English Literature

Sunset Pass or Running The Gauntlet Through Apache Land by Charles King

Sunset Pass or Running The Gauntlet Through Apache Land by Charles King.jpg



“Better take my advice, sir. The road ahead is thick with the Patchies.”

“But you have come through all alone, my friend; why should I not go? I have been stationed among the Apaches for the last five years and have fought them all over Arizona. Surely I ought to know how to take care of myself.”

“I don’t doubt that, captain. It’s the kids I’m thinking of. The renegades from the reservation are out in great numbers now and they are supposed to be all down in the Tonto Basin, but I’ve seen their moccasin tracks everywhere from the Colorado Chiquito across the ‘Mogeyone,’ and I’m hurrying in to Verde now to give warning and turn the troops this way.”

“Well, why didn’t they attack you, then, Al?”

The party thus addressed by the familiar diminutive of “Al” paused a moment before reply, an odd smile flitting about his bearded lips. A stronger, firmer type of scout and frontiersman than Al Sieber never sat in saddle in all Arizona in the seventies, and he was a noted character among the officers, soldiers, pioneers, and Apaches. The former respected and trusted him. The last named feared him as they did the Indian devil. He had been in fight after fight with them; had had his share of wounds, but—what the Apaches recoiled from in awe was the fact that he had never met them in the field without laying one at least of their number dead in his tracks. He was a slim-built, broad-shouldered, powerful fellow, with a keen, intelligent face, and eyes that were kindly to all his friends, but kindled at sight of a foe. A broad-brimmed, battered slouch hat was pulled well down over his brows; his flannel shirt and canvas trousers showed hard usage; his pistol belt hung loose and low upon his hips and on each side a revolver swung. His rifle—Arizona fashion—was balanced athwart the pommel of his saddle, and an old Navajo blanket was rolled at the cantle. He wore Tonto leggins and moccasins, and a good-sized pair of Mexican spurs jingled at his heels. He looked—and so did his horse—as though a long, hard ride was behind them, but that they were ready for anything yet.

“It makes a difference, captain—their attacking me or you. I’ve been alive among ’em so many years that they have grown superstitious. Sometimes I half believe they think I can’t be killed. Then, too, I may have slipped through unnoticed, but you—with all this outfit—why! you’re sure to be spotted, followed, and possibly ambushed in Sunset Pass. It’s the worst place along the route.”

Captain Gwynne looked anxiously about him a moment. He was a hard-headed, obstinate fellow, and he hated to give up. Two months ago his wife had died, leaving to his care two dear little ones—a boy of nine and a girl of six. He soon determined to take them East to his home in far Pennsylvania. There was no Southern Pacific or any other Arizona railway in those days. Officers and their families who wanted to go East had to turn their faces westward, take a four or five days’ “buckboard” ride across the dusty deserts to the Colorado River, camp there perhaps a week before “Captain Jack Mellon” came backing or sideways down the shallow stream with his old “Cocopah.” Then they sculled or ground their way over the sand bars down to Fort Yuma, a devious and monotonous trip; then were transferred to “lighten” or else, on the same old Cocopah, were floated out into the head of the Gulf of California and there hoisted aboard the screw steamers of the Ocean line—either the Newbern or the Montana, and soon went plunging down the gulf, often very sea-sick, yet able to get up and look about when their ship poked in at some strange old Mexican town, La Paz or Guaymas, and finally, turning Cape St. Lucas, away they would steam up the coast to San Francisco, which they would reach after a two weeks’ sea voyage and then, hey for the Central Pacific, Cape Horn, the Sierras, Ogden, and the tramp to the Union Pacific and, at last, home in the distant east, all after a journey of five or six weeks and an expense of months of the poor officer’s pay.

Now Captain Gwynne was what we called a “close” man. He could not bear the idea of spending something like a thousand dollars in taking himself, little Ned and Nellie, and their devoted old nurse, Irish Kate, by that long and expensive route. He had two fine horses and a capital family wagon, covered. He had a couple of stout mules and a good baggage wagon. Jim, his old driver, would go along to take care of “the Concord,” as the family cart was termed. Manuelito, a swarthy Mexican, would drive the mules; the captain would ride his own pet saddle horse, Gregg, and a discharged soldier, whom he hired for the purpose, would ride McIntosh, the other charger. All were well armed. Parties were going unmolested over the Sunset Pass route every month. Why should not he?

