jornada del Muerto, or the Dead Man's Journey. Why it ever received this title I never distinctly learned, but suppose it was on account of the very numerous massacres committed on it by the Apache Indians. On the east the road is fringed for about sixty miles by the Sierra Blanca, a noted strong-hold of that people; and from its heights they are enabled distinctly to perceive any party of travelers coming over the wide and unsheltered expanse of the Jornada del Muerto. As the plain affords no opportunity for ambush, they come sweeping upon the unsuspecting immigrant in more than usual numbers, and if successful in their attack, invariably destroy all of the party; for there is no possible chance of escape, and the Apaches never take any prisoners but women and young children, and they become captives for life.

At Socorro was a small American garrison, consisting of about half a company of the Second Dragoons, commanded by Lieut. Reuben Campbell, an officer whose acquaintance I had made during the Mexican war, and for whom I entertained a sincere regard.

I left Doña Ana about three o'clock A. M., and traveled leisurely until four in the afternoon, when I unsaddled my horse, staked him to a strong picket pin planted in a field of fine grass, and laid down under the lee side of a cactus to catch a modicum of shade. At twelve, midnight, I resumed my journey, and reached Socorro next day about eleven o'clock A. M., having traveled during the cool of the night at a much more rapid pace. During the trip I neither saw an Indian nor an Indian sign; and here let me add that the Apaches of the Jornada, or more properly the Mescalero Apaches, were at the time in a state of active hostility.

Most pleasantly did I pass two days with Lieut. Campbell, rehearsing scenes and incidents of the Mexican war, and each metaphorically "shouldering his crutch to show how fields were won." Having refreshed myself and rested my noble horse, I took leave of Campbell on the morning of the third day, at three o'clock, when we took the doch and dorrish with mutual wishes for each other's welfare.

My trip up had been unaccompanied by any event of interest, and I sincerely hoped that my journey down would be equally tame and spiritless; but this was not to be. I saved my noble beast all I could, frequently dismounting and leading him by the bridle, so as to retain his strength and speed in case of necessity. In this way we jogged on until about three o'clock in the afternoon, by which time we had accomplished about fifty miles, leaving some seventy-five yet to go. The sun was intensely oppressive, and glared like a shield of red-hot brass. A friendly bush, surrounded with fine grass, and standing about one hundred yards to the left of the hard and splendid natural road which runs through four-fifths of the Jornada, invited me to partake of its modest shade, and I turned my horse in that direction, but was surprised at noticing a column of dust to my left, in the direction of the Sierra Blanca, which had the appearance of being in violent motion, and coming my way. Instinctively I felt that it was caused by Apaches; and I took the precaution to tighten my horse's girths, see that the saddle was properly placed and re-cap my four six-shooters, two of which were in my belt, and two in my holsters. I also untied a Mexican serape, or blanket, which was lashed to the after part of my saddle, and doubling it, I passed it over my shoulders and tied it under my chin by a stout buckskin thong. By this time the character of the coming party was unmistakable, and they were evidently bent on cutting me off from the road. My gallant horse seemed to appreciate the condition of affairs almost as well as I, and bounded on like a bird. The pursuing party failed in their first attempt and entered the road about three hundred yards in my rear. Perceiving that my horse was infinitely superior in speed and power, I drew rein to save him all that I could, and allowed the Indians to come within fifty yards. There were some forty of them, and none with fire-arms, but mainly supplied with lances, only five or six of the number carrying bows and arrows. These last named projectiles commenced to whistle near me; but I paid no heed, keeping steadily on my course, until one penetrated my blanket; but the effect was completely destroyed by the fluttering of its heavy double folds, which were kept in a rattling motion by the speed at which we were going. Perceiving that the force of the arrow had been neutralized, I drew a heavy holster pistol, and wheeling half round in my saddle, pointed it at the savages. This caused them to fall back in some alarm, and I took advantage of that fact to redouble my speed for a mile or so, gaining some six hundred yards on my pursuers, when I again drew rein to save my horse.

