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LOW TWELVE III


The halting place among the hills offered such advantages that Lieutenant Smith turned them to account. Men and animals had been pressed to the limit of endurance, and none ever needed rest more than they. The fleeing Apaches had been pushed so relentlessly that they did not pause to contaminate the spring, where we stopped, dismounted, drank and filled our canteens. The water not only gave the ponies all they could drink, but nourished a species of lush grass, upon which the animals fed eagerly. We ate, lolled on the ground, smoked our pipes and the majority slept. Even Vikka and I had snatched brief slumber before riding out on our little scout.

When Lieutenant Smith had heard my report, he called Vikka, Pedro, Jim and others of the best scouts around him for consultation. Chato at that time was not with us. We cavalrymen were so few in number, and all so personally interested in everything, that those who did not prefer to sleep joined the group, of which I was a member.

We were on the direct trail of Geronimo and his band, and with such skilful trackers as we had with us, it was impossible for the hostiles to throw us off the scent. We had but to press on across the plain into the mountain spur, when we should be upon their heels.

And right there rose the problem, and a mighty serious one it was, too. If we pushed over the sandy waste, the fugitives could not fail to discover our pursuit. They could scatter among the rocks and fastnesses, or, what seemed more likely, set a series of traps, which, with all the skill of our scouts, it would be hardly possible for us to avoid.

What Lieutenant Smith sought to learn was the "lay of the country" beyond the mountain spur. That was readily ascertained from Vikka and others. The delicate question was whether our scouts could reason out the destination of Geronimo - not his ultimate destination, which probably the wily devil did not know himself, but the point where he would halt that night, or at the furthest, the following night. Then, instead of keeping to the trail, we should take a circuitous course and reach the spot ahead of the hostiles, and wait for them; or, if that was not feasible, we could be there in time to surprise them.

The advantage of such strategy was apparent. It must be overwhelmingly in our favor, and would enable us to strike the most effective blow yet delivered in our pursuit, covering many hundred miles. The whole thing hinged upon the right selection of the destination of the hostiles. If we should mistake, or they should detect our scheme, we should be miles off the right course and must lose several precious days, when every hour was of the last importance.

But right there an unexpected difficulty confronted us. Vikka, Pedro and Jim agreed that Geronimo was heading for the Wolf Mountains, a range twenty miles to the south. If he succeeded in reaching them with his women and children, it would prove an almost impossible task to run them to earth, though every one of us was as determined as ever to do so. It would be a big thing if we could head them off, or, what would be equally decisive, surprise them among those fastnesses. To do so it was necessary for us to leave the trail and reach the Wolf Mountains by a roundabout course, and this could not be undertaken until later in the day, since the shelter furnished by our own range would serve for only a short distance.

The difficulty to which I allude was this: All the scouts, with one exception, believed that Geronimo was already on his way to the point named. That exception was Vikka, who insisted that he would stay where he was, in the hope of ambuscading the cavalry, and he would resume his flight on the morrow, probably early in the morning. Therefore, if we intended to strike a blow at night, it must be done within a mile or two of our present camp. No argument could shake the conviction of Vikka on this point.

Lieutenant Smith was puzzled. Here was one man against a dozen. True, Vikka had no superior, but among the others were several who were his equal, and it would seem that when they united, their logic ought to outweigh that of a single man, be he never so cunning and wise. Moreover, as it appeared to the rest of us, common sense was against Vikka.

The Apache leader had been taught long before that there was no rest for his feet, and that his only safety lay in rapid and continued flight. What reason, then, was there for the hostiles remaining near our camp, when they ran great risk in doing so?

Smith took me aside.

"Lieutenant," said he, "I'll be hanged if I know what's best to do. What do you think of things?"

"I am as much puzzled as you. You know my faith in Vikka. He and I have been on more than one dangerous scout, and I have never met his superior. He saved my life this afternoon, and has not once failed me; I feel like tying to him."

"Even in this instance?"

"I'm not sure. I noticed that when you asked him his reasons for believing Geronimo would stay where he is until to-morrow he refused to tell them."

"More than that, he acted as if he were offended. I don't see why he should be unreasonable, as he certainly is in this
instance."

I made no reply to this, for, as I have said, I was as much mystified as Smith himself. We were standing apart from the rest, and the lieutenant leaned his elbow on the rock beside him. He thoughtfully smoked his pipe for a minute or two, gazing at the ground in a way I had often seen him do when pondering some question. Suddenly he looked up and asked in a whisper, just loud enough for me to hear:

"Lieutenant, have you ever felt any distrust of Vikka?"

The question fairly took me off my feet. I tried to parry.

"How can I suspect him after today and the other times in which he has given proof of his loyalty?"