The officers at Prescott shook their heads and endeavored to dissuade him, but the more they argued the more determined was he. There were tearful eyes among the ladies at Prescott barracks, where Mrs. Gwynne had been dearly loved, when they bade good-by to the children. But one fine day away went “the outfit;” stopped that night at Camp Verde, deep down in the valley; started again early in the morning, despite the protestations of the garrison, and that evening were camping among the beautiful pine woods high up on the Mogollon range. Sieber’s pronunciation of the name—”Mogeyone”—will give you a fair idea of what it is really like.

And now, three days out on the Mesa, Ned and Nellie, in silence, but with beating hearts, were listening to this conversation between their father and the famous scout, and hoping, poor little mites, that their father would be advised and turn back until met by cavalry from Verde; yet so loyal to him, so trustful to him, that neither to one another nor to Kate would they say a word.

“Well, Sieber, I’ve argued this thing out with all Prescott and Verde,” said the captain at last. “I’ve sworn I wouldn’t turn back, and so, by jinks, I’m going ahead. It’s all open country around Snow Lake, and I can keep on the alert when we reach the Pass.”

“You know your business best, I suppose, captain, but—” and Sieber stopped abruptly and gazed through the open windows of the Concord at the two little forms huddled together, with such white faces, on the back seat.

“Well, won’t you at least wait and camp here a day or so? I’ll go down by way of Wales Arnold’s and get him to send up a couple of men. That won’t be going back, and you’ll be tolerably safe here. The cavalry won’t be long getting out this way.”

“And meantime having my beasts eating barley by the bucketful so that I won’t have enough to get through? No, Al, I’ve made calculations just how many days it will take me to get over to Wingate, and delay would swamp me. I don’t mean to discredit your story, of course, but everybody, even at Verde, said the renegades were all down by Tonto Creek, and I cannot believe they would be out here to the northeast. I’m going ahead.”

“Well, Captain Gwynne, I give up. If you’re bound to go there’s no use talking. Stop one moment though!” He spurred his broncho close to the window, and thrusting in his wiry arm drew little Nell close to him, bent and kissed tenderly her bonny face.


“God guard you, baby,” he murmured, as finally he set her down. “Adios, Ned, my lad,” and he shook the little man heartily by the hand. “Good luck all! Now I must gallop to make up time.” He turned quickly away and went “loping” down the trail, but his gauntlet was drawn across his eyes two or three times before he disappeared from view. Two white little faces gazed wistfully after him and then into each other’s eyes. Irish Kate muttered a blessing on the gallant fellow’s head. “Come on, Jim,” said the captain, with darkening face, and presently the little train was again in motion, winding over the range that, once passed, brings them in view of Snow Lake with the gloomy, jagged rocks bounding the horizon far beyond. There is a deep cleft that one sees in that barrier just as he emerges from the pine woods along the ridge, and that distant cleft is Sunset Pass.

Though seldom traveled, the mountain road from Fort Verde over to Fort Wingate was almost always in fair condition. Rains were very few and did little damage, and so at a rapid, jingling trot the wagons lunged ahead while the captain and Pike, the retired trooper, rode easily alongside or made occasional scouts to the front.

Knowing that his children must have heard his talk with Sieber, the captain soon dropped back opposite the open window and thrust in his hand for the little ones to shake.

“You’re not afraid to go ahead, Ned, my boy! I knew I could count on you,” said he heartily. “And Nell can hardly be afraid with you and her old dragoon dad to guard her. Isn’t it so, pet?”

And the wan little face smiled back to prove Nellie’s confidence in father, while Ned stoutly answered:

“I’m never afraid to go anywhere you want me to go, father. And then I haven’t had a chance to try my rifle yet.”

The boy held up to view a dainty little Ballard target gun—a toy of a thing—but something of which he was evidently very proud.

“And then we’ve got good old Pike, papa—and Kate here—I’m sure she could fight,” piped up little Nell, but there was no assent to this proposition from the lips of poor Kate. All along she had opposed the journey, and was filled with dread whenever it was spoken of. Vainly had she implored the officers and ladies at Prescott to prohibit the captain from making so rash an attempt. Nothing would avail. As ill-luck would have it the lieutenant colonel recently gazetted to the infantry regiment stationed in Northern Arizona had just come safely through from Wingate with exactly such an “outfit,” but without such guards, and Captain Gwynne declared that what man had done man could do. There were plenty of people who would have taken her off the captain’s hands, but nothing would induce the faithful creature to leave the motherless “childer.” She loved them both—and if they were to go through danger she would go with them. All the same she stood sturdily out in her resentment toward the captain and would not answer now. Jim, too, on the driver’s seat, was gloomily silent. Manuelito with the mules in rear had listened to Sieber’s warning with undisguised dismay. Only Pike—ex-corporal of the captain’s troop—rode unconcernedly ahead. What cared he for Apaches? He had fought them time and again.

