The Attack On the Mountain

From the Saturday Evening Post July 4th, 1959
Also collected in A Century’s Great Westerns
edited by John Jakes, Forge Books
And in Tales of the Great West,
the Western Writers of America short story collection,
edited by Richard S. Wheeler for New American Library


       This is about a general and a petticoat and three squaws and a rat roast and a Sergeant and some other soldiers and a mutt dog and an old maid and a message.

       The general was Nelson A. Miles. He followed General George Crook in charge of the military department of Arizona, in which vast command the Apaches, still feisty in the 'Eighties, were accustomed to breaking out of the agencies, stealing horses and cattle, burning ranches, deceasing the settlers, and being beat-all scampish. Tender in the beam, Miles was disinclined to spend much time in the saddle, as Crook had done, preferring to reign over military reviews and fancy-do's in towns with the locals and let the terrain and the latest in tactics conduct his campaign for him.

       To this end he scattered his cavalry in troops across that area most pested by the Indians, ready to strike at any raiding band close-range, and also set up the most intricate, cosmographical system of observation and communication ever seen in the West. The finest telescopes and heliographs were obtained from the chief signal officer in Washington. The heliograph consisted of a mirror set on a tripod and covered with a shutter; by means of a lever which alternately removed and interposed the shutter, long or short flashes of light coded out words, the distance depending on the sun's brillance and the clearness of the atmosphere. Infantrymen were trained at Signal Corps school at Fort Myer, in Virginia, then shipped west and stuck up on peaks so as to form a network. There were twenty-seven stations, not only in Arizona but in New Mexico and even more were eventually added, reaching down into Sonora, Mexico. The entire system  covered a zigzag course of over four hundred miles, a part of it being pieced out by telegraph. It was a monument to science and to General Miles’ administrative genius, and it was not worth a tinker's damn.

       The Apaches took to moving by night. By day they observed the observers, using their own means of communication -- fire, smoke, sunlight on a glittering conch shell. They yanked down the telegraph lines, cut them, and spliced them with wet rawhide which dried to look like wire, the cuts then being almost impossible for linemen to detect, thus degutting the system.

       But whatsoever General Field Order No. 7 establisheth on April 20th, 1886, at Fort Bowie must endure. The station could at least transmit messages like the following:

 

RELAY C O FORT HUACHUCA PREPARE POST

INSPECTION AND REVIEW GENL MILES

 

       So much for the General.

       On Bill Williams Mountain, five thousand feet up, set on a ledge, there were five men of the 24th Infantry and two mules and a mutt dog. This was the way they passed their time. Sgt. Ammon Swing was in command. He copied the messages sent and received, made sure there was always an eye to the telescope, and allowed himself only the luxury of an occasional think about Miss Martha Cox.  Corporal Bobyne had charge of the heliograph.  After two weeks training in the code, he worked the shutter with a flourish, youngsterlike.  Private Takins cooked. He never bathed, and over the months built up such a singular oniony odor that they said of him he could walk past the pot and season the stew. The guards were Corporal Heintz and Private Mullin. Reckoning to grow potatoes, Heintz, a stubborn Dutchman from Illinois, hoed and hilled at a great rate while the studious Mullin took up botany, cataloguing specimens of yucca, nopal, and hediondilla. In their brush corral the two mules tucked back their ears and pondered whom to kick next. Their names were Annie and Grover, the latter after Mr. Cleveland, who was then serving his first term in 1886. The mutt dog chased quail and was in turn hunted by sand fleas, who had better luck.

       There was no call for the men to be lonely or the mules mean or the dog to mope. Only six miles away, down in the valley, was Cox's Tanks, a ranch from which water was packed up twice weekly on mule back; only twelve miles off, along the range at a pass, was the Rucker Canyon Station; and only thirty-four miles to the south was Fort Buford, whence supplies were hauled once a month. The five men had high, healthy air to breathe, the goings-on over a hundred square miles of nothing to watch, a branding sun by day and low fierce stars by night. 

