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- Tales of Aztlan - 3/17 -


don't," said the long-haired scout; "I have been stationed here, as marshal of the town, to warn people away from the place. You take my advice and go to the creek and plunge in with all your clothes and play for an hour in the water, then dry yourself, go back to camp, and keep mum!" This was the year of the cholera. It started somewhere down south, and many people died from it in the city of St. Louis, and it followed the railway through Kansas to the end of the track. Many soldiers died also at Fort Harker, which was farther out West on the plains.

At last we started on our perilous journey, an imposing caravan of one hundred and eighty wagons, each drawn by five yoke of oxen. Our force numbered upward of two hundred and fifty men, the owners, teamsters, train masters or mayordomos and the herders of the different outfits; all were Mexicans except myself.

Several days were spent in crossing the little stream formed by the confluence of two creeks. The water was quite deep and had to be crossed by means of a ferryboat. Here I met with my first adventure, which nearly cost me my life. My wagon was loaded with supplies and provisions and with several pieces of oak timber, intended for use in our train. When I drove down the steep bank on to the ferryboat, the timbers, which were not well secured, slid forward and pushed me off my seat, so that I fell right under the mules just as they stepped on the ferry. The frightened mules trampled and kicked fearfully. I lay still, thinking that if I moved they would step on me, as their hoofs missed my head by inches only. I thought of my mother and how sorry she would be if she could see me now, but I was thinking, ever thinking and lay very still. Then my guardian angel, in the person of a Mexican, crawled under the wagon from the rear end and pulled me by my heels, back to safety under the wagon. When I came out from under I threw my hat in the air and gave a whoop and cheer, at which the Mexicans were greatly enthused. They yelled excitedly and our mayordomo exclaimed: "Caramba, mira que diablito!" (Egad, see the little devil!)

We traveled in two parallel lines, about fifty feet apart and kept the spare cattle and remounts of horses, as also the small provision teams between the lines. A cavalcade of train owners and mayordomos was constantly scouting in all directions, but they never ventured out of sight of the traveling teams. We started daily at sunrise and traveled till noon or until we made the distance to our next watering place. Then we camped and turned our live stock out to rest and crop the prairie grass. After several hours we used to resume our journey until nightfall or later to our next camping ground. Every man had to take his turn about at herding cattle and horses during the nighttime. Only the cooks were exempt from doing herd and guard duty.

We pitched our nightly camps by forming two closed half circles of our wagons, one on each side of the road so as to form a corral. By means of connecting the wagons with chains, this made a strong barricade, quite efficient to repulse the attacks of hostile Indians, if defended by determined men. Every freight train when in camp was a little fort in itself and an interesting sight at nighttime, when the blazing fires were surrounded by men who were cooking and passing the time in various ways. Some were cleaning and loading their guns, others mended their clothes. Here and there you would find some genius playing dreamy, monotonous Spanish airs on the guitar, in the midst of a merry group of dancing and singing young Mexicans, many of whom were not older than I. Card-playing seemed, however, to be their favorite pastime; all Mexicans are inveterate gamesters, who look upon the profession of gambling as an honorable and desirable occupation.

After the first day out I did not see an inebriated man in the whole party. The Mexicans are really a much maligned and slandered people. They are often charged with the sin of postponing every imaginable thing until manana, but, to do them justice, I must say that they drank every drop of liquor they carried on the first day out; also ate all the dainties which other people would have saved and relished for days to come. Surely, not manana, but ahora, or "do it now" was their soul-stirring battle cry on this occasion.

After several days of travel we encountered herds of buffalo and mustangs or wild horses, and when our scouts reported numerous Indian signs, we advanced slowly and carefully, momentarily expecting an ambuscade and attack. Our column halted frequently while our horsemen explored suspicious-looking hillocks and ravines.

A dense column of smoke rose suddenly in our front, and I saw several detachments of Indian warriors on a little hill, who were evidently reconnoitering, and spying our strength, but did not expose themselves fully to view. Simultaneously columns of signal smoke arose in all directions round about. Instantly our lines closed in the front and rear and we came to an abrupt halt. What I saw then made my heart sink, for the drivers seemed to be paralyzed with terror. The very men who had heretofore found a great delight in trying to frighten me with tales of Indian atrocities were now themselves scared out of their wits. Young and inexperienced though I was, I realized that to be now attacked by Indians meant to be slaughtered and scalped. Some of the men were actually crying from fright, seeming to be completely demoralized. I noticed how one of our men in loading his musket rammed home a slug of lead, forgetting his charge of powder entirely. The sight of this disgusted me so that I became furious, and in the measure that my anger rose my fear subsided and vanished. I railed at the poor fellow and abused and cursed him shamefully, threatening to kill him for being a coward and a fool. I made him draw the bullet and reload his musket in a proper manner.