It required a long time for them to again recover shooting distance, but their yells and cries were perpetual. In this manner, alternately checking and speeding my horse, and presenting my pistol at the savages, we scoured over many miles of that infernal Jornada. Several arrows were sticking in my blanket; one had grazed my right arm, just bringing blood, and the other had touched my left thigh. I then became convinced that my horse was the main object of their pursuit. His value and unequaled qualities were well known to the Apaches, and they resolved to have him, if possible. Of course, my life would have been sacrificed, if they could only manage that little affair. I had bought the horse of Capt. A. Buford, First United States Dragoons, who assured me that his equal did not exist in the Territory. He had been offered a hundred mustangs for the horse by a Mescalero Apache, but refused, on the ground that he could take care of one animal with ease; but if he possessed a hundred, the Apaches would be likely to steal them at any moment while grazing.

Near the foot of the Jornada, the road takes a bold sweeping curve to the left, toward Doña Ana, being interrupted by a low but rugged series of small hills and deep ravines. About eight o'clock p. m., the moon being bright and not a cloud visible, I dashed round the first hill, and was surprised to note that the Apaches had apparently given up the chase, for I neither heard nor saw any more of them, although I was about four hundred yards ahead. Suddenly it flashed upon my mind that they might have some short cut-off, and had pursued it with the intention of heading me. For the first time I struck my rowels into the reeking flanks of my poor steed, and most gallantly did he respond to this last call. He fairly flew over the road. Hill after hill was passed with wonderful rapidity until nearly a quarter of an hour had elapsed, when I again heard my Apache friends, about eighty yards in my rear. No sooner did they perceive that their design had been penetrated and frustrated, than they recommenced their yells with additional vigor. But their horses were blown, as well as mine. They had come at their best pace the whole way, while mine had been saved from time to time. If I had come fifty miles at a slow gait in the early day, they had come fifteen at dead speed before they reached to where our race began.

In this manner we continued our career until I arrived within five miles of Doña Ana, about eleven o'clock p. m., when, feeling myself comparatively safe, I commenced emptying the cylinders of my heavy holster pistols among them. Their cries and yells were fearful at this time, but I did not cease firing until they had fallen back out of reach. The remainder of my journey was made without company, and I reached Doña Ana about twelve o'clock midnight, having made the distance of one hundred and twenty-five miles, on one horse, in the space of twentyone hours, the last seventy miles being performed at a run.

So soon as I arrived, I threw off my serape, which had quite a number of arrows sticking in it, called my boy, José, and rubbed my horse down dry with good, soft straw. This operation required about two hours. I then washed him all over with strong whisky and water, and again rubbed him dry. This was followed by taking off his shoes, and giving him about two quarts of whisky and water as a draught. His whole body and limbs were then swathed in blankets, a mess of cut hay, sprinkled with water and mixed with a couple of pounds of raw steak, cut into small pieces, was given him to eat, and a deep bed of clean dry straw prepared for him to sink into. These duties kept me up until five o'clock a. m., when I refreshed my inner man with a wholesome whisky toddy, prepared by Buford, and sought repose, from which I did not awaken for all that day and the succeeding night. On the second day after the above adventure, I visited my horse and found him in as fine condition as any one could reasonably expect. He was neither foundered nor injured in any ostensible manner. On many a subsequent occasion he served me with equal zeal and capability, but never more under such exciting circumstances. Several efforts were afterwards made by the Apaches to get possession of that noble beast, but, I am proud and happy to add, invariably without success. At the Copper Mines he was saved to me by mere accident. On a certain occasion, remembering that he had lost a shoe, I sent José to bring him from the herd then grazing about a mile distant, under the care of a guard. The order was immediately obeyed, and in half an hour afterward the whole herd was carried off by the Apaches.

It may be entered up as an invariable rule, that the visits of Apaches to American camps are always for sinister purposes. They have nothing to trade for: consequently, it is not barter that brings them. They beg, but in no wise comparably with other Indian tribes; and scarcely expect to receive when they ask. Their keen eyes omit nothing. One's arms and equipments, the number of your party, their cohesion and precaution, their course of march, their system of defence in case of attack, and the amount of plunder to be obtained with the least possible risk, are all noted and judged. Wherever their observations can be made from neighboring heights with a chance of successful ambush, the Apache never shows himself, nor gives any sign of his presence. Like the ground shark, one never knows he is there until one feels his bite. In nature and disposition, in habits, laws, manners and customs, in religion and ceremonies, in tribal and family organization, in language and signs, in war and in peace, he is totally different from all other Indians of the North American continent; and these facts will be set forth in future chapters, for the consideration of those who may peruse this work.