       In addition, they could gossip via heliograph with Rucker:

 

YOU SEEN ANY PACHES? NOPE HEINTZ

GROWED ANY TATER YET? NOPE

 

       But after May and June on Bill Williams Mountain they began to be lorn. In July they commenced talking to themselves more than to each other. One day in August the dog turned his eyes heavenward and ran at full speed toward the top of the mountain and death.  Dogs had been known to commit suicide in that way hereabouts.

 

OUR DOG RUN AWAY

SO DID OURN

 

       So much for the mutt.

       When they rousted out one September morning there was smoke columning a few hundred yards down the ledge. Taking Mullin with him, Sergeant Swing went out to reconnoiter, snaking along through the greasewood until they reached a rock formation. What they spied was a mite insulting. They had Apaches on their hands, all right, but squaws instead of braves -- three of them, and a covey of kids running about. The ladies had come during the night, built a bungalow of brush and old skins and set up housekeeping.  The smoke issued from a stone-lined pit in which they were baking mescal, a species of century plant and a staple of the Apache diet.  Ollas and conical baskets were scattered about. The squaws wore calico dresses, which meant they had at one time been on an agency, and  one of them was missing the tip of her nose. The whites had not as yet succeeded in arguing the Apache warriors out of their age-old right to snick off a little when they suspected their womenfolk of being unfaithful. But the final indignity was dealt the Sergeant when he and Mullin crawled out of the rocks. Two youngsters, who had watched their every move, skittered laughingly back to their mamas.

       Apaches or not, they were the station's first real company in six months and the men were glad of them. Sergeant Swing was not. He could not decide if he should start an official message to department headquarters and if he did, how to word it so that he would not sound ridiculous.

       While he hesitated young Bobyne shuttered the news to Rucker Canyon anyway:

 

THREE SQUAWS COME

SARGE DUNNO WHAT TO DO     

 

       The reply was immediate:

 

HAVE DANCE  INVITE US

 

       When this was decoded, since no one but Bobyne could read Morse, there was general laughter.

       Folderol," the Sergeant said.

       "You tink dem squaws vill 'tack us?"  Heintz asked, winking at the others.  "Zhould ve zhoot dem kids?"

       Swing ruminated. "You fellers listen. If you expect them desert belles come up to cook and sew for us, your expecter is busted. Where there's squaws there's billy-bound to be bucks sooner or later." He said further that he was posting a running guard at once. He wanted someone on the telescope from sun-up to dark. "And here's the gist of it," he concluded. "We will stay shy of them Indians. Nobody to go down there calling, and if they come up here you treat them as kindly as 'rantulas, which they are."

       "Dats too ztiff," Heintz protests.

       "Sarge, you mean we ain't even to be decent to the kiddies?" complains Mullin.

       "Not as you love your mother," was the answer, "and calculate to see her again." 

       They grudged off to their posts and the Sergeant went to sit by a joshua tree and study his predicament. He was more alarmed than he had let on. The news along the system had for two weeks been all bad. The most varminty among the Warm Springs chiefs had left the agency with bands and were raiding to the south -- Naiche and Mangas together, Kaytennay by himself. With their example before him, it would be beneath Geronimo's dignity down in Mexico to behave much longer. General Miles had cavalry rumping out in all directions, but there had as yet been neither catch nor kill. He had heard that the first thing sought by the Apaches on break-outs was weapons. What more logical than to camp a few squaws and kids near a heliograph station, cozy up to the personnel, then smite them suddenly with braves, wipe out the sentimental fools and help yourself to rifles and cartridges? Apaches had been known to wait days, even weeks, for their chance. And how was a mere Sergeant to control men who had not mingled with humankind for six months?