When I grew older I acquired the faculty to curb the instinctive feeling of fear which is inborn in all creatures and undoubtedly is a wise provision of nature, necessary to the continuance of life and conducive to self-preservation. Knowing that all men who ever lived and all who now live must surely die, I failed to see anything particularly fearful in death. I may truthfully say that I have several times met death face to face squarely and feared not. On these occasions I tried not to escape what seemed to be my final doom, but in the dim consciousness of mind that I should be dead long enough anyway, I tried to delay my departure to a better life as long as possible, exerting myself exceedingly to accomplish this purpose. Undoubtedly this must have made me a very undesirable person to contend with in a fight. Luckily for me, I have never been afflicted with a quarrelsome or vindictive mind. This is not a boastful or frivolous assertion, but is uttered in the spirit of thankfulness to the allwise Creator of Heaven and earth.

Looking around, I beheld a sight which cheered me mightily. There, a few yards ahead of my wagon, was a great hole in the ground, made by badgers; or it may have been the palace of a king of prairie dogs. Quickly I drove my team forward, right over it. Then, pretending to be rearranging my cargo, I took out the end gate of my wagon and covered the hole with it. Next, I wet some gunny sacks and placed them on the ground under the board. Now, thought I, here is my chance for an honorable retreat if anything should go wrong. I intended to close up the hole behind me with the wet sacks, taking the risk of snake bites in preference to the tender mercies of the Indians. As these ground lairs take a turn a few feet down and are connected with various underground passages and have several outlets, I had a fair prospect to escape should the Indians discover my whereabouts, for they could neither burn nor smoke me out, and were not likely to take the time to reduce my fort by starvation. It took me but a very short time to make my preparations, and I did it unnoticed by my companions, who seemed fully preoccupied with their own troubles.

A horseman galloped up to our division, a great, swarthy, fierce-looking man, bearded like the pard. This man did not act like a scared person. One glance at the frightened faces of his countrymen sufficed to enlighten and also to enrage him.

"Senores," he said, "I perceive you are anxious and ready for a fight. I hope the Indians will accommodate us, as we are greatly in need of a little sport. It may happen that some of you will lose your scalps, and I hope that it is not you, Senor Felipe Morales. I should be very sorry for your poor old mother and your crippled sister, for who will support them if you should fail them? As for you, Senor Juan, it does not matter much if you never again breathe the air of New Mexico. Your young little wife has not yet had an opportunity to know you fully, anyway, and your cousin, the strapping Don Isidro Chavez, will surely take the best care of her. They say he calls on her daily to inquire after her welfare. Senor Cuzco Gonzales, as you might be unlucky enough to leave your bones on this prairie, I would advise you to make me heir to your garden of chile peppers. To be sure, I never saw a more tempting crop! Mayhap you will have no further use for chile, as the Indians are likely to heat your belly with hot coals, in lieu of peppers."

Then he called for the cook. "Senor Doctor," he said, "prepare the medicine for this man, who is too sick to load a musket properly, and had to be shown how to do so by a little gringo, as I observed a while ago. Hold him, Senores." And they held him down while the cook administered the medicine, forcing it down his unwilling throat. The medicine was compounded from salt, and the prescribed dose was a handful of it dissolved in a tin cupful of water. This seemed to revive the patient's faltering spirit wonderfully. The cook, a half-witted fellow, was another man who seemed to have no fear. His eyes shone wickedly and he was stripped for the fight. A red bandanna kerchief tied around his head, he glided stealthily about, thirsty for Indian blood as any wolf. They told me that his mother and sister had died at the hands of the cruel Apaches.

To me the rider said, "Senor Americanito, I know your gun is loaded right and is ready to shoot straight. Look you, if you plant a bullet just below an Indian's navel, you will see him do a double somersault, which is more wonderful to behold than any circus performance you ever saw."

Here was a man good to see, a descendant of the famous Don Fernando Cortez, conquistador, and molded on the lines of Pizarro, the wily conqueror of Peru, and he heartened our crew amazingly. He exhorted the men to be brave and fight like Spaniards, and he prayed to the saints to preserve us; and piously remembering his enemies, he called on the devil to preserve the Indians. Such zealous devotion found merited favor with the blessed saints in Heaven, for they granted his prayer, and the Indians did not attack us that day.

On the following day, Don Emillo Cortez came again and asked me to ride with him as a scout. He had brought a young man to drive the team in my stead. Gladly I accepted his invitation. He arranged a pillion for his saddle and mounted me behind him, facing the horse's tail. Then he passed a broad strap around his waist and my body and armed me with a Henry repeating rifle, then a new invention and a very serviceable gun. In this manner I had both hands free and made him the best sort of a rear guard. We cantered toward a sandy hill on our left. A coyote came our way, appearing from the crest of the hill. The animal was looking back over its shoulder and veered off when it scented us. Don Emilio halted his horse. "That coyote is driven by Indians," said he; "do you think you can hit it at this distance?" I thought I could by aiming high and a little forward. At the crack of my rifle the coyote yelped and bit its side, then


Tales of Aztlan - 3/17

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