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
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
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
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
With his keen eyes still fixed on my face,
"Do you believe he is honest in saying
Geronimo will stay where he is until to-morrow?"
"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
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
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
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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