       Had he been an oathing man, Ammon Swing would have. He had in him a sense of duty like a rod of iron. A small compact individual, he wore a buggy-whip mustache which youthened his face and made less New England his expression. Pushing back his hat, he let his gaze lay out, first at the far mountains on the sides of which the air was white as milk, then lower, at the specks of Cox's Tanks upon the valley floor. This brought to mind Miss Martha Cox, with whom he might be in love and might not. The sister of Jacob Cox, she was a tanned leathery customer as old as the Sergeant, which put her nigh on forty-four, too old and sensible for male and female farandoles.  She ran the ranch with her brother, plowed with a pistol round her waist, spat and scratched herself like a man, and her reputation with a rifle, after twenty years of raids, caused even the Apaches to give the Cox spread leeway. Swing had seen her five times in six months during his turns to go down with Annie and Grover to pack water.
       Only once, the last trip, had anything passed between them.
       "Ain't you considerable mountain-sore, Mister Swing?"

       "Suppose I am," says he.

       "Seems to me settling down would be suitable to you."

       "Ma'am?" 

       "Sure," says she. "Marry up and raise a fam'ly and whittle your own stick."

       "Too old, Miss Cox."

       "Too old?"

       "Old as you are," says he.

       He knew his blunder when he saw the turkey-red under her tan. 

       She squinted at the mules, then gave him a granite eye.

       "Mister Swing, if ever you alter your mind, I know the very one would have you."

       "Who, ma'am?"

       "Annie," says she.

       For the next few days Ammon Swing was much put on. The little Indians soon swarmed over the station, playing games, ingratiating themselves with the soldiers, eventually sitting on their knees to beg for trinkets. Shoo as hard as he might, the Sergeant could not put a stop to it. Down the ledge the three squaws went on baking mescal and inevitably there commenced to be visiting back and forth. Takins was the first caught skulking off.

       "Takins," says the Sergeant, "I told you to stay shy of them."

       "I be only humin, Sarge," grumbles the cook, which was doubtful, considering his fragrance.

       "You keep off, that's an order!" says Swing, losing his temper. "Or I'll send you back to Buford to the guardhouse!"

       "You will, Sarge?" Takins grins. "Nothin' I'd like better'n to git off this cussed mountin'!"

       Thus is was that the Sergeant's authority went to pot and his command to pieces. Men on guard straggled down the ledge to observe the baking and weaving of baskets and converse sociably in sign. The ladies in turn, led by Mrs. Noseless, a powerful brute of a woman, paid daily calls on the station to watch the operation of the heliograph and giggle at the unnatural ways of the whites.

       Three days passed. Then a new factor changed the situation on Bill Williams Mountain from absurd to desperate. The supply party from Fort Buford did not arrive. Takins ran entirely out of salt beef and hardtack. Ammon Swing was reduced to swapping with the squaws for mescal, which tasted like molasses candy and brought on the bloat; but the commodity for which the Apaches were most greedy turned out to be castor oil, of which he had only two bottles in his medicine chest. He considered butchering Annie or Grover, but that would mean one less mule to send down to Cox's Tanks for water.

       Water! He could not wait on that. But to obtain it, and food as well, would short him by two men. If an attack were ever to come it would come when the station had only three defenders. Worse yet, it was his turn to go down the mountain day after next, his and Takins', and he wanted very much to go to Cox's again. Why he wanted to so much he would not admit even to himself.

       The next morning he traded the last drop of castor oil to the squaws for mescal. In the afternoon the water casks went dry.

       At day-die Ammon Swing called Heintz to him and said he was sending  him down for water and food with Takins. It was his own turn, but he should stay in case of attack.

       The Dutchy puffed his cheeks with pleasure. "Goot. You be zorry."

       "Why?"

       "I ask dis voman to vedding. I ask before, bud zhe zay no. Dis time zhe zay yez, I tink."

       One end of the iron rod of duty in the Sergeant stuck in his crop. "Why?" he inquires again.

       "I goot farmer. Zhe needs farmer to raunch. Alzo zhe iz nod much young. Nod many chanzes more vill zhe get. You change your mind, Zarge?"

       "No," says Ammon Swing.

       As soon as Heintz and Takins and Annie and Grover had started down in the morning Sergeant Swing would have bet a month's pay this was the day. Something in the pearl air told him. He ordered Mullin and Bobyne to stand guard near the heliograph and have hands on their weapons at all times. They would change off on the telescope. No man was to leave the sight of the other two.