Nevertheless when Captain Gwynne came cantering out to the front and joined his old non-commissioned officer, it was with some surprise that he listened to Pike’s salutation.

“May I say a word to the captain?”

“Certainly, Pike; say on.”

“I was watching Manuelito, sir, while the captain was talking with Sieber. Them greasers are a bad lot, sir—one and all. There isn’t one of ’em I’d trust as far as I could sling a bull by the tail. That Manuelito is just stampeded by what he’s heard, and while he dare not whirl about and go now, I warn the captain to have an eye on the mules to-night. He’ll skip back for the Verde with only one of them rather than try Sunset Pass to-morrow.”

“Why! confound it, Pike, that fellow has been in my service five years and never failed me yet.”

“True enough, sir; but the captain never took him campaigning. They do very well around camp, sir, but they’d rather face the gates of purgatory than try their luck among the Tontos. I believe one Apache could lick a dozen of ’em.”

The captain turned slowly back, and took a good look at the Mexican as he sat on his high spring seat, and occasionally encouraged his team with endearing epithets, or, as in the manner of the tribe, scored them with wildest blasphemy. Ordinarily Manuelito was wont to show his white teeth, and touch the broad, silver-edged brim of his sombrero, when “el capitan” reined back to see how he was getting along. To-day there was a sullen scowl for the first moment, and then, as though suddenly recollecting himself, the dark-skinned fellow gave a ghastly sort of grin—and the captain felt certain that Pike’s idea was right. The question was simply how to circumvent him.

At sunset the little party was cosily camped on the edge of Snow Lake—a placid little sheet far up among the mountains. The plateau was broken by a low ridge a few miles east, through a gap in which, known as Jarvis Pass, ran the road to Sunset Pass beyond. Horses and mules, securely tethered, were grazing close at hand. The two wagons were drawn in near the little camp-fire. The children were having a jolly game of hide and seek and stretching their legs after the long day’s ride in the wagon. Kate was stowing away the supper dishes. Manuelito was stretched upon the turf, his keen, eager eyes following every motion of his captain, even though his teeth held firmly the little paper tobacco holder he called his “papelito.” Out on the open ground beyond the little bunch of trees Pike could be seen, carbine in hand, scouting the prairie-like surface and keeping guard against surprise. The sun went down. Twilight hovered over them; Kate had cuddled her beloved “childer” into their beds in the wagon and the captain had come around to kiss them good-night. Manuelito still sprawled near the tiny blaze, smoking and watching, and at last, as the bulky form of the Irish nurse-maid disappeared within the canvas walls of the wagon, the Mexican sprang from his recumbent position, turned, and with quick, stealthy step sped away through the clumps of trees to where the animals were placidly browsing. He bent his lithe body double, even though he knew that at this moment the captain and the ex-corporal were over at the east end of their little camp-ground, chatting together in low tones. He laughed to himself as he reached his mules and found them heavily hoppled with iron chains.

“As if I would take a burro when one stroke gives me a caballo grande,” he muttered, and pushed still further out to where the four horses were “lariated” near the timber. A word to “Gregg” whom he had often cared for; a gleam of his knife from the sheath and the gallant horse was free to follow him. Still in silence and stealth he led him back toward the camp-fire where the saddles were piled. Still he marked that Captain Gwynne and Pike were in earnest talk down at the other end of the camp. Warily he reached forward to grasp the captain’s saddle, when a low exclamation was heard from that officer himself and, peering at him through the trees, the Mexican could see that he was eagerly pointing westward and calling Pike to his side. Instinctively Manuelito glanced over his shoulder and saw a sight that told him horse-thieving would not save his tawny hide; that told him their retreat was cut off, and their only hope now was in standing together. Back among the pines through which they had come; well upon the ridge, and not ten miles away, blazed an Indian signal fire. It was the Apache summons for a quick “gathering of the clans.”

Now God help the bairnies in the wagon!


Categories: English Literature

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