"You haven't answered my question.

"Some time ago a man who had spent most of his life among the Indians warned me never to trust any one of them. I am ashamed to say I have felt a touch of misgiving concerning Vikka, and I felt it today, but it was before he saved my life."

With his keen eyes still fixed on my face, Smith added:

"Do you believe he is honest in saying Geronimo will stay where he is until to-morrow?"

"I do."

"So do I, and I shall act upon that view. We'll follow the ridge to the north, keeping it between us and the hostiles, and then enter the mountains above where the old devil will be looking for us. We shall have a moon tonight, but there will be plenty of clouds."

"What of rain?"

The lieutenant looked about and up into the sky. There had been deluges of dishwater five nights out of seven for the last month. This was well enough in its way, for we were able to keep our canteens filled, but it was anything, but comfortable for us. We kindled no fires, for it was too dangerous, and despite the terrific heat of the day, the nights were often chilly. It had not rained for forty-eight hours, and probably a season of drought was on us.

"I don't think we shall have rain. This part of the world looks as if there hadn't been any downfall for a month. We shall be able to set out with our canteens full, while every man and horse at the start will be a barrel himself. I say, lieutenant, you and Vikka have been chums ever since we left the fort."

"I admit that I have a fondness for him and he seems to like me."

"Well, one word; keep a special eye on him. You will have a better chance than any one else; he may have been playing for the opening that is coming to-night. At the first proof of treachery on his part -"

"I understand," I interrupted. "I'll do it."

The rest which we gained among these hills did a world of good. We had halted about noon, and it was five or six hours later when we rode slowly to the north, with the ridge between us and the spur among which we believed the hostiles were watching for our coming. Our Indian scouts kept well in advance and could be counted upon to give timely warning. It was certain that the Apaches had some of their own scouts out, and the utmost caution was necessary on our part to elude detection. In the latter case we were sure to have our trouble for naught, with the prospect that the cunning enemy would turn the tables upon us.

Night had already closed in when we reached a point some three miles away, where it was our plan to turn to the westward, with a view of getting among the hills, in which we figured that Geronimo and his band were on the alert against surprise. By this time it was certain we should have no rain. The night proved what Lieutenant Smith had anticipated. The sky contained many tumbling clouds slowly moving across, and showing the twinkling stars in the clear spaces. The moon was nearly full, but would not rise until well toward midnight, or "low twelve." This was in our favor, for we counted upon the absence of clear light to screen our advance.

As before, the scouts held well in front, while we with our horses on a walk moved as silently as possible. Debouching from the rugged region, we entered upon the plain, where the ponies' hoofs sank into the spongy sand with the faintest possible noise. Among the twenty-odd cavalrymen hardly a word was spoken. All were listening and peering into the gloom as it parted to make room for us. We hardly expected to see anything wrong, but the faint bird-like call of one or more of the scouts was likely to pierce the stillness at any moment. I kept pretty close to the side of my superior officer, whose senses were on the alert. He had proved his intrepidity as well as his coolness in critical situations, and though I had gone out on more personal scouts than he, I relied upon his judgment at all times. Nature and education had given him a wealth of mental resources that always stood him in good stead.

Suddenly through the soft hush came the soft tremolo which we were expecting. It was the signal from the scouts for us to halt. Our horses seemed to understand the warning, for most of them paused without the gentle pressure of the rein. Still no one spoke. We were waiting for the second signal, which never failed to be sent after a proper interval. The first might miscarry, and it would not do to run the risk of a thing like that.

The interval was no more than two or three minutes, when the call reached us again. We knew it would not be repeated, for in the circumstances it was impossible that both signals should fail. The orders thus far were for us to halt and wait. If the crisis was such that we should fall back; the signal for that would follow. It did not, and we sat silent in our saddles, peering fixedly into the gloom, where we expected our dusky friends to show themselves.

Instead of coming from that direction, the shadowy forms took shape to our left. First there was one, then two loomed into sight, and then the others appeared. The whole party had been sent out, and were now among us again, Vikka being the first that was recognized.

The report showed that the sagacious fellow had been right in his surmise. Geronimo and his band had been located about a fourth of a mile away among the hills, and had gone into camp in a small basin-like valley, where there were water and grass. The disposition pf the men and women showed that the hostiles were ready and probably expecting an attack. If the cavalry followed the most obvious course among the mountains, they must pass near the depression, in which the Apaches were awaiting them. Could the latter effectually conceal themselves, the ambush must prove as disastrous as that in the open plain would have been to me but for the timely warning of my companion.