       The morning inched.

       They had not had food for twenty-four hours nor water for eighteen. Nor would they until Heintz and Takins returned. The Squaws did not come to visit nor the kids to play. 

       One message winked from Rucker Canyon and was shuttered on:

 

RELAY GENL MILES REQUESTS

PLEASURE COL AND MRS COTTON OFFICERS

BALL HEADQUARTERS FT BOWIE 22 AUGUST

 

       By noon they were so thirsty they spit dust and so hungry their bellies sang songs. It had never been so lonesome on Bill Williams Mountain.

       Then they had visitors. The three squaws came waddling along the ledge, offspring after them, and surrounded a pile of brush not twenty yards off. In one hand they held long forked sticks and in the other small clubs. Mrs. Noseless started a fire. The soldiers had no notion what the Indians could be up to. When all was ready, the fire burned down to hot coals, the squaws and kids began to squeal and shout and poke into the brush pile. Curious, the soldiers came near.

       What they soon saw was that the Apaches had discovered a large convention of field rats. Under the brush the animals cast up a mound of earth by burrowing numerous tunnels. When a stick was thrust into one end of the tunnel, the animal, seeking an escape route, would dart to the opening of another and hesitate for an instant, half in and half out to scan for his enemy. In that split second another Indian would pin the rat down with forked stick, pull it toward him, bash it over the head with his club, and with a shout of triumph eviscerate it with a stroke of the knife and pitch it into the fire. In a trice the hair was burned off, the carcass roasted to a turn, impaled on the stick and the juicy tidbit lifted to a hungry mouth.  Starved and horrified, the soldiers were drawn to the banquet despite themselves. There seemed no end to the victuals or the fun.

       A little girl ran laughing to Bobyne with a rat. The young man sniffed, tasted, and with a grin of surprise put down his rifle and commenced to feast. Mullin was next served. Then a squaw bore a plump offering to the Sergeant. It was done exactly to his liking, medium rare.  He could no longer resist. The taste was that of rodent, sort of like the woodchuck he had shot and cooked as a sprout. He had, however, to keep his eyes closed.

       What opened them was the terrible silence immediately smashed by a scream. 

       For an instant as the food fell from his hands he was stricken with shock and fright. The kids vanished. A dying Mullin staggered toward him, screaming. An arrow transfixed his body, driven with such force into his back that it pierced him completely, feathers on one side, head and shaft on the other.

       One squaw ran full speed toward the tents to plunder, holding high her grimy calico skirt.

       Like deer, three Apache bucks leaped from their hiding place in the greasewood and sped toward him, letting arrows go from bows held at waist level.

       Another squaw made for the heliograph and, giving the tripod a kick, toppled the instrument onto rock, shattering the mirror.

       An arrow skewered through the fleshy part of Swing's left leg.  He cried out with pain and went down on one knee, reaching for his rifle.

       Young Bobyne retrieved his and began to blaze away at the oncoming  bucks when Mrs. Noseless seized him from behind in powerful arms and hurled him backward into the fire of hot coals as she might have barbecued a rat, kneeling on him and setting his hair afire and bashing in his skull with her club.

       Shooting from one knee, Ammon Swing brought down one of the bucks at twenty yards and another point-blank. But it was too late to fire at the third, who swept a long knife upward from a hide boot.

       He had only time to glimpse the contorted brown face and yellow eyeballs and hear the death yell as a bullet slammed life and wind out of the Apache and the buck fell heavily upon him. He lay wondering if he were dead, stupefied by the fact that the bullet had not been his own.

       Then the buck was dragged off him by Miss Martha Cox. She took the Indian's knife, knelt, and slitting the trouser leg began to cut through the arrow shaft on either side of his thigh.

       "Soldiers and wimmen," she snorts.

       "You shoot him?" he groans. 

       "Sure."

       He asked about Heintz and Takins. Dead, the both of them, she told him -- ambushed on the way down. When they had not shown at the ranch, she rode up to find out why.

