Dennis and the Mormon Battalion: Chapter 8

Dennis and the Mormon Battalion

By Mabel Harmer

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Chapter 8 – The March on Tucson

For a few days they traveled along the San Pedro river. The roads became increasingly rough as they passed the base of the mountains extending towards the Gila river. Some of the men grumbled that the Colonel had allowed them to jerk so little of the meat from the wild cattle they had killed along the way. Others suggested that he probably knew what he was doing and that it might have done them more harm than good to overeat int heir present condition. One evening Charboneaux returned to camp with a story that caused no little excitement and apprehension. He said that he and Ned, while exploring some distance ahead, had run into a party of Mexicans and learned that there was a garrison of two hundred soldiers stationed at Tucson. “I told them,” he reported to Colonel Cooke, “to pass word on to the commander at Tucson that an army of Americans are en route to California; that the front guard is about three hundred and sixty men, and that if it stops to drill it will give them time for the main army to come up. foster has gone on ahead into Tucson to make the story appear more likely. If he isn’t back in camp within four days we are to take it for granted that he is being held a prisoner.” “You have done some very clear thinking,” commended the Colonel. “Now we must decide how we can take Tucson by strategy, for we are much too few in numbers and too worn out to take it by force.” He waited for some of the other guides to come in, hoping that it might be possible to go some other way and miss Tucson entirely. They assured him that any other course was a hundred miles out of the way, and over a trackless wilderness of mountains, rivers, and hills. When he had finally decided that there was no other alternative, he issued the following order: “We will march on to Tucson. We come not to make war upon Sonora and much less to destroy an important outpost of defense against the Indians; but we will take the straight road before us and overcome all resistance. But shall I remind you that the American soldier ever shows justice and kindness to the unarmed and unresisting? The property of individuals you will hold sacred. the people of Sonora are not our enemies.” With no more delay but with many a qualm, the battalion took the trail leading to Tucson. After traveling only eight or nine miles they were surprised to discover half a dozen Mexican soldiers cutting grass near a small stream. they were also surprised to find that the Mexicans paid them but little attention and went calmly on with their work. Colonel Cooke would have liked to ride by with as little interest as possible, but since he was anxious to find out about the state of affairs in Tucson, he summoned Ned and asked him to question the Mexican sergeant. After a brief conversation Ned reported, “He says that a rumor of a large force of American soldiers has reached the town and that there is great excitement. the governor of Sonora has sent word to the commander that no armed force is to be allowed to pass through without resistance.” “Tell him,” answered Colonel Cooke, “to take word back to his commander that we are friends, and will do them no harm. We will simply purchase some supplies and pass on.” Ned gave the message to the Mexican and the battalion pushed on. “You have to hand it to the colonel for having nerve,” said Neil to Dennis as they trudged alongside the wagons. “A couple of good cannon and thirty men could wipe us out, the state we’re in now.” “I guess you’re right,” answered Dennis thoughtfully. “Well, we’ll just have to hope that the Lord is on our side and that they won’t take a notion to use their cannon.” About noon of the following day the company met four more Mexican soldiers along the way and everyone was greatly surprised when the Colonel sternly commanded that they be put under arrest. At this warlike gesture the soldiers became terribly frightened and begged to be released. the Colonel, inline with his pretense of having a mighty force, sent only one of them back with two of the guides and a note demanding Foster’s release. He stated that the other three men were being held as hostages. The entire company waited now in suspense to see whether or not the commander of Tucson would call the Colonel’s bluff. About midnight Foster arrived with two Mexican officers who were authorized by Commanduran, the Commander of Tucson, to make an armistice. Rather haughtily, Colonel. Cooke sent back a proposition that Commanduran deliver a few arms as a token of surrender and guarantee that the soldiers at Tucson would not fight against the army of the United States. Thus far it seemed that events were all working out in favor of the battalion. It was with genuine dismay that they received a note, brought by a cavalryman on the following day, declining the position for surrender. The company was now halted, drawn up in fighting order, told to load the muskets and prepare for action. Dennis, who had no musket to load, climbed up with James Brown, the driver of the “sick wagon,” so that he could get a better view of the impending battle. “What’ll you do when they start firing?” Dennis asked, his voice rising with excitement. “Turn this outfit over to you and go join them, I hope,” said James. “I don’t know why age is the only thing that has to count in this battle.” “Do you suppose the Mexicans are good fighters?” Dennis asked. “They’ve probably had a lot of practice and they’ve got all the odds in this fight. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a cannot or two on every house top and a couple of greasers to handle them. Well, the Colonel put up a good bluff, anyway – and still is for that matter. To see those men marching forward now you wouldn’t think that they are about to drop from weariness and hunger.” “No and I’ll betcha they won’t drop, either,” said Dennis in a voice strong with admiration. “They’ll fight on as long as there’s a bullet or a man left.” They rode on in silence for a few minutes and then James remarked, “It seems mighty quiet considering we’re getting so close to the town. Maybe they’re waiting until they see the whites of our eyes before they fire.” On they went and still there was no sign or sound from the enemy whose stronghold they were so rapidly approaching. “I guess they’re going to let us get right inside the town and then come at us from all sides,” said Dennis. “That’s going to be sort of hard on us, being here unprotected at the end of the line.” “Not entirely unprotected,” answered James. “My rifle is just under my seat here. You get it out and load it. We’ll get in a couple of shots, anyway, if they come at us from the rear.” Dennis was only too ready to comply and by the time they reached the outskirts of Tucson he sat tense, watching all sides as they followed on behind the marching columns. Through the gates of the town they marched, still seeing or hearing no one. In the center of the town the Colonel called a halt and gradually there appeared from behind closed doors or the walls of the houses the faces of children and old men and women. There was still not a sign of a single soldier. One bright-eyed little Mexican lad came up close to the wagon. When Dennis made signs that he wanted a drink the boy ran back into the house and returned with a jug of cold water. “That’s great,” remarked James, after everyone in the wagon had been given a drink. “Now see what you can do about getting us something to eat.” Dennis again brought the sign language into use and was rewarded with a couple of small cakes and a bunch of grapes. “That was wonderful,” said James. ‘Let’s see what we can give him in return.” Fishing about in his pockets, he brought forth a small coin. Dennis tore off the top button from his shirt and handed it to the boy who seemed entirely pleased with his reward. By now the command had started marching once more, and passing on through the town they made their camp on the bank of a small stream about half a mile away. As soon as they had halted, Dennis jumped down and ran to seek out his father. “What do you make of it, Pa?” he cried. “Where were all the soldiers and why did they let us go through?” “We don’t know yet,” his father answered, “but we’re mighty thankful to get through as we did. The Colonel and his staff are returning to see if they can get some grain for the animals and learn what happened to the Mexican army. Maybe we’re not through with them yet. They may be hiding in these mesquite bushes or waiting for reinforcements to come in. You know, we’ve given out the impression that we’re a lot stronger than we really are.” “That’s right,” answered Dennis. “I guess that I’d better hang on to James’ gun.” To make sure that he could do so he kept out of its owner’s sight for the rest of the evening. At supper time some quinces and other semi-tropical fruits that had been purchased during the short stay in the town were brought forth, as well as a small amount of unbolted flour which was made into griddle cakes. But far more welcome even than these was some salt which the Colonel had brought with the grain, for they had been without for several days and their longing had begun to amount to a craving. Before taps were sounded the Colonel instructed the men to keep their arms within easy reach. He sent a picket guard to watch the gates with instructions that if more than twenty men passed out of the town during the night they were to sound an alarm. Then the camp fires were dusted, the guard placed, and the men rolled up in their blankets for the night’s rest. It seemed to Dennis that he had no more than closed his eyes when he was wakened by the confusion of the companies getting out from the tents and forming into lines. The camp fires were being rekindled and the officer of the day was calling, in a voice