Never was more subtle cunning and patience matched against each other than in the pursuit and flight of Geronimo and his band that had broken away from the reservation. Some of the exploits on both sides were so incredible that they would not be believed if told. Truth forces one to say that there never would have been the slightest chance of success on the part of the United States cavalry but for the help given by the native scouts. Matched against their own race, it was simply "Greek meeting Greek." One was as much an adept in woodcraft as the other. Sometimes our men failed because the others were the wiser in certain contingencies. Again, it was the other way. All this backed up by an indomitable, remorseless pursuit, such as had never been seen before, fixed the end from the beginning.

It is hard to understand the marvelous skill with which several of our scouts had discovered the Apache camp without being observed in turn by the sentinels who were on the watch. Lieutenant Smith frankly told Vikka and the two companions, Pedro and Jim, who had made this daring venture, that success on their part - that is, without being detected in turn - was out of the question. Nevertheless, the trio spoke with such quiet assurance that the lieutenant was compelled to believe them.

Thus far everything had gone as well as we could hope. We had located the camp of the hostiles without revealing ourselves. All new depended upon the manner in which we carried out the remaining part of the momentous program.

With the cavalry and scouts - the latter of course being on foot, we having taken their ponies in charge - grouped irregularly around, we held a council of war, in which all felt a freedom in expressing his opinion not often seen in a military company.

The situation may be summed up thus: The Apaches whom we had been chasing for weeks were known to be camped hardly a fourth of a mile away, in a basin among the rugged fastnesses of the mountain spur. They would remain there until dawn, in the hope of taking us at a vast disadvantage. If nothing of the kind occurred, they would resume their flight at the earliest streaking of daylight. Their scouts were not only watching the path which we were likely to follow, but, as a matter of course, were guarding their camp from every side.

Matters being thus, could we steal upon them from an unexpected direction, bursting like a cyclone into their camp and taking prisoners or wiping out the whole band? How eagerly every one of us hoped that such might be the issue! It would mark the end of this awful campaigning and our return to civilization.

All the scouts agreed with Vikka that the chance of success was good enough to justify the attempt. We should certainly accomplish something, even if the bucks took the alarm before we could rush their camp. Lieutenant Smith decided to attack.

That being so, the precise course to be followed had yet to be settled. It was necessary to leave our animals at the foot of the hills, where something like shelter could be secured.

Three men were to remain to look after them, while the others stole toward the camp of the redskins.

It should be said, further, that the expectation was to make the attack just before daybreak. That is the favorite hour with Indians themselves, for it marks the lowest ebb of one's vitality and alertness. Despite the vigilance of the sentinels, thrown out on every side by the hostiles, some of the latter would be asleep. Incredible as was their endurance, it had none the less its limits set. True, they would wake with the suddenness of she-wolves, but by that time we hoped to be among them, attending to "business."

The plan of approach having been agreed upon, Vikka, Pedro and Jim moved forward again; with us troopers following at a distance of a hundred yards or so. The purpose of the three was to find the avenue for attack. It was natural that one side or the other of the camp was more vulnerable than the others. It might be that the sentinel at that point could he stolen upon and dispatched so suddenly that he would have no chance to warn the others. We could dash through the opening thus gained and be in the camp in a twinkling.

We used two hours in our stealthy advance, and then, as agreed upon beforehand, halted until notice was received from the scouts, who were near the enemy. No shadows could have moved more noiselessly than we. Every man of us had been trained in this species of woodcraft, and knew that a careless step, the knocking loose of a small stone even, a word spoken in an undertone, or the rattle of a weapon might give the alarm and bring our whole scheme to naught.

Lieutenant Smith and I were crouching beside a huge rock, slightly farther along than the rest of the men. Bending his head close to mine, he whispered:

"Lieutenant, this is the crisis that will test Vikka."

"I am thinking the same. Shall I steal ahead and see what I can see?"

"I hate to have you run the risk."

"I'll do it."

I slipped oft my sword for fear it would betray me and grasped my revolver. I was likely to need it with the suddenness of lightning, and did not mean to be taken unawares.

Smith would have been glad to whisper a word of counsel or at least to say good-by, but it was not necessary or worth the risk.

As I emerged from behind the rock, I perceived that the moon had risen and was rapidly climbing the sky. Just then it was obscured by a heavy cloud, but observing that it would soon pass, I improved the chance to creep forward for several rods. Then the flood of light was such that I lay flat awaiting another opportunity, which I perceived would soon come.

Ahead of me and slightly to the left towered another boulder, not so large as the one that screened Lieutenant Smith. I crawled behind this and then awaited the obscuration of the moon, to advance farther into the open.

I was in the act of creeping forward, when, without the slightest sound or warning, the figure of an Indian warrior rose to view beside the boulder. One glance at it was enough. I was too familiar with the fellow to be mistaken. It was Geronimo himself.


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