       She had the arrow cut off close to the meat now and bound his leg with shirt cloth. As he sat up she said he would bleed a little; what was dangerous was the chance of infection, since the Apaches had as much fondness for dirty arrows as they did for dirty everything else. He was to ride her horse down as fast as he could manage. Her brother would have the tools to pull the shaft piece, and water for the wound. 

       Ammon Swing saw that she wore the best she owned, a long dress of gray taffeta and high-button shoes. When furbished, she was near to handsome.

       "Heintz was intending to ask you to marry."

       "I figured it would be you coming down today," says she. "So I got out my fancies. Ain't had them on in ten year."

       "Oh?" says he. "Well, help me."

       With her arm round his waist he was hobbling toward her horse when he caught the flash from the Mogollon Station, to the south.

       "Message." He stopped. "I ain't trained to read it, but it better be put down."

       "It better not," says she, bossy.

       But he made her fetch pencil and paper from a tent and wait while he transcribed the signals according to length, long and short.  When the flashes ceased, he cast a glum look at his own shattered heliograph nearby.

       "Ought to relay this," says he. "It's maybe important."

       "Mister Swing," says she, "infection won't wait. You Army around up here much longer and you might have to make do without a leg."

       He did not even hear. He sat down on a boulder and tried to think how the Sam Hill to send the message on to Rucker Canyon.  The piece of shaft twinged as though it were alive, the pain poisoning all the way to his toes. There was no other mirror. There was neither pot nor pan bright enough to reflect sun. Miss Martha Cox kept after him about infection, but the more he knew she was right  the more dutiful and mule-headed he became. He would not leave with chores undone. Such a stunt would do injustice to his dead.  Suddenly he gave a finger snap.

       "Making apology, ma'am, but what do you have on beyunder that dress?"

       "Well I never!" says she, coloring up real ripe for a woman who had just put down a rifle after a killing.

       "Would you please remove same?"

       "Oh!" she cries.

       The Sergeant gave a tug at his buggy whip. "Govermint business, ma'am."

       With a female stamp of her foot she obeyed, hoisting the taffeta over her head. Above she wore a white corset cover laced with pink ribbon and below, a muslin petticoat so overstarched it was as stiff and glittering as galvanized tin, touching evidence that it had been a long time since she had made starch.

       "We are in luck, ma'am," says he. "We have a clear day and the whitest unspeakabout this side of Heaven, and I calculate they will see us."

       Being most gentlemanly, he escorted her near the lip of the ledge facing Rucker Canyon, took her dress and, reading from the paper, began to transmit the message by using her dress as a shutter, shading her with it, then sweeping it away for long and short periods corresponding to the code letters he had transcribed.  And all the while poor Miss Martha Cox was forced to stand five thousand feet high in plain sight of half the military department of Arizona, being alternately covered and revealed, a living heliograph, flashing in the sun like an angel descended from above and blushing like a woman fallen forever into sin. When her ordeal and her glory were ended, and Rucker blinked on and off rapidly to signify receipt, she snatched her dress to herself. To his confusion, a tear splashed down one of her leathery cheeks while at the same time she drew up breathing brimstone.

       "Ammon Swing," cries she, "no man has ever in all my days set eyes on me in such a state! Either I put my brother on your evil trail or you harden your mind to marrying me this minute!"

       "Already have," says he.

       Thoughtfully she pulled on the gray taffeta. "We better kiss on it," says she.

       "Folderol," says he. But they did.

       Then she helped him on her horse and together they went down Bill Williams Mountain.

       So much for the petticoat, the three squaws, the rat roast, the Sergeant, the other soldiers and the old maid. 

       The signals reaching Rucker Canyon Station twelve miles off were less distinct than usual, but by means of the telescope and much cussing they could be deciphered and sent on:

 

RELAY COL AND MRS. COTTON ACCEPT

WITH PLEASURE OFFICERS BALL
BOWIE 22 AUGUST

 

       So much for the message.


 

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