pitched high with excitement, “Beat that drum! beat that drum! if you can’t beat the drum, beat the fife!” “Are we being attacked?” cried Dennis, running through the lines until he found Tom. “Do you think I’ll be noticed if I fall in here with your company?” “We don’t know yet,” said Tom in answer to the first question. “Some shots were fired by the picket guard, which means that something is happening down at the town. I guess you can come along if you want to. It’s too dark for anyone to recognize you anyway.” With this encouragement Dennis joined the ranks and marched with the company to the side of the road. In the meantime Colonel Cooke had dashed upon the scene and in a stern voice commanded, “Stop that music! dust those lights! Do you want to draw every Mexican in the country right to our camp?” In a few moments some of the men had kicked dust over the camp fires and the lights had died down. Quickly the companies were lined up alternately on either side of the road to await further developments. The “further developments” turned out to be much more than Dennis had bargained for when he voluntarily joined Company B. Lieutenant Smith came up and gave the order, “The first ten will count off, go into town and return with whatever information you can discover.” Tom was about to protest but Dennis seized his arm to caution him to keep quiet, and they marched stealthily off in the darkness. “There’ll be the devil to pay if the officers find out that a kid like you is along with us,” whispered Tom when they were out of earshot. “And your father isn’t going to like it too well, either. Especially if one of those greasers puts a knife in you. You’d better turn back now while you still have a chance.” “Not on your life,” answered Dennis. “This is the first chance I’ve had to do anything important on this trip.” “Oh, I don’t know,” drawled Tom. “Getting those mules back from the Indians was no child’s play. But come along, if you have to, and handle that weapon discreetly.” Dennis breathed a sigh of relief and went along with the other men, creeping quietly forward in the darkness and eying the mesquite bushes along the road where any n umber of Mexicans could easily be hidden in ambush. In a few minutes they were at the gate where, after a whispered council they decided to separate and go by twos through the streets, meeting again in about an hour at the same place. Tom motioned Dennis to follow him and they skirted around a back street, seeing nothing but the darkened houses until they were on the opposite side of the town. Then, just as they were about to turn back, the sound of marching feet struck their ears and they crouched back in the shadow of the mesquite. The sounds grew closer and in a few minutes men began climbing over the wall. They came by the dozens, making but little noise and separating to go in different directions, apparently to their homes, as they reached the streets. Dennis and Tom crouched almost breathless until the last of the men had disappeared inside the houses before they ventured to turn back and retrace their steps to the western gate. There they discovered that some of the party had already returned, and before long all had reassembled and were on their way back to camp. “What do you make of it?” asked Tom, when they were a safe distance from the town. “I don’t exactly kn9ow,” answered Ned, “but it’s my guess that those soldiers were more frightened of us than we were of them and that they skipped out while we went through, so that they wouldn’t have to fight us. You remember the governor sent word that they were to resist any armed force that went through Tucson?” “You could be right at that,” answered Tom. “At any rate they aren’t planning any mischief tonight. I practically tucked most of them right in their own beds.” As they neared the camp, he said, “I’ll report to the colonel and the rest of you can turn in. It looks as if everybody else has already done so.” Dennis, who knew that this was to give him a chance to get back to his own tent undetected, pressed Tom’s arm gratefully and ran off to his own camp. Once there he stumbled over a sleeping comrade who immediately sat up, made a grab for his gun and scrambled to his feet. Frantically Dennis threw his arm about the boy and quieted him down before he awakened any one else. “One more false alarm and everyone in this company would shoot without looking,” he mumbled to himself as he lay down. Just as he was about to drop off to sleep a thought struck him and he sat bolt upright again. “What is it?” whispered the other boy who was quite awake by now. “I just thought of what Brigham Young said before we left,” whispered Dennis. “Don’t you remember? He promised that we wouldn’t have any fighting except with wild beasts. So I reckon that lets the Mexicans out.” Without another word he lay down on the hard ground and an instant later was fast asleep.

(To be continued)

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